Democracy in America?: What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It

Democracy in America?: What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It

by Benjamin I. Page, Martin Gilens

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226508962
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/17/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 845,448
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Benjamin I. Page, Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University, is the author of several books, including Class War? Martin Gilens is professor of politics at Princeton University. He is the author of Why Americans Hate Welfare and Affluence and Influence.
 

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CHAPTER 1

More Democracy

Today the United States faces a number of daunting problems. Economic inequality has reached levels not seen for a hundred years. While the wealthy keep piling up riches, many Americans are hurting from job losses, low wages, high health-care costs, and deteriorating public services. Whole communities have been devastated by factory closings. Our public schools are neglected. Our highways and bridges are in disrepair.

Well-designed government policies could help deal with these problems. Large majorities of Americans favor specific measures that would be helpful. Yet our national government often appears to ignore the wants and needs of its citizens. It pays more attention to organized interests than to ordinary Americans, and it gets bogged down in gridlock and inaction.

No wonder many Americans are angry and alienated. No wonder there have been populist rebellions on both the Left and the Right: the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump.

In this book we argue that gridlock and inaction in Washington result from two main causes: clashes between our two sharply divided political parties and obstructive actions by corporations, interest groups, and wealthy individuals. The many "veto points" in our complex political system (that is, the many opportunities for one or another political actor to thwart policy change) are used to prevent the enactment of policies that most Americans want.

The nonresponsiveness and dysfunction of government are closely related to undemocratic features of our political system. Our laws and institutions make it hard for ordinary citizens to have an effective voice in politics. They permit corporations, interest groups, and the wealthy to exert a great deal of influence over what the government does. And they allow donors and highly ideological political activists to dominate the parties' nominations of candidates for office, so that the two parties are pushed in sharply contrasting directions — contributing to gridlock. Both parties often stray from what majorities of Americans want them to do.

It follows that our problems can be more effectively addressed if we reform our political system to achieve more democracy: more equal opportunity for all citizens to shape what their government does and policies that better address the needs of all Americans.

If the political parties are democratized, for example, so that each of them is forced to appeal more to the voters and less to the party's donors and activists, they will differ less sharply from each other. That will reduce gridlock. Both parties will be more responsive to the citizenry and more likely to adopt solutions that Americans favor for the problems we face.

Similarly, if we reform elections so that all citizens have an equal voice, and if we mute the influence of political money and organized interests, public officials will more faithfully reflect what ordinary Americans want.

Again, if the Congress and other political institutions are reformed to represent all citizens equally, those institutions will be more harmonious — less prone to clashes with each other that result in gridlock — and more responsive to the citizenry as a whole.

Some impediments to democracy have been with us for a long time. Others have grown worse in recent years. But most, we think, are fixable.

In the course of American history, the health of democracy and the extent of economic equality have tended to rise and fall together. Each has affected the other. In the late nineteenth-century Gilded Age, for example, extreme inequalities of income and wealth — inequalities not unlike those that afflict us today — empowered the wealthy few and undermined democracy. Yet that same extreme economic inequality provoked protests and social movements, which in turn helped bring about reforms that advanced both political and economic equality. Through such efforts, the United States has enjoyed periods of relatively democratic, harmonious, and effective government, and widely shared prosperity.

We believe that we can once again enjoy more vigorous democracy and more widely shared prosperity, if enough citizens mobilize and work hard for effective reforms that promote both economic and political equality. The two types of reform go together. Each facilitates the other. Neither is likely to get very far alone.

In the following chapters we show precisely how undemocratic U.S. government policy making has become. We do our best to diagnose exactly what has gone wrong. Based on that diagnosis, we explain how certain specific political reforms could greatly increase democratic responsiveness. Finally, we explore how the formidable obstacles to reform might be overcome.

Why Democracy

We define democracy as policy responsiveness to ordinary citizens — that is, popular control of government. Or simply "majority rule."

This commonsense definition reflects the foundation of our Constitution in the will of "we the people of the United States." It embodies the fundamental value of political equality, insisting that in a democracy all citizens should have an equal opportunity to influence the making of public policy. It reflects the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that all men (we would now say all human beings) are "created equal." It corresponds to Abraham Lincoln's espousal of government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Yet the fact is that this sort of "majoritarian" democracy — which is widely embraced by ordinary Americans — has been rejected by a number of political theorists and by many social and political elites. So we need to explain why we think majoritarian democracy is desirable.

