Is democracy dead?

It was a good run and we got some neat parades and bragging rights out of it, but democracy is dead in the United States, or so a study from Princeton and Northwestern universities told us last week.

The power of the average citizen in statehouses around the country has faded. The 1 percent calls the shots now.

While the study acknowledges that average citizens and affluent citizens want the same things from government, its examination of policy changes over the century finds an unmistakable result.

By contrast – again with other actors held constant – a proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favor) is adopted only about 18 percent of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favor) is adopted about 45 percent of the time. Similarly, when support for policy change is low among interest groups (with five groups strongly opposed and none in favor) the probability of that policy change occurring is only .16, but the probability rises to .47 when interest groups are strongly favorable (see the bottom two panels of Figure 1.)41

When both interest groups and affluent Americans oppose a policy it has an even lower likelihood of being adopted (these proposed policies consist primarily of tax increases.)

At the other extreme, high levels of support among both interest groups and affluent Americans increases the probability of adopting a policy change, but a strong status quo bias remains evident. Policies with strong support (as defined above) among both groups are only adopted about 56 percent of the time (strongly favored policies in our data set that failed include proposed cuts in taxes, increases in tax exemptions, increased educational spending for K-12, college support, and proposals during the Clinton administration to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare).

Let the reactions begin!

Basically, this paper tells us nothing about whether there’s a group of super-wealthy influencers with the ear of politicians who really pull the strings. It could be just as likely that the relatively well-educated Americans earning $150,000 and up are the ones that hold sway. That would square with the fact that America’s affluent suburbs have increasingly become key political battlegrounds in recent years (Quartz).