Biased Pluralism and the Defense of “Reality” in the Democratic Primary

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Last week, I pointed to a problem with Jonathan Chait’s defense of Hillary Clinton’s “pluralistic” approach to governance, noting that in an era of weak labor organization, such an approach leaves out the views of the great majority of working people, precisely the kinds of people Bernie Sanders is attracting.

I didn’t think of it at the time, but since got reminded of an important paper by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, released in 2014. It used a dataset matching polling data to policy outcomes to test four theories for how our political system works: Majoritarian Democracy (meaning policies adopted reflect what most people want), Dominance by Economic Elites (meaning the rich get what they want), Majoritarian Pluralism (meaning interest groups, including those that represent the non-wealthy, get what they want), and Biased Pluralism (meaning interest groups that represent the views of the economic elite get what they want).

Ultimately, the paper showed that our system provides what interest groups want, not what the majority want. Importantly, it also noted that the interest groups that have influence don’t actually represent the preferences of the average citizen (which is defined to be policies supported by a median income voter).

But net interest-group stands are not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens. Taking all interest groups together, the index of net interest-group alignment correlates only a non-significant .04 with average citizens’ preferences!

It explains this, in part, because there are so many more interest groups (which include corporations) representing the interests of the economic elite that ultimately they’ll guide policy even when including those interest groups representing the interests of the non-elite.

As a result, majoritarian views — what most Americans want — have almost no influence on policy.

The estimated impact of average citizens’ preferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level. Clearly the median citizen or “median voter” at the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all.

When the majority gets what they want, it is because the elite interest groups favor the same policy, not because anyone is responding to the interests of the average voter.

Finally, the paper further shows that that is even more true when the majority wants change.

A final point: Even in a bivariate, descriptive sense, our evidence indicates that the responsiveness of the U.S. political system when the general public wants government action is severely limited. Because of the impediments to majority rule that were deliberately built into the U.S. political system—federalism, separation of powers, bicameralism—together with further impediments due to anti-majoritarian congressional rules and procedures, the system has a substantial status quo bias. Thus when popular majorities favor the status quo, opposing a given policy change, they are likely to get their way; but when a majority—even a very large majority—of the public favors change, it is not likely to get what it wants.

So it’s one thing if the majority wants things to remain the same, when they might get what they want, but another thing if they’d like to change the status quo, when they almost never will.

I raise all this because it provides an important reminder for this year’s bizarre presidential election. At least on the Democratic side, the findings totally reinforce both candidates. Bernie Sanders is absolutely right that the system is rigged, that the government’s policies don’t reflect the interests of average Americans. But Hillary Clinton is right, too, that the way to get things done in DC — or at least the way that things have gotten done in DC — is to negotiate compromises within the existing interest group structure (which includes a nearly impotent labor movement and overly powerful corporations). She’s even probably right that in the current system you need to co-opt a certain number of economic elite interest groups (that is, largely, corporate groups) to be able to acquire the critical mass of support from interest groups to get a policy adopted. You’ve got to make enough Goldman Sachs speeches to get them to the table, Hillary might excuse her boondoggle speeches.

But that also has certain implications for the policy debate going on. One problem Hillary is having is in needing to champion — to legitimize — the compromises made within that system: notably, Dodd-Frank and Obama’s insurance reform. She’s doing that by suggesting, with the help of wonk-boys like Chait, that the compromises made in those legislative processes were all that were possible at the time. As I hope to lay out, not only the record — but specific actions by those who remain a part of the Hillary entourage — disprove that claim, at least in theory: 2009 was the rare year when that might not have been true. In addition, Hillary’s choice to function within the existing pluralist system also all presumes that the existing set of interest groups, with the nearly impotent labor movement and overly powerful corporations, are a fixed set.

