Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-nmvwc Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-23T16:32:53.318Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Oligarchy in the United States?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 December 2009

Jeffrey A. Winters
Northwestern University. E-mail:
Benjamin I. Page
Northwestern University. E-mail:


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.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2009

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


American Political Science Association, Task Force on Inequality, and Democracy, American. 2004. American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality. Perspectives on Politics 2 (4): 651–66.Google Scholar
Ansolabehere, Stephen, de Figueiredo, John M., and Snyder, James M.. 2003. Why is there so little money in US politics? Journal of Economic Perspectives 17 (1): 105–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Aristotle. 1996. The Politics and The Constitution of Athens, ed. Everson, Stephen, Jowett, trans. Benjamin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Bachrach, Peter, and Baratz, Morton. 1962. “The Two Faces of Power.” American Political Science Review 56 (4): 947–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bagdikian, Ben H. 2004. The New Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon.Google Scholar
Bartels, Larry M. 2005. “Economic Inequality and Political Representation.” Presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, August 2002.Google Scholar
Bartels, Larry M. 2008. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Bennett, W. Lance. 1990. Toward a theory of press-state relations in the United States. Journal of Communication 40 (2): 103–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bennett, W. Lance, Lawrence, Regina C., and Livingston, Steven. 2007. When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Berkowitz, Edward, and McQuaid, Kim. 1988. Creating the Welfare State: The Political Economy of Twentieth-Century Reform. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
Berry, Jeffrey M., and Wilcox, Clyde. 2007. The Interest Group Society. 4th ed. New York: Longman.Google Scholar
Block, Fred. 1977. The Origins of International Economic Disorder. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Block, Fred. 2007. Understanding the diverging trajectories of the United States and Western Europe: A neo-Polanyian analysis. Politics and Society 35 (1): 131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bottomore, T.B. 1964. Elites and Society. New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
Brownlee, W. Elliot. 1996. Federal Taxation in America: A Short History. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Burch, Philip H. 1980–1981. Elites in American History. 3 vols. New York: Holmes & Meier.Google Scholar
Burch, Philip H. 1997. Reagan, Bush, and Right-wing Politics: Elites, Think Tanks, Power, and Policy. 2 vols. Greenwich, CT: Jai Press.Google Scholar
Cammack, Paul. 1990. A critical assessment of the new elite paradigm. American Sociological Review 55 (3): 415–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Connolly, William E. 1969. The Bias of Pluralism. New York: Atherton Press.Google Scholar
Continetti, Matthew. 2006. The K Street Gang. New York: Doubleday.Google Scholar
Dahl, Robert A. 1958. A critique of the ruling elite model. American Political Science Review 52 (2): 463–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dahl, Robert A. 1967. Pluralist Democracy in the United States: Conflict and Consent. Chicago: Rand McNally.Google Scholar
Dahl, Robert A. 2003. How Democratic Is the American Constitution? 2d ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Dew-Becker, Ian, and Gordon, Robert J.. 2005. Where did the productivity growth go? Inflation dynamics and the redistribution of income. In Brookings Papers on Economic Activity No. 2: 67127.Google Scholar
Dodd, Randall. 2007. Tax breaks for billionaires: Loophole for hedge fund managers costs billions in tax revenue. EPI Policy Memorandum #120. Economic Policy Institute. July 24. Accessed August 3, 2007⟩.Google Scholar
Domhoff, G. William. 1990. The Power Elite and the State. New York: Aldine.Google Scholar
Domhoff, G. William. 2002. The power elite, public policy, and public opinion. In Navigating Public Opinion: Polls, Policy, and the Future of American Democracy, ed. Manza, Jeff, Cook, Fay Lomax and Page, Benjamin I.. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Domhoff, G. William. 2006. Who Rules America? Power, Politics, and Social Change. 5th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.Google Scholar
Donmoyer, Ryan J., and Goldman, Julianna. 2007. “Schumer Fights Buyout-Firm Tax Rise by Spreading Pain.” Bloomberg, July 25. Accessed on August 3, 2007⟩.Google Scholar
Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
Drew, Elizabeth. 1999. The Corruption of American Politics: What Went Wrong and Why. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing.Google Scholar
