How The Rich Rule US Democracy

Via Social Europe Journal, Dani Rodrik points to both a perennial question on economic self-interests and elections:

Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, have recently produced some stark findings for the United States that have dramatic implications for the functioning of democracy – in the US and elsewhere.

When viewed in isolation, the preferences of the “average” voter – that is, a voter in the middle of the income distribution – seem to have a strongly positive influence on the government’s ultimate response. A policy that the average voter would like is significantly more likely to be enacted.

But, as Gilens and Page note, this gives a misleadingly upbeat impression of the representativeness of government decisions.The preferences of the average voter and of economic elites are not very different on most policy matters.

To carry out that test, Gilens and Page ran a horse race between the preferences of average voters and those of economic elites – defined as individuals at the top tenth percentile of the income distribution – to see which voters exert greater influence. They found that the effect of the average voter drops to insignificant levels, while that of economic elites remains substantial.

As Gilens and Page emphasize, their evidence does not imply that government policy makes the average citizen worse off. Ordinary citizens often do get what they want, by virtue of the fact that their preferences frequently are similar to those of the elite. This correlation of the two groups’ preferences may make it difficult for voters to discern politicians’ bias.