Who really matters in our democracy — the general public, or wealthy elites? That's the topic of a new study by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern. The study's been getting lots of attention, because the authors conclude, basically, that the US is a corrupt oligarchy where ordinary voters barely matter. Or as they put it, "economic elites and organized interest groups play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence."
But can that be right? Let's walk through the study and explain what it shows.
What does their study measure, exactly?
Gilens and "a small army of research assistants" compiled nearly 2,000 polls and surveys that asked for opinions about a proposed policy change. Since he wanted to separate out the preferences of economic elites and average citizens, he only used surveys that asked about respondents' income. He found 1,779 poll results that fit that description, spanning from 1981 to 2002. Then he took the answers of median-income voters to represent what average voters think, and the answers of respondents at the 90th income percentile to represent what economic elites think.
Next, the authors had to measure what interest groups thought about all of those issues. They decided to use Fortune magazine's yearly "Power 25" lists of the most influential lobbying groups, but since it "seemed to neglect certain major business interests," they added the ten industries that had reported the most spending on lobbying. Their final list includes 29 business groups, several major unions, and other well-known interest groups like the AARP, the Christian Coalition, the NRA, the American Legion, and AIPAC. Each interest group's position on those 1,779 policy change proposals were coded, along with how strongly each group felt about each proposal. The results were combined to assess how interest groups in general, felt.
Finally, they wanted to measure which of those 1,779 proposed policy changes actually happened. To do so, "Gilens and his research assistants spent many hours poring over news accounts, government data, Congressional Quarterly publications, academic papers, and the like."
So, which groups actually impact policy change?
When the authors look only at the preferences of average citizens, it appears that they do have a pretty big effect on policy change. But when they add the preferences of economic elites and interest groups to the analysis, the impact of average citizens vanishes entirely. Basically, average citizens only get what they want if economic elites or interest groups also want it.
In contrast, the preferences of economic elites and interest groups — especially economic elites — are each quite influential, when the preferences of the other two groups are held constant.
Are there charts that can help explain this?
Yes, check out these charts from Gilens and Page below, edited slightly for clarity. This first one shows that as more and more average citizens support an issue, they're not any more likely to get what they want. That's a shocking finding in a democracy:
In contrast, the next charts show that as more and more economic elites and interest groups want a certain policy change, they do become more likely to get what they want:
Specifically, if fewer than 20 percent of wealthy Americans supported a policy change, it only happened about 18 percent of the time. But when 80 percent of them were in support, the change ended up happening 45 percent of the time. There's no similar effect for average Americans.
Why does the study look at what the top 10 percent wealthiest Americans want, rather than what billionaires want?
There isn't sufficient survey data on the preferences of the ultrawealthy, so Gilens and Page settle for using respondents from the 90th income percentile — people who made $146,000 a year in 2012 dollars. But the authors argue that, if anything, using such an "imperfect measure" strengthens their arguments. Since they found such strong effects even here, they write, "it will be reasonable to infer that the impact upon policy of truly wealthy citizens is still greater."
What are some criticisms of the study?
Gilens uses survey responses to represent voters' preferences on issues, and he was criticized for this when his last book came out, in 2012. "Is it meaningful when public opinion is split between budget proposals no one understands?" wrote Harvard professor Nancy Rosenblum. UCLA professor Barbara Sinclair added, "Cutting the deficit is broadly supported, but there are few government programs — other than foreign aid — that a majority of Americans favor cutting. Sometimes it is literally impossible to follow public opinion."
It's also not clear that a democracy should necessarily be doing the bidding of the average voter on most issues. "The purpose of a political system is to resolve political questions in a satisfactory way … the watchword of democracy should not be responsiveness but rather accountability," Matt Yglesias wrote.
Economist Tyler Cowen of George Mason University made a similar point: "Many lower- or middle-income voters decide to vote retrospectively over outcomes … That suggests we should judge the responsiveness of the system in terms of how well it aims toward those outputs, not whether it gives lower-income voters their preferred policy inputs." So for instance, average people might vote on whether politicians have produced economic prosperity, not necessarily on what specific policies they chose to get there. A system that was listening to average voters, in this model, would be a system that produced prosperity, not that followed public whims on individual issues.