On 24 April 2014, the Washington Times ran an article titled “America is an oligarchy, not a democracy or republic, university study finds.” The Washington Times was reporting on a study by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page called “Testing Theories of American Politics” [PDF]. According to the study, in 20 years of public policy decision making in the United States Congress, when “the preferences of economic elites… and interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” The study also concludes that “fairly large majorities of Americans [who] favor policy change generally do not get it,” except when their interests align with the elite interests.
Precursors to research on the American political system can be found in the works of Robert Dahl (1915–2014), who did much in the way to demonstrate the gap between the ideal of democracy and really existing democracy. Really existing democracy, he observed, is characterized by ordinary citizens electing officials in relatively free and fair elections, where everyone is given the right to vote and to run for political office. Other characteristics of really existing democracy include freedom of expression for its citizens, as well as freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. Dahl called states that possess these institutions polyarchies, and believed that the United States had this institutional character.
Dahl also believed that the institutions that exist in polyarchies like the United States are necessary but not sufficient for an ideal democracy. For a state to more closely approximate democracy, it needs to facilitate conditions of political equality. Dahl outlined a set of conditions for political equality that, he argued, would jointly satisfy an adequate conception of democracy. First, in an adequate democracy, any citizen can make her views known to associations relevant to her, at whatever political strata, and they can actually be heard and considered; this he called effective participation. But the citizen also needs equality in voting, which requires a true accounting of her vote regarding policy. The citizen also needs the possibility for enlightened understanding, where she is made aware of policies and their alternatives and their likely consequences, and only the policies relevant to the citizen’s affiliation with her different communities and political strata will be considered and can be overturned by a vote of the citizens, giving ordinary people collectively and ultimately control of the political agenda. Yet these fundamental rights—effective participation, equality in voting, enlightened understanding, final control of the agenda—and perhaps still other rights would not be overturned in a democracy, according to Dahl, since they are the very conditions that make democracy work.
Dahl did not spell out a systematic program by which the United States could move toward a democracy; he did, however, point out several of the gross inequalities that have made democracy inhospitable in the United States. In his study of the New Haven political system, Dahl observed, for example, that effective participation is hindered because “different kinds of resources for influencing officials are available to different citizens,” and so by their very unequal distribution do not allow for full inclusion in the political process for citizens. Also, in Dahl’s updated foreword to his book A Preface to Democratic Theory, he wrote that rules embedded into the United States Constitution make for democratic exclusion on the part of American systems, as well as do still existing oppressive systems that exclude people on account of race, education, or socioeconomic condition.
Perhaps more importantly, Dahl noted that American citizens have no real control of the political agenda or public policy, making this observation some 40 years before Gilens and Page’s research on American oligarchy. In Who Governs?, he wrote:
The specific beliefs of the average citizen… have a rather limited though important function. Ordinarily, conflicts over democratic norms are resolved among the professionals, with perhaps some involvement by parts of the political stratum but little or no involvement by most citizens. Thus the fact that a large number of citizens do not believe in the political norms actually applied, particularly extending political liberties to unpopular individuals and groups, has slight effect on the outcome.
The beliefs of the ordinary citizen become relevant only when professionals engage in an intensive appeal to the populace. Even then, the actual outcome of the appeal does not necessarily reflect majority attitudes at all accurately. These are not always known; they are guessed at in a variety of inaccurate ways, and they have to be filtered through the tighter mesh of the political stratum and the professionals before they can become public policy.
Despite this observation that ordinary citizens play virtually no role in policy, Dahl argued that all was not lost with the American political system. Given the design of American political institutions, with the built-in Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press, as well as the right to a vote in more-or-less free and fair elections and the right to run for political office—the institutions necessary for any polyarchy—the elected officials must perforce appeal to ordinary citizens at least occasionally in order to pass policy. In other words, in order to push an elite consensus, whatever is on the political agenda must sometimes be palatable to ordinary people. This is what Dahl has called the democratic creed in America. Still, for all that, it also means that whatever becomes part of the political agenda is going to favor foremost the public policies of the elite.
[Elite] consensus makes occasional appeal all but inevitable, for the [democratic] creed itself gives legitimacy to an appeal to the populace. On the other hand, widespread adherence to the creed limits the character and the course of an appeal. It insures that no appeal is likely to succeed unless it is framed in terms consistent with the creed—which is perhaps not so small a constraint. Some solutions pretty evidently are not consistent. Because an appeal must take place in the face of criticism from legitimists and extensive appraisal by members of the political stratum, blatant inconsistencies are likely to be exposed. Moreover, because the appeal is legitimized by the creed, it provides an orderly way to conduct a dispute that exceeds the capacities of the professionals to resolve among themselves.
