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:


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.

5 Responses

  1. This is an interesting paper, that brings great clarity to the competing theoretical models that address the problem, ‘Who governs? Who really rules?’. However I’m skeptical as to whether the authors’ dataset provides unequivocal support for the general equation between ‘electoralism’ and oligarchical rule claimed by Yoram in his open letter to Professor Gilens, for reasons provided in a new post that I’ve just submitted (too long for a reply).


  2. […] is an interesting paper, that brings admiral clarity to the competing theoretical models that address the problem, ‘Who […]


  3. […] Gilens and Page: Average citizens have no political influence ( […]


  4. […] An empirical study by Gilens and Page indicating that median (as measure by income) public opinion has very little effect on policy in the U.S. got significant media attention. Another study, by Norton and Kiatpongsan, showing that there is little association between people’s expectations (and perceptions) about inequality and reality was widely discussed as well. […]


  5. […] long article mostly revolves around Van Reybrouk’s book, but also mentions Gilens and Page. She seems to some extent skeptical of Van Reybrouck’s progressivist outlook and ends […]


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