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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Apr 23, 2014

The constitution never mentions the word “democracy.” The US is, and always has been, a republic. Since we love Webster so much, here is the definition of republic:

“a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens
entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and
representatives responsible to them and governing according to law”

OK we’ve settled that question — we are not a democracy. Now, I want to point out that according to the above definition, a republic doesn’t necessarily mean that all citizens can vote, just some. So if the portion of the citizenry who can vote is only a few people, that republic is also an oligarchy.

But is our republic also an oligarchy? Well according to Chomsky’s figures, 30% of the citzenry has some influence over policy. In a nation of hundreds of millions, 30% is more than a few people. So we’re not an oligarchy.

Are we a plutocracy? Consider how corporations, or some homeowners assocations work: the more one pays in, the more voting power a person has. Let’s say the US were a plutocracy, and let’s say “the one percent” contribute 40% of all tax revenue, then that group would have 40% of the shares in the government. All decissions would be made according to the wishes of the majority of shareholders.

Does that resemble our government resemble that in any way? No, of course it doesn’t, because the US isn’t a plutocracy, it’s a republic.

But in the end, does terminology even matter? I don’t think it does. Instead, the takeaway is that most people living in the US have the right to vote. And yet, voter turnout rates are terrible. If you don’t like the way the country is being run, don’t blame the system of government.

On a side note, kudos to the author for not framing this argument along party lines. But there is a fantastic article that came out in The Atlantic this month, which calls into question which one is the party of the rich. bit[dot]ly/1g8MYJD

    Apr 23, 2014

    Thanks for your comment.

    I don’t frame the issue along party lines largely because I don’t see it along party lines. You’re right, however, and there was a study done (I can’t find it, so take my word for it) that found when Republicans were in control of Congress, it generally served the interests of the wealthy; with Democrats in charge, it generally served middle class interests. In both cases, the interests of the poor were ignored. The spectrum is shifting further and further to the right every day, however.

    I disagree on two counts: We aren’t a republic (“a form of government in which power is exercised by the public at large”), and yes, terminology does matter. Read a couple of articles by George Lakoff. More power to you.

      Apr 24, 2014

      Only because you insist that terminology is important, I’ll discuss definitions. To start off, I don’t know where your definition of republic came from, but here is the one on merriam-webster’s website (because we love Webster here):

      “a government in which supreme power resides in a
      body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers
      and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law”

      Note two things here: a. the definitions that precede the one I pasted no mention of voting, just that all the power rests with elected officials. b. the definition above isn’t specific about *which* citizens have the power to elect leaders.

      In other words, to be a republic, it’s only necessary that *some* citizens have said power. Indeed, the rulers of the United States are citizens. The proposition that they are wealthy is irrelevant, because they are our peers. They are not kings or dukes, who are legally held on a higher level. And if they lost their fortune, they would be the same as we are.

      So republic is satisfied, because we are ruled by some citizens. An oligarchy is a “rule by a few.” A republic could also be an oligarchy if the subset of citizens who can vote is sufficiently small. But just borrowing your figure from Chomsky, 30% of the US has some influence over policy. Well, 30% of hundreds of millions of people hardly qualifies as a “few.”

      A plutocracy would be something like a publicly traded corporation. In other words, individuals or groups pay into the corporation, and get shares in return. Then the corporation makes decisions according to the wishes of the majority of the shareholders. (typically more than simple majority, though)

      So let’s suppose the US is a plutocracy, and let’s suppose that “the one-percent” contribute 40% of all tax revenue. Then they would automatically have 40% of the voting power in government. Now, I don’t need to tell you that this isn’t how it works. The rich have to go the more indirect route of financing elections, and even then cannot directly control policy. (because this is a republic)

      So there we are, the alternative names your proposed for or system don’t stick. Instead, the US still technically fits into the webster definition of a republic.

      The system of government, democracy, republic, anarchy (Chomsky), is not a miracle cure. If the US scrapped the republic and became a democracy tomorrow, I guarantee that nothing would improve. And that’s because the new democracy would be just as stratified as the old republic. It doesn’t matter which system we technically implement. It only matters how well we implement it.

Apr 29, 2014

tl;dr summary of my other comments: Labels aren’t important. Instead, focus on quality of life in a given country.

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