MARTIN GILENS SPEAKS AT PLYMOUTH STATE
Professor Gilens, prime author of a much-cited article showing that the US government responds to the interests of wealthy individuals and corporate lobbies, not to ordinary people, presented his findings tonight at Plymouth State University.
Gilens, a professor of political science at Princeton, analyzed responses to 1779 survey questions collected from 1981 to 2002 to test whose opinions mattered. With his co-author, Benjamin Page, Gilens examined the views of average citizens, defined as those at median levels of income, the views of wealthy individuals, and the positions held by the most powerful interest groups (“Most of them are business oriented,” he said.). Then they looked at the outcomes of policy debates.
What they found is that the preferences of ordinary people have virtually no impact on policy. The opinions of wealthy individuals and organized interest groups, however, have a considerable effect.
“People with resources call the shots and ordinary citizens are bystanders,” he said.
It’s not a matter of political parties and which one is in power. If one looks at issues such as trade policy, tax cuts, or financial de-regulation, politicians of both major parties have enacted policies favored by elites. “Priorities the public expressed are
not the priorities of our government,” Gilens said.
Gilens’ research was reported in “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” published in 2014 in Perspectives on Politics. Frequently referred to as “the Princeton study,” the Gilens and Page paper has been used to state the USA is now an oligarchy.
Not so fast, Gilens says. Yes, it’s true that ordinary people are largely ignored and that high percentages of the rising amounts of cash flooding the political system come from a relatively small collection of wealthy individuals. And it’s also true that running and winning elections demands ever larger campaign funds. But Gilens holds onto hope that a movement like the early 20th century progressives can rise up to challenge the policies of the New Gilded Age.
“No single reform” will do it, Gilens believes. But campaign finance reform, lobbying reform, electoral reform, and the rise of civil society and labor groups just might stop the trend toward oligarchy. That will be “a decades long task,” he says.