Ignorant, Apathetic . . . and Realistic?

March 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s a multiple-choice question:

1. Voting by people like me
    a.  doesn’t really affect how the government runs things
    b. gives people some say about how the government runs things

Yesterday, Pew (here) told us how we answered this question.


The Pew survey was concerned mostly with how people are getting their news about the presidential campaign. But yesterday’s report focused on those few Americans (9%) who are content to let a week or more go by without getting any news about the election.

“Half of this group thinks that their vote doesn’t really affect how the government runs things.”


The two sentiments – about the news and about one’s own influence – seem to be part of a more general feeling of alienation from government. The General Social Survey used to ask about this alienation with the variable ANOMIA7, which asks people to Agree or Disagree with the statement, “Most public officials (people in public office) are not really interested in the problems of the average man.” A clear majority – never less than 65% agree.


The GSS hasn’t asked this one since 2006, and the time before that was 1994 (maybe that “average man” has something to do with it.) A similar item in the 2102 GSS allowed for a more nuanced response.


This looks more like the uninformed Pew respondents – evenly split between “None/A Little” and “Some or more.”

But which side has the correct answer to that multiple-choice question? The disaffected, alienated citizens, the ones who don’t care to find out about the election and don’t think their vote or ideas matter – they are ignorant and apathetic. But might they also be realistic? And those of us who watch the news and the debates, who check out the political tweets in our Twitter feed – we’re certain to vote come November. We want to make a difference. But are we fooling ourselves?

In their 2014 paper (here) which got some attention even in the popular press, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page looked at 1779 policy decisions to see how the actual outcomes lined up with the preferences of three different types of people or groups
  • organized interest groups
  • “economic elites”
  • average citizens
They graphed the results to show how likely a policy was to be adopted at each level of support from each type of source.  For interest groups, they counted up the interest groups that favored a policy and subtracted the number that opposed it.

The more that interest groups were relatively unanimous in favor of a policy, the more likely the government was to adopt that policy.  (The preferences of interest groups were frequently similar to those of elites and to those of the public, so the authors statistically controlled for this overlap. The graphs show the effect of just one variable controlling for the effects of the other two.)

The data on economic elites showed the same kind of influence. The more that rich people were together on an issue, the more likely they were to get their way.

What about the average citizen?

The slope is close to zero. Ninety percent of average citizens may favor or oppose some policy, but  their preferences have little impact (unless, of course, these preferences are also those of interest groups or, especially, economic elites). These folks may be citizens united, but they are also citizens powerless.
As Gilens and Page summarize their findings.

Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all. By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy. This does not mean that theories of Economic-Elite Domination are wholly upheld, since our results indicate that individual elites must share their policy influence with organized interest groups. Still, economic elites stand out as quite influential—more so than any other set of actors studied here—in the making of U.S. public policy.

When I first looked at the Pew data on the alienated non-voters, I thought about it in terms of cognitive consistency. If you don’t feel that your vote makes a difference, it makes no sense to bother finding out about the candidates.

The same logic applies to the “good” citizens. If you follow the news, if you develop a preference for a candidate, if you think it’s important who gets elected, then you will be more likely to vote. And if you’re going to vote, it would make sense to also think that your vote made a difference. So the news followers develop a false sense of efficacy. If the Gilens-Page study is right, however, if you want to have any influence at all, voting is far less important that other things you might do, like aligning yourself with an interest group, or getting rich – really, really rich.

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