What kind of government do we really have in Washington?Researchers at Princeton and Northwestern universities examined nearly 1,800 government policies enacted between 1981 and 2002, comparing them to the expressed preferences of Americans in middle and upper income brackets. They concluded that economic elites and business interests have substantial impact on policy making, while other movements have limited influence. Kojo chats with one of the people behind the study about whether the American idea isn’t the one actually at work in D.C.


  • Benjamin Page Professor of Decision Making and Faculty Associate, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University; co-author "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens" (forthcoming, Perspectives on Politics, Fall 2014)


  • 12:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, "In the Light of What We Know." An international banker-turned novelist crosses continents and class lines in a sweeping debut novel. But first, challenging what we do know about our democracy here in the United States. A new study by political scientist at Princeton and Northwestern questions whether we in fact are living in a democracy at all.

  • 12:07:21

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe authors found that the majority of the American people have little influence over the policies our government adopts, and that rich people and organizations representing business interest have so much sway that what passes for democracy in Washington may more closely resemble an oligarchy. Joining us to explore the conclusion of the study and what he feels got us to this point is Benjamin Page.

  • 12:07:47

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's a political science professor at Northwestern. He's a co-author along with Martin Gilens of Princeton University of the report, "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens." Benjamin Page joins us from studios at Northwestern University. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:08:06

    MR. BENJAMIN PAGEThank you very much, Kojo.

  • 12:08:09

    NNAMDIBenjamin, some people would say it's not news to learn about this. John Cassidy, writer in the New Yorker began his article about this by saying, "It's from the Department of Academics confirming something you already suspected" that the government of the United States is in fact, in many respects, controlled by the rich and powerful. But you have found that the majority of Americans have little influence over the government that represents them.

  • 12:08:34

    NNAMDIIn light of what you found, how would you describe the kind of government we have here? I do have to say that the use of the word oligarchy was not yours, you described what you called economic elite domination.

  • 12:08:49

    PAGEThat's right, that's right. A blogger oligarchy in the heading and everybody in the world took it up. We might have an oligarchy, but our evidence doesn't tell you about that because that would be a situation in which a one-tenth of 1 percent of the wealthiest people ran the whole show. What we know is not whether or not that's true. We know that the top 20 percent or the top 1 percent or some fraction of them have an enormous amount of political power.

  • 12:09:22

    NNAMDIHow did you come to these conclusions? What was the methodology of your study?

  • 12:09:26

    PAGEWell, Marty Gilens deserves most of the credit for that. He spent about 10 years of very hard work, getting together data on 1,779 cases of policymaking, a lot of them. And for each one he found out what average people wanted, found out what higher income people wanted. And he figured out the line-up of interest groups for and against and then predicted the outcomes using those three factors and found the independent influence of each.

  • 12:10:00

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number you can call if you'd like to join the conversation, if you have questions or comments. How do you perceive the influence you have as an individual over our system of government here in the U.S. Do you have concerns that those with high incomes or those representing corporate interests have too much influence or not? 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow.

  • 12:10:26

    NNAMDIBenjamin Page, this study seems to be about what happens when people in different income classes don't share the same views and who wins out when government crafts policies based on those preferences. What did you learn about the issues where those income groups do not share the same views?

  • 12:10:42

    PAGEWell, that's a good point, because a fair amount of the time they do share the views. And for that reason, the average person doesn't lose every single time. It's when they disagree with the affluent that the average person loses. And there are a lot of issues like that. You think about cutting Social Security, both political parties in Washington seem to have been receptive to various extents to cutting Social Security when huge majorities of the public are opposed to that.

  • 12:11:12

    PAGEAnd there are other issues of that kind, progressive taxation, economic regulation, doing something about the big banks. In all those cases, higher income people have quite different views from the average person.

  • 12:11:26

    NNAMDIWell, what would you say to people who say, look, we live in a capitalist economic system and the implication of that is that capitalists are therefore likely to be the most influential people in that society. That's the way the system is supposed to work.

  • 12:11:42

    PAGEThat's possibly true. But, you know, you look around the world, you look at Europe and there are plenty of capitalist economies where money has much less of role in politics, I think, and where the outcomes are probably much more democratic.

  • 12:11:57

    NNAMDIPeople like to talk all the time about the power of the grassroots, the pressure ordinary people can put on their lawmakers if they mobilize and create groundswell. How does that classic image of democratic mobilization compare to what you found in your data?

