Skip to main content
Northwestern University
Illustration of an American-flag patterned van with a flat tire.left

Does Democracy Still Work?

In churches and coffee shops, in schools and parks, Americans embrace the idealistic notion that Mr. Smith can still go to Washington and spur positive change.

But while the United States may be a democracy in theory and name, recent research co-authored by Northwestern University political scientist Benjamin Page suggests a more troubling reality: of public policy shaped by a few, a nation guided by special interests and a muting of the voice of the average citizen.

Page and his co-author, Princeton University politics professor Martin Gilens, have issued a headline-grabbing study that casts doubt on the state of our democratic ideals. Their work affirms the growing sense among many that the elite exert an overriding influence on public policy.

Their study, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens,” analyzes survey data for nearly 1,800 policy issues between 1981 and 2002. The findings, published in Perspectives on Politics this fall, are head-turning. 

Page and Gilens found that “economic elites”— those at the 90th percentile of income or above — and groups that represent business interests do indeed wield an outsize influence over U.S. public policy.

Sure, average citizens matter, but generally only when their public policy desires align with those of the elite or organized interests, the authors discovered. When there is disagreement, the wealthy tend to prevail nearly 50 percent of the time. Even when fairly large majorities of Americans — as much as 80 percent — favor a policy change, the shift happens less than half the time, particularly when it involves issues such as wealth and income protection, trade restrictions and tax policy. That’s also true when it comes to issues that don’t have a direct impact on the elite’s well-being, such as Social Security, Medicare or unemployment insurance.

In short, what the elite want, the elite get. The general public, the authors say, has no discernible, independent impact on policymaking. 

“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,” Page and Gilens conclude.

An "invisible empire"?

Benjamin Page (below left) with Martin Gilens (center) on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” The pair’s findings are bracing, but hardly surprising. More than a century ago, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson charged that the U.S. government had fallen into the hands of “the bosses” and “the special interests” and contended that an “invisible empire” had been built above democracy. Wilson’s New Freedom platform in the 1912 presidential election called for limits on campaign contributions by corporations, stronger antitrust laws, tariff reductions, banking reform and a federal income tax — all strategic attempts to reduce the escalating influence of the wealthy.

A century later, those concerns seem prescient. Political parties and the Supreme Court have weakened campaign finance reforms, thereby granting the elite and organized interests even greater political clout. In April 2014, just as Page and Gilens’ study was hitting the media, the Court struck down the aggregate limits on the amount individuals may contribute during a two-year period to all federal candidates, parties and political action committees. As former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson testified in an earlier campaign-finance case: “Who, after all, can seriously contend that a $100,000 donation does not alter the way one thinks about — and quite possibly votes on — an issue?” 

“Money is always a power resource and, in a democracy, we have the power to amplify it or dampen it. And right now, it’s being amplified,” says Northwestern political science professor Jeffrey Winters, whose 2011 book Oligarchy examines political power and wealth.

For their part, Page and Gilens eschew the term “oligarchy” and instead favor the phrase “economic elite domination.” During an April appearance on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Page and Gilens expressed unease with the media spin on their study, which has been portrayed as evidence that the United States is “already an oligarchy.” 

“What we know is that you can predict policy outcomes by knowing about the [desires of the] top 10 to 20 percent. It’s a pretty broad group,” Page said. “An oligarchy might be one-tenth of 1 percent of the population.” 

“There’s no line above which people have influence and below which they don’t,” Gilens added. “Among people who are trying to influence the government, the more money you have, the more influence you have. What our work shows is that as you get down toward the middle class, you just don’t see any influence.” 

Not everyone embraces the pair’s findings. The New Yorker called Page and Gilens’ paper a “provocative one” but noted that it relied on decades-old data and certain equations with “weak” explanatory power. “The statistics [Page and Gilens] used suggest an interesting narrative, but do not tell a complete story,” added American Conservative scribe Marjorie Romeyn-Sanabria.

But the data, even if incomplete, are sobering. Among Page and Gilens’ findings: 

“One of the bedrocks of American democracy is equality, and when you learn that the affluent and interest groups hold such power, it’s disconcerting,” says Fay Lomax Cook, a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern.

Reviving Democracy

The late U.S. President Ronald Reagan called democracy “worth dying for” and “the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.” To maintain that valued form of government, Cook says the public needs to move beyond “simply being concerned.” Policymakers at the local, state and federal level listen and respond to those they hear from and, by and large, Cook notes, the affluent are more likely to contact members of Congress, attend political functions and contribute money to political campaigns.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman expressed concern that Page and Gilens’ findings could reinforce the status quo by affirming public cynicism and dampening enthusiasm for public service. 

“There is a danger here of going too far, and imagining that electoral politics is irrelevant,” Krugman wrote. “Why bother getting involved in campaigns, when the oligarchy rules whichever party is in power?” 

But that’s exactly the opposite conclusion that Page hopes the public will draw from their work. 

“The message isn’t ‘drop out of the system and don’t vote,’” Page says. “Assembling the political will is vitally important here.”

To that end, Page and Gilens are collaborating on a new book that will explore ways to raise the public’s voice in policy-making. Among their proposals: 

“My argument is that with simple changes, we can become much more democratic,” Page says, adding that any broad social movement must be a bipartisan effort that includes the affluent.

Page adds that there is precedent for such reform. The early 20th century Progressives, who included the likes of Wilson (a Democrat) and Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican), shifted the election of U.S. senators from the state legislatures directly to the voters, and also secured women’s right to vote. 

“There are a lot of people unhappy about our political system, and I do believe there’s quite a reasonable chance we’ll see movement toward major political changes,” Page says. “The moment seems to be right. People are interested in learning about the problem and the potential solutions.”

Perhaps there is hope for democracy, after all. 

Back to top