What is Oligarchic Inevitability?
I’ve written here before about an idea I call ‘democratic efficiency‘: the belief that one can infer popular beliefs from institutional outcomes because aggregated individual choices are manifested in an unmediated fashion in politics and policy. That means that whatever the public believes will (absent some interference in the normal functioning of our political system) automatically be translated into policy, because of competitive electoral incentives between he two major parties. Recent research has provided even more evidence that this is not a useful way to talk about the world. The piece that has generated the most discussion has been Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page (pdf) that tested different explanations for American politics. While the authors don’t actually come to this conclusion, the general take away has been that this piece demonstrates that the United States is an oligarchy.
They summarize their research here:
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.
This reminds me of another point I’ve been meaning to spell out. It is that the idea of democratic efficiency exists alongside another, mirror opposite idea. Despite being directly in tension, these two ideas can be espoused by the same person. They seem to reinforce each other, and if you challenge one other often follows. I call this idea oligarchic inevitability: that the rich automatically get what ever they want in politics, and that there is little to nothing the rest of us can do about it (absent “getting money out of politics” whatever that means).
You hear this in the often expressed idea that Citizens United has led to uncontrolled power for the super-wealthy, and that all hope for any progressive change is misplaced if it cannot be reversed via a constitutional amendment. You hear it in talk about the Koch Brothers allegedly controlling our politics.
It strikes me that many who have discussed Gilens’ and Page’s research have done so from the perspective of oligarchic inevitability. But the authors acknowledge that the public (often with the help of organized interests) has been able to block some proposals, such as cuts in Social Security and Medicare. But even more to the point, they aren’t telling us what is possible, only what has been. The reason this research needed doing, the reason why I’ve been making my argument about democratic efficiency, is that many people think and more importantly act as if the public generally gets what it wants. Many political tactics only make sense within this framework. Channeling the bulk of your energy and attention to partisan politics is one. Publicizing individual poll results or signing internet petitions, as if the reason that politicians aren’t doing what people want because they don’t know what people want is another. Asking why this popular policy gets no traction or why this important problem is ignored only make sense if you assume that this is not the norm.
Oddly enough, both democratic efficiency and oligarchic inevitability can lead to fatalism. If policy is consistently going against me, I can assume it is because my views are not widely held or because the Koch Brothers control the government. Either way, not engaging in politics, not acting, is a rational response (as is bitterness and resentment).
Of course, when making this point, we are usually challenging one half of this pairing. This leads to significant confusion, like when critics of Adolph Reed, Jr. accused him of nihilism for saying that people shouldn’t vote for the Democrats. The thing was he didn’t say that. He said vote for who you want but don’t assume it matters that much and that change would not come from it—that change required different sorts of strategies.
Frances Fox Piven makes this point in discussing the recent upsurge of activism (my emphases):
Even at this early stage, the currents have been remarkably successful at doing one of the things protest movements do well. They have managed to raise issues that politicians and the media usually ignore and to project these issues into the public sphere. They have done this using a distinctive protest repertoire of antics and noise and crowd actions. Before Occupy, there was not much discussion of the depredations of Wall Street and extreme inequality, at least not by politicians and the press. But how could the resonance of “We are the 99%,” brilliantly projected onto the walls of skyscrapers and chanted everywhere, long be ignored? Would Barack Obama be proposing a hike in the minimum wage without Occupy and the rising murmur of discontent that it encouraged among millions of low-wage workers?
Changing public discourse is an accomplishment, and so is changing the rhetoric of politicians, but by itself they are unlikely to have a big impact on public policy. American politics is not, after all, mainly about public opinion. It is about powerful interest groups, their armies of lobbyists on alert at every stage of the policy process, and the propaganda machines that business funds.
The movements have to take a lesson from successful upsurges of the past about the kind of power that can match the power of triumphant corporations. They have to discover the power of disruption.
A realistic approach to politics needs to understand that the people have the potential to wield power but that it won’t come simply through conventional channels. It must be premised on the idea that the wealthy are extremely powerful but not some all-powerful force of nature. It requires focusing on what will mobilize significant numbers not what will convince majorities.
Neither oligarchs nor democratic majorities automatically get what they want. There is always politics. Neither cynicism nor idealism help us figure out how to make this world better.