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John Hoffmire: Monied interests and democracy

Published: Monday, Sept. 1 2014 6:39 p.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, Sept. 1 2014 6:39 p.m. MDT

In this Oct. 16, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left, and President Barack Obama spar during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Over $2 billion was donated to the U.S. presidential candidates in the 2012 election.

Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

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Over $2 billion was donated to the U.S. presidential candidates in the 2012 election. After the donations had come in and most of the money had been spent, nearly 60 percent of eligible voters in the United States turned out on Election Day to cast their ballots in the presidential race. Open elections are ways that the people have a voice in the political direction of the country.

Once politicians are in office, some voters and non-voters alike seek to influence policy through various means of communication with elected officials. However, when it comes to influencing politicians, a recent study shows that not all constituents are created equal.

Professors at Northwestern and Princeton found that policy decisions are often guided by the opinions of the wealthiest Americans rather than the voice of the majority. Professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page studied how support from various types of constituents influenced whether a bill became law or not.

The authors studied the influence of four main groups on the outcomes of policy decisions: average citizens, economic elites, business-based interest groups and mass-based interest groups. The study included 1,800 bills over a 20-year span from 1982 to 2002. They found that when wealthy individuals and elite support groups were behind a bill, it had a 45 percent chance of becoming law. When this same group of people opposed a bill, it had an 18 percent chance of success.

The findings, published this year, certainly cast doubt on the purity of our form of democracy. “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,” Gilens and Page wrote in the study.

This may come as no surprise to critics of the political system in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses around the country. Allegations are constantly surfacing suggesting that lawmakers and elected officials stand to be re-elected when they support policies that cater to the interests of wealthy constituents. This may indeed be true in many cases.

Alternatively, it may be the case that politicians value the opinions of the business community and the wealthy over the opinions of the masses. Either way, the voice of many is drowned out by money or by those with money.

Looking forward, it seems the individuals who are now wealthy will likely stay wealthy as the richest of Americans have enjoyed much of the wealth growth since the Great Recession. The opinions of middle- and lower-income people seem to have less influence than those of the wealthy and business-friendly support groups.

On the other hand, there may be some other news to come. Diverse groups are gaining better tools than ever before in the history of America to let their voices be heard.

Since the study period concluded in 2002, social media has developed and granted voters new access to politicians and a magnified voice to express opinions in a way that has a ripple effect across the entire country.

While the effects of social media interactions certainly have not decreased the amount of money being spent to influence political issues, there may be hope that technological developments will increase the sphere of influence of regular people and create, to a certain level, a more pure form of democracy.

We might also hold on to hope that higher-income people and business interests might use their influence to do what is best for the country. Some will doubt my sincerity as I express some confidence that this is possible. I would acknowledge that much needs to done before those with the most influence will be perceived as acting in the best interest of the majority who live in the U.S.

Similarly, I would challenge the majority, who are not wealthy, to put the same foot forward. There are policies that are good for all.

John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Adam Turville, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.

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