Which brings us back to Bernie’s call for a revolution, which we might think of as providing average people some means of being an interest group again. Whatever else it is, it could become (unlike the Dean organization that became the 50 state strategy and Obama for America that became a messaging organization within a neutered DNC) a resilient interest group. In many ways, it is a more institutionalized and better funded reincarnation of some recent protest groups, with a very strong overlap with Occupy Wall Street, and as such might have staying power, regardless of what happens with the primary.

But that brings us back to the other problem Hillary (as well as the institutional candidates on the Republican side) is having: voters aren’t dummies.

While you can defend the claim that Obama’s insurance reform was all that was possible, that doesn’t mean — even with the many benefits it has brought about — that it was a sound compromise, much less policy that served the interest of the majority or the country as a whole. Similarly, while you can claim (even more dubiously) that foaming the runway to give the banks a soft landing was necessary, real Americans know we all would be better off with Lloyd Blankfein in prison. That is, you can claim that interest group policies are all we can get, but at that same time that means that interest group policies don’t self-evidently serve the interests of Americans. Hillary can’t admit that, but that’s the truth confirmed in Gilens and Page. It’s also the reason why the wonk-boys are working so hard to claim that these policies serve the good of most people, to try to refute the obvious ways they don’t.

Hillary may well win (the primary, at least) based on truthfully claiming she represents the continuation of Obama’s policies, as Greg Sargent argued yesterday.

Beyond this, the big picture here is that Sanders has gotten as far as he has by offering up a serious, if partial, indictment of the Obama years. He is arguing that Obama era reforms — Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, his climate agenda — ended up being woefully inadequate to the scale of our challenges, because he failed to sufficiently rally the grassroots against the power of the oligarchy and because the Democratic establishment still remains in thrall to oligarchic money. Clinton full-throatedly defends Obama’s accomplishments as very much worth preserving, rejects the Sanders-promulgated notion that Obama could have gotten a whole lot more than he did, and vows to build on those achievements.

The bigger, more diverse, more moderate electorates in the contests to come might be more receptive to Clinton’s arguments along these lines. And one thing to watch will be whether Sanders tries to find a way to temper the criticism of the Obama years that is laced through the story he is telling.

I’d temper that and note that Bernie is probably closer to the real foreign policy successes of Obama’s post-Hillary term, including opening relations with Iran and Cuba and demanding that the Saudis actually start fighting ISIL. But on the Obama policies that are most obviously the result of letting interest groups, from the impotent labor movement to the overly powerful corporations, direct policy, Hillary is the inheritor of a historically fairly popular legacy. That’s true, and it may well be enough, barring any unforeseen economic reversals, though economic reversals are actually looking pretty likely, in which case that legacy may be of far less value.

The problem with being in that very advantageous position is that, especially this year, voters are all too aware that those policies didn’t necessarily serve their needs.  And that, it seems, explains the disjuncture between Hillary’s claim (true or not) to best be able to negotiate the interest groups of DC and the fact that that hasn’t been enough to convince voters.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

18 replies
  1. scribe says:

    But that also has certain implications for the policy debate going on. One problem Hillary is having is in needing to champion — to legitimize — the compromises made within that system: notably, Dodd-Frank and Obama’s insurance reform. She’s doing that by suggesting, with the helps of wonk-boys like Chait, that the compromises made in those legislative processes were all that were possible at the time. As I hope to lay out, not only the record — but specific actions by those who remain a part of the Hillary entourage — disprove that claim, at least in theory: 2009 was the rare year when that might not have been true. In addition, Hillary’s choice to function within the existing pluralist system also all presumes that the existing set of interest groups, with the nearly impotent labor movement and overly powerful corporations, are a fixed set.

    .
    1. “Politics is the art of the possible.” It’s a truism because … it’s true.
    2. When the MFIC – in the 2009 case, Obama – declares something (e.g., single-payer) to be impossible, then
    3. It is impossible.

    The thing that tends to move the economic elites is reminding them, as someone [not me] in meatworld did, that “there are people in this town who will break your legs. In fact, if they know who you are and what you do, they would pay for the privilege.”

