Is Populism in American Politics Just a Big, Fat Lie?
Voting is the primary vehicle of representative government, and as such, the failure of Americans to participate is damaging to the country’s democratic health. But voter participation rates are low in the United States, falling below 60 percent in every single election since 1968. In the 2012 presidential election, just 57.5 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Meanwhile, the public’s approval of both President Barack Obama and Congress is extremely low; only 7 percent of Americans have any confidence in Congress, and just 29 percent has any faith in the presidency. Plus, Obama’s below-average job approval rating stands at 42 percent. At 13 percent, Congress’ job approval rating remains near the record low recorded at the end of last year. These numbers seem to suggest that Americans appear content to complain about their leadership, but fail to become involved in the political process. Although measures of political dissatisfaction do not track which respondents are regular voters, public approval of Congress is so low that it is clear dissatisfaction is broad-based throughout the electorate.
However, the argument could be made that complacency may only be the simple, superficial explanation of low voter participation; rather, a perception of disenfranchisement may be guiding low voting turnouts. An April 2014 political science study — “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” which is scheduled to be published in the fall 2014 issue of Perspectives on Politics — offers evidence that American voters as a broad group are correct to assume they have little influence on policymaking. Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Professor Benjamin Page, the study’s authors, found that, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
The study was arranged around this central question: “Who governs? Who really rules? To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless?” Page and Gilens proceeded to explain the four main theoretical traditions in American political science; each argues a different group — either the average citizen or “median voter,” the economic elite, mass-based interest groups, or industry interest groups — is primarily responsible for ruling the country’s democratic system. The study then debunked the theories that either the average citizen or mass-based interest groups significantly influence government policy.
In theory, the American government operates in accordance with “the rational choice theories of electoral democracy, in which vote-seeking parties or candidates in a two-party system tend to converge at the midpoint of citizens’ policy preferences.” Or, in other words, a so-called “majoritarian electoral democracy,” which is produced by votes cast by the average citizen, will be a government of political moderation, appealing to a sizable majority of voters in either party. A key characteristic of such a system is that the “most democratic” policy would always win because “it would be preferred to any alternative policy in head-to-head majority-rule voting by all citizens.”