Average citizens wield zero influence on public policy decisions. Elites and Interest groups do.

August 27, 2015

"The central point that emerges from our research is 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. Our results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism." p.3

 

"Just as previous literature suggests, each of three broad theoretical traditions – Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and interest group pluralism – seems to gain support. When taken separately, each independent variable – the preferences of average citizens, the preferences of economic elites, and the net alignments of organized interest groups – is strongly, positively, and quite significantly related to policy change ... But the picture changes markedly when all three independent variables are included in
the multivariate Model 4 and tested against each other. The estimated impact of average citizens’ preferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level. Clearly the median citizen or “median voter” at the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all." p15

 

"By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy ... Still, economic elites stand out as quite influential –more so than any other set of actors studied here – in the making of U.S. public policy." p16

 

"Similarly, organized interest groups (all taken together, for now) are found to have substantial independent influence on policy ... But interest group alignments are estimated to have a large, positive, highly significant impact upon public policy." p16

"These results suggest that reality is best captured by mixed theories in which both individual economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned
and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence." p16

 

"a proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favor) is adopted only about 18 percent of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favor) is adopted about 45 percent of the time. Similarly, when support for policy change is low among interest groups (with five groups strongly opposed and none in favor) the probability of that policy change occurring is only .16, but the probability rises to .47 when interest groups are strongly favorable" p17

 

"When both interest groups and affluent Americans oppose a policy it has an even lower likelihood of being adopted (these proposed policies consist primarily of tax increases.) At the other extreme, high levels of support among both interest groups and affluent Americans increases the probability of adopting a policy change, but a strong status quo bias remains evident." p17

 

"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." p21

 

"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. “Potential groups” do not take up the slack, either, since average citizens’ preferences have little or no independent impact on policy after existing groups’ stands are controlled for." p22

 

"Furthermore, the preferences of economic elites (as measured by our proxy, the preferences of “affluent” citizens) have far more independent impact upon policy change than
the preferences of average citizens do. 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." p22

 

"What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. 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. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it." p22

 

Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page. "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens." FORTHCOMING!!! Fall 2014 in Perspectives on Politics.
http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%2...

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