Democracy By Coincidence

A new study concludes that We the People sometimes get what we want, but not because we have any real power.

For months after the Sandy Hook shootings, polls showed that large majorities of American voters wanted at least some strengthening of gun control laws, with support for universal background checks on gun buyers reaching the almost unheard-of level of 90%. A well organized and well funded interest group, the National Rifle Association, opposed this groundswell of popular opinion and won. A bipartisan bill that expanded background checks to sales at gun shows (and included a specific ban on the national gun registry the NRA said the proposal would lead to) failed in the Senate.

Recently, hopes for gun control rose again — not because of any further increase in its popularity, but because one rich man (billionaire and former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg) announced his intention to spend $50 million on the issue.

Forget for a moment the specific arguments for or against gun control: Does that resemble any process you studied in civics class? Do you think that’s what Lincoln had in mind when he talked about “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”?

There are plenty of other examples where the public has a definite opinion, but has been unable to get the result it wants: getting the NSA to stop tracking our phone calls, sending some bankers to jail after the known crimes of the housing bubble, or even things I disagree with, like prayer in public schools. One current issue is raising the minimum wage: It’s popular, but so far that hasn’t made much difference.

In addition to individual issues, consider our presidential primary process, an elimination race in which candidates compete until they run out of money. Until the 2012 cycle, you could argue that (while money was certainly influential) the voters were still driving the feedback process between money and elections: success at the polls led to contributions that keep the campaign going long enough to have another electoral success.

But the first presidential cycle after Citizens United worked a little differently: Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson kept Newt Gingrich’s campaign going single-handedly, contributing $16.5 million. (Adelson went on to spend at least $98 million on the entire 2012 election cycle, a drop in the bucket for a man worth $37 billion. To get some perspective, imagine 37,000 millionaires each contributed $2650. Collectively, they would equal one Sheldon Adelson.) Rick Santorum, the other Romney challenger to survive deep into the process, had his own billionaire backer contributing millions of dollars: Foster Friess.

So if Romney (worth $250 million himself) had stumbled down the stretch, the only candidates in a position to benefit had been put there by individual rich men. Those without a billionaire backer were long gone. Does that resemble any process you studied in high school?

As persuasive as such stories may seem, they’re only anecdotes. People who think American democracy is working fine can find their own anecdotes in which popular opinion changes and something happens, apparently as a result. Majorities initially supported the Iraq invasion, especially in the early days when it appeared to be succeeding. But as the war dragged on, the public turned against it, and our combat troops are out now. Maybe the withdrawal took longer than it should have, but ultimately the voters got what they wanted.

In 2008, Barack Obama and the Democrats ran on a health plan very much like ObamaCare. They won huge majorities and implemented the program they ran on. In 2010, Republicans ran on deficit reduction, won, and the deficit has been considerably reduced. That’s democracy in action.

My anecdotes, somebody else’s anecdotes — who’s right? That’s the question political science professors Martin Gillens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern set out to answer in their paper “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” which will appear in the Fall issue of the refereed journal Perspectives in Politics published by the American Political Science Association.

Gillens and Page (or more likely their graduate students) examined “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”. They stipulated that the questions had to be specific enough to determine four years later whether or not the public had gotten its way, and that the results had to be broken down by income. They also compiled lists of major interest-group organizations (trade groups, labor unions, groups focused on single issues like abortion, mass-membership groups like AARP, etc.) and their public positions on these issues, then constructed an index (“Net Interest Group Alignment”) to measure the overall interest-group pressure on each issue.

From there, what makes the analysis difficult is that the policies favored by average citizens, wealthy citizens, and interest groups often overlap, so some advanced statistical juggling has to be done to determine who’s driving the bus and who’s just riding on it. (For example, you and your neighbor may have disagreed about background checks at gun shows, and one of you got your way. But was the really significant argument between you and your neighbor, or between the NRA and Mike Bloomberg?) I haven’t examined the specific techniques Gillens and Page used, but the general idea is that the variables that predict the outcome most often are assumed to be more powerful, and the power of the remaining variables is assessed after the influence of the more powerful variables is factored out. (Or, simplifying a bit, when public opinion and wealthy opinion contradict each other, who wins?)

Here’s what they concluded:

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. …

Since the preferences of ordinary citizens tend to be positively correlated with the preferences of economic elites, ordinary citizens often win the policies they want, even if they are more or less coincidental beneficiaries rather than causes of the victory. … In any case, normative advocates of populistic democracy may not be enthusiastic about democracy by coincidence, in which ordinary citizens get what they want from government only when they happen to agree with elites or interest groups that are really calling the shots.

