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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/18/14

The Disease of American Democracy

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Cross-posted from Robert Reich Blog


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Americans are sick of politics. Only 13 percent approve of the job Congress is doing, a near record low. The President's approval ratings are also in the basement.

A large portion of the public doesn't even bother voting. Only 57.5 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2012 presidential election.

Put simply, most Americans feel powerless, and assume the political game is fixed. So why bother?

A new study scheduled to be published in this fall by Princeton's Martin Gilens and Northwestern University's Benjamin Page confirms our worst suspicions.

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Gilens and Page analyzed 1,799 policy issues in detail, determining the relative influence on them of economic elites, business groups, mass-based interest groups, and average citizens.

Their conclusion: "The preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy."

Instead, lawmakers respond to the policy demands of wealthy individuals and monied business interests -- those with the most lobbying prowess and deepest pockets to bankroll campaigns.

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Before you're tempted to say "duh," wait a moment. Gilens' and Page's data come from the period 1981 to 2002. This was before the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to big money in "Citizens United," prior to SuperPACs, and before the Wall Street bailout.

So it's likely to be even worse now.

But did the average citizen ever have much power? The eminent journalist and commentator Walter Lippman argued in his 1922 book "Public Opinion" that the broad public didn't know or care about public policy. Its consent was "manufactured" by an elite that manipulated it. "It is no longer possible ... to believe in the original dogma of democracy," Lippman concluded.

Yet American democracy seemed robust compared to other nations that in the first half of the 20th century succumbed to communism or totalitarianism.

Political scientists after World War II hypothesized that even though the voices of individual Americans counted for little, most people belonged to a variety of interest groups and membership organizations -- clubs, associations, political parties, unions -- to which politicians were responsive.

"Interest-group pluralism," as it was dubbed, thereby channeled the views of individual citizens, and made American democracy function.

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What's more, the political power of big corporations and Wall Street was offset by the power of labor unions, farm cooperatives, retailers, and smaller banks.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith approvingly dubbed it "countervailing power." These alternative power centers ensured that America's vast middle and working classes received a significant share of the gains from economic growth.

Starting in 1980, something profoundly changed. It wasn't just that big corporations and wealthy individuals became more politically potent, as Gilens and Page document. It was also that other interest groups began to wither.

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Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

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