Wealthy elite influence government policy more than average voters, study finds

Jordan Harrison, Assistant Campus Editor

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A Northwestern professor co-authored a study quantifying the disparity between the influence of affluent and average voters on U.S. government policy.

The study, scheduled to be published later this year, was co-authored by political science Prof. Benjamin Page and Princeton University politics Prof. Marten Gilens. The pair analyzed roughly 1,800 government policies between 1981 and 2002 and found policy changes were influenced more by economic elites and business interest groups than by average voters.

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence,” Gilens and Page wrote in the study. 

Gilens cited a decrease in the regulation of businesses over the two decades studied as an example demonstrating the trend.

“In general, there’s been a long-term trend toward a deregulatory direction that both the Democratic and Republican parties have embraced over the last about four decades,” Gilens told The Daily. “That is a policy that is much more popular with business-world and affluent Americans than it is with the middle class.”

Page and Gilens said there has been “almost no work” previously assessing the policy preferences of average, affluent and business-oriented groups and further evaluating their relative influence on policy outcomes.

“I think it’s fair to say nobody has been able to estimate the impact of interest groups successfully before, and so we did it for all the groups together,” Page said.

Gilens said he has been working on the study for about ten years. Page, who had been following Gilens’ work, said he contributed the idea of examining the influence of interest groups and connected the work to prominent political theories.

The paper, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” will be published in September in the journal “Perspectives on Politics.” 

Gilens and Page only analyzed data through 2002, but they said their results would likely still hold for policies of the last decade.

“We can’t be sure, but I think there are reasons to believe that the power of business groups and affluent probably has increased (in the last decade) for several reasons,” Page said. “One is there is more and more wealth at the top, more and more inequality of wealth, and that suggests there is more political power at the top. Another thing is that unions just keep getting weaker and weaker. … A third is that various changes in the law, especially the Supreme Court decisions, have made it easier for money to influence politics.”

Page said he was surprised by some of the results of the study, especially in regards to a political theory called “majoritarian pluralism.”

“The basic idea is that maybe ordinary citizens don’t have a whole lot of influence on their own, but they’re represented by groups,” Page said. “Therefore, everybody really ought to end up being represented pretty well. It turns out that’s just not true. … Mass-based interest groups have much less influence than corporations and business-oriented groups.”

Page said the results of the study raise concerns for the state of American politics.

“If you like the idea of democracy, it’s got to be a little disturbing,” he said.

Email: jordanharrison2017@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @MedillJordan