Democracy? That WAS a nice experiment

Why democracy is heading for extinction… get ready for elite economic domination


If you grow up in the U.S., you hear from every direction — from the press, in school, from your neighbors and friends— that the U.S. is a model of democracy. It’s the world’s No. 1 democracy, furthering freedom around the world. It’s a nation where politics come down to one person, one vote, where there’s one rule of law for black and white, for rich and poor alike. Democracy and government held in check by public opinion is what sets the U.S. apart. Right?

Sadly, this is more illusion than it is truth. And recent evidence suggests that we’re moving further away from true democracy, not closer. And quickly. Listen, for example, to political scientist Larry Bartels describe research examining who actually has a voice in democracy in the U.S. Do the views of the rich and poor get heard more or less equally? Or, do the views of the rich instead find their way into actual policies much more easily? The evidence points very much to the latter:

Everyone thinks they know that money is important in American politics. But how important? The Supreme Court’s Gilded Age reasoning in McCutcheon v. FEC has inspired a flurry of commentary regarding the potential corrosive influence of campaign contributions; but that commentary largely ignores the broader question of how economic power shapes American politics and policy. For decades, most political scientists have sidestepped that question, because it has not seemed amenable to rigorous (meaning quantitative) scientific investigation. Qualitative studies of the political role of economic elites have mostly been relegated to the margins of the field. But now, political scientists are belatedly turning more systematic attention to the political impact of wealth, and their findings should reshape how we think about American democracy.
A forthcoming article in Perspectives on Politics by (my former colleague) Martin Gilens and (my sometime collaborator) Benjamin Page marks a notable step in that process. Drawing on the same extensive evidence employed by Gilens in his landmark book “Affluence and Influence,” Gilens and Page analyze 1,779 policy outcomes over a period of more than 20 years. They conclude 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.”
Average citizens have “little or no independent influence” on the policy-making process? This must be an overstatement of Gilens’s and Page’s findings, no?
Alas, no. In their primary statistical analysis, the collective preferences of ordinary citizens had only a negligible estimated effect on policy outcomes, while the collective preferences of “economic elites” (roughly proxied by citizens at the 90th percentile of the income distribution) were 15 times as important. “Mass-based interest groups” mattered, too, but only about half as much as business interest groups — and the preferences of those public interest groups were only weakly correlated (.12) with the preferences of the public as measured in opinion surveys.

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise, if one just looks at the amount of money and efforts spent on lobbying public officials by corporations and wealthy individuals. These are business investments pure and simple. Money talks. But the political science profession has, Bartel’s notes, been very loathe to absorb this fairly obvious, if depressing conclusion: effectively, the U.S. is a democracy in name only.

The training of most graduate students in political science and public policy, Bartel’s points out, has historically been couched mostly in a theory of American politics which can be referred to as “Majoritarian Electoral Democracy,” emphasizing the broad importance of public opinion, elections and representation as the drivers of policy. Gilens’s and Page’s work makes this look like a naive perspective based mostly on wishful thinking. Our democracy would more correctly be called “Economic Elite Domination.”

Of course, this dynamic is strongly furthered by the vast increase in economic inequality seen over the past few decades. I strongly recommend Paul Krugman’s brilliant new review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which documents these changes in great detail and sets them in a historical context. We’re so accustomed to the idea of equality and democracy, and a wide range of sources feed us these ideas in such a steady rhythm, that most of us fail to see just how radically our society has changed. The most important conclusion of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is, as Krugman notes, that rising economic inequality is leading us back to “patrimonial capitalism,” where the talent and intelligence of individuals counts for little compared to the power of family dynasties. This is happening before our eyes.

Yet where is the protest? Where is the public organization among the increasingly powerless to take back democracy? Sadly, this too is lacking, and in part because of the ability of the wealthy to control the public discussion and to frame debate in their own preferred terms. Writing in the New York Times, columnist Charles Blow has it just about right:

The greatest trick up the sleeves of the moneyed and powerful is their diabolical ability to render themselves invisible and undetectable, to recede and operate behind a front, one relatable and common. Our politics are overrun with characters acting at the behest of shadows.
These are the politicians to whom we have become accustomed — too much polish, and too much beam — which is precisely the reason they should warrant our suspicion and not our trust, the way one cannot trust a cook with pots too pretty and not burned black on the bottoms.
And yet too many people shrug or sleep when they should seethe.

Follow The Physics of Finance on Twitter: @Mark_Buchanan

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