Recognizing when democracy deteriorates into oligarchy, or rule by the few, is an important skill for defending democracy. Oligarchies are not always dominated by a small group of families; sometimes they simply benefit the same small social sector, such as the super wealthy or a small gendered racial or ethnic group. Persistent wealth or racial and ethnic inequality may be a warning sign of oligarchic rule.
Asking about oligarchy is very important in democratic systems where elections are central, since elected representatives are elites and often have been able to manage policy development to serve their narrow interests. So the border between democracy and oligarchy may be surprisingly easy to cross not just for small organizations but for large ones as well.
Many indigenous communities have not traditionally used electoral practices to choose leaders, instead preferring selection by consensus or through various careful vetting practices to ensure leaders advocate for the common interest. In the views of some, this is because electoral systems themselves are a form of oligarchy, centralizing power in the hands of the few.
The question of oligarchy is also important in organizations where the founding members were not fully committed to democracy, or the rule by all. Many nation-states were founded by wealthy merchants and their land-owning allies in struggles with queens and kings, aristocrats and church leaders, colonial governments and neighboring nations, so many of their founders compromised democracy with other interests.
One quantitative study from 2014 compared the impacts on national policy in the United States of ordinary citizens and elite groups, such as business elites. The study found that economic elites consistently had a determining impact for over 20 years on more than 1,500 different policy issues. This suggests that those who see the United States as a democracy may be confusing oligarchy with democracy. Similar problems may be found in those electoral democracies where a small part of the general population, such as property owners or the wealthiest 1% or 10%, has consistently benefited most from government policies and practices.
There are many strategies to defend democracy from attempts by small groups to impose their interests on the entire organization. Aristotle suggested one very long-established method: draw lots to select representatives, rather than use elections. This view requires that all citizens be prepared to hold office, and rejects the commonplace view in some circles that only experts are qualified to rule. It also requires that all citizens be educated sufficiently to prepare them to govern their own affairs, rather than leaving government to small social minorities. By decentralizing the right to rule the people, this practice certainly democratizes governance.
Another effective strategy for combating oligarchy is the assembly: large gatherings where not only decisions are made but also policies are drafted together. By allowing everybody into the policy development process, those with narrow interests may be challenged before they can restrict policies to those that benefit their narrow interests. Instead, discussions will encompass a wider range of ideas. And policies will emerge that benefit all.
Assemblies are widely used in rural communities and indigenous nations that have proved impervious to the influence of European models of democracy, and even at global scales. Though this practice is not well-known among urban residents in democratic nations, it still may be useful for rejecting oligarchy.
There are many other practices that prevent narrow interests from dominating democratic bodies. Which ones do you practice?