    Obama, and now HRC, are too busy fellating Wall Street to say that, let alone back it up. But, when confronted with that kind of sentiment, especially to their face, the economic elites tend to come around, and quickly.

  2. Bitter Angry Drunk says:

    Wonk boys? What about wonk bros? Seems like a missed opportunity there.

    The thing Trump and Sanders have in common is they’re both being supported by people who’ve finally figured out that there’s no part of the establishment that will serve their needs (as you said).

    I’m now waiting for three things:

    1) Sanders supporters getting wise to the superdelegate scam.
    2) Warren’s endorsement.
    3) Hillary’s minions demanding we support her because the Evil Trump must be stopped. Honestly, it’s the only case she has.

    People are going to lose their shit, so hard, so often before this is over.

    • Peterr says:

      Forget buying popcorn futures – buy laundry toilet tissue futures.
      .
      Here is the big piece that leaped out to me:

      In addition, Hillary’s choice to function within the existing pluralist system also all presumes that the existing set of interest groups, with the nearly impotent labor movement and overly powerful corporations, are a fixed set.

      This is where Bernie and Hillary diverge the most, IMHO. Bernie is unwilling to make the same assumption. It might be hard as hell to change things, but he wants to make the attempt, which is more than one can say for Hillary based on the way she contrasts herself with Bernie, saying he lives in a dream world and she worries about getting things done.
      .
      But Bernie is not the only one who views this set as malleable instead of fixed. If you want to unfix this fixed set, you follow up on what Phil Angelides (among others) has said: go after the individual banksters who carried out the actions that crashed the economy in 2008. From the Financial Times two days ago:

      Since his report appeared in February 2011, America’s biggest banks have paid tens of billions of dollars in fines for misconduct in the packaging and sale of mortgage-backed securities, while the DoJ has gone after thousands of borrowers, brokers and appraisers for lying on mortgage applications. But no senior bank executive has been charged with wrongdoing. In a letter to Loretta Lynch, US Attorney General, Mr Angelides has challenged the DoJ to take action before the ten-year statute of limitation expires.
      .
      “I ask a simple question: how could the banks have engaged in such massive misconduct and wrongdoing without a single individual being involved? In a sense, it’s the immaculate corruption,” he told the FT. “It defies common sense, and the people of America know this.”

      .
      They do indeed.
      .
      But if these individuals start having to stand up in court and explain themselves and their actions — massive robosigning, document forgery, false representations in a multitude of court filings, playing both sides of the same financial transaction, telling their company’s clients one thing while betting against said clients with the company’s own money, just to name a few of the most obvious things — that “fixed set” would become unfixed, mighty quickly.

      • Bitter Angry Drunk says:

        Yeah, this special middle-class depleting reality world, the only world we can afford, sure totally, incidentally, makes the Clintons a whole lot of money. And it will continue to make Barack (yes we can… maintain the status quo) Obama millions long after he leaves office.

        It is probably true that President Sanders would have a helluva time enacting 5 percent of what he proposes. But at least his presence in the White House would serve as a much-needed middle finger to TPTB.

  3. orionATL says:

    “the majority” – majoritarian views – almost never get what they want (actually, what they choose from a menu of options presented by some interviewer at a discrete point in time) because there is almost no connection between what the legislators the people elect actually do, and what the people individually may have thought they were electing those legislators to do. the legislative candidates lie, mislead, mispromise with NO political consequences to themselves in the future. “the majority”, in turn, are ignorant, party loyal, and easily conned by “values” talk and vague policy promises from candidates.

    let me put the problem simply: the problem with the american political system at present there is little or no political punishment coming to any legislator that fucks over the majority (majoritarian view). NONE. doubt that? check out congressional incumbent reelection stats.

    as carter said – the u. s. is an oligarchy with open political bribery.

    no system like this can be controlled by a president. in fact it should be evident to anyone that, as of this moment, president obama has literally lost control of the domestic side of governing the nation. the country is in domestic policy freefall at the moment.

