Who rules America?

"The public be damned!"
— William H. Vanderbilt, railroad magnate, 1882 

A shattering new study by two political science professors has found that ordinary Americans have virtually no impact whatsoever on the making of national policy in our country. The analysts found that rich individuals and business-controlled interest groups largely shape policy outcomes in the United States.

This study should be a loud wake-up call to the vast majority of Americans who are bypassed by their government. To reclaim the promise of American democracy, ordinary citizens must act positively to change the relationship between the people and our government

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The new study, with the jaw-clenching title of "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens," is forthcoming in the fall 2014 edition of Perspectives on Politics. Its authors, Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, examined survey data on 1,779 national policy issues for which they could gauge the preferences of average citizens, economic elites, mass-based interest groups and business-dominated interest groups. They used statistical methods to determine the influence of each of these four groups on policy outcomes, including both policies that are adopted and rejected.

The analysts found that when controlling for the power of economic elites and organized interest groups, the influence of ordinary Americans registers at a "non-significant, near-zero level." The analysts further discovered that rich individuals and business-dominated interest groups dominate the policymaking process. The mass-based interest groups had minimal influence compared to the business-based interest groups.

The study also debunks the notion that the policy preferences of business and the rich reflect the views of common citizens. They found to the contrary that such preferences often sharply diverge and when they do, the economic elites and business interests almost always win and the ordinary Americans lose.

The authors also say that given limitations to tapping into the full power elite in America and their policy preferences, "the real world impact of elites upon public policy may be still greater" than their findings indicate.

Ultimately, Gilens and Page conclude from their work, "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."

Rich individuals and business interests have the capacity to hire the lobbyists that shadow legislators in Washington and to fill the campaign coffers of political candidates. Ordinary citizens are themselves partly to blame, however, because they do not choose to vote.

America's turnout rate places us near the bottom of industrialized democracies. More than 90 million eligible Americans did not vote in the presidential election of 2012 and more than 120 million did not vote in the midterm elections of 2010.

Electoral turnout in the United States is highly correlated with economic standing: The more affluent Americans vote in much higher proportion than the less affluent. A study by Ellen Shearer of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern found that 59 percent of 2012 voters earned $50,000 or more per year, compared to 39 percent of non-voters. Only 12 percent of non-voters earned more than $75,000, compared to 31 percent of voters.

Ordinary citizens in recent decades have largely abandoned their participation in grassroots movements. Politicians respond to the mass mobilization of everyday Americans as proven by the civil rights and women's movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But no comparable movements exist today. Without a substantial presence on the ground, people-oriented interest groups cannot compete against their wealthy adversaries.

Average Americans also have failed to deploy the political techniques used by elites. Political Action Committees (PACs) and super-PACs, for example, raise large sums of money to sway the outcome of any election in the United States. Although average Americans cannot match the economic power of the rich, large numbers of modest contributions can still finance PACs and super-PACs that advance our common interests.

If only they vote and organize, ordinary Americans can reclaim American democracy and challenge the politicians who still echo the view of old Vanderbilt that the public should be damned.

Lichtman is distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington.