You published an advance copy of your study on April 9th, and in just the last few days there’s been an explosion of coverage and interest. Are you pleased, shocked, overwhelmed, all of the above?
I’m delighted to be able to contribute to a terribly important public discussion. And I’m thrilled that there’s so much interest and concern about the issues. It takes on a life of its own. I’m sure you’ve noticed, this notion of America being an oligarchy seems to be a dominant meme in the discussion of our work. It’s not a term that we used in the paper. It’s just a dramatic sort of overstatement of our findings. So it’s been interesting for me. Typically my work is read by a few dozen political scientists and I don’t get this kind of response.
Let’s talk about the study. If you had 30 seconds to sum up the main conclusion of your study for the average person, how would you do so?
I’d say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups — of economic elites and of organized interests.
You say the United States is more like a system of “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism” as opposed to a majoritarian democracy. What do those terms mean? Is that not just a scholarly way of saying it’s closer to oligarchy than democracy if not literally an oligarchy?
People mean different things by the term oligarchy. One reason why I shy away from it is it brings to mind this image of a very small number of very wealthy people who are pulling strings behind the scenes to determine what government does. And I think it’s more complicated than that. It’s not only Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers or Bill Gates or George Soros who are shaping government policy-making. So that’s my concern with what at least many people would understand oligarchy to mean. What “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism” mean is that rather than average citizens of moderate means having an important role in determining policy, ability to shape outcomes is restricted to people at the top of the income distribution and to organized groups that represent primarily — although not exclusively — business.
Would you say the government is most responsive to income earners at the top 10 percent, the top 1 percent or the top 0.1 percent?
This is a great question and it’s not one we can answer with the data that we used in the study. Because we really don’t have good info about what the top 1 percent or 10 percent want or what issues they’re engaged with. As you can imagine, this is not really a group that’s eager to talk with researchers.
America is a young, boisterous country. We like different flavors of government. We find public squabbling amusing.
We are a one-party state (capitalist) and the capitalist party has two factions: Democrat and Republican. And the US Government is wary of power falling into the hands of anti-capitalists.
China is a one-party state also (communist) but factions are discouraged. China is a very old country, and they’ve had enough of factions. The Chinese government is wary of power falling into the hands of anti-Communists.
It is often assumed that Communism must be un-democratic because undemocratic forms of Communism are the only ones we’ve seen. Instead of leading people to the conclusion that cooperation works better than competition, early Communists assumed they had to enforce cooperation amongst “the masses”.
But the Chinese have chosen an interesting form of government: the creation of a communist democracy, or “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics“.
Today, if you want to see what this looks like in real life, visit Singapore: a competent, honest national government providing for its citizens. Singapore pretends to permits factions to compete, but it really doesn’t; the same party has been in power since Singapore was founded.
China has studied Singapore and other countries’ governments closely, and is busy developing its own version. This post is a progress report on how things are faring thus far.
About twenty years ago China held its first public elections of small-town mayors (village heads). Until then, heads were appointed by the central government. The experiment was a success, and eventually the requirement that candidates be Communist Party members was dropped.
Chinese participation in elections is very high–higher than our own. And voters are cautiously optimistic that their ballots do make a difference.
The Chinese people also elect local Peoples Congress delegates (who can also come from any party, or no party at all). These elected Congressmen and Congresswomen then elect the most competent people from their ranks to the National Peoples Congress.
The National Peoples Congress functions like our Congress in some respects: it doesn’t have as much direct power as our Congress, but it can make life hell for the Administration, delaying unpopular bills for years. There’s plenty of politicking, but Chinese deliberations, squabbling, and elbowing are all done off-stage. When they get together in public, differences are put aside and the final form of the new legislation gets support–however half-hearted–from everyone.
Being Westerners, we see this as a sign that the Chinese Congress is merely a “rubber stamp”, but their way of doing things is VERY Chinese. They abhor public squabbling amongst people in authority. With their 3000-year perspective, they see such behavior as sign of instability.
It is possible to have a successful career in senior Chinese government if you are not a member of the Communist Party. Some have (very bright people that any government would want to recruit) in reality it is difficult.
Imagine how hard it would be for a flaming Democrat, a union organizer, to advance in the United States Justice Department after 30 years of Republican administrations, and you get the picture. It’s easier to switch than fight.
And last year local governments began to hold elections for government offices within the Party itself. The aim is to eventually have all 70 million Party members elect officials at all levels:
Shenzhen takes step toward intra-Party democracy
Shenzhen, a pioneer city in the country’s reform and opening-up, has taken the lead again in the development of intra-Party democracy.
Qiu Zhankai from the city’s municipal bureau of civil affairs has become the first directly elected secretary of the Party committee at a local government organization in China.
“We must reform the selection system to make it more democratic, open and competitive,” said Li Yuanchao, head of the Central Organization Department.
Qiu was selected on May 15 after seven months of public recommendation, and the whittling down of 75 candidates to 26 finalists, who gave speeches and answered questions from the audience.
Qiu, the 55-year-old deputy director, beat his nearest competitor Zu Yuqin by a slight margin once votes were counted.
Neighborhood democracy hits close to home across Nanjing
Reflecting on Western Democratization
In 2006, the 6th Plenary Session of the 16th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China summarized the participatory democracy into the following four rights: Right to know, right to participate, right to expression and right to monitor or supervise. These four rights can be regarded as the cornerstone of China’s participatory democracy.
Of course, there have been obstacles in the course of people’s enjoyment of these rights. There have been cases of abuses of power. But we have been moving to improve our system to honor these rights, and we also see encouraging signs that ordinary people and individuals are acting to practice these rights.
By all means, more and more people in China have come to realize the significance of participatory democracy. Extensive participatory democracy can benefit individuals and society at large better than free elections.
The author is a guest professor of journalism with the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
(China Daily 11/28/2009 page4)