By Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens
The University of Chicago Press, November 2017
From the Introduction
Today the United States faces a number of daunting problems. Economic inequality has reached levels not seen for a hundred years. While the wealthy keep piling up riches, many Americans are hurting from job losses, low wages, high health-care costs, and deteriorating public services. Whole communities have been devastated by factory closings. Our public schools are neglected. Our highways and bridges are in disrepair.
Well-designed government policies could help deal with these problems. Large majorities of Americans favor specific measures that would be helpful. Yet our national government often appears to ignore the wants and needs of its citizens. It pays more attention to organized interests than to ordinary Americans, and it gets bogged down in gridlock and inaction.
In this book we argue that gridlock and inaction in Washington result from two main causes: clashes between our two sharply divided political parties and obstructive actions by corporations, interest groups, and wealthy individuals. The many “veto points” in our complex political system (that is, the many opportunities for one or another political actor to thwart policy change) are used to prevent the enactment of policies that most Americans want.
The nonresponsiveness and dysfunction of government are closely related to undemocratic features of our political system.
It follows that our problems can be more effectively addressed if we reform our political system to achieve more democracy: more equal opportunity for all citizens to shape what their government does and policies that better address the needs of all Americans.
We define democracy as policy responsiveness to ordinary citizens – that is, popular control of government. Or simply “majority rule.”
How This Book Unfolds
In the next chapter we note certain patterns in American history, from Alexis de Tocgueville’s 1830s onward. Democracy has tended to flourish in times of relative economic equality but has withered when there are big gaps between rich and poor.
In part 2 of the book we examine more closely what has gone wrong and what is obstructing democratic responsiveness now.
Chapter 3 shows how undemocratic the United States is today. Ordinary citizens have little or no influence on public policy, while affluent and wealthy Americans and organized interest groups – especially business groups – often get their way.
In chapter 4 we examine just how much political clout wealthy Americans have (a great deal), what techniques they use to exercise it, and what sorts of government policies they want and get.
Chapter 5 documents the substantial political influence of organized interest groups and explains how they exercise it. Corporations and business associations do particularly well, while “mass-based” groups have relatively little clout.
Chapter 6 explores the vexing problems of highly polarized political parties, gridlock, and policy inaction.
We then turn, in part 3, to the question of what sorts of political reforms might be effective for making government politics more responsive to ordinary citizens.
Chapter 7 discusses a number of “equal voice” reforms that would move all citizens toward equal political influence. Campaign finance regulation – or (even without such regulation) public funding – could greatly reduce the power of private political money. Other reforms could curtail the impact of interest groups. Still others could encourage voting by citizens who are currently not well represented in the electorate – especially lower-income people and racial and ethnic minorities.
Chapter 8 considers how to overcome policy gridlock and, more generally, how to make our political institutions more democratic. It notes undemocratic features of Congress that our legislators could easily improve if they felt sufficient pressure to do so. It also discusses undemocratic electoral arrangements that will be harder – but far from impossible – to change. And it mentions certain particularly difficult but important-to-address problems, including the extremely unrepresentative, rural-heavy nature of the Senate, and the tendency of the Supreme Court to overturn (without, in our opinion, sound justification) certain policies backed by large majorities of Americans.
Part 4, the final section of the book, addresses the difficult question of whether and how major democratic reforms can actually be enacted. Big obstacles stand in the way, especially the need to persuade, pressure, or replace officials who have been elected in an undemocratic system and would be happy to keep it that way. Major changes will likely take a long time and a lot of work. But we are optimistic that they can be achieved.
Chapter 9 addresses the idea of a special movement for Democracy. Some important improvements can be accomplished through simple changes in rules or laws that policy makers might be pushed to adopt through conventional political pressure. Ultimately, however, we believe that the most important major reforms can probably be won only by means of something new: a large-scale, long-term social movement for Democracy. The chapter draws lessons from past social movements – especially the Populists, the Progressives, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement – to suggest what sorts of strategies and tactics might lead to success. And it points to groups that are already beginning to work together toward democratic reforms and might help form the core of a Democracy movement.
Chapter 10 highlights democratic reforms that are currently being achieved on the state and local level. By building on these efforts, we believe that that a successful social movement for more Democracy can eventually transform America, enhancing both the quality of our politics and the quality of our lives.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
It is imperative that all caring Americans join together in a social movement for Democracy. In “Democracy in America?” Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens explain why and how. It will be difficult, but we must do it.
Read this book. Then act! Inertia is no longer an option.
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