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.
A 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.
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.