A recent study conducted at two top universities concluded that the concept of an American democracy might have become more of a fable than a fact. Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, from Princeton and Northwestern Universities, respectively, set out to answer the question: ‘Who really rules [in America]?’ Their discoveries challenge some of the most fundamental ideas that we hold about our government (emphasis added):
When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
After systematically reviewing key variables for over 1,779 policy issues, Gilens and Page found that the impact of the everyday citizen is practically negligible. It was nearly impossible to find cases where the general populace actually had a true impact. That is not to say that average Americans never get their way:
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.”
This means that in some cases, the people will win out. Unfortunately, the researchers found that benefits for the majority is the exception, not the rule.
The net alignments of the most influential, business oriented groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes. So existing interest groups do not serve effectively as transmission belts for the wishes of the populace as a whole.”
Gilens and Page found that business groups are extremely effective at influencing policy. What may surprise some is that they also discovered that these business groups generally desire policies that hurt the majority of the American populace.
They also explore an important concept that they dub the ‘second face’ of power. This can easily be understood through an experience most American voters have presumably encountered at one point in their lives: the choice between two evils. Gilens and Page discovered that while the American populace holds a wide range of concerns, only a very narrow set of issues are ever discussed within the arena of federal government. The economic elite are the ones who determine which issues are even brought to the table. The public is then left to choose between options that have already been handpicked by a tiny portion of society.
Their final statement does not portray a happy outlook of our current state of government. I will let them have the last word but I think we should all ask: ‘Where do we go from here?’
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… 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.”
For American citizens frustrated by a notable lack of government progress on any of the major issues of the day, the message is clear: As long as powerful special interests can use their money to buy influence in Washington, nothing is going to change. If we want to tackle the other issues, we have to stop this legalized corruption first.
For a more data-driven breakdown of this report, check out this analysis by Jasper McChesney.