Scholar Behind Viral ‘Oligarchy’ Study Tells You What It Means

Courtesy of Sahil Kapur @ Talking Points Memo:

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A new political science study that’s gone viral finds that majority-rule democracy exists only in theory in the United States — not so much in practice. The government caters to the affluent few and organized interest groups, the researchers find, while the average citizen’s influence on policy is “near zero.”

“[T]he preferences of economic elites,” conclude Princeton’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern’s Benjamin I. Page, who work with the nonprofit Scholars Strategy Network, “have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do.”

TPM spoke to Gilens about the study, its main findings and its lessons.

You published an advance copy of your study on April 9th, and in just the last few days there’s been an explosion of coverage and interest. Are you pleased, shocked, overwhelmed, all of the above?

I’m delighted to be able to contribute to a terribly important public discussion. And I’m thrilled that there’s so much interest and concern about the issues. It takes on a life of its own. I’m sure you’ve noticed, this notion of America being an oligarchy seems to be a dominant meme in the discussion of our work. It’s not a term that we used in the paper. It’s just a dramatic sort of overstatement of our findings. So it’s been interesting for me. Typically my work is read by a few dozen political scientists and I don’t get this kind of response.

Let’s talk about the study. If you had 30 seconds to sum up the main conclusion of your study for the average person, how would you do so?

I’d say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups — of economic elites and of organized interests.

You say the United States is more like a system of “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism” as opposed to a majoritarian democracy. What do those terms mean? Is that not just a scholarly way of saying it’s closer to oligarchy than democracy if not literally an oligarchy?

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Is the British education system designed to polarise people?

Courtesy of Danny Dorling @ The Guardian:

I grew up in Oxford, but left my hometown to study and then worked at universities in Newcastle, Bristol, Leeds and Sheffield. People who read my words but didn’t hear my accent often assumed I was from the north. But now I’ve come full circle, and have taken up a chair in geography at Oxford University.

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It is geography that reveals just how divided we have become as a society in this country. There are places from which it appears almost impossible to succeed educationally and others where it seems very hard to fail. On any given day, a fifth of children in Britain qualify for free school meals. Just one in 100 of those children get to go to either Oxford or Cambridge University. Four private schools and one highly selective state sixth-form college send more children to Oxbridge than do 2,000 other secondary schools. The most prestigious 100 schools secure 30% of all Oxbridge places. And 84 of them are private schools.

People often complain that the national debate on higher education is unfairly dominated by interest in entry to these two universities. But it matters. The richest 1% (people with a pre-tax household income of at least £160,000) dominate decision-making in this country. How they behave is a weathervane for social mobility in Britain. Continue reading