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America’s Democracy?

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Kaleigh B

So we’ve been talking (and posting) a lot about dependency corruption and it’s effect on Congress. As Lawrence Lessig has pointed out numerous times in his work Republic Lost,we don’t have to believe that there is quid pro quo bribery going on in Washington–rather, we have to ask ourselves: does the existence of so much money in Congress makes it harder to believe that the policy outcomes are the principled and sensible result of good government?

Answering “no” is getting a lot harder to do.

In a forthcoming paper from Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin I. Page (Northwestern University), there is evidence to suggest that average Americans have almost no influence on public policy whatsoever. Gilens and Page tracked 1,779 policy issues and examined the policy preferences of what they call “average Americans” (those at the 50th percentile in terms of income), “economic elites” (those at the 90th percentile), and interest groups. They then tested the effects of the policy preferences of each group together, allowing them to analyze the independent effects of average citizens, economic elites, and interest groups. The outcomes are rather disturbing in terms of democratic rule in America. The researchers note:

“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.”

To be fair, average Americans do receive many of the policy outcomes that they desire–but when that happens, the researchers found that it was because the average American’s preferences happened to line up with the economic elites’. Unfortunately for the average citizens, though, they and the economic elites differed in what are arguably some of the most important policy areas. The issues on which these two groups disagreed included “many aspects of trade restrictions, tax policy, corporate regulation, abortion, and school prayer, so that the resulting political losses by ordinary citizens are not trivial.”

I think what this means is that it’s going to be hard to educate the vast majority of people about just what’s going on in government–after all, if some of their policy preferences are being met, how do you tell them that there’s some sort of corruption going on?

So, then–how do we reclaim America’s democracy if there’s no smoking gun that we can point to for reform?

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