Archive for the ‘Democracy’ Category

Oligarchy Rules Democracy.

19 April 2014
Who rules in a democracy? The representative democracy, where citizens elect their representatives to form a legislature and government, and who in turn rule in their name, comes in different flavours in different countries. However, whatever the flavour, in popular imagination, it is rule of the people, by the people and for the people as immortalized by Abraham Lincoln’s words. In some places such as India, in multi-party democracy, it is “first past the post” criteria wherein candidate with as little 15-18% of the eligible voters may get elected. In some others like France, if none of the candidates gets more than 50% of the votes cast, then “face off” is held with the two candidates placed first and second in the first inconclusive round. In others like Nepal it is a combination of “first past the post” and “proportional representation”- the latter calls for allocating seats based on the percentage votes polled by each party above a certain threshold. By no means is this listing exhaustive and several other variations exist often informed by the peculiar circumstances extant when that nation state came into being. Important point is that each of these purports to be an attempt to know better what the majority of the people want under the unique ethos of a nation. But does this still conclusively answer the question we began with: Who rules in a democracy? Thinkers, commentators, and even ordinary voters have often wondered if the elected governments really pay heed to what the “majority”, which elected them in the first place, wants. In “advanced democracies” like USA, UK, France, the State is well adept at subtle propaganda to influence, shape, and then suitably manufacture consent to the “chosen policy” of the State and is ably assisted in this project by a ready, willing and able Media, “influential public figures”, experts and pundits. This project of mind-control plays on darkest fears and prejudices, ignorance and even appeals to noble values (freedom, democracy, pursuit of happiness), and is pursued over a long time horizon.
The “successful” prosecution of US war policy in Indo-China, Cuba, Latin America, or more recently in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria are live and stark examples of how things work. In “fumbling democracies”, where large part of electorate is still concerned with basic issues of existence like livelihood, access to basic services like education-healthcare-sanitation, and decent standard of living; citizens are left wondering what happened to those promises that were solemnly made to harvest our votes. Such may be the empirical evidence and experience, but rigorous researchers, especially quantitative-orthodoxy, is not impressed with it. Academia demands theoretical framework and models. It demands models that explain what is going on in the real world rigorously by reducing real world complexities to bare essentials and thereby make them amenable to testing as to their validity quantitatively. Precisely such a study, which doesn’t offer a new model but has for the first time tested four competing models of US politics head on. The study and its findings have been authored by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University. The study has its limitations as the authors are first to admit, but are mostly due to limitations of the available data set, which Gilens and his team had built over the years, that would allow such head on testing of four competing models US politics. Gilens and Page unmistakably and unequivocally conclude based on their multivariate analysis that –not their words as they have to operate within the strict bounds of academic research- “USA is ruled by Oligarchy”. Duo begins:
Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics – which can be characterized as:
Majoritarian Electoral Democracy.
Economic Elite Domination.
Interest group pluralism:
Majoritarian Pluralism.
Biased Pluralism.
– offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.
It is to the credit of the scholarship of academics from “advanced democracies” that they don’t do anything in half measure; and especially USA, which is known to go all the way. Majoritarian Electoral Democracymodel postulates what we already know about the “construct of democracy”, i.e. the government policies will essentially reflect the collective will of the majority. Economic Elite Domination predicts that finally the wishes of the very rich would prevail over government policies. Majority may elect government, but moneybags would select policies (
In the US’s theoretical tradition, super rich (top percentile) like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, George Soros, who may want small government, less government spending and interference, and less taxes are treated separate from corporations in various industries like Armament (increase defense spending and go to war), Pharma (increase spend on healthcare), and others, who may seek large government spending on their choices for more profits; though super rich would have interest in one or more corporations/industries. May it’s a nuanced discrimination based on what super rich may think as individuals and as corporate honchos (but piffle, I would imagine). Majoritarian Pluralism really talks of organizing around issues of common concern or interest, educating and agitating on them, and thus to act as a sustained pressure group to influence legislation or policy. The enactment of “The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013” in the wake of public fury unleashed over Delhi Rape Case of 16th December 2012 could be cited as a rare successful example of this in India. Then there are several examples of agitations, some of them large and sustained, over forcible land acquisition, displacement, unfulfilled commitments made to project affected people, and so on. Biased Pluralism is about lobbying and providing “policy inputs”by Corporations through CII/FICCI/ASSOCHAM, Businesses through Trade Bodies like IMC, or by Professionals through their associations like IMA/ICAI. Till the 90s, in India, the business and industry were kept at a arms’ length if only in public and for public consumption. Since then the public interaction between businesses and government has exploded exponentially, such as prime minister formally seeking advice of “corporate leaders” through Business Advisory Council (BAC) mechanism. In USA, Biased Pluralism has been perfected into a “sublime art”. There are innumerable “independent think tanks” like Brookings Institute/The Cato Institute/The Buckeye Institute that are “devoted” to different pursuits and avowedly produce “independent inputs” or even write policy documents for “consideration” of “the administration”. Their vice like grip over US administration is complete with the revolving doors between private and public offices through which influential individuals move seamlessly and even more than once.
