Perspectives on Politics

Articles

Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens

Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page

Abstract

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.

Martin Gilens is Professor of Politics at Princeton University (mgilens@princeton.edu). His research examines representation, 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.

Footnotes

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

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