Princeton Study Confirms 'US Is An Oligarchy'

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Mike Krieger of Liberty Blitzkrieg blog,

Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.


- From a recent study titled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University

In response to the publication of an academic study that essentially proves the United States is nothing more than an oligarchy, many commentators have quipped sentiments that go something like “so tell me something I don’t know.” While I agree that the conclusion is far from surprising to anyone paying attention, the study is significant for two main reasons.  

First, there is a certain influential segment of the population which has a disposition which requires empirical evidence and academic studies before they will take any theory seriously. Second, some of the conclusions can actually prove quite helpful to activists who want to have a greater impact in changing things. This shouldn’t be particularly difficult since their impact at the moment is next to zero.

What is most incredible to me is that the data under scrutiny in the study was from 1981-2002. One can only imagine how much worse things have gotten since the 2008 financial crisis. The study found that even when 80% of the population favored a particular public policy change, it was only instituted 43% of the time. We saw this first hand with the bankster bailout in 2008, when Americans across the board were opposed to it, but Congress passed TARP anyway (although they had to vote twice).

Even more importantly, several years of supposed “economic recovery” has not changed the public’s perception of the bankster bailouts. For example, a 2012 study showed that only 23% percent of Americans favored the bank bailouts and the disgust was completely bipartisan, as the Huffington Post points out. 

Personally, I think the banker bailouts will go down as one of the most significant turning points in American history. Despite widespread disapproval, Congress passed TARP and it was at that moment that many Americans “woke up” to the fact they are nothing more than economic slaves with no voice. That they are serfs. Even more importantly, once oligarchs saw what they could get away with they kept doubling down and doubling down until we find ourselves in the precarious position we are in today. A society filled with angst and resentment at the fact that the 0.01% have stolen everything.

Another thing that the study noted was that average citizens sometimes got what they wanted, but this is almost always when their preferences overlap with the oligarchs. When this occurs it is entirely coincidental, and in many cases may the result of public opinion being molded by the elite-controlled special interest groups themselves. How pathetic.

I read the entire 42 page study and have highlighted what I found to be the key excerpts below. Please share with others and enjoy:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

Until very recently, however, it has been impossible to test the differing predictions of these theories against each other within a single statistical model that permits one to analyze the independent effects of each set of actors upon policy outcomes.


A major challenge to majoritarian pluralist theories, however, is posed by Mancur Olson’s argument that collective action by large, dispersed sets of individuals with individually small but collectively large interests tends to be prevented by the “free rider” problem. Barring special circumstances (selective incentives, byproducts, coercion), individuals who would benefit from collective action may have no incentive to personally form or join an organized group. If everyone thinks this way and lets George do it, the job is not likely to get done. This reasoning suggests that Truman’s “potential groups” may in fact be unlikely to form, even if millions of  peoples’ interests are neglected or harmed by government. Aware of the collective action problem, officials may feel free to ignore much of the population and act against the interests of the average citizen.


As to empirical evidence concerning interest groups, it is well established that organized groups regularly lobby and fraternize with public officials; move through revolving doors between public and private employment; provide self-serving information to officials; draft legislation; and spend a great deal of money on election campaigns. Moreover, in harmony with theories of biased pluralism, the evidence clearly indicates that most U.S. interest groups and lobbyists represent business firms or professionals. Relatively few represent the poor or even the economic interests of ordinary workers, particularly now that the U.S. labor movement has become so weak.


What makes possible an empirical effort of this sort is the existence of a unique data set, compiled over many years by one of us (Gilens) for a different but related purpose: for estimating the influence upon public policy of “affluent” citizens, poor citizens, and those in the middle of the income distribution.


Gilens and a small army of research assistants gathered data on a large, diverse set of policy cases: 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 in which a national survey of the general public asked a favor/oppose question about a proposed policy change.