    while the four part analysis emptywheel cites may be useful in determining what has happened, it has no bearing on what will happen. nor does it appear to offer prescriptions.

    what will happen depends on the quality/integrity of the legislators the peopke elect. there are over a thousand votes a year in congress. “the people” have not a clue of what would constitute a vote in their interests in most cases (and neither do many congressgrubbers).

    some solutions would be:

    1 – to have a majority of legislators with the integrity of senator sanders/representative sanders. to have many sanders, waydens, and h. johnsons serving in house and senate.

    or

    2. to have a political punishment system like the national rifle association has.

    or

    3. to have a system of public education, voter education that encouraged majority questioning and political punishing.

    or

    4. to have substantial political party control of a sectors of government AND a president like lyndon johnson competent to harness such extraordinarily unified power.

    the republican party is only a competent president away fom having just this sort of johnson-like political control over u. s. domestic policy.

    or

    5. to put limits on campaign spending or, my personal favorite, to require all communications channels/corporations in the nation to offer free campaign advertising.

    to put the central problem of the majority getting what is in their interest another way:

    all political punishment in the immediate past and into the foreseeable future has been and will be administered by those with money to spend on politics and the motive to reward and punish.

    it’s called pay to play (or pay if you don’t play along) :)

    then there is the seperate matter, here unconsidered, of what is in the nation’s interest, rather than some majority’s interest.

    • orionATL says:

      re #4

      i talked in #4 about the unresponsiveness of legislators, who are the heart of policy enactment, and about reasons why legislators satisfy or failure to satisfy “majority” wishes/interests.

      that’s only half the problem with the current political system. the other half is problems with the majority’s committment to their political system, with their knowledge and choice-making on policy issues up for vote.

      no matter how many tens of thousands of americans seriously study policy options available to them in a particular state or federal election, there will be millions more who do not do so. yet all, the studious and the non-studious, get a chance to vote.

      how can anyone claim there is a majority view on any matter, other than “i ain’t doin’ too well economically” which is senator’s campaign in a nutshell?

      i take it as an assumption that the republican party when in power rarely acts in the interest of a majority of citizens on any legislative issue.

      so, explain these figures from wikipedia:

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_state_legislatures

      31 of 50 state legislatures are totally republican controlled.

      23 of 50 states have republican legislatures and a republican governor.

      how is it possible if there is a political entity called “the people” who have some sense of “majority viewpoints”, that there are so few policy outcomes which they would hold to be in their interest.

      well

      – there is the factor of low voter turnout in many recent elections.

      – voting restrictions hinder minorities.

      – there is widespread voter manipulation employing a focus on “values” rather than specific policy issues.

      – there is widespread voter ignorance not only of specfic issues at hand but of how their political system works.

      – there are political advertisements.

      – and there is money, bags and bags of money, that makes extensive political advertising possible.

      i wonder if it is not the case that most voters’ exposure to their political system comes through political ads on television. this situation would provide a controlled, manipulated political reality that voters cannot or simply do not take with a grain of salt. i suspect voters are being manipulated by advertising and political professionals who have carefully studied human emotional response and who can exploit that knowledge. certainly the unusual effectiveness of negative advertising suggests this is the case.

      with ignorant, emotionally manipulated voters and a political system that makes it difficult or unlikely for voters to punish politicians who lie during an election or who don’t keep election promises, i don’t see how a majoritarian democracy could be expected to exist in the u. s. today.

      • orionATL says:

        I kept wondering why Krugman would call chait a “wonk”, meaning an economic expert of some sort, when to me he is mostly a tedious, contentious essayist.

        I think the answer lies not in chait’s columns, but in the book “the big con:…” and its spotlight on crackpot economics.

        here is a review that, purely by coincidence, also raises some questions directly relevant to my comment #14 above:
        .

        http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2007/08/-em-the-big-con-em/45762/
        .
        [… “… The result [of the Bush tax cuts] was a triumph of propaganda. The Washington Post breathlessly reported that Bush’s plan would “focus its deepest reductions on the working poor and middle class” and would thus “mark a clear departure from more traditional conservative GOP tax policy.” The Wall Street Journal noted that Bush was “seeking to steer more benefits to working-poor taxpayers.”

