Public Opinion Matters Far Less Than Wealth

A new study confirms what anyone who has been paying attention has always known, that the views of wealthy people and powerful interest groups matters far more in influencing public policy than public opinion, even when voters are strongly in favor of a particular policy choice.

forthcoming article in Perspectives on Politics by (my former colleague) Martin Gilens and (my sometime collaborator) Benjamin Page marks a notable step in that process. Drawing on the same extensive evidence employed by Gilens in his landmark book “Affluence and Influence,” Gilens and Page analyze 1,779 policy outcomes over a period of more than 20 years. They conclude 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.”

Average citizens have “little or no independent influence” on the policy-making process? This must be an overstatement of Gilens’s and Page’s findings, no?

Alas, no. In their primary statistical analysis, the collective preferences of ordinary citizens had only a negligible estimated effect on policy outcomes, while the collective preferences of “economic elites” (roughly proxied by citizens at the 90th percentile of the income distribution) were 15 times as important. “Mass-based interest groups” mattered, too, but only about half as much as business interest groups — and the preferences of those public interest groups were only weakly correlated (.12) with the preferences of the public as measured in opinion surveys.

Or as Kevin Drum puts it:

When the preferences of interest groups and the affluent are held constant, it just doesn’t matter what average folks think about a policy proposal. When average citizens are opposed, there’s a 30 percent chance of passage. When average citizens are wildly in favor, there’s still only a 30 percent chance of passage. Conversely, the odds of passage go from zero when most of the affluent are opposed to more than 50 percent when most of the affluent are in favor.

This should not be a surprise to anyone. I’ve been arguing for a long time that the only time you find a serious difference between the two parties is when there is no powerful interest with a lot of money at stake. If there are powerful interests have something major at stake, they’re going to get 100% of what they want from one party and about 90% from the other. That’s why we see so much emphasis on hot button social issues like gay rights and abortion. There aren’t big moneyed interests with a stake in the outcome, so it’s an area where the two parties can distinguish themselves in a big way without risking serious campaign contributions.

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  • Democracy would be nice.

    I always look askance at anyone who says the US is a democracy, because that’s just hoisting the “I’ve been propagandized successfully” flag. The US is and has always been an oligarchy. The much-revered founding fathers were oligarchs, smugglers, and slavers who built themselves their own tax haven (while, in the short term, raising taxes on the citizens “in whose behalf” they were acting to above the levels of the rest of the British empire!) Then they figured out a political system that amounts to a committee of oligarchs with some restrictions to keep a faction from taking over. It’s Zurich’s “little committee” all over again, only smoother.

  • @1:

    Marcus, you are such a fucking BUZZKILL–Sheesh; never mind that you’re right. You could break it to us a little easier. Something like:

    “You know your favorite kitteh, “Democracy”, yes? Well, she was up on the roof…”

  • jedibear

    I really don’t get the “there’s no real difference between the parties” line.

    There are a lot of very important issues upon which they have entrenched and bitterly opposed positions. The fact that they’re all dancing to the same puppet masters only matters when considering a matter upon which most of said puppet masters agree.

    The strongest bias in policy would seem to be conservatism — that is, toward the preservation of existing policies and institutions. Even the overwhelming support of every strata of society only raises the chance of any change to 50%.

  • @2: I’ve always wondered if any of the founding fathers (most likely Jefferson) had read about the Little Committee and thought, “hey, that’s pretty slick!” a lot of them were steeped in enlightenment thinking and would have possibly encountered the Little Committee via interest in Rousseau, whose family ran afoul of The Committee and had to flee the country.

    When you look at China, with its occasional purges, you can see the value of the US’ system – the oligarchs at the top have a great big sop to toss the proletariat (“here! vote about whatever you like! heck, we may even do it, if it’ll make us money!”) and it’s a bit harder for a takeover to happen. I’m not saying that it was all planned, it evolved/emerged from the balance of privilege hammered out between the jeffersonians and hamiltonians which more or less is in place today.

  • @3: here are a lot of very important issues upon which they have entrenched and bitterly opposed positions

    Of course they do. But those positions aren’t about anything that really matters – like going to war, fiscal policy, the budget, or who gets indemnified for what crimes and when.

