The Muddled Majority

Martin Gilens paints a very sobering portrait of American democracy, but it may not be sobering enough.

I am predisposed to accept Gilens’s findings, not only because he is an extremely capable and fair-minded scholar—and a friend and former colleague—but also because they track closely with my own, derived from a much more modest investigation of unequal responsiveness by a single political institution, the U.S. Senate.

Nevertheless, a closer look at a few of Gilens’s most significant policy examples underscores some important limitations of his ambitious analysis, and also raises some deeper questions about responsiveness as a normative benchmark. George W. Bush’s first term is a notable bright spot in Gilens’s generally pessimistic account, marked by unusually strong responsiveness to the preferences of affluent, middle-class, and poor Americans alike. But there is less to it than meets the eye.

For example, Gilens writes that Bush’s most important domestic policy initiative, the 2001 tax cut, was “supported by majorities of Americans at all income levels.” But Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have argued that “the size, structure, and distribution of the tax cuts passed in 2001 were directly at odds with majority views.”

Which is it? Well, both. Supporters of the Bush tax cuts clearly outnumbered opponents, often by margins of two-to-one or more. However, opinion surveys provide plenty of evidence that most Americans would have preferred smaller and broader-based tax cuts to the massive, upwardly skewed package adopted by Congress. Policymakers responded selectively to aspects of the public’s complex tax-cutting sentiments that happened to align with their own ideological aims.

The Bush tax cuts also provide a stark reminder of the thinness and confusion of much public opinion, even regarding momentous issues of public policy. The 2002 American National Election Study asked people whether they favored or opposed the 2001 tax cuts, “or is this something you haven’t thought about?” A remarkable 40 percent of the respondents said they hadn’t thought about a policy whose stakes were reckoned by experts in the trillions of dollars. And the views of those who did express opinions were often unconnected—or misconnected—to other plausibly relevant opinions and values, including broad egalitarian ideals, views about the tax burden of the rich, and preferences for additional spending on government programs.

Should we follow public opinion when it is shallow, confused, or misinformed?

The historic expansion of Medicare to provide prescription drugs to seniors was another instance of ambiguous responsiveness. While the basic idea was broadly popular, the Bush administration produced a massive giveaway to insurers by requiring beneficiaries to sign up for private insurance plans, and to drug companies by prohibiting the government from negotiating drug prices. A congressional report found that administrative costs, sales expenses, and profits under the new program were six times higher than under traditional Medicare, while annual drug costs were $10 billion higher than they would have been at Medicaid’s negotiated prices.

The adoption of the prescription drug law was also rife with procedural irregularities. The Bush administration illegally suppressed a government report regarding the program’s likely cost; House Majority Leader Tom DeLay bribed one of his colleagues to support the bill, earning a reprimand from the House Ethics Committee; and the plan’s primary architect, Representative Billy Tauzin, retired from Congress shortly after it passed, and went on to head a drug industry lobbying group at a reported salary of $2 million per year. None of these facts figures in Gilens’s analysis, but they are certainly relevant to assessing the quality of democratic responsiveness in this instance.

Finally, Gilens counts the Iraq War as a responsive policy. However, the Bush administration surely did as much to shape (or misshape) public opinion on the war as it did to respond to it. As Gary Jacobson documents in his book on the Bush presidency, A Divider, Not a Uniter (2007), public support for the war was grounded in two major misconceptions: the plausible but false belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and the much flimsier notion that Saddam Hussein was somehow implicated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Jacobson notes that the administration actively bolstered both of these beliefs as part of its “campaign to drum up public support for a preventive war.”

What are we to conclude from these examples? First, that it is seldom straightforward to classify policies as responsive or unresponsive to public preferences. Second, and Gilens would agree, that even in cases of apparent responsiveness the parties are largely trying to serve the interest groups, wealthy donors, and ideological supporters that comprise their base. And third, that when public opinion is shallow, confused, or misinformed, responsiveness may be no more edifying than unresponsiveness.

These complexities certainly do not contradict Gilens’s key claim that citizens should “have influence over the policies their government adopts.” However, they do suggest that responsiveness is a partial and often problematic standard for assessing the role of citizens’ preferences in democratic policymaking.