Friday, April 18, 2014

Have You Noticed How Powerless Your Vote is?

The Fantasy of Representative Government in the U.S.
Time to Face The Truth Vol II

I've said for some time that the political process in the U.S. was illusion designed by the ruling Elite to give cover of legitimacy to the Totalitarian State. Here is a Princeton University Study that statistically PROVES me right.

Have you noticed how powerless you are, how powerless congress seems to be, how the New World Order agenda keeps being enacted in D.C. and around the country no matter how many times you "vote your guy in" and whether it is a Democrat or Republican in the "Presidency" or majority in congress? In a "Representative Republic" how can this be? HERE is the stark reality of the New World Order = Corporate Ownership of the American Government.

The first-ever scientific study that analyzes whether the US is a democracy, rather than an oligarchy, found the majority of the American public has a “minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy” compared to the wealthy.

The study, due out in the Fall 2014 issue of the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, sets out to answer elusive questions about who really rules in the United States. The researchers measured key variables for 1,779 policy issues within a single statistical model in an unprecedented attempt “to test these contrasting theoretical predictions” – i.e. whether the US sets policy democratically or the process is dominated by economic elites, or some combination of both.

"Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts,” the researchers from Princeton University and Northwestern University wrote.

While “Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association,” the authors say the data implicate “the nearly total failure of 'median voter' and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories [of America]. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy."

The authors of “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” say that even as their model tilts heavily toward indications that the US is, in fact, run by the most wealthy and powerful, it actually doesn’t go far enough in describing the stranglehold connected elites have on the policymaking process.

“Our measure of the preferences of wealthy or elite Americans – though useful, and the best we could generate for a large set of policy cases – is probably less consistent with the relevant preferences than are our measures of the views of ordinary citizens or the alignments of engaged interest groups,” the researcher said.

“Yet we found substantial estimated effects even when using this imperfect measure. The real-world impact of elites upon public policy may be still greater.”

They add that the “failure of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy is all the more striking because it goes against the likely effects of the limitations of our data. The preferences of ordinary citizens were measured more directly than our other independent variables, yet they are estimated to have the least effect.”

Despite the inexact nature of the data, the authors say with confidence that “the majority does not rule -- at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.”

“We believe that 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,” they concluded.

April 9, 2014

Testing Theories of American Politics:

Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens

Martin Gilens

Princeton University

Benjamin I. Page

Northwestern University

forthcoming Fall 2014 in Perspectives on Politics

For helpful comments the authors are indebted to Larry Bartels and Jeff Isaacs, to three

anonymous reviewers, and to seminar participants at Harvard and Rochester Universities.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 2



Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics – which can be characterized

as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of

interest group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism – offers different

predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average

citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.

A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors,

but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against

each other within a single statistical model. This paper reports on an effort to do so, using a

unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business

interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens

and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide

substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased

Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 3


Who governs? Who really rules? To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens

sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless? These questions have animated much important

work in the study of American politics.

While this body of research is rich and variegated, it can loosely be divided into four

families of theories: Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two

types of interest group pluralism – Majoritarian Pluralism, in which the interests of all citizens

are more or less equally represented, and Biased Pluralism, in which corporations, business

associations, and professional groups predominate) Each of these perspectives makes different

predictions about the independent influence upon U.S. policy making of four sets of actors: the

Average Citizen or “median voter,” Economic Elites, and Mass-based or Business-oriented

Interest Groups or industries.

Each of these theoretical traditions has given rise to a large body of literature. Each is

supported by a great deal of empirical evidence – some of it quantitative, some historical, some

observational – concerning the importance of various sets of actors (or, all too often, a single set

of actors) in U.S. policy making. This literature has made important contributions to our

understanding of how American politics works and has helped illuminate how democratic or

undemocratic (in various senses) our policy making process actually is. Until very recently,

however, it has been impossible to test the differing predictions of these theories against each

other within a single statistical model that permits one to analyze the independent effects of each

set of actors upon policy outcomes.

Here – in a tentative and preliminary way – we offer such test, bringing a unique data set

to bear on the problem. Our measures are far from perfect, but we hope that this first step will

help inspire further research into what we see as some of the most fundamental questions about

American politics.

The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized

groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government

policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent

influence. Our results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination

and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or

Majoritarian Pluralism.

In what follows, we briefly review the four theoretical traditions that form the framework

for our analyses and highlight some of the most prominent empirical research associated with

each. We then describe our data and measures and present our results. We conclude by

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 4


discussing the implications of our work for understanding American democracy and by

identifying some of the directions for future research that our findings suggest.

Four Theoretical Traditions

Each of the four theoretical traditions we are addressing has produced a body of literature

much too vast to review in detail here. We can only allude to a few central pieces of work in

each tradition. And we must acknowledge that a particular scholar’s work does not always fall

neatly into a single category. Some scholars work across – or independently of – our theoretical

categories, embracing multiple influences and complex processes of policy making. Here we

focus on ideal types of theory, for the purpose of outlining certain distinctive predictions that

those types of theory tend to make. Given the nature of our data, we focus on the societal

sources of influence that these theories posit, rather than on the mechanisms of influence that

they discuss.

Majoritarian Electoral Democracy. Theories of majoritarian electoral democracy, as

positive or empirical theories, attribute U.S. government policies chiefly to the collective will of

average citizens, who are seen as empowered by democratic elections. Such thinking goes back

at least to Tocqueville, who (during the Jacksonian era) saw American majorities as

“omnipotent” – particularly at the state level – and worried about “tyranny of the majority.”1 It

is encapsulated in Abraham Lincoln’s reference to government “of the people, by the people, for

the people,” and was labeled by Robert Dahl “populistic democracy.” 2

An important modern incarnation of this tradition is found in rational choice theories of

electoral democracy, in which vote-seeking parties or candidates in a two-party system tend to

converge at the mid-point of citizens’ policy preferences. If preferences are jointly singlepeaked

so that they can be arrayed along a single dimension, the “median voter theorem” –

posited verbally by Harold Hotelling, proved by Duncan Black, and popularized by Anthony

Downs in his Economic Theory of Democracy – states that two vote-seeking parties will both

take the same position, at the center of the distribution of voters’ most-preferred positions.

Under the relevant assumptions, public policy that fits the preferences of the median voter is not

only the empirically-predicted equilibrium result of two-party electoral competition; as the

“Condorcet winner” it also has the normative property of being the “most democratic” policy, in

the sense that it would be preferred to any alternative policy in head-to-head majority-rule voting

by all citizens.3

Subsequent “chaos” results by social choice theorists, starting with Kenneth Arrow, have

indicated that the median voter prediction follows logically only for unidimensional politics. If

citizens’ preference orderings are not unidimensional and are sufficiently diverse, majority rule –

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 5


hence also two-party electoral competition – might not lead to any equilibrium outcome at all. 4

It is important to note, however, that what might theoretically happen will not necessarily ever

happen in practice. Real-world outcomes depend upon how institutions are organized and how

preferences are actually configured.

Despite the “chaos” results, and despite many criticisms of the median-voter theorem as

simplistic and empirically inapplicable or wrong,5 a good many scholars – probably more

economists than political scientists among them – still cling to the idea that the policy

preferences of the median voter tend to drive policy outputs from the U.S. political system. A

fair amount of empirical evidence has been adduced – by Alan Monroe; Benjamin Page and

Robert Shapiro; Robert Erikson, Michael MacKuen, and James Stimson (authors of the very

influential Macro Polity); and others – that seems to support the notion that the median voter

determines the results of much or most policy making. This evidence indicates that U.S. federal

government policy is consistent with majority preferences roughly two-thirds of the time; that

public policy changes in the same direction as collective preferences a similar two thirds of the

time; that the liberalism or conservatism of citizens is closely associated with the liberalism or

conservatism of policy across states; and that fluctuations in the liberal or conservative “mood”

of the public are strongly associated with changes in the liberalism or conservatism of policy in

all three branches of government.6

The fly in the ointment is that none of this evidence allows for, or explicitly assesses, the

impact of such variables as the preferences of wealthy individuals, or the preferences and actions

of organized interest groups, which may independently influence public policy while perhaps

being positively associated with public opinion – thereby producing a spurious statistical

relationship between opinion and policy.

