Get used to hearing about Gilens and Page. The two political scientists — from Northwestern and Princeton, respectively — have a forthcoming article in the Fall 2014 of Perspectives on Politics*. The article reaches the conclusion that economic elites and interest groups representing business have greater policy influence than the mass public. In the Year of Piketty this finding has already attracted quite a lot of attention. That’s them on The Daily Show above, and Krugman discussed the article a few weeks ago. The BBC declares that article demonstrates that the “US is an oligarchy, not a democracy” and in the authors’ conclusion they argue:
Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
I don’t find the overall message to be very surprising — although there are some possible issues with their empirical strategy — and because I don’t particularly care if the U.S. clears the bar of some technical definition of democracy. But I still take issue with this kind of conclusion. Democracy is not measured by policy outcomes and is not defined by where the balance of power in society lies at any particular moment. If a representative democracy represents some groups better than others that does not mean it is not a representative democracy. Or, as I put it a few years ago:
The fact is that “democracy” is a catch-all word that describes a host of political institutions which are similar only in that they aggregate the preferences of their citizens through some type of electoral process which is guided (and constrained) by previously established law. “Democracy” is decidedly not a description of a set of particular outcomes favored by the technocratic center-left … Given that, it is not completely clear to me that the U.S. has lost its ability to function; conflicting interests, partisanship, gamesmanship, interest group lobbying, rent capture, and vituperative campaigns are all par for this course, not evidence that things have gone horribly awry.
The desire to declare outcomes that we normatively prefer as “democratic” and outcomes that we do not prefer as “non-democratic” is ahistorical and, I believe, damaging. We need to accept the fact that no political regime is perfect. We need to accept the fact that economic inequality is not only possible but likely in a “true” democracy, as are plenty of other bad outcomes including war, slavery, patriarchy, discrimination, censorship, and environmental degradation. Among other reasons, this is why constitutions are so important.
The Gilens and Page results are interesting and useful. Folks should absolutely read the paper and take it seriously. But wild extrapolations from the results are not trustworthy. The true message of the paper is this: Democracy is not magic. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again. The U.S. is a democracy. If you don’t like certain outcomes in the U.S. then you don’t like democratic outcomes.
*Disclosure: Perspectives on Politics is edited by one of my colleagues at Indiana University, my academic home, and has published my work in the past.