Researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page studied 1,779 changes in government policy between 1981 and 2002. They chose policies that the public was asked about in a national poll. They compared what happened with the preferences of three groups: the median American, at the 50th percentile of income; with affluent Americans, at the 90th percentile of income; and with the position of powerful interest and lobbying groups.
What they found was something we've been noticing:
...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.Sometimes ordinary Americans and rich Americans want the same things from government, and they get it. When that happens, notes our friend Hamilton Nolan at Gawker,
...regular people tend to think that their political interests are being represented when they see the triumph of some political position that they agree with. In fact, the researchers say, this is a mere coincidence. Yes, the average American will see their interests represented—as long as their interests align with the interests of the wealthy.Ordinary Americans and interest groups that spend a lot of money on lobbying do not want the same thing from government, according to the researchers:
Some particular U.S. membership organizations – especially the AARP and labor unions – do tend to favor the same policies as average citizens. But other membership groups take stands that are unrelated (pro-life and pro-choice groups) or negatively related (gun owners) to what the average American wants. Some membership groups may reflect the views of corporate backers or their most affluent constituents. Others focus on issues on which the public is fairly evenly divided. Whatever the reasons, all mass-based groups taken together simply do not add up, in aggregate, to good representatives of the citizenry as a whole. Business-oriented groups do even worse.Depressed yet? If not, consider this conclusion by the researchers:
In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule.