A letter to Prof. Martin Gilens

Dear Prof. Gilens,

My name is Yoram Gat.

I recently became aware of your new paper “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens ” expanding on your previous work (“Inequality and democratic responsiveness”, 2005).

I see the findings of this work, as I presume you do, as confirming the widespread public sentiment, consistently measured in many opinion polls and expressed for example in the 2011 “Occupy” protests, that the American system does not represent the majority of Americans (“the 99%”). I also presume that the American system is not unique in this respect: 2011 has seen protest around the world reflecting similar sentiments in other societies governed by similar systems.
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Gilens and Page: Average citizens have no political influence

Keith McDonnell and Terry Bouricius wrote to point out the following.

Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page have a new paper titled “Testing theories of American politics: elites, interest Groups, and average citizens”. The paper continues the work of Gilens analyzing the correlation between public opinion and policy (see his 2005 paper “Inequality and democratic responsiveness” and a book on the same theme, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America).

The previous work found that any correlation between public sentiments and policy is completely mediated by elite opinion (where “elite” is defined as top decile of income). The new paper adds to the analysis the position of interest groups and again finds that elites dominate policy making. The abstract is as follows:

Abstract

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.

A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. This paper reports on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.

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