Who Holds Power in the U.S.?

The authors of this study used multivariate analysis to conclude that two sets of actors – economic elites and business interest groups – have substantial influence over public policy in the United States, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little to none.

The authors’ findings add support to two large theoretical traditions concerning U.S. political power, Economic-Elite Domination and Biased Pluralism. What both theories have in common is the view that the rich, whether individuals or corporate entities or industry trade groups, are the drivers of public policy.

I will let others explore the assumptions, methods, and limitations of the study, but I think it is important for progressives to view the authors’ conclusion as a challenge rather than as prophecy or a law of nature.

I think the status quo favors the rich only as long as everyday people do not pay attention to civic life, continue to view their interests narrowly, and do not come together to solve common problems. There is power in unions and in organizing, taking collective action, and participating in mass movements.

Having others on your side is not a guarantee of success when facing off against entrenched power – but it helps. I think the challenge is to channel energy to where it can be effective (picking the right target) and to sustain that for as long as it takes. This may mean focusing on a particular decision-maker, or it may mean challenging unjust systems and institutions.

There are lessons to be learned from Ferguson, MO. In the wake of the police shooting of unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, groups began channeling community outrage toward challenging white dominance in the city’s government institutions, as well as its predatory system of municipal court fines.

The study also underscores the importance of fair elections and the need to get corporate money out of politics.

Four Theories for Four Actors

According to the article, there exist four major theoretical branches of thought on the subject of who wields political power in the U.S. Each focuses on a particular actor-type as the driver of public policy:

  1. Majoritarian Electoral Democracy: associated with the idea that U.S. politics reflects the collective will of the people. As such, the focus is on the average or median citizen.
  2. Economic-Elite Domination: associated with idea that wealthy individuals dominate political life in this country. Economic elites are the actors in this model, and examples would include the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, the Walton family, or William Buffet.
  3. Majoritarian Pluralism: in this view, political power in the U.S. is split among various interest groups that compete for numbers and influence. The general principal seems to be that the larger the interest group, the more powerful it is. Furthermore, since political strength is derived by popularity, all citizens’ interests are represented fairly equally under this theory.
  4. Biased Pluralism: this is similar to Economic-Elite Domination, in that the focus is on wealth. In this model, however, it is large groups built by and in the service of wealthy people and companies that dominate politics in the U.S. Examples include U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AHIP, and the NRA.


line graph overlaid on percent distribution columns

Predicted probability of policy adoption (dark lines, left axes) by policy disposition; the distribution of preferences (gray columns, right axes)

line graph overlaid on percent distribution columns

Predicted probability of policy adoption (dark lines, left axes) by policy disposition; the distribution of preferences (gray columns, right axes)

line graph overlaid on percent distribution columns

Predicted probability of policy adoption (dark lines, left axes) by policy disposition; the distribution of preferences (gray columns, right axes)

After exploring the results of their models, the authors conclude:

Our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. […] If policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America‚Äôs claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.


My take is slightly more hopeful. The majorities of the American public do not bother to vote. In a certain sense, the amount of democracy we have reflects our collective engagement in the process. Because we cede so much ground by not paying attention, the economic elites happily and greedily fill the void. The danger lies in their ability to make their dominance self-perpetuating by rigging the system with lobbyists, big money, and systems of injustice like voter suppression.

Public Spaces and People Power

photo of an acequia

An acequia, a community-owned irrigation canal typical of New Mexico. Photo credit.

I believe it is important that we collectively defend, celebrate, and expand the notion of the Commons. I was also struck by some ideas from an article on The Conversation, When the town square is online, power lies with the people.

In modern democracy, public spaces […] play a constant and fundamental democratic role if they are used correctly — not to stimulate bias, echo-chambers, […] but to allow users […] to freely, and on informed basis, deliberate, decide and act.

We can practice politics, organizing, communications, research, etc… (things that are in the public sphere) in such a way that feeds a biased echo-chamber, or we can strive to create something that empowers users to effect change. I am thinking of participatory research, tutorials, as well as how organizing materials like fact sheets have “an ask.”

Upper-crust and famous figures, homeless people, religious minorities, the elderly, school teachers, white-collar workers, account managers and students all have a right to a place in democratic consciousness. If we are not all represented, then we have removed the basic prerequisites for democratic debate — equality, freedom and mutual respect.

The common value of the public space is therefore a fundamental value for our democracy, […]

I love that. It is very Right to the City-ish. I am also reminded me of recent news stories where homeless people have been getting chased away by city governments. And, of course, net neutrality and the future of the internet is possibly the biggest public domain issue of the day.

[Photos] Marching for Higher Wages and Workplace Dignity

On Thurs the 16th, I joined hundreds of people filled with “low-wage rage” who marched in front of Alice Walton’s new $25 million Park Ave condo. Ms. Walton is one of the children and heirs to the Walmart founder’s fortune. Four of these heirs, including Alice Walton, occupy almost half of the slots in the Forbes list of the Richest 10 People in America.

Walmart, along with Alice Walton, has been the focus of many protests over the years. The reason is simple. Walmart, which is also the world’s largest retailer, has had its harmful labor practices adopted by retailers, fast-food chains, and other low-wage employers in NYC and around the world.

As workers around the country find themselves facing growing poverty and inequality, a lack of dependable hours, and few opportunities for career advancement, they have begun pushing back in ever-increasing numbers against the “Walmart economy.” Continue reading