Dye, Thomas R. 2002. Who's Running America? The Bush Restoration. 7th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
Economic Policy Institute. 2006. “Economic Snapshot.” June 21. Accessed July 25, 2007. ⟨⟩.Google Scholar
Entman, Robert. 2004. Projections of Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Erikson, Robert S., MacKuen, Michael B., and Stimson, James A.. 2002. The Macro Polity. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Faccio, Mara. 2006. Politically connected firms. American Economic Review 96 (1): 369–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Femia, Joseph V. 2006. Pareto and Political Theory. New York, NY: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ferguson, Thomas. 1995. Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ferguson, Thomas, and Johnson, Robert. 2009a. Too big to bail: the “Paulson put,” presidential politics, and the global financial meltdown. Part I: From shadow financial system to shadow bailout. International Journal of Political Economy 38 (1): 334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ferguson, Thomas, and Johnson, Robert. 2009b. Too big to bail: the “Paulson put,” presidential politics, and the global financial meltdown. Part II: Fatal reversal—single payer and back. International Journal of Political Economy 38 (2): 545.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ferguson, Thomas, and Rogers, Joel. 1986. Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics. New York: Hill and Wang.Google Scholar
Ferguson, Thomas, and Voth, Hans-Joachim. 2008. Betting on Hitler: The value of political connections in Nazi Germany. Quarterly Journal of Economics 123 (1): 101137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fisman, Raymond. 2001. Estimating the value of political connections. American Economic Review 91 (4): 1095–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gans, Herbert J. 1979. Deciding What's News. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
Gilens, Martin. 2005. Inequality and democratic responsiveness. Public Opinion Quarterly 69 (5): 778–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Goldfield, Michael. 1987. The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Graetz, Michael J., and Shapiro, Ian. 2005. Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight over Taxing Inherited Wealth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Greider, William. 1987. Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
Hallin, Daniel C. 1986. The “Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Hamilton, Alexander, Madison, James, and Jay, John. 1961 [1787–88.] The Federalist Papers. Ed. Rossiter, Clinton. New York: New American Library.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Head, Simon. 2007. “They're Micromanaging Your Every Move.” New York Review of Books 54 (13) August, 4244.Google Scholar
Higley, John, and Burton, Michael. 2006. Elite Foundations of Liberal Democracy. Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
Hochschild, Jennifer. 1981. What's Fair? Americans' Attitudes Toward Distributive Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Hotelling, Harold. 1929. Stability in competition. The Economic Journal 39: 4157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Isaac, Jeffrey C. 1987. Beyond the three faces of power: A realist critique. Polity 20 (1): 431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Iyengar, Shanto, and Kinder, Donald R.. 1987. News That Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Jacobs, Lawrence R., and Page, Benjamin I.. 2005. Who influences US foreign policy? American Political Science Review 99 (1): 107–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jacobs, Lawrence R., and Shapiro, Robert Y.. 2000. Politicians Don't Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Jacobs, Lawrence R., and Skocpol, Theda, eds. 2005. Inequality and American Democracy: What We Know and What We Need to Learn. New York: Russell Sage.Google Scholar
Jacobson, Gary C. 1978. The effects of campaign spending in Congressional elections. American Political Science Review 72 (2): 469–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jayachandran, Seema. 2006. The Jeffords effect. Journal of Law and Economics 49 (2): 397425.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Johnson, John. 2009. “The Quiet Coup.” The Atlantic. May. Accessed at Scholar
Johnston, David Cay. 2003. Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich—and Cheat Everybody Else. New York: Portfolio Publishing.Google Scholar
Johnston, David Cay. 2007. “Income Gap Is Widening, Data Show.” New York Times, March 29C1, C10.Google Scholar
Katz, Lawrence, and Autor, David. 1999. Changes in the wage structure and earnings inequality. In Handbook of Labor Economics, ed. Ashenfelter, Orley and Card, David. New York: Elsevier/North Holland.Google Scholar