  • 12:12:13

    PAGEWell, I think it's a very important point. I really hope people will not give up and just say, oh, well, can't do anything. Because, in fact, ordinary citizens can mobilize and make a real difference.

  • 12:12:27

    NNAMDIAre there specific examples where you've seen -- there was one that I read about the carried interest deduction, where the upper income class used that influence as an effective veto on a government policy.

  • 12:12:42

    PAGEI think that's an interesting example because it's an example in which, you know, some people think of the Democratic Party as the workers or minority's party, which I suppose it is much more than the Republicans. But still, they're leading Democrats who have, like, Chuck Schumer of New York who've been champions of a very low tax rate, at least to the Warren Buffett kind of situation, which his secretary pays more taxes than a hedge fund manager.

  • 12:13:11

    NNAMDIHere is Frank in Fairfax, VA on the telephone. Frank, you are on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:13:18

    FRANKYes, thank you for taking my call. I'm a former research scientist who've gotten involved in policy research. And a couple of years ago, in fact, on several occasions I've come up with important issues, not ideological or political issues but opportunities within the state of Virginia particularly that senators and representatives needed to know about or could have been very effective in pushing.

  • 12:13:52

    FRANKAnd I discovered that, for example, Senators Webb and Warner could not be reached for any serious informational exchange with constituents. Now, if you're a group coming from some town or representing your, you know, an interest group or so forth, you can almost always get an audience with the senator in terms of expanding his action to constituents and so on. But if you had a serious issue, there was a palace guard that was absolutely impenetrable.

  • 12:14:28

    FRANKI was really shocked. And when I thought back, I found the same thing in other states. I used to live in Massachusetts. And I think this also relates back to the voters themselves. You know, there's a famous...

  • 12:14:47

    PAGEYeah. If I could, I would like to react to what you said.

  • 12:14:51

    NNAMDIPlease go ahead.

  • 12:14:52

    PAGEI think that's a very important point. And, unfortunately, in our system most politicians have to spend an enormous amount of time raising money. It's not their fault. And the point is not that they take bribes, the point is they can't get elected without tons of money. That means they have to listen mostly to the people who can give that money. I think your experience is shared by a lot of people.

  • 12:15:15

    NNAMDITo what degree are average Americans aware of this dynamic that you see at work? Did you find that people feel that their interest are in fact being represented or that they perceive that they do have influence?

  • 12:15:27

    PAGEI think a lot of -- well, from survey research not from our study but other studies, it's pretty clear that a lot of people are discouraged and cynical about this. They know roughly what's going on. What upsets me, though, is when they conclude that they can't do anything about it. I think it's possible to do something about it.

  • 12:15:48

    NNAMDIBenjamin Page is a political science professor at Northwestern University. He's co-author along with Martin Gilens of Princeton University of the report called, "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens." He joins us from studios at Northwestern University. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you ever felt like you've joined with others to influence the policies adopted by our government?

  • 12:16:13

    NNAMDIHow successful were you? When did that happen? How did you do it? 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org and ask a question or make a comment there. Benjamin Page, you conducted this research over a period from, I guess, 1981 to 2002. Since then, we've seen even more money coming into our political system.

  • 12:16:35

    NNAMDIWe've had Supreme Court rulings that have consistently come down in favor of corporate interest and how they can spend their money to influence our political process, essentially ruling that corporations are in fact people and that money is in fact a form of speech. What do you think you'd find if you had access to data from 2002 to the present?

  • 12:16:58

    PAGEI'm afraid it might be worse. And as you say, the Supreme Court has not helped, that's very discouraging. But there are still things that could be done. You know, when I was reflecting about Frank's comments, elections still matter. So that, for example, with the 2014 congressional elections coming up, the money has its influence partly because average people don't vote in those off-year elections, especially lower income people and minorities. And if they get organized and vote, they could make quite a difference.

  • 12:17:33

    NNAMDIOn to Jamie in Chevy Chase, MD. Jamie, your turn. You're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:17:41

    JAMIEThank you, Kojo. I thought the timing of this piece is wonderful. I don't if your commentator saw the comment by Larry Summers about -- to Elizabeth Warren where he told her, "Ms. Warren, if you want to become an insider in Washington, you have one rule, you can't criticize the other insiders." I came here when I was 17, and I'm just wondering if this isn't just words. It's a recognition that access to Washington is kind of -- it's what you know and what you can buy. But if you criticize or speak about it too openly, then you're out of the game. And I just wanted to offer that.

