Are We, Are We, Oligarch Free?

From, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (PDF) to be published in the Fall 2014 Perspectives in Politics, by Martin Gilens of Princeton, and Benjamin I Page of Northwestern:

Abstract: … analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. …

From the 1998 Warren Beatty film, Bulworth:

Jay Bulworth: (rapping) Now people got their problems, the haves and the have-nots, but the ones that make me listen pay for thirty second spots.

If you saw Bulworth, you didn’t need to read some academic study to know that government policy follows the wishes of economic elites or interest groups much more than it follows a the wishes of a majority of average citizens. The mainstream media is shocked – shocked they say – to find that such a study exists and they are are churning out articles about oligarchy like it is a new idea. The progressive media proclaims, “See? We told you so!” then quibbles over whether we live in an oligarchy or a plutocracy, which is simply rule by the wealthy. Britannica offers a thorough definition of the o-word:

oligarchy, government by the few, especially despotic power exercised by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish purposes.

… Most classic oligarchies have resulted when governing elites were recruited exclusively from a ruling caste — a hereditary social grouping that is set apart from the rest of society by religion, kinship, economic status, prestige, or even language. Such elites tend to exercise power in the interests of their own class.

It is a recurrent idea that all forms of government are in the final analysis reducible to the rule of a few. Oligarchs will secure effective control whether the formal authority is vested in the people, a monarch, the proletariat, or a dictator.

That last paragraph sums up my initial reaction. In any group – Congress, a convent or a book-reading club – there will always be some individuals that wield more influence than others. Some people are known for getting things done, while others are feared because they know how to settle scores. Some are respected for their knowledge, experience or talent. Some are socially adept; others have old money.

Problems occur when that influence becomes entrenched and unbalanced. Downton Abbey is fun to watch if you ignore that the cute little chambermaids regularly emptied feces and urine from chamber pots and put in 14 hour workdays. And as with slavery, the house staff had it better than the field staff.

Now the FCC has decided that the internet is going to be an oligarchy, where rich content providers and business sites will command more bandwidth than average sites. Democracy Now!, which stands to be one of the lower bandwidth sites, presented Internet For the 1 Percent: New FCC Rules Strike Down Net Neutrality, Opening Fast Lanes for Fees:

Retired FCC Commissioner Michael Copps: The only way we’re going to put a stop to going down this road is citizen action. That happened in 2003 when Chairman Powell was trying to change the media ownership caps at the commission so that fewer and fewer behemoths could own more and more, gobble up more and more independent stations around the country. And there was a grassroots movement at that time, led by Free Press and Common Cause and others, concerned senators and congressmen. And I went out, and Commissioner Adelstein went out around the country. Three million people, thereupon, wrote to the Federal Communications Commission and Congress saying, “We don’t like these rules.” Meantime, Powell had pushed them through with this majority at the commission. But you know what happened then, after those three million people spoke, was that the Senate voted twice, the U.S. Senate, to overturn those rules; the House expressed its displeasure; and then the courts sent those back to the commission saying they were inadequate. That’s what we need to do again right now.

Now according to Gilens and Page, such activism shouldn’t affect the government’s decisions. But occasionally activism can work, at least in the short term. As we are seeing with the Keystone XL battle, the elites are very good at working the majority against itself.

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