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Elected officials represent top elites

With Congress currently polling at 80 percent disapproval and waves of special interest money flooding politics, many people believe that representative democracy is slowly slipping away, but they are wrong — the republic is already dead.

Political science professors Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University reviewed nearly 1,800 policy proposals between 1981 and 2002 and compared them to the interests of various groups at the time, including the general public and influential elites. Their study concludes that the elite groups had far more sway over policy than the general public.

 “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” the study explains.

The study used a variety of criteria to best determine which groups the policies represented. Each policy proposal had to have clear approval-disapproval polling from the general public during the time of consideration, and each poll needed to measure the income level of respondents. Additionally, each proposal had to reflect a distinct change or reversal of law and had to stand out at the time so that the general public could form a real opinion on each subject. 

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” the study claims.

Income Gains from 1979 to 2010
Alex Ivey / Mainstream

While it may seem easy to segment all of these elites into one large group that controls the country, reality is a little more complex. There is a pluralism of these groups with a variety of competing self-interests in government.

One recent example has been the fight over Net Neutrality, the requirement for Internet service providers to handle all data transferred on the Internet in an unbiased manner.

While the public has fervently advocated for equal access and equal speed to all of the Internet, the most influential voices in this battle are largely corporate. Comcast and Verizon lobby to have the ability to charge more to certain companies that use more of their network; however, companies such as Google, Netflix and others seek to have unfettered access to all Internet users to increase or maintain their customer base.

The strongest of these groups will likely win the battle while the general public will likely be largely ignored.

“Interest groups do have substantial independent impacts on policy, and a few groups (particularly labor unions) represent average citizens’ views reasonably well. But the interest group system as a whole does not,” the study asserts.

One example pointing towards the creation of a system which almost completely serves the elite can be traced back to around 1976. This is when the Supreme Court decided in Buckley v. Valeo to reverse several campaign finance provisions and determined that limiting political expenditures was unconstitutional — ultimately paving the way for the further deterioration of democracy through Citizens United and the recent McCutcheon rulings.

Ever since, the top 1 percent of income earners have reaped the most benefits. While growth was once largely consistent among all income levels, the top 1 percent has seen their income grow 201 percent from 1979 to 2010, compared to a growth of only 65 percent for the other top 19 percentile of earners, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This means wealth continues to flow to the top, making the 1 percent even more powerful in their lobbying and making the distribution of wealth about the same seen just before the Great Depression.

While there has been times when government has better represented the people, citizens have only experienced a few instances in history when government has worked exclusively for them.

“I would say that the victory of [President] Andrew Jackson in 1828 [and the rise of the Democratic Party] probably came closer to representing the ‘people’ interests than at any other time in our history before or since,” Charles Young, political science and history instructor, said. “Jackson ran as ‘the people’s candidate,’ born in a log cabin without advantages of wealth or connections.”

With people in Congress spending around half of their work hours calling donors, it is time to eliminate the root of the problem by instituting campaign finance reform. Such a change will require more than just passing a law: it will require a constitutional amendment.

To pass a constitutional amendment, local voters will have to get involved. That means getting informed, contacting representatives and demanding change. While representation is non-existent at the national level, public officials still represent citizens at the state level. Luckily, a constitutional amendment can happen from the state as well: just contact a local representative and ask for an Article V convention.