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When Ordinary People Speak, Do the Powerful Ever Listen?

David Callahan

It's no secret that when the wealthy speak, the powerful listen. What else would you expect when the average cost of winning a House seat has soared by 344 percent since 1986? But the other side of this coin tends to get less attention: How do the powerful respond to the voices of ordinary people -- those who aren't part of the "donor class?"

The short answer is: Usually, they don't respond. 
That's the finding of a new paper by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, which draws on a vast trove of data on how policy outcomes have unfolded over the past two decades. Basically, this data -- which Gilens assembled for his important book, Affluence and Influence -- compares what outcomes different groups of Americans have preferred and what the actual outcomes were. 
Their key finding is not pretty to contemplate here in the world's oldest democracy. The authors write: “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.”
This research is valuable because it looks at so many different policies in various areas over a long time frame, and the findings will certainly track with observed reality of people who spend a lot of timing hanging around Washington. These findings also explain why inequality has gotten so bad: Because our political system serves those who benefit from widening the income gap. 
But before we accept the bleak idea that the little guy doesn't count, we need to consider all the instances where activated ordinary citizens have moved the needle. And we don't need to dig very far: The Tea Party -- which has always been fueled by people not money, whatever skeptics say -- is Exhibit A. That social movement turned American politics upside down in a few years, and has had a big impact on policy, mainly by pushing Congress to cut spending. Of course, the fact that its goals nicely aligned with those of the "donor class" does much to explain its success, but the same can't be said of Occupy Wall Street, another influential social movement that followed close on the heels of the Tea Party and had a big impact on the 2012 election -- because it helped put inequality on the agenda, which turned Romney's greatest asset, his business background, into a huge liability. 
Going back further, we can find all sorts of examples in U.S. history of social movements of ordinary citizens who change policy outcomes. 
The problem, though, is that these movements only come along every so often. What Gilens and Page describe are the day-to-day workings of public policy in America. And that situation is unlikely to change until we see a successful social movement that makes reforming our democracy -- to get big money out and little people in -- its top priority.