Who Calls the Shots? Who Really Rules? New Research on Influence in American Policy

Harvard Ash Center
Apr 18, 2014 · 4 min read

By Richa Mishra

Justice Louis Brandeis once stated, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” More recently, humorist Fran Lebowitz noted, “In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy.” A new study shows that both, perhaps, were right: the wealthiest Americans “generally get their way” on issues that the average citizen disagrees with, from tax reform and corporate regulation to abortion.

The notion that democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people has fired imaginations, inspired, and guided–not just Americans but people and nations all over the world. But who really rules, who governs, and who has the power to influence and shape policy in democracies?

In their recent paper Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens for Perspectives on Politics, Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University attempt to answer these questions.

The authors first consider the four major traditions in the study of American politics:

  1. Majoritarian Electoral Democracy claims that American policy is shaped by average citizens who exercise their influence through elections;
  2. Economic Elite Domination maintains that the economic elite use their wealth, position, social status, etc to direct policy;
  3. Majoritarian Pluralism argues that interest groups — organized and potential — including political parties, businesses, and industries ultimately drive policy to reflect (more or less) the preferences of the average citizen; and
  4. Biased Pluralism posits that organized interest groups alone prevail and shape policy which may or may not reflect the will of the average citizen or even elite individuals because the profile of those groups does not reflect the interests of citizens broadly (e.g. industries may be able to organize groups more easily than consumers).

There exists an abundance of research devoted to analyzing the influence of each of these four major actors in the American democratic system: average citizens, elite, latent interest groups, and organized interest groups. Gilens and Page have broken new ground by pitting these four actors against one another, and assessing and comparing simultaneously the relative influence of each. Employing a single statistical model, they parse out the independent clout that each set of actors exerts upon policy outcomes. The authors set about testing whether each of these four sets of actors shapes politics, whether or not any one exerts more influence than the others, and whether none of them have any measurable influence at all.

Bivariate analyses confirm that each of the four actors — the preferences of average citizenry, economic elite, and interest groups, organized or otherwise — exert a significant influence on American policy. The real revelations come stumbling out when the authors assess the relative impact of these agents against each other in a multivariate analysis.

The sway of the average citizen on shaping policy drops “precipitously, to a non-significant, near zero level” confirming what many ordinary Americans may have suspected for some time. Economic elites emerge as the most influential actors with a “quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy.”

As far as organized interest groups as a whole are concerned, they exercise a “large, positive, highly significant impact upon public policy.” Upon further dissection, the authors find that the influence of business-based interest groups is nearly twice that of mass-based interest groups.

The authors remind us that public policy and politics in general is not always a zero-sum game where, for instance, if the economic elite win the average citizen must lose out. In some cases, citizens’ policy preferences are closely aligned with those of the economic elite or business interest groups. However, while this may be viewed as a “win” for the average citizen, it is a “coincidental” win and it does not mean that average citizens have an independent influence on policy.

The issues that the average citizen and the economic elite dissent and spar on, are critical issues like tax reform, corporate regulation and abortion; and on these the economic elite “generally get their way.”

The authors’ research points to certain staggering conclusions. Unless aligned with the preferences of the economic elite or organized interest groups, the preferences of the average citizen or the median voter have a near-zero impact upon public policy. Also, interest groups do not reflect the policy priorities or policy predilections of the masses. Indeed, “the net alignments of the most influential, business related groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes.” Further, there seems to be no association between the policy preferences of interest groups (mass or business) and those of the economic elite.

The preferences of the economic elite have far more policy impact than those of average citizens.

In their final analysis, Gilens and Page conclude that although

Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular election, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise…. the majority does not rule– at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagree with the economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose.

The authors close on a cautionary note: they “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.”

Read Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens.

Originally published at www.challengestodemocracy.us.

Challenges to Democracy

Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic…

Challenges to Democracy

Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic Governance Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School.

Harvard Ash Center

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Research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School. Here to talk about democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy.

Challenges to Democracy

Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic Governance Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School.

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