Columns / Discourse / April 23, 2014

Why America isn’t a democracy

If you are a U.S. citizen, conventional wisdom tells you that you live in a democracy: your voice is represented by another citizen who you hire for exactly that purpose. The available research, however, says something completely different: you live in a nation that is an oligarchy or a plutocracy.

Merriam Webster’s definitions of oligarchy include “government by the few” and “a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.” Plutocracy is defined in even simpler terms: “government by the richest people” or “a country that is ruled by the richest people.” Tellingly, in Merriam Webster’s sentence examples for plutocracy, explicit references are made to the plutocratization of the United States.

The latest research on the topic — an exhaustive data-analysis study conducted at Princeton University that examined public survey responses and U.S. policy trends — states that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Effectively, that is a technical way of saying that the political power of most U.S. citizens is zero, zilch, nada. You and I literally don’t have a say in what happens in Washington, D.C., despite the fact that it is our capital.

As Noam Chomsky addressed in his 2013 speech in Bonn, Germany regarding the U.S., “In the work that’s essentially the gold standard in the field, it’s concluded that for roughly 70 percent of the population — the lower 70 percent on the wealth/income scale — they have no influence on policy whatsoever. They’re effectively disenfranchised. As you move up the wealth/income ladder, you get a little bit more influence on policy. When you get to the top, which is maybe a tenth of one percent, people essentially get what they want, i.e. they determine the policy.”

Though many of us know how corrupted our country is — with this knowledge implicit in our joke about the litmus test for whether a politician is lying (their lips are moving) — we continue to refer to our country as a democracy anyway. People studying political science may be especially inclined to do so because of the specific meaning attached to the word “democracy” in that discipline. Why? Why do we continue to cling to the term democracy when describing our government?

I think it’s time for us to openly start rejecting the word “democracy” when we describe the United States. The word has immense power. In just four syllables, it paves over the immense and tragic reality of our nation and replaces it with long-lasting connotations: freedom, self-determination, justice. We should drop this word like a hot rock. It doesn’t describe our country.

The U.S. is not a democracy with significant problems. It is simply not a democracy.

I’d argue that it’s time for a spirited debate on how to accurately frame our country in conversation. As Alcoholics Anonymous would put it, you must fully admit your problems before you can deal with them. I’m being completely serious, the power of narrative framing — the types of stories we tell about our world — has been well-established in activism by the work of researchers like George Lakoff and groups like the Center for Story-Based Strategy. The words we use matter.

Though I like both of the above-mentioned terms, I’m personally in favor of the word “oligarchy.” More Americans are familiar with what it means. Furthermore, Merriam-Webster’s definition provides a key insight into why oligarchy occurs: “A small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.”

These selfish purposes are apparent when looking at the increasingly impoverished state of the average American. Those of us with parents who also attended college in the U.S. will likely remember the shock we felt when we discovered our parents’ relatively low tuition-rates. A study by Dan Ariely and Michael Norton pulls down the curtain on where our country’s money really is: the richest one percent of the American population possess 35 percent of the nation’s wealth, meanwhile, the poorest 60 percent of Americans hold less than five percent. It’s never been a better time to change the story that we tell about our country.


Leland Wright

Tags:  america Center for Story-Based Strategy Dan Ariely democracy government Michael Norton Noam Chomsky oligarchy plutocracy U.S. United States

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