The U.S. Supreme Court, the Roberts court, regularly finds in favor of corporations over individuals. In two landmark cases, Citizens United (2010) and McCutcheson (2014), the court gave wealthy individuals unlimited control over the political process — electing politicians and influencing lawmakers concerning public policy laws.
Now comes an empirical analysis of 1,779 public policy laws crafted between 1981 and 2002 by two academic political scientists — Martin Gilens at Princeton and Benjamin Page at Northwestern. The conclusions suggest that oligarchy (or more technically plutocracy) better describes the U.S. than a simple electoral democracy. This is a shot across the bow to defenders of American exceptionalism.
Four theoretical perspectives were represented by four groups capable of potentially influencing lawmaking (public policy making):
• Average citizens (“median voters”) making the U.S. an Electoral Democracy — what we were taught in civics classes in our youth and the pillar of democracy’s mythology
• Majoritarian pluralism (mass-based interest groups) in which interests of all citizens are more or less represented
• Economic elites (those with wealth in the 90th percentile) who dominate and trump the influence of the non-wealthy (at the 50th percentile wealth level)
• Biased pluralism (business-oriented interest groups) seeking to satisfy the needs of corporations, business or professional trade groups
The study looked at the sources of influence and not the mechanisms by which influence was exerted. The cases analyzed were derived from a list of issues for which there were national public surveys gauging popular support or opposition as well as respondent income information.
For average citizen preferences, the policy positions held by people at the 50th percentile were used.
Opinions of the “affluent” were the positions held by survey respondents at the 90th percentile (which is only about $146,000 income level).
The outcome variable was whether the policy question was adopted as law within four years of being surveyed. Most issues became law within two years.
In the initial analysis, the type of interest/pluralistic group was not examined separately. The first finding was that organized interest groups had the most influence, not wealthy individuals or average citizens. Interestingly, the interest of rich and not-rich citizens were strongly correlated. They tend to feel the same on many issues. However, interest groups diverge from citizens.
Business-related group preferences stand in opposition to what citizens want, even what richer individuals want. Some business groups want government benefits to enhance profitability while wealthy people might want smaller government.
When the interest groups were split into the two forms — majoritarian (social justice) and biased (business) groups, the impact of average citizens, the popular view, drops to near zero. In short,
ordinary citizens have little to no independent influence (0.3%) on policy at all.
The study is imperfect because the researchers admitted to underestimating the influence of wealthy citizens — the billionaires who now seem to control the U.S. political process. Using people in only the top 10% does not accurately tap the preferences and sentiment of those in the top 1/10 of 1% for whom the Citizen United and McCutcheson decisions were rendered.
The finding that the preferences of average citizens (for example the 93% who support enactment of our worker-rights based anti-bullying legislation, the Healthy Workplace Bill) is almost totally unrelated to the impact of business interest groups (the example of Biased Pluralism groups) is relevant to our national campaign to pass state laws to address workplace bullying. The public wants it. Unions want it. Chambers of Commerce stall, obfuscate and lie about the bill in committee testimony to prevent its passage in every state.
Said the researchers:
“When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it.”
So, when reporters ask me why no state has yet passed our bill that seems to enjoy so much popular support, the answer has always been — blame the business lobby groups.
Gilens and Page have shown this to be factual and not imagined. It’s America. Citizens beware.