Kopczuk, Wojciech, and Saez, Emmanuel. 2004a. Top wealth shares in the United States, 1916–2000: Evidence from estate tax returns. National Tax Journal 57 (2, pt 2): 445–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kopczuk, Wojciech, and Saez, Emmanuel. 2004b. “Top Wealth Shares in the United States, 1916–2000: Evidence from Estate Tax Returns.” NBER Working Paper No. 10399. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Korpi, Walter. 1985. Power resources approach vs. action and conflict: On causal and intentional explanations in the study of power. Sociological Theory 3 (2): 3145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kull, Steven, Ramsay, Clay, and Lewis, Evan. 2003–2004. Misperceptions, the media, and the Iraq War. Political Science Quarterly 118 (4): 569–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ladd, Everett Carll, and Bowman, Karlyn H.. 1998. Attitudes Toward Economic Inequality. Washington, DC: AEI Press.Google Scholar
Leach, Darcy K. 2005. The iron law of what again? Conceptualizing oligarchy across organizational forms. Sociological Theory 23 (3): 312–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lindblom, Charles E. 1977. Politics and Markets: The World's Political-Economic Systems. New York: Basic.Google Scholar
Lindblom, Charles E. 1982. The market as prison. Journal of Politics 44 (2): 324–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lindblom, Charles E., and Woodhouse, Edward J.. 1993. The Policy-Making Process. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
Lukes, Steven. 1974. Power: A Radical View. London: Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Luo, Michael, and Drew, Christopher. 2008. “Big Donors, Too, Have Seats At Obama Fund-Raising Table.” New York Times, August 6, A1, A16.Google Scholar
McChesney, Fred S. 1997. Money for Nothing: Politicians, Rent Extraction, and Political Extortion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
McCloskey, Robert G. 1960. The American Supreme Court. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
McConnell, Grant. 1966. Private Power and American Democracy. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
McEachern, William A. 1975. Managerial Control and Performance. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.Google Scholar
Michels, Robert. 1999 [1915]. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. New ed. New York, NY: Transaction Publishers. Originally published as Zur Soziologie der Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie Leipzig, 1911.Google Scholar
Mills, C. Wright. 1999 [1956]. The Power Elite. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Mishel, Lawrence, Bernstein, Jared, and Allegretto, Sylvia. 2006. The State of Working America 2006 2007. Ithaca, NY: Economic Policy Institute and Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
Mosca, Gaetano. 1939. The Ruling Class. Ed. and rev. Livingston, Arthur; trans. Kahn, Hannah D.. New York and London: McGraw-Hill Book Company. Originally published as Elementi di scienza politica. Roma: Bocca, 1896.Google Scholar
Olson, Mancur Jr. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Overton, Spencer A. 2002. But some are more equal: Race, exclusion, and campaign finance. Texas Law Review 80 (5): 9871056.Google Scholar
Overton, Spencer A. 2004. The donor class: Campaign finance, democracy, and participation. University of Pennsylvania Law Review 153: 73118. Accessed on February 5, 2007 ⟨⟩.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Page, Benjamin I. 1983. Who Gets What from Government. Berkeley: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Page, Benjamin I., Bouton, with Marshall M.. 2006. The Foreign Policy Disconnect: What Americans Want from Our Leaders but Don't Get. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Page, Benjamin I., and Jacobs, Lawrence R.. 2009. Class War? What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Page, Benjamin I., and Shapiro, Robert Y.. 1983. Effects of public opinion on policy. American Political Science Review 77 (1): 175–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Page, Benjamin I., and Shapiro, Robert Y.. 1992. The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans' Policy Preferences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Page, Benjamin I., Shapiro, Robert Y., and Dempsey, Glenn R.. 1987. What moves public opinion? American Political Science Review 81 (1): 2343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pareto, Vilfredo. 1935. The Mind and Society [Trattato di Sociologia generale, 1916] Edited by Arthur Livingston and translated by Andrew Bongiorno, Arthur Livingston, and James Harvey Rogers. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.Google Scholar
Pareto, Vilfredo. 1991 [1901]. The Rise and Fall of Elites: An Application of Theoretical Sociology. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. Translated from “Un' Applicazione di teorie sociologiche,” Rivista Italiana di Sociologia 5: 402–456.Google Scholar
Payne, James L. 1968. The oligarchy muddle. World Politics 20 (3): 439–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pechman, Joseph A., and Okner, Benjamin A.. 1974. Who Bears the Tax Burden? Washington, DC: Brookings.Google Scholar
