Democracy: not quite all it’s cracked up to be?

In the recent UK General Election there was well-reported dissatisfaction because one party formed a Government with only 36.9% of the vote and two others, with sizeable voting totals, only got a seat apiece.

But a recent research paper by Prof Martin Gilens, professor of politics at Princeton University, found that — at least in America — democracy is functioning even worse than might be thought.

He looked at to whom the US Congress (the Senate and the House of Representatives) responded — average Americans or the economic elites.

If you’re cynical, you can guess what the finding was: Prof Gilens told Slate’s The Gist podcast that he had expected to find people with more money would have more influence, but he also expected to find that ordinary citizens would have at least some ability to shape politicians’ decisions.

They don’t.

He found that policy tracks what the affluent want, and bears no relationship to what middle income Americans want. By affluent, he meant the top 10%, not the top 1%, but he said his results probably underestimated the effect of that top 1%.

He found that the views of 90% of Americans had no impact at all at legislation, though it’s not that they never have an influence: the 90% does get listened to when there is a close election or a fine balance of power at Congress, though this is not reflected in legislation passed. Which sounds like they only listen when they need votes, and then they stop listening.

Whether the same is true of the UK is up to you to decide — though the systems of donations are different, it’s not hard to imagine that political parties are influenced by the views of donors. It would be easy to assume that, say, loosening of planning reforms to help developers coupled with the “bedroom tax” mean that similar principles operate here.


It’s probably not as simple as donor gives money, party frames law, though Labour did accept £1m from Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone just before it omitted F1 from a ban on tobacco advertising.

It’s probably more that wealthy donors are able to put their views to attentive politicians face to face, whereas your man on the proverbial Clapham omnibus never does.

Coupled with the fact that most of our politicians seem to be millionaires whose social life entails mingling with other millionaires, it’s possible something similar occurs in the UK.

Prof Gilens cited as examples tax policy — the rich want lower income and lower capital gains taxes — and free trade, with the affluent more in favour of free trade.

He said that sometimes Congress could appear to be in agreement with people, citing home security and the Patriot Act but this is purely coincidental, because the affluent are as concerned as the middle classes on the issue — policy again changed because of the top 10%.

Prof Gilens said this was “not very democratic” but said it wasn’t necessarily all bad: in social and moral issues, the affluent tend to be more liberal. So Congress was more liberal over issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

As his paper (Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, co-authored with Benjamin I Page) put it: “Economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”


Prof Gilens based his research on his unique data, compiled over many years, originally gathered for estimating the influence upon public policy of “affluent” citizens, poor citizens, and those in the middle of the income distribution.

For the new paper, Prof Gilens and “a small army of research assistants” gathered data on surveys of the general public that asked a favour/oppose question about a proposed policy change. They gathered information on public opinion and then compared it to legislation enacted.

“Affluent” Americans were the top 10%, who, while “neither very rich nor very elite” (average annual household income about $146,000) served as an “affluent” proxy and were likely to give an underestimate of the impact of economic elites on policy making.

“If we find substantial effects upon policy even when using this imperfect measure, it will be reasonable to infer that the impact upon policy of truly wealthy citizens is still greater,” said the researchers.

Note that the preferences of average citizens were positively correlated across issues with the preferences of economic elites, ie average citizens and affluent citizens largely wanted the same things from government. This should temper any judgments on “winners” and “losers,” the paper said.

This is lucky, because the paper stated: “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organised interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

This means that majoritarian electoral democracy — encapsulated in Abraham Lincoln’s reference to “of the people, by the people, for the people,” — does not work in the US.

Interest groups did have “substantial independent impacts” on policy, but while a few groups — particularly the unions — represented average citizens’ views reasonably well, the interest-group system as a whole did not.

Said the report: “This does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favour, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically-elite citizens who wield the actual influence.”

When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organised interests, they generally lose.

Even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it.

Future research will try and pin down which group actually does influence law making — the top 1%? The top one-tenth of 1%?

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