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even when 80% of the population favored a particular public policy change, it was only instituted 43% of the time

Posted by on Apr. 28, 2014 at 7:14 AM
  • 32 Replies

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Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. 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. 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.

 

From a recent study titled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University

In response to the publication of an academic study that essentially proves the United States is nothing more than an oligarchy, many commentators have quipped sentiments that go something like “so tell me something I don’t know.” While I agree that the conclusion is far from surprising to anyone paying attention, the study is significant for two main reasons.  

First, there is a certain influential segment of the population which has a disposition which requires empirical evidence and academic studies before they will take any theory seriously. Second, some of the conclusions can actually prove quite helpful to activists who want to have a greater impact in changing things. This shouldn’t be particularly difficult since their impact at the moment is next to zero.

What is most incredible to me is that the data under scrutiny in the study was from 1981-2002. One can only imagine how much worse things have gotten since the 2008 financial crisis. The study found that even when 80% of the population favored a particular public policy change, it was only instituted 43% of the time. We saw this first hand with the bankster bailout in 2008, when Americans across the board were opposed to it, but Congress passed TARP anyway (although they had to vote twice).

Even more importantly, several years of supposed “economic recovery” has not changed the public’s perception of the bankster bailouts. For example, a 2012 study showed that only 23% percent of Americans favored the bank bailouts and the disgust was completely bipartisan, as the Huffington Post points out. 

Personally, I think the banker bailouts will go down as one of the most significant turning points in American history. Despite widespread disapproval, Congress passed TARP and it was at that moment that many Americans “woke up” to the fact they are nothing more than economic slaves with no voice. That they are serfs. Even more importantly, once oligarchs saw what they could get away with they kept doubling down and doubling down until we find ourselves in the precarious position we are in today. A society filled with angst and resentment at the fact that the 0.01% have stolen everything.

Another thing that the study noted was that average citizens sometimes got what they wanted, but this is almost always when their preferences overlap with the oligarchs. When this occurs it is entirely coincidental, and in many cases may the result of public opinion being molded by the elite-controlled special interest groups themselves. How pathetic.

I read the entire 42 page study and have highlighted what I found to be the key excerpts below. Please share with others and enjoy:

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.

Until very recently, however, it has been impossible to test the differing predictions of these theories against each other within a single statistical model that permits one to analyze the independent effects of each set of actors upon policy outcomes.

 

A major challenge to majoritarian pluralist theories, however, is posed by Mancur Olson’s argument that collective action by large, dispersed sets of individuals with individually small but collectively large interests tends to be prevented by the “free rider” problem. Barring special circumstances (selective incentives, byproducts, coercion), individuals who would benefit from collective action may have no incentive to personally form or join an organized group. If everyone thinks this way and lets George do it, the job is not likely to get done. This reasoning suggests that Truman’s “potential groups” may in fact be unlikely to form, even if millions of  peoples’ interests are neglected or harmed by government. Aware of the collective action problem, officials may feel free to ignore much of the population and act against the interests of the average citizen.

 

As to empirical evidence concerning interest groups, it is well established that organized groups regularly lobby and fraternize with public officials; move through revolving doors between public and private employment; provide self-serving information to officials; draft legislation; and spend a great deal of money on election campaigns. Moreover, in harmony with theories of biased pluralism,the evidence clearly indicates that most U.S. interest groups and lobbyists represent business firms or professionals. Relatively few represent the poor or even the economic interests of ordinary workers, particularly now that the U.S. labor movement has become so weak.

 

What makes possible an empirical effort of this sort is the existence of a unique data set, compiled over many years by one of us (Gilens) for a different but related purpose: for estimating the influence upon public policy of “affluent” citizens, poor citizens, and those in the middle of the income distribution.

 

Gilens and a small army of research assistants gathered data on a large, diverse set of policy cases: 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 in which a national survey of the general public asked a favor/oppose question about a proposed policy change.

 

In any case, the imprecision that results from use of our “affluent” proxy is likely to produce underestimates of the impact of economic elites on policy making. If we find substantial effects upon policy even when using this imperfect measure, therefore, it will be reasonable to infer that the impact upon policy of truly wealthy citizens is still greater.

 

Some particular U.S. membership organizations – especially the AARP and labor unions– do tend to favor the same policies as average citizens. But other membership groups take stands that are unrelated (pro-life and pro-choice groups) or negatively related (gun owners) to what the average American wants. Some membership groups may reflect the views of corporate backers or their most affluent constituents. Others focus on issues on which the public is fairly evenly divided. Whatever the reasons, all mass-based groups taken together simply do not add up, in aggregate, to good representatives of the citizenry as a whole. Business-oriented groups do even worse, with a modest negative over-all correlation of -.10.

 

The estimated impact of average citizens’ preferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level. Clearly the median citizen or “median voter” at the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all.

