If the quality of democracy is to be measured by the extent to which it constrains the economically dominant, then American democracy is failing, writes George Tyler. Recent research has shown how campaign financing is skewing policy influence towards top earners. This is in contrast to many northern European countries, which can offer practical models for the US to follow.
Aristotle measured the quality of democracy by the extent to which politics constrains the economically powerful, allowing the preferences of the landless to be reflected in public policy. According to a new analysis, American democracy gets a failing grade on Aristotle’s test while the countries of northern Europe are star pupils.
Path-breaking recent research has established a causal relationship between preferences of elite earners and public policy outcomes: the income bias. Aristotle’s maxim in the context of the US is the precise hypothesis that Benjamin Page at Northwestern and Martin Gilens of Princeton tested in research. Some 1,779 contentious Congressional votes over two decades were matched with contemporaneous US public opinion surveys. The survey data were parsed by respondent incomes into low (tenth percentile of family income), fiftieth percentile and ninetieth percentile silos.
Gilens and Page documented affluence dominance, finding a “total failure” of middle income voters to influence Congressional policy outcomes. For instance, as the share of top earners favoring a particular policy rises from 10 percent to 90 percent, the odds of that outcome occurring increases by 45 percentage points. In contrast, as the share of supportive middle income earners rises from 10 percent to 90 percent, its odds of enactment improve by less than 4 percentage points.
The melding of political and economic influence documented by Gilens and Page has placed America on the pathway described by Oxford’s Stein Ringen: “In Athens, democracy disintegrated when the rich grew super-rich, refused to play by the rules and undermined the established system of government. “
Pay-to-play is the pathology at the center of America’s low quality democracy. In pursuit of campaign contributions, the Republican Party in particular has succumbed to the income divergence agenda of the nation’s conservative political donor class – low, regressive taxes, wage suppression and fewer public goods. Hobbled by that party’s opposition, the Obama administration made little effort to restore real wage growth, reverse eroding social mobility and the like – and frustrated non-college white voters in America’s Rust Belt repaid the Democratic Party in kind in 2016.
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Donor class support of their Republican acolytes was more responsible than the Russians for the 2016 election pathologies that delegitimized US democracy. Nine-digit spending by the Koch brothers was channeled into mendacious personal attacks on opponents and baseless attacks on mainstream factual reporting. The billionaire Mercer family is singlehandedly responsible for the emergence of the incendiary Breitbart website. And both Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and the mammoth far-right Sinclair conglomerate of 173 television stations lavished billions of dollars worth of fables lauding Republicans and demonizing opponents.
The outcome is the most polarized American electorate in five generations since the Civil War. More believe the mainstream press is their enemy than trust it. Surveys by Transparency International find that Americans now have less confidence than Europeans in legislative and judicial institutions. Worse, fewer than half of Americans believe it’s “absolutely important to live in a democracy;” the share rejecting democracy is more than double the share in Northern Europe. And one-third of Americans have come of late to support “a strong leader who doesn’t bother with Congress or elections.”