Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page
Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page
Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics—which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination, and two types of interest-group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism—offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented. A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. We report on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues. Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.
W ho governs? Who really rules? To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi- sovereign, or largely powerless? These questions
have animated much important work in the study of American politics.
While this body of research is rich and variegated, it can loosely be divided into four families of theories: Majoritarian
Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination, and two types of interest-group pluralism—Majoritarian Pluralism, in which the interests of all citizens are more or less equally represented, and Biased Pluralism, in which corporations, business associations, and professional groups predominate. Each of these perspectives makes different predictions about the independent influence upon U.S. policy making of four sets of actors: the Average Citizen or “median voter,” Economic Elites, and Mass-based or Business-oriented Interest Groups or industries. Each of these theoretical traditions has given rise to
a large body of literature. Each is supported by a great deal of empirical evidence—some of it quantitative, some historical, some observational—concerning the importance of various sets of actors (or, all too often, a single set of actors) in U.S. policy making. This literature has made important contributions to our understanding of how American politics works and has helped illuminate how democratic or undemocratic (in various senses) our policy making process actually is. Until very recently, however, it has been impossible to test the differing predictions of these theories against each other within a single statistical model that permits one to analyze the independent effects of each set of actors upon policy outcomes. Here—in a tentative and preliminary way—we offer such
a test, bringing a unique data set to bear on the problem. Our measures are far from perfect, but we hope that this first step
A permanent link to supplementary materials provided by the authors precedes the References section.
Martin Gilens is Professor of Politics at Princeton University (firstname.lastname@example.org). His research examines representa- tion, public opinion, and mass media, especially in relation to inequality and public policy. Professor Gilens is the author of Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (2012, Princeton University Press). Benjamin I. Page is Gordon S. Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University (b-page@- northwestern.edu). His research interests include public opinion, policy making, the mass media, and U.S. foreign policy. He is currently engaged in a large collaborative project to study Economically Successful Americans and the Common Good. For helpful comments the authors are indebted to Larry Bartels and Jeff Isaac, to the anonymous reviewers from Perspectives on Politics, and to seminar participants at Harvard University and the University of Rochester.
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will help inspire further research into what we see as some of the most fundamental questions about American politics. 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. Our results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism. In what follows, we briefly review the four theoretical
traditions that form the framework for our analyses and highlight some of the most prominent empirical research associated with each. We then describe our data and measures and present our results. We conclude by discussing the implications of our work for understanding American democracy and by identifying some of the directions for future research that our findings suggest.
Four Theoretical Traditions Each of the four theoretical traditions we are addressing has produced a body of literature much too vast to review in detail here. We can only allude to a few central pieces of work in each tradition. And we must acknowledge that a particular scholar’s work does not always fall neatly into a single category. Some scholars work across—or indepen- dently of—our theoretical categories, embracing multiple influences and complex processes of policy making. Here we focus on ideal types of theory, for the purpose of outlining certain distinctive predictions that those types of theory tend to make. Given the nature of our data, we focus on the societal sources of influence that these theories posit, rather than on the mechanisms of influence that they discuss.
