It is a truth universally acknowledged that the rich have an outsized influence on politics. There have been signs and symptoms of misanthropic wealth pestilence all over this land. Premature deaths, one in five children in poverty, the worst income disparity since the Gilded Age, the highest incarceration rate on the planet. It’s just that it couldn’t be absolutely, scientifically established that a plague of oligarchs has descended upon us, chewed us up, digested the nutritious bits, and upchucked the rest.
Until now, that is. The pathology report is in, folks. At long last, we have irrefutable proof that the one indispensable nation has been subsumed by a bona fide oligarchy, leading to regressive tax policies, cuts in social programs, and capture of the mass media by corporate interests. Benjamin Page, the Northwestern University academic who proved one year ago that the ultra-rich have an outsized influence on policy, has just published a new paper with a Princeton colleague that makes the death of democracy official.
So, do we let the embalming and the dirge commence, or can we go all Dr. Frankenstein on the carcass and attempt to reanimate it?
Of course, the corpse has been rotting away for quite some time now. We’ve been sickened by the stench for decades, despite the cheery and unrelenting death denialism propaganda from the corporate media and political snake oil salesmen. We’ve been taught to equate citizenship with consumerism, a booming stock market with a healthy economy. We’ve been brainwashed into viewing politics a tribalistic spectator sport, and universal human rights as a lottery that we all must enter for that slim-to-none chance to win.
The powerful are able to maintain the con because, as serendipity would have it, the economic elites and the regular schlubs often want the same things. For instance, since rich and poor alike favor marriage equality, gay rights policies are on the ascendant. After all, the wealthy are gay as often as the poor. CEOs might make more than 700 times the salary of the average minimum-wager, but they have gay relatives in probably the same proportions.
Andrew Cuomo, New York’s fiscally conservative governor, probably never would have championed marriage equality in his state without the approval of his Wall Street backers. President Obama also “evolved” on the issue when his LGBT donors threatened to withhold their own considerable financial support of his re-election bid.
As the report’s authors note, “Ordinary citizens… might often be observed to ‘win’ (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.”
Among the other findings of Page and Martin Gilens:
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.
When a majority – even a very large majority – of the public favors change, it is not likely to get what it wants. In our 1,779 policy cases, narrow pro-change majorities of the public got the policy changes they wanted only about 30% of the time. More strikingly, even overwhelmingly large pro-change majorities, with 80% of the public favoring a policy change, got that change only about 43% of the time.
When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.
The authors also indirectly scoff at the standard blame-the-victim canard that we citizens get the government we deserve either by not voting, or voting against our own economic interests. Um — if you accept the findings of this study (which I do) you can vote early, you can vote often, you can vote for your own interests till the cows come home, and it still won’t do you a damn bit of good. They conclude:
Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does. Perhaps they know better which policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends, when deciding which policies to support. But we tend to doubt it. We believe instead that – collectively – ordinary citizens generally know their own values and interests pretty well, and that their expressed policy preferences are worthy of respect Moreover, we are not so sure about the informational advantages of elites. Yes, detailed policy knowledge tends to rise with income and status.
Surely wealthy Americans and corporate executives tend to know a lot about tax and regulatory policies that directly affect them. But how much do they know about the human impact of Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, or unemployment insurance, none of which is likely to be crucial to their own well-being? Most important, we see no reason to think that informational expertise is always accompanied by an inclination to transcend one’s own interests or a determination to work for the common good. All in all, we believe that the public is likely to be a more certain guardian of its own interests than any feasible alternative.
Amen to that. Wealth does not necessarily correlate with intelligence, nor poverty with stupidity.
The rich, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, are different from you and me. Yeah, retorted Ernest Hemingway — they have more money.
And don’t forget the power of their influential fascist jackboots pressing down ever more sadistically upon the neck of democracy’s corpse. The rich are too stupid to realize that gluttonous feasting upon the diseased, the dying and the dead is harmful to their own health. Those ivory towers they build upon the weak foundations of an overflowing graveyard will soon tumble and fall.