The poisonous politics of the elite
By Dani Rodrik
IT IS hardly news that the rich have more political power than the poor, even in democratic countries where everyone gets a single vote in elections.
But two political scientists, Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Prof Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, have recently produced some stark findings for the United States that have dramatic implications for the functioning of democracy - in the US and elsewhere.
The authors' research builds on prior work by Prof Gilens, who painstakingly collected public-opinion polls on nearly 2,000 policy questions from 1981 to 2002.
The pair then examined whether America's federal government adopted the policy in question within four years of the survey, and tracked how closely the outcome matched the preferences of voters at different points of the income distribution.
When viewed in isolation, the preferences of the "average" voter - that is, a voter in the middle of the income distribution - seem to have a strongly positive influence on the government's ultimate response. A policy that the average voter would like is significantly more likely to be enacted.
But, as professors Gilens and Page note, this gives a misleadingly upbeat impression of the representativeness of government decisions. The preferences of the average voter and of the economic elite are not very different on most policy matters.
For example, both groups of voters would like to see a strong national defence and a healthy economy. A better test would be to examine what the government does when the two groups have divergent views.
To carry out that test, the authors ran a horse race between the preferences of average voters and those of the economic elite - defined as individuals at the top tenth percentile of the income distribution - to see which voters exert greater influence. They found that the effect of the average voter drops to insignificant levels, while that of the economic elite remains substantial.
The implication is clear: When the elite's interests differ from those of the rest of society, it is their views that count - almost exclusively. (As the authors explain, we should think of the preferences of the top 10 per cent as a proxy for the views of the truly wealthy, say, the top 1 per cent - the genuine elite.)
The authors report similar results for organised interest groups, which wield a powerful influence on policy formation. As they point out, "it makes very little difference what the general public thinks" once interest-group alignments and the preferences of affluent Americans are taken into account.
These disheartening results raise an important question: How do politicians who are unresponsive to the interests of the vast majority of their constituents get elected and, more important, re-elected, while mostly doing the bidding of the wealthiest individuals?
Part of the explanation may be that most voters have a poor understanding of how the political system works and how it is tilted in favour of the economic elite. As the professors emphasise, their evidence does not imply that government policy makes the average citizen worse off. Ordinary citizens often do get what they want, by virtue of the fact that their preferences frequently are similar to those of the elite. This correlation of the two groups' preferences may make it difficult for voters to discern politicians' bias. But another, more pernicious, part of the answer may lie in the strategies to which political leaders resort in order to get elected. A politician who represents the interests primarily of the economic elite has to find other means of appealing to the masses.
Such an alternative is provided by the politics of nationalism, sectarianism, and identity - a politics based on cultural values and symbolism rather than bread-and-butter interests. When politics is waged on these grounds, elections are won by those who are most successful at "priming" our latent cultural and psychological markers, not those who best represent our interests.
Karl Marx famously said that religion is "the opium of the people". What he meant is that religious sentiment could obscure the material deprivations that workers and other exploited people experience in their daily lives.
In much the same way, the rise of the religious right and, with it, culture wars over "family values" and other highly polarising issues (for example, immigration) have served to insulate American politics from the sharp rise in economic inequality since the late 1970s. As a result, conservatives have been able to retain power despite their pursuit of economic and social policies that are inimical to the interests of the middle and lower classes.
Identity politics is malignant because it tends to draw boundaries around a privileged in-group and requires the exclusion of outsiders - those of other countries, values, religions or ethnicities.
This can be seen most clearly in illiberal democracies such as Russia, Turkey and Hungary. In order to solidify their electoral base, leaders in these countries appeal heavily to national, cultural and religious symbols.
In doing so, they typically inflame passions against religious and ethnic minorities. For regimes that represent the economic elite (and are often corrupt to the core), it is a ploy that pays off handsomely at the polls.
Widening inequality in the world's advanced and developing countries thus inflicts two blows against democratic politics. Not only does it lead to greater disenfranchisement of the middle and lower classes; it also fosters among the elite a poisonous politics of sectarianism.
Dani Rodrik, Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, is the author of The Globalization Paradox: Democracy And The Future Of The World Economy.
The news: A new scientific study from Princeton researcher Martin Gilens and Northwestern researcher Benjamin I. Page has finally put some science behind the recently popular argument that the United States isn't a democracy any more. And they've found that in fact, America is basically an oligarchy.
An oligarchy is a system where power is effectively wielded by a small number of individuals defined by their status called oligarchs. Members of the oligarchy are the rich, the well connected and the politically powerful, as well as particularly well placed individuals in institutions like banking and finance or the military.
For their study, Gilens and Page compiled data from roughly 1,800 different policy initiatives in the years between 1981 and 2002. They then compared those policy changes with the expressed opinion of the United State public. Comparing the preferences of the average American at the 50th percentile of income to what those Americans at the 90th percentile preferred, as well as the opinions of major lobbying or business groups, the researchers found out that the government followed the directives set forth by the latter two much more often.
It's beyond alarming. As Gilens and Page write, "the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy." In other words, their statistics say your opinion literally does not matter.
That might explain why mandatory background checks on gun sales supported by 83% to 91% of Americans aren't in place, or why Congress has taken no action on greenhouse gas emissions even when such legislation is supported by the vast majority of citizens.
This problem has been steadily escalating for four decades. While there are some limitations to their data set, economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez constructed income statistics based on IRS data that go back to 1913. They found that the gap between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of us is much bigger than you would think, as mapped by these graphs from the Center On Budget and Policy Priorities:
Piketty and Saez also calculated that as of September 2013 the top 1% of earners had captured 95% of all income gains since the Great Recession ended. The other 99% saw a net 12% drop to their income. So not only is oligarchy making the rich richer, it's driving policy that's made everyone else poorer.
What kind of oligarchy? As Gawker's Hamilton Nolan explains, Gilens and Page's findings provide support for two theories of governance: economic elite domination and biased pluralism. The first is pretty straightforward and states that the ultra-wealthy wield all the power in a given system, though some argue that this system still allows elites in corporations and the government to become powerful as well. Here, power does not necessarily derive from wealth, but those in power almost invariably come from the upper class. Biased pluralism on the other hand argues that the entire system is a mess and interest groups ruled by elites are fighting for dominance of the political process. Also, because of their vast wealth of resources, interest groups of large business tend to dominate a lot of the discourse.
In either case, the result is the same: Big corporations, the ultra-wealthy and special interests with a lot of money and power essentially make all of the decisions. Citizens wield little to no political power. America, the findings indicate, tends towards either of these much more than anything close to what we call "democracy" — systems such as majoritarian electoral democracy or majoritarian pluralism, under which the policy choices pursued by the government would reflect the opinions of the governed.
Nothing new: And no, this isn't a problem that's the result of any recent Supreme Court cases — at least certainly not the likes FEC v. Citizens United or FEC v. McCutcheon. The data is pretty clear that America has been sliding steadily into oligarchy for decades, mirrored in both the substantive effect on policy and in the distribution of wealth throughout the U.S. But cases like those might indicate the process is accelerating.
"Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does," Gilens and Page write. "Perhaps they know better which policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends, when deciding which policies to support.
"But we tend to doubt it."
See also: Four Signs America is an Oligarchy.
(Its from the same study but in re-presented in list form.)