We're Living in the Era of 'Economic Elite Domination'

Welcome to the new aristocracy, political scientists say, where the public's opinion is literally of "little or no" significance in the democratic process.

Congress. Image: Wikimedia

'The government doesn't listen to average citizens, just the rich and their lobbyists,' is probably the oldest criticism of any government, anywhere. But a new study has pretty much proven that this is precisely what's happening in Congress. According to the research, the meek voice of the public barely registers beneath the booming baritone of the wealthy—so much so that 'democracy' isn't a great descriptor of how we Americans are governing ourselves. The study's authors suggest “Economic Elite Domination” instead. And it's only going to get worse.

In their upcoming paper, Princeton's Martin Gilens and Northwestern's Benjamin I. Page show that in 1,779 cases where a political change was proposed in Congress, the influence of "economic elites and organized 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."

When you're talking about a government that's supposed to be a democracy, the popular opinion wielding "little or no" influence is crazy. The paper finds that, on average, the policy preference of the economic elites (defined as those residing in the 90th percentile of income distribution or higher) was 15 times more important in determining an outcome than that of ordinary citizens.

"In our 1,779 policy cases, narrow pro-change majorities of the public got the policy changes they wanted only about 30 percent of the time," the authors write. "More strikingly, even overwhelmingly large pro-change majorities, with 80 percent of the public favoring a policy change, got that change only about 43 percent of the time." That means that 250 million voters could rally behind an issue, and their demand for change would be reflected in Congress less than half the time. And taking to the streets won't help much, either.

The political scientist Larry Bartels notes that sure, “'Mass-based interest groups' mattered, too, but only about half as much as business interest groups—and the preferences of those public interest groups were only weakly correlated (.12) with the preferences of the public as measured in opinion surveys." That means that organizers could beckon millions to publicly call for a new law; they could take to the streets in a vibrant, striking display of democracy in action—and a single dinner with an industry lobbyist would probably command more sway in determining the outcome of the legislation in Congress, even if the outcome was clearly unpopular.

Take the case of gun control. Last year, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, a truly stunning majority of Americans—91 percent—supported a bill that would require background checks on gun sales. The Senate voted it down anyway. The same phenomenon unfolds, with only slightly less spectacular numbers, with plenty of other issues. Majorities of Americans want the government to curb greenhouse gas emissions, for instance—79 percent of Texans do, and 84 percent of Kansans do—but we all know how that battle plays out in Congress.

Thanks to a rapidly widening gulf in income, our cultural moment has picked up a number of memorable signifiers: the New Gilded Age, as per Paul Krugman, the era of the 1% according to Occupy, a 'plutocracy' according to incendiary pundits. But the most apt moniker, according to this research, is plain old aristocracy.

There is a wealthy, privileged class that is far more influential in passing laws than you or I, and they are, of course, using that privilege to enshrine their privilege into law: The Roberts Court just struck down another limit on campaign financing; Citizens United remains law; the elites are pouring cash into campaigns, and the income gap is continuing to widen. The rich are not only getting richer, but demonstrably more powerful, and more able to prevent changes that offend their profits.

So, our federal government, which is now comprised primarily of such wealthy men, seems in no way poised to 'win the future', no matter how many times its executors repeat that oddly ineffectual campaign slogan. Climate change looms; the government sits idle (the elites have far more interest in the fossil fuels industry than in cleantech). The world grows increasingly wired; our representatives can barely bother themselves to learn how the internet works. No matter how large the public majorities calling for action on a given issue—whether net neutrality, global warming, gun control—elected officials often don't even bother to respond. 

The authors suggest we call this state of affairs the aforementioned "Economic Elite Domination" or “Biased Pluralism.” But it's basically aristocracy. And, if nothing changes, it's our future.