Recent research by Larry Bartels and by one of the present authors (Gilens), which

explicitly brings the preferences of “affluent” Americans into the analysis along with the

preferences of those lower in the income distribution, indicates that the apparent connection

between public policy and the preferences of the average citizen may indeed be largely or

entirely spurious.7

The “electoral reward and punishment” version of democratic control through elections –

in which voters retrospectively judge how well the results of government policy have satisfied

their basic interests and values, and politicians enact policies in anticipation of judgments that

they expect will later be made by what V.O. Key, Jr., called “latent” public opinion – might be

thought to offer a different prediction: that policy will tend to satisfy citizens’ underlying needs

and values, rather than corresponding with their current policy preferences.8 We cannot test this

prediction because we do not have – and cannot easily imagine how to obtain – good data on

individuals’ deep, underlying interests or values, as opposed to their expressed policy

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 6


preferences. But the evidence that collective policy preferences are generally rather stable over

time suggests that expressed collective policy preferences may not often diverge markedly from

subsequently manifested “latent” preferences. They may do so only under special circumstances,

such as economic recessions or disastrous wars.9 If so, the electoral-reward-and-punishment

type of democratic theory, too, predicts that most of the time public policy will respond to the

current policy preferences of the average citizen.

Economic Elite Domination. A quite different theoretical tradition argues that U.S.

policy making is dominated by individuals who have substantial economic resources, i.e. high

levels of income and/or wealth – including, but not limited to, ownership of business firms.

Not all “elite theories” share this focus. Some emphasize social status or institutional

position – such as the occupancy of key managerial roles in corporations, or top-level positions

in political parties, in the executive, legislative, or judicial branches of government, or in the

highest ranks of the military. Some elite theories postulate an amalgam of elites, defined by

combinations of social status, economic resources, and institutional positions, who achieve a

degree of unity through common backgrounds, coinciding interests, and social interactions.

For example, C. Wright Mills’ important book, The Power Elite, offers a rather nuanced

account of how U.S. social, economic, political, and military elites have historically alternated in

different configurations of dominance. Mills noted that his elites derived in substantial

proportions from the upper classes, including the very rich and corporate executives, but their

elite status was not defined by their wealth.10 Our focus here is on theories that emphasize the

policy-making importance of economic elites.

Analyses of U.S. politics centered on economic elites go back at least to Charles Beard,

who maintained that a chief aim of the framers of the U.S. Constitution was to protect private

property, favoring the economic interests of wealthy merchants and plantation owners rather than

the interests of the then-majority small farmers, laborers, and craft workers. A landmark work in

this tradition is G. William Domhoff’s detailed account of how elites (working through

foundations, think-tanks, and an “opinion-shaping apparatus,” as well as through the lobbyists

and politicians they finance) may dominate key issues in U.S. policy making despite the

existence of democratic elections. Philip A. Burch has exhaustively chronicled the economic

backgrounds of federal government officials through American history. Thomas Ferguson’s

analysis of the political importance of “major investors” might be seen as a theory of economic

elites. Most recently, Jeffrey Winters has posited a comparative theory of “Oligarchy,” in which

the wealthiest citizens – even in a “civil oligarchy” like the United States – dominate policy

concerning crucial issues of wealth- and income-protection.11

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 7


Our third and fourth theoretical traditions posit that public policy generally reflects the

outcome of struggle among organized interest groups and business firms.12

Majoritarian Pluralism. The roots of what we can characterize as theories of

“majoritarian” interest group pluralism go back to James Madison’s Federalist Paper #10, which

analyzed politics in terms of “factions” -- a somewhat fuzzy concept that apparently

encompassed political parties and even popular majorities, as well as what we would today

consider organized interest groups, business firms, and industrial sectors. Madison argued that

struggles among the diverse factions that would be found in an extensive republic would lead to

policies more or less representative of the needs and interests of the citizenry as a whole – or at

least would tend to defeat “tyrannical” policies, including the much-feared issuance of

inflationary paper money that might cater to local majority factions of farmer-debtors but be

costly to merchant creditors.13

In the twentieth century, Arthur Bentley’s The Process of Government and then David

Truman’s monumental The Governmental Process put groups at the center of political analysis,

laying out a detailed picture of how organized interest groups might get their way. Truman

offered a comprehensive and still-interesting catalogue of lobbying techniques and other

methods of group influence. He also added an ingenious gloss to Madison that tends to increase

both the plausibility and the normative appeal of majoritarian interest group pluralism: the

assertion that all interests have at least a minimum of influence in group-dominated policy

making, because policy makers must (in order to avoid subsequent punishment) heed all

“potential” groups that would form if their interests were trampled upon.14

Robert Dahl’s analysis of New Haven city politics was Madisonian or Truman-like in its

insistence that many (all?) diverse interests were represented, though Dahl focused as much on

active members of the general public as on organized groups. Dahl’s analyses of American

politics in terms of “polyarchy” or “pluralist democracy” also come close to our ideal type of

majoritarian pluralist theory, since they imply that the wants or needs of the average citizen tend

to be reasonably well served by the outcomes of interest group struggle. Several contemporary

analysts of interest group politics likewise appear to accept (at least implicitly) a picture of group

struggle that results in more or less majoritarian results.15

A major challenge to majoritarian pluralist theories, however, is posed by Mancur

Olson’s argument that collective action by large, dispersed sets of individuals with individually

small but collectively large interests tends to be prevented by the “free rider” problem. Barring

special circumstances (selective incentives, byproducts, coercion), individuals who would benefit

from collective action may have no incentive to personally form or join an organized group. If

everyone thinks this way and lets George do it, the job is not likely to get done. This reasoning

suggests that Truman’s “potential groups” may in fact be unlikely to form, even if millions of

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 8


peoples’ interests are neglected or harmed by government. Aware of the collective action

problem, officials may feel free to ignore much of the population and act against the interests of

the average citizen.16

Biased Pluralism. Olson’s argument points toward an important variant line of thinking

within the pluralist tradition: theories of “biased” pluralism, which posit struggles among an

unrepresentative universe of interest groups – characterized by E.E. Schattschneider as a

heavenly chorus with an “upper-class accent,” and more recently dubbed by Kay Lehman

Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry Brady an “unheavenly chorus.” Theories of biased

pluralism generally argue that both the thrust of interest group conflict and the public policies

that result tend to tilt toward the wishes of corporations and business and professional


Schattschneider suggested that policy outcomes vary with the “scope of conflict”: for

example, that business-oriented interest groups tend to prevail over ordinary citizens when the

scope is narrow and visibility is low. Grant McConnell added the idea that the actual

“constituencies” of policy implementers can consist of powerful groups. George Stigler

(articulating what some economists have scorned as “Chicago Marxism”) analyzed the politics of

regulation in terms of biased pluralism: the capture of regulators by the regulated. Charles

Lindblom outlined a number of ways – including the “privileged position” of business – in which

business firms and their associations influence public policy. Thomas Ferguson has posited an

“investment theory” of politics in which “major investors” – especially representatives of

particular industrial sectors – fund political parties in order to get policies that suit their

economic interests. Fred Block’s “neo-Polanyian” analysis emphasizes groups. Jacob Hacker’s

and Paul Pierson’s analysis of “winner-take-all-politics,” which emphasizes the power of the

finance industry, can be seen as a recent contribution to the literature of biased pluralism.18

Marxist and neo-Marxist theories of the capitalist state hold that economic classes – and

particularly the bourgeoisie, the owners of the means of production -- dominate policy making

and cause the state to serve their material interests. As the Communist Manifesto put it, “The

bourgeoisie has...conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political

sway. The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of

the whole bourgeoisie.”19 We cannot precisely test the predictions of such theories, because we

lack good measures of policy preferences by economic class. (In Marxist theory, neither income

nor wealth accurately signals class position.) We can note, however, that certain

“instrumentalist” Marxist theories, including the important version put forth by Ralph Miliband,

make predictions resembling those of theories of Biased Pluralism: that interest groups and

corporations representing “large scale business” tend to prevail.20

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 9


As to empirical evidence concerning interest groups, it is well established that organized

groups regularly lobby and fraternize with public officials; move through revolving doors

between public and private employment; provide self-serving information to officials; draft

legislation; and spend a great deal of money on election campaigns.21 Moreover, in harmony

with theories of biased pluralism, the evidence clearly indicates that most U.S. interest groups

and lobbyists represent business firms or professionals. Relatively few represent the poor or

even the economic interests of ordinary workers, particularly now that the U.S. labor movement

has become so weak.22

But do interest groups actually influence policy? Numerous case studies have detailed

instances in which all but the most dedicated skeptic is likely to perceive interest group influence

at work. A leading classic remains Schattschneider’s analysis of the 1928 enactment of the

