Tag Archives: democracy

Millennials across the world are dissatisfied with democracy

Credit: Pixabay.

Compared to baby boomers or Gen X-ers, Millennials are much more disillusioned with democracy than previous generations. In fact, the majority of 30-year-olds nowadays report low satisfaction with their country’s democracy, according to a massive study performed by Cambridge researchers that combined almost 4,000 surveys conducted in countries across the world.

In response to economic uncertainty and widening gaps between social strata, the researchers also found that the youth is most positive about democracy in countries ruled by populist leaders. Surprisingly, this was the case for leaders of both the left and right political spectrum. Previously, the same team of researchers showed that global dissatisfaction with democracy was at a 25-year high.

The tides of times are shifting, and so are our politics

Dr. Roberto Foa is a lecturer at Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies and the co-Director of the Cambridge Centre for the Future of Democracy. Along with colleagues, Foa embarked on the herculean task of stitching together the response of over five million people in over 160 countries recorded between 1973 and 2020. Among other things, these people were asked about how satisfied they were with democracy in their countries. All of their replies were then pooled and standardized by the Human Understanding Measured Across National (HUMAN) Surveys project.

The work was massively challenging as there were thousands of data sources that had to be interpreted with care. The volume of surveys, each with its own labels, language, and idiosyncrasies, proved to be immense. But the wealth of data is also what made this study incredibly enlightening, spotting trends not only across the world but also across multiple generations, that may have otherwise been overlooked.

“I think when all you see is the final product, it is
difficult to appreciate just how much work goes into getting there,” Foa told ZME Science.

All of this hard work eventually paid off, though. Foa remembers the first time he saw the graphs and charts showing how the public sentiment on democracy shifted massively across the generations.

“Before hitting that point there are weeks of data management to crunch through, so when you see those first results the feeling is really gratifying. You just don’t know until then whether the project is going to find anything at all – and you are braced for disappointment,” he told me.

“Originally for example we thought there would be a big difference between right-wing and left-wing populism – so when we didn’t find that, it really gets your fascination going. You are forced to re-think a lot of your assumptions, and that is always healthy.”

The most disillusioned generation with democracy in living memory

atisfaction with democracy by age and generational cohort, for 77 countries across the world in all regions. Credit: University of Cambridge.

According to the report released today by the Cambridge researchers, 55% of global millennials claim they are dissatisfied with democracy. Meanwhile, under half of Generation X (40-55 years old) feel the same way, whereas baby boomers (over 60 years) maintain an overall satisfaction with democracy, as did the interwar generation.

Indeed, there seems to be a trend of eroding confidence in democracy and its institutions. Take the UK, for instance. In 1973, 54% of 30-year-olds from the interwar generation said they were generally satisfied with British democracy. In 1984, 57% of UK baby boomers who turned 30 said they were happy with democracy, and for 30-year-old Gen Xers in the 1990s and early 2000s, pro-democracy sentiment reached its peak at 62%.

However, this trend took a turn for the worse in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, leaving many millennials in debt and feeling stuck ever since. As a result, 48% of millennials in the UK are now reportingly dissatisfied with democracy. In the United States, half of those in their mid-30s report growing dissatisfaction with democracy. And the major culprit seems to be economic development — or rather, the lack of it.

In developed countries, the biggest economic discontent has to do with exclusion and inequality. On the opposite end, in countries like Iceland and Austria, where wealth distribution is relatively flat, there are only minor generational gaps in attitudes to democracy.

“Basically, you have two major inequalities in western societies today: the intergenerational wealth gap between young and old, and the spatial inequality between successful global cities like London, New York or San Francisco, and left-behind hinterland regions. Those inequalities produce resentment, and the politics of resentment is populism: wanting to shake the system and upset the complacency of political and social elites. Nobody will ever admits that resentment is the driver of their political or social views. But once people feel that they have a stake in society, everything changes,” Foa said.

Average integenerational satisfaction shift, by
country, comparing cohorts at identical points
in life. Credit: Youth and Satisfaction with Democracy, University of Cambridge.

Elsewhere, in emerging democracies in Africa and Latin America, besides economic woes, dissatisfaction with democracy is also linked to “transitional fatigue”. Essentially, people are fed up with the seemingly unending political transition to democracy — the proverbial wolves dressed in sheep’s’ clothing — while the youth have no memory of the shortcomings of the autocratic regimes of yesteryear.

