Saturday, December 13, 2014

From Harvard: on the influence of elites compared to ordinary citizens … by gimleteye

Check this out from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Interesting to see data put to what people intuitively understand and why so many people feel their votes are meaningless:

The influence of elites, interest groups and average voters on American politics
Last updated: November 14, 2014

Public policy in the United States is shaped by a wide variety of forces, from polls and election results to interest groups and institutions, both formal and informal. In addition to political parties, the influence of diverse and sometimes antagonistic political forces has been widely acknowledged by policymakers and evidenced by scholars, and journalists. In recent years concerns have been growing that deep-pocketed donors now play an unprecedented role in American politics — concerns supported by 2013 research from Harvard and the University of Sydney that found that for election integrity, the U.S. ranked 26th out of 66 countries analyzed.

The question of who shapes public policies and under what conditions is a critical one, particularly in the context of declining voter turnout. From both a theoretical and practical point of view, it is important to understand if voters still have the possibility of providing meaningful input into public policies, or if the government bypasses citizens in favor of economic elites and interest groups with strong fundraising and organizational capacity.

A 2014 study published in Perspectives on Politics, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” analyzes the relative influence of political actors on policymaking. The researchers sought to better understand the impact of elites, interest groups and voters on the passing of public policies. The authors, Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, based their research on a database of voters’ and interest groups’ positions on 1,779 issues between 1981 and 2002, and how those positions were or weren’t reflected in policy decisions.

The scholars use the data to examine four theoretical conceptions of how American politics works and the degree of influence that parties have on the decision-making process: (1) majoritarian electoral democracy, in which average citizens lead the decision-making process; (2) economic-elite domination; (2) majoritarian pluralism, in which mass-based interest groups provide the driving force; and (4) biased pluralism, where the opinions of business-oriented interest groups weigh most heavily.

The study’s key findings include:

Compared to economic elites, average voters have a low to nonexistent influence on public policies. “Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions, they have little or no independent influence on policy at all,” the authors conclude.
In cases where citizens obtained their desired policy outcome, it was in fact due to the influence of elites rather than the citizens themselves: “Ordinary citizens might often be observed to ‘win’ (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.”

Regardless of whether a small minority or majority of American citizens support a policy, the probability of policy change is nearly the same — approximately 30%.

A proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans is adopted only about 18% of the time, while a proposed change with high support is adopted about 45% of the time.

Interest groups have a substantial impact on public policy. When mass-based and business-oriented interest groups oppose a policy, the probability of its being enacted is only 16%, rising to 47% when they’re strongly favorable. “On the 1,357 proposed policy changes for which at least one interest group was coded as favoring or opposing change, in only 36% of the cases did most groups favor change, while in 55% of the cases most groups opposed change.”

Overall, business-oriented groups have almost twice the influence of mass-based groups.

While the popular belief is that professional associations and interest groups serve to aggregate and organize average citizens’ interests, the data do not support this. The preferences of average citizens are positively and highly correlated with the preferences of economic elites but not with those of interest groups. Except for labor unions and the AARP, interest groups do not tend to favor the same policies as average citizens. In fact, some groups’ positions are negatively correlated with the opinion of the average American, as in the case of gun owners.

“The central point that emerges from our research is 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,” the scholars conclude, providing “substantial support” for the theories of economic-elite domination and biased pluralism.

Related research: A 2010 study by Jacob S. Hacker of Yale and Paul Pierson of University of California, Berkeley, “Winner-Take-All Politics: Public Policy, Political Organization and the Precipitous Rise of Top Incomes in the United States,” examines structural and political explanations for rising inequality. Further, a 2014 literature review, “Advancing the Empirical Research on Lobbying,” written by John M. de Figueiredo of Duke and Brian Kelleher Richter of the University of Texas, Austin, provides an overview of leading scholarship and suggests promising social science methods and new data sources. They find that lobbying expenditures at the federal level are approximately five times those of political action committee (PAC) campaign contributions. For instance, in 2012, organized interest groups spent $3.5 billion annually lobbying the federal government, compared to approximately $1.55 billion in campaign contributions from PACs and other organizations over the two-year 2011-2012 election cycle.

- See more.


Anonymous said...

Elites study and game the system, whereas the ordinary citizen barely understand the enormous power of the vote. Because they do not understand the power of the vote, many don't register, and many who do, don't actually vote. There are more ordinary citizens than there are elites, so it is theoretically possible for ordinary citizens to prevail anytime they want to by simply voting. Even when elites lose, they pay lobbyists to soften up the elected official with consistent interaction, visits, perks, and exploitation of their weaknesses. If they determine they are stupid or lazy, elites will actually write the legislation for them and give it to them for inclusion in legislation. So on one hand you have a huge mass of people with all the power in the world, but don't know it, and on the other hand, a tiny smart group systematically working its will and acquiring way more power than they deserve.

Philip Stoddard said...

Regular citizens can make an outsized difference without the outsized headaches of serving in elected office. Here's how: Engage an elected official who shares your values and assist this person by writing resolution and ordinance drafts to accomplish your shared vision. That's what lobbyists do, right? Any engaged citizen with some writing skill can do it too (e.g. the typical EOM reader). Try your hand. Research your ideas, and copy the format of resolutions and ordinances that come before your local council. You might craft a winner that catches fire and improves people's lives.

Anonymous said...

These studies show even more concentration of power on the local level. The old Robert Dahl model of local government, from his studies of New Haven (Who Governs?) has long been discredited and even abandoned by even the most hardcore pluralists. While many are not ready to accept the Molotch Growth Machine or Domhoff's (Who Really Governs?), the Clarence Stone model of concentrated power is mostly accepted by urban studies academics. Most interesting is that the population still believe in democracy while many political scientists spend their time on voting studies and econometrics to earn tenure when at best its irrelevant and at worst a distracting side show for the real activities of administering elite preferences that compose the daily business of government activity.

Anonymous said...

While the academics have their own goals and lines of inquiries, it is not as firmly etched in the minds of elected officials or in the organizational cultures of local government as assumed by the Anon above. Lurking in the background is always the fear among elected officials that the "sleeping giant", the voters, will awake and change course. This fear is why elites have installed a permanent infrastructure of lobbyists to mediate directional change and minimize negative electoral impacts on their agendas. The threat is real because of the huge numbers of voters that lie dormant. But even if only a few of these voters "awaken" they could easily dismantle schemes in operation or in the planning process. The situation is much more fragile and fluid than assumed by the Anon above.

Anonymous said...

There may be more concentration of power but it is limited and targeted. At the local level government actually has to deliver basic services at the street level for all of the population. Potable water has to be provided; solid waste has to be disposed; sewage must be disposed; buses and transit must to run on time; parks have to be open; police and fire must be always on duty; libraries must be open; pot holes must be filled ; the airport has to be open- in short addressing the will of elites is not their primary focus.

Anonymous said...

There is a reason the population believes in democracy. It really still exists. Every now and then, something happens to remind us that it is still here. This year that evidence was the Cantor race, and his stunning defeat.

Anonymous said...

This just In:

Elitist Ivy League School, full of smart rich kids from wealthy families, says "Elite have more power than ordinary people"!



Anonymous said...

They need to define what they mean by elite. There are gradations of the elite. The kind who have to work for a living and survival is one kind. The kind who does not work and lives exclusively off the work of his money is another. They are two very distinct groups.