What is an Oligarchy and Why Is Everyone Suddenly Using That Term?

Recently, I wrote an essay asking people to stop using the word “democracy” to describe the U.S.’s form of government when, in fact, we actually have a “republic.” Several commenters wanted to skip the “republic” label altogether and adopt a term that they felt more appropriate: oligarchy.

What Does It Mean?

ol·i·gar·chy [ol-i-gahr-kee]

noun, plural ol·i·gar·chies.

1. a form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.

Does the word sound familiar? That’s no surprise: in the past couple of weeks, pundits, activists, and reporters have all either added “oligarchy” to their vocabularies or started using the word much more frequently.

Then again, perhaps it just sounds familiar because you recognize your own form of government in the description. You certainly wouldn’t be alone, anyway.

It’s Science

“Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens,” a study to be formally published later this year, is already being cited all over the internet. Professors at Princeton and Northwestern Universities extensively researched the structures of government and ultimately concluded that the United States most accurately fits the parameters of an oligarchy more than a democracy.

While the authors argue that certain elements of democracy are in place, the wealthy have far more influence over governmental decisions than most citizens ever could. They point to a startling statistic – legislation opposed by America’s elite only manages to pass 18 percent of the time. That figure applies even when the majority of Americans want to see that legislation enacted.

The Supreme Court is Reinforcing this New Order

Many viewed the highest court’s infamous Citizen’s United decision as a way of removing power from the average citizen and giving more influence to the 1%. With the addition of the recent McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling, it reaffirms that the justices are content to see a rich few have limitless powers to manipulate elections.

The notion that not capping campaign donations is somehow an issue of “free speech” comes at the cost of most Americans’ actual free speech. How do citizens get their voice heard when a powerful minority of Americans is able to buy far more “free speech” and drown out the voices of the middle and lower classes?

Even Some Politicians Agree

You might assume that all U.S. Senators would have faith in the system they work for, but that’s not the case. In a speech on the Senate Floor this month, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “I do not believe that democracy is about a handful of billionaires, such as the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson, being in a position in which they can spend as much money as they want on any political race in the country. It is very hard for me to imagine how anybody could defend that as being democracy. It is not. It is oligarchy.”

You Already Sensed the Oligarchy without Necessarily Knowing the Word

Public surveys have demonstrated that Americans feel an oligarchy even if they’ve never said the word. The majority believes that the system is “rigged” in favor of the affluent. On polls, the rich say that politicians do represent their viewpoints, while the middle class says politicians do not actually represent their desires.

Do you agree? Do you consider the government to be run by and for America’s wealthy rather than all of its citizens?

231 comments

Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 months ago

thanks for the article.

Walter Firth
Walter F.2 years ago

An interesting post Kevin.I can't state the same for the comments.

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown2 years ago

The only one "confused" here, Dizzy Dan, is YOU!

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld2 years ago

No wonder people are so confused here. They think middle income and middle class are the same thing, and that whenever a husband and wife both work, it is because they must, not because they choose so.

Then people refuse to read referenced data, and are confused as from where the data comes. Anything that differs front their precious viewpoints cannot be true.

Karen R.
Karen Ryan2 years ago

My aunt, who graduated before WWII, told me that then a high school graduate who was willing to work could get a job and afford to get married and have a baby. Today, college graduates are struggling to support themselves, let alone get married and have a baby. Look at how many college graduates are living at home because they can't afford an apartment.

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown2 years ago

Oh god, now Dizzy Dan is trying to spin the fact that it takes two incomes to just stay middle class as some sort of "female empowerment" garbage. No Dizzy, the point is that it takes TWICE AS MUCH WORK for a family just to stay middle class.

Do ya get it, Danny boy, a middle class family has to work twice as hard to maintain a middle class standard of living that they used to be able to maintain on ONE job.

I don't know where you are digging the "income has reason 20%" crap from, probably out of your ass, since it is total bullshit.

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown2 years ago

Robert, Dizzy Dan doesn't pay attention to anything. He just makes shit up, you know like "middle class is about lifestyle, not income." ROTFLMAO, just more meaningless "word salad."

Hey, everybody, the middle class is doing just fine, why? Because Dizzy Dan say so, that's why!

Robert Hamm
Robert Hamm2 years ago

OH Cut the crap Dan That isnt what I said. I said both parties working 2 jobs, Pay Attention.

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld2 years ago

Robert H.,
I understand that you prefer the husband works, wife stays at home traditional family of the 50s and 60s. This was a rather unique occurrance in history. Prior to that, women worked in the family business, farm, etc. Since then, women have become educated and joined the workforce as professionals, alongside men. I understand that you do not think this is an improvement, but I suggest you talk to professional women about what they prefer. The modern workforce has move from the sexist man provider to the dual income family. Whether this is for the better or the worse is a matter of opinion. However, I disagree with maintaining that the middle class is the same today as it was half a century ago. If you wish to define it as such, go ahead. However, I think you will find yourself in lonely company.
Read the link from the US commerce department about middle class income. Since 1990, inflation adjusted income has risen 20% since 1990. This means that basic needs are better able to be met. However, some of the aspirations of the middle class (i,e, housing, health care and education) have risen faster. That report came out before the housing crash, so that may not be as big an issue today. I will grant you that a decline as occurred since 2001 (9/11). A similar decline occurred during th 70s, but reversed dramatically during the 80s.

Robert Hamm
Robert Hamm2 years ago

Dan, I already told you I am not the least bit interested in someone else’s mislabelings. Just because someone cames along and decides to redefine something to prove whatever point they are making doesnt change the actuality. I can decide to label all people making more than 50 grand a year that doesnt mean their actuality has changed.

THis is semantics which you appear to love playing in. Wordsmithing is a popular passtime now. I ddont involve myself in it myself. When I say middle class most people on this list understand fully what I am saying. Only wordsmiths don’t. Most of America is NOT doing better than it was 30 years ago…..they are strugling MUCH harder and if they inf fact moved up at ALL its because both husband and wife are working 2 jobs. You are distorting reality if you say that is IMPROVEMENT.