Political theorists used to believe that malcontents among the youth surrounding the government and a country’s state of affairs soften with age. However, the reverse seems to be true today in the world, with millennials and Gen Xers have grown steadily less satisfied with democracy as they advance in age.

“By making comparisons between generational groups at identical stages of life, we could really get to the core of the issue from an empirical standpoint: whether youth disillusionment is a “life-cycle effect” or the start of something more profound.  And what we found, in short, is that there is real generational divergence taking place – with millennials significantly more discontent in the United States, Britain, southern Europe, Latin America and much of Africa,” Foa told ZME Science.

Besides countries where economic inequality was so rampant as in the US or the UK, the researchers found that pro-democracy attitudes among millennials were more likely in countries that elected populist leaders — whether they are from the left or the right made no difference. Some examples include Greece under the left-wing Syriza coalition, and Poland under the Law and Justice party, or Viktor Orbán’s right-wing Hungary.

For Foa and colleagues, these developments are a direct consequence of public division and polarization, which populist leaders are famous for masterfully exploiting. According to the report, 41% of millennials in western democracies agreed with the statement you can “tell if a person is good or bad if you know their politics”, compared with 30% of voters over the age of 35. 

Such findings should serve as a wakeup call for moderate parties and their leaders if they are to avert this crumbling decay of democratic attitudes and their underlying values. In the meantime, the reserachers are busy with more breakthrough research.

“We have a lot of ideas for future reports – but foremost is that with the global coronavirus pandemic attitudes are shifting a lot in 2020, so one of the really fascinating questions right now is to parse out what legacy that has left. And we’ve no idea yet what is the answer to that question – which is precisely what makes it worth asking,” Foa said.

The report Youth and Satisfaction with Democracy: Reversing the Democratic Disconnect? was prepared at the Bennet Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge and the Centre for the Future of Democracy.

Freedom and democracy have been falling worldwide for the last 13 years

Do you like democracy? Are you passionate about personal freedom? Well, then, 2019 won’t be your favorite year. For 13 consecutive years, from 2005 to 2018, political and civil liberties have steadily eroded across the world, according to the Freedom in the World 2019 report published by Freedom House.

This is Freedom House’s flagship annual report, which assesses the state of political and civil liberties around the world. The report, which has been published annually since 1973, is composed of numerical ratings and supportive texts for 195 countries and 14 territories. In effect, the reports represent the most reliable measure of global freedom trends over the last 40 years, and is regularly used by policymakers, journalists, academics, activists, and others.

Dwindling freedom

“Challenges to American democracy are testing the stability of its constitutional system and threatening to undermine political rights and civil liberties worldwide,” reads Freedom House’s short summary of the findings.

The report draws data from on-the-ground teams, by consulting local contacts, or by combing local and national news outlets. Nongovernmental organizations and governmental actors also supply data. Freedom House explains that their findings are vetted by expert advisers and local specialists, to ensure that the final document is impartial and reflects the reality on the ground.

Some of the information that Freedom House uses for the report includes analyses of the electoral process, the rule of law, freedom of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, personal autonomy, individual rights and freedoms, as well as political pluralism and participation. Based on these metrics, countries are deemed “Free”, “Partly Free”, and “Not Free”.

This year’s report, headlined “Democracy in Retreat”, doesn’t paint a very pleasant picture. The decline in freedom over the past 13 years has touched upon countries in every single region of the globe, and from all walks of life — from seasoned democracies such as the USA to entrenched authoritarian regimes like Russia or China.

Not Free countries, overall, have increasingly given up the pretense of democratic practice established over the past decades, Freedom House explains, with more and more authoritarian governments banning or jailing their opposition, re-writing term limits, and becoming increasingly controlling of independent media outlets.

Several countries that democratized following the Cold War (both ‘Free’ and ‘Partly Free’ countries) have regressed in regards to freedom. Government corruption, graft, antiliberal or populist movements, and breakdowns in the rule of law are all eroding democracy and personal freedoms in these countries. Even countries with a long and robust democratic history (most ‘Free’ countries) are plagued with populist movements that oppose principles such as the separation of powers in the state and who resent minorities.

The report’s silver lining is that all in all, the world still enjoys more freedom than in any era before. The past 13 years of losses in freedom are still shallow compared to the massive gains seen over the late 20th century. Some countries are also showing progress, among them Malaysia, Armenia, Ethiopia, Angola, and Ecuador, particularly in holding leaders accountable for their actions. The report further identifies civic movements in favor of justice and inclusion in areas where democratic institutions are under pressure.