    Basically, it’s like a restaurant that serves only spaghetti bolognese and spaghetti with meat balls. There is considerable discussion and debate as to whether to put cheese on them, or whether to use a spoon when you eat – important discussions, passionately engaged. But the bottom line is that the menu is spaghetti and if you’re a vegetarian or would like something else, you are not served.

  • jedibear

    @5 You apparently missed the phrase “very important.”

    Do a survey of Democratic and Republican lawmakers on any of the issues you just mentioned, and you’ll find differences between them. Both parties might favor fiscal austerity, for example– because it’s popular with the elite right now– but the Republicans will want to implement it by scrapping social programs while the Democrats will want to implement it by increasing revenues or reducing military funding.

    And which approach you take absolutely matters, even if the part everybody agrees on is just bloody ignorant.

    Priorities also matter. Cutting social programs is at the top of the Republican agenda, where raising taxes and cutting defense budgets occupies a somewhat lower space in the Democratic agenda.

    So yes, money dominates politics. And yes, that’s a problem. But it doesn’t make the parties identical. That idea is simply wrong, and it’s high time people whose opinions fall outside the mainstream stopped repeating it as gospel.

  • @6: No, I caught the “very” – and I still disagree. Cutting military spending? AaaaaHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAAAAAA!! (snort) (choke) Right, they disagree about that? No, actually, they agree that it’s going to continue to be at nosebleed levels and are arguing about whether it’s medicare that will get cut, or education, or whether there will be a new tax on the upper middle class (the rubes who aren’t quite rich enough to offshore their wealth) … I think we’re disagreeing about what constitutes “very”

  • Another data-point re: the sameness and agreement to be the same – both “sides” adopt the same vocabulary. Not for convenience but to control the dialogue. And it’s a key indicator that, in fact, they are more or less the same – if they had substantive disagreements they might actually be attacking eachother’s epistemologies rather than arguing about details.

  • dingojack

    Marcus – I’m reminded of a cartoon showing Uncle Sam reclining on the couch while the Psychiatrist asks:

    “So – How long have you believed you’re a democracy?”

    Jedibear – Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, nailed it: – “panem et circenses’. (Satire X).

    :/ Dingo

  • Michael Heath

    Two immediate and recent examples come to mind at the federal level; support for:

    1) a higher marginal rate on federal income taxes and,

    2) effective background checks on gun purchases.

    In Michigan there’s one very vivid example. Nearly the entire state wants to see a second bridge built between Canada and Detroit, MI, including our Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. But one bridge owner and his ownership of Republican state legislators has held off construction now for years.

    And while Ed’s correct the conclusions here should be unsurprising to those who are well-informed, what’s reported here raises two other issues.

    The apathy of millions of voters regarding this fact, particularly those who vote for Republicans.

    Secondly, what impact does this have when it comes to voter referendums? It seems like the public could bypass the elites by putting more issues up for a vote. That’s a something I generally abhor but increasingly see as a necessary evil given the current behavior of the GOP.

  • naturalcynic

    @Michael Heath: The same problems occur with referenda. The moneyed interests will inundate the airwaves with fears of socialism and overspending or loss of freedom or some other lies in order to overcome things that are in the interest of most of the public. Or “What’s the Matter With __________[fill in state]”

  • caseloweraz

    Michael Heath:

    I don’t know if you, being in Michigan, are aware of the pitfalls in the California Initiative process. It has resulted in some laws with highly undesirable effects — like Proposition 13, which capped property tax rates and thus dealt a severe blow to funding for public education and libraries.

    Other propositions were just carelessly written. One inadvertently removed the state legislature’s franking privilege. (That got corrected right quick.) And out-of-state money has defeated a number of them. The referendum process is not an automatic fix.

  • TxSkeptic

    #12 I agree, the voter referendum is no sure fix, but it can be useful. However, the representative system, in theory, is the best, as the representative ‘should’ be chosen to best represent the constituents, and it being their full time job they should be able to work out the kinks of unintended consequences.

    The problem is money in politics. It always has been a problem, but Teddy Roosevelt made great strides to fight against it, along with FDR. The last 40 years say the erosion of their work due to Buckley v. Valeo, Citizen’s United and now McCutcheon. The corporate personhood issue which hugely funds that fire started primarily with Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886).

