Study Finds Government Influenced By Mostly Wealthy Interests

Think Progress reports on new research that won’t surprise anyone but helps confirm a troubling trend: the policies and actions of the U.S. government overwhelmingly align with the preferences of wealthy citizens and well-moneyed interest groups.

“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.”

While it remains to be seen whether their research will stand up to scrutiny, I think it’s safe to say that, judging from how powerless or disinterested our politicians are with respect to broadly serving the public good, our government is hardly indicative of true democracy. But what are your thoughts?

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