In any case, the imprecision that results from use of our “affluent” proxy is likely to produce underestimates of the impact of economic elites on policy making. If we find substantial effects upon policy even when using this imperfect measure, therefore, it will be reasonable to infer that the impact upon policy of truly wealthy citizens is still greater.


Some particular U.S. membership organizations – especially the AARP and labor unions– do tend to favor the same policies as average citizens. But other membership groups take stands that are unrelated (pro-life and pro-choice groups) or negatively related (gun owners) to what the average American wants. Some membership groups may reflect the views of corporate backers or their most affluent constituents. Others focus on issues on which the public is fairly evenly divided. Whatever the reasons, all mass-based groups taken together simply do not add up, in aggregate, to good representatives of the citizenry as a whole. Business-oriented groups do even worse, with a modest negative over-all correlation of -.10.


The estimated impact of average citizens’ preferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level. Clearly the median citizen or “median voter” at the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all.


By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy. This does not mean that theories of Economic Elite Domination are wholly upheld, since our results indicate that individual elites must share their policy influence with organized interest groups. Still, economic elites stand out as quite influential – more so than any other set of actors studied here – in the making of U.S. public policy.

The incredible thing here is that they use the 90th percentile to gauge the “economic elite,” when we well know that it is the “oligarchs” themselves and the businesses they run that call all the shots. It would have been interesting if they isolated the impact of the 0.01%.

These results suggest that reality is best captured by mixed theories in which both individual economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.


In our 1,779 policy cases, narrow pro-change majorities of the public got the policy changes they wanted only about 30% of the time. More strikingly, even overwhelmingly large pro-change majorities, with 80% of the public favoring a policy change, got that change only about 43% of the time.

Amidst all of the bad news in this study, there is one conclusion from which we can find a silver lining.

The importance of business groups’ numerical advantage is also revealed when we rescale our measures of business and mass-oriented interest group alignments to reflect the differing number of groups in each of these categories. Using this rescaled measure, a parallel analysis to that in table 4 shows that on a group-for-group basis the average individual business group and the average mass-oriented group appears to be about equally influential. The greater total influence of business groups in our analysis results chiefly from the fact that more of them are generally engaged on each issue (roughly twice as many, on average), not that a single business-oriented group has more clout on average than a single mass based group.


Relatively few mass-based interest groups are active, they do not (in the aggregate) represent the public very well, and they have less collective impact on policy than do business-oriented groups – whose stands tend to be negatively related to the preferences of average citizens. These business groups are far more numerous and active; they spend much more money; and they tend to get their way.

What the paragraphs above demonstrate is that the public has become very, very bad at organizing and that they aren’t even in the same ballpark as the the business groups. While mass-based interest groups will never be able to compete financially, we now live in a world of crowd-funding and a great deal of angst. Thus, there appears to be some low hanging fruit available for the activist community to pick at and become more organized.

Furthermore, the preferences of economic elites (as measured by our proxy, the preferences of “affluent” citizens) have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do. To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence.

But sure, keep chanting USA! USA! and keep sending your children to die overseas for no good reason.

Of course our findings speak most directly to the “first face” of power: the ability of actors to shape policy outcomes on contested issues. But they also reflect – to some degree, at least – the “second face” of power: the ability to shape the agenda of issues that policy makers consider. The set of policy alternatives that we analyze is considerably broader than the set discussed seriously by policy makers or brought to a vote in Congress, and our alternatives are (on average) more popular among the general public than among interest groups. Thus the fate of these policies can reflect policy makers’ refusing to consider them rather than considering but rejecting them. (From our data we cannot distinguish between the two.) Our results speak less clearly to the “third face” of power: the ability of elites to shape the public’s preferences. We know that interest groups and policy makers themselves often devote considerable effort to shaping opinion. If they are successful, this might help explain the high correlation we find between elite and mass preferences. But it cannot have greatly inflated our estimate of average citizens’ influence on policy making, which is near zero.

So what’s the conclusion? Well we aren’t a Democracy and we aren’t a Constitutional Republic. As I and many others have noted, we have descended into something far worse, an neo-fedualistic Oligarchy.