Smoot-Hawley tariff, an astounding orgy of pork-barrel politics.23 Still, many quantitatively

oriented political scientists seem to ignore or dismiss such non-quantitative evidence. There

have also been some efforts (particularly during the Cold War era, when unflattering depictions

of U.S. politics may have been thought unpatriotic) to demonstrate that interest groups have no

influence on policy at all. Raymond Bauer, Ithiel Pool, and Lewis Anthony Dexter argued that

business had little or no effect on the renewal of reciprocal trade authority. Lester Milbrath,

having conducted interviews with lobbyists and members of Congress, rated lobbyists’ influence

as very low. More recently, Fred McChesney has made the ingenious argument that campaign

contributions from interest groups may not represent quid pro quo bribery attempts by groups,

but instead result from extortion by politicians who threaten to harm the groups’ interests.24

Very few studies have offered quantitative evidence concerning the impact of interest

groups based on a number of different public policies. Important exceptions include the work of

Mark Smith and that of Frank Baumgartner, Jeffrey Berry, Marie Hojnacki, David Kimball, and

Beth Leech.25

Mark Smith examined 2,364 “business unity” issues – over a period of four decades – on

which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (arguably a reasonable proxy for business groups as a

whole, on this particular set of issues where most businesses agreed) took a public stand for or

against. He then calculated six measures of the Chamber’s annual rate of “success” at getting the

action or inaction it favored from Congress.26 The Chamber’s average success rate in terms of

proportion of bills enacted or defeated appears to have been fairly high,27 but Smith did not argue

that such success necessarily demonstrates influence. (A batting-average approach to influence

would have to assume that stand-taking is unrelated to expectations of success. Further, in order

to gauge business’s independent impact and avoid spurious results, data on stands taken by other

actors would need to be included as well.) Instead, Smith devoted most of his effort to analyzing

the over-time correlates of high or low success, such as variations in the public “mood” and in

the partisan composition of Congress.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 10


Frank Baumgartner and his colleagues, in their meticulous examination of 98 cases of

congressional policy making in which interest groups were active, investigated whether the

magnitude of group resources that were deployed was related to outcomes across those cases. In

their multivariate analyses, Baumgartner et al. found a modest tendency for policy outcomes to

favor the side that enjoyed greater resources (PAC contributions, lobbying expenditures,

membership size, etc.).28

Prior to the availability of the data set that we analyze here, no one we are aware of has

succeeded at assessing interest group influence over a comprehensive set of issues, while taking

into account the impact of either the public at large or economic elites – let alone analyzing all

three types of potential influences simultaneously.

Testing Theoretical Predictions

What makes possible an empirical effort of this sort is the existence of a unique data set,

compiled over many years by one of us (Gilens) for a different but related purpose: for

estimating the influence upon public policy of “affluent” citizens, poor citizens, and those in the

middle of the income distribution.

Gilens and a small army of research assistants29 gathered data on a large, diverse set of

policy cases: 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 in which a national survey of the general

public asked a favor/oppose question about a proposed policy change. A total of 1,923 cases met

four criteria: dichotomous pro/con responses, specificity about policy, relevance to federal

government decisions, and categorical rather than conditional phrasing. Of those 1,923 original

cases, 1,779 cases also met the criteria of providing income breakdowns for respondents, not

involving a Constitutional amendment or a Supreme Court ruling (which might entail a quite

different policy making process), and involving a clear, as opposed to partial or ambiguous,

actual presence or absence of policy change. These 1,779 cases do not constitute a sample from

the universe of all possible policy alternatives (this is hardly conceivable), but we see them as

particularly relevant to assessing the public’s influence on policy. The included policies are not

restricted to the narrow Washington “policy agenda.” At the same time – since they were seen

as worth asking poll questions about – they tend to concern matters of relatively high salience,

about which it is plausible that average citizens may have real opinions and may exert some

political influence.30

For each case, Gilens used the original survey data to assess responses by income level.

In order to cope with varying income categories across surveys, he employed a quadratic logistic

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 11


regression technique to estimate the opinions of respondents at the 10th income percentile (quite

poor), the 50th percentile (median), and the 90th percentile (fairly affluent).31

Here we use these policy preference data to measure – imperfectly, but, we believe,

satisfactorily – two independent variables posited as major influences upon policy making in the

theoretical traditions discussed above.

Policy preferences at the 50th income percentile – that is, the preferences of the medianincome

survey respondent – work quite well as measures of the preferences of the average

citizen (or, more precisely, the median non-institutionalized adult American), which are central

to theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy.32 In all cases in which the relationship between

income and preferences is monotonic, and in all cases in which there is no systematic

relationship at all between the two, the preferences of the median-income respondent are

identical to those of the median-preference respondent. In the remaining cases the two are very

close to each other.33

We believe that the preferences of “affluent” Americans at the 90th income percentile can

usefully be taken as proxies for the opinions of wealthy or very-high-income Americans, and can

be used to test the central predictions of Economic Elite theories. To be sure, people at the 90th

income percentile are neither very rich nor very elite; in 2012 dollars, Gilens’ “affluent”

respondents received only about $146,000 in annual household income. To the extent that their

policy preferences differ from those of average-income citizens, however, we would argue that

there are likely to be similar but bigger differences between average-income citizens and the

truly wealthy.

Some evidence for this proposition comes from the 2011 Cooperative Congressional

Election Study.34 Based on 13 policy preference questions asked on this survey, the preferences

of the top 2% of income earners (a group that might be thought “truly wealthy”) are much more

highly correlated with the preferences of the top 10% of earners than with the preferences of the

average survey respondent (r=.91 vs. .69).35 Thus, the views of our moderately high-income

“affluent” respondents appear to capture useful information about the views of the truly wealthy.

In any case, the imprecision that results from use of our “affluent” proxy is likely to

produce underestimates of the impact of economic elites on policy making. If we find

substantial effects upon policy even when using this imperfect measure, therefore, it will be

reasonable to infer that the impact upon policy of truly wealthy citizens is still greater.36

In order to measure interest group preferences and actions, we would ideally like to use

an index of the sort that Baumgartner and his colleagues developed for their ninety-eight policy

issues: an index assessing the total resources brought to bear by all major interest groups that

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 12


took one side or the other on each of our 1,779 issues. But it is not feasible to construct such an

index for all our cases; this would require roughly twenty times as much work as did the major

effort made by the Baumgartner research team on their cases. Fortunately, however,

Baumgartner et al. found that a simple proxy for their index – the number of reputedly

“powerful” interest groups (from among groups appearing over the years in Fortune magazine’s

“Power 25” lists) that favored a given policy change, minus the number that opposed it –

correlated quite substantially in their cases with the full interest group index (r=0.73).37

Gilens, using a modified version of this simple count of the number of “powerful”

interest groups favoring (minus those opposing) each proposed policy change, developed a

measure of Net Interest Group Alignment. To the set of groups on the “Power 25” lists (which

seemed to neglect certain major business interests) he added ten key industries that had reported

the highest lobbying expenditures. (For the final list of included industries and interest groups,

see Appendix 1.) For each of the 1,779 instances of proposed policy change, Gilens and his

assistants drew upon multiple sources to code all engaged interest groups as “strongly

favorable,” “somewhat favorable,” “somewhat unfavorable,” or “strongly unfavorable” to the

change. He then combined the numbers of groups on each side of a given issue, weighting

“somewhat” favorable or somewhat unfavorable positions at half the magnitude of “strongly”

favorable or strongly unfavorable positions. In order to allow for the likelihood of diminishing

returns as the net number of groups on a given side increases (an increase from 10 to 11 groups

likely matters less than a jump from 1 to 2 does), he took the logarithms of the number of pro

groups and the number of con groups before subtracting. Thus:

Net Interest Group Alignment = ln(# Strongly Favor + [0.5 * # Somewhat Favor] + 1) - ln(#

Strongly Oppose + [0.5 * # Somewhat Oppose] + 1).38

Below we also report results for comparable group alignment indices that were computed

separately for the mass-based and for the business-oriented sets of groups listed in Appendix 1.

Our dependent variable is a measure of whether or not the policy change proposed in

each survey question was actually adopted, within four years after the question was asked. (It

turns out that most of the action occurred within two years). Of course there was nothing easy

about measuring the presence or absence of policy change for each of 1,779 different cases;

Gilens and his research assistants spent many hours poring over news accounts, government

data, Congressional Quarterly publications, academic papers and the like.39

In order to test among our theoretical traditions, we begin by considering all organized

interest groups together, not distinguishing between mass-based and business-oriented groups.

Within a single statistical model, we estimate the independent impact upon our dependent

variable (policy change) of each of three independent variables: the average citizen’s policy

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 13


preferences (preferences at the 50th income percentile); the policy preferences of economic elites

(measured by policy preferences at the 90th income percentile); and the stands of interest groups

(the Net Interest Group Alignment Index).

Later, in order to distinguish clearly between Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased

Pluralism, we will use two separate measures of net interest group alignment, one involving only

mass-based interest groups and the other limited to business and professional groups. The main

hypotheses of interest, summarized in Table 1, follow fairly straightforwardly from our

discussion of our four ideal types of theory.