        The book details the ways in which the cranks first took over the Republican Party and then the entire country, and notes correctly that mere electoral defeat won’t resolve the problem. Republicans have, after all, faced electoral setbacks in 1982, 1986, 1992, and 1998 only to come back crazier than ever after wins in 1984, 1994, and 2000. The book can be ordered here… ]

        “mere electoral defeat won’tl not resolve the problem”.

        what problem?

        the twin problems of ignorant, uninvolved, manipulated voters and political leaders who are almost entirely immune to consequences of their policy actions.

        Iit seems the only majoritarian policy in effect today is “kick the bums out”, cycled over and over between republican and democrat majorities in legislators, and between governorship and presidencies.

      • orionATL says:

        I kept wondering why Krugman would call chait a “wonk”, meaning an economic expert of some sort, when to me he is mostly a tedious, contentious essayist.

        I think the answer lies not in chait’s columns, but in the book “the big con:…” and its spotlight on crackpot economics.

        here is a review that, purely by coincidence, also raises some questions directly relevant to my comment #14 above:
        .

        http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2007/08/-em-the-big-con-em/45762/
        .
        [… “… The result [of the Bush tax cuts] was a triumph of propaganda. The Washington Post breathlessly reported that Bush’s plan would “focus its deepest reductions on the working poor and middle class” and would thus “mark a clear departure from more traditional conservative GOP tax policy.” The Wall Street Journal noted that Bush was “seeking to steer more benefits to working-poor taxpayers.”

        The book details the ways in which the cranks first took over the Republican Party and then the entire country, and notes correctly that mere electoral defeat won’t resolve the problem. Republicans have, after all, faced electoral setbacks in 1982, 1986, 1992, and 1998 only to come back crazier than ever after wins in 1984, 1994, and 2000. The book can be ordered here… ]

        “mere electoral defeat won’tl not resolve the problem”.

        what problem?

        the twin problems of ignorant, uninvolved, manipulated voters and political leaders who are almost entirely immune to consequences of their policy actions.

        Iit seems the only majoritarian policy in effect today is “kick the bums out”, cycled over and over between republican and democrat majorities in legislators, and between governorship and presidencies.

  4. orionATL says:

    generally, this post is more sensible than others i’ve seen.

    but really:

    “…with the help of wonk-boys like Chait, that the compromises made in those legislative processes were all that were possible at the time… ”

    i’m not interested in defending chait; i happen to dislike his style intensely, but this emptywheel attempted put-down is just silly, to be polite.

    if chait is, dismissively, a” wonk-boy”, then is not wheeler, equally dismissively, a “wonk-girl”?

    if wheeler can tackle chait dismissively on grounds (mostly) of his being called as an expert witness for clinton by a third party (paul krugman, for which right-thinking progressives have only contempt), though not knowing chait particular expertise well,

    cannot baker tackle wheeler dismissively on grounds other than the actual content of her analyses?

    “wonk-boys” and “wonk-girls”. big hairy deal.

    • emptywheel says:

      I don’t aspire to be called a wonk at all. But when people like Paul Krugman makes a list of those he considers wonks as a way to shut down considered criticism of those policies said wonks champion, then it is fair game to make fun of the entire concept of gatekeeping wonks, and the fact that in Krugman’s world they’re all men, mostly young men who made a career off of making charts to legitimize the policies DC wants.

      So sorry, I will continue to use the term wonk-boy.

