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Oligarchy in the United States?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 December 2009

Jeffrey A. Winters
Affiliation:
Northwestern University. E-mail: winters@northwestern.edu
Benjamin I. Page
Affiliation:
Northwestern University. E-mail: b-page@northwestern.edu
Corresponding

Abstract

We explore the possibility that the US political system can usefully be characterized as oligarchic. Using a material-based definition drawn from Aristotle, we argue that oligarchy is not inconsistent with democracy; that oligarchs need not occupy formal office or conspire together or even engage extensively in politics in order to prevail; that great wealth can provide both the resources and the motivation to exert potent political influence. Data on the US distributions of income and wealth are used to construct several Material Power Indices, which suggest that the wealthiest Americans may exert vastly greater political influence than average citizens and that a very small group of the wealthiest (perhaps the top tenth of 1 percent) may have sufficient power to dominate policy in certain key areas. A brief review of the literature suggests possible mechanisms by which such influence could occur, through lobbying, the electoral process, opinion shaping, and the US Constitution itself.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2009

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