US Policy Changes Vol.51 (Miscellaneous Vol.6 – inequality and democratic responsiveness)

Here is an academic paper: Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness: Who Gets What They Want from Government? (PDF; Aug 2004) | Martin Gilens @PUPolitics @HarvardWCFIA. Excerpt is on our own.

Previous research
Quantitative analyses of the link between public preferences and government decision making have taken three main forms… The most prevalent approach, often labeled “dyadic representation,” examines the relationship between constituency opinion and the behavior of representatives or candidates across political units… This work typically finds strong correlations between constituents’ preferences and legislators’ voting behavior.
A second approach examines changes over time in public preferences and the corresponding changes (or lack of changes) in public policies. …fairly high levels of congruency between the direction of change in opinion and the direction of change in government policy, especially for salient issues or cases with large changes in public preferences.
Finally, using a third approach… …public preferences for policy change expressed at a given point in time with subsequent changes (or lack of changes) in government policy… …substantially higher levels of consistency between public preferences and government policy for issues that the public deemed more important… …an extremely strong influence of public mood on policy outputs…

Limitations of research on democratic responsiveness
… Even if individual legislators’ votes strongly reflect the preferences of their constituents, actual policies may not coincide with aggregate preferences. … policies are shaped by the complex interactions among multiple units of government, by the congressional committee system, by the degree of autonomy granted to the various federal agencies, and by many other characteristics of our governmental structure. …
The second approach… For example, if public support for increasing environmental regulation declined from 90% to 75% over some time period, we might conclude that support for environmental regulation weakened. But if actual regulation was reduced during this period, it would clearly be contrary to, not consistent with, the preferences of the public.
The third approach… …the possibility of spuriousness. … Increases in defense spending following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan may have coincided with increased public support for defense spending. But lawmakers were likely responding to some combination of public preferences and real-world events, and it is extraordinarily difficult to assess the relative importance…
Finally, it is important to acknowledge that surveys of public preferences are at best imperfect measures of what the public wants from government. One important limitation is the willingness of respondents to express opinions even about issues on which they have no clear or consistent views. … …government responsiveness to public preferences is much lower for questions which elicit large numbers of “Don’t Know” responses.
… First, public opinion may be “uncrystalized” about a new or unfamiliar issue. …latent opinion represents something like “what the public would prefer after having considered the issue more fully.”
A second… For example, the public might express support for humanitarian intervention abroad. But… A policy maker attempting to respond to public opinion would need to take both current expressed support, and latent potential opposition into account.
… For our purposes, it is important to recognize that democratic responsiveness is a subtle phenomenon and that…

Assessing inequalities in democratic responsiveness
…an aspect of democratic responsiveness largely ignored in previous work: whose preferences are influential in shaping government policy.
While the notion of “equal representation” is a central element of normative democratic theory, there are good reasons to expect that different sub-groups of the population will be more or less successful at shaping government policy to their preference. …

The current project
…further explore biases in government responsiveness to public preferences asking how successful different population sub-groups are in shaping government policy and how such differences have changed over time, across issue-area, or in response to changing party control of national political institutions. …

Data

Imputing preferences by income, education, or age level
Because the surveys employed were conducted by different organizations at different points in time the demographic categories are not always consistent. …

FINDINGS
Consistency versus influence
… For example, a policy change opposed by 51% of the public and one opposed by 99% of the public would both be inconsistent with public preferences, but the latter clearly represents a greater failure of policy to reflect public preferences.
Overall relationship between preference and policy
… A strong status-quo bias is evident among these 754 proposed policy changes: even policy changes favored by 90% of Americans occurred only 4 times in 10…
Salient and non-salient issues

INCOME AND THE PREFERENCE-POLICY LINK
Policy agreement and disagreement across income levels
… Consequently, the association between government policy and the preferences of poorer Americans may arise not due to these citizens’ influence on government outcomes but to the fact that poor and wealthy Americans share policy preferences most of the time. …
On the other hand, among the 300 questions where preferences differ more strongly by income level, policy outcomes are unrelated to preferences among the poor, and highly related among the rich…
…poor people might hold attitudes that consistently differ from those held by middle-income or wealthy Americans, and if so the lack of responsiveness to their preferences might actually reflect a well-functioning democracy. Middle-income respondents might better reflect the preferences of the median voter on most issues and the responsiveness of government policymakers to the preferences of these Americans might therefore serve as a more appropriate test of biases in representation. …