    Both of these problems MUST be solved to get the representative democracy back that we all were under the delusion that existed. No other issue will matter, period, until that is fixed. Several efforts are underway to address this with a constitutional amendment, find one and support it.

    My favorite is:

    That’s Wolf dash Pac dot com.

    Again, Wolf dash Pac dot com, Wolf dash Pac dot com

    (operators are not standing by to take your call, it’s the intertoobs ya’ll)

  • The same problems occur with referenda. The moneyed interests will inundate the airwaves with fears of socialism and overspending or loss of freedom

    Or, more significantly, if it’s something that’s going to hit them in the pocket book (like attempted Wall St reform) they’ll tie it up in court and chip it away piece by piece. They can afford to do that ’till the cows come home – the system is set up to facilitate exactly that.

  • dingojack

    TxSkeptic – “That’s Wolf dash Pac dot com.

    Again, Wolf dash Pac dot com, Wolf dash Pac dot com

    Wasn’t that a FatBoy Slim song from the nineties?

    🙂 Dingo

  • The cost of litigation is another way in which money rules the US political system without being too obvious about it. Being able to afford legal challenges against laws that bother you amounts to a form of veto given to the wealthy.

    MUST be solved to get the representative democracy back

    We never had a representative democracy. To have a representative democracy you’d have to have some way of ensuring that the elected officials actually acted according to the desires of the electorate they represent. At best what we have is a scam-ocracy.

  • procrastinator will get an avatar real soon now

    Can someone enlighten me as to what ‘Zurich’s “little committee”’ is. My poor search skills failed on Google.

  • Michael Heath

    caseloweraz writes:

    I don’t know if you, being in Michigan, are aware of the pitfalls in the California Initiative process. It has resulted in some laws with highly undesirable effects — like Proposition 13, which capped property tax rates and thus dealt a severe blow to funding for public education and libraries.

    I am. I did two stints in California, one in the late-1980s/early-1990s and then again in the early-2000s.

    I recall far too many spending initiatives on the ballot coupled to a legislature that was incapable of cutting or eradicating spending in other areas, or spending more in areas in bad need of more investment or expenditures.

    I think Arnold S. had a lot of good ideas when he entered office only to get squelched by special interests. I was particularly disappointed to see his initiative to kill off gerrymandering fail. Now that the Democrats have a majority and what I perceive at a distant to be a very competent courageous governor in Jerry Brown; it appears things are getting better.

  • uncephalized

    @ Marcus Ranum #16:

    Don’t forget the sums necessary to secure decent legal protection in case of criminal charges, either.

  • I didn’t find much about it; my original reference to the little committee was from a history of Rousseau that I read a while back.

    Internet searches return:

    Under the new constitution (the main features of which lasted till 1798) the Little Council was made up of the burgomaster and thirteen members from the “Constafel” (which included the old patricians and the wealthiest burghers) and the thirteen masters of the craft gilds, each of the twenty-six holding office for six months. The Great Council of 200 (really 212) members consisted of the Little Council, plus 78 representatives each of the Constafel and of the gilds, besides 3 members named by the burgomaster.

    So, from the description above it sounds like the little council (called here) of 14 were the ruling elite. I don’t see anything about whether they had any special powers but…

    I just dug up the book I thought I remembered it from (“Rousseau’s Dog” by Edmonds and Eidinow) but it doesn’t say much about Zurich other than that Rousseau and his father self-exiled. It mentions a bit of background that I hadn’t remembered, namely that Zurich’s constitution was written by Calvin. That Calvin.

    I may be mistaken and may have been thinking of Geneva not Zurich. I see that Geneva had a similar set-up, consisting of layers of councils, each of which superceeded the other (and the smallest one consisted of: the rich)

    Ah, here: small council rousseau&f=false

    There’s a pretty good description of what was going on and it’s much as I remembered; the small council of the oligarchs pretty much had veto authority over the larger council which served the purpose of letting everyone feel as if they had some say in things. (My interpretation, not the author’s)

  • had3

    Well, it makes little sense to have lots of money if you can’t use it to change your environment to favor you, does it? One way to change this would be to accumulate a lot of money and then use it to benefit those without money at the cost of your money, but the more one accumulates, the less inclined one is to use it to their detriment and to other’s benefit.

  • @21:

    I’m prepared to draw some flak for this.

