Is the US a democracy?

US DEM 1US DEM 3Dem 4Is the US a democracy? Some US researchers (from Princeton) recently – and famously – concluded that it isn’t. What are their criteria? They say that the people in the top ten percent wealth bracket get their way most of the time and the average earner has little or no causal influence on policy outcomes. (I provide extracts and a link to the study below).

But let’s unpack that a little. The researchers point out that in reality average and elites’ interests coincided two-thirds of the time – so average Jane and Joe get what they want 67% of the time. The researchers argue that their research though shows that, when the elites’ interests differ from the average, the elites get their way, almost always. The study is based on actual policy decisions over a 15 year period in the US, accounting for the recorded attitudes of various groups in the US, including average people, elites and organized interest groups (which latter, they say, don’t on the whole represent average views.)

US DEM 2But looking through their paper, we should make some qualifications. The researchers point out that the US system has a bias towards the status quo – in fact, a quite deliberate bias – created by the famed checks and balances, separations of powers, different representative assemblies and so on. So that means that ALL participants in the US system don’t get their way all of the time. They also accept that public officials, including political activists – either appointed or elected – who don’t figure in the top 10 percent of income are not accounted for.

So let’s look at the elites – let’s say our starting point is that they get their way 98% of the time – since the study accepts that the average citizen does have a small amount of say even when elites are opposed. But this figure is reduced by checks and balances – how much? It’s very hard to quantify – but given the checks and balances are substantial – let’s say across the board it means that 15% of the time whoever wants change is blocked from change, on average. Since elites are more influential, according to the study, let’s say that elites are blocked 10% of the time by checks and balances alone.

Aside from checks and balances, what about the influence of non wealthy public officials, including political party activists – since the researchers accept that their study does not account for their possible influence? There must be several million of them, but let’s make a very modest guesstimate that they influence change in contrast to elite preferences 3% of the time.

So with these estimates, the affluent elite get their way 85% of the time (accounting for checks and balances and the influence of non-wealthy public officials). Whereas the average person gets their way 70% of the time (since the 15% due to checks and balances is already assumed, and they gain 3% from non-wealthy public officials who we will assume represent their views in these instances).

Yes, the study concludes that the affluent have a much greater independent causal influence on policy than average citizens – but I am looking at the practical outcome of these various forces – using a consequentialist approach.

So we have a system in which wealthy elites get their way 85% of the time and non-wealthy Americans get their way 70% of the time.

This of course is not an ideal outcome, if we want to consider democracy as fair to all parts of society. The researchers clearly conclude that this is inadequate and imply that the US is not a democracy at all. Their main contention is that there isn’t a causal relationship between what the average want and what happens – they get their way only because the elite agrees with what they want 67% of the time. I will return to that question.

Presumably then, the researchers not only require causality, they would prefer a higher rate of success for the average citizen. Let’s say, modestly, that the average citizen ought to get her way 20% of the time even when the elites are opposed. This would then (I think) increase her chances of getting her way by 20% (ie one fifth) of the 30% of the time they don’t get their way, minus a factor for status quo bias. Which would be roughly 6% minus 1% – bringing them up to a 75% satisfaction rate, while the elites would be brought down to approximately 80%.

Thus, given modest assumptions about what the researchers would consider satisfactory, for the US to qualify as a democracy the average citizen would have to get her way at least 75% of the time and elites could get their way no more than 80% of the time.

And my question is – how many countries in the world would qualify as democracies given those requirements? I don’t have the time or the energy to do more research on this – but one thinks of the usual suspects – the Scandinavian countries – Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark – and perhaps Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But in my opinion it’s far from certain that ANY of these countries would actually meet the requirement – perhaps a handful might – maybe. This is in the context that most organizations that calculate how many democracies currently exist in the world, put the number at between 80 and 100 (as calculated by orgs such as the Polity Project, the Economist’s Democracy Index and Freedom House). (Some of the calculations exclude smaller countries – but very roughly about half of countries are rated as democracies – which is far more than the ratings, say, in the 70s, when only about 35 countries were rated democratic). And yes, all of these organizations include the US as a democracy – not a democracy that scores in the highest category of the most democratic countries – but definitely still a democracy.

So my conclusion is that the researchers at best would allow that a handful of countries in the world qualify as democratic. And surely that is an absurd result – the bar being put at such a high standard – and contrasting with the usual view that about 80 – 100 countries are democracies. In other words, if the US isn’t a democracy, hardly any country is.