In their pure form, theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy (for example, rational

models of electoral competition that include no societal actors other than average citizens),

predict that the influence upon policy of average citizens is positive, significant, and substantial,

while the influence of other actors is not.

Theories of Economic Elite Domination predict positive, significant, and substantial

influence upon policy by economic elites. Most such theories allow for some (though not much)

independent influence by average citizens, e.g. on non-economic, social issues. Many also allow

for some independent influence by business interest groups – and therefore probably by interest

groups taken as a whole – though their emphasis is on wealthy individuals.

In general, theories of interest group pluralism predict that only organized interest groups

will have positive, significant, and substantial effects upon public policy. Influence proceeds

from groups, not from wealthy (or other) individuals. Depending upon the type of pluralist

theory, average citizens may or may not be well represented through organized groups, but they

do not have a great deal of independent influence on their own.

Theories of Majoritarian Pluralism predict that the stands of organized interest groups, all

taken together, rather faithfully represent (that is, are positively and substantially correlated with)

the preferences of average citizens. But since most political influence proceeds through groups,

a multivariate analysis that includes both interest group alignments and citizens’ preferences

should show far more independent influence by the groups than the citizens. Truman’s idea of

“potential groups” does, however, leave room for some direct influence by average citizens.

Theories of Biased Pluralism, too, see organized interest groups as having much more

influence than average citizens or individual economic elites. But they predict that businessoriented

groups play the major role.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 14


Recognizing the complexity of the political world, we must also acknowledge the

possibility that more than one of these theoretical traditions has some truth to it:

that several – even all – of our sets of actors may have substantial, positive, independent

influence on public policy. And we must consider the null hypothesis that none of these

theoretical traditions correctly describes even part of what goes on in American politics,

Influence upon Policy of Average Citizens, Economic Elites, and Interest Groups

Before we proceed further, it is important to note that even if one of our predictor

variables is found (when controlling for the others) to have no independent impact on policy at

all, it does not follow that the actors whose preferences are reflected by that variable – average

citizens, economic elites, or organized interest groups of one sort or another – always “lose” in

policy decisions. Policy making is not necessarily a zero-sum game among these actors. When

one set of actors wins, others may win as well, if their preferences are positively correlated with

each other.

It turns out, in fact, 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, average citizens and affluent citizens (our proxy for economic elites) want the same things

from government. This bivariate correlation affects how we should interpret our later

multivariate findings in terms of “winners” and “losers.” It also suggests a reason why serious

scholars might keep adhering to both the Majoritarian Electoral Democracy and the Economic

Elite Domination theoretical traditions, even if one of them may be dead wrong in terms of

causal impact. Ordinary citizens, for example, might often be observed to “win” (that is, to get

their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy

making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.


But net interest group stands are not substantially correlated with the preferences of

average citizens. Taking all interest groups together, the index of net interest group alignment

correlates only a non-significant .04 with average citizens’ preferences! (See Table 2.) This

casts grave doubt on David Truman’s and others’ argument that organized interest groups tend to

do a good job of representing the population as a whole. Indeed, as Table 2 indicates, even the

net alignments of the groups we have categorized as “mass-based” correlate with average

citizens’ preferences only at the very modest (though statistically significant) level of .12.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 15


Some particular U.S. membership organizations – especially the AARP and labor unions

– do tend to favor the same policies as average citizens. But other membership groups take

stands that are unrelated (pro-life and pro-choice groups) or negatively related (gun owners) to

what the average American wants.40 Some membership groups may reflect the views of

corporate backers or their most affluent constituents. Others focus on issues on which the public

is fairly evenly divided. Whatever the reasons, all mass-based groups taken together simply do

not add up, in aggregate, to good representatives of the citizenry as a whole. Business-oriented

groups do even worse, with a modest negative over-all correlation of -.10.

Nor do we find an association between the preferences of economic elites and the

alignments of either mass-based or business oriented groups. The latter finding, which surprised

us, may reflect profit-making motives among businesses as contrasted with broader ideological

views among elite individuals. For example, economic elites tend to prefer lower levels of

government spending on practically everything, while business groups and specific industries

frequently lobby for spending in areas from which they stand to gain. Thus pharmaceutical,

hospital, insurance, and medical organizations have lobbied for more spending on health care;

defense contractors for weapons systems; the American Farm Bureau for agricultural subsidies,

and so on.

Initial tests of influences on policy making. The first three columns of Table 3 report

bivariate results, in which each of three independent variables (taking all interest groups

together, for now) is modeled separately as the sole predictor of policy change. Just as previous

literature suggests, each of three broad theoretical traditions – Majoritarian Electoral Democracy,

Economic Elite Domination, and interest group pluralism – seems to gain support. When taken

separately, each independent variable – the preferences of average citizens, the preferences of

economic elites, and the net alignments of organized interest groups – is strongly, positively, and

quite significantly related to policy change. Little wonder that each theoretical tradition has its

strong adherents.


But the picture changes markedly when all three independent variables are included in

the multivariate Model 4 and tested against each other. The estimated impact of average

citizens’ preferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level. Clearly the

median citizen or “median voter” at the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy

does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief

predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not

only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have

little or no independent influence on policy at all.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 16


By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant,

independent impact on policy. This does not mean that theories of Economic Elite Domination

are wholly upheld, since our results indicate that individual elites must share their policy

influence with organized interest groups. Still, economic elites stand out as quite influential –

more so than any other set of actors studied here – in the making of U.S. public policy.

Similarly, organized interest groups (all taken together, for now) are found to have

substantial independent influence on policy. Again, the predictions of pure theories of interest

group pluralism are not wholly upheld, since organized interest groups must share influence with

economically elite individuals. But interest group alignments are estimated to have a large,

positive, highly significant impact upon public policy.

These results suggest that reality is best captured by mixed theories in which both

individual economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned

and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general

public has little or no independent influence.

The rather low explanatory power of all three independent variables taken together (with

an R-squared of just .074 in Model 4) may partly result from the limitations of our proxy

measures, particularly with respect to economic elites (since our “affluent” proxy is admittedly

imperfect) and perhaps with respect to interest groups (since only a small fraction of politically

active groups are included in our measure). Again, the implication of these limitations in our data

is that interest groups and economic elites actually wield more policy influence than our

estimates indicate. But it is also possible that there may exist important explanatory factors

outside the three theoretical traditions addressed in this analysis. Or there may be a great deal of

idiosyncrasy in policy outputs, or variation across kinds of issues, that would be difficult for any

general model to capture. With our present data we cannot tell.

The precise magnitudes of the coefficients reported in Table 3 are difficult to interpret

because of our logit transformation of independent variables. A helpful way to assess the

relative influence of each set of actors is to compare how the predicted probability of policy

change alters when moving from one point to another on their distributions of policy

dispositions, while holding other actors’ preferences constant at their neutral points (50 percent

favorable for average citizens and for economic elites, and a net interest group alignment score

of 0.) These changing probabilities, based on the coefficients in table 2, are line-graphed in

Figure 1 along with bar graphs of the underlying preference distributions.


Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 17


Clearly, when one holds constant net interest group alignments and the preferences of

affluent Americans, it makes very little difference what the general public thinks. The

probability of policy change is nearly the same (around 0.3) whether a tiny minority or a large

majority of average citizens favor a proposed policy change (see the top panel of Figure 1).

By contrast – again with other actors held constant – a proposed policy change with low

support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favor) is adopted only about 18

percent of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favor) is

adopted about 45 percent of the time. Similarly, when support for policy change is low among

interest groups (with five groups strongly opposed and none in favor) the probability of that

policy change occurring is only .16, but the probability rises to .47 when interest groups are

strongly favorable (see the bottom two panels of Figure 1.)41

When both interest groups and affluent Americans oppose a policy it has an even lower

likelihood of being adopted (these proposed policies consist primarily of tax increases.) At the

other extreme, high levels of support among both interest groups and affluent Americans

increases the probability of adopting a policy change, but a strong status quo bias remains

evident. Policies with strong support (as defined above) among both groups are only adopted

about 56 percent of the time (strongly favored policies in our data set that failed include

proposed cuts in taxes, increases in tax exemptions, increased educational spending for K-12,

college support, and proposals during the Clinton administration to add a prescription drug

benefit to Medicare).

Majoritarian Electoral Democracy. What are we to make of findings that seem to go

against volumes of persuasive theorizing and much quantitative research, by asserting that the

average citizen or the “median voter” has little or no independent influence on public policy?

