How Much Voice Does the ‘Average American’ Really Have in Politics?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Are the nation’s elite really looking out for you and your interests? Yes, it sounds like something that would be asked during a campaign ad, but it’s a totally reasonable thing to think about. It turns out that a couple of researches were wondering the same thing, and decided to take a dip into the data to find out.

Their findings? Let’s say that most people’s concerns and suspicions have been justified. The researchers found that government policies mostly reflect the wishes of the wealthy, and those without money are pretty much ignored.

The study, titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” was conducted by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, was published by Cambridge University Press earlier this year, and produced plenty of buzz for the two researchers, including an appearance on The Daily Show, seen below.

Now, Jon Stewart may be able to convey the two researchers’ findings in a lighthearted and comedic way, but the results the two published can be quite deflating for many who care about the political and economic future of the United States. From the study itself, Giles and Page write that, “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Again, probably not entirely surprising, but definitely not something that you would want to say about a thriving, world-leading country such as the U.S. But Giles and Page don’t sugarcoat their conclusion toward the end of the publication, writing that, “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized 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.”

Now, many people may have had their suspicions that this was the case, and even the courts have ruled that ‘money equals speech,’ more or less, but to have it spelled out in actual quantifiable terms is a bit of a blow. But there’s more to the the findings than just the discussion about influence on politics. The study also goes to provide some insight into why its conclusion isn’t actually all that bad, at least relative to most people’s initial reaction.

Why? Well, it appears that wealthy people’s interests more or less line up with those who are not wealthy. That’s right, according to Giles and Page, people tend to align with the wealthy on their opinions regarding many different matters.

“It turns out, in fact, that the preferences of average citizens are positively and fairly highly correlated, across issues, with the preferences of economic elites,” the study says. “Rather often, average citizens and affluent citizens (our proxy for economic elites) want the same things from government. This bi-variate correlation affects how we should interpret our later multivariate findings in terms of ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’”

That is definitely an interesting finding, and brings up some different issues and questions to address. While there are groups out there that differ greatly from what’s in the public’s best interest and carry a lot of weight in terms of policymaking (like business groups, for example) on an individual citizens tend to have similar feelings regarding several issues.

So, does that mean that Occupy Wall Street protesters and the affluent big-shots that they are so adamantly opposed to aren’t that different after all? It could. Also, the study as a whole indicates that America is rapidly moving away from a representative democracy, and into the realm of a plutocracy.

Essentially, this study basically confirms what many people already knew: The more money you have, the more influence you control. For the nation’s lower and middle classes, it explains a lot regarding policymakers’ behavior, but it’s still a tough pill to swallow.

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