As usual, I'm about 6 months behind on all things viral. But this political science study apparently created some significant buzz. Briefly put, the researchers found that policies that reflect the interests of the people whose incomes are at the 90th percentile (the rich) are far more likely to see public policies enacted that reflect their desires than people whose incomes are at the 50th percentile (the middle class). In fact, the only times that the middle class see policies enacted that they support are when those policies are also supported by the rich. The authors suggest that these findings support the notion that the political structure of the United States is best described as one of Economic Elite Domination, rather than Electoral Majoritarianism (majority-rule). Most commentators have painted this study as proof that America is an oligarchy, not a democracy. I believe the word they are searching for is plutocracy.
The good news, which I haven't seen mentioned in any other commentary, is that the interests of the economic elites and the interests of the average citizen correlate at a remarkably high +.78. It's not like they both want the exact same policies (for example, the middle class is less enthusiastic than the elites about immigration and gay rights), but at least they are playing in the same ballpark. I wonder what the correlations are for other Western nations?
Scanning the paper, I find it interesting that while middle class interests are positively correlated with the positions held by Mass-Based interest groups (e.g., AARP, AFL-CIO, UAW) and negatively correlated with the positions of Business-Based interest groups (e.g., oil companies, defense contractors, U.S. Chamber of Commerce), those correlations are rather weak (+.12 and -.10, respectively). Even more interesting is that neither Mass-Based nor Business-Based interest group positions correlate significantly with those of the economic elites (+.01 and -.02, respectively). The economic elites apparently influenced policy independently of (not through) the Business-Based interest groups. (I wonder if this is the result of factions within the economic elite cancelling out the influence of each other's business-based interest groups?)
In an interview with Talking Points Memo, one of the authors (Martin Gilens) said something that should make people rather uneasy:
What are the three or four most crucial factors that have made the United States this way?
"Very good question. I'd say two crucial factors. One central factor is the role of money in our political system, and the overwhelming role that affluent individuals that affluent individuals and organized interests play, in campaign finance and in lobbying. And the second thing is the lack of mass organizations that represent and facilitate the voice of ordinary citizens. Part of that would be the decline of unions in the country which has been quite dramatic over the last 30 or 40 years. And part of it is the lack of a socialist or a worker's party."
Headline: Princeton professor supports establishment of National Socialist Workers Party in United States! There is a "worker's party" in France, by the way -- it's called the National Front.
Also, see the folks from Freakonomics here for a contrarian view on the influence of money in American electoral politics. The interesting puzzle is, with so much at stake, why is so LITTLE money spent on U.S. political campaigns? In 2012, according to Open Secrets, $2.6 billion was spent on the presidential campaigns and $3.7 billion was spent on the combined congressional races. That might seem like a lot, until you consider that Americans spend $40 billion a year on lawn care, $18 billion a year on credit card late fees, and $2.3 billion a year on tattoos (2011 figures).