A forthcoming study found that ordinary citizens exert little influence on the political process, even when they form coalitions to compete against corporate interests.
A co-author of the study, which will be published later this year, said he was particularly surprised to quantify the limits of “majoritarian pluralism.”
“The basic idea is that maybe ordinary citizens don’t have a whole lot of influence on their own, but they’re represented by groups,” said co-author Benjamin Page, a Northwestern University political science professor.
He said, in theory, everyone ought to be represented “pretty well” in the U.S. political system, but “it turns out that’s just not true.”
“Mass-based interest groups have much less influence than corporations and business-oriented groups,” Page said. “If you like the idea of democracy, it’s got to be a little disturbing.”
Page and his co-author, Princeton University politics professor Marten Gilens, attempted to measure the disparity between the influence of affluent and average voters on U.S. government policy by analyzing roughly 1,800 government policies between 1981 and 2002 against public policy polls.
The pair found policy changes were influenced far more by economic elites and business interest groups than the average voter.
“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence,” the pair found.
Gilens said business regulations had generally decreased over the two decades in a long-term trend embraced by both the Democratic and Republican parties.
“That is a policy that is much more popular with business-world and affluent Americans than it is with the middle class,” he said.
Their findings matched those from a study published last year, which found that members of the U.S. Senate represent their wealthiest constituents while ignoring those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
“The fact that lower income groups seem to be ignored by elected officials, although not a new finding, remains a troubling observation in American politics,” said that study’s co-author, Thomas J. Hayes, of Trinity University.
But Gilens and Page said there had been almost no previous research that analyzed the policy preferences of average, affluent, and business-oriented groups.
Gilens had been working on the study for about a decade, and Page contributed the idea to examine the influence of interest groups and connect their research to popular political theories.
The study will be published in September in the journal Perspectives on Politics.
The pair analyzed data through 2002, the year the McCain-Feingold Act placed new limits on campaign spending that were largely undone by U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the Citizens United and McCutcheon cases.
“There are reasons to believe that the power of business groups and affluent probably has increased for several reasons,” Page said.
He said more wealth has been concentrated at the top in the past decade as unions have grown weaker, even as the Supreme Court has ruled money is free speech and loosened campaign finance laws.
“I find this very troubling,” Page said. “The court's view that political donations constitute 'speech' protected by the First Amendment opens the door to money-driven politics and a distortion of democracy.”
Idealists have believed since the nation’s founding that organized interest groups could represent diverse groups, even if individual citizens had little direct influence.
"This study dashes hopes for this democratic kind of interest-group influence,” Gilens said. "We found that corporations and business-oriented interest groups, which often seek policies that the public opposes, have much more impact on policy making than mass-based groups.”
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