Friday, April 18, 2014

Princeton study:
U.S. is now an oligarchy, not a democracy

Below: study coauthor Martin Gilens discusses influence of the affluent over government policy.

Insights With Martin Gilens from Princeton University on Vimeo.

From Talking Points Memo:
     Asking "[w]ho really rules?" researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America's political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.
     Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.
From the study:
     The failure of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy is all the more striking because it goes against the likely effects of the limitations of our data. The preferences of ordinary citizens were measured more directly than our other independent variables, yet they are estimated to have the least effect.
     Nor do organized interest groups substitute for direct citizen influence, by embodying citizens’ will and ensuring that their wishes prevail in the fashion postulated by theories of Majoritarian Pluralism.
     Interest groups do have substantial independent impacts on policy, and a few groups (particularly labor unions) represent average citizens’ views reasonably well. But the interest group system as a whole does not. Over-all, net interest group alignments are not significantly related to the preferences of average citizens.
     Of course our findings speak most directly to the “first face” of power: the ability of actors to shape policy outcomes on contested issues. But they also reflect – to some degree, at least – the “second face” of power: the ability to shape the agenda of issues that policy makers consider.
     ...Our results speak less clearly to the “third face” of power: the ability of elites to shape the public’s preferences. We know that interest groups and policy makers them selves often devote considerable effort to shaping opinion. If they are successful, this might help explain the high correlation we find between elite and mass preferences. But it cannot have greatly inflated our estimate of average citizens’ influence on policy making, which is near zero.

     What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 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.
     A possible objection to populistic democracy is that average citizens are inattentive to politics and ignorant about public policy; why should we worry if their poorly informed preferences do not influence policy making? Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does. Perhaps they know better which policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends,when deciding which policies to support.
     But we tend to doubt it. 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.
     All in all, we believe that the public is likely to be a more certain guardian of its own interests than any feasible alternative.

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