As noted, our evidence does not indicate that in U.S. policy making the average citizen

always loses out. Since the preferences of ordinary citizens tend to be positively correlated with

the preferences of economic elites, ordinary citizens often win the policies they want, even if

they are more or less coincidental beneficiaries rather than causes of the victory. There is not

necessarily any contradiction at all between our findings and past bivariate findings of a roughly

two-thirds correspondence between actual policy and the wishes of the general public, or of a

close correspondence between the liberal/conservative “mood” of the public and changes in

policy making.42 Our main point concerns causal inference: if interpreted in terms of actual

causal impact, the prior findings appear to be largely or wholly spurious.

Further, the issues about which economic elites and ordinary citizens disagree reflect

important matters, including many aspects of trade restrictions, tax policy, corporate regulation,

abortion, and school prayer, so that the resulting political losses by ordinary citizens are not

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 18


trivial. Moreover, we must remember that in our analyses the preferences of the affluent are

serving as proxies for those of truly wealthy Americans, who may well have more political clout

than the affluent, and who tend to have policy preferences that differ more markedly from those

of the average citizens. Thus even rather slight measured differences between preferences of the

affluent and the median citizen may signal situations in which economic elites want something

quite different from most Americans and generally get their way.

A final point: even in a bivariate, descriptive sense, our evidence indicates that the

responsiveness of the U.S. political system when the general public wants government action is

severely limited. Because of the impediments to majority rule that were deliberately built into

the U.S. political system – federalism, separation of powers, bicameralism – together with

further impediments due to anti-majoritarian congressional rules and procedures, the system has

a substantial status quo bias. Thus when popular majorities favor the status quo, opposing a

given policy change, they are likely to get their way; but when a majority – even a very large

majority – of the public favors change, it is not likely to get what it wants. In our 1,779 policy

cases, narrow pro-change majorities of the public got the policy changes they wanted only about

30% of the time. More strikingly, even overwhelmingly large pro-change majorities, with 80%

of the public favoring a policy change, got that change only about 43% of the time.

In any case, normative advocates of populistic democracy may not be enthusiastic about

democracy by coincidence, in which 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. When

push comes to shove, actual influence matters.

Economic Elites. Economic Elite Domination theories do rather well in our analysis,

even though our findings probably understate the political influence of elites. Our measure of

the preferences of wealthy or elite Americans – though useful, and the best we could generate for

a large set of policy cases – is probably less consistent with the relevant preferences than are our

measures of the views of ordinary citizens or the alignments of engaged interest groups. Yet we

found substantial estimated effects even when using this imperfect measure. The real-world

impact of elites upon public policy may be still greater.

What we cannot do with these data is distinguish definitively among different versions of

elite theories. We cannot be sure whether we are capturing the political influence of the

wealthiest Americans (the top 1% of wealth-holders? the top 1/10th of 1%?), or, conceivably, the

less affluent but more numerous citizens around the 90th income percentile whose preferences are

directly gauged by our measure.

In any case, we need to reiterate that our data concern economic elites. Income and

wealth tend to be positively correlated with other dimensions of elite status, such as high social

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 19


standing and the occupancy of high-level institutional positions, but they are not the same thing.

We cannot say anything directly about the non-economic aspects of certain elite theories,

especially those that emphasize actors who may not be highly paid, such as public officials and

political party activists.

Organized Interest Groups. Our findings of substantial influence by interest groups is

particularly striking because little or no previous research has been able to estimate the extent of

group influence while controlling for the preferences of other key non-governmental actors. Our

evidence clearly indicates that – controlling for the influence of both the average citizen and

economic elites – organized interest groups have a very substantial independent impact upon

public policy. Theories of interest group pluralism gain a strong measure of empirical support.

Here, too, the imperfections of our measure of interest group alignment (though probably

less severe than in the case of economically elite individuals) suggest, a fortiori, that the actual

influence of organized groups may be even greater than we have found. If we had data on the

activity of the thousands of groups not included in our net interest group alignment measure, we

might find many cases in which a group (perhaps unopposed by any other groups) got its way.

This might be particularly true of narrow issues like special tax breaks or subsidies aimed at just

one or two business firms, which are underrepresented in our set of relatively high-salience

policies. (Our data set includes only policies thought to be important enough for a national

opinion survey to ask a question about it.)

An important feature of interest group influence is that it is often deployed against

proposed policy changes. On the 1,357 proposed policy changes for which at least one interest

group was coded as favoring or opposing change, in only 36% of the cases did most groups favor

change, while in 55% of the cases most groups opposed change. (The remaining cases involved

equal numbers for and against.)43

Distinguishing between Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism. Can we say

anything further about whether processes of interest group influence more closely resemble

Truman-like, broadly representative Majoritarian Pluralism, or Schattschneider-style “Biased”

Pluralism, in which business interests, professional associations, and corporations play the

dominant part?

We have already reported several findings that cast serious doubt upon Majoritarian

Pluralism. If the net results of interest group struggle were to help average citizens get their way

– with organized groups perhaps representing citizens more effectively than politically

inattentive Americans could do for themselves – we would expect that the net alignment of

interest groups would be positively and strongly correlated with the policy preferences of the

average citizen. But we know from Table 2 that they are not in fact significantly correlated at

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 20


all. Interest group alignments are almost totally unrelated to the preferences of average citizens.

Moreover, there is no indication that officials’ anticipation of reactions from “potential groups”

brings policies in line with what citizens want.44 Empirical support for Majoritarian Pluralism

looks very shaky, indeed. We also know that the composition of the U.S. interest group universe

is heavily tilted toward corporations and business and professional associations.45 This fact

certainly points toward Biased rather than Majoritarian Pluralism.

To go a step further, theories of Majoritarian Pluralism predict relatively more

independent influence upon policy by mass-based interest groups than do theories of Biased

Pluralism. It may be useful, therefore, to distinguish between mass-based and business-oriented

interest groups and to investigate how much policy influence each group actually has.

Accordingly, we computed separate net-interest-group-alignment indices for businessoriented

and for mass-based groups (see Appendix 1 for lists of each) and included both of them

in a new multivariate analysis, along with the preferences of average citizens and economic elites

– dropping our previous measure of the net alignment of all interest groups.

The results of this analysis are given in Table 4. Clearly the predictions of Biased

Pluralism theories fare substantially better than those of Majoritarian Pluralism theories. The

influence coefficients for both mass-based and business-oriented interest groups are positive and

highly significant statistically, but the coefficient for business groups is nearly twice as large as

that for the mass groups. Moreover, when we restricted this same analysis to the smaller set of

issues upon which both types of groups took positions – that is, when we considered only cases

in which business-based and mass-based interest groups were directly engaged with each other –

the contrast between the estimated impact of the two types of groups was even greater.46

The advantage of business-oriented groups in shaping policy outcomes reflects their

numerical advantage within the interest group universe in Washington, and also the infrequency

with which business groups are found simultaneously on both sides of a proposed policy

change.47 Both these factors (numerical dominance and relative cohesion) play a part in the much

stronger correlation of the overall interest group alignment index with business groups than with

mass-oriented groups (.96 vs. .47, table 2). The importance of business groups’ numerical

advantage is also revealed when we rescale our measures of business and mass-oriented interest

group alignments to reflect the differing number of groups in each of these categories. Using this

rescaled measure, a parallel analysis to that in table 4 shows that on a group-for-group basis the

average individual business group and the average mass-oriented group appears to be about

equally influential. The greater total influence of business groups in our analysis results chiefly

from the fact that more of them are generally engaged on each issue (roughly twice as many, on

average), not that a single business-oriented group has more clout on average than a single massbased


Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 21



Taken as a whole, then, our evidence strongly indicates that theories of Biased Pluralism

are more descriptive of political reality than are theories of Majoritarian Pluralism. It is simply

not the case that a host of diverse, broadly based interest groups take policy stands – and bring

about actual policies – that reflect what the general public wants. Interest groups as a whole do

not seek the same policies as average citizens do. “Potential groups” do not fill the gap.

Relatively few mass-based interest groups are active, they do not (in the aggregate) represent the

public very well, and they have less collective impact on policy than do business-oriented groups

– whose stands tend to be negatively related to the preferences of average citizens. These

business groups are far more numerous and active; they spend much more money; and they tend

to get their way.

Table 4 also confirms our earlier findings about economic elites and median voters.

When the alignments of business-oriented and mass-based interest groups are included

separately in a multivariate model, average citizens’ preferences continue to have essentially

zero estimated impact upon policy change, while economic elites are still estimated to have a

very large, positive, independent impact.

American Democracy?

Each of our four theoretical traditions (Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic

Elite Domination, Majoritarian Interest Group Pluralism, and Biased Pluralism) emphasizes

different sets of actors as critical in determining U.S. policy outcomes, and each tradition has

engendered a large empirical literature that seems to show a particular set of actors to be highly

influential. Yet nearly all the empirical evidence has been essentially bivariate. Until very

recently it has not been possible to test these theories against each other in a systematic,

quantitative fashion.

