Exploring Elitist Democracy: The Latest from Gilens and Page
By Bryan Caplan
In light of the attention my Gilens posts are getting, now’s a perfect time to examine his latest research on who actually runs America. Co-authored with Benjamin Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” (Perspectives on Politics, forthcoming) weighs the relative importance of four models of ultimate power:
While this body of research is rich and variegated, it can loosely be divided into four families of theories: Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism – Majoritarian Pluralism, in which the interests of all citizens are more or less equally represented, and Biased Pluralism, in which corporations, business associations, and professional groups predominate) Each of these perspectives makes different predictions about the independent influence upon U.S. policy making of four sets of actors: the Average Citizen or “median voter,” Economic Elites, and Mass-based or Business-oriented Interest Groups or industries.
The dependent variables are straight out of Gilens’ earlier work:
Gilens and a small army of research assistants gathered data on a large, diverse set of policy cases: 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 in which a national survey of the general public asked a favor/oppose question about a proposed policy change. A total of 1,923 cases met four criteria: dichotomous pro/con responses, specificity about policy, relevance to federal government decisions, and categorical rather than conditional phrasing. Of those 1,923 original cases, 1,779 cases also met the criteria of providing income breakdowns for respondents, not involving a Constitutional amendment or a Supreme Court ruling (which might entail a quite different policy making process), and involving a clear, as opposed to partial or ambiguous, actual presence or absence of policy change.
As far as I can tell, the interest group preferences are also straight out of Gilen’s earlier work:
For each of the 1,779 instances of proposed policy change, Gilens and his assistants drew upon multiple sources to code all engaged interest groups as “strongly favorable,” “somewhat favorable,” “somewhat unfavorable,” or “strongly unfavorable” to the change. He then combined the numbers of groups on each side of a given issue, weighting “somewhat” favorable or somewhat unfavorable positions at half the magnitude of “strongly favorable or strongly unfavorable positions.
This coding is the project’s main leap of faith. When Gilens measured the relative influence of voters of different income levels, he had public opinion data for each income level. For interest groups, in contrast, Gilens and assistants impute opinions. Still, I don’t have a better idea. If we run with their approach, what do we find?
First, middle-class Americans’ preferences are highly correlated with rich Americans’ preferences – but not interest groups’ preferences:
It turns out, in fact, that the preferences of average citizens are positively and fairly highly correlated, across issues, with the preferences of economic elites (see Table 2.) Rather often, average citizens and affluent citizens (our proxy for economic elites) want the same things from government. This bivariate correlation affects how we should interpret our later multivariate findings in terms of “winners” and “losers.” It also suggests a reason why serious scholars might keep adhering to both the Majoritarian Electoral Democracy and the Economic Elite Domination theoretical traditions, even if one of them may be dead wrong in terms of causal impact. Ordinary citizens, for example, might often be observed to “win” (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.
But net interest group stands are not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens. Taking all interest groups together, the index of net interest group alignment correlates only a non-significant .04 with average citizens’ preferences! (See Table 2.) This casts grave doubt on David Truman’s and others’ argument that organized interest groups tend to do a good job of representing the population as a whole. Indeed, as Table 2 indicates, even the net alignments of the groups we have categorized as “mass-based” correlate with average citizens’ preferences only at the very modest (though statistically significant) level of .12.
Second, each theory looks good in isolation:
When taken separately, each independent variable – the preferences of average citizens, the preferences of economic elites, and the net alignments of organized interest groups – is strongly, positively, and quite significantly related to policy change. Little wonder that each theoretical tradition has its strong adherents.
Third, average citizens lose almost all apparent influence if you do multiple regression:
These results suggest that reality is best captured by mixed theories in which both individual economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.
Check out the multiple regression results:
Fourth, if you break interest groups into “business” and “mass” categories, the former have more power than the latter:
The influence coefficients for both mass-based and business-oriented interest groups are positive and highly significant statistically, but the coefficient for business groups is nearly twice as large as that for the mass groups. Moreover, when we restricted this same analysis to the smaller set of issues upon which both types of groups took positions – that is, when we considered only cases in which business-based and mass-based interest groups were directly engaged with each other – the contrast between the estimated impact of the two types of groups was even greater.
By directly pitting the predictions of ideal-type theories against each other within a single statistical model (using a unique data set that includes imperfect but useful measures of the key independent variables for nearly two thousand policy issues), we have been able to produce some striking findings. One is the nearly total failure of “median voter” and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories. 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.
The failure of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy is all the more striking because it goes against the likely effects of the limitations of our data. The preferences of ordinary citizens were measured more directly than our other independent variables, yet they are estimated to have the least effect.
Nor do organized interest groups substitute for direct citizen influence, by embodying citizens’ will and ensuring that their wishes prevail in the fashion postulated by theories of Majoritarian Pluralism. Interest groups do have substantial independent impacts on policy, and a few groups (particularly labor unions) represent average citizens’ views reasonably well. But the interest group system as a whole does not.