“The promise of democracy remains real and powerful,” the report reads. “Not only defending it but broadening its reach is one of the great causes of our time.”

The full report can be read here. Raw data and past years’ reports can be accessed here (scroll down to the bottom of the page).

Vote.

People haven’t lost faith in democracy despite low voter turnouts, paper reports

Declining trends in voter turnout aren’t necessarily tied to people’s disillusionment with politics. In fact, this may be a product of how democracy takes hold in a country and the interplay of everyday factors.

Vote.

Image credits Theresa Thompson / Flickr.

A while back I wrote about how democracy seems to be crumbling in the West — and a big part of what weakens democracies in the first place is popular disengagement with the political sphere. The two come together pretty neatly, pointing to an obvious conclusion: democracy is failing because people don’t rise up to their part of the deal, which is to actually go and vote.

Figures on voter turnout definitely support this conclusion. In the span of only one generation, countries that made the shift from single-party rule to free elections have seen double-digit declines in voter turnout. Romania, for example, has seen turnout decline by 47% since the founding elections, held in 1990 after the fall of communism, and 2010. South Korea has seen a 30% decrease from 1988 to 2008.

So why don’t we vote?

Common wisdom has held that this means people are disillusioned with politicians, which they feel are unresponsive to their needs. The rising tide of populism sweeping the West seems to suggest that’s true.

But a new paper published by Filip Kostelka, a Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Chair in Electoral Studies at the Département de science politique of the Université de Montréal, says this isn’t necessarily the case. As part of his post-doc research, Kostelka performed an exhaustive study of the legislative elections in all 91 young-democracies — countries that took up democracy between 1939 and 2015. Half of these, he reports, have seen a sharp decline in voter turnout — but the reasons people missed the voting booth were different in each case, and are tied to how democracy first took root in each country.

Kostelka’s study is the most comprehensive analysis of voter dynamics in the 20th century, and as such offered a unique glimpse into how it happens in different countries. He found that when democracy was installed following the efforts of a strong opposition against dictatorial rule, voting turnout in the founding elections was massive. This sets an unrealistic benchmark, which subsequent turnouts can’t achieve as political furor simmers down — so inevitably, such countries will see a decline in turnouts over time. By contrast, countries that made the switch under the supervision of the previous authoritarian regime didn’t see this spike in voter turnout during their first elections. Turnout figures weren’t significantly different from those in established democracies, where rates have been mildly declining since the 1970s, Kostelka reports.

Spain and Portugal, for example, both moved away from a dictatorship in the 70s but show some important differences today. Turnout in Spain has decreased by roughly 3%, while in Portugal it’s dropped by about 20%. The difference between the two is that Spain’s democratization was tightly controlled by the regime, whereas Portugal made the transition through strong democratic opposition to the government.

Going down but not going under

These findings are good news if you’re a fan of democracy (which you should be) since it means people aren’t skipping vote day because they’re fed up with democracies.

“We should be very careful when we interpret declines in voter turnout; it doesn’t necessarily mean that people are dissatisfied,” said Kostelka.

“When voters cease to participate, it’s not because they are getting disenchanted with the ideal of democracy as a form of government. That’s something you hear a lot from commentators and pundits, but it’s a misconception; they’re really mistaken.”

His work also revealed that in countries such as the above-mentioned Romania, where the president is directly elected in a separate election, turnout is lower for legislative elections. In other places, such as Hungary or Serbia, where one party is much stronger than the opposition, turnout is also low. Places such as Belgium or Australia, where voting is compulsory and enforced, naturally see higher turnout rates.

Post-communist countries, however, stick out from the background. Kostelka’s analysis shows that these countries have some residual voter decline that can’t be accounted either by the democratization context we’ve outlined earlier, or the global trend towards lower turnouts. He believes it comes down to emigration. Many citizens who are eligible to vote in these countries have moved to Western countries in hopes of brighter futures. They thus don’t participate in elections back home and have a noticeable effect on turnout, since ex-communist countries usually have automatic voter registration systems in place.

Overall, turnout rates “appear to be almost entirely a function of what happens before and during regime change, not what happens afterward,” Kostelka concludes.

“It is true that since the 1970s, voter turnout declines have become more frequent. Nevertheless, this is a tendency that new democracies share with established democracies.”

The paper “Does Democratic Consolidation Lead to a Decline in Voter Turnout? Global Evidence Since 1939” has been published in the journal American Political Science Review.

Trust.

Democracy is failing in the West, scientists warn

The democratic West is crumbling, researchers from Harvard and the University of Melbourne warn. There’s less and less love for democracy to go around, a trend that seems to be sharpest among younger demographics.

