It comes without saying that a rule of the few, as opposed to the rule of the many, is inherently less democratic, and, indeed, undemocratic. The phrase, “the rule of the many” is not primarily meant to refer to a government that has, for instance, a lot of politicians, or a lot of public referenda. Instead, it is meant to refer to the inclusion of as many of the citizens as possible in the shaping and outcome of the political process. An oligocracy is meant to do the opposite.
There are several reasons why the founder or founders of a political system would want to limit the influence of citizens in the country when drafting a constitution. The United States constitution is by far the oldest constitution that is still in use in the world. Many other industrialized countries have had to write new constitutions because of wars, or chosen to significantly re-write them as they have become seen as obsolete. The older and less amended a constitution is, the more likely it is that values that are unfamiliar to us today will appear in it. Values tend to go through an evolution as societies evolve. For instance, we would be very unlikely to see a new constitution in an industrialized country that would prohibit black people from voting.
When The United States Constitution was drafted and consequently adopted, a few important values that are unfamiliar, and even reprehensible, to us today, were commonplace and seen as normal. A few of these values, which were expressed in law in The Constitution, were:
- the belief that black people should not be allowed to vote
- the belief that women should not be allowed to vote
- the belief that people who do not own property should not be allowed to vote
These beliefs express clearly, more than anything else, the belief that only a small segment of the population should be allowed to have an influence in the political system. Although all three of the abovementioned rules have been gotten rid of, the spirit of them most certainly remains in the constitution, because that constitution is so old and relatively unchanged. The U.S. Constitution, as well as other federal and state-level law, retains a very large number of provisions that are meant to limit the influence of currently disenfranchised citizens and political actors. The United States is a clear example of an Oligocracy.
In the current U.S. system, there are mainly three factors that perpetuate the U.S. oligocracy:
1. Winner-takes-all voting system. In this system, the party that gets the most votes in a given district gets all the seats in that district. The U.S. and British systems are examples of this, and this system invariably creates a two-party system. Only two parties have actual influence on national politics, and all other parties are, in practice, excluded. The alternative, which is used in a majority of advanced democracies, is proportional representation. Proportional representation awards seats in proportion to how many votes a party received. Hence: 25% of votes = 25% of seats.
2. Bipartisanship. In a two-party system, the two parties will benefit from working together, so that no other party can be successful in elections. This creates a type of political cartel, much like an economic cartel, where supposedly competing companies agree to set high prices for the customer instead of competing with each other. The voter will inevitably be short-changed in a system of bipartisanship.
3. Limiting voting rights and voting access. The U.S. still legally restricts voters who have been convicted of crimes, and to some extent, university students who study in a state other than their home state. In The U.S., voting is a much more complex affair than anywhere else, where complicated registration and voting procedures are clear and intentional deterrents to voting. Illegal voter suppression is also more common than anywhere else.
An oligocratic system is an undemocratic system that excludes large segments of the population. It comes as no surprise that The United States has, by far, the lowest voter participation in the entire industrialized world.