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.”
Does the “Most Democrat” Policy Win in the U.S.?
Data from Pew Research Center, as well as a number of other academic sources and polls, present an entirely contradictory view on American democracy. The polarization of politics is one of the definitive characteristics of the 21st century.
Now, Republicans are Democrats “are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades,” according to Pew Research. The result is known as the partisan gap. Before the partisan gap began to emerge, there was substantial overlap between how liberal and conservative lawmakers voted; in 1973-74, 240 members of the House of Representatives fell along the political spectrum between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican, while 29 senators fell in the same zone.
But then politics began to change. By 1983-84, only 10 senators and 66 representatives populated the center. By 1993-94, the overlap between liberal Republican and conservative Democrats had narrowed to nine representatives and three senators. By 2011-2012, there was no overlap at all. The loss of any overlap in political views between Republicans and Democrats has been accompanied by the disappearance of moderate Republicans, moderate policies, and the success of the “most democratic” policy. No overlap political means compromise is near impossible, as Washington’s current state of stagnation makes obvious.
Here’s How the Government Ignores the Average American
The summation of political polarization of the American electorate, a partisan legislative, and stagnation in Washington is far from a government representative of the “average” American citizen. Through an analysis of 1,799 policy issues, Page and Gilens determined that the government always ignores the opinion of average citizens. Instead, lawmakers pursue the policy needs of monied business interests when drafting legislation. Those Americans have the ability to hire lobbyists who contribute to the campaign coffers of politicians.
The paper also argues that the policy preferences of economic elites and business-dominated interest groups little reflect the views of common Americans, and when the two views diverge, the economic elites and business interests are typically the winners. In fact, the study found that the collective preferences of “economic elites” (a group is comprised of citizens at the 90th percentile of the income distribution) were 15 times as important. Gilens and Page debunked the theory that the elite should have more political power than those citizens in lower income brackets because of their policy expertise. Instead, their paper argues that “collectively — ordinary citizens generally know their own values and interests pretty well, and that their expressed policy preferences are worthy of respect.”
It must be noted that the causes of the American political dysfunction are myriad. While the polarization of the America’s leaders is not the product of the political power held by the economic elite, the two trends are intertwined. In both scenarios, the middle — moderate, average Americans — are excluded. According to Pew Research, despite the fact that increased polarization at both ends of the ideological spectrum has caused legislative gridlock in Washington, a majority, or 57 percent, of registered voters stand at the center of the political spectrum, whether they lean Republican or Democrat. Their beliefs are fragmented, meaning they do not wholly embrace either party’s ideology, meaning they are at odds with the current political climate. Washington politics are almost solely guided by strict partisanship, and with the immense influence of the elite, lawmakers do not have to cater to those average and moderate Americans.
Business interests and economic elites benefit from the political phenomenon that allows lawmakers to avoid true populism. Members of the business and economic elite have power — that the average citizen does not — to influence party philosophy because they are the party; not only do the wealthy and large corporations have the ability to guide policymaking by funding lobbyists and readily donating to campaigns, but they are also included more regularly in the political process, especially in adversarial roles. Polarization often leaves those moderate Americans feeling excluded from the political process, pushes them to believe their vote does not matter, and therefore gives business elites and the rich more influence in government.
The fact that average Americans vote far less frequently than their “economically elite” peers contributes to that power. It also means that average American citizens are also partly responsible for their own disenfranchisement. In the United States, the problem is not only that voter turnout is low, but voter participation is socially biased as well. Those Americans who fail to vote are typically already disadvantaged: the homeless, the poor, the unemployed, new citizens, indigenous groups, and the isolated. This means voting power is concentrated with the economically elite.
Of course, the data used in the study came from a period between 1981 and 2002, and so such politically charged policies as the Affordable Care Act did not figure into the analysis. Yet, the debate that surrounds immigration holds evidence that the conclusions of Gilens and Page continue to reflect the United States’ current realities.
Immigration: A Case Study
The issue of immigration reform has languished in Washington even as the migration of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, pushed from the countries of origin by extreme violence, have made an overhaul of the system at pressing necessity and put the issue at the forefront of the nation debate. Unsurprisingly, immigration reform has deeply divided Republicans and Democrats, but the real point of contention is not so much related to the immigrants themselves. Rather, the problem comes down to the difference in views on income redistribution and the welfare state.
One of the biggest impediments to reform is the problem of what to do with the 11.5 million people who live illegally in the United States. “There is general agreement that deporting so many people is the wrong approach, but there is no consensus on what status these unauthorized immigrants should be granted and what path, if any, they should ultimately have toward citizenship,” Intel’s Director of Immigration Policy, Peter Muller, wrote this January in a company blog post. Corporate elites have long supported pro-amnesty policies, which would ensure a path to citizenship for their workers. For example, Intel has advocated for a reform that “allows U.S. companies better access to foreign-born workers graduating from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science, math, and engineering,” as Muller noted.
Furthermore, almost 50 percent of agricultural workers, 17 percent of construction workers, and 12 percent of food preparation workers in the United States lack the right to work, meaning that a wide range of business, from farming to hospitality, would benefit from a legalization program. Others argue legalizing those immigrants would add a cumulative $1.5 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product — the largest measure of economic growth — over a 10 year period. However, the American public is far from convinced amnesty is the right move; an August 7 Reuters/Ipsos poll found 70 percent of Americans, including 86 percent of Republicans, believe illegal immigrants “threaten traditional U.S. beliefs and customs,” while 63 percent think that “immigrants place a burden on the economy.”
The solution to the overwhelming imbalance in political influence is fairly simple, according to Gilens and Page; all that is needed is a reinvigorated and engaged electorate. “If policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened,” they concluded. But growing income inequality, an increasingly dysfunctional campaign finance system, and a federal government that is uninterested or unable to provide leadership regarding serious problems, like immigration, will only increase the political power of the business and economic elite.
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