Majoritarian Electoral Democracy Theories of majoritarian electoral democracy, as positive or empirical theories, attribute U.S. government policies chiefly to the collective will of average citizens, who are seen as empowered by democratic elections. Such thinking goes back at least to Tocqueville, who (during the Jacksonian era) saw American majorities as “omnipo- tent”—particularly at the state level—and worried about “tyranny of the majority.”1 It is encapsulated in Abraham Lincoln’s reference to government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” and was labeled by Robert Dahl “populistic democracy.”2
An important modern incarnation of this tradition is found in rational choice theories of electoral democracy, in which vote-seeking parties or candidates in a two-party system tend to converge at the mid-point of citizens’ policy preferences. If preferences are jointly single-peaked so that they can be arrayed along a single dimension, the “median voter theorem”—posited verbally by Harold Hotelling, proved by Duncan Black, and popularized by Anthony
Downs in his Economic Theory of Democracy—states that two vote-seeking parties will both take the same position, at the center of the distribution of voters’ most-preferred positions. Under the relevant assumptions, public policy that fits the preferences of the median voter is not only the empirically-predicted equilibrium result of two-party elec- toral competition; as the “Condorcet winner” it also has the normative property of being the “most democratic” policy, in the sense that it would be preferred to any alternative policy in head-to-head majority-rule voting by all citizens.3
Subsequent “chaos” results by social choice theorists, starting with Kenneth Arrow, have indicated that the median voter prediction follows logically only for unidi- mensional politics. If citizens’ preference orderings are not unidimensional and are sufficiently diverse, majority rule—hence also two-party electoral competition—might not lead to any equilibrium outcome at all.4 It is important to note, however, that what might theoretically happen will not necessarily ever happen in practice. Real-world out- comes depend upon how institutions are organized and how preferences are actually configured.
Despite the “chaos” results, and despite many criticisms of the median-voter theorem as simplistic and empirically inapplicable or wrong,5 a good many scholars—probably more economists than political scientists among them— still cling to the idea that the policy preferences of the median voter tend to drive policy outputs from the U.S. political system. A fair amount of empirical evidence has been adduced—by Alan Monroe; Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro; Robert Erikson, Michael MacKuen, and James Stimson (authors of the very influential Macro Polity); and others—that seems to support the notion that the median voter determines the results of much or most policy making. This evidence indicates that U.S. federal government policy is consistent with majority preferences roughly two-thirds of the time; that public policy changes in the same direction as collective preferences a similar two-thirds of the time; that the liberalism or conservatism of citizens is closely associated with the liberalism or conservatism of policy across states; and that fluctuations in the liberal or conservative “mood” of the public are strongly associated with changes in the liberalism or conservatism of policy in all three branches of govern- ment.6
The fly in the ointment is that none of this evidence allows for, or explicitly assesses, the impact of such variables as the preferences of wealthy individuals, or the preferences and actions of organized interest groups, which may independently influence public policy while perhaps being positively associated with public opinion— thereby producing a spurious statistical relationship between opinion and policy.
Recent research by Larry Bartels and by one of the present authors (Gilens), which explicitly brings the preferences of “affluent” Americans into the analysis along
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with the preferences of those lower in the income distribution, indicates that the apparent connection be- tween public policy and the preferences of the average citizen may indeed be largely or entirely spurious.7
The “electoral reward and punishment” version of democratic control through elections—in which voters retrospectively judge how well the results of government policy have satisfied their basic interests and values, and politicians enact policies in anticipation of judgments that they expect will later be made by what V.O. Key, Jr., called “latent” public opinion—might be thought to offer a different prediction: that policy will tend to satisfy citizens’ underlying needs and values, rather than corre- sponding with their current policy preferences.8 We cannot test this prediction because we do not have—and cannot easily imagine how to obtain—good data on individuals’ deep, underlying interests or values, as opposed to their expressed policy preferences. But the evidence that collective policy preferences are generally rather stable over time suggests that expressed collective policy preferences may not often diverge markedly from subsequently manifested “latent” preferences. They may do so only under special circumstances, such as economic recessions or disastrous wars.9 If so, the electoral-reward- and-punishment type of democratic theory, too, predicts that most of the time public policy will respond to the current policy preferences of the average citizen.
Economic-Elite Domination A quite different theoretical tradition argues that U.S. policy making is dominated by individuals who have substantial economic resources, i.e., high levels of income or wealth—including, but not limited to, ownership of business firms.
Not all “elite theories” share this focus. Some emphasize social status or institutional position—such as the occu- pancy of key managerial roles in corporations, or top-level positions in political parties, in the executive, legislative, or judicial branches of government, or in the highest ranks of the military. Some elite theories postulate an amalgam of elites, defined by combinations of social status, economic resources, and institutional positions, who achieve a degree of unity through common backgrounds, coinciding inter- ests, and social interactions.
