The Politics of Always Ignoring What Average Americans Want

An academic assertion that average Americans “have little or no independent influence on policy at all” prompted more reaction than the typical work of political scientists. The paper (PDF), by Princeton University’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page, has been accepted for publication in the fall 2014 issue of a scholarly journal, Perspectives on Politics. The New York Times’ Room for Debate blog featured it earlier this year. And the paper has received extensive comment from other academics, who have read it in draft form.

“I’m delighted that it’s generated as much attention as it has,” Gilens says.

The researchers examined 1,779 policy issues from 1982 through 2002 for which national poll results exist, then compared how average-income voters stood on the issues with the stands of upper-income voters and interest groups. The paper looks at how the 1,779 issues were decided, using statistical techniques to separate out the influence of each group on policy.

The result: Economic elites have “quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy.” Interest groups have a lesser but still “substantial” influence, the paper says. In contrast, the authors found, “It makes very little difference what the general public thinks.”

Once you account for the positions of economic elites and interest groups, they write, 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.”

Previous research has concluded that average Americans have a good deal of influence, since policies fairly often turn out the way they want. But Gilens and Page say that’s a misreading of the evidence: What’s really happening in those cases is that elites are getting their way—and average Americans just happen to agree with them.

The silver lining for non-elite America is that, according to the paper, “Rather often, average citizens and affluent citizens (our proxy for economic elites) want the same things from government.” Gilens and Page argue that their research conclusively disproves the “majoritarian electoral democracy” theory of government, espoused by everyone from Alexis de Tocqueville to Abraham Lincoln.

One interesting point raised by commenters, Gilens says, is that the pattern observed in the paper isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “It’s a difficult issue. There are clearly important ways in which the public does a less than ideal job in identifying its own interests and in connecting ideals and interests with alternative policies,” he says. “We’ve got a representative system, designed to insulate policymakers from public possibly, for good reasons.”

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