This need on behalf of American elites to gain popular appeal for the public policies they want makes for a tug-of-war between the elites and ordinary citizens, meaning that the elites in the United States have certain constraints on the policies they can push. Continuing from Dahl:
Citizens are very far indeed from exerting equal influence over the content, application, and development of the political consensus. Yet widely held beliefs by Americans in a creed of democracy and political equality serve as a critical limit on the ways in which leaders can shape the consensus.
Dahl maintained late into his life that polyarchies like the United States ought to supplement the ideals they espouse—the very ideals that make them polyarchies—with conditions of political equality, in order to better approximate democracy. Dahl might not have always valued political equality as necessary for a more perfect government. A 1982 paper [PDF], for instance, by political scientist Richard Krause found that originally in Dahl’s A Preface to Democratic Theory, Dahl seemed to have at one point believed that political equality was not necessary for democracy but instead contingent on citizens’ natural inclinations toward “leisure, privacy, consensus, stability, income, security, progress,” and how much they “are prepared to forego for an additional increment of political equality.” Thus, Dahl has been accused of advocating an “elite theory of democracy” in his conception of really existing democracies. As Richard Krause put it, Dahl’s empirical theory of polyarchy is his normative theory of democracy. But this criticism goes too far.
When Dahl wrote in his 1961 Who Governs? that American citizens have very little control over their political agenda, it was clear that he was not arguing that they ought to. When he cited the United States as a system of free and fair elections or as a country that guaranteed its citizens the right to vote, he was in no wise unfamiliar with the fact that convicts, say, are not given the right to vote or that elections have sometimes been accused of voter fraud, as with the 2000 American presidential elections. In other words, it is plain that he saw that the ideals of polyarchy were not always present in the real world—the United States or elsewhere. And most certainly from the 1960s onward, Dahl was most definitely trying to distinguish how very different these basic tenets of polyarchy were from any adequate conception of democracy. Dahl wrote in On Political Equality “that the ideal of democracy presupposes that political equality is desirable. Consequently, if we believe in democracy as a goal or ideal, then implicitly we must view political equality as a goal or ideal.” In this way, he argued for the necessity of political equality, conceived as inclusive fundamental rights guaranteeing effective participation, equality in voting, enlightened understanding, and final control of the political agenda through public policy.
While it is true that the attitudes of American citizens today as reflected in their public-policy concerns might not adequately account for what would make for the most reasonable political agenda, the public consensus of ordinary Americans would be a good start for what kinds of reforms ought to be made within the United States. If the preferences of average citizens were reflected in public policy, it would mean that the United States would push more legislation that favored progressive taxation, stricter corporate regulation, and a higher minimum wage. Yet it would also means, as it stands, more majoritarian conservative stances toward abortion and gay rights. Martin Gilens discusses these particular issues in his book on public policy Affluence and Influence and notes the necessity to at least take more of the American people’s voices into consideration in deciding public policy. He writes:
I hold no illusion that citizens’ policy preferences are in fact the best policies, or even the policies best suited to advance the interests and values of those citizens. If public policy better reflected the preferences of the majority, our country would be more democratic. But that doesn’t always mean it would be better. Citizens are often shortsighted and unsophisticated in forming their judgments about public policy, just as they are often shortsighted and unsophisticated in making decisions in their own private lives, and numerous elites are more or less constantly trying to influence the public, with varying degrees of success. Yet however imperfect the public may be as a guardian of its own interests, it is a more certain guardian of those interests than any feasible alternative.
Other mitigating factors could be involved in why particular public policy views are held as majority opinions among Americans, particularly in cases where, for example, they are not favorable to minorities. Those factors, too, could perhaps be adjusted for with reform that creates more possibilities for enlightened understanding on political issues, issues currently off the table of the elite agenda. But we won’t ever know until we try it.
Note: There are many Partially Examined Life episodes that have addressed democracy and the political character of the United States, but most notably the episodes on Aristotle’s forms of government, The Federalist Papers, and Robert Nozick’s libertarianism.
Billie Pritchett is an English professor at Chosun University in Gwangju, Korea. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Murray State University, where he acquired his interests in Moral and Political Philosophy and the Philosophy of Social Science. He is an occasional contributor to The Partially Examined Life and is pursuing his Master’s degree in History in U.S.-Korea Relations at Chonnam National University in Spring of 2016.