 

By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy. This does not mean that theories of Economic Elite Domination are wholly upheld, since our results indicate that individual elites must share their policy influence with organized interest groups. Still, economic elites stand out as quite influential – more so than any other set of actors studied here – in the making of U.S. public policy.

The incredible thing here is that they use the 90th percentile to gauge the “economic elite,” when we well know that it is the “oligarchs” themselves and the businesses they run that call all the shots. It would have been interesting if they isolated the impact of the 0.01%.

These results suggest that reality is best captured by mixed theories in which both individual economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.

 

In our 1,779 policy cases, narrow pro-change majorities of the public got the policy changes they wanted only about 30% of the time. More strikingly, even overwhelmingly large pro-change majorities, with 80% of the public favoring a policy change, got that change only about 43% of the time.

Amidst all of the bad news in this study, there is one conclusion from which we can find a silver lining.

The importance of business groups’ numerical advantage is also revealed when we rescale our measures of business and mass-oriented interest group alignments to reflect the differing number of groups in each of these categories.Using this rescaled measure, a parallel analysis to that in table 4 shows that on a group-for-group basis the average individual business group and the average mass-oriented group appears to be about equally influential. The greater total influence of business groups in our analysis results chiefly from the fact that more of them are generally engaged on each issue (roughly twice as many, on average), not that a single business-oriented group has more clout on average than a single mass based group.

 

Relatively few mass-based interest groups are active, they do not (in the aggregate) represent the public very well, and they have less collective impact on policy than do business-oriented groups – whose stands tend to be negatively related to the preferences of average citizens. These business groups are far more numerous and active; they spend much more money; and they tend to get their way.

What the paragraphs above demonstrate is that the public has become very, very bad at organizing and that they aren’t even in the same ballpark as the the business groups. While mass-based interest groups will never be able to compete financially, we now live in a world of crowd-funding and a great deal of angst. Thus, there appears to be some low hanging fruit available for the activist community to pick at and become more organized.

Furthermore, the preferences of economic elites (as measured by our proxy, the preferences of “affluent” citizens) have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do. To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence.

But sure, keep chanting USA! USA! and keep sending your children to die overseas for no good reason.

Of course our findings speak most directly to the “first face” of power: the ability of actors to shape policy outcomes on contested issues. But they also reflect – to some degree, at least – the “second face” of power: the ability to shape the agenda of issues that policy makers consider. The set of policy alternatives that we analyze is considerably broader than the set discussed seriously by policy makers or brought to a vote in Congress, and our alternatives are (on average) more popular among the general public than among interest groups. Thus the fate of these policies can reflect policy makers’ refusing to consider them rather than considering but rejecting them. (From our data we cannot distinguish between the two.) Our results speak less clearly to the “third face” of power: the ability of elites to shape the public’s preferences. We know that interest groups and policy makers themselves often devote considerable effort to shaping opinion. If they are successful, this might help explain the high correlation we find between elite and mass preferences. But it cannot have greatly inflated our estimate of average citizens’ influence on policy making, which is near zero.

So what’s the conclusion? Well we aren’t a Democracy and we aren’t a Constitutional Republic. As I and many others have noted, we have descended into something far worse, an neo-fedualistic Oligarchy.

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.

 

A possible objection to populistic democracy is that average citizens are inattentive to politics and ignorant about public policy; why should we worry if their poorly informed preferences do not influence policy making? Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does. Perhaps they know better which policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends, when deciding which policies to support.

 

But we tend to doubt it. We believe instead that – collectively – ordinary citizens generally know their own values and interests pretty well, and that their expressed policy preferences are worthy of respect.Moreover, we are not so sure about the informational advantages of elites. Yes, detailed policy knowledge tends to rise with income and status. Surely wealthy Americans and corporate executives tend to know a lot about tax and regulatory policies that directly affect them. But how much do they know about the human impact of Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, or unemployment insurance, none of which is likely to be crucial to their own well-being? Most important, we see no reason to think that informational expertise is always accompanied by an inclination to transcend one’s own interests or a determination to work for the common good.

 

All in all, we believe that the public is likely to be a more certain guardian of its own interests than any feasible alternative.

 

Leaving aside the difficult issue of divergent interests and motives, we would urge that the superior wisdom of economic elites or organized interest groups should not simply be assumed. It should be put to empirical test. New empirical research will be needed to pin down precisely who knows how much, and what, about which public policies.

 

Our findings also point toward the need to learn more about exactly which economic elites (the “merely affluent”? the top 1%? the top 0.01%?) have how much impact upon public policy, and to what ends they wield their influence. Similar questions arise about the precise extent of influence of particular sets of organized interest groups. And we need to know more about the policy preferences and the political influence of various actors not considered here, including political party activists, government officials, and other non-economic elites. We hope that our work will encourage further exploration of these issues.

 

Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. 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. 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.

