What Is an Oligarchy and Has the U.S. Become One?

Oligarchy is a political system in which power rests with a small number of people. Fear that an entrenched elite would seize power dates all the way back to the very founding of the U.S. system of government. Max Pixel (CC0)

"We say no to oligarchy!" Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who again is running for the Democratic nomination for president, proclaimed in a 2019 speech to 16,000 supporters in San Francisco.

Sanders, who warns that billionaires are buying elections and exerting too much power over the government, uses the O-word frequently, but he's not the only one. If you read enough articles on the web, you'll see places ranging from Russia, China and Saudi Arabia to Brazil and even Hong Kong described as oligarchies. A 2017 Salon article even warned of the growing power of a global uber-oligarchy comprised of wealthy, super-powerful figures ranging from financiers to rock stars. And the concept isn't just owned by the left, either. President Donald Trump may not have used the same terminology, but the billionaire businessman rose to power in part by railing against the "elites" that he accused of disenfranchising ordinary Americans.


If you're not a political science major, you may be wondering: What exactly is an oligarchy, anyway? And do we really have one in the U.S.?

"An oligarchy is a combination of wealth and power, and often tends to close off access to its ranks — 'pulling up the ladder,'" explains Ron Formisano, the William T. Bryan Chair of American History and professor emeritus of history at the University of Kentucky, and author of the books "American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class," and "Plutocracy in America: How Increasing Inequality Destroys the Middle Class and Exploits the Poor."

Oligarchy — from the ancient Greek word oligoi, meaning few — is a concept that goes back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who used it to describe a society governed by a select few wealthy or aristocratic people, as opposed to rule by a single monarch, or a democracy in which the great mass of people of humble means hold control. Aristotle actually didn't favor either oligarchy or democracy — he preferred a sort of half-decaf cup of joe in which a middle group of moderately wealthy citizens controlled the reins, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains.


Founding Fathers Feared Oligarchy

In America, Sanders isn't the first American politician to be concerned about oligarchy. Fear that an entrenched elite would seize power dates back to the era when the nation was founded. John Adams, who became the second U.S. president, in particular saw it as a potential menace.

"Our popular history paints us as a revolutionary society that overthrew monarchy," explains Luke Mayville, author of the book "John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy." "But revolution-era America was also full of animosity towards anything resembling formal nobility or aristocratic privilege. This animosity made its way into the U.S. Constitution in the form of the Nobility Clause of Article I, which prohibits the federal government from granting titles of nobility. What made Adams unique was the systematic manner in which he theorized about oligarchy and documented the threat that oligarchy had posed throughout history."


"Relatively early in his adult life, Adams was struck by the disproportionate influence enjoyed by men of wealth and illustrious lineage," Mayville says. "But the record shows that he became much more fearful of oligarchy during his long sojourn as a diplomat in Europe in the late 1770s and early 1780s. In the old world, he became a careful observer of the power that went hand-in-hand with family lineage, physical beauty, and especially wealth. When he compared these observations of the Old World to conditions in the New World, he saw more similarities than differences."

But Adams didn't exactly see the world the same way as do Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another presidential candidate who is concerned about the concentration of wealth and power, because he worried about rule by the non-elite as well.

"Adams was keenly aware of the political power of wealth and the need to contain it, " Mayville says. "But unlike most of today's economic populists, Adams was almost as fearful of democracy as he was of oligarchy. He believe that the many, as well as the few, posed a threat to the stability of republics. In retrospect, some of his fear of democracy seems paranoid. For example: He shared the belief of many elitists throughout history that universal suffrage would inevitably lead to the mass expropriation of private property. In any case, Adams differs from today's critics of oligarchy in that he was not a small-d 'democrat.' Instead, he was a believer in a 'balanced government' that counter-acts the inevitable power of wealth and status with the organized power of ordinary citizens" — something perhaps akin to Aristotle's concept of a mixed ruling class.

Oligarchies can develop in societies for several reasons. In a country with a monarchy or dictatorship, if a leader becomes too weak or incompetent to rule, the strata of powerful people under the leader may start to siphon away his authority — and ultimately may replace him with a puppet, or else one of their own members. It's also possible for an elite — say, for example, super-wealthy business moguls — to take control of a society because they're good at getting things done, whether or not those things are in the best interests of everybody else. And there's also oligarchy by default, in which a democracy essentially withers because ordinary people allow an elite to take over, because it's easier than staying informed and grappling with the complexities of governing.


The Masses and the 1 Percent

The question of whether the U.S. is turning into an oligarchy — or perhaps already is one — has become a subject of heated debate. Back in 2014, Princeton professor of politics Martin Gilens and his Northwestern University colleague Benjamin I. Page published an analysis, in which they studied 1,779 different policy issues, and concluded that economic elites and groups representing business interests had a lot of influence upon U.S. government policy, while ordinary citizens and interest groups representing them held little sway. (They didn't actually use the term oligarchy, though news media headlines summarizing their work did.) But as this 2016 Vox article describes, several other scholars published rebuttals, arguing that either the masses and the elites didn't really disagree that much about policy choices, or that when they did, the masses usually prevailed.

Public opinion, though, suggests that most people think of the U.S. as oligarchic, even if they don't call it that. In a July 2017 poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 75 percent of Americans said that people like them have too little influence in Washington, and 82 percent believed that wealthy people had too much power over the government.


Here in the U.S., "It's not a matter of restrictions, but more a closing of opportunity and diminishing chances for the middle and lower classes," Formisano argues.

Even some billionaires worry about the nation's rising income inequality is unsustainable and may endanger capitalism's future, even if they're not quite ready to give up all their influence.