For example, C. Wright Mills’ important book, The Power Elite, offers a rather nuanced account of how U.S. social, economic, political, and military elites have historically alternated in different configurations of domi- nance. Mills noted that his elites derived in substantial proportions from the upper classes, including the very rich and corporate executives, but their elite status was not defined by their wealth.10 Our focus here is on theories that emphasize the policy-making importance of economic elites.
Analyses of U.S. politics centered on economic elites go back at least to Charles Beard, who maintained that
a chief aim of the framers of the U.S. Constitution was to protect private property, favoring the economic interests of wealthy merchants and plantation owners rather than the interests of the then-majority small farmers, laborers, and craft workers. A landmark work in this tradition is G. William Domhoff ’s detailed account of how elites (working through foundations, think-tanks, and an “opinion- shaping apparatus,” as well as through the lobbyists and politicians they finance) may dominate key issues in U.S. policy making despite the existence of democratic elections. Philip A. Burch has exhaustively chronicled the economic backgrounds of federal government officials through American history. Thomas Ferguson’s analysis of the political importance of “major investors” might be seen as a theory of economic elites. Most recently, Jeffrey Winters has posited a comparative theory of “Oligarchy,” in which the wealthiest citizens—even in a “civil oligarchy” like the United States—dominate policy concerning crucial issues of wealth and income protection.11
Our third and fourth theoretical traditions posit that public policy generally reflects the outcome of struggle among organized interest groups and business firms.12
Majoritarian Pluralism The roots of what we can characterize as theories of “majoritarian” interest-group pluralism go back to James Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10, which analyzed politics in terms of “factions”—a somewhat fuzzy concept that apparently encompassed political parties and even popular majorities, as well as what we would today consider organized interest groups, business firms, and industrial sectors. Madison argued that struggles among the diverse factions that would be found in an extensive republic would lead to policies more or less representative of the needs and interests of the citizenry as a whole—or at least would tend to defeat “tyrannical” policies, including the much-feared issuance of inflationary paper money that might cater to local majority factions of farmer- debtors but would be costly to merchant creditors.13
In the twentieth century, Arthur Bentley’s The Process of Government and then David Truman’s monumental The Governmental Process put groups at the center of political analysis, laying out a detailed picture of how organized interest groups might get their way. Truman offered a comprehensive and still-interesting catalogue of lobbying techniques and other methods of group in- fluence. He also added an ingenious gloss to Madison that tends to increase both the plausibility and the normative appeal of majoritarian interest-group pluralism: the assertion that all interests have at least a minimum of influence in group-dominated policy making, because policy makers must (in order to avoid subsequent punish- ment) heed all “potential” groups that would form if their interests were trampled upon.14
Robert Dahl’s analysis of New Haven city politics was Madisonian or Truman-like in its insistence that many
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(all?) diverse interests were represented, though Dahl focused as much on active members of the general public as on organized groups. Dahl’s analyses of American politics in terms of “polyarchy” or “pluralist democracy” also come close to our ideal type of majoritarian pluralist theory, since they imply that the wants or needs of the average citizen tend to be reasonably well served by the outcomes of interest-group struggle. Several contemporary analysts of interest-group politics likewise appear to accept (at least implicitly) a picture of group struggle that results in more or less majoritarian results.15
A major challenge to majoritarian pluralist theories, however, is posed by Mancur Olson’s argument that collective action by large, dispersed sets of individuals with individually small but collectively large interests tends to be prevented by the “free rider” problem. Barring special circumstances (selective incentives, byproducts, coercion), individuals who would benefit from collective action may have no incentive to personally form or join an organized group. If everyone thinks this way and lets George do it, the job is not likely to get done. This reasoning suggests that Truman’s “potential groups” may in fact be unlikely to form, even if millions of peoples’ interests are neglected or harmed by government. Aware of the collective action problem, officials may feel free to ignore much of the population and act against the interests of the average citizen.16
