As the midterm elections approach, the Democrats and Republicans are trying to convince their partisans that the fate of civilization depends on the outcome. If new, cutting-edge American political science is correct, however, no matter which party prevails in this year’s House and Senate elections, public policy will continue to be shaped by the preferences of the rich and well-organized, and politicians will continue to disregard many of the preferences shared by most American voters.
For generations, political scientists have been skeptical about the textbook definition of representative democracy, which treats the electorate as an undecided jury for whose support politicians compete on the basis of thoughtful, coherent, empirically plausible plans for public policy. In a forthcoming essay in Perspectives on Politics, Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern summarize the dominant schools of thought about democracy among American political scientists:
While this body of research is rich and variegated, it can loosely be divided into four families of theories: Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism -- Majoritarian Pluralism, in which the interests of all citizens are more or less equally represented, and Biased Pluralism, in which corporations, business associations, and professional groups predominate).
The conclusion of Gilens and Page, after examining the data?
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism. …
One [result] is the nearly total failure of “median voter” and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy…
On to the polls in November, citizens! According to Gilens and Page you may have, at best, “only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” compared to wealthy individuals and powerful lobbies. (Gilens and Page conclude that, with the exception of organized labor, influential interest groups, including progressive ones, do not serve as “transmission belts” connecting ordinary citizens with politicians.)
Another political scientist, Nicholas Carnes of Duke University, has recently addressed a related issue: What impact does class background have on the worldview and actions of elected leaders? According to Carnes:
Politicians in the United States tend to be vastly better off than the people they represent. They are wealthier, more educated, and more likely to come from white-collar jobs… If millionaires were a political party, that party would make up just three percent of the country, but it would have a majority in the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court, and a man in the White House. If working-class Americans — people employed in manual-labor and service-industry jobs — were a political party, that party would have made up more than half of the country since the start of the twentieth century, but legislators from that party (those who last worked in blue-collar jobs before getting into politics) would never have held more than two percent of the seats in Congress.
In another study, Carnes asks “Does the Numerical Underrepresentation of the Working Class in Congress Matter?” On the basis of a study of the correlation between class background and voting in the House of Representatives, he concludes that it does:
Although the near absence of working-class people in American political institutions could not have been the origin of the rising inequalities in distributional outcomes that the United States has experienced since the 1970s (since workers were underrepresented long before then), it may have muted the government’s response to these sweeping economic changes. This article’s empirical results suggest that America’s class-imbalanced legislative branch tends to favor economic policies more in line with the interests of the haves than with the needs of the have-nots. Although this study does not directly link economic inequalities and the class composition of political institutions, its findings suggest that our government might have done more to slow the rapid growth of resource disparities — and might do more in response to future economic shocks — if more policymakers were drawn from the social strata that suffer when inequality rises and economic hard times hit.
This conclusion dovetails with another recent study claiming that those who have money — including lottery winners who come into it by chance — tend to develop inegalitarian attitudes.
But haven’t major reforms to benefit America’s working-class majority passed before — in some cases, thanks to the leadership of upper-class politicians like the two Roosevelts and the Kennedys -- notwithstanding levels of plutocracy and corruption as bad as today’s, or worse? Yes — but in the past, political elites supported pro-majority reform under the pressure of war (the Emancipation Proclamation, the G.I. Bill) or mass protest movements (the Populists, organized labor strikes, civil rights activism). The evidence of social science suggests that giving the wealthy and well-organized interests what they want, even if it means disregarding majority preferences, is the default strategy of the mostly-rich people in Congress, the White House and the federal courts, along with their equivalents at the state and local level.
It is easier to identify the problem than to identify a solution. Campaign finance reform, now under assault from conservatives in the federal judiciary, might reduce the influence of rich individuals. But it could backfire by merely increasing the clout of interest groups.
Early twentieth-century progressives sought to limit the influence of special interests by transferring as much power as possible to altruist technocrats in the civil service. But countries with traditions of strong civil servants, like France and Japan, seem to have as many corruption scandals as we do. In any event, why would Ivy-League-educated super-bureaucrats be any more attentive to the needs and values of the working-class majority than K Street lobbyists?
If political science does not show us how to make America less undemocratic, at least it has ruled out the idea that American government can be described as a functioning majoritarian democracy that represents the wishes of most of the people in any but the most formal and technical sense. Is American government an example of Economic Elite Domination or Biased Pluralism or the devil-child of both? Discuss among yourselves.