It’s not just your imagination: The influence of money in politics has indeed drowned out the voices of American voters, a new analysis shows, with runaway corporate lobbying and a lack of campaign finance reform to blame for giving much more political weight to the wealthy.
Researchers at Princeton University and Northwestern University compared the public’s influence on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002, finding that more often than not, the interests of wealthy groups and individuals won out over the demands of the general public. For instance, when 80 percent of the public asked for a change of some sort, they got their way only about 43 percent of the time.
The study, its authors say, points to the overwhelming power of wealthy lobbying groups and individuals backing certain interests in American politics, and the marginalization of voters and public advocacy groups.
“I expected to find that ordinary Americans had a modest degree of influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups would serve to promote those interests,” Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton and a co-author of the study, wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.
“What we found instead was that ordinary Americans have virtually no influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups as a whole do not reliably side with the wishes of the average citizen.”
Co-author Ben Page described an oligarchy as “rule by a small number of wealthy people,” citing the definition of political scientist Jeffrey Winter. But Page cautioned against declaring the country an “oligarchy” just yet.
“Our findings are consistent with the U.S. being an oligarchy but don’t prove that to be so,” Page said, adding that “oligarchy is increasing as economic inequality increases and Congress and the Supreme Court dismantle regulations.”
Although it seems like common sense that money has an outsize impact on American political life, observers of campaign donations say this study, due out in full form this fall, has captured in hard numbers the disparity between the power of people and that of special-interest groups.
“I don't think the finding is that surprising,” said Alexander Furnas, a research fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit group that tracks political donations. “What is really fantastic about it, however, is that it provides systematic empirical support to theories of political influence that were previously supported by mostly anecdote.”
The power of money in politics became even more apparent during the Great Recession of the late 2000s, when corporate lobbyists for financial institutions were able to fend off banking regulations.
“The failure to hold financial institutions accountable, the feeble nature of the regulatory reforms that were adopted, and the extremely uneven recovery (in which corporations and affluent Americans have done quite well, but middle-class and poor Americans are still suffering) all show the extent to which government tilts toward the interests of the rich and powerful,” Gilens wrote.
Sometimes, Gilens said, the public wins out by accident, when its interests happen to sync with the interests of elites, such as Medicare benefits imposed under the Bush administration. That move found support from the pharmaceutical industry, which benefited from the law.
As a more recent example, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a staunch proponent of the Affordable Care Act, has received $75,000 from health-professional political action committees in the 2013–14 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a D.C.-based transparency organization.
What specific influence that cash could have had on Pelosi’s decisions, if any, is unclear, but it suggests health care professionals want to have a say in Congress and are able to pay for the privilege.
And moving to a different state where money might have less influence doesn’t mitigate the effect either.
“In federal elections, many, many candidates take in more money from outside of their home states than they do from within them. The most popular places from which money flows are those you would expect: California, New York City, and Washington D.C.,” said Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, in an email.
Bryner added that individual voters might have more power in local elections, where “the people who make decisions about potholes and noise regulations are not subject to the same pressures from industry and unions that members of Congress are.”
The solution for the outsize power of cash in federal politics, according to Gilens and Page, would be campaign finance reform, perhaps made more difficult by a recent Supreme Court decision that determined that vast amounts of campaign cash equal speech. And the privilege of that kind of free speech belongs overwhelmingly to rich white men, who make up a large portion of the wealthy elite in the U.S.
“Meaningful campaign finance reform would seem to be the most important step we can take to make government more responsive to the needs and preferences of ordinary citizens,” Gilens said.
Page agrees on the necessity of campaign finance reform, along with “full disclosure of money in politics.”
“Most important: reduce inequality of wealth to reduce inequality of power,” Page said.
But their bleak findings don’t offer much hope for any kind of quick change. Why write your congressional representative when campaign cash speaks so much louder?
Furnas at the Sunlight Foundation recognizes this as a challenge to public engagement, but he said the problem isn’t insurmountable. He also said public knowledge of special interest lobbying is key.
“For example, even if I write my congressperson they will still listen to the coal lobbyist, so why should I go to the trouble of writing my congressperson? So then no one writes. But if literally every constituent wrote their congressperson, that would, in fact, get noticed.”