Under the Influence: Politicians Listen to Money. What Can Make Them Stop?
Democracy requires that all citizens—rich and poor alike—have influence over the policies their government adopts. Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect everyone to have equal sway. Citizens differ not only in economic resources but also in time, knowledge, and interest in social and political affairs. Still, when influence becomes too skewed toward the affluent, when political power becomes too concentrated in the hands of a few, democracy itself is threatened.
If you accept those basic premises, then you have good reason to be worried about American democracy. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to after studying the relationship between public policy and public preferences as revealed in responses to thousands of questions from national surveys conducted between 1964 and 2006. If you judge how much say people have—their influence over policy—by the match between their policy preferences and subsequent policy outcomes, then American citizens are vastly unequal in their influence over policymaking, and that inequality is growing. In most circumstances, affluent Americans exert substantial influence over the policies adopted by the federal government, and less well off Americans exert virtually none. Even when Democrats control Congress and the White House, the less well off are no more influential.
The one bright spot in this unhappy tale of unequal influence is that political competition increases the responsiveness of policymakers to the views of the public and generates policies that more equally reflect the preferences of all Americans. When elections are near and when control of the government is divided or uncertain, parties broaden their appeal, and influence becomes more equal. So the core elements of democratic government—electoral competition and partisan rivalry—force policymakers to take public preferences more fully into account.