Dictatorial democracy sign.

“Dictatorial democracy is were you have the freedom of speech but the administration doesn’t listen.”
Anti-Bush protest written on a voting booth in 2003.
Image credits The Prophet / Flickr.

For a long time now, liberal democracy was generally agreed upon to be not only the best form of government — but the only acceptable form of government. With the memory of illiberal, totalitarian governments such as fascism and communism (along with the horrors they often wrought) still fresh in the public conscience, it’s not hard to understand why.

That view, however, is changing. A paper published by Roberto Stefan Foa, Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Melbourne and Yascha Mounk, Lecturer on Political Theory at Harvard University’s Government Department, reports that over the past 25 years, people have progressively lost faith in democracies, instead turning to “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections.” Throughout Europe and the US, this political re-alignment is quite considerable, they note, and is seen disproportionately among younger demographics — which makes things even more worrying. They christened the process “deconsolidation,” a tip of the hat to the traditional view that once a democracy takes roots and ‘consolidates,’ it’s there to stay.

Tyranny birthed from democracy

The duo based their work mainly on data from the World Values Survey, based in Sweden, that polls people across 100 countries to study “changing values and their impact on social and political life.”

In 1995, some 16% of American respondents aged 16 to 24 said democracy isn’t the best way to run the country. By 2011, 24% said the same, the team reports. People are also less convinced, overall, that democracies are the way to go — as you can see in the chart below, fewer people in recent cohorts think it “essential” to live in a democracy compared to those before them. At the same time, younger generations are much more likely to deem democracies a bad or very bad way to “run this country,” both in Europe and the US.

Charts.

Image credits Foa & Mouck, 2017.

Break down that first chart on a per-country basis, and you get this:

Demo-essential per country.

Percentage of age cohorts that believe it’s “essential” to live in a democracy.
Image credits Foa and Mounk, 2017. Artwork Sarah Fisher.

As you can see, the overall trend since about 1950 or so is anti-democratic, with the 80s cohorts (representing people born in the 80s) clocking in at an all-time low across the board. So while some 72% of Americans born in the 30s thought that democracy was fundamental to the modern state, only around 30% believed the same thing three decades ago, a whopping drop.

No trust, no turnout

Trust.

Image credits – HOGRE – / Flickr.

Finding out why this happened, as most things regarding politics, isn’t easy. But one explanation, one I’ve previously touched upon when discussing fascism, is that people disillusioned with current politics look to alternative systems of governing themselves. They feel powerless despite their vote, so they look to leaders who will bypass it altogether and do something.

“Over the last three decades, trust in political institutions such as parliaments or the courts has precipitously declined across the established democracies of North America and Western Europe. So has voter turnout,” says Dr Foa.

This loss of confidence is glaringly, frighteningly apparent in the team’s findings. They write than among older generations of Americans, 43% of respondents thought it’s wrong for the military to take over the government when the latter is incompetent or fails to do its job. Among younger people, however, only 19% said such a coup was wrong. Similarly, support for an outright military rule is also increasing: in 1995, 1-in-16 Americans (6.25%) would pick military rule over democracy, but 1-in-6 (16.6%) would do the same in 2011.

Younger generations also show much more political apathy than previous generations. While it’s normal that generational discrepancies arise, since people usually get more interested in politics as they get older, the team says they’re seeing something that goes beyond the usual differences.

Figure 3.

Image credits Foa and Mounk, 2017

People are still getting involved in politics as they age, but younger cohorts are starting from a much lower baseline than those before them. The political apathy gap between old and young Americans went from 10% (in 1990) to 26% (in 2010). Among European respondents, it has more than tripled between 1990 and 2010, from 4% to 14%.

“I think there is a process that has been taking place for 20-30 years now where people have disengaged from formal types of politics such as joining political parties and even turning out to vote. Over the period of a generation the political elites have become very detached from the people. We now have career politicians and we have lobbyists and special interest groups having privileged access to our representatives,” Dr Foa adds.

“So people are justified in feeling frustrated, and in a real sense justified in feeling that Western democracies are less democratic than they use to be.”

Of the people, by the few, for just one

A rising anti-democratic sentiment doesn’t mean that established democratic institutions and practices “are no longer there,” the team writes, but it does point at trouble down the road. Waning public support is one of the first symptoms of a brittle democracy, one which can fall prey to populist demagoguery despite traditional indicators showing robust civil freedoms and democratic practices in a country.