DIVERGENT POLICY PREFERENCES OF RICH AND POOR
Economic policies
“Pure” economic policies. …rich and poor in the aggregate appear to express preferences that reflect their groups’ differing economic self interest.
Foreign economic policies. … On free trade… rich Americans express solid support while the poor are mildly opposed.
…U.S. aid to developing countries and to Russia and the former Soviet Union. On these questions, the rich expressed solid support while the poor were equally strong in their opposition. …
Health care. … The poor, for example, were strongly supportive of tax funded national health care (in the abstract at least), employer mandates, and government guarantees of universal health care. The rich were only mildly supportive these first two proposals, but shared the poor’s enthusiasm for the last. …
Social security. …the two reform proposals with the clearest redistributive implications (increasing the tax on Social Security benefits of higher income retirees and raising the retirement age) produced no differences in support between rich and poor. On the other hand, directing the government to invest part of the Social Security surplus in the stock market was strongly opposed by poor Americans while the rich were evenly split. …
Welfare reform. …rich and poor expressed equal (and enthusiastic) support: work requirements, job training, child care, and time limits for welfare recipients. The rich were supportive of cutting overall spending in contrast to the poor (who were evenly split), while the rich similarly expressed solid support for eliminating increases in benefits to women who have additional children while on welfare (the poor were again split on this proposal). …

Social issues
Civil rights. … The rich and poor differ most dramatically when asked about affirmative action for individual hiring, promotion, or college admissions. …
Homosexuality. …rich Americans expressed somewhat higher levels of support for gays and lesbians including a slight tendency toward allowing gays to serve in the military, somewhat stronger support for extending legal protections (for example, against job discrimination), and somewhat lower levels of opposition to gay marriage than poor Americans. …
Abortion and school prayer. Rich Americans expressed substantially greater support for abortion and less support for school prayer than did the poor. …
Campaign finance reform. … Rich Americans differed more substantially from the poor over public financing of elections, expressing mixed views in contrast to the solid opposition of the poor.

Summary of divergent policy preferences
… Without exception, when differences between the rich and poor did emerge, the rich favored more conservative policies. However, it is important to point out that rich Americans did support many policies that would be expected to disproportionately benefit the poor. …
… Many other policy areas in my data set produced few systematic differences between the preferences of the rich and the poor, including defense policy, drug policy, education, gun control, terrorism, and crime. …

Causal inference
… The link between public preferences and government policy might arise through some combination of (1) the influence of the public’s preferences on political decision makers’ actions, (2) the influence of decision makers’ statements on the public’s preferences, and (3) the response of both decision makers and the public to “real world” events and conditions. …
… If the cross-state association between high income constituents’ views and senators’ votes is due primarily to the influence of the public on elected officials rather than the other way round, then the broader association between the public’s preferences and government policy outputs is also likely to reflect the influence of high income Americans on elite decision makers.
… If the primary path of influence is from public preferences to government policy, we might expect income to be the stronger moderator… …if the primary causal path is politicians shaping the public’s preferences or attentive citizens responding to changing conditions and events, we might expect education to be the stronger moderator…
…the association between policy outcomes and the preferences of high income Americans declines only modestly when we control for the preferences of those with high levels of education… …biases in government responsiveness across income groups primarily reflect something other than interest in or attention to politics.
For example, a study of donations to congressional candidates in 1996 found that four-fifths of donors who gave $200 or more had incomes in the top 10% of all Americans… Since not only the propensity to donate but the size of donations increases with income level…
…a government that is democratic in form but is in practice only responsive to its most affluent citizens is a democracy in name only. …
Most Americans think that public officials don’t care much about the preferences of “people like me.” Sadly, the results presented above suggest they may be right. …