Affluent individuals and business corporations already have vastly more influence on federal government policy than average citizens, according to recently released research by Princeton University and Northwestern University. This research suggests that the Supreme Court's continuing attack on campaign finance laws is further increasing the political clout of business firms and the wealthy.
Martin Gilens, professor of politics at Princeton and member of the executive committee of the Wilson School's Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, and Benjamin I. Page, Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making, of Northwestern University used a unique data set comprised of 1,779 policy issues over a thirty-year period to estimate how much influence affluent citizens, organized interest groups and ordinary citizens each have on policy outcomes – while taking into account (statistically “controlling for”) the influence of the other actors. Affluent citizens, those at the 90th income percentile, turn out to have the most influence. Organized interest groups also have a great deal of impact, but the preferences of average citizens have no discernable, independent effect on policy making at all.
“This does not mean that the average American always loses out,” said Gilens, “because the affluent and ordinary citizens frequently want the same thing. But when they disagree – and they do disagree on many important matters – the affluent generally get their way. If democracy means that all citizens should have a say in shaping government policy, our findings cast doubt upon just how democratic U.S. policy making actually is.”
Gilens and Page note that ever since the time of James Madison, observers of American politics have hoped that organized interest groups might represent the diverse wants and interests of the citizenry as a whole so that democracy might work well even if individual citizens among the general public exert little or no direct influence.
“This study dashes hopes for this democratic kind of interest-group influence,’ said Gilens. "We found that corporations and business-oriented interest groups, which often seek policies that the public opposes, have much more impact on policy making than mass-based groups. Moreover, even mass-based groups (taken together) do not actually line up very well with the policies that ordinary citizens want.”
“The Supreme Court’s recent decisions, which have removed most legal limits on big financial contributions to politics, are likely to increase the political clout of wealthy individuals and leave average citizens with even less influence than they have now," said Page. "I find this very troubling. The Court’s view that political donations constitute ’speech’ protected by the First Amendment opens the door to money-driven politics and a distortion of democracy.”
Gilens is author of the prize-winning book Affluence and Influence, which is now being issued in paperback by Princeton University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page is author or coauthor of a number of books and articles on American politics. He is currently studying the philanthropic activities and the political views and actions of the wealthiest Americans. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Gilens’ and Page’s research findings are forthcoming in Perspectives on Politics and are available at Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens or http://scholar.princeton.edu/mgilens/pages/research.
This article first appeared on the homepage of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.