Sep 23, 2022

Is Congress in the pocket of the elite?

Few Americans believe their opinion matters to members of Congress. But are they right?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Does public opinion actually matter?

This question has been irritating Americans for many decades, and it seems we are only getting more skeptical. Ask your average American who really controls the levers of democracy, and you are likely to get a simple answer: the elite.

By now, most of us probably have anecdotal info for this perspective. Our friends and families are often skeptical of our government, and candidates from both the left and right are running successful campaigns hammering the 1%, the "special interests," and big money in politics. Most Americans believe political corruption is widespread and our representatives are in the pockets of donors and lobbyists. Larger datasets paint a picture of Americans who worry about where the unfairness of the system and money meet: Seven-in-ten U.S. adults now say the economic system unfairly favors powerful interests. 77% want limits on the amount of money individuals and groups can spend on political campaigns. And, of course, just 22% of Americans approve of Congress.

In 2014, some of the public's largest fears seemed to be confirmed.

That year, a study was published by Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, designed to empirically gauge the impact of four separate ideals of democracy: Majoritarian Electoral Democracy (the collective will of average citizens), Economic-Elite Domination (the interests of people with high levels of wealth), and two types of interest-group pluralism: Majoritarian Pluralism (the citizenry as a whole) and Biased Pluralism (interest groups).

The study found that the economic elite and interest groups dominated the outcomes of legislation.

Their findings were popularized by dozens of news stories and opinion pieces, as well as a viral video from the group RepresentUs, which is still shared widely today. As you might imagine, the public reaction to this study was (and continues to be) quite dire. "Rich people rule!" exclaimed the Washington Post. "Politicians listen to rich people, not you," Vox explained. "Congress literally doesn't care what you think," RepresentUs summarized. About once or twice or month, a Tangle reader emails me the study or the articles about the study, asking, essentially: “Does any of this even matter? Why vote? Why even bother staying informed?”

I wish this was the part where I got to tell you none of it was true — that the study misrepresented data, or was misreported by the press, or was full of all sorts of errors and widely panned by the academic community. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

Instead, the study highlights a very real problem in American democracy: The rich and powerful have, well, a lot of power. The nuts and bolts of it is simple: Money drives a lot of Congressional action.