Can NH and Iowa Break the Pattern?

Arnie Alpert on April 09, 2015

Research by Martin Gilens finds that the views of ordinary people have had little impact on government policy, while the views of wealthy individuals and the positions of corporate lobbying groups have been reflected in a wide range of political decisions.  That may be true, but we have a chance to break the pattern this year in Iowa and New Hampshire.   

Martin  Gilens at PSU


If the “central characteristic of democracy is responsiveness of government to the interests of citizens,” as Martin Gilens says, then ours is failing miserably.  Gilens, a political science professor at Princeton who has studied the responsiveness of government to public opinion, says his research shows conclusively that the US government responds to the interests of wealthy individuals and corporate lobbies, not to ordinary people. These findings were presented at Plymouth State University on April 7.

He may be right, but we think we have a way to break the pattern.  That’s because the candidates who spend so much time in New Hampshire and Iowa really do have interactions with ordinary people.  In between fundraisers and phone calls to potential donors, the candidates typically mix it up with voters in coffee shops, senior centers, and town halls. 

Gilens, a professor of political science at Princeton, analyzed responses to 1779 survey questions collected from 1981 to 2002 to test whose opinions mattered.  With his co-author, Benjamin Page, Gilens examined the views of average citizens, defined as those at median levels of income, the views of wealthy individuals, and the positions held by the most powerful interest groups (“Most of them are business oriented,” he said.).  Then they looked at the outcomes of policy debates. they found is that the preferences of ordinary people have virtually no impact on policy.  The opinions of wealthy individuals and organized interest groups, however, have a considerable effect. 

“People with resources call the shots and ordinary citizens are bystanders,” he said. 

It’s not a matter of political parties and which one is in power.  If one looks at issues such as trade policy, tax cuts, or financial de-regulation, politicians of both major parties have enacted policies favored by elites.  “Priorities the public expressed are not the priorities of our government,” Gilens said.

Gilens’ research was reported in “Testing Theories of American Politics:  Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” published in 2014 in Perspectives on Politics.   Frequently referred to as “the Princeton study,” the Gilens and Page paper has been used to state the USA is now an oligarchy. 

Not so fast, Gilens says.  Yes, it’s true that ordinary people are largely ignored and that high percentages of the rising amounts of cash flooding the political system come from a relatively small collection of wealthy individuals.  And it’s also true that running and winning elections demands ever larger campaign funds.   But Gilens holds onto hope that a movement like the early 20th century progressives can rise up to challenge the policies of the New Gilded Age.   

That’s the same hope we have in the Governing Under the Influence project.   We know it’s an uphill struggle, but we’ve also seen victories of people’s movements in the decades the followed the Progressive Era.   

“No single reform” will dislodge the corporate elites from their perch at the pinnacle of power, Gilens believes.  But campaign finance reform, lobbying reform, electoral reform, and the rise of civil society and labor groups just might stop the trend toward oligarchy.  That will be “a decade’s long task,” he says.

The decade starts now.  


Arnie Alpert

Arnie Alpert

Arnie Alpert is co-director of the American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire Program, which he has led since 1981.  In that time he has been involved in movements for economic justice and affordable housing, civil and worker rights, peace and disarmament, abolition of the death penalty, and an end to racism and homophobia.