In American Politics, the Wealthy Get What They Want
Policy + Politics

In American Politics, the Wealthy Get What They Want

REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

French economist and author Thomas Piketty has been running around the public policy community, warning everyone that the increasing income inequality in the United States has the country on the road to oligarchy. Piketty’s bestselling book, Capital in the 21st Century has garnered a lot of attention, but a new study by professors at Princeton and Northwestern Universities suggest that his warning comes too late – the U.S. is already an oligarchy, and has been for decades.

Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern conducted an extensive study of how major questions of public policy were decided over the course of the 20 years between 1981 and 2002. Their conclusions, scheduled for publication in the Fall issue of the journal Perspectives on Policy, were not happy ones for people who believe that the United States is a majoritarian democracy.

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“When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” they write.

This is not to say that the average voter’s policy choices are never realized. The study found that in a large number of cases, the policy preferences of the median voter and the economic elite coincide. The most significant finding relates to the instances where the majority of voters disagree with the economic elite.

“In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes,” the study finds. “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.”

The Gilens and Page study is unique because of the data set they assembled. A “small army” of researchers pored over 20 years worth of public records to find policy issues that were considered significant enough at the time to be the subject of large scale public surveys. The surveys allowed the researchers to determine the preferences of the median voter in the U.S. The surveys also included income data, which allowed responses to be classified by economic status.

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The researchers went further, using the Congressional Record, as well as media reports and other documents to determine the position taken on each of nearly 2,000 policy issues by dozens of organized interest groups. This included business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, major unions, and specific issue groups such as the National Rifle Association.

In general, the study found there was no significant relationship between the positions taken by interest groups and the preferences of the general public. Further, the data suggests “the net alignments of the most influential, business oriented groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes.”

Gilens and Page end the paper with a warning. “Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise,” they write. “But 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.”

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