What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our  findings indicate, the majority does not rule -- at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.


A possible objection to populistic democracy is that average citizens are inattentive to politics and ignorant about public policy; why should we worry if their poorly informed preferences do not influence policy making? Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does. Perhaps they know better which policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends, when deciding which policies to support.


But we tend to doubt it. We believe instead that – collectively – ordinary citizens generally know their own values and interests pretty well, and that their expressed policy preferences are worthy of respect. Moreover, we are not so sure about the informational advantages of elites. Yes, detailed policy knowledge tends to rise with income and status. Surely wealthy Americans and corporate executives tend to know a lot about tax and regulatory policies that directly affect them. But how much do they know about the human impact of Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, or unemployment insurance, none of which is likely to be crucial to their own well-being? Most important, we see no reason to think that informational expertise is always accompanied by an inclination to transcend one’s own interests or a determination to work for the common good.


All in all, we believe that the public is likely to be a more certain guardian of its own interests than any feasible alternative.


Leaving aside the difficult issue of divergent interests and motives, we would urge that the superior wisdom of economic elites or organized interest groups should not simply be assumed. It should be put to empirical test. New empirical research will be needed to pin down precisely who knows how much, and what, about which public policies.


Our findings also point toward the need to learn more about exactly which economic elites (the “merely affluent”? the top 1%? the top 0.01%?) have how much impact upon public policy, and to what ends they wield their influence. Similar questions arise about the precise extent of influence of particular sets of organized interest groups. And we need to know more about the policy preferences and the political influence of various actors not considered here, including political party activists, government officials, and other non-economic elites. We hope that our work will encourage further exploration of these issues.


Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

So when Sam Zell or any other oligarch prances around on television saying that the “poor should be more like the rich,” what he’s really saying is you need to sell your soul and attempt to become an oligarch. Otherwise, you’re fucked.

This is a truly excellent study and I suggest you read the entire thing here, if you have the time.

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Rican's picture

Thank you Princeton for telling us what we already know and probably spending tons of money to do it.

Maxter's picture

I think you are being too harsh on them here.

People will now be able to reference this study when they claim that the U-S is an oligarchie.  Remember that most people still doesn't realise it.

Nigh Eve's picture

Wouldn't Plutocracy be the more appropriate term?

HardAssets's picture

Definitely a Kleptocracy

freewolf7's picture

Out of the chairs and into the streets.

Manthong's picture

Well, short my freakin’ sheets..

Whoda’ thunk a handful of evil,  greedy, .scheming bankers could destroy the greatest republic designed by man even after they stole the legislative authority from the states, the control of the currency, and the livelihoods of the populace through confiscatory taxes in just three initiatives in 1913.

Its’ not like they were some kind of fascist nazi’s or anything.

DoChenRollingBearing's picture



Until otherwise demonstrated by evidence, I think it is fair to confirm what Tyler and Krieger are saying: it's the 0.01%!

But oligarchs at the top do not necessarily mean a unified totalitarian state.. I believe that factions within our Elite will keep things from getting really, really bad; really, really quickly.  It is not a strong reed to pin our hopes on, so I continue to prepare.

All of you should too.  It's up to us.

James_Cole's picture

Princeton Study confirms thesis of Occupy Wall Street

Well... this is awkward.

AldousHuxley's picture

Sorry folks...."economic elites" are not 90th percentile in income.....

2012 household income at 90% is around $140,000.....that's just two middle class folks working in professional jobs...meaning requires some brain work 50+ hours/week in rational fashion and lives in high cost large cities where bus drivers make $80,000/year


I don't think you want to be in a nation where high school drop out gangbangers decide what to do with college graduates.


But the problem is with top 10% hardworking educated folks versus the real elites ....the capitalists with $10,000,000+


Princeton just disproved Occupy Wall Street by hiding the truth that 0.1% are the real enemy.

