This is an interesting paper, that brings admiral clarity to the competing theoretical models that address the problem, ‘Who governs? Who really rules?’ (Gilens and Page. 2014, p.3). However I’m skeptical as to whether the authors’ dataset provides unequivocal support for the general equation between ‘electoralism’ and oligarchical rule claimed by Yoram Gat in his open letter to Professor Gilens, for the following reasons:
It’s surprising that a total of 1,932 cases yielded as many as 1,779 instances demonstrating a clear relationship between public preferences and policy change (p.10). Most legislative outcomes involve messy compromises involving trade-offs between the preferences and interests of the various parties involved. What criteria were employed by Gilens’s ‘small army of research assistants’ in order to decide that these 1,779 instances involved a ‘clear, as opposed to partial or ambiguous, actual presence or absence of policy change’ (ibid.)? Are public preferences really as unambiguous as the authors claim? An influential work by Benjamin Page’s frequent collaborator Robert Shapiro used the examples of Bill Clinton’s (failed) healthcare reforms and Newt Gingrich’s ‘Contract with America’ as examples of elite- and partisan-driven policy initiatives (Jacobs and Shapiro, 2000). However in the former case survey evidence was ambiguous: a Gallup Poll conducted in early August 1991 indicated that 91 percent of the public felt there was a ‘crisis in healthcare’ (Gallup, 1991, p. 4) and a large majority (75% of adults polled) wanted the government to provide healthcare (Times, 1992). But it was not clear what the public wanted done about health care, being torn between the desire for comprehensive provision and the deep-seated American aversion to big government: ‘different polls and even successive questions in the same polls turn up seemingly contradictory responses’ (Kosterlitz, 1991, p. 2806). In any event, Clinton’s healthcare reforms were defeated: ‘the policy outcome turned, in the end, on the response of the relatively few centrist legislators to – exactly – the median national opinion as measured by polls’ (Quirk, 2009, p. 6, my emphasis). Similarly the GoP ‘Contract with America’ was entirely driven by the median-voter strategy:
The issues that garnered very favourable ratings with the public were included in the contract and those that did not were left off. There was little discussion about how these policies fit together, rather the concern was maximizing popularity. (Geer, 1996, pp. 34-5, my emphasis).
2. Multivariate Analysis
I’m not a political scientist or a statistician, so I’m not well qualified to comment on this; however the authors acknowledge that
the preferences of average citizens are positively and fairly highly correlated, across issues, with the preferences of economic elites (see Table 2). Rather often [.78], average citizens and affluent citizens (our proxy for economic elites) want the same things from government [p. 14]
The problem only arises for the (minority of cases) when the preferences of elites differ from those of the median voter [.22?]. I speculate on these cases in the paragraph below, but I’m not sure why in the (majority of) cases where priorities coincide, the authors still claim that this reinforces elite theory. It may well be the case that average citizens have ‘little or no independent influence on policy’, [p.15, my emphasis] but the implication – that government policy in this majority of cases is determined by elite preferences – is not warranted by the data. If Janet and John both prefer curry to pizza, why attribute the decision to visit the Indian restaurant to John rather than Janet (or vice-versa)? Although politicians are responsive to campaign contributions their ultimate need is to secure votes, so the obvious conclusion, in the two-thirds majority of cases, is that they are following public preferences and elite opinion (with the emphasis on the former). Elections are decided by the number of votes cast.
3. Political Economy
The USA may well be a ‘hyper-responsive’ democracy (King, 1997) but its political economy is robustly capitalist. The ‘American Dream’ is not for the collectivist New Jerusalem but that everyone can aspire to join the ranks of the rich ‘n powerful. Economic success and the resulting general prosperity is believed, rightly or wrongly, to result from the commanding heights of the economy being in the hands of private enterprise, as opposed to ‘big government’. Decision-making in private businesses is by the owners of capital (and/or their appointed executives). Givens and Page acknowledge a loose correlation between the owners of capital and economic elites (the principal focus of their paper), so it is unsurprising if, in a capitalist political economy, those who have demonstrated success in civil society should have a disproportionate influence in public affairs, particularly where economic policy is concerned. One of the first moves of the (UK) Thatcher government was to recruit successful business people into Whitehall, in order to dilute the power of the Oxbridge generalist culture that predominates in the civil service. This has become a bi-partisan policy, as the goal is to harness expertise, the relationship with wealth being seen as entirely contingent. Both economic elites and biased pluralism are natural aspects of capitalist political economy. Givens and Page offer no cross-cultural data, but one might well anticipate that in (European) social-democratic political economies there would be an even more than two-thirds link between median voter preferences and policy outcomes.
4. American Exceptionalism?
Givens and Page rightly entitle their paper ‘Testing theories of American politics’ as it could well be that this is the exception rather than the rule. They only offer US data, thereby providing no empirical foundation for those seeking to make the general connection between electoralism and oligarchy. In fact there are very good reasons for viewing US politics as exceptional:
a) During the period that they consider (1981-2002), US politics has become more partisan, whereas in the same period UK politics has converged on the median voter (‘Mondeo Man’; ‘Worcester Woman’). The latter phenomenon has been attributed to the effect on the Labour Party of the collapse of Eastern block socialism, whereas US politics (which has never included a mainstream socialist party) is still reeling from the fallout from the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and 1970s (Jacobs and Shapiro, 2000, p. 31).
b) The US would appear to be unique in having no effective cap on political funding (for largely constitutional reasons). Party funding in the UK is much more tightly controlled, political advertising is banned on TV and electoral broadcasts are rationed. There is no demonstrable connection between electoral success and party funding, the current prediction being that UKIP, a party with negligible financial resources, will win the May 2014 European Parliament elections.
In conclusion, Gilens and Pages’s analysis is limited to US politics and no general conclusions about electoralism and oligarchy can be drawn from it. Furthermore, unless my reduction of the multivariate analysis to the Janet and John scenario is mistaken, then Figure 1 is highly misleading as, where elite and popular preferences coincide, ‘U.S. federal government policy is consistent with majority preferences roughly two-thirds of the time’ (p.5). The authors’ claim that ‘ordinary citizens get what they want from government only when they happen to agree with elites or interest groups that are really calling the shots’ (p.18, my emphasis), relies more on Mosca and Mills than on a sober analysis of the data.
When it comes to the use and abuse of statistics we would all do well to heed Mark Twain’s advice.
Gallup. (1991). Gallup Poll Monthly, August 1991.
Geer, J. G. (1996). From Tea Leaves to Opinion Polls: A theory of democratic leadership. New York: Columbia University Press.
Gilens, M., and Page, B.I. (2014), Testing theories of American politics: elites, interest groups, and average citizens, Perspectives on Politics (forthcoming).
Jacobs, L. R., & Shapiro, R. Y. (2000). Politicians Don’t Pander: Political manipulation and the loss of democratic responsiveness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
King, A. (1997b). Running Scared. Atlantic Monthly(279), 41-61.
Kosterlitz, J. (1991). National Journal, November 1991
Quirk, P. J. (2009). Politians do pander: Mass opinion, polarization, and law making. The Forum, 7 (4, Article 10).