By directly pitting the predictions of ideal-type theories against each other within a single

statistical model (using a unique data set that includes imperfect but useful measures of the key

independent variables for nearly two thousand policy issues), we have been able to produce some

striking findings. One is the nearly total failure of “median voter” and other Majoritarian

Electoral Democracy theories. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of

organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to

have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 22


The failure of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy is all the more striking

because it goes against the likely effects of the limitations of our data. The preferences of

ordinary citizens were measured more directly than our other independent variables, yet they are

estimated to have the least effect.

Nor do organized interest groups substitute for direct citizen influence, by embodying

citizens’ will and ensuring that their wishes prevail in the fashion postulated by theories of

Majoritarian Pluralism. Interest groups do have substantial independent impacts on policy, and a

few groups (particularly labor unions) represent average citizens’ views reasonably well. But the

interest group system as a whole does not. Over-all, net interest group alignments are not

significantly related to the preferences of average citizens. The net alignments of the most

influential, business oriented groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes. So

existing interest groups do not serve effectively as transmission belts for the wishes of the

populace as a whole. “Potential groups” do not take up the slack, either, since average citizens’

preferences have little or no independent impact on policy after existing groups’ stands are

controlled for.

Furthermore, the preferences of economic elites (as measured by our proxy, the

preferences of “affluent” citizens) have far more independent impact upon policy change than

the preferences of average citizens do. To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens

always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies

happen also to be preferred by the economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence.

Of course our findings speak most directly to the “first face” of power: the ability of

actors to shape policy outcomes on contested issues. But they also reflect – to some degree, at

least – the “second face” of power: the ability to shape the agenda of issues that policy makers

consider. The set of policy alternatives that we analyze is considerably broader than the set

discussed seriously by policy makers or brought to a vote in Congress, and our alternatives are

(on average) more popular among the general public than among interest groups. Thus the fate

of these policies can reflect policy makers’ refusing to consider them rather than considering but

rejecting them. (From our data we cannot distinguish between the two.) Our results speak less

clearly to the “third face” of power: the ability of elites to shape the public’s preferences. 49 We

know that interest groups and policy makers themselves often devote considerable effort to

shaping opinion. If they are successful, this might help explain the high correlation we find

between elite and mass preferences. But it cannot have greatly inflated our estimate of average

citizens’ influence on policy making, which is near zero.

What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute

troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond

primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 23


findings indicate, the majority does not rule -- at least not in the causal sense of actually

determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or

with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias

built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy

change, they generally do not get it.

A possible objection to populistic democracy is that average citizens are inattentive to

politics and ignorant about public policy; why should we worry if their poorly informed

preferences do not influence policy making? Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders

enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does. Perhaps they know better which

policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends,

when deciding which policies to support.

But we tend to doubt it. We believe instead that – collectively – ordinary citizens

generally know their own values and interests pretty well, and that their expressed policy

preferences are worthy of respect.50 Moreover, we are not so sure about the informational

advantages of elites. Yes, detailed policy knowledge tends to rise with income and status.

Surely wealthy Americans and corporate executives tend to know a lot about tax and regulatory

policies that directly affect them. But how much do they know about the human impact of Social

Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, or unemployment insurance, none of which is likely to be

crucial to their own well-being? Most important, we see no reason to think that informational

expertise is always accompanied by an inclination to transcend one's own interests or a

determination to work for the common good.

All in all, we believe that the public is likely to be a more certain guardian of its own

interests than any feasible alternative.

Leaving aside the difficult issue of divergent interests and motives, we would urge that

the superior wisdom of economic elites or organized interest groups should not simply be

assumed. It should be put to empirical test. New empirical research will be needed to pin down

precisely who knows how much, and what, about which public policies.

Our findings also point toward the need to learn more about exactly which economic

elites (the “merely affluent”? the top 1%? the top 0.01%?) have how much impact upon public

policy, and to what ends they wield their influence. Similar questions arise about the precise

extent of influence of particular sets of organized interest groups. And we need to know more

about the policy preferences and the political influence of various actors not considered here,

including political party activists, government officials, and other non-economic elites. We hope

that our work will encourage further exploration of these issues.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 24


Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of

majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually

have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features

central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association,

and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that 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.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 25


Table 1. Theoretical Predictions Concerning the Independent Influence of Sets of

Actors upon Policy Outcomes

Sets of Actors

All Mass Business

Average Economic Interest Interest Interest

Citizens Elites Groups Groups Groups

Theory (ideal type)

Majoritarian Y n n n n




Dominance by

Economic Elites y Y y n y


Majoritarian y n Y Y Y



Biased Pluralism n n y y Y


n: little or no independent influence

y: some independent influence

Y: substantial independent influence

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 26


Table 2. Correlations among Independent Variables










Mass public






Average citizens’


Economic elites’ preferences

All interest groups

Mass public interest groups

Business interest groups
















*** p<.001; n=1779.

Note: Entries are correlation coefficients corrected for measurement error as explained in

Appendix 2.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 27


Table 3. Policy Outcomes and the Policy Preferences of Average Citizens, Economic

Elites, and Interest Groups

Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4

Preferences of

average citizens

Preferences of

economic elites

Alignment of

Interest groups

.64 (.08) ***




.81 (.08) ***




.59 (.09) ***

.03 (.08)

.76 (.08) ***

.56 (.09) ***







Note: All predictors are scaled to range from 0 to 1. The dependent variable is the policy

outcome, coded 1 if the proposed policy change took place within four years of the survey

date and 0 if it did not. Predictors are the logits of the imputed percent of respondents at the

50th (“average citizens”) or 90th (“economic elites”) income percentile that favor the

proposed policy change, and the Net Interest Group Alignment Index described in the text.

Standard errors are asymptotically distribution-free, and all analyses reflect estimated

measurement error in the predictors, as described in Appendix 2. The standardized

coefficients for model 4 in this table are .01, .21, and .16 for average citizens, economic

elites, and interest groups, respectively. N=1779.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 28


Table 4. The Separate Policy Impact of Business-oriented and Mass-based Interest Groups

Average citizens’ preferences

Economic elites’ preferences

Mass-based interest groups

Business interest groups

.05 (.08)

.78 (.08) ***

.24 (.07) ***

.43 (.08)***






Note: All predictors are scaled to range from 0 to 1. The dependent variable is the policy

outcome, coded 1 if the proposed policy change took place within four years of the survey

date and 0 if it did not. Predictors are the logits of the imputed percent of respondents at the

50th (“average citizens”) or 90th (“economic elites”) income percentile that favor the

proposed policy change, and the Net Interest Group Alignment Indices described in the text.

Standard errors are asymptotically distribution-free, and all analyses reflect estimated

measurement error in the predictors, as described in Appendix 2. N=1779.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 29


Figure 1. Predicted probability of policy adoption (dark lines, left axes)

by policy disposition; the distribution of preferences (gray columns, right axes)

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 30


Appendix 1.

Business- and Mass-Based Interest Groups Included in Net Group Alignment Indices

Business and professional groups


American Bankers Association

American Council of Life Insurance

American Farm Bureau Federation

American Hospital Association

American Medical Association

Association of Trial Lawyers

Automobile companies

Chamber of Commerce

Computer software and hardware

Credit Union National Association

Defense contractors

Electric companies

Health Insurance Association

Independent Insurance Agents of America

Motion Picture Association of America

National Association of Broadcasters

National Association of Home Builders

National Association of Manufacturers

National Association of Realtors

National Beer Wholesalers Association

National Federation of Independent Business

National Restaurant Association

Oil Companies

Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers

Recording Industry Association

Securities and investment companies

Telephone companies

Tobacco companies

Mass-based groups



American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees

American Israel Public Affairs Committee

American Legion

Christian Coalition

International Brotherhood of Teamsters

National Rifle Association

National Right to Life Committee

United Auto Workers union

Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S.

Not coded as either business or mass-based

National Education Association (includes a mass base of teachers but also university professors)

National Governors' Association (affected by interest groups rather than acting as an independent group)

Universities (unclear status as businesses or nonprofits)

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 31


Appendix 2. Correcting for Measurement Error

Measurement error is unavoidable in social science data. Its consequences depend on

both the magnitude and the nature of error and, in particular, on whether the errors in

measurement of one variable are correlated with the errors of other variables in a given model.

