A Study in Plutocracy: Rich Americans Wield Political Influence, the Rest of Us Don’t

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JP Morgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein leave the White House in Washington following a meeting between chief executives and President Barack Obama. March 2009. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
JP Morgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon, left, and Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein leave the White House in Washington in 2009 following a meeting with President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In America today, the views of the voting public are nearly meaningless; wealthy individuals and business-backed special interest groups are almost entirely responsible for the stances that politicians take on the issues. That’s the takeaway from a new study by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University.

While the findings of the study may not seem particularly novel to those who have been paying attention to our policy debates, the conclusiveness of its findings are. American University professor Allan J. Lichtman analyzed this “shattering” study, which will appear in the fall 2014 edition of Perspectives on Politics, for The Hill. He writes:

The analysts found that when controlling for the power of economic elites and organized interest groups, the influence of ordinary Americans registers at a “non-significant, near-zero level.” The analysts further discovered that rich individuals and business-dominated interest groups dominate the policymaking process. The mass-based interest groups had minimal influence compared to the business-based interest groups.

The study also debunks the notion that the policy preferences of business and the rich reflect the views of common citizens. They found to the contrary that such preferences often sharply diverge and when they do, the economic elites and business interests almost always win and the ordinary Americans lose.

The authors also say that given limitations to tapping into the full power elite in America and their policy preferences, “the real world impact of elites upon public policy may be still greater” than their findings indicate.

The study helps explain why voters on both the left and the right are increasingly convinced that Congress is out-of-touch. And it also helps explain our political gridlock. As BillMoyers.com’s Joshua Holland noted earlier this year, polarization isn’t bad for the wealthy because the resultant gridlock helps maintain the status quo, which is — obviously — working well enough for them. Research published in January in The Journal of Politics found that polarization and gridlock may even increase the wealth of the few, exacerbating economic inequality — and the inequality of political capital that Gilens and Page observed — even further, which makes the trend difficult to reverse.

Earlier this year, Gilens explained to Reniqua Allen, a fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos (and formerly of Moyers & Company), that this imbalance demonstrates a need for reform.

My work shows that when the preferences of the middle class or of the poor diverge from those of the well off, that the poor and the middle class have virtually no influence over government policy outcomes. Policymakers seem to respond to the preferences of the well off, not perfectly, but to some significant degree, and little or none to the preferences of the middle class much less the poor, and we see that across many decades and many sort of issue domains. It’s not just economic issues, but with regard to social issues, and so on.

[When] we can reform our political system so that politicians, political candidates, and policy makers are less dependent on money from affluent donors and corporations then we will be able to shift policy in directions that will be sort of more broadly beneficial to the less well off in our society.

Read Lichtman’s full analysis of the new study at The Hill.

John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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