Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Research Confirming That Money and Power Are More Influential Than Popular Opinion

There is a new study by two political scientists describing the influence in the USA. It has gone viral.  Here  is the abstract of the study:
Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics – which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism – offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented. 
A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. This paper reports on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.  
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. 
Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated.
Will Rogers
Talking Points Memo published an interview with one of the two study authors, Princeton's Martin Gilens. I quote:
If you had 30 seconds to sum up the main conclusion of your study for the average person, how would you do so?
I'd say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups -- of economic elites and of organized interests.
You say the United States is more like a system of "Economic Elite Domination" and "Biased Pluralism" as opposed to a majoritarian democracy.
What "Economic Elite Domination" and "Biased Pluralism" mean is that rather than average citizens of moderate means having an important role in determining policy, ability to shape outcomes is restricted to people at the top of the income distribution and to organized groups that represent primarily -- although not exclusively -- business.
How exactly do you measure the preferences of average citizens in an academic way? Polls show that many American voters feel on a gut level that the government isn't looking out for them. But what kind of data do you use to test this theory and how confident are you in the conclusions?
What we did was to collect survey questions that asked whether respondents would favor or oppose some particular change in federal government policy. These were questions asked across the decades from 1981 to 2002. And so from each of those questions we know what citizens of average income level prefer and we know what people at the top of the income distribution say they want. For each of the 2,000 possible policy changes we determined whether in fact they've been adopted or not. I had a large number of research assistants who spent years putting that data together.
There is also an article in The New Yorker about the study. I quote from that article:
In their conclusion, Gilens and Page go even further, asserting that “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 … even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”
The evidence that Gilens and Page present needs careful interpretation. For example, the opinion surveys they rely on suggest that, on many issues, people of different incomes share similar opinions. To quote the paper: “Rather often, average citizens and affluent citizens (our proxy for economic elites) want the same things from government.” This does get reflected in policy outcomes. Proposals that are supported up and down the income spectrum have a better chance of being enacted than policies that do not have such support. To that extent, democracy is working.
This is what the data shows: when the economic élites support a given policy change, it has about a one-in-two chance of being enacted. (The exact estimated probability is forty-five per cent.) When the élites oppose a given measure, its chances of becoming law are less than one in five. (The exact estimate is eighteen per cent.) The fact that both figures are both below fifty per cent reflects a status-quo bias: in the divided American system of government, getting anything at all passed is tricky.
The study suggests that, on many issues, the rich exercise an effective veto. If they are against something, it is unlikely to happen. 
(P)olicy proposals that have the support of the majority fare better than proposals which are favored only by a minority. But, in the words of Gilens and Page, “The probability of policy change is nearly the same (around 0.3) whether a tiny minority or a large majority of average citizens favor a proposed policy change.”
It is money, money, money! Not ideas, not principles, but money that reigns supreme in American politics.
Robert C. Byrd
The New Yorker article provides some perspective on the credibility of the study:
One issue is that their survey data is pretty old: it covers the period from 1982 to 2002. (On the other hand, it hardly seems likely that the influence of the affluent has declined in the past decade.) Another issue is that, in a statistical sense, the explanatory power of some of the equations that Gilens and Page use is weak. For example, the three-variable probability model that I referred to above explains less than ten per cent of the variation in the data. (For you statistical wonks, R-squared = 0.074.)
I also found an article from The Hill on the study:
The analysts found that when controlling for the power of economic elites and organized interest groups, the influence of ordinary Americans registers at a "non-significant, near-zero level." The analysts further discovered that rich individuals and business-dominated interest groups dominate the policy making process. The mass-based interest groups had minimal influence compared to the business-based interest groups.
The study also debunks the notion that the policy preferences of business and the rich reflect the views of common citizens. They found to the contrary that such preferences often sharply diverge and when they do, the economic elites and business interests almost always win and the ordinary Americans lose.
Allan J. Lichtman, the author of the piece in The Hill, goes on to explain:
Rich individuals and business interests have the capacity to hire the lobbyists that shadow legislators in Washington and to fill the campaign coffers of political candidates. Ordinary citizens are themselves partly to blame, however, because they do not choose to vote. 
America's turnout rate places us near the bottom of industrialized democracies. More than 90 million eligible Americans did not vote in the presidential election of 2012 and more than 120 million did not vote in the midterm elections of 2010. 
Electoral turnout in the United States is highly correlated with economic standing: The more affluent Americans vote in much higher proportion than the less affluent. A study by Ellen Shearer of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern found that 59 percent of 2012 voters earned $50,000 or more per year, compared to 39 percent of non-voters. Only 12 percent of non-voters earned more than $75,000, compared to 31 percent of voters. 
Ordinary citizens in recent decades have largely abandoned their participation in grassroots movements. Politicians respond to the mass mobilization of everyday Americans as proven by the civil rights and women's movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But no comparable movements exist today. Without a substantial presence on the ground, people-oriented interest groups cannot compete against their wealthy adversaries. 
Average Americans also have failed to deploy the political techniques used by elites. Political Action Committees (PACs) and super-PACs, for example, raise large sums of money to sway the outcome of any election in the United States. Although average Americans cannot match the economic power of the rich, large numbers of modest contributions can still finance PACs and super-PACs that advance our common interests.
Legislation is complicated, and few of us will read the laws, much less the bills under consideration, and plow through their long and formal prose to really figure out what they say. We may occasionally email our Congressmen or Senators or call their offices, but we don't have the persistence of paid lobbyists; indeed, we don't have the expertise to provide solid information and analysis that the lobbyists can give the legislators.

We have allowed the congressional districts to become gerrymandered; in the last congressional election the total vote for Democrats exceeded that for Repulicans, but the number of Republicans elected was greater than the number of Republicans elected -- giving control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans.

Since the gerrymandered districts tend to be relatively safe for the party for which they were gerrymandered, the party primaries take greater importance. The turnout for the primaries tends to be very limited, and more representative of the extremes of party ideology than of the middle of the road. So politicians are more afraid of "being primaried" (chosen by the extreme of their party) than of losing the final election to the candidate of the other party. More conservative Republicans and more progressive Democrats get elected, and they vote to please the extremes of their parties too often rather than compromising on bills.

And of course, money for advertising during election campaigns is very important, and it is the affluent and the business dominated lobbies that provide the money. They support candidates whose support they want (or have obtained) on the issues of importance to them. The Supreme Court decision that corporations have the right of freedom of speech as if they were people does not help. And of course, the money givers are aware that electing governors and state legislatures prior to redistricting helps to maintain the shapes of the congressional districts as they like them.

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission is a model showing how to reduce gerrymandering, and it should be copied by other states nationwide. We also need legislation to reduce the role of money in politics, and a membership of the Supreme Court that would differentiate between corporations and people and would promote more participatory democracy.

We know that the rich are getting richer. They will continue to do so unless we change tax laws to make taxes more progressive and to close the loopholes that the lobbyists have succeeded in putting into the tax code. Only reforms in the way we elect Representatives and Senators will allow the reforms we need.

We face the possibility of a viscous cycle, with money ruling politics, leading to more accumulation of money and power, leading to even greater influence in politics.

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