      • orionATL says:

        “i don’t aspire to be called a wonk at all.”

        i don’t doubt that, but you miss the point. you ARE a wonk by virtue of your special expertise AND by virtue of any other person choosing to demean your expertise by using that put-down term.

        you, not chait, determine his “wonk-boy” staus, as a means of putting him down.

        thus, others than you can label you a “wonk-girl” should they choose, for example, to imply you are being used by someone else to further that third party’s ends as stewart baked tried to tie you to greenwald.

        of course you will continue to use the term. why would you not? it’s a free country. it’s vle er campaign put-down talk.

        but for a reader like myself what you’ve done is demean some character (chait) who was named by a third party (krugman) in support of a short argument he made criticizing the candidate you support. standard campaign rhetoric.

        what you have not done, that i have seen, is point out errors in chait’s work that might be relevant to his criticism of sen. sanders if indeed he ever did personally criticize sanders.

        • emptywheel says:

          Actually, the debate about who and who is not a wonk goes back to the ACA fight in 2009, when all the same people were doing all the same things. It has little to do with any candidate and a lot to do with pushing shitty policy.

          And you must have missed the ENTIRE POST where I pointed out that Chait’s suggestion that working through pluralism is more democratic ignored that working people were largely excluded from it.

          • orionATL says:

            that is interesting history to know, but “wonk” is an english word dating from 1954 apparently. it’s usage is not determined by what happened somwhere in 2009, and it is most definitely a pejorative.

            no, i didn’t miss your post.

            you must have missed that i argued extensively in it :)

            the argument and critique of chait focusing on left-behind workers was a good discussion.

            what you did not do there and have not yet done anywhere so far as i can tell, is explain your objection to the chait expertise (wonkery) to which krugman was surely referring – chait’s book on crackpot economics, “the big con:…

            it’s the” crackpot economics” notion with implications for sanders that clearly irritates krugman, and that so far has only being worked around here.

      • orionATL says:

        ” and the fact that in Krugman’s world they’re all men, mostly young men who made a career…”

        i am very sympathetic to this line of argument, but

        but you’re a sanders supporter sounding like a feminist. :)

  5. Anon says:

    While I agree with your assessment EW let me add two additional problems that are, I think, part of the equation.
    .
    The first is recent history. Hillary, when she campaigned against Obama was very clear in her critique of his progressive sound. In effect she ran to the right of him in many ways. That recent history provides examples of her critiquing some of the same accomplishments that she now touts as if they were her own. Thus voters, who as you note are not dumb, know that they have very little reason to trust that he full-throated defense of Obamacare or Dodd-Frank actually comes from the heart.
    .
    As one Rolling Stone article put it. “There is no real Hillary Clinton.”
    .
    .
    The second is long-term history. Unlike 2008 and 2012 this (Democratic) primary is pairing well-tested candidates. Both Clinton and Sanders have long histories that voters can draw on when making their decisions. Both have spent years in the trenches and have shown what they will or will not do.
    .
    As a consequence voters have hard evidence of what real polices the candidates will support and how far they will go for them when they are mere Senators. Sanders, love him or hate him, does display a remarkable consistency in his views and policy positions. Clinton, not so much. The voters also have hard evidence about how quickly each will respond to the drumbeat of war which is never far from a President’s ear.
    .
    This is important because it gives voters a real example of what “Pluralism” means to someone like Clinton. It is easy to map your assumptions onto someone like Obama, Ryan, or Snyder, who has no real history to answer for. It is easier to believe that when they talk about sitting people down to talk that they are representing your views. For the first time in a while none of the Democratic candidates has that luxury.

  6. haarmeyer says:

    I don’t understand how “interest groups” got morphed into “elite interest groups”. The paper said that both majoritarian and elite power theories gave similar results but not interest groups.

    I also don’t understand why the measure used to compare the wants of the interest groups and the wants of the majority wasn’t Kullback-Liebler divergence.

  7. JohnT says:

    .
    Don’t have time to read all of this now, but whatever category HRC is in, you can add NPR into that box as well.
    .
    Listening to their coverage this morning of the debate last night it seems obvious they’re comfortable with the status quo & the establishment being in charge

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