America was not founded as a Democracy or as a Monarchy, for the educated and landed founding fathers felt assured that neither would provide the nation with rights for all and privilege for the few. America was founded as a Republic, and one might add as an ogliarchic republic at that. Those with the right gender, race, and wealth were represented through their while others were represented through the votes of their betters. Today, nearly-universal sufferage (age and past misbehavior are both barriers) assures that these factors do not determine whether a person can vote -- but an argument can still be made that the majority of the political process is determined by wealth. "The creators of America's constitution and government were among the wealthy aristocrats of their day. When they created their new government, the founders excluded democracy to the extent politically possible at the time. ..The great failure of representative democracy is that our supposed representatives do not fairly represent the entire populace. They represent themselves and their wealthy clients first and best." (Rothenberger in: Grinning Planet, 2004)
The idea that the republican government in America is largely dominated by the wealthy and elite is called elitism, and it holds that power is concentrated in those who have economic wealth -- a small and extremely influential elite whose interests control all aspects of American life from the media to consumer habits to employment and politics. These elite may have minor differences of opinion, but their common interests lead to general consensus and a concentrated push for increased power. The masses have little or no power to influence the outcome of politics, as their votes and even their opinions are entirely shaped by the ruling elite, to their own detriment. There is some evidence for this stance. The elite, in this view point, are defined by wealth.
Others suggest that elitism is too simplistic of an answer, and that there does exist a degree of pluralism in the political system -- though this does not quite constitute equality or democracy. The pluralistic model (which should be distinguished from the pluralistic ideal) suggests that though power in unequal in America, it is not particularly insular. It is attributed not only to wealth but also to education, charisma, and to skill in political maneuvering and grassroots work. This suggests that there is more than one "elite" group, and that elitism may exist not only in wealth but in cultural or educational qualities. Because the government is not entirely centralized, organized and coherent interest groups can access power to some degree, and they respond by competing to make their voices heard. The elite in this view is responsive to the masses and somewhat dependent on them, and the ranks of the elite are "open" and fluid. Interaction between elite groups leads to something resembling the will of the people. In this view, then, the elite may also include those who rose to their positions through intelligence, capability, education, and so forth. It is of this perspective that Rothenberger (who does believe that America is a plutocracy) writes "We find at the top of every society an ironic mixture of those who are there by merit and capability and those who merely grab, hoard, and wield power and wealth. The excellent mingle uneasily with beasts who claim their virtues." (Rothenberger, 2001, Chapter 1) Which model is more accurate may depend a great deal on the administration in office and the political environment of the day. Though it could be reasonably argued that pluralism is not an accurate reflection of the actual functioning of the government as it stands today, pluralism seems to represent the appropriate way to understand American political functioning at its realistic best.
There are many political activities that pluralists are involved in that can influence people's judgment. Obviously, the elite hire a great quantity of lobbyists to convince members of the government to support their purposes, and these lobbyists often provide bribe-like incentives to legislators, from meals to gifts to campaign-contributions. This is largely a domain of the elite, but other interests may also manage to hire lobbyists. Pluralists may join together to fund a lobby, or they may attempt to work at the grassroots level to create agitation for or against a political move. Protests, letter-writing campaigns, political fundraising, and other such activities are all ways that plural forces may affect the decision making process. Because governmental figures still must be elected, if the votes can actually be swayed by a pluralist group, they may have some power. This is especially true at the local level. The educated elite in a pluralist paradigm have another method of influence -- they may create the cultural capital, as it were, which influences politicians and the next generation of the elite. For example, it would be possible for a lower-class individual with very high intelligence to put themselves through school to the graduate level and be appointed as a professor at a school that largely catered to the elite. Should this happen, that formerly non-elite individual would have joined the intellectual elite and have a chance to influence the next generation of the wealthy.
For the activities of the pluralist to be relevant, there must be some support for them. There is support, of course, from a grass-roots community in terms of man hours and possibly even money. Perhaps the greatest challenge to the theory of pluralism comes from the fact that pluralist groups must still have funding, much of which they would a have trouble collecting without turning to the coffers of those who are either directly associated with the elite or who are dependent on the elite for their continued success. Because it is difficult, if not impossible, to function on a political scale without a budget for advertising and lobbying, pluralist groups may find themselves beholden (to revive a depression-era concept) to the elite -- and therefore unlikely to oppose their will. " Critics -- and even some business lobbyists -- have previously said that CSE's 'grassroots'; activism has sometimes been, as National Journal wrote in 1996, 'a fig leaf for corporate lobbying efforts.' ...There are mercenary groups that function as surrogates when industry feels it's not advantageous for it to speak directly." (Morgan, 2000) To make the activities of pluralist groups relevant, there must be direct funding of some sort. This can come from individual donations -- which is frequently true in the most grassroots of organizations -- though it may also come from small businesses and other interests which are actually damaged by elite big business congolomerates.
Madison put forth the hope that checks and balances built into the Constitution, and the development of opposing parties, would be sufficient to assure that the greater good of the people was not sacrificed to the good of the powerful elite or "special" interests. It is difficult today to be particularly assured that his hope was fulfilled. Opposing factors in politics have boiled down to two entrenched parties and their highly marginalized and ineffectual "independent" opposition. Both Republicans and Democrats are more alike (they would use the term "centrist") in comparison to independents than they are different. Neither seriously opposes the practice of corporate welfare, the myth of corporations as legal persons, or the privileges of the elite, and both tend to be staffed by highly elite members. Both are prone to lobbying by special interests, and seem to have few truly consistent differences other than minor disagreements as to minor issues of the presentation of their stances. It is worth noting when staunch conservatives argue that both Republicans and Democrats are becoming statist and elitists: "The burgeoning similarity between Republicans and Democrats extends much further. ... [than] "blue-collar" Democrats agreeing with Pat Buchanan on protectionism and on the need to "Buy American." The full nature and spirit of this new coalition is best demonstrated in the joint assault on the First Amendment... Just as the Republicans have abandoned their one-time commitment to economic freedom ... The Democrats have given up on intellectual freedom. The basic viewpoint now shared by Republicans and Democrats is a hostility toward the value of freedom." (Bernstein 1998)
In conclusion, pluralism is the best model for the ideal working of the current American system (what might be ideal if the system could be changed is a separate issue), but as things actually exists the system tends more towards pluralistic elitism. Pluralism should be taken into consideration to a very great degree, however, because it is much better than pure elitism at explaining the various wellsprings of the elite. It seems inappropriate for a theory of wealth-based elitism to ignore the so called "elite" which are constituted by those labeled as intelligentsia (the citizens of academia, as it were) or of culturally powerful figures such as celebrities or religious leaders. It is interesting to note that many of the parties which are the most elitist in economic terms -- particularly the Republican party, which is…