ELECTIONS ALONE DO NOT GUARANTEE DEMOCRACY. Some theorists have argued that all that is needed for democracy is elections that create a competitive struggle for citizens' votes.

To us, however, a core element of democracy is political equality — an equal voice for each citizen. Just holding elections does not guarantee that citizens will have equal influence. For example, even if we formally allow each adult citizen one and only one vote, some people may be left out because they are deterred or excluded from voting. (We will see that voters in the United States tend to be quite unrepresentative of the citizenry as a whole.) Other people may, in effect, get many votes — if they provide money or organizational support that is essential to running political campaigns and getting a party's supporters to the polls. Moreover, election outcomes may not reflect the real preferences of the voters if the choices on the ballot are severely restricted. And policy may diverge sharply from the desires of the public if officials ignore those who elected them and pay attention to lobbyists instead.

One way in which elections can go wrong is if voters' choices are circumscribed. A stark example: Iran's Guardian Council, a twelve-member body of jurists and theologians appointed by Iran's "Supreme Leader," decides which candidates can get onto the ballot. In Iran's 2013 presidential election, the Guardian Council disqualified the vast majority of would-be candidates — including all thirty women and the reformist former president. So even though many Iranians (72 percent of them) voted and could exercise a "free" choice among the six candidates on the ballot — and even though the winner of the most votes peacefully took office a few weeks later — we would not want to call that election democratic.

In the United States today, no body of theologians controls who can and who cannot run for office. Yet — as a result of much more subtle and indirect processes — we may actually have something like our own Guardian Council. In today's America, a relatively small, unelected set of people exerts a great deal of influence over who appears on the ballot and who has a realistic chance to win: those who supply the money. When the members of this group agree with one another, they have the power to determine that certain kinds of electoral choices are essentially off-limits for voters.

In our electoral system, private money plays a huge part. Neither major party can function without many millions of dollars. And the parties generally select their candidates in obscure, lowvisibility primary elections, in which only a small, atypical set of voters participates. This process limits the influence of rank-and file voters. It empowers a few highly ideological activists, organized interest groups, and donors. In this and many other ways, our system differs from those of most other advanced countries.

Since Republican and Democratic activists and donors typically disagree sharply with each other about a number of issues, there are usually very real differences between Republican and Democratic candidates. But the megadonors of both parties tend to agree in opposing certain policies that most Americans favor. These include important policies related to government budgets, international trade, social welfare spending, economic regulation, and taxes (as will be discussed in chapter 4). On these issues, big-money political donors can act rather like a Guardian Council. They can keep off the ballot candidates, ideas, and policies they disagree with, by giving or withholding the money that is needed to put on a serious campaign.

THE MONEY PROBLEM. A crucial part of this picture is that both parties need enormous amounts of money, but — under our current system — that money mostly comes from a very small set of megadonors. In 2012, for example, a tiny sliver of the U.S. population — just one-tenth of one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans — provided almost half of all the money spent in federal elections. Even more remarkably, just 132 donors to huge political action committees (PACs) known as "super PACs," giving an average of almost $10 million each, accounted for more money than all of the 3.7 million small donors to the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns combined.

It is extremely difficult to win a major government office without the backing of affluent campaign donors. The "preapproval" process by America's "Guardian Council" of potential donors seems to be remarkably effective at screening out candidates who fundamentally disagree with the preferences of well-funded interest groups and wellto-do contributors. The result: U.S. government policy often reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.

To be sure, the 2016 "outsider" campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump seemed to demonstrate that — at least under certain circumstances — huge contributions from the usual millionaire and billionaire donors may not be necessary to compete. But of course Sanders did not win the Democratic Party nomination, let alone the general election. Trump was an extremely unusual case: his celebrity and communication skills markedly lowered his campaign costs by giving him an enormous amount of free media exposure. And Trump had his own fortune to fall back on, if necessary, which also helped make him unusually independent of megadonors.

We will have much more to say in later chapters about the distorting effects of money in politics. For now, the main point is that we should not think about democracy in terms of the mere existence of elections. If we want true majoritarian democracy, what really matters is whether — and to what extent — ordinary citizens can control what their government does. Elections can effectively ensure democratic control only if a representative set of citizens votes, and only if election outcomes are not excessively influenced by party activists, interest groups, or financial donors.

But do we want true, majority-rule democracy? Not everyone thinks so.

