It's Official: In America, Affluence Equals Influence

A new study shows policy caters to the desires of wealthy Americans.

Editorial cartoon on McCutcheon, Supreme Court, campaign finance
By + More

American democracy is an illusion. The people do not govern. Politicians respond almost exclusively to the desires of special interests and the wealthiest citizens.

Let’s do a quick quiz about those inflammatory assertions. Do you think those statements are: a) Messages scrawled on placards carried by poorly-groomed protesters who have been camped out across from the White House since 2004? Or b) Conclusions by two mainstream political scientists from a study that will soon be published in a prominent academic journal?

Sadly, the answer is b. Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University have done a unique study of which groups get what they want from the American government. Their paper, which can be read in its entirely here, will be published in the fall issue of Perspectives in Politics.

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

Specifically, Gilens and Page compiled a data set on nearly 2,000 proposed policy changes over two decades that fit several important criteria: The issue was binary, meaning that public opinion could be described as either “approve” or “disapprove”; there was national public opinion data on the issue; and the public opinion data also included information on respondents’ incomes, so that the authors could deduce not only how Americans felt about a particular issue, but how those opinions varied across income groups. (For the conclusions that follow, the authors assume that citizens at the 50th income percentile represent the views of the “average citizen” and that views at the 90th income percentile represent the views of the wealthy, or the “economic elite.”)

Finally, the authors methodically categorized which powerful interest groups supported or opposed the aforementioned policy changes. The methodology is not flawless, but it is unique and powerful. Most important, it has a huge payoff in terms of understanding how Washington works. The researchers were able to ask: What groups in America get what they want out of the political system?

The answer: It’s not Joe Sixpack.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

I’ll let the researchers speak for themselves: “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.”

If there is a modicum of good news, it’s that average Americans sometimes get what they want — but only because their views often coincide with what rich people want.

Main Street alone does not matter. Nor do interest groups that purport to support the general welfare. The data show that politicians cater to rich people and groups organized to advance their own narrow interests. Worse still, those interest groups tend to lobby for positions that are “negatively related to the preferences of average citizens.”

I read a lot of academic journals. The methodologies tend to be arcane. The questions examined tend to be of dubious social relevance. The writing is dense and opaque. This paper is the opposite of all that. It should be ammunition for groups working to fix the American political system and a wake-up call for those who believe that nothing needs fixing.

Again, I quote: “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.”

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

I fear that the phenomena this study documents will only get worse as the result of three interrelated social trends: 1) rising income inequality; 2) an increasingly broken campaign finance system; and 3) a political culture that is unwilling or unable to demonstrate leadership when it comes to serious policy challenges.

The authors conclude: “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.”

How does that make you feel? Actually, this research suggests that no one really cares how you feel — unless you have a couple million dollars in the bank or work for a group like the National Education Association, the National Rifle Association or the AARP.