  • 12:18:15

    NNAMDII'm glad you did, but I don't think that's what the study that we're discussing was directed at. But if Benjamin Page cares to comment, he certainly can.

  • 12:18:24

    PAGEOh, I think there's quite a bit to that. The people that Paul Krugman keeps calling serious people had some ideas that are just not shared by most Americans but there is sort of a club among policymakers, again, of both parties, including Democrats like Larry Summers.

  • 12:18:46

    NNAMDIDoes your study measure the influence of income groups on state and local government or just the federal government?

  • 12:18:51

    PAGEIt's only federal. And, you know, if I could, just a quick word about interest groups because that part of the study hasn't been reported much. And in some ways might be the most important because James Madison used to argue that even if ordinary people aren't very active in politics they get represented by factions or organized groups. And this study shows that actually they don't get represented at all well by organized groups.

  • 12:19:20

    NNAMDIIs it possible that we have, as a culture, a reluctance to discuss class differences that is why this issue is not more prominent than it is because people who even raised this issue are often accused of creating class differences in society or trying to appeal to class differences in society?

  • 12:19:44

    PAGEThat's right. The phrase class wars is used in that way to try to stifle debate. I think it was Buffett who said, well, of course, there's a class war and our side is winning.

  • 12:19:56

    NNAMDIHere is John in Fairfax, VA. John, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:20:01

    JOHNYes, I'd like to address this issue of the, you know, average person not having access, political thought. I think the organization Common Cause was created to do that very thing, you know, to speak for people who don't seem to have a voice. Is that true or not?

  • 12:20:25

    PAGEWell, I think there's something to that. And there's -- you look around NGOs in Washington, there are some that speak for large numbers of Americans, and unions tends to. But, you know, when you add all the organizations together, they have a really strong tilt toward business and the professions, especially when corporations themselves have a lot of influence.

  • 12:20:48

    NNAMDIBenjamin Page, what connection do you see between the data you've gathered about our political system and economic data that others have gathered about that period of time that indicate America's middle class is thinning and the gap between the richest and the poorest is consistently widening?

  • 12:21:05

    PAGEWell, I think there are important connections between the two. One of them is when economic inequality increases. Almost certainly people at the top have more political power because they have relatively more wealth to spend on politics. But then the other side of the coin is, we know looking around the world that politics can really make a difference to these things, that you can reduce any economic inequality if you have the right kinds of public policies. But to the extent that wealthy people are exerting power, they're going to resist that. So the tow are closely connected.

  • 12:21:41

    NNAMDIHere's Jim in Deale, MD. Jim, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:21:46

    JIMThank you for taking my call. I was very interested in the -- when you were opening the program, you uses the word oligarchy and it reminded immediately of a friend of mine from when I was in my first year of college whom I've known ever since, who a few years ago when I was listening and you were discussing this very matter of the perception of the average man to how the government is run or what the influences are.

  • 12:22:19

    JIMAnd he stated that the .9 percenters, as we have come to call them, that control 90 percent of the wealth of the country, if we believe what's being put forward in media such as your own. He termed them corpocracy, which I found very interesting. And I just -- I've thrown that idea around for the last several years and I find that, generally speaking, I think the constituencies are very much aware of the corpocracy.

  • 12:22:56

    NNAMDICorpocracy, oligarchy or economic elite domination, it's -- I guess people will choose whatever phrase they think is most applicable to this situation. Benjamin Page, you and your co-author before economic elite domination.

  • 12:23:11

    PAGEThat's right. And on oligarchy, I meant to mention, Jeffrey Winters is the oligarchy guy. He has a fascinating book about oligarchy around the world and across the centuries, the ways in which varies from place to place. And he calls the United States a civil oligarchy in which democracy also works to some degree, very interesting argument.

  • 12:23:32

    NNAMDIBenjamin Page, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:23:35

    PAGEThank you very much, Kojo.

  • 12:23:36

    NNAMDIBenjamin Page is a political science professor at Northwestern University and co-author along with Martin Gilens of Princeton University of the report called "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, "In the Light of What We Know," an international banker turned novelist crosses continents and class lines in a sweeping debut novel. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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