In 2014, a Princeton University study concluded that the United States lapsed into oligarchy at some point in the 20th century. Oligarchy can best be understood as a form of government that enacts policies that overwhelmingly benefit a small and privileged elite.
Using a data set from the years 1981-2002, researchers from Princeton University and Northwestern University made the following observations about U.S. democracy.
1. Economic elites and organized groups representing businesses have substantial effect on U.S. policy while, "mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.
The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.
2. An average citizens' policy preferences have a "near zero-level" impact on the U.S. policy debate.
The estimated impact of average citizens’ preferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level [when compared to economic elites and organized groups representing business interests]. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all. By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy.
3. Even if a majority of Americans are in favor or against a particular policy, they will lose the debate against a wealthy and organized interest. "When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose."
Similarly, organized interest groups (all taken together, for now) are found to have substantial independent influence on policy.What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.
4. While Americans do enjoy many freedoms associated with being a constitutional republic, the country's claims to being "a democratic society are seriously threatened."
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.