Once upon a time the reigning paradigm in America political science was something called “democratic pluralism.” The basic idea was that whatever its flaws, the US political system managed in a reasonably fair way to reflect the interests of most of our citizens. Some theorists emphasized the great variety of “interest groups” competing effectively for a say of influence over public policy; others the role of the right to vote in guaranteeing that all citizens had some voice in government; but the scholarly consensus was that no single social group could ever dominate politically. (Hence a “pluralism” of influence and power.) American politics was roughly egalitarian even while American society was inevitably marked by inequalities in wealth and other resources. Pluralism’s heyday was the 1950s and early 1960s, but I think it fair to say that even while incurring increasing criticism, it continued to be the dominant view of political scientists when I left academia in the late 1970s.
No more. The past decade has seen an efflorescence of studies by political scientists showing not a wide dispersion of power in the American political system but a concentration of power in the hands of the wealthy. The newest addition to this literature is an article to be published later this year in the journal Perspectives on Politics by the political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern. Utilizing the services of what they describe as a “small army” of research assistants, Gilens and Page analyzed nearly 1,800 national-level policy issues between 1981 and 2002 for which relevant survey data existed. Looking at the relationship between poll respondents’ preferences and actual policy outcomes, they found that citizens of average income had essentially no independent influence on what Washington did. On the other hand, affluent Americans, and business-oriented organized groups that represent the interests of mainly affluent Americans, did exert very substantial influence over the product coming out of Washington.
That is not to say that government decision-making never reflects the preferences of average Americans; their views often coincide with those of their wealthier compatriots, and are thus reflected in policy outcomes. But those are happy coincidences; average people’s preferences simply don’t count on their own. At the same time, rich people don’t always get their way— our political system raises enough impediments to policy change so that even the most powerful are often frustrated in their objectives. But the disparity between the influence of the wealthy and the influence of the rest remains huge. (Gilens and Page note that their study if anything understates the influence of business on policy. For one thing, their data is limited to issues broad enough to have been the subject of a national poll. But business interest groups manage to win favors from government on a huge variety of special interest issues that the general public never thinks about.)
Now, maybe none of this seems all that surprising. As I indicated, Gilens’ and Pages’ findings are consistent with those of other political science research of recent years.* Still, the sheer scale of the Gilens and Page study makes it a significant new confirmation of what most of us already knew more or less intuitively: American politics is clearly tending toward plutocracy.
How is it that the scholars’ picture of American politics has changed so dramatically in the past half-century? In part the turnaround undoubtedly reflects broad changes in the ideological environment. The old pluralist paradigm was certainly flawed to start with in its breezy optimism about American democracy. I believe that it owed much of its traction to the pervasive influence of the Cold War on American society and the lingering residues of McCarthyism: the United States was engaged in a continuing conflict with a communist enemy whose propaganda aimed at greedy, powerful capitalists. That context was hardly conducive to the development of homegrown political analyses focusing on the power of a capitalist minority.
But the picture has changed also because the objective realities have changed. American society has become more unequal, as myriad studies of the distribution of wealth and income have demonstrated. Politically, three big changes in recent decades, which I discussed in my post of 11/21/13, have helped drive the trend to plutocracy. First, the decline of labor in the United States has entailed a devastating loss of political influence for the only major organized force broadly representing the economic interests of the non-rich. Second, the increased role of money in politics (a function of the economics of political campaigning as well as of Supreme Court decisions) has magnified the importance of the resource that rich people have the most of. Finally, the radicalization of the Republican Party has produced a deadlock in Washington that cripples any chance of significant policy initiatives that might help level the economic playing field.
Now, convention demands that I end this post with a hopeful discussion of the prospects for positive change. What exit can we see from the road to plutocracy? Unfortunately, I really don’t see one. There is a reasonable chance that saner forces will eventually recapture the Republican Party from the bomb-throwers, but the other trends will continue in force. I will be delighted if, some years from now, I will be able to look back on this post and chuckle at my lack of foresight and imagination, but I’m not counting on it.
(OK, I do have an imagination. My fantasy is that Elizabeth Warren is swept into the White House in 2016 on a wave of populist outrage and fervor, and her coattails bring enough Democrats into Congress to push through a really significant agenda of change. But I represent this as nothing more than a fantasy.)
* For their readability as well as their insights, I recommend Larry Bartels’ Unequal Democracy (2008) and Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner Take all Politics (2010).