Maybe not an Oligarchy after all?

So, the Gilens and Page study a few years ago that found that the US Government is pretty much only responsive to the richest Americans, rightly, got a lot of coverage.  I strongly suspect the latest research, largely rebutting Gilens and Page, will not receive the same level of attention.

Now, as this is not my direct area of research I’m not going to take the time to read the original research to draw truly firm conclusions.  That said, as summarized by the smart and reliable Dylan Matthews in Vox, I think the tenative conclusion really has to be… “hey, not so much of an oligarchy after all.”  Matthews:

There’s only one problem: Research published since then has raised serious questions about this paper, both its finding and its analysis. This is, of course, how normal science works; some academics put a finding out there, and their peers pick it apart.

But the study has become a frequently invoked piece of evidence in debates about money in politics, and the public and political debate has not kept up with the scholarly one. And the latest scholarly critiques suggest that while the rich certainly have more political influence than the middle class, ordinary Americans still win a substantial share of the time, even when the affluent oppose them.

America is an imperfect democracy, in other words — but it’s hardly an oligarchy…

Since its initial release, the Gilens/Page paper’s findings have been targeted in three separate debunkings. Cornell professor Peter Enns, recent Princeton PhD graduateOmar Bashir, and a team of three researchers — UT Austin grad student J. Alexander Branham, University of Michigan professor Stuart Soroka, and UT professor Christopher Wlezien — have all taken a look at Gilens and Page’s underlying data and found that their analysis doesn’t hold up.

Gilens and Page used a database of 1,779 policy issues — which included data on the opinions of median-income Americans, the rich, business interests, and non-business interest groups like unions or the National Rifle Association — to determine whose opinions correlated most closely with actual government policy.

But the researchers critiquing the paper found that middle-income Americans and rich Americans actually agree on an overwhelming majority of topics. Out of the 1,779 bills in the Gilens/Page data set, majorities of the rich and middle class agree on 1,594; there are 616 bills both groups oppose and 978 bills both groups favor. That means the groups agree on 89.6 percent of bills.

That leaves only 185 bills on which the rich and the middle class disagree, and even there the disagreements are small. On average, the groups’ opinion gaps on the 185 bills is 10.9 percentage points; so, say, 45 percent of the middle class might support a bill while 55.9 percent of the rich support it.

Matthews is right, this is how science is supposed to work.  Gilens and Page publish something and are clear about their methods.  Others take an even closer look, consider some things differently, and come to different conclusions.  It’s pretty clear that rich people have too much influence in American politics, but the latest research, at least, suggests the problem is, hopefully, not quite as bad as we fear.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

5 Responses to Maybe not an Oligarchy after all?

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    It’s clear the wealthy have won on taxation, and trade. If the Republicans win in 2016, they’ll do a lot more winning….in voter repression, health care, funding education….it’s too depressing to go on. Trump walked back on his early position on health care and I believe he will be very willing to compromise on Social Security and Medicare reform.

    • Jon K. says:

      He had also walked back his rhetoric on taxes and now seems to favor progressive taxation. Trump fits the definition of demagogue pretty closely: a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.

      With a politician like this you cannot really put any stock in anything he says. Any policy he proposes can and probably will change depending on the moment that he is speaking. That is part of what makes him so dangerous. It is impossible to know if he actually believes in what he is proposing. He is largely flying by the seat of his pants and is not being guided by any real policy team.

      He is the emperor with no clothes.

      • rgbact says:

        indeed. He’s like the anti ideology candidate you’ve been looking for. In the absence of ideology, this is what you get.

      • Jon K. says:

        I’ve never been interested in supporting a demagogue. I don’t have a problem with people using ideology as a tool to help them understand politics. It can be very useful. I have a problem with people who think that their ideology is always correct and refuse to consider ideas that may conflict with it.

        I am for pragmatic compromise and doing what is useful for a given situation. When ideological purity becomes the most important thing that’s when I think it’s a problem. I am against black and white thinking that ideologues on both the left and right seem to enjoy so much.

  2. itchy says:

    “But the researchers critiquing the paper found that middle-income Americans and rich Americans actually agree on an overwhelming majority of topics.”

    Aha! This mean rich Americans also have an overwhelming influence on middle-income Americans!

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