help homework help homework Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page Each o

help homework help homework Testing Theories of American Politics:
Elites, Interest Groups, and Average
Citizens
Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page

Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics—which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian
Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination, and two types of interest-group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased
Pluralism—offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens;
economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.
A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been
possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. We report on an effort
to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial
independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no
independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of
Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

W
ho governs? Who really rules? To what extent is
the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi-
sovereign, or largely powerless? These questions

have animated much important work in the study of
American politics.

While this body of research is rich and variegated, it can
loosely be divided into four families of theories: Majoritarian

Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination, and two
types of interest-group pluralism—Majoritarian Pluralism,
in which the interests of all citizens are more or less equally
represented, and Biased Pluralism, in which corporations,
business associations, and professional groups predominate.
Each of these perspectives makes different predictions about
the independent influence upon U.S. policy making of four
sets of actors: the Average Citizen or “median voter,” Economic
Elites, and Mass-based or Business-oriented Interest Groups or
industries.
Each of these theoretical traditions has given rise to

a large body of literature. Each is supported by a great
deal of empirical evidence—some of it quantitative,
some historical, some observational—concerning the
importance of various sets of actors (or, all too often,
a single set of actors) in U.S. policy making. This
literature has made important contributions to our
understanding of how American politics works and
has helped illuminate how democratic or undemocratic
(in various senses) our policy making process actually is.
Until very recently, however, it has been impossible to
test the differing predictions of these theories against
each other within a single statistical model that permits
one to analyze the independent effects of each set of
actors upon policy outcomes.
Here—in a tentative and preliminary way—we offer such

a test, bringing a unique data set to bear on the problem. Our
measures are far from perfect, but we hope that this first step

A permanent link to supplementary materials provided by
the authors precedes the References section.

Martin Gilens is Professor of Politics at Princeton University
(mgilens@princeton.edu). His research examines representa-
tion, public opinion, and mass media, especially in relation
to inequality and public policy. Professor Gilens is the author
of Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and
Political Power in America (2012, Princeton University
Press). Benjamin I. Page is Gordon S. Fulcher Professor of
Decision Making at Northwestern University (b-page@-
northwestern.edu). His research interests include public
opinion, policy making, the mass media, and U.S. foreign
policy. He is currently engaged in a large collaborative project
to study Economically Successful Americans and the Common
Good. For helpful comments the authors are indebted to Larry
Bartels and Jeff Isaac, to the anonymous reviewers from
Perspectives on Politics, and to seminar participants at
Harvard University and the University of Rochester.

564 Perspectives on Politics
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© American Political Science Association 2014

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will help inspire further research into what we see as some of
the most fundamental questions about American politics.
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. Our results provide substantial support for
theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories
of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian
Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.
In what follows, we briefly review the four theoretical

traditions that form the framework for our analyses and
highlight some of the most prominent empirical research
associated with each. We then describe our data and
measures and present our results. We conclude by
discussing the implications of our work for understanding
American democracy and by identifying some of the
directions for future research that our findings suggest.

Four Theoretical Traditions
Each of the four theoretical traditions we are addressing
has produced a body of literature much too vast to review
in detail here. We can only allude to a few central pieces
of work in each tradition. And we must acknowledge that
a particular scholar’s work does not always fall neatly into a
single category. Some scholars work across—or indepen-
dently of—our theoretical categories, embracing multiple
influences and complex processes of policy making. Here
we focus on ideal types of theory, for the purpose of
outlining certain distinctive predictions that those types of
theory tend to make. Given the nature of our data, we focus
on the societal sources of influence that these theories posit,
rather than on the mechanisms of influence that they discuss.