Biased Pluralism Olson’s argument points toward an important variant line of thinking within the pluralist tradition: theories of “biased ” pluralism, which posit struggles among an un- representative universe of interest groups—characterized by E.E. Schattschneider as a heavenly chorus with an “upper-class accent,” and more recently dubbed by Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry Brady an “unheavenly chorus.” Theories of biased pluralism gener- ally argue that both the thrust of interest-group conflict and the public policies that result tend to tilt toward the wishes of corporations and business and professional associations.17
Schattschneider suggested that policy outcomes vary with the “scope of conflict”: for example, that business- oriented interest groups tend to prevail over ordinary citizens when the scope is narrow and visibility is low. Grant McConnell added the idea that the actual “constituencies” of policy implementers can consist of powerful groups. George Stigler (articulating what some economists have scorned as “Chicago Marxism”) analyzed the politics of regulation in terms of biased pluralism: the capture of regulators by the regulated. Charles Lindblom outlined a number of ways—including the “privileged position” of business—in which business firms and their associations influence public policy. Thomas Ferguson has posited an “investment theory” of politics in which “major
investors”—especially representatives of particular indus- trial sectors—fund political parties in order to get policies that suit their economic interests. Fred Block’s “neo-Polanyian” analysis emphasizes groups. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s analysis of “winner-take-all-politics,” which emphasizes the power of the finance industry, can be seen as a recent contribution to the literature of biased pluralism.18
Marxist and neo-Marxist theories of the capitalist state hold that economic classes—and particularly the bour- geoisie, the owners of the means of production—dominate policy making and cause the state to serve their material interests. As the Communist Manifesto put it, “The bourgeoisie has . . . conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”19
We cannot precisely test the predictions of such theories, because we lack good measures of policy preferences by economic class. (In Marxist theory, neither income nor wealth accurately signals class position.) We can note, however, that certain “instrumentalist” Marxist theories, including the important version put forth by Ralph Miliband, make predictions resembling those of theories of Biased Pluralism: that interest groups and corporations representing “large scale business” tend to prevail.20
As to empirical evidence concerning interest groups, it is well established that organized groups regularly lobby and fraternize with public officials, move through revolving doors between public and private employment, provide self-serving information to officials, draft leg- islation, and spend a great deal of money on election campaigns.21 Moreover, in harmony with theories of biased pluralism, the evidence clearly indicates that most interest groups and lobbyists represent business firms or professionals. Relatively few represent the poor or even the economic interests of ordinary workers, particularly now that the U.S. labor movement has become so weak.22
But do interest groups actually influence policy? Numerous case studies have detailed instances in which all but the most dedicated skeptic is likely to perceive interest-group influence at work. A leading classic remains Schattschneider’s analysis of the 1928 enactment of the Smoot-Hawley tariff, an astounding orgy of pork- barrel politics.23 Still, many quantitatively-oriented political scientists seem to ignore or dismiss such non-quantitative evidence. There have also been some efforts (particularly during the Cold War era, when unflattering depictions of U.S. politics may have been thought unpatriotic) to demonstrate that interest groups have no influence on policy at all. Raymond Bauer, Ithiel Pool, and Lewis Anthony Dexter argued that business had little or no effect on the renewal of reciprocal trade authority. Lester Milbrath, having conducted interviews with lobbyists and members of Congress, rated lobbyists’ influence as very low.
