The US government does not represent the interests of the majority of the country’s citizens, but is instead ruled by those of the rich and powerful.
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.
In 1,779 policy cases (from 1981-2002), 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.
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.
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)
Evidence shows economic elites and special interests get what they want