So much for Democracy

In news that isn’t really new and so doesn’t get covered much, it is still the case that policy-making in the U.S. is heavily biased towards the wealthy. Most of us probably didn’t need extensive data-collection to figure that out, but it’s still nice to know just how strong the bias is. Martin Gilens, author of Affluence and Influence, is back with even more data (and co-author Benjamin Page). The new paper, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, breaks down policy influence among three sets of actors: economic elites (90th percentile of income), interest groups (see linked paper for details on the index they used), and average citizens (50th percentile of income). Gilens and Page conclude,

The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.

This result can be seen graphically via Kevin Drum’s blog:


As Gilens and Page put it:

Clearly, when one holds constant net interest group alignments and the preferences of affluent Americans, it makes very little difference what the general public thinks. The probability of policy change is nearly the same (around 0.3) whether a tiny minority or a large majority of average citizens favor a proposed policy change.

By contrast – again with other actors held constant – a proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favor) is adopted only about 18 percent of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favor) is adopted about 45 percent of the time. Similarly, when support for policy change is low among interest groups (with five groups strongly opposed and none in favor) the probability of that policy change occurring is only .16, but the probability rises to .47 when interest groups are strongly favorable

One of the things that makes this policy divergence slightly less noticeable is that most of the time, average citizens and economic elites want the same thing from government. Interest groups, however, correlate with neither average citizens or economic elites. This might seem surprising since someone has to be funding these interest groups, but it is most likely a result of how specific interest groups lobby for spending and tax breaks in their areas (pharmacy, agriculture, defense, etc.) while most economic elites would prefer lower spending across the board.

The findings certainly suggest that the U.S. is not a populist democracy, or even a representative republic. Gilens and Page again,

 In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

One of the long-standing responses to Gilen’s work has been the idea that economic elites know more about policy and therefore should have more of a say. Voter ignorance is well-documented, and affluent individuals may have more time to dedicate to learning about policy questions. These individuals may then use their information advantage not for self-interest, but instead to seek the common good. (It is at least mildly hypocritical that the same people who argue that the wealthy have altruistic motives in policy also argue vehemently for an economic system based on self-interest). Gilens and Page attack the argument head-on:

We believe instead that – collectively – ordinary citizens generally know their own values and interests pretty well, and that their expressed policy preferences are worthy of respect. Moreover, we are not so sure about the informational advantages of elites. Yes, detailed policy knowledge tends to rise with income and status. Surely wealthy Americans and corporate executives tend to know a lot about tax and regulatory policies that directly affect them. But how much do they know about the human impact of Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, or unemployment insurance, none of which is likely to be crucial to their own well-being? Most important, we see no reason to think that informational expertise is always accompanied by an inclination to transcend one’s own interests or a determination to work for the common good.

And all of this is before we get into the issue of the degree to which elite opinion may be able to shape the opinion of average citizens (i.e. perhaps average citizens would disagree with elites more if they were not in a news, advertising, and cultural environment that is largely shaped by economic elites). All in all, it’s a very troubling picture for democracy.




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