IS THE GENERAL PUBLIC WORTH PAYING ATTENTION TO? The most important objection to majoritarian democracy is that ordinary citizens may be too uninterested in politics, too ill informed, too capricious in their political opinions, too selfish, and too subject to demagoguery to have their views taken seriously. What if most Americans do not really know which public policies would be good for them or for the country? Why should we pay any attention to what they think?

In the nation's early days, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton worried about alleged "extreme fluctuations," "passions" and "temporary errors and delusions" of the public. Walter Lippmann bemoaned "stereotypes" or "pictures in [the] heads" of ordinary citizens, who (he said) often fail to comprehend world realities. Subsequently, decades worth of polls and surveys have shown that most Americans are not much interested in or informed about politics. Again and again, many or most Americans have failed quizzes about basic political facts, such as which party controls the House of Representatives or how long a term senators have in office. Most people have trouble identifying or locating foreign countries. Acronyms and abbreviations that are coin of the realm in Washington, DC — NATO, ICBM, MFN, and the like — are mysteries to many Americans.

Moreover, many Americans are confused or uncertain about exactly what kinds of government policies they favor or oppose. "Don't know" responses to poll questions are fairly common, at least when survey researchers don't make it too embarrassing to give them. Repeated surveys of the same individuals over time have showed that their stated opinions about political issues tend to vary from one year to another — sometimes back and forth, for no easily discernable reason. Researchers have talked of "non-attitudes" and have called into question the very existence of meaningful public opinion.

Right up to the present day, scholars continue to write that "widespread political ignorance" is a profound problem for democracy and (in effect) to counsel political leaders to pay no heed to what ordinary citizens say they want. An important recent book on "democracy for realists" seems to cast doubt on the idea that the public has meaningful views that should shape government policy.

There are good reasons for low levels of political information, reasons that can be summed up in the phrase "rational ignorance." Most people — unless they happen to enjoy being political junkies — have little reason to devote a great deal of time or energy to most political matters. To most people, work, family, and leisure are higher priorities than most aspects of politics. Why make a big investment in acquiring political information? Especially since the odds of one individual having a pivotal effect on a major electoral outcome are usually vanishingly small.

"Rational ignorance" notwithstanding, a few members of the public are indeed political junkies who enjoy learning about politics. And a larger portion are concerned with and knowledgeable about specific issues such as education, health care, or Middle East politics, depending on their particular occupations or interests. Whereas most people lack clear preferences on most issues, many people do have informed views about the few issues that they care about most. And still more have general notions about what sorts of policies are likely to suit them.

Critics of democracy are certainly right that most individual Americans lack fully informed opinions about most issues. But it does not follow that the collective or aggregate, survey-measured policy preferences of all Americans — such as the percentages of Americans that polls show favoring or opposing various public policies — have the same characteristics as the preferences of a single typical individual. The notion that whole entities must have the same characteristics as their individual parts is a fallacy, known as the "fallacy of composition."

THE STRENGTH OF COLLECTIVE POLICY PREFERENCES. There is plenty of evidence that public opinion as a collective or aggregate phenomenon is very different, much more worth paying attention to, than the day-to-day opinions of a typical individual citizen.

How can this be?

There are two main reasons. The first involves collective deliberation: a society-wide process in which experts and leaders debate public policies, their views are reported in the media, attentive Americans pick up cues from those they trust, and the attentive citizens communicate those views to their families, friends, and coworkers.

The second reason involves the aggregation process itself: when many uncertain expressions of opinion are combined into a collective whole (for example, into the percentage of Americans favoring a particular policy), random errors and uncertainties among individuals tend to get averaged out. Survey measures of collective preferences cannot overcome systematic, nonrandom errors (we will have more to say about that later), but they do cancel out random variations that occur in "doorstep" opinions offered to survey interviewers. In most cases, the results of well-designed surveys fairly faithfully reflect longer-term, underlying tendencies of collective opinion.

(Continues…)



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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations    

Part One: Introduction

One     More Democracy
Two     Unequal Wealth Distorts Politics       

Part Two: What Has Gone Wrong

Three   Thwarting the Will of the People       
Four     The Political Clout of Wealthy Americans    
Five     Corporations and Interest Groups     
Six       Polarized Parties and Gridlock          

Part Three: What Can Be Done

Seven  Equal Voice for All Citizens  
Eight   Overcoming Gridlock and Democratizing Institutions         

Part Four: How to Do It

Nine    A Social Movement for Democracy  
Ten      Signs of Progress       

Acknowledgments     
Appendix: Interest Groups Studied  
Notes  
References     
Index

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