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I thought theoretically the U.S. could be a democracy (because people have a say in the daily workings of the government) and an oligarchy ( the president, the Supreme Court, etc... are the only ones who have any actual power, meaning making all the big decisions). Is this true?

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    The most correct name would be to call it a constitutional democratic republic. – reirab Oct 25 '18 at 16:17
  • @reirab do you need the word "federal" in there, or is that of secondary/separate significance? – IanF1 Oct 27 '18 at 12:43
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    @IanF1 More separate than secondary, I would say. It's certainly an important part of the U.S. government structure, but it's kind of orthogonal to republic vs. democracy vs. oligarchy vs. monarchy vs. communism vs. despotism, etc. Any of those types of governments could be either federal or not. You could certainly add that word to the name and be correct, though. – reirab Oct 27 '18 at 20:32
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    I consider it to increasingly be a CEOcracy. – Hot Licks Oct 28 '18 at 1:54

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All modern democracies are representative; it's for purely pragmatic reasons hard to see how a large community could govern itself directly by the people without introducing representative intermediaries.

The really interesting question for me is whether the United States, though formally a democratic republic, are factually ruled by a relatively small elite connected through family and business relations. It is surprising to a foreigner to see political family dynasties like the Kennedys or Bushes or Clintons (and now Trumps, for that matter). And one does not need to subscribe to conspiracy theories to recognize that the enormous wealth concentrated in the hands of a small number of billionaires results in an enormous political influence. The system of campaign financing through private donations appears to outsiders as a thinly veiled form of buying politicians which provides a direct conduit from money to power.

The questions to tackle here are:

  • How large is the number of people "in power" through family or money?
  • How well are the democratic and legal institutions protected against illegitimate influence?
  • How well do the media work? How independent are they?
  • The last two points determine the crucial question: Can the people form an opinion and express their interests in elections independently of and against the efforts of the elites in politics and media?

The current drift in the public political opinion is clearly towards defiance and independence from perceived elites. This is true for all political camps — examples are the emergence of the Tea Party, the election of Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders' surprisingly strong campaign and the rejection first of the primary competitors and then of Hillary Clinton in favor of the rogue candidate Donald Trump. This capacity for unexpected change often originating at the political base indicates robustness of the democratic process.1


1 But even the public opinion swing towards defiance is developing under the ongoing influence of the elites. For example, Trump's rogue image may be mostly in style rather than substance, considering his wealth and politics benefiting the wealthy. The effect is that the economic elites have a factual collaborator at the helm, but one who is perceived as their rogue opponent. This outcome may be pure serendipity, but it's hard to see how it could be any better.

The change in public discourse towards social media is ambivalent as well. Obviously a means to communicate directly with each other is prima facie a boost for a democratic discourse. On the other hand it clearly results in an abundance of false information, a loss in coherence in public opinion — which is not in itself a bad thing but makes the formation of echo chambers more likely — and an increasing volatility in the public discourse: The news cycle is shorter, what is swept into the foreground is less predictable, and the ebb and flow of the discourse seems stronger than with traditional media.

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    @Lowering taxes for the wealthy (after the tax cuts for the less wealthy run out, those are what remains) is not an opinion. My point is exactly that Trump appears as a populist with apopulist agenda. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Oct 25 '18 at 14:03
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    When agenda items benefit everyone, everyone includes the wealthy, however, that is not what you mean. Not one policy change enacted has been to benefit Only the wealthy. In fact many of the policies have very little connection to whether or not a person is wealthy. – Frank Cedeno Oct 25 '18 at 14:08
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    @FrankCedeno As a neutral outside observer that's not what we see. His policies have overwhelmingly favoured the wealthy. I'm not going to claim to be an expert since I don't leave in the USA so I've not really been following the details, but that's certainly what we're seeing and hearing from across the pond. – Tim B Oct 25 '18 at 16:19
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    I'd back off of calling the Trumps a dynasty until a second Trump gets elected to a national office. – Monty Harder Oct 25 '18 at 16:28
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    @MontyHarder His daughter and son in law are in the government. That's inconceivable in most other democracies but a typical occurrence in oligarchies. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Oct 25 '18 at 19:57
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Disclaimer: I'm not a political scientist or even that well versed in terminology. I'm also not from the USA.