The authors realize that this paper represents an incomplete theory. They don’t, for example, come up with a formula that reliably predicts policy outcomes from elite opinion and interest group alignment. The degree of correlation they find isn’t large enough to suggest that such a formula is possible; probably other variables are at work as well. For example, they aren’t modeling

  • the views of opinion-makers who are only incidentally wealthy (like Glenn Beck, Anderson Cooper, or Rachel Maddow);
  • the interests of entrenched government bureaucracies like the Pentagon or the Federal Reserve;
  • the option-shaping power of academic elites at universities and think tanks.

or any of the other factors bound up in the idea of “serious people”. (The influence of “serious people” shows most clearly in issues like NSA spying. I don’t think the wealthy are any happier about having their calls logged than the rest of us, and there’s no NRA-like group that defends domestic spying. But “serious people”, like the ones who are presented as experts on the weekend talk shows, don’t make the case for reining in the NSA, and people who do aren’t taken seriously.)

In addition, the authors recognize weaknesses in their data that they believe understate the influence of the very wealthy. After all, even a poll that breaks down results by income isn’t going to provide a significant sample of billionaires. (The authors estimate the opinions of the wealthy by using data about the richest 10% of responders, figuring that the differences between opinion at the 50th percentile and the 90th percentile are indicative of greater differences higher up the ladder.) A method that more directly measures the views of the 1% or the .01% might find an even greater correlation with policy outcomes.

We also don’t know why there’s an overlap between elite opinion and public opinion. Perhaps the wealthy are paternalistically trying to do what’s best for everybody. (Mayor Bloomberg appears to have no personal stake in limiting guns, and Bill Gates‘ kids aren’t likely to need the public schools.) Perhaps public opinion itself has already been shaped by the influence of the rich. (Think of all the working-class people who vehemently oppose “the death tax” — not realizing it’s not triggered until your estates exceeds $5 million.)

Finally, there’s a point of view that says elites should run things. Maybe, as a class, the rich are more educated, better informed, and more insightful than the rest of us. (Then again, maybe our public discussion of poverty has such an abstract, other-worldly quality because the rich people whose opinions really matter don’t know any poor people.) That’s certainly a discussion worth having, but we ought to have it honestly, recognizing that we’ve decided to abandon all our 1776-ish rhetoric about government being founded on the will of the People.

Worst of all, though, is the thought of how that discussion would be judged: The elite wouldn’t have to convince the general public that they deserve to lead, because the opinion of the general public really doesn’t matter. Instead, the public would have to convince the elite that we deserve to be listened to.

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  • MDavis  On April 28, 2014 at 10:06 am

    “Does that resemble any process you studied in civics class?”

    Yes. The Government was intentionally made to function inefficiently, and it did so by its design after Sandy Hook.

    Your basic premise concerning Sandy Hook is flawed because the people wanted an -emotional- response, not a logical one.

    Think of it this way, after 9/11 the majority of people in this country wanted to profile Muslims as they got onto planes (and a non-insignificant minority still do today). Yet, it was never codified, why? Because of the same inefficient govt functioning you imply “isn’t the way the US govt is SUPPOSED to work”. Yet, it’s exactly the way it’s supposed to work.

    You can judge the validity of your position by the level of hypocrisy it has in it. Would you be for a knee jerk reaction to take away a Constitutional right to bear arms but not for a knee jerk reaction to take away a Constitutional right to not be judge by your race?

    If the answer is no to one of them, the answer has to be no to the other. “Reasonable” legislation on guns is what people will usually say, but that’s a meaningless distinction when they wouldn’t be for “reasonable” additional questioning when it comes to Muslims getting on planes because they, correctly, realize that “reasonable” quickly becomes “unreasonable”.

    So the answer to your original question is: yes, it does resemble the civic process that we all learned about in school.

    The issue you have a problem with is the apathy of the American people, not the process. If people genuinely cared about gun control, the majority of people in the US, then no amount of time would matter, and no amount of “brainwashing” by the “NRA” [insert typical entity here] would matter. People would still go for it. But since apathy is the current political philosophy in this country, to make a change anywhere is just pissing up a rope.


  • By No Influence | The Weekly Sift on April 21, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    […] week’s featured articles are “Democracy By Coincidence” and “Rights Are For People Like […]

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