Majoritarian Electoral Democracy
Theories of majoritarian electoral democracy, as positive or
empirical theories, attribute U.S. government policies
chiefly to the collective will of average citizens, who are
seen as empowered by democratic elections. Such thinking
goes back at least to Tocqueville, who (during the
Jacksonian era) saw American majorities as “omnipo-
tent”—particularly at the state level—and worried about
“tyranny of the majority.”1 It is encapsulated in Abraham
Lincoln’s reference to government “of the people, by the
people, for the people,” and was labeled by Robert Dahl
“populistic democracy.”2

An important modern incarnation of this tradition is
found in rational choice theories of electoral democracy, in
which vote-seeking parties or candidates in a two-party
system tend to converge at the mid-point of citizens’ policy
preferences. If preferences are jointly single-peaked so that
they can be arrayed along a single dimension, the “median
voter theorem”—posited verbally by Harold Hotelling,
proved by Duncan Black, and popularized by Anthony

Downs in his Economic Theory of Democracy—states that
two vote-seeking parties will both take the same position, at
the center of the distribution of voters’ most-preferred
positions. Under the relevant assumptions, public policy
that fits the preferences of the median voter is not only the
empirically-predicted equilibrium result of two-party elec-
toral competition; as the “Condorcet winner” it also has the
normative property of being the “most democratic” policy,
in the sense that it would be preferred to any alternative
policy in head-to-head majority-rule voting by all citizens.3

Subsequent “chaos” results by social choice theorists,
starting with Kenneth Arrow, have indicated that the
median voter prediction follows logically only for unidi-
mensional politics. If citizens’ preference orderings are
not unidimensional and are sufficiently diverse, majority
rule—hence also two-party electoral competition—might
not lead to any equilibrium outcome at all.4 It is important
to note, however, that what might theoretically happen will
not necessarily ever happen in practice. Real-world out-
comes depend upon how institutions are organized and
how preferences are actually configured.

Despite the “chaos” results, and despite many criticisms
of the median-voter theorem as simplistic and empirically
inapplicable or wrong,5 a good many scholars—probably
more economists than political scientists among them—
still cling to the idea that the policy preferences of the
median voter tend to drive policy outputs from the U.S.
political system. A fair amount of empirical evidence has
been adduced—by Alan Monroe; Benjamin Page and
Robert Shapiro; Robert Erikson, Michael MacKuen, and
James Stimson (authors of the very influential Macro
Polity); and others—that seems to support the notion that
the median voter determines the results of much or most
policy making. This evidence indicates that U.S. federal
government policy is consistent with majority preferences
roughly two-thirds of the time; that public policy changes
in the same direction as collective preferences a similar
two-thirds of the time; that the liberalism or conservatism
of citizens is closely associated with the liberalism or
conservatism of policy across states; and that fluctuations
in the liberal or conservative “mood” of the public are
strongly associated with changes in the liberalism or
conservatism of policy in all three branches of govern-
ment.6

The fly in the ointment is that none of this evidence
allows for, or explicitly assesses, the impact of such
variables as the preferences of wealthy individuals, or
the preferences and actions of organized interest groups,
which may independently influence public policy while
perhaps being positively associated with public opinion—
thereby producing a spurious statistical relationship
between opinion and policy.

Recent research by Larry Bartels and by one of the
present authors (Gilens), which explicitly brings the
preferences of “affluent” Americans into the analysis along

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with the preferences of those lower in the income
distribution, indicates that the apparent connection be-
tween public policy and the preferences of the average
citizen may indeed be largely or entirely spurious.7

The “electoral reward and punishment” version of
democratic control through elections—in which voters
retrospectively judge how well the results of government
policy have satisfied their basic interests and values, and
politicians enact policies in anticipation of judgments that
they expect will later be made by what V.O. Key, Jr., called
“latent” public opinion—might be thought to offer
a different prediction: that policy will tend to satisfy
citizens’ underlying needs and values, rather than corre-
sponding with their current policy preferences.8 We
cannot test this prediction because we do not have—and
cannot easily imagine how to obtain—good data on
individuals’ deep, underlying interests or values, as
opposed to their expressed policy preferences. But the
evidence that collective policy preferences are generally
rather stable over time suggests that expressed collective
policy preferences may not often diverge markedly from
subsequently manifested “latent” preferences. They may
do so only under special circumstances, such as economic
recessions or disastrous wars.9 If so, the electoral-reward-
and-punishment type of democratic theory, too, predicts
that most of the time public policy will respond to the
current policy preferences of the average citizen.