James_Cole's picture

Princeton just disproved Occupy Wall Street by hiding the truth that 0.1% are the real enemy.

Not at all, the princeton study shows that concentrated economic interests control public policy. Who the most influential individuals are within that framework is a related but separate issue.

Lot of people on here saying 'so obvious' and then talking about free markets lol ...apparently, not so obvious after all. 

pg 28 - 33

markmotive's picture

No sh!t! And all this time I thought it pure coincidence that two Bushes became president.

That oligarchy crosses into the Middle East too...

weburke's picture

truth is, you can write a book detailing all the facts about electronic voting, and get the book in the hands of all the senators and congressmen and state governers, and media, and nothing happened.

Oh regional Indian's picture
  • It is all around you — the feudatory, the diocese, the corporation, the platoon, the sports club, the dance troupes, the rebel cell, the planning council, the prayer group… each with its master and servants, its host and parasites. And the swarms of alienating devices (including these very words!) tend eventually to be enlisted in the argument for a return to "those better times." I despair of teaching you other ways. You have square thoughts which resist circles.
    • The Stolen Journals
ebworthen's picture

Nice 2 hour segment tonight about this on Coast to Coast AM with Craig Hulet talking about the Oligarghy, the banking Fraternity, the Corporatocracy, the elites:

N2OJoe's picture

I actually read some of this princeton study and as expected it just devolves into:

Labor and .gov Unions represent the people, NRA et al are bloodthirsty oppressors.

Typical Princeton drivel.

HardAssets's picture

Its likely that the true 'powers that be' are at a much higher level than the $10M that you site.

Try $1 Billlion + with a lot of that money coming from illicit sources not reported.

old naughty's picture

"Try $1 Billion +..." Real-ly?

And they manipulated: " America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened " as if we have had demo-crasy all these times?

Playing both hands...Not how much, but how successful. Money has nothin' to do with it.

They got us all by the balls (no-balls) and minds (no minds).

LetThemEatRand's picture


"Blue blood" 

"Translated from the old Spanish phrase "sangre azul", blue blood derives from the Medieval belief in Europe (among other places) that the blood of the royalty and nobility was blue; since the royal family and aristocrats were wealthy and powerful enough to pay commoners to labor in the fields for them, their skin was translucent and pale enough for their blue veins to stand out.

It also refers to old money families: families that have been aristocrats for many generations.

The blue blood disdainfully looked upon the unrefined manners of the nouveau riche (aka "new money").

The blue blood of the elite could not be tainted by the blood of commoners, lest the whole line be polluted (disregarding the risks of inbreeding)."

See also, Cleveland Steamer.  Ich bein ein Cleveland.


Quus Ant's picture

Good stuf.  I told my old lady she may be royalty, but it turns out they're varicose veins.  Pretty common in the elderly she says.

She was much more enthused about the Cleveland Steamer.  

All aboard!

Atomizer's picture

When we cut off the Federal Reserve printing press under a multitude of questions . Nobel winning scholars like Krugman will be painted against the wall. His defense mode is to create the failed unity between the Democrats- Republican. Krugman and others want to kill the dollar and answer to a new global entity. New universal law of law, new currency to index the market growth. 

spqrusa's picture

Nice one.

Mobocracy is the one that always comes to mind. We can rest assured that the mobocracy *is* a psychopathocracy.

PT's picture

If the mob was truly in charge then the handouts would come with zero strings attached (Yes, I know, many of them do).  The fact that so many "hand-outs" come in the form of a loan tells the truth.  Banksterocracy?

laboratorymike's picture

Loan programs serve three purposes:

1) Guaranteed return for sponsoring banks. Where else can you get 6.8% guaranteed except student loans?

2) Giving away freebies (by forgiving most of the loans later) while telling the taxpayer it will cost nothing because "of course the recipients will pay it back!"

3) Raising taxes for handouts/vote buying by pretending to not raise taxes now, because when #2 happens, some other politician will be forced to pay for all of the defaults!

spqrusa's picture

Nice one.

