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Corporations, Interest Groups Have Outsized Impact on Policy

Court’s altering of campaign finance laws further increases wealthy’s political clout

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April 11, 2014 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Affluent individuals and business corporations already have vastly more influence on federal government policy than average citizens, according to recently released research by Princeton University and Northwestern University. This research suggests that the Supreme Court's continuing loosening of campaign finance laws is further increasing the political clout of business firms and the wealthy.

Affluent citizens at the 90th income percentile have the most influence, according to the research. Organized interest groups also have a great deal of impact, while the preferences of average citizens have no discernable, independent effect on policymaking at all.

“I am amazed at the results of this research,” said study co-author Benjamin I. Page, Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern and faculty associate with the University’s Institute for Policy Research.

“It has the potential to change some of our most cherished notions about how American politics works.”

For the study, Page and Martin Gilens, professor of politics at Princeton and an executive committee member of the Woodrow Wilson School’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, used a unique data set comprised of 1,779 policy issues spanning a 30-year period to estimate how much influence affluent citizens, organized interest groups and ordinary citizens each have on policy outcomes -- while statistically controlling for the influence of other actors.

Though affluent citizens have the most influence, the average American does not necessarily always lose out, said Gilens, the lead author of the study.

“Affluent and ordinary citizens frequently want the same thing,” he said. “But when they disagree -- and they do disagree on many important matters -- the affluent generally get their way. If democracy means that all citizens should have a say in shaping government policy, our findings cast doubt upon just how democratic U.S. policy making actually is.”

Gilens and Page note that ever since the time of James Madison, observers of American politics have hoped that organized interest groups might represent the diverse wants and interests of the citizenry as a whole so that democracy might work well even if individual citizens among the general public exert little or no direct influence. 

“This study dashes hopes for this democratic kind of interest-group influence,” Gilens said. “We found that corporations and business-oriented interest groups, which often seek policies that the public opposes, have much more impact on policy making than mass-based groups. Moreover, even mass-based groups (taken together) do not actually line up very well with the policies that ordinary citizens want.”

Page said the Supreme Court’s recent decisions, which have removed most legal limits on big financial contributions to politics, are likely to increase the political clout of wealthy individuals and leave average citizens with even less influence than they have now. 

“I find this very troubling,” Page said. “The Court’s view that political donations constitute ’speech’ protected by the First Amendment opens the door to money-driven politics and a distortion of democracy.”

Page is author or coauthor of a number of books and articles on American politics, including “The Rational Public,” “Class War?” and “Effects of Public Opinion on Policy.” Together with Northwestern colleagues Fay Cook, Jason Seawright, Rachel Moskowitz and others, he is currently studying the philanthropic activities and the political views and actions of the wealthiest Americans through surveys and web-scraping.

Page and Seawright recently released a paper on “What U.S. Billionaires Want from Government.”

Gilens is author of the prize-winning book “Affluence and Influence” (Princeton University Press).

Page’s and Gilens’ research findings are forthcoming in “Perspectives on Politics” and are available at Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.  

Topics: Research