As far as I understand the definition of oligarchy, it requires the small group of people and people they select to be the only people able to wield power, not that only a small group of people holds power at a single point in time. That means that the test to see if a country is an oligarchy is to check whether someone unconnected the current political circle can become a person of power. Could Bob from next door become the president? In the USA, arguably, yes, which would make the USA not an oligarchy.

While, in my personal outside opinion, the USA is moving towards an oligarchy where only people with enough money and/or connections to the current group of politicians can become persons of power, it is not yet the case that someone from the outside can't rise up in the political ranks.

As for democracy, it only defines that the leader has to be decided by vote of all eligible people. A country can be a democracy, even if 90% of the population aren't eligible to vote. For example, many democratic countries in history excluded women, but were still considered democracies. Whether you define them as true democracies or not can be argued, but it is essentially a spectrum where one country can be more democratic than another. Where on the spectrum the USA currently is can also be argued, considering the two party system, electoral college, gerrymandering and so on which make the value of a single vote vary depending on a lot of factors. However, it is definitely on that spectrum and so the USA is a democratic country.

My conclusion in summary: Technically, the USA is a democratic country and not an oligarchy, but it would be possible for it to be both if eligible people can vote, but the people they can vote on were restricted to a limited group of people.

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    While I certainly agree that there are degrees of democracy, simply saying that all "eligible" people can vote encompasses virtually any form of government. "Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote." – Obie 2.0 Oct 25 '18 at 19:31
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If you assert that having a small number of people actually exercising the power makes you an oligarchy, then all countries are oligarchies. It’s simply not a useful definition, because it excludes nothing. All democratic countries have executives, legislatures and judiciaries. What makes an oligarchy is if the power groups are self-perpetuating rather than being either elected or appointed by people who were elected (or by people appointed by people appointed by people who were elected — the chain can get arbitrarily long if it ends with an election).

  • This answer should address whether or not the power groups in question are self-perpetuating. – agc Oct 25 '18 at 10:23
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Both oligarchy and democracy are a sliding scale; you can talk about a country being "fairly democratic" or "very democratic". Iran is more democratic than Saudi Arabia, and America is more democratic than Iran. The same goes for oligarchy.

Democracy and oligarchy are separate scales, but they are related phenomena. Morfildur gives a good definition in another answer to this question (although with a binary approach rather than a sliding scale):

That means that the test to see if a country is an oligarchy is to check whether someone unconnected the current political circle can become a person of power.

So how easy is it for "Bob from next door" to become president? Are there people who are much more likely to become President? In the US the answer is "Yes". There are two things that make you much more likely to become President:

  • If you are a son or close male relative of a current politician then you are much more likely to become President than Bob next door, and of course Mrs Bob is even less likely to become President than Bob. (So far the US has not had a single female president, although Hilary Clinton came close. But then she was the wife of an ex-president.)

  • If you enter politics at a young age and then work your way up the hierarchy of one of the two main parties. This is because it is the parties who select candidates for the Presidency. There are a lot of people who would vote for Bob next door if he were the official Republican or Democratic candidate, but very few who would vote for him as an independent. The biggest step in becoming President is not winning the election, it is winning the support of the king-makers in one of the two main parties. The only person in recent times to become President without doing so is Donald Trump (yes, he did gain the candidacy, but he did so in the teeth of opposition from the Republican party management).

Likewise, democracy is a sliding scale. In the US everyone gets to vote, but some votes count for more than others:

  • Rich people get to vote with money as well as at the ballot box. If you are rich and want a law passed, you can go and lobby for it with a promise of campaign contributions. Your money doesn't guarantee success, but it does make a lot more likely than if Bob from next door has the same idea.

  • Gerrymandered districts mean that some voters have no real prospect of seeing their favoured cause or candidate winning because they have been deliberately grouped with a lot of people who disagree with them.

  • The Senate gives equal weight to states regardless of their populations. So California (12%) has the same influence in the Senate as Wyoming (0.18%). So a Wyoming voter has 67 times as much influence in the US senate as a Californian voter.

  • The Republican form of government in the US is designed to limit will of the people. For instance it is not legal to ban a religion or imprison people without trial no matter how many people vote to do so (not that this has always stopped the Government in the past).

So on balance I would have to describe the US as very oligarchic and fairly democratic.