Mobocracy is the one that always comes to mind. We can rest assured that the mobocracy *is* is psychopathocracy.

Anusocracy's picture

Democracy is nature's way of getting people to embrace tyranny.

sleigher's picture

Maybe it's the beer, but that statement really makes me want to embrace anarchy.

G-R-U-N-T's picture

Like I've said before, like that old boy in Tunisia who lit himself on fire setting off the Arab Spring, there will be a triggering moment in America where the people have had a enough. What that moment is is anybodies guess. Most of us feel it in our gut that there is something deeply rotten in Washington and sooner or later the people will have to take care of it!

What's tragic is all throughout history Statism residual effects always end in dictatorship, economic slavery then destruction!!!

surf0766's picture

The Arab spring was set off in 2008 because of rising wheat prices  ,,,  debasement of the dollar and fire in the wheat fields in Russia. 2008 was the first dry run.

Clint Liquor's picture

 The 'old boy who set himself on fire in Tunisia' name was Mohamed Bouazizi. He proved; When people have nothing left to lose, they lose it

AldousHuxley's picture

that's what welfare and TV is for.


Americans "losing it" (they lost too much money in vegas) is much different than someone in Africa "losing it" (starvation + AIDS)

NidStyles's picture

Sadly so many people need things like that proven to them. I can just start rattling off significant names and dates in history where the same thing has occurred before. One was here in this very country at a place called Fort Sumter. 

Offthebeach's picture

Just finished Victor Klemperer's two volumes of memoirs of life in Hitlers Germany.
Westerners rairly loose it. We are so institutionally program.
Right to the ovens door or Russian front, willingly.

Napoleon said he could rule europe by awarding ribbons and badges.

Revolts are rare, thats why they are in the history books.

But maybe this time its different.

laboratorymike's picture

Exactly. I've been told the rule of thumb is that society hits an instant dead end when food prices exceed 85% of average incomes. Without food stamps we might already be there.

Slave's picture

I'm glad the article finally pointed out it is the .01% not the 1% who are fucking us.

Idiocracy's picture

Maxter is right of course

Idiocracy's picture

Maxter is right of course

The Wizard's picture

I have seen the term "corporatocracy" recently. I believe this is a more accurate term.

Also, do we see how the brilliant researchers at Princeton fail to identify the government of this country as a republic. A mere continuation of dumbing down the masses as to indoctrinate them into believing they have power and authority in this form of government called a democracy.

IronForge's picture


LinkTV had a Documentary (avail via DVD if not by Stream) called "The Corporation".  With the Advent of Corporate Personhood here in the USA, the Filmakers go and correlate Definitions and Operations of Commercial Corporate Entities to Psychological Profiles of Socipaths.


rubiconsolutions's picture


Ineptocracy (in-ep-toc'-ra-cy)

An American system of government where the least capable to lead are elected by the least capable of producing, whereby the members of society least likely to sustain themselves or succeed, are rewarded with goods and services paid for by the confiscated wealth of a diminishing number of producers. The people receiving paychecks for these programs don't even know they are on welfare; which is what all this bullshit is.

IronForge's picture



SMG's picture

So the question is:  What are we going to do about it?

ParkAveFlasher's picture

I call for a round of Nobel prizes for the study authors!  What a bunch of Captain Obvious imitators.

Rican's picture

We're gonna reference this study, brother!

tickhound's picture

I don't remember everyone holding this study so self evident.

Just as the bamabots thought he'd make a difference, there were idiots here claiming Romney could do it... And then there's Sarah Palin... Go read those comments.

There's still those who see no corporate control. They see parties and voting... To them there is still choice.

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

laboratorymike's picture

Voting only makes sense if you join a party and get involved internally. By the time the general election rolls around, all of the real decisions have already been made.

TammanyBrawl's picture

Go long pitchforks and torches and short consumer discretionary.