Who governs in America?

The Gilens and Page paper, April 9, 2014, uses a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues determining the influence of differing groups.

Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics - which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism - offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent effects on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

Who governs? Who rules?

To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless? These questions have animated much important work in the study of American politics.

Majoritarian Electoral Democracy: Theories of majoritarian electoral democracy, as positive or empirical theories, attribute U.S. government policies chiefly to the collective will of average citizens, who are seen as empowered by democratic elections.

Economic Elites: Economic Elite Domination theories do rather well in our analysis, even though our findings probably understate the political influence of elites.

Organized Interest Groups: Our findings of substantial influence by interest groups is particularly striking. Our evidence clearly indicates that organized interest groups have a very substantial independent impact upon public policy. If the net results of interest group struggle were to help average citizens get their way- with organized groups perhaps representing citizens more effectively than politically inattentive Americans could do for themselves - we would expect that the net alignment of interest groups would be positively and strongly correlated with the policy preferences of the average citizen. We found interest group alignments are almost totally unrelated to the preferences of average citizens.

Moreover, there is no indication that officials' anticipation of reactions from "potential groups" brings policies in line with what citizens want. When the alignments of business-oriented and mass-based interest groups are included separately in a multivariate model, average citizens' preferences continue to have essentially zero estimated impact upon policy change, while economic elites are still estimated to have a very large, positive, independent impact.

What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of "populistic" democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens.

In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule - at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. 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 U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

Americans enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But 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.

Chip Tuthill lives in Mancos. Website used: http://scholar.princeton.edu/mgilens.