Economy

How the Obscenely Wealthy Are Strangling Our Democracy

The wealthiest interests can veto any government initiative.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) 3Dstock

A new academic paper by Princeton University’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page has made national headlines by concluding that wealthly Americans almost always get what they want from the political system regardless of what middle-class and working-class people seek from the government.

AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld spoke with Benjamin Page about this research and the prospects for political change and a progressive agenda.

Steven Rosenfeld: Tell us what you mean when you say that the U.S. is no longer a democracy in the way most people perceive it, or think they understand what a democracy is?

Benjamin Page: Most people in a democracy think that the government pays a lot of attention to average citizens. And what we found was when average citizens disagree with more affluent people and more organized interest groups, the average citizens lose out almost always. In other words, they have almost no independent influence.

SR: How were you able to determine that?

BP: It took a ton of work, mostly by [Princeton University professor and co-author] Marty Gilens and his people. It took him about 10 years to assemble the data, which consists of information about 1,775 different policy-making cases in which he found survey questions in which he found what average citizens want, and also what higher income citizens want. Then he put together information about interest groups, both for and against; business groups and mass-oriented groups. And he used those different preferences and alignments to predict policy outcomes.

It turned out, as I say, that the interest groups, especially business groups and affluent individuals, have a lot of effect on what policies are adopted, but average citizens have no independent effect at all.

SR: One of the most interesting findings in your research was there are times when the interests of more average people and wealthier people align, and then Congress or government will move forward. But where they don’t align, they won’t: bills will be killed or policies won’t be adopted. It’s almost as if there is an invisible veto, if you will.Would you put it that way?

BP: I think that’s a good way to put it. Yeah. That’s right.

SR: Your research has gotten lots of attention and is part of the rising discussion of inequality. What do you think people should take from this?

BP: It is a very interesting moment because a lot of people have concluded that there’s something terribly wrong with American politics. I think it’s not just us. There’s the Thomas Piketty book about capital in the 21st century, [New York Times columnist] Paul Krugman hammering away about inequality, many people talking about these things have led to a point where I can imagine some political change occuring.

SR: How will that occur? I have covered money in politics since the late 1990s. The Supreme Court has slowly made it safer and safer for the wealthy to have more power and influence. Congress is more of a rich person’s club where the concerns of average or lower-income people get short shrift. It’s almost as if, if you haven’t figured out how to make a million, you are not deserving.   

BP: Yes, there is a definite paradox. If you want to change the political system and make it more democratic you have to overcome the undemocratic influence that’s already there. But we know historically that that can sometimes happen.

The Progressive Period at the beginning of the 20th century is a very interesting analogy. Something that fits right in with our analysis is the end of the Gilded Age, the first Gilded Age of huge inequality, there was a very broad rebellion to give more ordinary people a greater voice in politics: direct election of U.S. senators, and many other changes. And a lot of that was led by upper-income people.

And I think something similar is possible today. There’s a lot of grassroots upset but also some leadership from affluent people who are worried about the whole system breaking down. So we might see change.

SR: I know a lot of wealthier people don’t like to get fundraising calls.

BP: Absolutely. That’s absolutely right.

SR: And lots of businesses would like a leveler playing fields; not competitors who have obtained state or federal subsidies to their bottom lines.

BP: Yes.

SR: But do you really see currents of change bubbling up?

BP: I would look a little different place for people who actually are enthusiasts of change. I think you are explaining why moderate business people could be persuaded to go along with it, but the larger engine is much more likely to be upper-middle-class professionals. In our survey of wealthy people around Chicago we found that the professionals are really pretty different from business owners. Even if they have eight or 10 million dollars, they don’t think the same way. And a fair number of them—those are the people who were very important in the Progressive Period—a fair number of them want political reform right now.

SR: What can you tell me about their views or what they’d like?

BP: Well, we need to kearn more about that. We just did a little pilot survey. But it’s pretty clear that these people really don’t like the idea of institutionalized corruption. The point is not that the politicians are crooks, it’s that the system is corrupt because it so much favors money givers. And a lot of people basically believe in clean politics and democratic politics.

SR: What do you suggest that people do as they consider all this?

BP: I think there are things that average people can do that are very important. One is don’t give up. Krugman is right. You don’t want to get cynical and sort of give up and let money rule. What you want to do is fight back. One of the ways is to make sure you vote. The congressional elections next fall are going to be very important. Off-year elections are stacked against average people. The turnout is low. Money and activists tend to control a lot of what goes on. But if there are organized social movements, that’s not a given. So that’s one branch of action.

Another is to really push for reforms of various sorts: the simplest being disclosure of political contributions of all kinds. It’s really very strange to have no accountability, no awareness. Beyond that, regulating lobbying better. Andf figuring out how to reduce the power of money in elections. Some of that the Supreme Court has made harder. But some of that can be done by public financing, which reduces the power of private money by substituting public money.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).