An Occupy Wall Street protester doing her bit to fight the oligarchy. Photo by Harry Cheadle
A new report from researchers at Princeton and Northwestern universities reveals a deeply unsettling truth: Money rules American politics. Of course, it's likely you already knew that, but the good thing about the report is that you now have 20 years of research to prove that the US government is in the grip of the rich and powerful.
The report, titled "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens," analyzed data gathered between 1981 and 2002 to understand whether ordinary Americans are best served by lobbyists, interest groups, or the government. Depressingly, it concluded that they're rarely served very well by any of them.
I called up one of the report's authors, Princeton's Professor Martin Gilens, to find out a little more.
Professor Martin Gilens. Photo by Sameer Khan
VICE: Your report's conclusion is that America is more an oligarchy than a democracy. How so?
Martin Gilens: America has many features of a democracy: a free press, free elections, and so on, but when it comes to the ability of changing government policy, ordinary citizens have very little influence. The power rests almost wholly on affluent individuals and interest groups, especially those representing business.
How does this skew the way the government behaves?
It skews it tremendously when the preferences of these different groups diverge. There are policies and issues where middle-income and high-income Americans and interest groups might overlap, but there are important issues when the preferences of these interest groups do diverge. Tax policy, for example, or support for the unemployed, government regulation or trade policy—these are all areas where the views of ordinary citizens and those held by "elites" diverge. In these situations we see government policy responding almost overwhelmingly to the preferences of elites and virtually ignoring the views of ordinary citizens.
What policy is the best example of this?
The Bush and Obama administrations’ response to the great recession is a perfect example. We’ve seen minimal accountability of the financial sector and minimal effort to impose meaningful regulation. We’ve seen policies that have been helpful in allowing businesses and affluent Americans to recover quite nicely by this point from the recession, but the middle class and the least well off are still suffering.
And, of course, average Americans presumably want to see new regulation and accountability imposed on these elites.
Based on surveys, there is some support for imposing taxes on the wealthy. There's a widespread assumption that the tax system is unfair, that the economic system in general is "rigged," if you will, in favor of the powerful. So while I don’t think Americans are gathering at the barricades, there is dissatisfaction at the idea that the government purposefully creates an unfair playing field. There is a lack of support in government for popular policies because there’s a lack of power with the general masses.
Do interest groups put pressure on political parties so that beneficial policies for the general public never reach electoral manifestos?
That’s exactly it. It’s just groups and wealthy individuals playing such dominant roles in the political system that both parties have no choice but to curry their favor. Even when there are individuals, particularly in the Democratic Party, who are advocates for the interests of the middle class and the poor they don’t get far.
Do you think the American public would be surprised by your findings?
I’ve surveyed people and asked, "Do you think the government cares about what people like me think?" Those surveys show that the majority of middle class Americans doesn’t think it does. And the majority of people at the top of income distribution say in general that the government does.
Do the general public know what’s best for their own interests?
Average Americans don’t know a lot about the specifics of social conditions or political policies, and that’s partly true for affluent Americans also. People generally play only a modest amount of attention to what’s going on. People do have misconceptions too. The question, though, is whether people, despite general low levels of knowledge, are able to form policy preferences that are worthy of guiding democratic policy making? And the answer is yes.
In what way?
Perhaps the most compelling evidence is from studies where hundreds of ordinary citizens are brought together for a weekend, listen to experts, and study the issues and policy options. They’re then surveyed to see how their thoughts have changed. What we see is that, though some views may change, the collective view changes very little. People are reasonably good at taking views from their environment and their views are the same even when up to date with the relevant information.
How can average Americans organize themselves to play a bigger part in government?
The most important thing is the role of money. It's very hard to see how to empower middle-class Americans without reforming the part money plays in politics. We need meaningful campaign finance reform.
Do you see a stage where ordinary Americans will have absolutely no influence over government policy?
I think we’re pretty much at that point, but that doesn’t mean there's no potential to have influence. Before the crisis of 2007/2008 and the brief Occupy Wall Street campaign, I would have said an economic crisis of that nature would galvanize the public and policy makers to take the preferences of ordinary Americans seriously. But the crisis didn’t, and everything carried on as usual.
How optimistic are you for American democracy?
Well, not particularly. Realistically, looking at the situation and given the increase in economic inequality, it’s really hard to see where improvement would come from.