Study: US is an Oligarchy

It’s official: America is run by corporations and rich people. Or so says a new study from Princeton and Northwestern Universities.

And how did they prove that Joe Sex-Pack is getting the shaft? The authors looked at 1779 surveys on policy issues between 1981 and 2002. Using a “quadratic logistic regression technique,” whatever that is, the authors grouped the respondents by level of income—poor, median and relatively affluent. Their opinions were then compared to those of business groups (such as defense contractors and oil companies) and mass interest groups (like the NRA and the Teamsters). 

The authors thus concluded that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy.” No surprise there, right? But it is surprising to learn that, just like your average schmo, the interest groups “have little or no independent influence.”

Although the breathless headlines suggest otherwise, the authors never baldly state that the U.S. is run by an oligarchy. Instead they believe that the study supports the related theories of Economic Elite Domination, which means (obviously) that the rich folks run the show, and Biased Pluralism, wherein interest groups—especially business groups—have the most influence.

The lowdown is that American policy is indeed largely determined by securities and investment companies, oil companies and Big Pharma. A close second are professional organizations like the Association of Trial Lawyers, the Health Insurance Association and the (less-than-scary but apparently influential) Independent Insurance Agents of America.

What does this have to do with religion? Well, the study argues that mass-based interest groups “do not (in the aggregate) represent the public very well, and they have less collective impact on policy than do business-oriented groups.” The important words here are in the aggregate. Because three of the mass-based groups listed in the study are religio-political organizations: the Christian Coalition, the 

National Right to Life Committee and American Israel Public Affairs Committee. 

Some qualification is in order. The power of the Christian Coalition has waned considerably since the 90s. The National Right to Life Committee is only one part of a giant organization that includes an educational non-profit and the National Right to Life Victory Fund, a SuperPAC (thanks, Citizens United!). 

And finally, some may find it dicey to label AIPAC as a religious organization. After all, American Zionism is not motivated by the same impulses that drive the NRLC. If that were so, the organization would be less about Israel than, say, encouraging Jews to keep kosher. But I don’t see anything dicey in pointing out that support for Israel is on the continuum of Jewish values. 

So while the study in question tells us a lot about money and politics, it doesn’t tell us much about how religion fits into it—or, more specifically, about the aggregate influence of religion-based interest groups. Of course that wasn’t what the study set out to do. But it does raise a tantalizing question—if there’s a way to provide an empirical picture of the real influence of religion on American politics.

Of course only an idiot would argue that religion plays no part in American governance. But it would be interesting to get a clearer picture of the extent. No matter what the results we can be sure of one thing: that the left will say there’s too much and the right not enough.