A new paper by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page sheds more light on the influence that elite economic interests have on policymaking and policy outcomes. Building on their previous work, Gilens and Page test the influence different interest groups- average citizens, economic elites and interest groups, both mass-based and business-oriented—have over policy. Their conclusion is stark, “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based (groups that have some form of individual membership) interest groups have little or no independent influence.” In fact, the paper found that the preferences of economic elites are 15 times more important than the average American.
The whole paper is well worth reading but a few highlights stand out. One, there was no association between the preference of economic elites and interest groups, either mass-based or business-oriented. It’s somewhat surprising that economic elites and business interest groups aren’t aligned and the authors suggest one reason is an ideological difference between the two. Economic elites prefer lower levels of government spending on almost everything while business groups often lobby for increased spending to benefit their specific interests, such as the big pharma lobbying for more spending on health care or defense contractors lobbying for weapons systems.
The second interesting point is that the authors find that the average citizen doesn’t always lose out on policy making. The preferences of ordinary citizens tend to positively correlate with the preferences of economic elites, so ordinary citizens often win the policies they want, even if the alignment is coincidental. However, when the two groups’ interests do not align, the average American loses. And, as the authors point out, the issues economic elites and average Americans disagree on, such as tax policy or corporate treatment, are not trivial.
Finally, the authors found that when the general public wants government action, the political system is largely unresponsive. When popular majorities favor the status quo, they will likely be successful. But, even when it is a large majority that favors change, it is very unlikely they will be successful. This dynamic is being played out now in the minimum wage debate. Despite over 70 percent of Americans supporting a minimum wage increase, Congress has yet to act.
Nothing in Gilens and Page’s paper is particularly new or surprising. In fact, their previous research on the influence elites hold over policy is one of the foundations for our Stacked Deck analysis, which shows how the wealthy dominate our political and electoral systems. But, it is important to continually document how the affluent are different from most Americans, especially now when recent Supreme Court rulings have opened the floodgates for wealthy donors to dominate our democracy.