A fascinating piece of research confirming that what we all suspected is actually true. American politics is entirely bought and paid for by the economic elite and this democracy thing just isn’t working out. You can get the whole paper here, but the basic conclusion is:
The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence. Our results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.
Majoritarian electoral democracy is the idea that we all march off to the polls to elect the politicians who then do what we would like them to do. That this doesn’t actually happen will not come as a shock to most. Well, OK, it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has been paying attention.
Majoritarian pluralism is the idea that the various groups we all belong to scrap and negotiate in the political arena and the end result is that we do still get something approaching what the majority of us would like as the compromise. Again, that this hasn’t been happening should be obvious.
Biased pluralism is supported by the evidence and, on top of this paper’s research, we can see it quite clearly in recent news stories. Mancur Olson is one of the economists who described the idea that we end up with societies in which various unrepresentative groups try to hijack the political process to their benefit.
One of the driving features here is that, for certain changes in the law, one concentrated group will benefit while the costs will be spread over the entire society and thus be negligible to any one individual. Thus those benefiting will have the incentive to fight very hard for their corner while the rest of us don’t give a damn.
And so we get steel import duties to make steel slightly more expensive for us all but keep a few highly paid steel workers in union jobs, sugar import restrictions to double the US price of sugar to all our detriment (and thus inventing HFCS as well) but to make a few farmers rich and of course, car dealers squealing that Tesla cannot sell without dealers and taxi commissions insisting that Uber can’t just come and eat their lunch.
This clearly and obviously describes some part of the real world around us.
The fourth, economic elite domination, is one that is very popular in certain circles. It’s the rich, the Kochs, the billionaire bastards who buy up everyone and this is why the country sucks. And this is supported by this research: it’s very difficult to distinguish between this scenario and biased pluralism.
The method they’ve used to test all of this is rather smart. There has been a series (nearly 2,000) of issues upon which we know both what the average voter thinks should be done and also what the top 10% by income think should be done. By measuring the divergence between those two views and then looking at what actually happened, who prevailed, it’s possible to look at whose views actually count when decisions about the law are made. The answer is the rich guys.
It’s possible to have one slight quibble with the research, in that the top 10% isn’t actually “the wealthy”. You know, the billionaire bastards who control us all in some people’s vision of the system. The top 10% will also map quite closely over those who are more highly educated, those who are more informed and even, if we want to get controversial, those who are more intelligent. $77,000 or so does put you into the top 10% in the US and bright highly educated people do tend to get to that sort of level. So saying that the divergence of views is purely about income or money and thus self-interest might not be the strongest of assumptions. But take that quibble with whatever weight you might want to put on it, from a bit to none.
The much more important question is what the hell do we do about it all? One answer is to take the money out of politics to which I would say good luck. People have been trying this for a long time and as above, it’s not really been working, has it? The alternative would be to take the politics out of money. If government just supplies a decent safety net and then steers clear of how the economy actually works then who would bother to try and buy it? After all, no one is going to voluntarily associate with the sort of slimeballs who go into politics if there wasn’t a buck in it at the end. So, stop government and politicians having the power to determine who gets what and no one will try to influence them over who does get what.
But of course that’s hopelessly utopian as well.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]