Economic-Elite Domination
A quite different theoretical tradition argues that U.S.
policy making is dominated by individuals who have
substantial economic resources, i.e., high levels of income
or wealth—including, but not limited to, ownership of
business firms.

Not all “elite theories” share this focus. Some emphasize
social status or institutional position—such as the occu-
pancy of key managerial roles in corporations, or top-level
positions in political parties, in the executive, legislative, or
judicial branches of government, or in the highest ranks of
the military. Some elite theories postulate an amalgam of
elites, defined by combinations of social status, economic
resources, and institutional positions, who achieve a degree
of unity through common backgrounds, coinciding inter-
ests, and social interactions.

For example, C. Wright Mills’ important book,
The Power Elite, offers a rather nuanced account of how
U.S. social, economic, political, and military elites have
historically alternated in different configurations of domi-
nance. Mills noted that his elites derived in substantial
proportions from the upper classes, including the very rich
and corporate executives, but their elite status was not
defined by their wealth.10 Our focus here is on theories that
emphasize the policy-making importance of economic elites.

Analyses of U.S. politics centered on economic elites
go back at least to Charles Beard, who maintained that

a chief aim of the framers of the U.S. Constitution was to
protect private property, favoring the economic interests
of wealthy merchants and plantation owners rather than
the interests of the then-majority small farmers, laborers,
and craft workers. A landmark work in this tradition is
G. William Domhoff ’s detailed account of how elites
(working through foundations, think-tanks, and an “opinion-
shaping apparatus,” as well as through the lobbyists and
politicians they finance) may dominate key issues in U.S.
policy making despite the existence of democratic elections.
Philip A. Burch has exhaustively chronicled the economic
backgrounds of federal government officials through
American history. Thomas Ferguson’s analysis of the
political importance of “major investors” might be seen as
a theory of economic elites. Most recently, Jeffrey
Winters has posited a comparative theory of “Oligarchy,”
in which the wealthiest citizens—even in a “civil oligarchy”
like the United States—dominate policy concerning crucial
issues of wealth and income protection.11

Our third and fourth theoretical traditions posit that
public policy generally reflects the outcome of struggle
among organized interest groups and business firms.12

Majoritarian Pluralism
The roots of what we can characterize as theories of
“majoritarian” interest-group pluralism go back to James
Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10, which analyzed politics
in terms of “factions”—a somewhat fuzzy concept that
apparently encompassed political parties and even popular
majorities, as well as what we would today consider organized
interest groups, business firms, and industrial sectors. Madison
argued that struggles among the diverse factions that would be
found in an extensive republic would lead to policies more or
less representative of the needs and interests of the citizenry as
a whole—or at least would tend to defeat “tyrannical” policies,
including the much-feared issuance of inflationary paper
money that might cater to local majority factions of farmer-
debtors but would be costly to merchant creditors.13

In the twentieth century, Arthur Bentley’s The Process
of Government and then David Truman’s monumental
The Governmental Process put groups at the center of
political analysis, laying out a detailed picture of how
organized interest groups might get their way. Truman
offered a comprehensive and still-interesting catalogue of
lobbying techniques and other methods of group in-
fluence. He also added an ingenious gloss to Madison
that tends to increase both the plausibility and the
normative appeal of majoritarian interest-group pluralism:
the assertion that all interests have at least a minimum of
influence in group-dominated policy making, because
policy makers must (in order to avoid subsequent punish-
ment) heed all “potential” groups that would form if their
interests were trampled upon.14

Robert Dahl’s analysis of New Haven city politics was
Madisonian or Truman-like in its insistence that many

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(all?) diverse interests were represented, though Dahl
focused as much on active members of the general public
as on organized groups. Dahl’s analyses of American
politics in terms of “polyarchy” or “pluralist democracy”
also come close to our ideal type of majoritarian pluralist
theory, since they imply that the wants or needs of the
average citizen tend to be reasonably well served by the
outcomes of interest-group struggle. Several contemporary
analysts of interest-group politics likewise appear to accept
(at least implicitly) a picture of group struggle that results
in more or less majoritarian results.15