Bansky_one_nation_under_cctv

Graffiti by UK-based artist and political activist Banksy in central London. It can be seen as a critique of the slow slide towards illiberalism and totalitarianism.
Image credits: ogglog / Flickr.

The team compared their results with more traditional measures of the health of democracy in the countries, such as the Freedom House score and the Centre for Systemic Peace’s — which measure the strength of their civil liberties and democratic institutions. They found that deconsolidation can predict a later decay of democracy in some countries — for example, the same kind of public dissatisfaction with democracy seen in these surveys was mirrored in public surveys in places such as Venezuela, Poland, Hungary, or Greece a few years before these countries faced sustained assaults to established democratic systems.

In the 80s, Venezuela was considered to be a democratic success story. It followed a two-party system, scored high on the Freedom House ladder. By 1995, however, the Latinobarometer survey found that 46 % of Venezuelans believed democracy wasn’t delivering on their needs, and 81% wanted a strong leader. In 1998, the country would elect left-wing populist Hugo Chavez, and since then democracy has seen continual erosion in Venezuela. Poland has followed a similar path, with Lech Kaczynski’s right-wing populist Law and Justice Party clamping down on media freedom and the courts after their re-election in 2015. Hungary’s ruling national conservative, right-wing populist Fidesz party is putting them at odds with the EU, and Greece is also dabbling further into non-democratic governments — this time towards the left, with their coalition of left-wing and radical left-wing groups, Syriza.

“This suggests that close attention to the signs of deconsolidation can indeed function as an early warning system, alerting careful observers to the kind of deep-seated discontent with democratic institutions that is liable to prove deeply destabilising before long,” the researchers write.

The authors worryingly found signs of deconsolidation throughout the rest of the still liberal, still democratic West. They acknowledge that institutions are more resilient in countries with a long tradition of liberal democracy, but they ultimately receive their mandate from the people — in the face of growing public dissatisfaction, these too will eventually submit.

The paper “The Danger of Deconsolidation” has been published in the Journal of Democracy.

African wild dog.

African wild dogs sneeze their way into democratic decisions

African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) seem poised on the cusp of democracy. A new paper reports that members of this endangered species use sneezes in lieu of votes when it’s time to decide on what the pack does next.

African wild dog.

Image via Pixabay.

Ah, democracy. The worst system of government apart from all those we’ve tried before. It’s so good, in fact, that African wild dogs seem to be warming up to it, too. An international team of researchers working at the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust reports that the animals gather in highly energetic greeting ceremonies (which they dub “social rallies”) after rest periods during which they decide what the pack does next. Every member gets to express his vote — by sneezing.

“I wanted to better understand this collective behaviour, and noticed the dogs were sneezing while preparing to go,” says Dr Neil Jordan, a research fellow at UNSW Sydney and Taronga Conservation Society Australia and lead author of the paper.

The team recorded 68 such social rallies in 5 packs of African wild dogs living in the Okavango Delta in Botswana to see what was up with all the sneezing. Their analysis revealed that the more sneezes occurred during the rally, the more likely the pack was to move off and start hunting.

“The sneeze acts like a type of voting system,” Jordan concludes.

The team further reports on the intricacies of the voting system, saying that the dominant couple has a more central role to play. When the dominant male and female initiated the rally, fewer than ten sneezes resulted in an affirmative decision to move. If these two were not engaged, about 10 or so sneezes were required for the pack to start moving, they report. The average number of adults in the pack was 11, and the team witnessed 28 successful and 40 unsuccessful rallies.

“Quorums are also used by other social carnivores like meerkats, but our finding that the quorum number of sneezes changes, based on who’s involved in the rally, indicates each dog’s vote is not equal,” says co-author Dr King of the Swansea University Department of Biosciences.

The paper “Sneeze to leave: African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) use variable quorum thresholds facilitated by sneezes in collective decisions” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Growing inequality is a threat to democracy, experts warn

Killing democracy

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer – this aphorism seems to stand everywhere in the world, as more and more people feel that governments “rig” rules in favor of the rich. But this isn’t just a metaphor or a mere impression, it’s actually happening: the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. According to a study, this income inequality is growing to worrying proportions, threatening the foundations of democracy itself.

“It’s very dangerous,” said Ngaire Woods, dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. “If people can’t aspire to succeed within the system, they will aspire … outside the system, in ways that break the system.”

