Elites rule

The USA can no longer be considered a democracy, according to a Princeton University study. Researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that America’s political system is effectively an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters

They say:

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

This phenomenon has been a long term trend, at least from 1980, with no difference depending whether Democrats or Republicans were in power. The phenomenon is therefore part of the natural order of things, hard to perceive let alone change.

Ordinary folk also have wins, but only when the elites agree.

Questions raised include why, how do you define ‘elite’ and is the American experience replicated here?

As to why, I can only point to two factors. Firstly, the lobbying industry is alive and well. Big Pharma are said to have more lobbyists on Capitol Hill than there are politicians.

Secondly, I recall in reading about trade matters some 10 years ago that very few Democrat senators were not dependent on business support to finance their campaigns.

In this interview author Martin Gilens identifies the role money plays in the political system and the lack of mass organizations that represent and facilitate the voice of ordinary citizens. Interestingly they found 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.

As to defining elites, I would have been interested in the policy preferences of the top one or two percent, who are the real elites in my book. This exchange was enlightening:

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.

John Davidson drew to my attention this post by Matt Cowgill. Defining the elite by income is no simple matter.

First we have perceptions of income versus reality:

Some 83% of people think they’re in the middle four deciles of the income distribution, whereas by definition only 40% can be. It seems most of us think we are middle class. The rich especially have little idea of how privileged they are.

Cowgill leads us through the complexities of analysing wage and income distribution. Of most interest was this table which takes into account household circumstances:

Household incomes_cropped

In terms of straight taxable income the top 10% cut in at about $105,000. If we are to do similar research to the Princeton study in Australia, I’d suggest targeting senior executives, I’m guessing in the range of $200,000 plus. They are likely to sit in the top 5% of incomes. They are also likely to reflect the views of the top 2% whose views Gilens found to be unknowable.

If government is to be accountable to the electors, then the Princeton research suggests that universal franchise is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy. We need to think carefully about how democracy works, lest we be left with the form rather than the substance.

11 thoughts on “Elites rule”

  1. Sortition for the Senate.
    4 year terms
    Half Senate change every 2 years regardless of lower house elections.
    You know it makes sense.

  2. Brian: One of the unusual features of the US system are the primaries. In theory, the primaries make the system more democratic. The problem in practice is that the individuals competing in the primaries usually need lots of money if they are to have much chance. Which means the candidates either needs to have lots of money in their own right, rich supporters and/or a strong grass roots organization.
    Another problem in the US is that they don’t have preference voting. This makes it difficult for groups like the Greens to demonstrate that they have got support. Most Green supporters would stop voting Green if they couldn’t allocate their preferences away from the LNP.
    The US system makes it easier for the very rich to be influential.

  3. It is always difficult to determine where power really resides and who really is influential. For example, people with formal power may appear to have the power and influence but in practice the most influential people may actually be the experts, advisors and consultants who have the influence because they have the time to think through what should be done while all the nominal leader really does is sell what has really been decided by someone else. In a sense sometimes people have to choose between power and status.
    One person I know well said to me that she didn’t want to run for politics because she had more influence being outside of parliament than inside. Politicians spend a lot of time getting voter support instead of campaigning for things that they really believe in.
    People who understand the flow of power can also have great influence without being obviously powerful. They know how to get things done, who has the power to help get those things done what language to use and what the current concerns are for those that need to be influenced.
    In some cases influence and formal power can reside in quite different places. For example, during the Menzies era the formal power resided with the conservatives but it was actually the left that was driving change.
    In terms of things that matter to you who do you really think has the most influence in Australia?

  4. Thanks a lot for this rare discussion on an important topic. It is a topic that is rare in Australia, in my opinion, because Australia’s moribund faux-elite are so dead-scared of being tipped out of their positions and will fight tooth-and-nail, with every dirty trick and spoiler they can find to hang onto whatever position they have.

    In all the running around I’ve done in my life, I have met several upper-class Americans, English and Central Europeans. Each was quite relaxed about their position in life and took it as perfectly natural that they should be there an remain there; this wasn’t arrogance at all (though some were quite arrogant about other matters), it was supreme confidence.

    In stark contrast, out of a whole herd of our Australian “Betters” I have bumped into, I can think of only 4 (Four!!) well-off families that were so confident of their fortunate position in life that they weren’t paranoid about everyone else trying to depose them. These 4 families were marked by hard work (at least by some of their number and respected by others), frugality and a lack of compelling ostentation yet with a real appreciation of good quality and a readiness to spend big money when there was a real need to do so; they were marked, too, by tolerance, noblesse oblige, vision and planning. As for the rest they are nothing but bludgers with money and influence – who would benefit immensely by a bit of honest hard work for a change. Maybe we could import a new Australian elite from the highlands of Papua-Niugini to replace the duds we are stuck with at present. Why not? We couldn’t be worse off.