A major challenge to majoritarian pluralist theories,
however, is posed by Mancur Olson’s argument that
collective action by large, dispersed sets of individuals with
individually small but collectively large interests tends to
be prevented by the “free rider” problem. Barring special
circumstances (selective incentives, byproducts, coercion),
individuals who would benefit from collective action may
have no incentive to personally form or join an organized
group. If everyone thinks this way and lets George do it,
the job is not likely to get done. This reasoning suggests
that Truman’s “potential groups” may in fact be unlikely
to form, even if millions of peoples’ interests are neglected
or harmed by government. Aware of the collective action
problem, officials may feel free to ignore much of the
population and act against the interests of the average
citizen.16

Biased Pluralism
Olson’s argument points toward an important variant line
of thinking within the pluralist tradition: theories of
“biased ” pluralism, which posit struggles among an un-
representative universe of interest groups—characterized
by E.E. Schattschneider as a heavenly chorus with an
“upper-class accent,” and more recently dubbed by Kay
Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry Brady an
“unheavenly chorus.” Theories of biased pluralism gener-
ally argue that both the thrust of interest-group conflict
and the public policies that result tend to tilt toward the
wishes of corporations and business and professional
associations.17

Schattschneider suggested that policy outcomes vary
with the “scope of conflict”: for example, that business-
oriented interest groups tend to prevail over ordinary
citizens when the scope is narrow and visibility is low.
Grant McConnell added the idea that the actual
“constituencies” of policy implementers can consist of
powerful groups. George Stigler (articulating what some
economists have scorned as “Chicago Marxism”) analyzed
the politics of regulation in terms of biased pluralism: the
capture of regulators by the regulated. Charles Lindblom
outlined a number of ways—including the “privileged
position” of business—in which business firms and their
associations influence public policy. Thomas Ferguson has
posited an “investment theory” of politics in which “major

investors”—especially representatives of particular indus-
trial sectors—fund political parties in order to get
policies that suit their economic interests. Fred Block’s
“neo-Polanyian” analysis emphasizes groups. Jacob Hacker
and Paul Pierson’s analysis of “winner-take-all-politics,”
which emphasizes the power of the finance industry, can
be seen as a recent contribution to the literature of biased
pluralism.18

Marxist and neo-Marxist theories of the capitalist state
hold that economic classes—and particularly the bour-
geoisie, the owners of the means of production—dominate
policy making and cause the state to serve their
material interests. As the Communist Manifesto put it,
“The bourgeoisie has . . . conquered for itself, in the
modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The
executive of the modern State is but a committee for
managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”19

We cannot precisely test the predictions of such theories,
because we lack good measures of policy preferences by
economic class. (In Marxist theory, neither income nor
wealth accurately signals class position.) We can note,
however, that certain “instrumentalist” Marxist theories,
including the important version put forth by Ralph
Miliband, make predictions resembling those of theories
of Biased Pluralism: that interest groups and corporations
representing “large scale business” tend to prevail.20

As to empirical evidence concerning interest groups, it
is well established that organized groups regularly lobby
and fraternize with public officials, move through
revolving doors between public and private employment,
provide self-serving information to officials, draft leg-
islation, and spend a great deal of money on election
campaigns.21 Moreover, in harmony with theories of
biased pluralism, the evidence clearly indicates that most
interest groups and lobbyists represent business firms or
professionals. Relatively few represent the poor or even the
economic interests of ordinary workers, particularly now
that the U.S. labor movement has become so weak.22

But do interest groups actually influence policy?
Numerous case studies have detailed instances in which
all but the most dedicated skeptic is likely to perceive
interest-group influence at work. A leading classic
remains Schattschneider’s analysis of the 1928 enactment
of the Smoot-Hawley tariff, an astounding orgy of pork-
barrel politics.23 Still, many quantitatively-oriented political
scientists seem to ignore or dismiss such non-quantitative
evidence. There have also been some efforts (particularly
during the Cold War era, when unflattering depictions of
U.S. politics may have been thought unpatriotic) to
demonstrate that interest groups have no influence on
policy at all. Raymond Bauer, Ithiel Pool, and Lewis
Anthony Dexter argued that business had little or no effect
on the renewal of reciprocal trade authority. Lester
Milbrath, having conducted interviews with lobbyists and
members of Congress, rated lobbyists’ influence as very low.

