Princeton Professor Martin Gilens opens his book Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America with a quote from Justice Louis Brandeis: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
Professor Gilens does not have good news for us about what the concentration of money in the hands of a few is doing to our democracy.
After ten years of extensive research into the policy preferences of poor, middle class, and affluent Americans, Gilens finds that with some few exceptions most Americans lack any influence over the policies their government adopts. Yet the policy preferences of the “affluent” are met, not always, but frequently. When the preferences of the poor and middle class diverge from those of the affluent, the non-affluent never gets their preferences met. In substance the poor and middle class have no influence over policy, while the affluent have quite a lot.
Professor Gilens collected national survey questions over extensive periods and determined the policy preferences in the lowest tenth percentile, the fiftieth percentile, and the ninetieth percentile (the affluent, although not the super-rich). He examined their views across the dimensions of foreign policy/national security, social welfare, economic policy, and moral or religious issues; and tracked whether or not the policy preferences of each group were passed into law.
Interestingly if policy responsiveness were more equal we might expect many more progressive economic policies. On the other hand, moral and religious policies would be more conservative.
Interest groups play a significant but independent role. Some interest groups like AARP are especially helpful in fighting for policies that benefit the less well-off. Then there is the NRA. Writing well before the Sandy Hook tragedy, Gilens noted that large majorities of Americans favor greater regulation of guns, but one interest fights those reforms and wins: the NRA. When the affluent back gun control policies, though, reform can come.
Gilens also has interesting things to say about parties and elections. His data show that parties are “policy maximizers” – they seek to push through policies important to their backers and their values. Impending competitive elections, especially presidential elections, enhance policy responsiveness for low and middle income people. But new regimes of either party tend to the preferences of the affluent exclusively. Policy responsiveness is greater for all three income categories with Republicans in power.
An evenly divided Congress is more responsive to the public; a party that dominates the government pursues its own policy preferences, not those of the electorate. Surprisingly, gridlock is good for policy responsiveness.
And more surprisingly, the government ignored the electorates’ policy preferences during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson. The most responsive administration to the preferences of the poor and middle class (in its first two years) – was that of George W. Bush.
It’s all about the Benjamins. Campaigns cost money and it comes from those in the top 10% of the income scale.
Gilens has some suggestions, including those from states that have regulated campaign contributions and those that have taken steps to enhance electoral competitiveness. Political effects – close elections, closely divided government, certain interests, can promote responsive politics. But money never sleeps.
I’ll be interviewing Professor Gilens for Commonwealth Journal on WUMB today, for later broadcast. I’ll let readers know when that interview will air. Buy the book, and tune in.