    I think that a pretty good example of the dichotomy you speak of in your last sentence would be Woodward and Bernstein.

    Both are extremely intelligent, diligent and, prolly, more than a bit full of themselves. Both have done well since their career making Watergate reporting. From that point I think that their paths diverge rather sharply. Although both of them have done well, financially and been in the public eye there have been marked differences in their treatments of the rich and powerful.

    Bernstein, on occasion has “bitten the hand”, most notably Saddam Hussein’s, prior to the outbreak of the first Gulf Smackdown of a poorly led, unevenly equipped and highly politicized Iraqi military. He continues to write and was, as of last September, teaching at SUNY, Stonybrook.

    Woodward, otoh, panders to his audience and has beens obsequious to those in the halls of power. He had a very different upbringing from Bernstein and it shows, at least to me, in his writing about, for instance, Shrubya and company. His writing IS good, his journalism is also sloppy; he’s great at fiction, unfortunately he seems, at times, to not recognize the difference between the two types of writing.

    While neither of them is a member of the lunchbucket proletariat (more likely, they’re both field grade officers in the Bento Box Brigade) Bernstein seems to have found a place for himself in the salons without selling out. Just MNVHO,MTP,AO*.

    * My Never Very Humble Or, Mores The Pity, Accurate Observation

  • @had3: another way of looking at what you point out is this: money is a form of power. Power has no value unless you use it. But there comes a point with power where it’s not usable for personal reasons and can only be abused. That’s the point where a powerful person decides to use their power to change others lives whether they agree or not. (The powerful person may think they are doing a favor, but really they are inflicting their will) this is how power tends to always become abusive; we are wise to suspect the motives of those that want power over us.

    It is possible to have power and a positive impact but it is much harder to do and it more resembles leadership and philanthropy. Also, noncoercive leadership or philanthropic power are fleeting, because they involve changing circumstances. Coercive power is the kind you accumulate, defend, and enlarge – as opposed to the kind you give away. At the point you decide you’ll do something to someone for your benefit or against their will “for their own good” you have become an abuser of power.

    The ideas I express above are a synthesis of some of the philosophy of Epicurus, who tried to explain why it is that for some people there is no such thing as “enough”; they mistake the power they need to provide safely for themselves and their family and friends with the power they need to enlarge that protection, and eventually lose self-control when they discover that to protect their power they need more power, ad infinitum. Epicurus argues that power-madness results from a confusion of ends and means brought about by a failure to accurately understand one’s objective.

  • caseloweraz

    TxSkeptic: The problem is money in politics. It always has been a problem, but Teddy Roosevelt made great strides to fight against it, along with FDR. The last 40 years say the erosion of their work due to Buckley v. Valeo, Citizen’s United and now McCutcheon. The corporate personhood issue which hugely funds that fire started primarily with Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886).

    I agree with that. Douglas Rushkoff writes about the 1886 case you mention in Life Inc.. He ascribes it to an incorrect summary by a Supreme Court clerk known to favor corporate interests. See footnote 2 here.

    As I understand it, if a constitutional convention is called, the door is open to all kinds of changes, not just the one that inspired the call. That would make it a problematical matter.

  • TxSkeptic

    @24 “the door is open to all kinds of changes”

    I’m not certain of the rules on this, but that would be a true minefield. That impression though, is certain to be used to dissuade a bottom up amendment process. However, you still have the 3/4 of the states bar to get over to actually pass any amendment, which would be a tough filter on any crazy proposals, like declaring a xtian nation or banning abortion.

    At the current state of affairs, I think we have to forge ahead and risk it. Besides, there is a chance, miniscule as it may be, that the threat of a bunch of crazy amendments might just scare the congress into putting forth a reasonable proposal themselves. Maybe what is needed IS to float some truly draconian measures that would scare the piss out of congress while still being broadly popular among the people, like harsh sentences for corrupt politicians, confiscation of corporations caught attempting to influence politicians, mandatory voting for everyone, voter initiatives to impeach SCOTUS members, etc. I wouldn’t call it blackmailing congress into doing the right thing, but…

  • @25:

    The one thing that might actually be possible is to change the rules for election financing. I’ve never talked to anybody who wasn’t very, very rich that thought unlimited political spending was a good thing,