Policy Makers Don’t Care About You?

By Robert Bernstein   |   June 7, 2022

“When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

This was the conclusion of a Princeton University study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”

As a social justice and environmental activist, this was very painful to read. There is much to learn from this very large and complex study.

Most of us suspect that the interests of business and the wealthy elite get more than their share of representation. But is it really true that the preferences of the average American count for nothing in public policy? How do people survive?

Perhaps a comparison with a virus is helpful? A virus may evolve to be more contagious and less deadly. Because it has compassion for you? No. It has no mind for you or for anything. It is just evolving for its own survival. If all of its hosts are killed, it dies out. Its interest may be somewhat aligned with yours, but don’t be fooled.

COVID is most contagious before the host has any symptoms. If it kills the host later, the virus has already spread. We just get lucky if there is a temporary alignment with its evolution and our survival. The same apparently is true for us and business interests.

What was powerful about the Princeton study: They simultaneously compared four different possible models of how our system really works.

1. Majoritarian Electoral Democracy

2. Economic-Elite Domination

3. Majoritarian Pluralism

4. Biased Pluralism

They also compared the influence of four actors:

1. Average citizen

2. Economic elites

3. Mass based interest groups

4. Business based interest groups

One might think that interest groups like Common Cause, Public Citizen, or the Sierra Club serve the public interest and offset the business groups. But their study noted 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.”

As with the virus, business interests may occasionally align with what average citizens ask for. Business needs basic infrastructure and it needs an educated and healthy population. Average people may even be fooled into wanting “lower taxes” that businesses call for. But “lower taxes” for business and wealthy elites usually means higher hidden taxes, fees, and expenses for ordinary people.

In total, interest group positions have almost no alignment with average citizens in the study.

After all, Big Pharma, hospital, and medical associations lobby for higher prices and less regulation. Military contractors lobby for more weapons spending at the expense of taxpayers. Agribusiness lobbies for agricultural subsidies.

Seventy-two percent of NRA members support universal background checks, yet the NRA opposes this. Because the NRA represents gun manufacturers, not gun owners. Let alone the public.

Our political system is biased against change. This makes it even easier for powerful elites and interest groups to suppress overwhelmingly popular projects like universal health care, sustainable energy/transportation, and free public college. These policies are not even voted down; they never even come up for a vote.

The study notes that business interest groups also devote considerable effort to shaping opinion meaning that even public opinion is corrupted.

But perhaps the citizens don’t always know what is best? After all, solving the Climate Crisis may mean short-term costs and disruptions that only help later generations. This is a challenge. But does ceding power to wealthy and business interests help?

So, what is to be done? I would argue that average citizens need to support interest groups that do serve the public interest. They do exist, but they need far more members and funding. RepresentUs promotes the American Anti-Corruption Act.

Such groups can leverage their effectiveness by demanding policies that further enhance the public interest. Most immediately, publicly funding campaigns to help end the legalized bribery of wealthy and corporate campaign funding.

Longer term, we need Constitutional changes: Corporations are not people. The vote of a person in California should count the same as one in Montana. Health care, education, and voting should be universal rights. Move to a parliamentary system where the representatives are aligned with the executive instead of in gridlock. Term limits for Supreme Court justices. Get active!  


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