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More recently, Fred McChesney has made the ingenious
argument that campaign contributions from interest groups
may not represent quid pro quo bribery attempts by groups,
but instead result from extortion by politicians who threaten
to harm the groups’ interests.24

Very few studies have offered quantitative evidence
concerning the impact of interest groups based on
a number of different public policies. Important excep-
tions include the work of Mark Smith and that of
Frank Baumgartner, Jeffrey Berry, Marie Hojnacki,
David Kimball, and Beth Leech.25

Mark Smith examined 2,364 “business unity” issues—
over a period of four decades—on which the U.S. Chamber
of Commerce (arguably a reasonable proxy for business
groups as a whole, on this particular set of issues where most
businesses agreed) took a public stand for or against. He then
calculated six measures of the Chamber’s annual rate of
“success” at getting the action or inaction it favored from
Congress.26 The Chamber’s average success rate in terms of
proportion of bills enacted or defeated appears to have been
fairly high,27 but Smith did not argue that such success
necessarily demonstrates influence. (A batting-average
approach to influence would have to assume that stand-
taking is unrelated to expectations of success. Further, in
order to gauge business’s independent impact and avoid
spurious results, data on stands taken by other actors would
need to be included as well.) Instead, Smith devoted most of
his effort to analyzing the over-time correlates of high or low
success, such as variations in the public “mood” and in the
partisan composition of Congress.

Frank Baumgartner and his colleagues, in their metic-
ulous examination of 98 cases of congressional policy
making in which interest groups were active, investigated
whether the magnitude of group resources that were
deployed was related to outcomes across those cases. In
their multivariate analyses, Baumgartner et al. found
a modest tendency for policy outcomes to favor the side
that enjoyed greater resources (PAC contributions, lob-
bying expenditures, membership size, etc.).28

Prior to the availability of the data set that we analyze
here, no one we are aware of has succeeded at assessing
interest-group influence over a comprehensive set of
issues, while taking into account the impact of either
the public at large or economic elites—let alone analyzing
all three types of potential influences simultaneously.

Testing Theoretical Predictions
What makes possible an empirical effort of this sort is the
existence of a unique data set, compiled over many years
by one of us (Gilens) for a different but related purpose:
for estimating the influence upon public policy of
“affluent” citizens, poor citizens, and those in the middle
of the income distribution.

Gilens and a small army of research assistants29

gathered data on a large, diverse set of policy cases:

1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 in which
a national survey of the general public asked a favor/
oppose question about a proposed policy change. A total of
1,923 cases met four criteria: dichotomous pro/con
responses, specificity about policy, relevance to federal
government decisions, and categorical rather than condi-
tional phrasing. Of those 1,923 original cases, 1,779 cases
also met the criteria of providing income breakdowns for
respondents, not involving a Constitutional amendment
or a Supreme Court ruling (which might entail a quite
different policy-making process), and involving a clear, as
opposed to partial or ambiguous, actual presence or
absence of policy change. These 1,779 cases do not
constitute a sample from the universe of all possible policy
alternatives (this is hardly conceivable), but we see them as
particularly relevant to assessing the public’s influence on
policy. The included policies are not restricted to the narrow
Washington “policy agenda.” At the same time—since they
were seen as worth asking poll questions about—they tend
to concern matters of relatively high salience, about which it
is plausible that average citizens may have real opinions and
may exert some political influence.30

For each case, Gilens used the original survey data to
assess responses by income level. In order to cope with
varying income categories across surveys, he employed
a quadratic logistic regression technique to estimate the
opinions of respondents at the tenth income percentile
(quite poor), the fiftieth percentile (median), and the
ninetieth percentile (fairly affluent).31

Here we use these policy preference data to measure—
imperfectly, but, we believe, satisfactorily—two indepen-
dent variables posited as major influences upon policy
making in the theoretical traditions discussed above.
Policy preferences at the fiftieth income percentile—

that is, the preferences of the median-income survey
respondent—work quite well as …

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