Listening to the People

I am grateful to the commentators for their thoughtful responses. Since I can’t address all of their insights and critiques, I will concentrate on two broad questions they raise: Is policy responsiveness to the preferences of the public an adequate, or even desirable, criterion for assessing the quality of democracy? And what remedies exist to redress representational inequality?

A number of the commentators question whether the fit between government policy and the preferences of the governed is a useful measurement. Larry Bartels, Barbara Sinclair, and Nancy Rosenblum all note that public policies are often complex and the public frequently seems to lack the knowledge, the wisdom, or even the interest, to form preferences that genuinely reflect their own interests and values. In addition elites may seek to manipulate public preferences with emotional appeals or misinformation (Bartels cites the buildup to the Iraq war, Mark Schmitt the Bush tax cuts).

My stance is not that the public is always right, or that policymakers should blindly follow public preferences. As I note in my essay, the public is not a perfect guardian of its own interests, but it is arguably a better guardian than any feasible alternative. Reasonable observers may disagree about exactly how strong a role public opinion should play, but a government that ignores most of the public most of the time, and responds dramatically more to the affluent than to the middle class or the poor, has but a tenuous claim to democratic legitimacy.

The Bush tax cuts—mentioned by a number of commentators—seem like a challenge to the notion that ordinary citizens are able to guide policy in ways that advance their own interests. Most of the tax benefits went to the affluent, yet support was strong even among the poorest Americans. Was the public tricked into supporting a policy that they would have rejected if aware of its true nature? The evidence suggests otherwise.

First, the very modest savings that the Bush tax cuts bestowed on low-income Americans may not have looked so modest to them. According to a Congressional Budget Office study, the cuts saved those in the bottom income quintile 1.9 percent of their pretax income, a greater savings, on a percentage basis, than that enjoyed by any other income quintile. Moreover, surveys showed that most Americans were hardly bamboozled: they expected their own tax savings to be modest and believed that the rich would benefit most from the proposed cuts.

Perhaps less well off Americans did not sufficiently appreciate the impact the Bush tax cuts would have on services they valued. As Rosenblum and Sinclair point out, policies may be too complex or involve complicated tradeoffs that the public is unlikely to appreciate. Surely we would not want the public to weigh in on every detail of government policy.

But policies rarely have an objectively best form, and the tradeoffs involved typically pit the interests, values, or preferences of one group against those of another. Matthew Yglesias’s analogy of government policymaking to plumbing repair might aptly describe a small subset of policy goals on which Americans agree (such as lowering the crime rate or cleaning up the water supply). But most polices involve non-consensual values or goals, and even widely embraced goals require decisions about how to allocate scarce resources.

A democracy that ignores most of the public most of the time has a tenuous claim to legitimacy.

Most observers will agree that there are occasions when the public’s preferences should be disregarded in the better interests of the country. But the problem is that observers rarely agree about what those occasions are. I would not welcome many of the changes that would accompany stronger and more equal policy responsiveness to public opinion—more restrictive abortion policy, less foreign aid, tighter immigration laws, more protectionist trade policy. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be more democratic. In Churchill’s oft-quoted words, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Reducing representational inequality would not solve all of America’s problems, and it might well create some new ones. But it would help to reverse the shift of power and resources toward the most advantaged Americans that has occurred over the past few decades.

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The representational inequality I document is severe, and the interests at stake are enormous. No single fix is likely to bring government policy in line with the preferences of the public. The commentators emphasize different aspects of the problem and suggest different sorts of solutions.

I much admire Kay Schlozman’s research on interest organizations, but I don’t believe they account for the lack of government responsiveness to the less well off. Schlozman has convincingly documented the dominance of corporate interests and the lack of groups advocating for the poor. But corporate interests aren’t necessarily against the poor either. As a broad generalization, they tend to purse lower taxes and less regulation (positions more popular among the affluent) but also increased government spending (more popular among the middle class and the poor). Industries lobby for their own interests, but when those interests include more government spending on urban development, health care, education, or transportation, the poor benefit as well. Lobbying frequently involves building coalitions, and organizations concerned with the less well off can advance their goals by partnering with corporations and business lobbies on a case-by-case basis.

The commentators suggest a wide range of reform efforts. Senator Russ Feingold stresses the role of corporate money in pushing both parties toward financial deregulation and free trade and warns of a “Gilded Age on steroids” ushered in by Citizens United unless we can achieve meaningful changes to campaign finance. Archon Fung similarly identifies campaign finance reform as an important element of any effort to broaden the influence of the less well off, but he also emphasizes the agency that the poor and the middle class might acquire through “lasting popular organizations” that can exert countervailing power against that of the affluent. Michael Gecan underscores the role that less advantaged Americans already play in shaping policy outcomes at the state and local levels. And Rosenblum argues that a reformulated Democratic Party constituency—centered on the young, the non-white, and the less well off—could resolve the current vexed condition in which both parties’ constituencies are built around their donor classes, as Schmitt notes.

All of these elements of democratic reform are important and none is likely to succeed without the others. Without campaign finance reform, a party constituency built around the less well off stands little chance of success. Successful policy change efforts at any level (federal, state, or local) will have to engage with the political parties. Citizens’ groups can have enormous impacts on public policy by generating political pressure, shifting the public agenda, and shaping how Americans understand their society and their fellow citizens. But these gains are only consolidated when they become incorporated into partisan coalitions.

The obstacles to enhancing representational equality in America are considerable, both because political reform is always hard to achieve and because economic resources and the political influence that accompanies them continue to shift toward the already advantaged. But as John Ferejohn points out, most of the top 10 percent have more interests in common with the bottom 90 percent than with the top 1 percent. If enough Americans come to see that current arrangements favor the privileged few, change is possible.