Cambridge University Press
Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 September 2014
Martin Gilens and
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.
Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
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Study: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy
What in the world?
Pieces of global opinion
17 April 2014
The US is dominated by a rich and powerful elite.
So concludes a recent study by Princeton University Prof Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Prof Benjamin I Page.
This is not news, you say.
Perhaps, but the two professors have conducted exhaustive research to try to present data-driven support for this conclusion. Here’s how they explain it:
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.
In English: the wealthy few move policy, while the average American has little power.
The two professors came to this conclusion after reviewing answers to 1,779 survey questions asked between 1981 and 2002 on public policy issues. They broke the responses down by income level, and then determined how often certain income levels and organised interest groups saw their policy preferences enacted.
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The Washington Post
Critics argued with our analysis of U.S. political inequality. Here are 5 ways they’re wrong.
By Martin Gilens and
Benjamin I. Page
May 23, 2016 at 12:00 p.m. EDT
In 2014 we published a study of political inequality in America, called “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Our central finding was this: Economic elites and interest groups can shape U.S. government policy — but Americans who are less well off have essentially no influence over what their government does. This was in line with a good deal of previous research by Larry Bartels, Martin Gilens, Larry Jacobs and Benjamin Page, Elizabeth Rigby and Gerald Wright, and others. But for some reason, our paper caught the media’s attention in a way that few academic journal articles do.
Since then, a number of questions and criticisms have been raised about our work — some offering sensible critiques and alternative perspectives and others simply mistaken. We have responded in print to some of these, and will list some of those responses at the end of this post. Here we will respond briefly to the most important challenges to our research. In brief, we don’t believe that any of these critiques, individually or collectively, undermine our central claims.
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