    I haven’t done a literature search yet but I can think of only two books that discussed Australia’s moribund elite in the past quarter-century.

  5. Power is a funny thing. It comes in many forms, some visible and some less visible. The visible forms usually depend on perception.
    For example, I might do as you suggest because I perceive that you have the formal power to ask me to do something. But I may also do as you suggest because I recognize your expertize, think you have the backing of my boss or because I like you.
    The form of perceived power I really caught my imagination was “insanity power.” You can have real power if the perception is that that you are crazy enough to do something that is mutually damaging. I think of Regan as a text book case. My take is that the US won the cold war because the Russians were convinced that Regan was crazy. Funny thing is that Colin Powell was full of praise for Regan because he was such a sensible person to work for – Its all about perception.
    The less visible forms of power are equally interesting. For example, in practice, the big boss doesn’t make all decisions. Different decisions are usually made by someone further down the hierarchy. Sometimes this is based on formal delegation but quite often it is something that has arisen informally because of…… Then there is the power that comes via influence. Sometimes influence power is based on a perception of expertise. At other times influence power is a one-off thing based on something being pointed out that the boss hadn’t seen. I remember one occasion when I appointed X as training forman because who wasn’t the brightest said to me that X should be the next foreman. I hadn’t thought of X as the logical person so i asked why and was told that X was the one who could explain things clearly to this not so bright bloke.
    Some times it really helps to have formal power when you want to make something happen. But usually you need things to be done by people who don’t accept your power over them. People who understand the flow of power and who can really help you have a head start.

  6. Good points there John.

    I was recently at a gathering where two politicians spoke. One was highly intelligent and observant, a wonderful public speaker with an obvious understanding of the highest levels of policy making. The other was enthusiastic and hard-working with a very good understanding of local issues. Sadly, both had no choice but to hide their talents so as to keep uttering the same old dreary – and unrealistic and impractical – party line. It must have been obvious to each that what they were compelled to say was a load of utter bollocks – but they had no choice. Deviate from that by even a little and they could kiss goodbye to a career in politics.

    Someone somewhere – unelected, of course – had so much power, influence, authority and the like that they were able to impose their own Will and stuff up democratic processes. I thought at the time that whoever it was whose Will dominates parliamentarians of this party probably suffers from either advanced Korsakov’s Syndrome or the nasty side effects of overindulgence in illegal recreational chemicals, possibly both, because the current party line is so counter-productive and is taking that party to political annihilation.

    It is obvious that, nowadays, parliamentarians have absolutely no power whatsoever – status an salary, yes, but no power. I don’t really think they are salesmen either because to be an effective salesman (female or male) you need to be flexible, adaptable and to be able to exercise initiative – shop-window mannequins would be closer to it.

    John D,. I like your crazy power. Didn’t Kissinger and Nixon play that one successfully too?

  7. Most societies seem to have elites – ranging from brutal monsters in some to benign direction-givers in others. So how do we change the duds we’ve inherited into a benign and beneficial elite? (I’m sorry, sending them to the “French Barber” for a “exceedingly short haircut” is not the answer).

  8. Graham: You say:

    Most societies seem to have elites – ranging from brutal monsters in some to benign direction-givers in others. So how do we change the duds we’ve inherited into a benign and beneficial elite?

    I am not sure whether you are talking about political leaders, the unelected, visible elites that do have influence or the people of influence that aren’t visible but may have much more effect on the direction of our society?
    Fair elections, rules limiting political donations, opinion polls and an inquisitive media all help. However, one of the problems is that many things that leaders should be trying to do require the sort of subtlety that either never gets reported or is not understood by most of the voters.
    Democracy may not always give the best answers but over time it is better than the alternatives.
    We complain about our “poll driven politics” even though this is an important democratic mechanism for .giving the voters influence over a wide range of policies. It is better than the US

  9. Thanks for those insights, John, but for all the projected images of power and potency of leading and high-ranking politicians in Australia, I still think that nowadays they are bereft of any power of their own and are little better that cardboard cutouts – I think Whitlam and Fraser were probably the last with any real power. It may well be that Keating and Rudd came to grief trying to get at least a little bit of prime-ministerly power back.

    Far from an ideal democracy but that, in itself, would not be so bad if it were not that the behind-the-scenes manipulating elite seem to have lost the plot, seem confused and directionless and prone to colossal acts of naivity. At least, back in the days of the good old British Empire, the local elite could be chock-a-block full of booze-befuddled fools and yet the ship would still sail on. Not now. They are like chooks with their heads cut off (now there’s a metaphor someone would have to explain to them 🙂 ) And no! I’m not hankering after a return of the British Empire.

  10. Graham: I listened to a lot of people demanding strong leadership. Then listened to them whingeing when they discover they have a strong leader who won’t be pushed around by them. What was truly amazing about Gillard was that she got so much done in a situation where she had no certain power. The pity is she got no thanks for it.

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