Ivy League Study: The General Public Has Virtually No Influence on Policy

Ivy League Study: The General Public Has Virtually No Influence on Policy

Benjamin Page says that the analysis he conducted with Martin Giles of public opinion surveys and elite policy preferences of the last 20 years shows economic elites virtually determine governmental policy -   April 22, 2014
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Benjamin I. Page is the Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University and an associate of the Institute of Policy Research. He has authored and co-authored a number of books and articles on American politics, including The Rational Public , Class War? , and The Foreign Policy Disconnect . His current research focuses on the political and social activity of wealthy Americans, including their philanthropy, political views, and political actions.


Ivy League Study: The General Public Has Virtually No Influence on PolicyANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

A new study titled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens says what we've all long felt to be true: the rich and powerful have much greater influence than the rest of us. Political scientist Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern looked at about 1,800 survey questions of public opinion between 1981 and 2002, and they concluded, quote, 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.

Now joining us to discuss the report is one of its authors, Benjamin Pages. Benjamin is a professor of political science at Northwestern University.

Thank you for joining us, Benjamin.


WORONCZUK: So, Benjamin, tell us how you came to this conclusion. Tell us about the data that you looked at. And give us some concrete statistics to show that democracy gap between the public and the economic elites.

PAGE: Well, Marty Gilens and his people worked for about ten years to do this. It's a very difficult study. You described it a bit. It involved gathering a lot of information about public opinion, about what affluent people think, and about what interest groups stand for. And we then looked and how public policy came out on these 1,800 cases. And it turns out, if you wanted to predict it, the average citizen simply appeared to have no influence whatsoever, no measurable influence, but organized groups had quite a bit, and affluent citizens even more.

WORONCZUK: So you looked at about two decades' worth of surveys of public opinion. Do you see a change in influence of economic elites over that time? Or is it relatively constant? And also, do you see a change in the kinds of elites that have influence over policy?

PAGE: Well, there appears to be some change over time. As economic inequality has increased and there's more money among the most wealthy people, they seem to use more of it for politics and have more influence. And, of course, the study data ended some time ago. This was before the Supreme Court decisions that increased the power of money still for further.

WORONCZUK: And so what kind of issues do we see the wealthy having a greater influence over? What kind of policy choices do they seek that differs from that of the desires of the public?

PAGE: Well, there are certain kinds of issues on which wealthy Americans tend to disagree quite a bit with the average. One of the biggest is Social Security, where the average American really likes the program, wants to increase it, and wealthy Americans tend to want to cut it to reduce budget deficits. Then there are a lot of policies that have to do with jobs and incomes where you get the same kind of situation--the wealthy people, of course, don't particularly get anything from those, and I think they may underappreciate their importance to average people. There are also disagreements about economic regulation. The average American's much more keen on regulating big corporations, for example. And there are difference about tax policy. The average American would like to close loopholes and have high-income people pay a substantially larger share, whereas upper income people are less enthusiastic about that.

WORONCZUK: Do you see any policy desires of the public or the economic elite that tend to converge?

PAGE: Yes. There are many of them, and particularly in this study. [incompr.] affluent [incompr.] things were just moderately affluent people, the top 10 or 20 percent or so, and the differences are not enormous. So in many cases, the average person agrees and they get what they want, but apparently it's only because the affluent want it.

What we suspect but don't really have evidence for is that much wealthier people may be exerting most of that political influence. And they tend to have much more different policy preferences from the average person.

WORONCZUK: Okay. So judging this democracy gap that exists between the public and the economic elite, let's say that Obama called you tomorrow and put you on economic reform task force. What recommendations would you make to him?

PAGE: Well, I would do better on a political reform task force, I think. And what I would suggest is that we really work hard to reduce the role of money in politics. The Supreme Court's made it a little harder, but there's still things you can do--full disclosure of all kinds of political donations, for example; limiting lobbying; and probably public financing of campaigns. Most people don't want to give a bunch of tax money to politicians, but the alternative is to have them rely on private money, and public funding would probably help quite a bit reduce that reliance.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Professor Benjamin Page, thank you so much for coming on to discuss your report.

PAGE: Thank you very much.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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