An academic look into the driving forces behind American Federal policymaking concludes that the average citizen in the United States has “essentially zero” influence over the direction of government.
According to the report, even when a majority of Americans wants the government to do something, it is powerless against the influence of “economic elites” – the corporations, people and monied special interests that drive nearly all U.S. policymaking.
That information comes courtesy of a preliminary study draft prepared by Princeton University’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page. A final version of their report is due later this year.
The researchers culled public opinion data from nearly 2,000 surveys and polls taken between 1981 and 2002, juxtaposing the responses of median-income Americans against those of “fairly affluent” (90th percentile of income) Americans. Then they compiled information on the policy preferences, year by year, of Fortune magazine’s “Power 25” corporations, as well as the ten industries not on that list that had spent the most money on Federal lobbying. Then they compared each group’s policy preferences with the actual policy outcomes that took shape over that 21-year period.
What they found was that the average American citizen has virtually no voice in shaping Federal policy compared with the “economic elites.”
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 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.
…When the alignments of business-oriented and mass-based interest groups are included separately in a multivariate model, average citizens’ preferences continue to have essentially zero estimated impact upon policy change, while economic elites are still estimated to have a very large, positive, independent impact.
Interestingly, the study finds that the economically powerful often have policy interests that (incidentally) overlap with the policy interests of average Americans.
“It turns out, in fact, that the preferences of average citizens are positively and fairly highly correlated, across issues, with the preferences of economic elites,” the authors wrote. “Rather often, average citizens and affluent citizens (our proxy for economic elites) want the same things from government… Ordinary citizens, for example, might often be observed to “win” (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policymaking, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.”
Turning their attention to monied interest groups (i.e., lobbies), though, the story changes dramatically:
But net interest group stands are not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens. Taking all interest groups together, the index of net interest group alignment correlates only a non-significant .04 with average citizens’ preferences! …This casts grave doubt on David Truman’s and others’ argument that organized interest groups tend to do a good job of representing the population as a whole.
The takeaway is that the interests of “economic elites” and interest groups always trump those of individuals, whose chief power over government is the voting process. The interests of powerful groups can and sometimes do overlap with those of average citizens, producing policy outcomes that please both groups. However, when those interests diverge, it is the elites who nearly always win out, and the people who nearly always lose.