By Jim Sullivan
On March 5th of this year the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Tim Wu titled “What the Public Wants, It doesn’t Get.” Mr. Wu correctly stated that our governing class caters primarily to the combined influence of industry groups and donor interests. The wants and needs of the general public take a back seat to the wants and needs of large industry groups and donors. I think, however, that most of the electorate is well aware of this phenomenon. In 2014 Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page conducted a rigorous study (Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens) of how often the governing class meets the public’s needs. Their conclusion:
“Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
“Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policy-making is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then American claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”
This state of affairs is due, of course, to the inordinate influence of money in politics and to what I call the “complacency effect.”
The complacency effect grew out of the golden era of American society from the end of World War II to the early seventies, when the United States and its citizens were relatively well off in terms of standard of living and upward mobility. This caused Americans to become complacent about politics and economics. But as we know, standard of living and upward mobility in the U.S. have declined while economic and political inequality have increased since the early seventies. So the real task before us is not to point out the deleterious effect of money in politics via industry groups and large donors, but to galvanize the electorate to become more informed about political and economic issues, and to participate much more vigorously in the electoral process. I can conceptualize how that might occur, but making it happen in reality is beyond my ability to specify. Make no mistake, however—economics and politics play a large part in determining our standard of living as well as the health of our democracy. It’s past time to toss off our feeling of complacency by becoming more informed about economics and politics and participating vigorously in our electoral process. It will require citizens to make the time to do these things, but that time spent will be one of the wisest investments we can make in our near, middle and long-term future.
Jim Sullivan is a Citizen Journalist and retired businessman with graduate degrees in political science and business. He lives in Ventura with his wife Juliette and two family cats.