30 April 2011

Measuring democracy

It wouldn't surprise anyone if they were told that the rich have more influence on government than the rest of us. Some scholars in the U.S. have gone further than assume this, they have actually measured it, and the results are intriguing.

Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton University, writing in the Public Opinion Quarterly, says, "when Americans with different income levels differ in their policy preferences, actual policy outcomes strongly reflect the preferences of the most affluent but bear virtually no relationship to the preferences of poor or middle-income Americans." He goes on to conclude, "Although perfect political equality is an unrealistic goal, representational biases of this magnitude call into question the very democratic character of our society."

Professor Gilens applied a detailed statistical analysis to quantify the results of a variety of policy questions asked of Americans in surveys taken between 1981 and 2002. Responders, categorized by income, education, race, sex age and partisan politics, were asked whether they supported or opposed such issues as raising the minimum wage, sending troops to Haiti, allowing gays to serve in the military, requiring employers to provide health care, and so on. Note was taken of whether the policy change occurred or not.

Gilens work substantiated a number of previous studies. In an article published in the Cambridge Journals, based on the construction of  several "Material Power Indices," Jeffery Winters and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University reported that “the wealthiest Americans may exert vastly greater political influence than average citizens and that a very small group of the wealthiest (perhaps the top tenth of 1 percent) may have sufficient power to dominate policy in certain key areas."

Page and Lawrence Jacobs from the University of Minnesota wrote in the American Political Science Review that "The results of cross-sectional and time-lagged analyses suggest that U.S. foreign policy is most heavily and consistently influenced by internationally oriented business leaders, followed by experts (who, however, may themselves be influenced by business)."

A study by Princeton's Larry Bartels found that on issues such as civil rights, the minimum wage, government spending and abortion, U.S. senators "appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes."

What these scholars are describing with their scientific analyses is more of a plutocracy, or perhaps oligarchy, than a democracy. They are saying, in effect, that when you bring out the yardsticks, American democracy doesn't measure up. Does ours, I wonder? We await the analyses.

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