Sunday, December 28, 2014

Democracy Under Threat-- Or Is It Already Too Late?


Saturday morning I woke up bright and early and feeling chipper. I tweeted an upbeat statement about Bernie Sanders' likely presidential run: Just once before we pass on, shouldn't we have a president NOT owned by Big Business & Wall St.? It's still up to us And then I started thinking about the implications of the "It's still up to us" phrase. Is it? I revisited an interview Tom Hartmann had done (above) a few months ago with Martin Gilens, Professor of Politics at Princeton University. Gilens was on Hartmann's show because he co-authored, along with Professor Benjamin Page of Northwestern University a controversial new study, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. What Gilens and Page have put forward in their study is that American democracy has slowly become weaker and weaker as an all-powerful and very determined oligarchy has taken complete control of the country's decision making processes. These people didn't want to see another FDR running the country and they were determined to create a system to prevent it. They already owned the Republican Party-- which did not work for them in stopping the rise of Roosevelt-- and they set about to take over the Democratic Party, almost entirely achieved now. More than that, they have used their wealth to infiltrate and capture every aspect of the decision making process, from state government and mass media to all the crucial flex points where consequential decisions are made.
The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.

...Nor do organized interest groups substitute for direct citizen influence, by embodying citizens’ will and ensuring that their wishes prevail in the fashion postulated by theories of Majoritarian Pluralism. Interest groups do have substantial independent impacts on policy, and a few groups (particularly labor unions) represent average citizens’ views reasonably well. But the interest-group system as a whole does not. Overall, net interest-group alignments are not significantly related to the preferences of average citizens. The net alignments of the most influential, business-oriented groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes. So existing interest groups do not serve effectively as transmission belts for the wishes of the populace as a whole. “Potential groups” do not take up the slack, either, since average citizens’ preferences have little or no independent impact on policy after existing groups’ stands are controlled for.

Furthermore, the preferences of economic elites (as measured by our proxy, the preferences of “affluent” citizens) have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do. To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically-elite citizens who wield the actual influence.

Of course our findings speak most directly to the “first face” of power: the ability of actors to shape policy outcomes on contested issues. But they also reflect-- to some degree, at least-- the “second face” of power: the ability to shape the agenda of issues that policy makers consider. The set of policy alternatives that we analyze is considerably broader than the set discussed seriously by policy makers or brought to a vote in Congress, and our alternatives are (on average) more popular among the general public than among interest groups. Thus the fate of these policies can reflect policy makers’ refusing to consider them rather than considering but rejecting them. (From our data we cannot distinguish between the two.) Our results speak less clearly to the “third face” of power: the ability of elites to shape the public’s preferences. We know that interest groups and policy makers themselves often devote considerable effort to shaping opinion. If they are successful, this might help explain the high correlation we find between elite and mass preferences. But it cannot have greatly inflated our estimate of average citizens’ influence on policy making, which is near zero.

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.

When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

A possible objection to populistic democracy is 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.

But we tend to doubt it. We believe instead that-- collectively-- ordinary citizens generally know their own values and interests pretty well, and that their expressed policy preferences are worthy of respect. Moreover, we are not so sure about the informational advantages of elites. 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? Most important, we 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.

All in all, we believe that the public is likely to be a more certain guardian of its own interests than any feasible alternative.

Leaving aside the difficult issue of divergent interests and motives, we would urge that the superior wisdom of economic elites or organized interest groups should not simply be assumed. It should be put to empirical test. New empirical research will be needed to pin down precisely who knows how much, and what, about which public policies.

Our findings also point toward the need to learn more about exactly which economic elites (the “merely affluent”? the top 1 percent? the top one-tenth of 1 percent?) have how much impact upon public policy, and to what ends they wield their influence. Similar questions arise about the precise extent of influence of particular sets of organized interest groups. And we need to know more about the policy preferences and the political influence of various actors not considered here, including political party activists, government officials, and other non-economic elites. We hope that our work will encourage further exploration of these issues.

Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a wide- spread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organ- izations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

Now move to the 2016 presidential cycle. Business elites are covered regardless of which party wins. They may prefer Jeb Bush (or Mitt Romney) but they don't have the slightest problem with welcoming another Clinton back to the White House. The first one certainly delivered for the Financial Sector, which has already stuffed Hillary's campaign coffers with $31,062,733 since 2000, when she first ran for the Senate. That year, Wall Street was clearly behind one of their own in that race, Rick Lazio. Lazio was the biggest recipient of Wall Street cash of anyone running for the Senate, $5,548,572; Hillary was #2 with $2,970,350, just ahead of presidential wannabes John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Hillary crushed Lazio 3,747,310 (55.27%) to 2,915,730 (43.01%)... and Wall Street immediately started cultivating her with millions of dollars in contributions. By 2004, when she wasn't running for anything, she was in the top 10 of the Financial Sector's most-favored ($1,528,070). And two years later, they graced her reelection bid with a hefty $5,669,739. Two years later, when she was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, the sector gave her a staggering $21,161,835. They are on the road to dwarfing that leading up to the 2016 election. And they'll probably give Jeb Bush just as much if he starts looking like a viable alternative to Ted Cruz.

Democracy can be messy-- clearly why the oligarchs and plutocrats are working so hard to discredit and dismantle it-- and they don't always get their way. Elizabeth Warren, despite the hysteria on Wall Street, was elected to the U.S. Senate over Wall Street's favorite senator, Scott Brown. And over on the right, unhinged extremists Mike Lee (UT) and Richard Murdock (IN) defeated Wall Street-backed Robert Bennett and Dick Lugar. Wall Street moved a gigantic way this year to replace progressive icon Mike Honda with one of their own, a pathetic business shill and perennial candidate named Ro Khanna (who will try again in another district when Sam Farr retires). Khanna outspent the incumbent $4,421,036 to $3,418,783 and the biggest single spender in the race was a shady Business-backed Super PAC, Californians for Innovation, set up specifically to launder dark money ($661,579) into a coordinated smear campaign against Honda. That didn't work; Khanna failed despite all the spending. But these cases are the exceptions, not the rule. When Wall Street and Big Business open the flood gates of cash for their favorite candidates, they are almost always elected. When Elizabeth Warren talks about the system being rigged, this is what she's talking about. And she fought it and she beat it. We'd like to see Bernie Sanders do the same. Will he go all the way? No one can answer that question-- though the corporate media dismisses him out of hand, while showering ridiculous also-rans like Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio with glowing ink. Blue America has a Bernie for President page you are certainly invited visit... and bring a friend. Bernie sounds a lot more optimistic about the arc of history than the Beltway pundits do:
The struggle for economic and social justice, for environmental sanity and world peace must not be considered an option for us, it is a necessity that must be carried forward. It's what we must do. The future of this country and, in fact, the future of our planet depend upon that.

Please don't forget. Real change does not occur without struggle, and real change does not happen overnight. As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us; "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Incredibly brave people, for centuries, have put their lives on the line, died and suffered, for a more just economic and political system-- and their efforts resulted, over time, in huge and almost unthinkable victories.

Fifty years ago, given the history of this country, very few people would have believed that in 2008 an African American could have been elected President of the United States, and then re-elected in 2012. But it happened.

Forty years ago, when only a handful of women held important political positions and most girls never considered the possibility of doing "man's work," very few people would have believed that there would be states in this country where all the major elected officials would be women, and that millions of women would now be working at jobs that women never held before. But it happened.

Thirty years ago, when children born with disabilities were hidden by their parents or institutionalized, very few people would have believed that kids with disabilities would be mainstreamed into public school classrooms all across this country, and that there would be strong laws prohibiting discrimination against disabled Americans. But it happened.

Twenty years ago, when right-wing candidates won elections by attacking gay rights, very few people would have believed that by 2014 gay marriage would be legal in conservative states, and that there would be openly gay elected officials in almost every area of public life. But it happened.

My point is simple. Change happens. It happens in ways that we don’t fully understand, and it happens in a timeline that few can predict. But one thing we do understand is that when millions of people stand together and demand it, positive and progressive change can and does happen. We must never give up.
Let's end with Ezra Klein explaining a graph that I'm pretty sure came from the Gilens and Page report. It sure explains the predicament democracy-loving Americans find themselves in today.

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At 7:00 AM, Anonymous ap215 said...

But these two will be a tag team force they're our cure to save Democracy.

We're coming for you Elites.

At 3:16 PM, Blogger ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Probably too late.

1) Reagan and GHW got away with their Iran hostage scam.

2) Cynical assholes like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama took over the Democratic party.

3) She's dead, Jim.


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