A new study, authored by two university professors, find that corporate interests and wealthy individuals control policy making so much that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
Titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” the study analyzes nearly 1,800 policy issues, comparing public opinion on each to the preferences of heavily financed lobbying when determining the final result of legislation. This research, says historian Allan J. Lichtman, is “shattering” and “should be a loud wake-up call to the vast majority of Americans who are bypassed by their government.”
“By contrast,” the study notes, “economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy.” Likewise, the authors write, “interest group alignments are estimated to have a large, positive, highly significant impact upon public policy.”
They conclude: “If policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”
Broad-based public engagement in the policy making process is important, and the concentrated power of a elite few is concerning. However, America is technically not, and should not become, a “democracy.” Public opinion often shifts—and dramatically so—depending on celebrity causes, current events, media focus, and other influences. Binding the law to the majority’s ever-changing whims is a recipe for societal instability.
While public policy should be insulated from public opinion, it should be an across-the-board deterrent—deep-pocketed parties should not be treated differently, nor their interests enacted merely because of their power, wealth, or access. Of course, as the study notes, this is the reality of politics in America. The voice of the individual is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant.
This is particularly frustrating because monied interests ensure, through their involvement, that the negative impact of the law upon them will be minimized, if not altogether neutralized. In many cases, the law benefits them through punishing their competition, providing them with money, or granting other government favors. Individuals, who bear the brunt of the law, have almost no voice in affecting policy to reduce that burden.
The study’s authors write that “majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts.” This won’t come as a shock to anybody remotely familiar with the political process. The question we all face is how best to change this trend.
Last year we launched a new citizen engagement effort to address this issue: the Citizen Sponsorship Project. Participants become engaged in the process, here in Utah, by focusing on a piece of legislation, lobbying legislators, and testifying in committee to share their thoughts. Our hope is, over time, that more individuals will develop and act upon a desire to fight for necessary change.