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More recently, Fred McChesney has made the ingenious argument that campaign contributions from interest groups may not represent quid pro quo bribery attempts by groups, but instead result from extortion by politicians who threaten to harm the groups’ interests.24
Very few studies have offered quantitative evidence concerning the impact of interest groups based on a number of different public policies. Important excep- tions include the work of Mark Smith and that of Frank Baumgartner, Jeffrey Berry, Marie Hojnacki, David Kimball, and Beth Leech.25
Mark Smith examined 2,364 “business unity” issues— over a period of four decades—on which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (arguably a reasonable proxy for business groups as a whole, on this particular set of issues where most businesses agreed) took a public stand for or against. He then calculated six measures of the Chamber’s annual rate of “success” at getting the action or inaction it favored from Congress.26 The Chamber’s average success rate in terms of proportion of bills enacted or defeated appears to have been fairly high,27 but Smith did not argue that such success necessarily demonstrates influence. (A batting-average approach to influence would have to assume that stand- taking is unrelated to expectations of success. Further, in order to gauge business’s independent impact and avoid spurious results, data on stands taken by other actors would need to be included as well.) Instead, Smith devoted most of his effort to analyzing the over-time correlates of high or low success, such as variations in the public “mood” and in the partisan composition of Congress.
Frank Baumgartner and his colleagues, in their metic- ulous examination of 98 cases of congressional policy making in which interest groups were active, investigated whether the magnitude of group resources that were deployed was related to outcomes across those cases. In their multivariate analyses, Baumgartner et al. found a modest tendency for policy outcomes to favor the side that enjoyed greater resources (PAC contributions, lob- bying expenditures, membership size, etc.).28
Prior to the availability of the data set that we analyze here, no one we are aware of has succeeded at assessing interest-group influence over a comprehensive set of issues, while taking into account the impact of either the public at large or economic elites—let alone analyzing all three types of potential influences simultaneously.
Testing Theoretical Predictions What makes possible an empirical effort of this sort is the existence of a unique data set, compiled over many years by one of us (Gilens) for a different but related purpose: for estimating the influence upon public policy of “affluent” citizens, poor citizens, and those in the middle of the income distribution.
Gilens and a small army of research assistants29
gathered data on a large, diverse set of policy cases:
1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 in which a national survey of the general public asked a favor/ oppose question about a proposed policy change. A total of 1,923 cases met four criteria: dichotomous pro/con responses, specificity about policy, relevance to federal government decisions, and categorical rather than condi- tional phrasing. Of those 1,923 original cases, 1,779 cases also met the criteria of providing income breakdowns for respondents, not involving a Constitutional amendment or a Supreme Court ruling (which might entail a quite different policy-making process), and involving a clear, as opposed to partial or ambiguous, actual presence or absence of policy change. These 1,779 cases do not constitute a sample from the universe of all possible policy alternatives (this is hardly conceivable), but we see them as particularly relevant to assessing the public’s influence on policy. The included policies are not restricted to the narrow Washington “policy agenda.” At the same time—since they were seen as worth asking poll questions about—they tend to concern matters of relatively high salience, about which it is plausible that average citizens may have real opinions and may exert some political influence.30
For each case, Gilens used the original survey data to assess responses by income level. In order to cope with varying income categories across surveys, he employed a quadratic logistic regression technique to estimate the opinions of respondents at the tenth income percentile (quite poor), the fiftieth percentile (median), and the ninetieth percentile (fairly affluent).31
Here we use these policy preference data to measure— imperfectly, but, we believe, satisfactorily—two indepen- dent variables posited as major influences upon policy making in the theoretical traditions discussed above. Policy preferences at the fiftieth income percentile—
that is, the preferences of the median-income survey respondent—work quite well as measures of the prefer- ences of the average citizen (or, more precisely, the median non-institutionalized adult American), which are central to theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy.32 In all cases in which the relationship between income and preferences is monotonic, and in all cases in which there is no systematic relationship at all between the two, the preferences of the median-income respondent are identical to those of the median-preference respondent. In the remaining cases the two are very close to each other.33
We believe that the preferences of “affluent” Americans at the ninetieth income percentile can usefully be taken as proxies for the opinions of wealthy or very-high-income Americans, and can be used to test the central predictions of Economic-Elite theories. To be sure, people at the ninetieth income percentile are neither very rich nor very elite; in 2012 dollars, Gilens’ “affluent” respondents received only about $146,000 in annual household income. To the extent that their policy preferences differ from those of average-income citizens, however, we would
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