John A. Viteritti
#Tweet of the Month
Yascha Mounk worries that Americans may be losing faith in government, yet his recent article cites the same misleading research that helped spread undue cynicism about American democracy in 2016.
Mounk repeats the findings of a viral study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page. Its central argument was that “ordinary citizens get what they want from government only when they happen to agree with elites or interest groups that are really calling the shots.” Yet those authors did not report that, in their own data, median-income Americans got what they wanted 47 percent of the time that wealthy elites opposed them.
Crucially, the authors’ model of American politics could explain only about 7 percent of total variation in policy outcomes: Knowing what elites and interest groups wanted didn’t tell us very much about which policies were enacted. Median-income Americans’ favored outcome occurred 30 percent of the time that they faced combined opposition from interest groups and the wealthy; the wealthy got their way 32 percent of the time they were opposed by the other two groups.
Ominous findings about the “near-zero” influence of average Americans came from an improvised statistical approach, but that didn’t stop the authors from making sweeping judgments about democracy.
Mounk suggests that campaign-finance rules and gun laws would be different if average Americans and mass-based interest groups had their way. In the Gilens and Page data set, though, when median-income and rich citizens disagreed on campaign finance, it was the median-income citizens who opposed progressive reform—successfully. In addition, Gilens and Page included the National Rifle Association not in the business-interest-group category but rather in the mass-based-interest-group category, which their statistics then found to be weak overall.
Americans should know that pressing moral concerns such as inequality can be addressed through political participation, especially when the modern GOP does not control every branch of government. Policy outcomes are more unpredictable than we’ve been led to believe. Unrigging the economy is up to us, and there’s reason to hope.
Omar S. Bashir
Yascha Mounk responds:
With few exceptions, there are two kinds of social-science studies: ones that are beyond reproach yet demonstrate something uninteresting we already knew, and ones that find something noteworthy but are open to methodological criticism. As I note in my article, the study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page falls into the second category. That’s why it has provoked a lively debate about the degree to which our political institutions are responsive to popular views. The answer is not yet settled—and, as Omar S. Bashir rightly notes, it depends in part on what we do. For all the ways in which the political system is slanted in favor of the rich, ordinary Americans retain real political agency. In my own work, I have gone to considerable lengths to show how they can use it.
“ ‘We Can’t Make Our Elections About Being Against Trump’ ” (April) misspelled the name of Arthur Lesemann, a lawyer and activist in Bergen County, N.J. We regret the error.
To contribute to The Conversation, please email email@example.com. Include your full name, city, and state.