As the great circus of the November 2016 elections is already beginning in the USA, it’s worth recalling that, in fact, the electoral campaigns and the struggle for power they are part of are more or less continuous in this country. Thus, all the decisions of the government should aim to modify policy according to the preferences of the majority of citizens who, in principle, should be able to exercise their democratic power through their representatives.
Is the U.S. really a democracy? In a recent column, I highlighted the concerning phenomenon of the increasing influence of a handful of billionaires on the financing of electoral campaigns. Presumably this control renders dependent politicians more affluent and more sensitive to their preferences, but in a democratic society, ordinary citizens should still have a big say, given their numbers. Does this happen in practice?
Is the Hypothesis of Democracy Still Going Strong?
In response to this question, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page developed an ingenious approach. Over a period between 1981 and 2002, they identified 1,779 policy proposals with available data on public preferences. Of this number, less than a third have actually resulted in changes to existing policies, which is not surprising, considering the American political system was conceived as an obstacle course that is difficult to get through.
The question that arises is: When policies are modified, are these changes consistent with the public interest as expressed in polls? The initial response to this question is encouraging: There is a positive correlation (r=0.64 to be precise) between public preference as a whole and policy changes. Even better, they find that the correlation with the alignment of interest groups is not as good (r=0.59). Bravo! The system is working!
That’s not all, however. The authors show that the correlation between the preference of what they call the “economic elite” (the upper income bracket in the sample of identified polls) and the orientation of policy changes is much higher (r=0.81). Where the problem lies, however, is that when you consider these three factors at the same time, the impact of the average citizen’s preferences disappears completely.
In other words, leaders usually move in favor of the preferences of ordinary citizens, but only if these preferences agree with those of the elite or of interest groups. When there is conflict, the preferences of the economic elite and/or those of interest groups almost always prevail.
In sum, these results indicate that the U.S. resembles an oligarchy or a plutocracy more than a democracy in the classic sense of the word. Ordinary citizens carry little weight.
The Challenge of Economic Inequality
You could see a convincing example of this kind of dynamic following the 2012 election, when Barack Obama promised to give a little boost to the middle class by increasing the marginal tax rate on incomes above $250,000. This proposal was supported by a strong majority of the public but was demolished by Congress. The same thing has happened with the multiple unsuccessful attempts to raise the minimum wage in recent years.
That is why the growing inequality of recent decades (because, with all due respect to right-wing political scientists and certain optimists, economic inequality in the U.S. is indeed on the rise) represents a real challenge for American democracy. Meanwhile, access to the restricted circles of decision-making is increasingly reserved for the elite, whose preferences and interests don’t always agree with those of the citizenry. And even if we aren’t at the same point as our neighbors, it is wrong to think that Canadians and the Quebecois are safe from this type of problem.
The publication of Gilens and Page’s results has created quite a stir in American media this past year, which was absorbed in debates about the problem of economic inequality and the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the infamous “1 percent.” The two authors were notably invited to discuss the implications of their report on American democracy on the popular Daily Show, hosted by Jon Stewart. Benjamin Page will be at CÉRIUM* at the Université de Montréal this Friday for a public conference.
*Translator’s note: The Centre d’études et de recherches internationales de l’Université de Montréal, also known as CÉRIUM, is a center for research in international relations that is affiliated with the Université de Montréal.