In a simple model of democratic politics, there are three basic drivers of political decisionmaking:
- The collective opinion of average citizens
- The collective opinion of the affluent
- The lobbying of interest groups
But which of these really matter? Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page studied 1,779 policy outcomes over two decades and came to a pretty simple conclusion: the collective opinion of average citizens doesn’t matter a whit:
When the preferences of interest groups and the affluent are held constant, it just doesn’t matter what average folks think about a policy proposal. When average citizens are opposed, there’s a 30 percent chance of passage. When average citizens are wildly in favor, there’s still only a 30 percent chance of passage. Conversely, the odds of passage go from zero when most of the affluent are opposed to more than 50 percent when most of the affluent are in favor.
Interest group lobbying, it turns out, also has an effect on policymaking—but business interest groups matter a lot more than mass interest groups. This comes via John Sides, who has much more detail about the study here. But none of it should come as a surprise. We’ve seen plenty of results like this before.