Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
- From a recent study titled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University
In response to the publication of an academic study that essentially proves the United States is nothing more than an oligarchy, many commentators have quipped sentiments that go something like “so tell me something I don’t know.” While I agree that the conclusion is far from surprising to anyone paying attention, the study is significant for two main reasons.
First, there is a certain influential segment of the population which has a disposition which requires empirical evidence and academic studies before they will take any theory seriously. Second, some of the conclusions can actually prove quite helpful to activists who want to have a greater impact in changing things. This shouldn’t be particularly difficult since their impact at the moment is next to zero.
What is most incredible to me is that the data under scrutiny in the study was from 1981-2002. One can only imagine how much worse things have gotten since the 2008 financial crisis. The study found that even when 80% of the population favored a particular public policy change, it was only instituted 43% of the time. We saw this first hand with the bankster bailout in 2008, when Americans across the board were opposed to it, but Congress passed TARP anyway (although they had to vote twice).
Even more importantly, several years of supposed “economic recovery” has not changed the public’s perception of the bankster bailouts. For example, a 2012 study showed that only 23% percent of Americans favored the bank bailouts and the disgust was completely bipartisan, as the Huffington Post points out.
Personally, I think the banker bailouts will go down as one of the most significant turning points in American history. Despite widespread disapproval, Congress passed TARP and it was at that moment that many Americans “woke up” to the fact they are nothing more than economic slaves with no voice. That they are serfs. Even more importantly, once oligarchs saw what they could get away with they kept doubling down and doubling down until we find ourselves in the precarious position we are in today. A society filled with angst and resentment at the fact that the 0.01% have stolen everything.
Another thing that the study noted was that average citizens sometimes got what they wanted, but this is almost always when their preferences overlap with the oligarchs. When this occurs it is entirely coincidental, and in many cases may the result of public opinion being molded by the elite-controlled special interest groups themselves. How pathetic.
I read the entire 42 page study and have highlighted what I found to be the key excerpts below. Please share with others and enjoy:
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.
Until very recently, however, it has been impossible to test the differing predictions of these theories against each other within a single statistical model that permits one to analyze the independent effects of each set of actors upon policy outcomes.
A major challenge to majoritarian pluralist theories, however, is posed by Mancur Olson’s argument that collective action by large, dispersed sets of individuals with individually small but collectively large interests tends to be prevented by the “free rider” problem. Barring special circumstances (selective incentives, byproducts, coercion), individuals who would benefit from collective action may have no incentive to personally form or join an organized group. If everyone thinks this way and lets George do it, the job is not likely to get done. This reasoning suggests that Truman’s “potential groups” may in fact be unlikely to form, even if millions of peoples’ interests are neglected or harmed by government. Aware of the collective action problem, officials may feel free to ignore much of the population and act against the interests of the average citizen.
As to empirical evidence concerning interest groups, it is well established that organized groups regularly lobby and fraternize with public officials; move through revolving doors between public and private employment; provide self-serving information to officials; draft legislation; and spend a great deal of money on election campaigns. Moreover, in harmony with theories of biased pluralism, the evidence clearly indicates that most U.S. interest groups and lobbyists represent business firms or professionals. Relatively few represent the poor or even the economic interests of ordinary workers, particularly now that the U.S. labor movement has become so weak.
What makes possible an empirical effort of this sort is the existence of a unique data set, compiled over many years by one of us (Gilens) for a different but related purpose: for estimating the influence upon public policy of “affluent” citizens, poor citizens, and those in the middle of the income distribution.
Gilens and a small army of research assistants gathered data on a large, diverse set of policy cases: 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 in which a national survey of the general public asked a favor/oppose question about a proposed policy change.
In any case, the imprecision that results from use of our “affluent” proxy is likely to produce underestimates of the impact of economic elites on policy making. If we find substantial effects upon policy even when using this imperfect measure, therefore, it will be reasonable to infer that the impact upon policy of truly wealthy citizens is still greater.
Some particular U.S. membership organizations – especially the AARP and labor unions– do tend to favor the same policies as average citizens. But other membership groups take stands that are unrelated (pro-life and pro-choice groups) or negatively related (gun owners) to what the average American wants. Some membership groups may reflect the views of corporate backers or their most affluent constituents. Others focus on issues on which the public is fairly evenly divided. Whatever the reasons, all mass-based groups taken together simply do not add up, in aggregate, to good representatives of the citizenry as a whole. Business-oriented groups do even worse, with a modest negative over-all correlation of -.10.
The estimated impact of average citizens’ preferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level. Clearly the median citizen or “median voter” at the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all.
By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy. This does not mean that theories of Economic Elite Domination are wholly upheld, since our results indicate that individual elites must share their policy influence with organized interest groups. Still, economic elites stand out as quite influential – more so than any other set of actors studied here – in the making of U.S. public policy.
The incredible thing here is that they use the 90th percentile to gauge the “economic elite,” when we well know that it is the “oligarchs” themselves and the businesses they run that call all the shots. It would have been interesting if they isolated the impact of the 0.01%.
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