Who Holds Power in the U.S.?

The authors of this study used multivariate analysis to conclude that two sets of actors – economic elites and business interest groups – have substantial influence over public policy in the United States, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little to none.

The authors’ findings add support to two large theoretical traditions concerning U.S. political power, Economic-Elite Domination and Biased Pluralism. What both theories have in common is the view that the rich, whether individuals or corporate entities or industry trade groups, are the drivers of public policy.

I will let others explore the assumptions, methods, and limitations of the study, but I think it is important for progressives to view the authors’ conclusion as a challenge rather than as prophecy or a law of nature.

I think the status quo favors the rich only as long as everyday people do not pay attention to civic life, continue to view their interests narrowly, and do not come together to solve common problems. There is power in unions and in organizing, taking collective action, and participating in mass movements.

Having others on your side is not a guarantee of success when facing off against entrenched power – but it helps. I think the challenge is to channel energy to where it can be effective (picking the right target) and to sustain that for as long as it takes. This may mean focusing on a particular decision-maker, or it may mean challenging unjust systems and institutions.

There are lessons to be learned from Ferguson, MO. In the wake of the police shooting of unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, groups began channeling community outrage toward challenging white dominance in the city’s government institutions, as well as its predatory system of municipal court fines.

The study also underscores the importance of fair elections and the need to get corporate money out of politics.

Four Theories for Four Actors

According to the article, there exist four major theoretical branches of thought on the subject of who wields political power in the U.S. Each focuses on a particular actor-type as the driver of public policy:

  1. Majoritarian Electoral Democracy: associated with the idea that U.S. politics reflects the collective will of the people. As such, the focus is on the average or median citizen.
  2. Economic-Elite Domination: associated with idea that wealthy individuals dominate political life in this country. Economic elites are the actors in this model, and examples would include the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, the Walton family, or William Buffet.
  3. Majoritarian Pluralism: in this view, political power in the U.S. is split among various interest groups that compete for numbers and influence. The general principal seems to be that the larger the interest group, the more powerful it is. Furthermore, since political strength is derived by popularity, all citizens’ interests are represented fairly equally under this theory.
  4. Biased Pluralism: this is similar to Economic-Elite Domination, in that the focus is on wealth. In this model, however, it is large groups built by and in the service of wealthy people and companies that dominate politics in the U.S. Examples include U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AHIP, and the NRA.

Graphs

line graph overlaid on percent distribution columns

Predicted probability of policy adoption (dark lines, left axes) by policy disposition; the distribution of preferences (gray columns, right axes)

line graph overlaid on percent distribution columns

Predicted probability of policy adoption (dark lines, left axes) by policy disposition; the distribution of preferences (gray columns, right axes)

line graph overlaid on percent distribution columns

Predicted probability of policy adoption (dark lines, left axes) by policy disposition; the distribution of preferences (gray columns, right axes)

After exploring the results of their models, the authors conclude:

Our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. […] 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.

Ouch!

My take is slightly more hopeful. The majorities of the American public do not bother to vote. In a certain sense, the amount of democracy we have reflects our collective engagement in the process. Because we cede so much ground by not paying attention, the economic elites happily and greedily fill the void. The danger lies in their ability to make their dominance self-perpetuating by rigging the system with lobbyists, big money, and systems of injustice like voter suppression.

Leave a Reply