Oligarchy vs Democracy
Democracy is a pretty familiar term, at least it should be! Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally (either directly or indirectly) in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. Technically, all citizens are equal – they all have one vote, they all have the same rights. Democracy has been described and used (though not continuously) since Ancient Greece, for two simple reasons: it works really good, and it’s relatively fair.
Oligarchy, on the other hand is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. Oligarchic states are often controlled by a small number of families which pass on their wealth and influence to their children, perpetuating the cycle (starting to see a pattern here?). Basically, some people are more equal than others. It has also been described and proposed in ancient Greece, and throughout history, oligarchies have been tyrannical or relatively benign.
Technically, the two are mutually exclusive; it is either a form of government, or the other. However, in practice, there is a fine line, difficult to draw out. You could say that a democratic country also has oligarchic aspects, and that’s pretty much the case with the US – up to the point where it’s more oligarchic than democratic.
The Oligarchic US
Many will ironically ask “Wow, it took a big study to figure that out?”; it seems pretty straightforward that a big chunk of American power lies in a very select group – you could call them the 1%, though it’s not exactly money we’re talking about here. The answer is yes, yes it did take a study to demonstrate this. There’s a world of difference between knowing or observing something personally and being able to provide objective, scientific evidence. There’s a big difference between anecdotal evidence, and scientific evidence.
This paper analyzed a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues to see which actors played the more important role in the decision-making. Their results were pretty clear – the US is somewhat democratic, but more oligarchic than democratic. To put it another way, a small elite group has more power when it comes to decision making than the median voters.
Not speaking about this study, but in a different situation, astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson made a pretty good point:
“Look at the track record of all our politicians: Lawyer, Businessman, Lawyer, Lawyer, Businesswoman, Lawyer, Lawyer, Military…Where are the Engineers, Scientists, Mathematicians, Farmers, Environmentalists? Why do we elect individuals who’s backgrounds do not suit the needs of The People in out everyday?”
Another relevant quote by writer Douglas Adams:
“The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”
So there you have it – it’s official, and it’s scientific. The desires of a small group outweigh the desires of the average voters. What are we going to do now?