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Under the Influence

July 18, 2012

Martin Gilens in Boston Review:

Democracy requires that all citizens—rich and poor alike—have influence over the policies their government adopts. Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect everyone to have equal sway. Citizens differ not only in economic resources but also in time, knowledge, and interest in social and political affairs. Still, when influence becomes too skewed toward the affluent, when political power becomes too concentrated in the hands of a few, democracy itself is threatened.

If you accept those basic premises, then you have good reason to be worried about American democracy. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to after studying the relationship between public policy and public preferences as revealed in responses to thousands of questions from national surveys conducted between 1964 and 2006. If you judge how much say people have—their influence over policy—by the match between their policy preferences and subsequent policy outcomes, then American citizens are vastly unequal in their influence over policymaking, and that inequality is growing. In most circumstances, affluent Americans exert substantial influence over the policies adopted by the federal government, and less well off Americans exert virtually none. Even when Democrats control Congress and the White House, the less well off are no more influential. [More]

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