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Affluence and Influence

Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America

Martin Gilens
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 348
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  • Book Info
    Affluence and Influence
    Book Description:

    Can a country be a democracy if its government only responds to the preferences of the rich? In an ideal democracy, all citizens should have equal influence on government policy--but as this book demonstrates, America's policymakers respond almost exclusively to the preferences of the economically advantaged.Affluence and Influencedefinitively explores how political inequality in the United States has evolved over the last several decades and how this growing disparity has been shaped by interest groups, parties, and elections.

    With sharp analysis and an impressive range of data, Martin Gilens looks at thousands of proposed policy changes, and the degree of support for each among poor, middle-class, and affluent Americans. His findings are staggering: when preferences of low- or middle-income Americans diverge from those of the affluent, there is virtually no relationship between policy outcomes and the desires of less advantaged groups. In contrast, affluent Americans' preferences exhibit a substantial relationship with policy outcomes whether their preferences are shared by lower-income groups or not. Gilens shows that representational inequality is spread widely across different policy domains and time periods. Yet Gilens also shows that under specific circumstances the preferences of the middle class and, to a lesser extent, the poor, do seem to matter. In particular, impending elections--especially presidential elections--and an even partisan division in Congress mitigate representational inequality and boost responsiveness to the preferences of the broader public.

    At a time when economic and political inequality in the United States only continues to rise,Affluence and Influenceraises important questions about whether American democracy is truly responding to the needs of all its citizens.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4482-1
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

    (pp. 1-11)

    Decades ago Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” We now live in what has been christened a “new gilded age.” Wealth in the United States is indeed concentrated in the hands of a few—more so than at any time since the 1920s. In this book I examine the relationship between individual Americans’ financial resources and their political power, seeking to understand the extent to which contemporary America confirms Justice Brandeis’s grim assertion.

    Citizens in...

  2. CHAPTER 1 Citizen Competence and Democratic Decision Making
    (pp. 12-49)

    This book is about the relationship between what the American public wants government to do and what government does. I analyze the relationship between public preferences and government policy in order to determine the conditions under which government responds to the will of the governed, and to identify who it is among the governed that government responds to. In the chapters that follow I document enormous inequalities in the responsiveness of policy makers to the preferences of more- and less-well-off Americans, inequalities that have both practical implications for the lives of the rich and the poor and normative implications for...

  3. CHAPTER 2 Data and Methods
    (pp. 50-69)

    To what extent does government policy reflect the preferences of the governed? To answer this seemingly straightforward question we must address a host of practical and conceptual issues. First, should all government policies be included in our assessments, even the most technical and obscure? If not, by what criteria can we distinguish an appropriate set of policies to include? Second, since control over the government’s agenda is one important form of influence over policy outcomes, how can we account for the failure of some policy options to even make it onto the agenda in Washington? Third, what sort of time...

  4. CHAPTER 3 The Preference/Policy Link
    (pp. 70-96)

    Few will be surprised that the link between preferences and policies turns out to be stronger for higher-income Americans than for the poor. But the magnitude of this difference, and the inequality in representation that I find even between the affluent and the slightly less well-off, suggest that the political system is tilted very strongly in favor of those at the top of the income distribution. After presenting my core findings on representational inequality, I show that alternative methodologies for estimating the independent influence of Americans at different income levels produce similar results. The final section of the chapter discusses...

  5. CHAPTER 4 Policy Domains and Democratic Responsiveness
    (pp. 97-123)

    The previous chapter documented the stark inequality in policy responsiveness to the preferences of low- versus high- income Americans. In this chapter I look at the substantive content of this inequality. That is, I examine the specific policies that account for the differential responsiveness across income groups in order to understand which policies contribute to the observed inequality and how national policy would differ if responsiveness were more egalitarian. Dividing my dataset of policy questions into foreign policy/national security, social welfare, economic policy, and issues with strong moral or religious components shows that the representational inequality documented in chapter 3...

  6. CHAPTER 5 Interest Groups and Democratic Responsiveness
    (pp. 124-161)

    The analysis of social welfare policy in chapter 4 suggests that interest groups can, at least on occasion, influence policy in a direction more compatible with middle- or low-income Americans’ preferences than with those of the affluent. But if interest groups can work against the preferences of the affluent on some issues, there is no reason to think they don’t work in favor of the preferences of the affluent on other issues. Indeed, if interest groups tend to align more with the preferences of the affluent, the relationship between preferences and policy outcomes for the well-off may reflect not the...

  7. CHAPTER 6 Parties, Elections, and Democratic Responsiveness
    (pp. 162-192)

    In the previous chapter I argued that neither the cynical view that interest groups undermine democracy nor the sanguine view that they serve as channels for popular control of government is consistent with my data. Taken as a whole, interest groups neither enhance nor undermine the influence of the public over policy outcomes or consistently shift policy in a direction more congenial to the affluent or the poor. (This is not to deny that interest groups powerfully shape federal policy or that they sometimes push important policies in a direction that one or another subgroup of Americans finds more or...

  8. CHAPTER 7 Democratic Responsiveness across Time
    (pp. 193-233)

    American politics has changed in important ways over the decades covered by my data. The parties today are more polarized than they were in the 1960s, the media environment through which citizens experience elections and learn about officeholders’ actions has changed dramatically, the partisan division of Congress has become markedly more equal, political campaigns have become vastly more expensive, and economic conditions have shifted as income and wealth have become increasingly concentrated at the top of the distribution. It would be surprising if these and other changes in political and economic conditions had no impact on the responsiveness of policy...

  9. CHAPTER 8 Money and American Politics
    (pp. 234-252)

    Political equality is a central tenet of democracy. But it remains a guiding principle, not a description of any existing democratic society. Given the many inequalities among citizens not only in economic resources but also in time, knowledge, and interest in social and political affairs, it would be unrealistic to expect equal influence over policy making. Still, the extent and nature of representational inequalities reflect the degree of democracy in a given society, and when inequalities in political influence become too large, democracy shades into oligarchy (rule by the few) or plutocracy (rule by the wealthy).

    The patterns of responsiveness...