New research produced by politics professor Martin Gilens and political science professor at Northwestern University Benjamin Page shows that average citizens have little to no influence on the outcome of government policy.
The data used in Page and Gilens’ research consisted of 1,779 pieces of U.S. policy from the early 1980s until the early 2000s. The researchers tried to predict policy outcomes based on the preferences of four different groups: average citizens, affluent citizens (the top 10 percent), business interest groups and mass-based interest groups. They then compared their predictions with policy outcomes to determine whether they reflect the preferences of these groups.
While much political work has individually studied each of these four groups of citizens, including Gilens’ book Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, this study is unique because it uses regression analysis to take into account how all four groups’ preferences work together to influence government policy.
“For example, if you hold constant what affluent and interest groups want, how much effect do average citizens have? And the answer to that question turns out to be almost none. Quite amazing. I mean most people assume that there is a lot of democracy in the United States,” Page said.
However, the study found that there is a strong association between the wants of affluent Americans and business interest groups and government policy outcomes. Although the preferences of average voters are reflected when they agree with their more affluent counterparts, the study finds that when the average citizen disagrees with their affluent counterparts, they almost always lose.
Gilens and Page both said that in order to increase the voice of average citizens, the voice of money within the political sphere must be reduced.
“The results of our work suggest that the answer has to come from reducing and changing the role of money in the political system, of campaign donations and lobbying,” Gilens said. “Effective campaign finance reforms are probably the absolute requirement to reform the system and make it more responsive to a broader set of the public.”
Page said this is the most important political science research in many years because it addresses many old arguments and controversies.
“There are those interest group theories like democratic pluralism that say, ‘Don’t worry, even if ordinary citizens have no direct influence, interest groups represent them pretty well,’ and it turns out that this study just completely refutes that also,” Page said.
Politics professor Nolan McCarty said that the study is a high-quality study that gives the correlation between opinions and outcomes and added that he does not think there are any obvious weaknesses.
“The one thing that is puzzling with this study is the absence of any type of trends over time,” McCarty said. “One would think given the massive increase in economic inequality over the last 30 years that the problem should have gotten worse. They have not found that it has gotten any worse.”
The full study can be found on Gilens’ website and will officially be released in Perspectives on Politics in September.