Most of us assume that the government is responsive to the wishes of the mass of the people because most of us assume that is how democracy works. But most of us are wrong.
A recent article in Perspectives on Politics by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” used a unique data set developed by Gilens over many years to examine which theories of American democracy seem to equate with empirical evidence. In Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (my posts on the book are here, here and here) Gilens used public opinion research across many years to argue that affluent citizens are likely to get their preferences made in Washington but average citizens are not. Now, Gilens and Page use the data to test theories of democracy.
The four basic theories tested are Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination, Majoritarian Pluralism, and Biased Pluralism. The idea of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy is that U.S. government policy will reflect the collective will of the people; or in rational choice theory that the will of the “median voter” will prevail. A good deal of recent research including that of Gilens, Larry Bartels, and my UMass Boston colleague Tom Ferguson calls Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theory into doubt. Elite theories can take a number of forms but Gilens and page focus on economic elites. Among other works they mention Prof. Fergusons’ “investment theory” of policy influence.
There are two pluralist theories tested. Majoritarian pluralism is familiar to all students of Madison’s Federalist 10 in which factions are supposed to form and reform in varying configurations so that all interests are served over time. The theory of Biased Pluralism is that as EE. Schattschneider put it, the winners in American politics are a heavenly chorus with an “upper-class accent.”
Gilens and Page tested each of the four theories against each other using a single statistical model. They found that the “median voter” and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories totally failed in relation to policies produced in Washington when the preferences of economic elites and economic interest groups were controlled for (because those preferences often overlap).
As for theories of Majoritarian Pluralism, they also stumble in reflecting the policy preferences of average people. Certain interest groups, such as labor unions, do represent average citizens’ policy preferences fairly well. But the overall interest group alignments (dominated by business) do not represent average citizens well and business-oriented interest groups are negatively related to the wishes of the average citizen.
Theories of Economic Elite domination and Biased Pluralism have a lot more explanatory power when it comes to policy influence. “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.” Gilens and Page also debunk the notion that these elites understand government and issues better than the average citizen. For instance, what would economic elites know about Social security, Medicaid, Medicare, unemployment insurance, of transitional assistance, programs they will almost never depend upon?
Gilens and Page state that “we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”