Peschek, Joseph G. 1987. Policy-Planning Organizations: Elite Agendas and America's Rightward Turn. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
Pfeffer, Jeffrey, and Salancik, Gerald R.. 1978. The External Control of Organizations: A Resource Dependence Perspective. New York: Harper and Row.Google Scholar
Piketty, Thomas, and Saez, Emmanuel. 2003. Income inequality in the United States, 1913–1998. Quarterly Journal of Economics 118 (1): 139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Piven, Frances Fox, and Cloward, Richard C.. 2000. Why Americans Still Don't Vote: And Why Politicians Want it That Way. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
Przeworski, Adam. 1991. Democracy and the Market. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Raskin, Jamin B. 1997. Direct democracy, corporate power, and judicial review of popularly-enacted campaign finance reform. Journal of Legislation and Public Policy 1 (1): 2140.Google Scholar
Raskin, Jamin B., and Bonifaz, John. 1993. Equal protection and the wealth primary. Yale Law and Policy Review 11 (4): 273332.Google Scholar
Raskin, Jamin B., and Bonifaz, John. 1994. The constitutional imperative and practical superiority of democratically financed elections. Columbia Law Review 94 (4): 1160–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Reuters. 2009. “Panel Criticizes Treasury Use of TARP Funds.” January 9. Accessed at Scholar
Reynolds, Morgan, and Smolensky, Eugene. 1977. Public Expenditures, Taxes, and the Distribution of Income: The United States, 1950, 1961, 1970. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Rich, Frank. 2006. The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
Rustow, Dankwart A. 1966. The study of elites: Who's who, when, and how. World Politics 18 (4): 690717.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Saez, Emmanuel. 2004. “Income and Wealth Concentration in Historical and International Perspective.” Presented at the Berkeley Symposium on Poverty, the Distribution of Income, and Public Policy: A Conference Honoring Eugene Smolensky. February 21.Google Scholar
Salancik, Gerald R., and Pfeffer, Jeffrey. 1980. Effects of ownership and performance on executive tenure in US corporations. Academy of Management Journal 23 (4): 653–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schattschneider, E.E. 1960. The Semisovereign People: A Realist's View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.Google Scholar
Schlozman, Kay Lehman, and Burch, Traci. 2009. Political voice in an age of inequality. In America at Risk: The Great Dangers, ed. Faulkner, Robert and Shell, Susan. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
Schlozman, Kay Lehman, and Tierney, John T.. 1986. Organized Interests and American Democracy. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
Sigal, Leon. 1973. Reporters and Officials: The Organization and Politics of Newsmaking. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.Google Scholar
Simpson, Glenn R., and Farnam, T.W.. 2008. “Goldman Hedges Political Bets: Executives Shelled Out For Clinton, Obama; Lesser Sums for GOP.” Wall Street Journal, February 2, A6.Google Scholar
Stiglitz, Joseph E., and Charlton, Andrew. 2005. Fair Trade for All: How Trade Can Promote Development. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Swenson, Peter A. 2002. Capitalists Against Markets: The Making of Labor Markets and Welfare States in the United States and Sweden. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
“Top 25 Moneymakers: The New Tycoons.” 2007. Alpha magazine. April 24. Accessed August 3, 2007⟩.Google Scholar
Truman, David B. 1971 [1951]. The Governmental Process: Political Interests and Public Opinion. 2d ed. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
United States. Constitution.Google Scholar
United States Department of Commerce, Census Bureau. 2007. “The Effect of Taxes and Transfers on Income and Poverty in the United States: 2005.” Report P60–232.Google Scholar
Verba, Sidney, Schlozman, Lay Lehman, and Brady, Henry E.. 1995. Voice and Equality: Civic Volunteerism in American Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
West, Darrell M., and Loomis, Burdett A.. 1998. The Sound of Money: How Political Interests Get What They Want. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
Wolff, Edward N. 2002. Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It. New York: The New Press.Google Scholar
Wolff, Edward N. 2007. “Recent Trends in Household Wealth in the United States: Rising Debt and the Middle-Class Squeeze.” Levy Economics Institute Working Paper #502 (June).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wolff, Edward N., and Zacharias, Ajit. 2006. An overall assessment of the distributional consequences of government spending and taxation in the US, 1989 and 2000. In The Distributional Effects of Government Spending and Taxation, ed. Papdimitrious, Dimitri. New York: Palgrave.Google Scholar