The predictors used in our analyses come from two distinct data sources: aggregate

survey data, for estimating the policy preferencs of median- and high-income Americans; and

historical data on interest group issue engagement, for generating the Net Interest Group

Alignment Indices. Because our measures of interest group alignments are entirely distinct from

the preference measures in origin, there is no reason to expect that their measurement errors

would be correlated across policies with those for our other two independent variables. In the

case of interest group policy dispositions, then, we have only uncorrelated (random or

“classical”) measurement error to consider. We estimate this error based on inter-coder reliability

(Chronbach’s alpha) of .87.

But our two other independent variables come from a single data source, the same set of

national opinion surveys. Consequently, errors in our measures of the policy preferences of

average citizens and those of economic elites are likely to be positively correlated with each

other. Errors affecting both measures in the same way within a particular survey can arise from

such factors as sampling, question wording, question order, topics in the news at the time the

survey was in the field, and so on.51 Correlated errors on these preference measures tend to

produce upwardly biased statistical relationships between the two independent variables,

producing a higher uncorrected correlation between them (r=.94) than the corrected r=.78 shown

in Table 2.

In order to assess the magnitude of correlated errors, multiple measures of the same

underlying concept or attitude are needed. These are available for a subset of 387 of the 1,779

proposed policy changes in our dataset, for which which more than one survey question

addressed essentially the same policy issue and was asked in the same calendar year. Using the

subset of proposed changes with multiple measures, the error covariance between preferences of

median and high income Americans was estimated to account for 17 percent of the total

covariance between these measures.52

Using the measurement error estimates described above, we estimated structural equation

models in AMOS that purged of error the structural coefficients representing the associations of

the predictors with our outcome measure. The resulting coefficients are reported in tables 3 and 4

and are translated into predicted probabilities in figure 1.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 32


For comparison, appendix table A1 shows the results from an ordinary least squares

regression that parallels the multivariate model in table 3 but in which measurement error is not

taken into account. The implausible negative coefficient for average citizens and the impluasibly

large positive coefficient for economic elites suggests the presence of correlated measurement


As noted above, the corrections for measurement error described here can help reduce

flaws in our measures that affect the relationship between our indictors and their underlying

concepts. But these corrections cannot address the flaws that arise from the imperfect fit between

those concepts and the characteristics we would prefer to measure (such as our use of the 90th

income perenctile as a proxy for economic elites).

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 33


Table A1. Ordinary Least Squares Analysis Parallel to the Structural Equation Model

Presented in Table 3.

Compare with table 3, model 4

Preferences of average citizens

Preferences of economic elites

Alignment of Interest groups

-.93 (.24) ***

1.66 (.24) ***

.46 (.07) ***






Note: All predictors are scaled to range from 0 to 1. The dependent variable is the

policy outcome, coded 1 if the proposed policy change took place within four years

of the survey date and 0 if it did not. Predictors are the logits of the imputed percent

of respondents at the 50th (“average citizens”) or 90th (“economic elites”) income

percentile that favor the proposed policy change, and the Net Interest Group

Alignment Indices described in the text.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 34



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Skocpol, Theda, and Kenneth Finegold. 1982. State Capacity and Economic Intervention in the

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Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 38



1 Tocqueville 2000 [1835, 1840], 235-49. Tocqueville focused on state governments, which he

said “really direct[ed]” American society; he noted that the Founders had imposed limits on

direct democracy in the federal government (235, fn 1.) Yet he asserted in general terms that

“[t]he laws of democracy...emanate from the majority of all citizens” (222.)

2 Lincoln 1863. Dahl 1956, ch. 2, defined “populistic democracy” in terms of pure majority rule,

traced its theoretical roots to Aristotle’s political equality, Locke’s “majority power,” Rousseau’s

“general will” of the majority, and James Madison’s “republican principle,” and critically

analyzed its normative properties.

3 Hotelling 1929; Black 1948, 1958; Downs 1957. In his full-information ch. 2, Downs offers a

clever though somewhat indeterminate non-dimensional version of the theory; in ch. 8 he

explicates a variant of Hotelling’s single-dimensional version. For extensions to multiple

dimensions see Davis, Hinich, and Ordeshook 1970. May’s Theorem establishes that simple

majority rule is the only collective decision rule for choosing between two alternatives that

satisfies the Arrow-type democratic conditions of decisiveness, anonymity, neutrality, and

positive responsiveness to individuals’ preferences (May 1952).

4 Arrow 1963 [1951], McKelvey 1976. See Sen 1970.

5 A particularly trenchant critique is given in Ferguson 1995 (Appendix: “Deduced and


6 Monroe 1979, 1998; Page and Shapiro 1983; Erikson, Wright and McIver 1983; Stimson,

MacKuen, and Erikson 1995; Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson 2002.

7 Bartels 2008, Gilens 2012. See also Jacobs and Page 2005, which indicates that the general

public may have little or no influence on U.S. foreign policy, when the preferences of business

leaders and other elites are taken into account.

8 Key 1961, ch. 11 and 472-76; Fiorina 1981; Zaller 2003. A variant on this logic that focuses

on the possibility of politicians “pandering” to current preferences under certain conditions is

given in Canes-Wrone, Herron, and Shotts 2001. “Latent” preferences are the collective policy

preferences that citizens would derive from their basic needs and values if they had accurate

information about the future unfolding of policy results. Such “latent” preferences are related to

the ideal, “authentic” preferences that some political theorists see as superior to, and more

worthy of governmental responsiveness than, the policy preferences that citizens actually

express. This can be seen as adding normative appeal to an electoral-reward-and- punishment

system of democratic control. See Mansbridge 2003.

9 See Page and Shapiro 1992.

10 Mills 1959, ch. 12, esp. p. 279. Robert Michels 2001 [1911], a founder of modern elite theory,

emphasized positions of leadership in political parties.

Some of Theda Skocpol’s early work (e.g., Skocpol and Finegold 1982) can be seen as

based on a state-centric elite theory that emphasizes public officials. Beginning with Protecting

Soldiers and Mothers (1992), however, Skocpol’s analyses of American politics have paid more

attention to non-state elites, social movements, organized interest groups, and the preferences of

the general public. Thus Skocpol’s work, like that of a number of other important scholars of

American politics (e.g., Katznelson 2013), does not fit neatly into our simple theoretical


Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 39


11 Beard 1913; Domhoff 2013; Burch 1980-1981; Ferguson 1995; Winters 2011; Winters and

Page 2009.

The boundary between elite theories that focus on economically elite individuals, and

interest group theories that focus on organized corporate interests (discussed below), is not

always a sharp one. Here we treat most theories that emphasize corporate organizations or

industrial sectors (e.g., Block 2007, Ferguson 1995) as primarily constituting “interest group”

rather than elite theories. We categorize self-identified elite theorists like Domhoff as such even

if they emphasize business elites and treat corporate organizations as important mechanisms of

influence. Winters 2011 may come closest to an exclusive focus on wealthy individuals rather

than organizations.

One might argue that the economic classes central to classical Marxist theories amount to

“economic elites.” But Marxist theorists see class position as only imperfectly related to wealth

or income, and their focus on ownership of the means of production suggests that business firms

and business associations may be the key political actors. Hence we discuss these theories below

in connection with corporations and organized interest groups, noting the kinship of

“instrumentalist” Marxist theories to theories of biased pluralism.

12 The term “interest group” tends to evoke images of membership groups like the League of

Women voters or the National Rifle Association, but many politically important “groups” are in

fact business corporations.

13 Madison, Hamilton, and Jay 1961 [1787-88], 77-84.

14 Bentley 1908; Truman 1971 [1951], esp. p.511.

15 Dahl 1956. 1989. Berry 1999 emphasizes the rising power of “citizen groups.”

16 Olson 1965.

17 Schattschneider 1960, p.35; Schlozman, Verba, and Brady 2012, ch. 10-14.

18 Schattschneider 1960, ch. 1; McConnell 1966; Stigler 1971; Lindblom 1977, Parts IV and V;

Ferguson 1995; Block 2007; Hacker and Pierson 2010.

19 Marx and Engels 1972 [1848]. This English-language text comes from the 1888 publication

edited by Engels.

20 Miliband 1969, ch. 6. Fred Block (1977) makes a critical distinction between

“instrumentalist” Marxist theories like Miliband’s, in which politically conscious members of the

ruling class use their economic resources to shape state action in their own material interests, and

“structural” theories, in which the capitalist economic system itself tends to shape state policies

and the preferences of its citizens – including workers, who are compelled to accept low wages

and high capitalist profits for the sake of future investment and growth. On alternative Marxist

theories of power, see also Isaac 1987b. For a formalized structural Marxist theory, see

Przeworski and Wallerstein 1982.

21 Again: our data can do little to distinguish among these or other mechanisms of political

influence. We focus on possible sources of influence among individuals and groups in society.

