The Logic of Gilensian Activism
By Bryan Caplan
Martin Gilens’ Affluence and Influence argues that when America’s rich disagree with their fellow citizens, American democracy heeds the rich. His evidence is hardly airtight, but by the standards of social science, it’s fairly compelling. To me, he provides an interesting story about why democracy isn’t even worse. Gilens himself, however, seems distraught. As he and subsequent co-author Benjamin Page put it:
What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.
Rather than renew debates about the rationality and selfishness of the American voter (no on both counts, but who’s counting?), let’s ponder a new question: What does Gilens’ research imply for political activism? Gilens could urge activists to wake the sleeping majority. But American democracy’s fixation on the preferences of the rich looks deeply rooted. Gilens’ results hold for the entire period he examines – from Johnson to Bush II. There’s no sign that matters used to be different.
The pragmatic response, then, is to tailor activism to Gilens’ realities. At first, you might sigh, “It’s hopeless. The rich will get their way no matter what activists do.” This would be a correct inference if rich voters relentlessly sought their objective self-interest. But Gilens doesn’t say that American democracy is heavily biased in favor of the interests of the rich; he says that it’s heavily biased in favor of the opinions of the rich. In fact, the opinions of the rich only sporadically differ from the general population’s, which is why sophisticated statistics are required to detect the rich’s oversize influence.
So contrary to appearances, Gilens’ analysis doesn’t imply that activism is futile. The correct inference to draw, rather, is that effective activism must convert the rich. Moneybags run the show, but they’re open to persuasion. Swallow your egalitarian scruples and figure out how to communicate effectively with the plutocracy. Since income and education are highly correlated, you’ll want to tailor your rhetoric to both economic and educational elites. And since the young are far easier to convert than their elders, you’ll want to focus on budding elites – not the whole age distribution.
The logic of Gilensian activism may sicken you, but it tantalizes me. My writings, rationalist and iconoclastic to the core, will never appeal to the man in the street or the powers-that-be. When I address young elites, however, my thoughts stand a fighting chance. Even in the best-case scenario, this gives me little influence over short-run policy; young elites are only a minority of the influential class. But persistence pays off. Anyone who can convert two successive generations of young elites can move policy mountains. See gay marriage.
Or how about immigration policy? From the standpoint of mild liberalization in 2014, my abolitionism is quixotic, if not counter-productive. The Center for Immigration Studies’ Mark Krikorian isn’t entirely wrong to tweet:
— Mark Krikorian (@MarkSKrikorian) September 14, 2014
But Mark does miss the big picture. Namely: The principled case for open borders is already making young elites wonder if mandatory discrimination against foreigners has a moral leg to stand on. The more publicity my ideas get, the more young elites will wonder – and it’s hard for them to wonder long without reaching the right answer. Who cares what these overprivileged kids think? Because if Gilens is right, their opinions will eventually decide policy.