When the interests of the general populace clash with the interests of economic elites, the rich almost always win.
That’s the conclusion reached by professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page in their study “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”
What does that mean in Shelby County, part of the poorest large metropolitan area in the country, a place where the median household income for black residents is $30,000 less than that of white residents?
A proper and complete answer to that question would fill an encyclopedia. The second-quarter campaign finance reports (available online here) in the Shelby County mayoral race would be a chapter on how money and power influence elections.
During the second quarter, Republican incumbent Mark Luttrell started with $338,198, raised $84,329, spent $290,110 and had $132,417 on hand.
Democrat Deidre Malone started with $10,753, raised $53,334, spent $25,172 and had $38,914 on hand.
The incumbent often has the fundraising advantage, but it’s in the listing of the donors’ occupations that the professors’ thesis comes to life.
Scan the column on Luttrell’s spreadsheet/report marked occupation. President. CEO. Owner. President. President and CEO. Co-chairman and CEO. President. Founder. President. CEO. Judge. Attorney General. CEO. CEO. President.
Of the few donors whose names suggest they are female, homemaker was the most frequent occupation listed.
Where do Malone’s donors work? There are a few doctors and business owners. Then there’s a manager. Another manager. School principal. Assistant to the president. Ramp agent.
A good number of Luttrell’s donors are likely among the highest paid, if not the highest paid at their jobs. For the most part, Malone’s donors work for someone else. Their contributions to the bottom line do not line their own pockets. They labor to make someone else rich.
The ideal of a government “for the people and by the people” has given way to government by those who have money, to the detriment of those who do not.
Write Gilens (Princeton University) and Page (Northwestern University):
“…[I]ndividual economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.”
In this light, asking ‘Who out-fundraised whom?” comes off as stunningly tone-deaf, particularly when divorced from any broader economic context or discussion of systemic inequality.
Often, though, financial horse race reports are framed as proof of a candidate’s popularity, his (or hers, but it’s usually his) worthiness to hold public office.
The more likely narrative is that the best-financed candidates are those who will use their political power to steer power and privilege to those who already enjoy an abundance of both.
All week, I’ve been asking my Twitter followers and Facebook friends: Have you voted?
After reading this study, my query seems simple-minded. Maybe even foolish.
I’ll let the professors have the last word.
“What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.”
The researchers acknowledge an obvious objection.
“… That average citizens are inattentive to politics and ignorant about public policy; why should we worry if their poorly informed preferences do not influence policy making? Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does. Perhaps they know better which policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends, when deciding which policies to support.”
And then they reject it.
“But we tend to doubt it. We believe instead that – collectively – ordinary citizens generally know their own values and interests pretty well…. Yes, detailed policy knowledge tends to rise with income and status.
“Surely wealthy Americans and corporate executives tend to know a lot about tax and regulatory policies that directly affect them. But how much do they know about the human impact of Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, or unemployment insurance, none of which is likely to be crucial to their own well-being?
“…[W]e see no reason to think that informational expertise is always accompanied by an inclination to transcend one’s own interests or a determination to work for the common good.”