When organized interest groups or economic elites want a particular policy passed, there’s a strongly likelihood their wishes will come true. But when average citizens support something, they have next to no influence.
That’s according to a forthcoming article in Perspectives on Politics by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University. The two looked at a data set of 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002 and matched them up against surveys of public opinion broken down by income as well as support from interest groups.
They estimate that the impact of what an average citizen prefers put up against what the elites and interest groups want is next to nothing, or “a non-significant, near-zero level.” They note that their findings show “ordinary citizens…have little or no independent influence on policy at all.” The affluent, on the other hand, have “a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy,” they find, “more so than any other set of actors” that they studied. Organized interest groups similarly fare well, with “a large, positive, highly significant impact on public policy.”
When they hold constant the preferences of interest groups and the rich, “it makes very little difference what the general public thinks,” they note. The probability that policy change occurs is basically the same whether a small group or a large majority of average citizens are in favor. On the other hand, all else being the same, opposition from the wealthy means that a particular policy is only adopted about 18 percent of the time, but when they support it it gets adopted 45 percent of the time. Similar patterns are true for interest groups. The impact could also be even higher than their findings, as there may be policy differences among those they count as wealthy, which means that the imprecision in their measure “is likely to produce underestimates of the impact of economic elites on policy making,” they write.
One mitigating factor is that they note other research shows that the interests of the average citizen often align with what the wealthy want, although that is not typically true for interest groups.
But plenty of past research has backed up the idea that our government is far more responsive to the needs of the wealthy than those of the poor. Research from the University of Connecticut found that the Senate is only responsive to the policy preferences of the rich, not those of the poor and middle class. And with income inequality continuing to worsen, the problem will only become exacerbated.
One clear example of this problem was the across-the-board, automatic spending cuts of sequestration, which gutted things like Head Start, and Meals on Wheels, while Congress responded quickly to the needs of business-class travelers who faced long airport lines during Federal Aviation Administration furloughs.