Lot of research done earlier, the author duo points out, to test independently the validity of each of these “four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics”, threw up “positive corroborative evidence”. The reason why Majoritarian Pluralism too was found to be effective in shaping US policy is that more often than not majority’s opinions and expectations were aligned with what Economic Elite desired (mind control and manufacturing consent at work). What the authors have attempted now is to do a multivariate analysis while considering together all the four influences at work (first, only three, in the sense, Majoritarian and Biased pluralism were combined into one using a construct –see page 12/42: Net Interest Group Alignment = ln(# Strongly Favor + [0.5 * # Somewhat Favor] + 1) – ln(#Strongly Oppose + [0.5 * # Somewhat Oppose] + 1)-, but later were also considered separately), and then analyze the influence of one variable while holding the other two or three variables constant. When this analysis is done, the duo found that neither Majoritarian Electoral Democracy nor Majoritarian Pluralism had any influence or had little influence on US policy when what it wanted ran counter to the wishes of Economic Elite Domination and Biased Pluralism.  Some words now about the “Data Set” the duo analyzed as told by Gilens and Page (p10/42):
Gilens and a small army of research assistants gathered data on a large, diverse set of policy cases: 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 in which a national survey of the general public asked a favor/oppose question about a proposed policy change. A total of 1,923 cases met four criteria: dichotomous pro/con responses, specificity about policy, relevance to federal government decisions, and categorical rather than conditional phrasing. Of those 1,923 original cases, 1,779 cases also met the criteria of providing income breakdowns for respondents, not involving a Constitutional amendment or a Supreme Court ruling (which might entail a quite different policy making process), and involving a clear, as opposed to partial or ambiguous, actual presence or absence of policy change. These 1,779 cases do not constitute a sample from the universe of all possible policy alternatives (this is hardly conceivable), but we see them as particularly relevant to assessing the public’s influence on policy. The included policies are not restricted to the narrow Washington “policy agenda.” At the same time – since they were seen as worth asking poll questions about – they tend to concern matters of relatively high salience, about which it is plausible that average citizens may have real opinions and may exert some political influence.
The applicability of this analysis is quite obviously severely limited to the Indian context. Generally due to the marked differences between Indian society & culture and the US society and culture that are far more homogenous; and specifically because of differences in the scope and nature of how politics is done in both the countries. Adopting this approach to Indian context would be very rewarding project to pursue, but would also be harshly handicapped by paucity of required data set that would have to be painstakingly built over a (long) period. The Majoritarian Pluralism has had very limited success in India, and whatever it has been thanks to Supreme Court interventions through the mechanism of public interest litigations. Mercifully, India’s Supreme Court has proved to be generally far more progressive than its US counterpart. Even then, the general conclusions that the study has drawn would find resonance with the observations and experience of thinking public or with whatever limited research that has been carried in this domain here. Those interested would find the limitations of the data set used in the discussion by the author duo and the use of “proxies” they have resorted to in their paper; but that need not hold us here because the duo concludes that if instead of proxies, data on actual influencers (not available in the data set) was used, then, in fact, their conclusions would be strengthened rather than weakened for reasons they discuss in the paper. Finally, the conclusion they have reached is (see page 24/42):
Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
What I give below is not the full study by the authors (I don’t have it), but the abstract of their study, which runs into some 42 pages. May be in future someday the full study will be available for serious researchers.
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