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Oligarchy in the United States?

  • Jeffrey A. Winters (a1) and Benjamin I. Page (a2)

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.

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