Scholar Behind Viral ‘Oligarchy’ Study Tells You What It Means


A new political science study that’s gone viral finds that majority-rule democracy exists only in theory in the United States — not so much in practice. The government caters to the affluent few and organized interest groups, the researchers find, while the average citizen’s influence on policy is “near zero.”

“[T]he preferences of economic elites,” conclude Princeton’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern’s Benjamin I. Page, who work with the nonprofit Scholars Strategy Network, “have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do.”

TPM spoke to Gilens about the study, its main findings and its lessons.

You published an advance copy of your study on April 9th, and in just the last few days there’s been an explosion of coverage and interest. Are you pleased, shocked, overwhelmed, all of the above?

I’m delighted to be able to contribute to a terribly important public discussion. And I’m thrilled that there’s so much interest and concern about the issues. It takes on a life of its own. I’m sure you’ve noticed, this notion of America being an oligarchy seems to be a dominant meme in the discussion of our work. It’s not a term that we used in the paper. It’s just a dramatic sort of overstatement of our findings. So it’s been interesting for me. Typically my work is read by a few dozen political scientists and I don’t get this kind of response.

Let’s talk about the study. If you had 30 seconds to sum up the main conclusion of your study for the average person, how would you do so?

I’d say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups — of economic elites and of organized interests.

You say the United States is more like a system of “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism” as opposed to a majoritarian democracy. What do those terms mean? Is that not just a scholarly way of saying it’s closer to oligarchy than democracy if not literally an oligarchy?

People mean different things by the term oligarchy. One reason why I shy away from it is it brings to mind this image of a very small number of very wealthy people who are pulling strings behind the scenes to determine what government does. And I think it’s more complicated than that. It’s not only Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers or Bill Gates or George Soros who are shaping government policy-making. So that’s my concern with what at least many people would understand oligarchy to mean. What “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism” mean is that rather than average citizens of moderate means having an important role in determining policy, ability to shape outcomes is restricted to people at the top of the income distribution and to organized groups that represent primarily — although not exclusively — business.

Would you say the government is most responsive to income earners at the top 10 percent, the top 1 percent or the top 0.1 percent?

This is a great question and it’s not one we can answer with the data that we used in the study. Because we really don’t have good info about what the top 1 percent or 10 percent want or what issues they’re engaged with. As you can imagine, this is not really a group that’s eager to talk with researchers.

How exactly do you measure the preferences of average citizens in an academic way? Polls show that many American voters feel on a gut level that the government isn’t looking out for them. But what kind of data do you use to test this theory and how confident are you in the conclusions?

What we did was to collect survey questions that asked whether respondents would favor or oppose some particular change in federal government policy. These were questions asked across the decades from 1981 to 2002. And so from each of those questions we know what citizens of average income level prefer and we know what people at the top of the income distribution say they want. For each of the 2,000 possible policy changes we determined whether in fact they’ve been adopted or not. I had a large number of research assistants who spent years putting that data together.

There are criticisms of your study within the academic community. Some say public opinion surveys are a poor measure because people don’t understand policy or that their stated preferences are self-contradictory. Tyler Cowen says citizens vote retrospectively so it’s better to judge on outputs rather than whether voters get their preferred inputs. How do you respond?

These are all good questions. They’re questions I address in some length in my book, “Affluence and Influence.” There is some truth to some of these perspectives. But in a nutshell I think citizens overall have fairly sensible policy preferences which appear not to change much if citizens have an opportunity to learn more and debate the policy and view pros and cons.

Talk about some examples of policy preferences that the majority holds that the government is not responsive to.

Financial reform — the deregulatory agenda has been pursued, somewhat more fervently among Republicans but certainly by Democrats as well in recent decades. Higher minimum wage. More support for the unemployed. More support for education spending. We’d see, perhaps ironically, less liberal policies in some domains like religious or moral issues. Affluent people tend to be more socially liberal on things like abortion or gay rights.

Which party, Democrat or Republican, caters to the interests of the rich more? Does your research find them to be equal or is one more responsive than the other?

We didn’t look at that in this paper. Other work I’ve done suggest it depends. There are a set of economic issues on which the Democratic party is more consistently supportive of the needs of the poor and middle class. But it’s by no means a strong relationship. Both parties have to a large degree embraced a set of policies that reflect the needs, preferences and interests of the well to do.

Relatedly, does divided government like we have now make politicians more or less likely to cater to the affluent than one-party control?

It does seem, absolutely, that divided government has the effect of reducing the amount of policy that gets adopted, restricting the policies that get adopted that are more broadly popular.

When did things start to become this way?

It’s possible that in earlier eras, that we don’t have data for, that things were better. But in the time period that we do have data for, there’s certainly no such evidence. Over time responsiveness to elites has grown.

It seems to me the paradox here is that sometimes non-rich people favor an agenda that supports the rich. For instance, middle class tea partiers want low taxes on the highest earners, just as Steve Forbes does. Isn’t that still democracy at work, albeit in an arguably perverse way?

Yes, absolutely. I think people are entitled to preferences that conflict with their immediate interests — narrowly conceived interests. That may be an example of that. Opposition to the estate tax among low-income individuals is another. But what we see in this study is that’s not what this is happening. We don’t look at whether preferences expressed by these different groups are consistent or inconsistent with their interests, narrowly conceived. We just look at whether they’re responded to by government policy-makers, and we find that in the case of ordinary Americans, they’re not.

How does a system like this perpetuate itself when after all it’s ordinary voters who cast their ballots and elect their leaders. Theoretically they can change it in a heartbeat. Why don’t they?

That’s a very good question. I don’t have a complete answer for you. Part of it clearly is that while politicians need votes while in office, they need money to obtain and retain office. So they need to balance the activities that will benefit them in terms of money with the activities that’ll benefit them in terms of votes. Voters are not particularly effective at holding politicians accountable for the policies they adopt. Voters also have a limited choice set when going into an election. We find that policies adopted during presidential election years in particular are more consistent with public preferences than policies adopted in other years of the electoral cycle.

What are the three or four most crucial factors that have made the United States this way?

Very good question. I’d say two crucial factors. One central factor is the role of money in our political system, and the overwhelming role that affluent individuals that affluent individuals and organized interests play, in campaign finance and in lobbying. And the second thing is the lack of mass organizations that represent and facilitate the voice of ordinary citizens. Part of that would be the decline of unions in the country which has been quite dramatic over the last 30 or 40 years. And part of it is the lack of a socialist or a worker’s party.

What does the broader social science literature say about societies that go into this non-democracy state? Do you see this as a pendulum that swings back and forth, or is it a sort of tipping point from which there’s no way back?

That’s kind of a gloomy question!

It’s my job to ask those.

I don’t know. There have been periods — the ages of Robber Barons and Trusts, the progressive era where there was too much concern about concentration of power. I’m not a historian, so I don’t know — maybe it takes a Great Depression.

Your study calls to mind something that Dennis Kucinich, the former congressman, said years ago during the recession. He essentially said the class war is over and the working class lost. Was he right?

I mean, for now, it certainly seems like it. The middle class has not done well over the last three and a half decades, and certainly has not done well during the Great Recession. The political system responded to the crisis in a way that led to a pretty nice recovery for economic elites and corporations.

Given your findings, what do you make of the great sense of persecution that people at the top appear to feel in recent years? Is there a phenomenon you came by that speaks to this, and does that perpetuate the cycle of policy moving in their direction?

It’s certainly not something our study or data has addressed. But it’s part of an effort to defend, in the face of growing inequality, their advantages and wealth.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The study is below.

Gilens and Page 2014 – Testing Theories


Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.