This overall feeling of frustration exists everywhere in the world, but it’s perhaps nowhere near as prevalent as in the US – and it’s getting worse. In 2012, the income of the wealthiest 1% rose by nearly 20%, whereas the income of the remaining 99 percent rose 1% in comparison. This is mostly happening due to government decision. For instance, tax cuts for the rich have led to a $2 trillion annual redistribution of wealth from the bottom 99 percent of earners to the top 1 percent over the last 30 years, said Nick Hanauer, a former venture capitalist and now head of Civic Ventures, which aims to drive social change. If this trend continues, then by 2030, the top 1 percent of Americans will earn 37 to 40 percent of the country’s income. Meanwhile, the bottom 50 percent will be getting just 6 percent.

“That’s not a capitalist market economy anymore,” he warned. “That’s a feudalist system and it scares … me.” Many people feel that “the political apparatus of democracy is corrupted” and the result is “dissatisfaction by huge swathes of the population about the potential of democracy to deliver anything of value and meaning to their lives,” he said.

People are understanding this, at least on some level. Many feel ignored or betrayed by their governments, and many feel that said governments are ruled by obscure interests and groups of people with a lot of money. Measured for all households, U.S. income inequality is comparable to other developed countries before taxes and transfers, but is among the worst after taxes and transfers. The fact that this gap is growing more and more was also pressed by the Occupy movement, but little has progressed since. Education is becoming more and more expensive in the US, which is also not helping the problem.

Why income inequality is bad

You may say: “Oh, so what if income inequality grows? Why should we care?” Well, aside for the moral aspect of the discussion, most economists agree that income inequality is damaging to the economy. experts, many believe that America’s growing income inequality is “deeply worrying“, unjust, a danger to democracy/social stability, and a sign of national decline. Yale professor Robert Shiller, who was among three Americans who won the Nobel prize for economics in 2013, said after receiving the award:

“The most important problem that we are facing now today, I think, is rising inequality in the United States and elsewhere in the world.”

Economist Thomas Piketty, who has spent nearly 20 years studying inequality primarily in the US, warns that the American Dream has all but disappeared:

“The egalitarian pioneer ideal has faded into oblivion, and the New World may be on the verge of becoming the Old Europe of the twenty-first century’s globalized economy.”

The only realistic way income inequality will be reverted is through governmental policy revamping and making the rules of the economic game fairer for everyone.

Study concludes: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy

Oligarchy vs Democracy

Not so funny when it’s real – America is controlled by a small elite, Princeton study shows.

Democracy is a pretty familiar term, at least it should be! Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally (either directly or indirectly) in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. Technically, all citizens are equal – they all have one vote, they all have the same rights. Democracy has been described and used (though not continuously) since Ancient Greece, for two simple reasons: it works really good, and it’s relatively fair.

Oligarchy, on the other hand is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. Oligarchic states are often controlled by a small number of families which pass on their wealth and influence to their children, perpetuating the cycle (starting to see a pattern here?). Basically, some people are more equal than others. It has also been described and proposed in ancient Greece, and throughout history, oligarchies have been tyrannical or relatively benign.

Technically, the two are mutually exclusive; it is either a form of government, or the other. However, in practice, there is a fine line, difficult to draw out. You could say that a democratic country also has oligarchic aspects, and that’s pretty much the case with the US – up to the point where it’s more oligarchic than democratic.

The Oligarchic US

Many will ironically ask “Wow, it took a big study to figure that out?”; it seems pretty straightforward that a big chunk of American power lies in a very select group – you could call them the 1%, though it’s not exactly money we’re talking about here. The answer is yes, yes it did take a study to demonstrate this. There’s a world of difference between knowing or observing something personally and being able to provide objective, scientific evidence. There’s a big difference between anecdotal evidence, and scientific evidence.

This paper analyzed a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues to see which actors played the more important role in the decision-making. Their results were pretty clear – the US is somewhat democratic, but more oligarchic than democratic. To put it another way, a small elite group has more power when it comes to decision making than the median voters.

Not speaking about this study, but in a different situation, astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson made a pretty good point:

“Look at the track record of all our politicians: Lawyer, Businessman, Lawyer, Lawyer, Businesswoman, Lawyer, Lawyer, Military…Where are the Engineers, Scientists, Mathematicians, Farmers, Environmentalists? Why do we elect individuals who’s backgrounds do not suit the needs of The People in out everyday?”

Another relevant quote by writer Douglas Adams:

“The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

So there you have it – it’s official, and it’s scientific. The desires of a small group outweigh the desires of the average voters. What are we going to do now?

Study Reference.