22 Schlozman, Verba, and Brady 2012, ch. 10-14, esp. pp. 321, 329, 356.

23 Schattschneider 1935.

24 Bauer, Pool, and Dexter 1963; Milbrath 1963; McChesney 1997.

25 Smith 2000; Baumgartner et al. 2009.

26 Smith 2000, ch.3.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 40


27 Numerical success rates are not reported in Smith 2000, but the “enactment scorecard” line in

Figure 4.1 (p.83) appears to show Chamber success on 60% or more of the bills in most years,

with very substantial variation from year to year.

28 Baumgartner et al. 2009, 233, 235. These multivariate results may be biased downwards

because the regressions include as independent variables congressional and executive branch

officials’ active support for (or opposition to) policy changes. Since officials’ behavior may well

have been influenced by the interest groups themselves, the inclusion of these predictors restricts

the estimates of group influence to direct effects, excluding any indirect impact that was

channeled through interest groups’ influence over officials.

On the other hand, the omission of other influential actors from the analysis could (if their

preferences were positively correlated with those of interest groups) produce spuriously inflated

estimates of interest group influence. A further complexity in assessing interest group influence

involves policy cases in which groups take no stand at all, which are not included in the analysis

by either Smith or Baumgartner et al. Inclusion of no-stand cases would be necessary if one

sought to assess the extent to which groups affect over-all policy results – though not for

assessing the extent of group influence in the cases where influence attempts are actually made.

29 Appreciation for their fine work in assisting with the colossal task of collecting and coding

these data goes to Marty Cohen, Jason Conwell, Andrea Vanacore, and Mark West at UCLA,

and Oleg Bespalov, Daniel Cassino, Kevin Collins, Shana Gadarian, Raymond Hicks, and Lee

Shaker at Princeton.

30 Arguments for the normative and empirical relevance of the “survey agenda” are discussed in Gilens 2012, 50-

56. Note that if (as we find) the public has little or no influence on our issues, which tilt toward high salience, it is

unlikely that the public has much influence on more technical or obscure matters.

31 In 2012, the 10th percentile of household income was about $12,200, the 50th percentile about

$51,000, and the 90th percentile about $146,000 (U.S. Census Bureau, “Income, Poverty, and

Health Insurance Coverage: 2012,” September 2013, For

further detail on these data, See Gilens 2012, 57-66.

32 Of course the average (median) citizen is not identical to the eligible or actual “median voter.”

But the generally small magnitude of differences between the policy preferences of voters and

those of all citizens (Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980, 109-114; Schlozman, Verba, and Brady

2012, 120-21) suggests that our measure captures the spirit of median voter theories. To the

extent that differences exist, we consider the average citizen to be of greater normative – though

less empirical – importance.

33 To make an approximate assessment of the fit between the preferences of the medianpreference

respondent and those of the median-income respondent we calculated the median

preference within each of five income groups (at the 10th, 30th, 50, 70th and 90th percentiles).

For example, if, on a particular non-monotonic item, the five income groups had imputed median

preferences of .50, .60, .70 .65 and .55 (for the 10th to 90th income percentiles, respectively),

then the estimated over-all median preference would be .60 (in this case equaling the preference

at the 30th income percentile). In most cases the over-all median preference is the same as the

median income (50th percentile) preference. When it is not, the preference differences across

income levels tend to be small. Using this technique, the median over-all preferences and the

median-income preferences track each other very closely: r=.997.

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 41


34 This study is one of the few surveys that meets the two criteria of having a sufficiently large

sample size (n=20,150) and a high enough top-coded income category to provide information on

the policy preferences of very affluent Americans.

35 Correlations of the policy preferences of the top 2% with those of the top 10% are based on the

76 CCES respondents who reported at least $350,000 in family income. Using the 179 CCES

respondents who reported at least $250,000 (roughly the top 4.5% of the income distribution),

the corresponding correlations are .97 and .76.

Some corroborating evidence comes from a comparison of the Survey of Economically

Successful Americans (Page, Bartels and Seawright 2013), based on a local sample of the

wealthiest 1% or 2% of Americans, and the Inequality Survey (Page and Jacobs 2009) which was

based on a representative sample of the American public. Eight policy preference questions that

were included on both surveys showed that the preferences of the top 25% of income earners

generally fell about half way between those of the average citizen and those of the wealthy. For

similar findings concerning the policy preferences of the top 4% or so of income earners, see

Page and Hennessy 2008.

36 We distinguish conceptually between two sorts of deficiencies in our measures: flaws that

affect the relationship between our indictors and their underlying concepts (such as the random

and correlated measurement errors we discuss in the appendix), and flaws that arise from the

imperfect fit between those concepts and the characteristics we would prefer to measure. For

example, the adjustments described in the appendix help us to improve our estimates of the

preferences of Americans at the 90th income percentile, but they cannot help to make those

estimates any more accurate as indicators of the preferences of the truly rich Americans whose

views we would prefer to include in our models.

37 Baumgartner et al. 2009, 225. We believe that our measure of net interest group alignment

(described below) is actually superior to the Fortune 25 proxy examined by Baumgartner et al.

because it includes industries that do not lobby through centralized trade organizations, it is

nonlinear in net number of groups, and it reflects the extent to which a particular issue is central

to the concerns of an interest group or industry.

38 For more detail on the Index of Net Interest Group Alignment, see Gilens 2012, 127-130.

39 On the measurement of policy change, see Gilens 2012, p.60 and endnote #18, p.284.

40 For correlations of individual groups’ positions with average citizens’ preferences see Gilens

2012, 156-57.

41 These particular values for low and high levels of support among affluent Americans and

interest groups were chosen because about fifteen percent of all proposed policy changes

generated either less than 20% or more than 80% support among the affluent, and about fifteen

percent of all proposed changes on which interests groups took a position generated a raw net

interest group score of either more than 5 groups strongly in favor or more than five groups

strongly opposed (counting “somewhat” favorable or opposed as one-half of a group).

42 See Monroe 1979, 1998; Page and Shapiro 1983; Stimson, MacKuen, and Erikson 1995.

43 Perhaps counterintuitively, it turns out that business groups tilted somewhat less toward

opposing proposed changes (33% opposed, 26% in favor) than mass-based groups did (38%

opposed, 20% in favor.)

44 Even if existing organized groups did not reflect the wishes of average citizens, officials’

anticipated reactions to unformed “potential groups” might in theory provide some

representation for average citizens, as David Truman argued they do. But our Table 3 finding of

Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics 42


negligible independent influence by average citizens when existing organized interest groups’

positions are controlled for, leaves little room for potential groups (and officials’ anticipation of

them) to advance the preferences of ordinary citizens.

45 Schlozman, Verba, and Brady 2012, ch. 10-14, esp. pp. 321, 329, 356.

46 For the 369 out of 1,779 cases in which both business-based and mass-based interest groups

took a stand, the coefficients are just .09 (n.s.) for mass groups but .48** (p<.001) for business


47 For those proposed policy changes on which at least one business-oriented group took a

position, another business-oriented group was found on the opposite side less than five percent of

the time. Interestingly, mass-based groups were somewhat more likely to take stands on both

sides of an issue, for example pro-life and pro-choice groups on abortion, or the AARP which

opposed the Clinton health reform plan and the AFL-CIO that favored it.

48 For the analysis in table 4, both the business and mass interest group indices were scaled to run

from 0 to 1. When we rescaled these indices to reflect the differing numbers of business and

mass-based groups engaged on each issue, the standard deviation of the business alignment index

was .158 and the mass-oriented index .096; their associations with policy outcomes (analogous

to those shown in table 4) were almost identical, at .38 (p<.01) and .40 (p<.001), respectively.

49 Bachrach and Baratz 1962, Lukes 1974. See Isaac 1987a.

50 On the normative argument, see Dahl 1989, esp. ch. 7. For empirical evidence that its

conditions tend to be satisfied, see Page and Shapiro 1992 and Gilens 2011.

51 Since these factors do not affect the interest group coding we are less concerned about possible

correlated error between the mass and business interest group indices. See O'Brien, Robert M.

"Correcting Measures of Relationship between Aggregate-Level Variables." Sociological

Methodology 21 (1994): 125-65 and O'Brien, Robert M. "Correcting Measures of Relationship

between Aggregate-Level Variables for Both Unreliability and Correlated Errors: An Empirical

Example." Social Science Research 27, no. 2 (Jun 1998): 218-34.

52 See pp.62-66 and the appendix to Gilens 2012 for details on this calculation and the

comparability of the 387 survey questions with multiple meaures with the full set of 1,779 items.

53 For a discussion of diagnosing and correcting for correlated measurement error see Achen

1985 and Gilens 2012, pp.253-258.

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