So when Sam Zell or any other oligarch prances around on television saying that the “poor should be more like the rich,” what he’s really saying is you need to sell your soul and attempt to become an oligarch. Otherwise, you’re fucked.

This is a truly excellent study and I suggest you read the entire thinghere, if you have the time.

by on Apr. 28, 2014 at 7:14 AM
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Replies (1-10):
Clairwil
by Ruby Member on Apr. 28, 2014 at 7:16 AM


Quoting Clairwil:

even when 80% of the population favored a particular public policy change, it was only instituted 43% of the time

I think I disagree with the article that this is a bad thing.

Surely there are ideas that are popular, but are a bad idea to implement?   Should one of the functions of having representatives rather than direct democracy be to filter out such things?  Be our better nature?

But I'd be interested in hearing what others think.

Do the political parties in Washington do a good job of representing that desires of the populace?  And is that a good or a bad thing?

KaleaLani
by Bronze Member on Apr. 28, 2014 at 9:07 AM
1 mom liked this

The government has been corrupted by special intrest groups/ lobbies and doesn not represent the people anymore. Its true that there are some things that should never be implimented simply because of popular demand, like denying equal rights to certain groups or allowing special rights for others. But this government was supposed to be of the people and for the people and its painfully obvious that this is no longer the case.

I will read the full study when I have more time. :-)
AdrianneHill
by Platinum Member on Apr. 28, 2014 at 9:18 AM
Shit like this makes it even harder not to give up
Outspoken.Mime
by Bronze Member on Apr. 28, 2014 at 9:21 AM

Well we do now have a president who issues an executive order for anything he cannot get through congress, and changes his own laws without due process at a whim, so we are practically a dictatorship at this point.  The checks and balances supposedly provided by congress (though this article proves how ineffective those are to begin with) are all but being ignored.

Its really disheartening.

leksismommy
by Member on Apr. 28, 2014 at 9:25 AM
2 moms liked this
The real question is - What are the citizens going to do about it?


Most will read stuff like this, be outraged for an hour or so, then dinner needs to be made and forget all about it
AdrianneHill
by Platinum Member on Apr. 28, 2014 at 9:56 AM
1 mom liked this
I will say that in the political science field, the relative conservatism of American politics is seen as a major positive even if it does have regrettable consequences sometimes.
I'm scrambling to remember my American poli theory201 here but America's has avoided a few serious bullets by having a system that is hard to sweep away in public sentiment. The possible horrors of fascism as well as communism, anarchism and a few others never hot the chance to undo and stall process in America on any scale like they did in Europe or anywhere really. Even if everyone agrees, things still have to be done and the machine has to be prodded into action. That's why something done in a few years in America is considered miraculously fast while that same time period somewhere else could have seen multiple switches of power as well as legal rewriting or additions to the constitution by ruling parties that make effective governing either completely mired in intentionally cross purpose red tape or governments who have a habit of scrapping everything and starting anew every time things get hard. As such, we have had a surprisingly stable form of government that has been able to change with the times yet not so malleable that the country can be remade every election.


Quoting Clairwil:

Quoting Clairwil:

even when 80% of the population favored a particular public policy change, it was only instituted 43% of the time

I think I disagree with the article that this is a bad thing.

Surely there are ideas that are popular, but are a bad idea to implement?   Should one of the functions of having representatives rather than direct democracy be to filter out such things?  Be our better nature?

But I'd be interested in hearing what others think.

Do the political parties in Washington do a good job of representing that desires of the populace?  And is that a good or a bad thing?

snookyfritz
by Platinum Member on Apr. 28, 2014 at 9:58 AM

I'm not sure how relevant this article is, as we don't live in a direct democracy. 

Sisteract
by Whoopie on Apr. 28, 2014 at 10:17 AM

Big business  (that is  now considered people)and the 0.01% control everything, including the federal government. Campaign money exchanged for power.

Totally agree.

And the top 1-10% are used as shiny penny distractions. I wish that people would wake up.

More importantly, what can be done?


MelanieJK
by Silver Member on Apr. 28, 2014 at 10:20 AM

80% of the population can't identify Joe Biden.    Most people can't even identify the issues that impact their own employment.    I doubt that 80% could find DC on a map!       

We have representatives for a reason.     People have to work and have lives in order for there to be something to govern!    They don't have time (and don't bother when they do) to dig into the all the issues associated with a particular policy.     They get macro level soundbites at best.   

MelanieJK
by Silver Member on Apr. 28, 2014 at 10:24 AM

 Several million pages and 216 billion dollars of cost in new regulations were imposed on Big Business last year alone.    i.e. imposed by the government.     Why would Big Business do that to themselves if they control everything?

Quoting Sisteract:

Big business  (that is  now considered people)and the 0.01% control everything, including the federal government. Campaign money exchanged for power.

Totally agree.

And the top 1-10% are used as shiny penny distractions. I wish that people would wake up.

More importantly, what can be done?

 

 

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