Until now, evidence about the ways in which interest groups shape U.S. national policy has largely been anecdotal or limited to conspiracy theories. But a startling new paper offers a stunning portrait of the extent of the influence of interest groups.
“Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” a new study published in the forthcoming fall 2014 issue of the Perspectives on Politics journal, offers a grim assessment of the role of elites in dictating the country’s policies and concludes by saying that the “preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” (You can read an early draft of the paper here.)
Authors Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University looked at data relating to 1,779 national policy issues from 1981 to 2002 in which they were able to determine the policy preferences of four different groups: average citizens, economic elites, mass-based interest groups, and business-oriented interest groups. Using multivariate analysis to identify the influence of each of the groups on the outcomes of each policy issue, Gilens and Page found that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests (e.g., Association of Trial Lawyers) had a strong impact on national policy issues. Average citizens and mass-based interest groups (such as the United Auto Workers union and the AARP), meanwhile, were determined to have “little or no independent influence.”
While the authors do raise some caveats with their model and data, they suggest that a majoritarian electoral democracy model may no longer be a realistic description of U.S. government. American University professor Allan Lichtman would agree with them. Calling the pair’s research “shattering,” Lichtman says that average citizens must return to more active participation in grassroots movements to ensure their voices are being heard.
Politicians respond to the mass mobilization of everyday Americans as proven by the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But no comparable movements exist today. Without a substantial presence on the ground, people-oriented interest groups cannot compete against their wealthy adversaries… Although average Americans cannot match the economic power of the rich, large numbers of modest contributions can still finance PACs and super-PACs that advance our common interests.