State Rep. John Kavanagh took issue in the comments with a post awhile back, The Plutocracy is already here, trying to argue against this premise:
The vast majority of Americans do not contribute money to politicians, and politicians listen to the people who do contribute to their campaigns.
There is new political science research which supports this premise. Think Progress reports, The Government Listens To Lobbyists And The Wealthy, Not You And Me:
When organized interest groups or economic elites want a particular policy passed, there’s a strongly likelihood their wishes will come true. But when average citizens support something, they have next to no influence.
That’s according to a forthcoming article in Perspectives on Politics by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University. The two looked at a data set of 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002 and matched them up against surveys of public opinion broken down by income as well as support from interest groups.
They estimate that the impact of what an average citizen prefers put up against what the elites and interest groups want is next to nothing, or “a non-significant, near-zero level.” They note that their findings show “ordinary citizens…have little or no independent influence on policy at all.” The affluent, on the other hand, have “a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy,” they find, “more so than any other set of actors” that they studied. Organized interest groups similarly fare well, with “a large, positive, highly significant impact on public policy.”
When they hold constant the preferences of interest groups and the rich, “it makes very little difference what the general public thinks,” they note. The probability that policy change occurs is basically the same whether a small group or a large majority of average citizens are in favor. On the other hand, all else being the same, opposition from the wealthy means that a particular policy is only adopted about 18 percent of the time, but when they support it it gets adopted 45 percent of the time. Similar patterns are true for interest groups. The impact could also be even higher than their findings, as there may be policy differences among those they count as wealthy, which means that the imprecision in their measure “is likely to produce underestimates of the impact of economic elites on policy making,” they write.
One mitigating factor is that they note other research shows that the interests of the average citizen often align with what the wealthy want, although that is not typically true for interest groups.
But plenty of past research has backed up the idea that our government is far more responsive to the needs of the wealthy than those of the poor. Research from the University of Connecticut found that the Senate is only responsive to the policy preferences of the rich, not those of the poor and middle class. And with income inequality continuing to worsen, the problem will only become exacerbated.
The only power the average citizen has is their vote at the ballot box. Use it or lose it. Steve Benen writes in Leaving political capital on the table:
The political influence wealthy Americans enjoy over the policymaking process is well documented: the more money you have, the more likely it is politicians are going to take your concerns seriously.
Demos published a new report on this and related issue — “Stacked Deck: How the Dominance of Politics by the Affluent & Business Undermines Economic Mobility in America” — and included a striking chart, breaking down voting participation by income.
All forms of political participation matter, but voting is among the most concrete ways that citizens influence public policy — and the wealthier are far more likely to vote. According to the Census Bureau, 81.6 percent of Americans making over $150,000 reported that they voted in the 2008 presidential election. In contrast, roughly half of citizens making under $30,000 reported voting.
The chart shows the breakdown in 2008 — a presidential election in which turnout was fairly high — but it’s worth noting that the participation rates are not only down across the board in midterm cycles, it also further exaggerates the gap. The Demos report added, “The gap in voter turnout in 2010 was slightly larger, with affluent citizens voting at rates as high as 35 percentage points more than low-income citizens.”
Ezra Klein added, “The Doom Loop of Oligarchy isn’t just driven by super-rich Americans spending huge sums to influence politics. It’s also driven by working-class Americans disengaging from the political process, which leaves politicians more desperate for the votes and the contributions of the affluent.”
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When we see congressional Republicans, for example, fighting tooth and nail to protect tax breaks for millionaires while rejecting unemployment aid, food stamps, and health care access to low-income families, it’s tempting to think this would be electoral suicide. After all, there aren’t that many millionaires in the United States, but there are a whole lot of folks struggling to get by.
Putting aside questions of morality and propriety, championing the interests of the wealthy while making deliberately life tougher for working families seems would appear to be a giant political risk since the latter so heavily outnumber the former.
But elected officials are, well, elected. To stay in office, they need votes. It’s not surprising, then, that they so often prioritize the concerns of those most likely to participate in the political process (and keep them in office).
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Of course, this dynamic is all the more disheartening when one realizes that the so-called “Republican war on voting” has made participating that much more difficult on low-income voters, many of whom find it more difficult to register and don’t have cars, drivers’ licenses, and/or time to jump through procedural hoops that American voters haven’t had to deal with in generations.
Still, those at the lower end of income scale have political capital, but it’s going unused.