President Lincoln’s declared “government of the people, by the people, for the people” may be in danger of perishing from the earth after all.
A recent study by professors Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin I. Page found that the U.S. now resembles more of an oligarchy than a democratic republic.
“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 author of a recent commentary about oligarchy in the 21st century, Matthew Continetti, of the Free Beacon, might even suggest that last phrase be repeated.
“Mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
“What we are in danger of losing because of the ‘extreme inequality in terms of political influence and the production of knowledge and information’ are the classical liberal values of negative freedom, of religious liberty, of equality before the law, of free markets,” he wrote.
“The inequality of income our bipartisan ruling class sanctimoniously condemns is the very tool it uses to shore up the inequalities of power and communication from which it benefits. Affluent, self-righteous, self-seeking, self-possessed, triumphalist, out of touch, hostile to dissent – this is what oligarchy looks like in the 21st century,” he wrote.
The study looked at 1,779 policy issues and found that, “The probability of policy change is nearly the same (around 0.3) whether a tiny minority or a large majority of average citizens favor a proposed policy change. By contrast – again with other actors held constant – a proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favor) is adopted only about 18 percent of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favor) is adopted about 45 percent of the time.”
The authors both work with the Scholars Strategy Network, which claims it “brings together many of America’s leading scholars to address pressing public challenges at the national, state, and local levels. As progressive-minded citizens, SSN members spell out the democratic and policy implications of their research in ways that are broadly accessible,” but denies any particular political affiliations.
Larry Bartels of the Washington Post counts Gilens as a former colleague and Page as a “sometimes collaborator.”
In a recent interview with TPM, Gilens stated, “I’d say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups – of economic elites and of organized interests.”
Marc E. Fitch, a recent winner of the Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship and an author currently researching whether or not studies like this can be used as a guiding force in public policy for an upcoming book, said, “Studies, such as this one, are really pieces of a larger, almost incomprehensible puzzle. I think the fact that both political sides seem to immediately recognize this piece of the puzzle tells us that it’s on to something.
“The left sees corporations like the Koch brothers and the right sees GE and George Soros. I think the ironic thing is that the people commenting on this study and making a big deal out of it are often themselves part of the problem. Let’s face it, the money and media and the politicians are all in D.C.”
Fitch points out that the problem may be more systemic and ingrained into the culture than merely money equaling power.
“Since Reagan, every president has come from Harvard or Yale. Because these are considered the most prestigious education institutions in the United States, the graduates that they produce are funneled straight into Washington or are given positions in some of the major media outlets,” he said.
“It’s a belief that merely by attending these schools you are somehow a superior individual and deserve a position of power. You don’t see too many peanut farmers like Jimmy Carter or generals like Eisenhower even trying to go into politics anymore. Even Sarah Palin was mocked for the college she attended. I think that, in itself, could be the cause of the separation of the policy makers from the people.”
Gilens work appears to point in that same direction. The affluent attend elite universities that are among the most fervently leftist and liberal institutions in the country. Gilens states that the affluent tend to hold more socially liberal positions than the majority.
“We’d see, perhaps ironically, less liberal policies in some domains like religious or moral issues. Affluent people tend to be more socially liberal on things like abortion or gay rights.”
Gilens cites the lack of a Worker’s Party or Socialist Party as part of the problem but Fitch says that may appeal to the professor’s preconceived notions of representation of the common man, they are often just replacing evil with a greater evil.
“You would just end up with more of the same. This is a deeper cultural issue about personal responsibility and honesty. You can throw as much money as you want at a politician but it is his or her job to put their constituency before their own pockets. That is not happening in any way. Until we consider moral character over celebrity in politics we will keep ending up in this position.”
Continetti noted a recent secret meeting the White House held for “an elite group of 100 young philanthropists and heirs to billionaire family fortunes.”
He reported, “This ‘discreet, invitation-only summit’ was intended, the author says, ‘to find common ground between the public sector and the so-called next generation philanthropists, many of whom stand to inherit billions in private wealth.”
Continetti reported on what happened. “‘I was a little worried they were going to get a bunch of rich kids in the room and fundraise for the Democratic Party,’ said one of the participants. ‘But they didn’t.’ The quote comes from 31-year-old Liesel Pritzker Simmons, whose billionaire cousin is the secretary of Commerce, and who along with her brother earned a $560 million inheritance by suing her dad. The Obama team did not have to hit up Pritzker Simmons for cash. She and her husband, an heir to the Montgomery Ward fortune, have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats and liberal groups in recent years, including to ActBlue, the DSCC, Harry Reid’s Majority PAC, Priorities USA, Elizabeth Warren, and congressional candidate Sean Eldridge. Like Eldridge needs the money. He is married to Chris Hughes, who lucked into rooming with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard and now is worth around $400 million.”
Noted the study, “Who governs? Who really rules? To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless?”