And what about the causality argument? I agree it’s not insignificant, but supposing their findings are true, how much does it matter if average citizens don’t cause policy change directly, if they get the OUTCOMES they want 70% of the time? To put it bluntly – who cares about the causal relationship if the average citizens’s preferences are indeed reflected most of the time and only slightly less than the elites? Yes, that’s a pragmatic argument – and I agree that it would be a good thing to endow the average person with greater causal influence – but I nevertheless believe that outcomes, in an imperfect world, are, in the end, what actually matter most in people’s lives.

And on the question of checks and balances – virtually no country I can think of is a pure democracy today. The democracies that do exist are representative democracies where people are elected to make decisions on behalf of the population. Yes, it is an unfortunate fact that many if not most of the leading politicians in the US are part of the affluent elite – but still, the point is that they make decisions most of the time in line with popular will. And that is not counting the contribution of non-affluent public officials who presumably have some influence in representing the popular will. (And no, this doesn’t mean I am opposed to reforming the US political system, and reducing the influence of money – I am very much in favour of that.)

And checks and balances, in my view, make sense. In a democracy there’s a desirable equilibrium – you don’t of course want to make it impossible to make changes – that would then not be a democracy. On the other hand you don’t want to make it too easy – otherwise it would be very hard indeed to implement long-term policies if everything could be reversed without checks. And sometimes, frankly, the popular will SHOULD be resisted. For example, in the 1930s, solid majorities of Americans were opposed to allowing Jews from Nazi Germany to immigrate into the US. And mostly through history large majorities have been in favour of capital punishment, but the death penalty has become more and more restricted (and gradually public opinion changes – capital punishment becomes less popular.) So two cheers for checks and balances.

So in short – if the US is not a democracy according to this research – who the hell is?

NOTE: I am assuming, for the sake of argument, that the study methods and statistical analysis are valid.

A couple of extracts from the study:

As noted, our evidence does not indicate that in U.S. policy making the average citizen always loses out. Since the preferences of ordinary citizens tend to be positively correlated with the preferences of economic elites, ordinary citizens often win the policies they want, even if they are more or less coincidental beneficiaries rather than causes of the victory. There is not necessarily any contradiction at all between our findings and past bivariate findings of a roughly two-thirds correspondence between actual policy and the wishes of the general public, or of a close correspondence between the liberal/conservative “mood” of the public and changes in policy making.42 Our main point concerns causal inference: if interpreted in terms of actual causal impact, the prior findings appear to be largely or wholly spurious. Further, the issues about which economic elites and ordinary citizens disagree reflect important matters, including many aspects of trade restrictions, tax policy, corporate regulation, abortion, and school prayer, so that the resulting political losses by ordinary citizens are not trivial. Moreover, we must remember that in our analyses the preferences of the affluent are serving as proxies for those of truly wealthy Americans, who may well have more political clout than the affluent, and who tend to have policy preferences that differ more markedly from those of the average citizens. Thus even rather slight measured differences between preferences of the affluent and the median citizen may signal situations in which economic-elites want something quite different from most Americans and they generally get their way. A final point: Even in a bivariate, descriptive sense, our evidence indicates that the responsiveness of the U.S. political system when the general public wants government action is severely limited. Because of the impediments to majority rule that were deliberately built into the U.S. political system—federalism, separation of powers, bicameralism—together with further impediments due to anti-majoritarian congressional rules and procedures, the system has a substantial status quo bias. Thus when popular majorities favor the status quo, opposing a given policy change, they are likely to get their way; but when a majority—even a very large majority—of the public favors change, it is not likely to get what it wants. In our 1,779 policy cases, narrow pro-change majorities of the public got the policy changes they wanted only about 30 percent of the time. More strikingly, even overwhelmingly large pro-change majorities, with 80 percent of the public favoring a policy change, got that change only about 43 percent of the time.

2) In any case, we need to reiterate that our data concern economic elites. Income and wealth tend to be positively correlated with other dimensions of elite status, such as high social standing and the occupancy of high-level institutional positions, but they are not the same thing. We cannot say anything directly about the non-economic aspects of certain elite theories, especially those that emphasize actors who may not be highly paid, such as public officials and political party activists.

Read the study.


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