Before I studied public opinion, I often wondered, “Why are democracies’ policies so bad?”  After I studied public opinion, I started asking myself the opposite question: “Why aren’t democracies’ policies even worse?”  The median American is no Nazi, but he is a moderate national socialist – statist to the core on both economic and social policy.  Given public opinion, the policies of First World democracies are surprisingly libertarian.

In The Myth of the Rational Voter, I discuss several mechanisms that might explain why, given public opinion, democracies’ policies are better than you’d expect.  But I was simply unaware of the facts presented in Martin Gilens‘ new Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.  Gilens compiles a massive data set of public opinion surveys and subsequent policy outcomes, and reaches a shocking conclusion: Democracy has a strong tendency to simply supply the policies favored by the rich.  When the poor, the middle class, and the rich disagree, American democracy largely ignores the poor and the middle class. 

To avoid misinterpretation, this does not mean that American democracy has a strong tendency to supply the policies that most materially benefit the rich.  It doesn’t.  Gilens, like all well-informed political scientists, knows that self-interest has little effect on public opinion.  Neither does this mean that Americans strongly object to the policy status quo.  They don’t, because poor, middle class, and rich tend to agree.  Gilens’ key conclusion is simply that when rich and poor happen to disagree, the rich generally get their way.

Here’s what happens when the 10th percentile of the income distribution disagrees with the 90th percentile:


Here’s what happens when the 50th percentile of the income distribution disagrees with the 90th percentile:

So when do the poor, middle class, and rich diverge?  On distributional issues, there is high consensus.  But the rich are noticeably less statist on both economic and social policy.  Rich and poor alike favor raising the minimum wage, but the support of the poor is nearly unanimous.  The poor are slightly more in favor of extending unemployment benefits.  They’re much more anti-gay.  They’re much less opposed to restricting free speech to fight terrorism.  The list goes on.

Both left and right are likely to misread Gilens.  The left will probably imagine that he’s saying that American democracy is a vast conspiracy to promote the material interests of the rich.  To repeat, Gilens explicitly disavows this conclusion: His claim is not that American democracy primarily benefits the rich, but that it primarily listens to the rich. 

The right, on the other hand, will angrily reject Gilens’ findings as rehashed Marxism in statistical garb.  (To quote The Communist Manifesto, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common
affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”)  If you read the whole book, though, you’ll be amazed by how many leftist oxen he gores.  Most shockingly: Gilens concludes that the president most responsive to all Americans regardless of income was… George W. Bush!  Look:


Gilens is clearly disturbed, even frightened, by his own results.  On social policy, his findings horrify him as a democrat: Even if the lower classes are intolerant, shouldn’t they have equal say?  On economic policy, his findings horrify him as a liberal and a democrat: Isn’t it awful when our government fails to adopt the oh-so-wise regulations non-rich Americans support? 

In contrast, I find Gilens’ results not only intellectually satisfying, but hopeful.  If his results hold up, we know another important reason why policy is less statist than expected: Democracies listen to the relatively libertarian rich far more than they listen to the absolutely statist non-rich.  And since I think that statist policy preferences rest on a long list of empirical and normative mistakes, my sincere reaction is to say, “Thank goodness.”  Democracy as we know it is bad enough.  Democracy that really listened to all the people would be an authoritarian nightmare.