A new study makes the amazing discovery that politicians usually vote conscience—unfortunately it’s the conscience of the rich people who contribute the most to their campaigns.
In an article titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens,” Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern analyze 1,779 American opinion studies between 1981 and 2002 that included the income level of the survey participants. Gilens and Page also looked at the policies advocated by the largest 25 lobbying groups in the country and the ten industries spending the most on lobbying. The two professors then compared what these various groups wanted and what actually passed in legislatures.
- When lots of wealthy people (more than 80%) liked a policy, it went into effect 45% of the time.
- When very few wealthy people (fewer than 20%) supported a policy, it went into effect 18% of the time.
- Whether very few of a vast majority of people with average income wanted a policy did not matter: policies passed 30% of the time in either case.
- Interest groups representing the non-wealthy such as unions have little or no impact on what policies our elected officials support, vote on and implement.
I imagine if Gilens and Page crunched the numbers since 2010 they’d find that politicians are doing the bidding of the wealthy and ignoring everyone else even more than they used to. It was in 2010, of course, when the Supreme Court freed corporate interests to spend whatever they liked on campaigns in the Citizens United decision.
Campaign spending and the effects of the Citizens United and the more recent McCutcheon v. FEC have remained a major trend of news coverage since the first laws limiting spending passed in the 1970s.
Isn’t it a bit odd then that only one major media outlet (a smaller one at that) has covered this major new study? Odder still that a Google New search revealed a mere 58 articles in total among the tens of thousands of media in the Google News universe? Wouldn’t you think that the media would pick up this story faster than you can say “Picketty picked a peck of pickled Paretos”?
Contributing to campaigns and lobbying are only two of five ways that business interests and the wealthy control the policy decisions in the United States. Control of the mass media through ownership is another. We also can’t forget a fourth way that the wealthy get their way: funding political and economic research, again with their large war chests of accumulated capital.
The final way that the rich gain the ear of our elected officials is by running for office themselves. The Center for Responsive Politics has found that slightly more than half of all members of Congress are millionaires. Since the birth of the Republic, rich folk have always had an inside track whenever they decide to run for office. Michael Bloomberg, Carly Fiorentina, John Huntsman, John Edwards, Meg Whitman and Mitt Romney are only the latest generation of the ultra-wealthy to throw their hats in the ring for elected office. Gores, Kennedys, Roosevelts, Harrimans, Danforths, Rockefellers and Ross Perot come to mind without an Internet search.
Because of the impact of these other factors, it’s impossible to conclude how much funding candidates and lobbying contribute to the stranglehold the wealthy and especially the very wealthy have on the American political decision-making process.
It will therefore take more than just new campaign finance limitations to move from a one-dollar-one-vote to a one-person-one-vote model. We will also need to reinstitute laws that prevent concentration of media ownership in a few hands. Passing laws that make campaigns, lobbying organizations and think tanks liable for the factual lies they tell will also help. But, of course, a handful of large companies are trying to get the state laws that do exist about campaign lying to be declared unconstitutional.