Money and oligarchy in U.S. elections

We Americans take it for granted that we are a democracy.  Some of us think we have a right and responsibility to spread out democracy to other countries.

Yet a couple of social scientists have determined that the United States is governed as if it were an oligarchy.

reinsdemocracyMartin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern looked at 1,779 issues on which Americans were polled from 1981 through 2002, and then how Congress acted on these issues.

They found that Congress followed the wishes of the top 10 percent of income earners most of the time, and the bottom 90 percent hardly ever.

That is the classic profile of government by oligarchy—government by  a small group, usually of rich people.

The survey found that Americans who band together in interest groups, such as the American Association of Retired People or National Rifle Association, have more influence than numerous, but separate, individuals, but business groups have more influence than other groups.

How can this be?  A rich person’s vote does not count any more than anybody else’s vote.

But rich people, especially corporate executives, have means of influencing policy that the rest of us lack.  They are:
▪    Campaign contributions to influence elections.
▪    Second-career jobs for politicians and government employees
▪    Propaganda to influence opinion, both among the public and the elite.

In this post, I’ll deal with the first.

During the past 25 years, campaigning for national office has become much more expensive.


Members of Congress spend 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money for their next campaigns, according to David Cole in the New York Review of Books.

They are expected to pay “dues” out of their own campaign funds to their parties’ congressional campaign committees.   If you’re a member, you probably won’t get the committee assignment you want if you don’t pay up.

Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich instituted the “pay to play” system in the 1990s, but both parties use it.  Political scientist Thomas Ferguson reported in 2011 that Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi actually had posted prices for choice committee assignments.


The balance of money power shifts back and forth between the two parties.  Bill Clinton outspent George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole in 1992 and 1996.  George W. Bush outspent Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004.  Barack Obama outspent John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2014.

Obama’s 2008 campaign is the most expensive presidential campaign to date.  His 2012 campaign is the runner-up.  Hillary Clinton’s spending so far is more than double Donald Trump’s.


While total campaign spending is going up, so has the dependence of political parties on large donors.

In 1980, small donors and political action committees provided more than three-quarters of the campaign financing for both the Republican and Democratic parties. By 2012, they were less than half. “Super donors”—a handful of people, the top 1% of the top 1% of donors – gave more than one quarter of the total amount donated.

Among these super donors were energy industry billionaires Charles and David Koch.

David Cole, writing in the New York Review of Books, noted that the Koch brothers’ political network spent more than $400 million in 2012.  That is more than the ten top U.S. labor unions combined.


The Kochs have announced they will spend $889 million in this election, more than either the Democratic or Republican parties spent in 2012.

They and another super-donor, casino operator Sheldon Adelson, are so powerful that they host meetings in which Republican presidential candidates are summoned to compete for their favor, like actors trying out for a Broadway part.

In the current election, Adelson supports Donald Trump while the Koch brothers are sitting out the presidential race and contributing to congressional and state-level Republican candidates.

Overall, though, Hillary Clinton is raising more than twice as much money as Trump.   The Center for Responsive Politics reported that, as of Sept. 21, Clinton had raised $516 million and Trump had raised just $206 million.  Gary Johnson had raised just under $8.5 million and Jill Stein, $1.9 million.


Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page for the American Political Science Association.   The full study.

The U.S. Is an Oligarchy?  The Research, Explained.  A summary of the study.

How Money Drives Congressional Elections by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgenson and Jie Chen for the Institute for New Economic Thinkilng.

Thomas Ferguson on How Money Drives Congressional Elections on Naked Capitalism.

“Yes, We’re Corrupt”: A List of Politicians Admitting That Money Controls Politics by Jon Schwarz for The Intercept.

How Corrupt Are Our Politics? by David Cole for the New York Review of Books.

The Top Billionaire Donors of the Republican Presidential Field by Russell Berman for The Atlantic.

The Koch Brothers’ New Brand by Bill McKibben for the New York Review of Books.

How Jeb Bush Lost the Sheldon Adelson Primary by Elanania Johnson for National Review.

Posted Prices and the Capitol Hill Stalemate Machine by Thomas Ferguson for the Washington Spectator (2011).

Lawmakers’ dues to party: ‘Extortion’ or team effort? by Dierdre Shesgreen and Christopher Schnaars for USA Today.

Scott Walker, the John Doe files and how corporate cash influences American politics by Ed Pilkington and the Guardian US interactive team.

Zephyr Teachout Challenges Right-Wing Donors to Debate by Nadia Prupis for Common Dreams.

The Clinton System by Simon Head for the New York Review of Books.

The Pardon of Marc Rich: How Hillary Clinton Served as the ‘Secret Weapon’ for One of the Biggest Tax Cheats in American History by Jeffrey St. Clair for Counterpunch.

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