Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

Oligarchy in the United States?

Jeffrey A. Wintersa1 and Benjamin I. Pagea2

a1 Northwestern University. E-mail: winters@northwestern.edu

a2 Northwestern University. E-mail: b-page@northwestern.edu

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.

Jeffrey A. Winters is associate professor of Political Science, Northwestern University (winters@northwestern.edu).

Benjamin I. Page is Fulcher professor of Political Science (b-page@northwestern.edu).

Footnotes

For comments and suggestions we are grateful to Edward Greenberg, Benjamin R. Page, Bonnie Honig, Kay Lehman Schlozman, Edward Wolff, Tom Ferguson, Chris Howell, Lawrence Jacobs, Christopher Jencks, Meredith Jung-en Woo, William Domhoff, Mary Dietz, Joseph Peschek, James Farr, Eric Rasmusen, Nathan Dapeer, Jonathan Pincus, Rizal Ramli, Marc Blecher, Richard P. Young, and Edward Gibson. Jeffrey Winters would also like to thank the participants at his talk on “Oligarchy and the American Case” at Oberlin College in October 2006; at his November 2007 talk on “Oligarchy and Elite Rule” at Northwestern University's Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies; and the probing discussions in 2008 at Northwestern with the members of Timothy Earle's “Chieftancy Working Group.”

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