How the Rich Rule

Widening inequality in the world’s advanced and developing countries inflicts two blows against democratic politics. Not only does it lead to greater disenfranchisement of the middle and lower classes; it also fosters among the elite a poisonous politics of sectarianism.

PRINCETON – It is hardly news that the rich have more political power than the poor, even in democratic countries where everyone gets a single vote in elections. But two political scientists, Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, have recently produced some stark findings for the United States that have dramatic implications for the functioning of democracy – in the US and elsewhere.

The authors’ research builds on prior work by Gilens, who painstakingly collected public-opinion polls on nearly 2,000 policy questions from 1981 to 2002. The pair then examined whether America’s federal government adopted the policy in question within four years of the survey, and tracked how closely the outcome matched the preferences of voters at different points of the income distribution.

When viewed in isolation, the preferences of the “average” voter – that is, a voter in the middle of the income distribution – seem to have a strongly positive influence on the government’s ultimate response. A policy that the average voter would like is significantly more likely to be enacted.

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