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    "a Wyoming voter has 67 times as much influence in the US senate as a Californian voter" but this balances out the winner-take-all rules in the Electoral College -- a swing California or Texas voter influences how many dozen electoral votes? – Ben Voigt Oct 25 '18 at 23:36
  • I've downvoted this answer because you've misconstrued the Senate, a key feature of the republic foundations built in the Constitution, as an indicator of being an oligarchy. – Drunk Cynic Oct 26 '18 at 1:42
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    @DrunkCynic No, I've construed it as making the US less democratic. – Paul Johnson Oct 26 '18 at 7:00
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No, the United States Federal Government is not an Oligarchy. It was founded, designed, and intended to be a Republic. It is on the pathway of transitioning from a Republic to a Representative Democracy. At its heart, the United States is built with firm protections for the Rule of Law, recognizing that government derives its power from the populace. The people vote for elected officials, which are intended to represent their interests.

An oligarchy is the condition where the power structure rests with a small group of people. Attempts to paint the the US Federal government as such because the recent Presidential election wasn't decided by the national popular vote, or that Republicans control all three branches, are intellectually disingenuous. Further, they highlight a misunderstanding of the republic constructs that persist from the founding.

Protections that guaranteed proportional representation for each State in the decision of who would lead the executive branch of the Federal government constructed as a Constitutional Republic were built to ensure the Federal government remained accountable to each state. With the current dispersion of the population, if the Presidency was decided by popular vote, the influence of a few states would greatly exceed the rest. These protections are now described as the Electoral College.

In addition to complaining about the Electoral College, there is growing sentiment that the Senate is insufficiently democratic. This is a feature of the system, not a bug. Here, each state has two senators to ensure that each state has equal representation in one half of the Legislative branch of the Federal Government. At inception, the strength of the States influence on the Senate was even greater, because Senators were appointed by the State Legislatures themselves. The 17th Amendment ended this protection to State Power by transforming Senator elections to a popular vote.

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    How about pointing out that several hundred people (congress, SCOTUS, executive branch heads) have vast, almost limitless authority over every facet of the lives of 300 million people? We’ve recently determined that discussing prostitution online is a federal felony (SOSTA), because a few hundred Potomac river rats thought that was a good idea. Sounds like an oligarchy to me. – HopelessN00b Oct 25 '18 at 1:51
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    Nobody here has claimed that the US is an oligarchy just because the Republicans are in control or lost the popular vote. The argument that it's an oligarchy stems from the fact that power rests in the hands of a few people, which would be true regardless of who those people are or how they got in power. – BenM Oct 25 '18 at 1:52
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    "With the current dispersion of the population, if the Presidency was decided by popular vote, the influence of a few states would greatly exceed the rest." -- How is that different from today, where the influence of swing states greatly exceeds the influence of safe states? – BenM Oct 25 '18 at 1:55
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    @BenM That rebuke was directed towards the wikipedia citations. Power doesn't rest in their hands; it remains with the people. – Drunk Cynic Oct 25 '18 at 2:09
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    "An oligarchy is the condition where the power structure rests with a small group of people" -- yes, the President, and Congress are a small group of people. They may be changed out by a democratic process but power is still in the hands of a small group of people. – Greg Schmit Oct 25 '18 at 3:53
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Technically, No. Practically, Yes (at least partly).

Technically not because elections are free and anyone can run for any office within some smaller restrictions (President must be US born, convicts of a felony may not be able to run under some circumstances). Also the judiciary is independent, so opposing candidates cannot easily be excluded from the political race. That means that ultimately the power is with all the people and not with only a subset of it, therefore technically it's not an oligarchy.

The used definition of oligarchy is here that the power must rest permanently with a subset of the population.

In the US, this is not the case. For example, current President Trump and his predecessor Obama could not be more different in many aspects.

However, for all practical reasons, money and access to the right circles can buy some political power in the US, as evident for example by analyzing political decisions over a long time period.

This is not a technical thing, voters do not have to vote for the candidate with the largest amount of money behind, but a practical thing. The elected candidates do not have to do what their wealthy supporters want them to do, but they do. It's obviously a grey area to determine where an oligarchy starts for all practical purposes.

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    But you don't even vote for your President! Unless you are a nominated elector. Then there's the whole supreme court thing - an entire branch of government that is "elected" purely by your Congress (representatives who are directly elected) having been nominated by your President (who can nominate whoever he likes, in principle). The power is certainly not with the people. (This isn't necessarily a bad thing) – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 26 '18 at 9:26
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit It's indirect, I agree but the power comes from the people. They vote for someone who votes for someone who nominates someone else. It's not a democracy but rather a republic, but that's not so relevant for this question. The thing is that the people who are in power change constantly (except maybe in the case of the Supreme Court whose members are appointed for life). Yesterday Obama, today Trump, tomorrow maybe Elizabeth Warren - that is not sign of an oligarchy. You would have to argue that it's always the same people ending up in power. It's a difference. – Trilarion Oct 26 '18 at 9:36
  • You're right, I phrased that badly. The power ultimately comes from the people but there are lots of layers in between that send the power in uncertain directions. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 26 '18 at 9:53
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit Yes, these layers could be a reason why wealth means political influence. But that is rather a practical then a technical aspect. There is no built-in discrimination process in the layers. Technically everyone can get into every office with sufficient support of fellow voters. Practically, this is not the case. – Trilarion Oct 26 '18 at 9:58
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Q Can the U.S. technically be called an oligarchy and a democracy?

Let's look of one of the greatest minds to solve this:

enter image description here(WP: Politics (Aristotle))

According to the classic definitions we encounter the "property qualifications" are too high for the poor to participate in the magistrate. This is even hereditary as most wealth is inherited (cf Trump). That the poor can participate in acclamations (elections) is something different. That makes it an oligarchy. How many members of congress are born poor, how many presidents were born poor, how many judges on the supreme court were born poor? Exactly.

A democracy is a perverted form of constitution that the founding fathers were keen to avoid. But even this pervertedness is now not fulfilled as the egalitarian aspect is even on the level of universal health care commonly labeled "communism" in the US.

And now we can witness a certain level of dynasty building and an increase in attempts to bring about arbitrary rule of an individual, and even for a personal advantage. That is then properly called a tyranny.

If the US wants to become a democracy, then the egalitarian aspects would need some work. Even if this is still disputed, I think that it will probably be a good idea.

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According to Aristotle (see Sortition)

It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.

So technically the USA are an oligarchy as is every other country only using elections instead of sortition.

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In general I like the answer of LangLangC but he uses some wrong wording.

Democracy is not the perverted form.

Polybios uses the term Ochlocracy as the perverted form of the 'rule of all':

Polybius appears to have coined the term in his 2nd century BC work Histories (6.4.6).1 He uses it to name the "pathological" version of popular rule—in opposition to the good version, which he refers to as democracy.

I think this term describes more or less accurate the actual system in the US (not only)

De facto (not de jure) it is Timocracy too.

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    Of course I have to disagree on "wrong". Aristotle and Polybius use different definitions. And so do we. (And most people aren't aware of the existence of legitimately different definitions but assume that their vague imagination of school leftovers is the only 'correct' one there is. Despite evidence to the contrary) – LаngLаngС Oct 26 '18 at 16:40
  • Sorry, 'wrong' is the wrong word I used. So I agree on your disagree. but why you link to NordKorea? – MagicPenetration Nov 1 '18 at 16:44
  • No need, but thx. –– They call themselves a democracy. We surely do not. But they are right, if we follow their definition for what a democracy is. The theory their definition is based on goes back to not only Marx, but also Athens and also Rousseau. So, names can be deceiving, and most people reading here appear to subscribe to "one truth only" when there are quite a few angles with different levels of correctness, depending on perspective, but few "flat-out falsehoods under any circumstances". Except the one: "there is only one truth" (for these matters). – LаngLаngС Nov 1 '18 at 16:50
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Oligarchy - a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution.

Granted, there is a worrying tend in the US (as in quite a few other countries), for a relatively small, exceptional, class of people to be elected to public office (France's political class is, at high levels, almost exclusively composed of graduates of Ecole Nationale d'Administration).

But it is not the same group of people all the time. Witness the Bush => Obama => Trump transitions. There are not groups that like each other and cooperatively arranged for scripted transitions. So, no, I would not say one group consistently controls the country. Look at Trump - he is definitely an outsider to the political elite - even if he is a member of the moneyed elite - and was strongly opposed by traditional, established, Republican politicians in the beginning.

The change in power is decided by the voters, which is the halmark of a democracy. Doesn't mean it is a perfect democracy, but it remains well within the definition. It is also important to remember that the very notion of democracy implies the temporary surrender of a certain level decision-making to the elected leaders - if the government wasn't empowered to make decisions (within reason, for a limited time and subject to periodic elections), then it would not be a democracy, but closer to an anarchy.

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