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Martin Gilens has lobbed several original and challenging conclusions into the debate about American democracy and citizen participation.
First, in about half of the policy changes he tracked, the difference between the preferences of rich and poor respondents was only 10 percent—a major challenge to those who see the nation as thoroughly and consistently polarized along economic lines. The affluent are more supportive of polices such as an increase in the minimum wage than the class warriors in both camps admit.
Second, both parties are inclined to ignore the public when they can—particularly when one of them rules. And the traditional defenders of the poor and working classes, the Democrats, can be every bit as indifferent to those voters as the Republicans are. Any resident of the struggling neighborhoods of Detroit, Philadelphia, or Cleveland knows this in his or her bones.
Third, gridlock is not necessarily terrible, because it blocks destructive policies as often as productive ones.
My quarrel is not with Gilens’s insights, but rather with the premise of his argument:
If you judge how much say people have—their influence over policy . . . . then American citizens are vastly unequal in their influence over government policymaking, and the inequality is growing.
That is a very big if. Beyond their influence on federal policy, people have their say in many other ways. Focus on what people do—the ways they engage in public life and generate meaningful change. These activities are multiplying; they happen in states and cities and communities, and they have little to do with federal policy.
For example in 2006 then-Governor Mitt Romney signed legislation that fundamentally reformed health care delivery in Massachusetts. He did so after negotiating with Democratic state legislative leaders and powerful organizations from the health care, insurance, and civic sectors.
People generate change regardless of federal policy.
Romney didn’t negotiate alone. Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO)—an Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate in the region—was a central player in these talks.
Thousands of GBIO members—through their engagement with the churches, synagogues, mosques, and other institutions that comprise the institutional base of the group—participated in the effort. Along with coalition partners, GBIO proposed sweeping reforms that informed a statewide ballot initiative. These citizen leaders met with the speaker of the House, the Senate president, the largest health care provider and insurance company in the state, 30 state representatives and one-fourth of the state’s senators. GBIO employed a persistent and sophisticated media strategy that included four influential op-eds in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald, including the only major public critique of Romney’s original market-based proposal.
Without GBIO the reform package either would not have been passed or, if passed, would not have been so successfully implemented. Ninety-eight percent of Massachusetts residents now benefit from health coverage and services. Their basic health indicators have improved significantly. And the added cost to the state has been far below both the dire predictions and continuing distorted claims. The budget increase is about 1.4 percent.
None of this activity meets Gilens’s standard of citizen say. Nor does another estimable Princeton professor, Paul Starr, make a single reference to GBIO or any of its leaders in his book Remedy and Reaction, perhaps the most serious account of this period.
Another example of effective citizen influence outside federal politics can be found in the nearly complete reconstruction of affordable homes and apartments in formerly devastated sections of New York City. Since 1980 approximately 250,000 units have either been built or rehabilitated. Taken as a whole, this is the largest public works project in any American city in recent memory.
That effort was imagined, organized, and driven by a wide range of local and larger organizations: the Community Preservation Corporation; the New York City Housing Partnership; Common Ground; two IAF affiliates, South Bronx Churches and East Brooklyn Congregations; and many others. They pressed the city of New York until it made housing renewal a major priority. Without the organizing, energy, discipline, and capacity of these non-governmental groups, this three-decade-long effort would not have succeeded. Federal policy had little role in it.
Other examples abound. Foundations have experimented in public education (for good and ill) by investing billions in ideas such as new, smaller schools. Civic leaders continue to build their bases through the crucial person-to-person interaction of traditional organizing but are now combining those activities with social media campaigns to accelerate and broaden their impact.
Many Americans and their institutions understand that Washington’s gridlock and polarization inhibit meaningful change. They have come to embrace states, cities, counties, and constituencies as laboratories where engagement is possible and progress can be made. Millions of organized citizens have helped to design innovative responses that they own and champion. And they have the staying power to implement changes, adjusting and improving them as they go along.
This is the very definition of power—the ability to act. None of it gets noticed or measured if we only care about the correlation between voter preferences and federal policy.
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