The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Democracy in America?’: An interview with authors Ben Page and Martin Gilens

The U.S. Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is that our federal government is hardly representative or functional. The good news is that Ben Page and Marty Gilens wrote an excellent new book that diagnoses these problems and provides a convincing set of solutions to them. It’s called “Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It,” and the authors agreed to answer some question I posed to them.

JB: Explain the question mark in the title. Are the two of you suggesting there’s a question as to whether the United States is still a democracy?

BP/MG: The question mark is supposed to allude to two questions: First, is the United States a democracy today? And second, if not, what can we do to change that?

If democracy means government responsiveness to what majorities of citizens want, we present strong evidence that in recent years, the United States has not been very democratic at all. Our analysis of some 2,000 federal government policy decisions indicates that when you take account of what affluent Americans, corporations and organized interest groups want, ordinary citizens have little or no independent influence at all. The wealthy, corporations and organized interest groups have substantial influence. But the estimated influence of the public is statistically indistinguishable from zero.

Moreover, if you simply look at how often ordinary Americans get policy changes they want, you see that they are frequently thwarted. Even big majorities — 60 to 80 percent of Americans — get the policy changes they want only about 40 percent of the time. This has real consequences. Millions of Americans are denied government help with jobs, incomes, health care or retirement pensions. They do not get action against climate change or stricter regulation of the financial sector or a tax system that asks the wealthy to pay a fair share. On all these issues, wealthy Americans tend to want very different things than average Americans do. And the wealthy usually win.

JB: The book emphasizes the unrepresentativeness of the Senate and the way it favors rural areas over cities and suburbs. You point out, for example, that one citizen of Wyoming has about 66 times as much voting power in the Senate as a citizen of California. But that would be awfully hard to fix, no?

BP/MG: The unrepresentativeness of the Senate is probably the most undemocratic feature of the U.S. government, and the hardest to fix. But we have amended the Constitution before — to establish civil rights and liberties, to abolish slavery, to have senators elected directly rather than by corrupted state legislatures, and to allow women to vote. A sufficiently strong popular movement could make the Senate more democratic, too.

JB: You place a great deal of emphasis, as I believe you should, on the rise on economic inequality. What’s the most important thing for our readers to know about inequality and its historical role in our democracy?

BP/MG: Yes, the big increase in economic inequality in recent decades has had a profoundly undemocratic effect on politics. It is easy to transform money into political power. The more money the rich have relative to everyone else, the more political power they can get. Little wonder that we have billionaires picking candidates and officials who push through unpopular laws like the recent tax cuts favoring corporations and the wealthy.

JB: At one point in the book, you describe a self-reinforcing cycle, where wealth concentration drives political outcomes that enrich and strengthen the donor class while blocking policies that would push the other way. I have feared that precise spiral is underway and is, if anything, gaining strength. Since it is self-perpetuating, the cycle seems unstoppable. Please, tell me why I’m wrong about that.

BP/MG: This sort of downward spiral is a huge concern. But we do not believe it will go on forever. It makes people very angry. If popular anger is organized correctly toward the right ends, good things can happen and the spiral can be reversed. The People’s party of the 1890s and the Progressives won direct election of senators, voting rights for women, rights for workers and an income tax on the rich. The labor movement fought back against repression and — for a while — exerted countervailing power against the political influence of corporations. The women’s movement, the civil rights movement and many other popular movements have achieved great things. We believe that a social movement for justice and democracy is coming into existence now and that it has the potential to make the United States much more democratic.

JB: Some of these sorts of books end by essentially saying, “And someone ought to figure out what to do about that.” But one of the best aspects of this book is the extensive set of ideas to repair our democracy. What do you think are the most important reforms we should pursue?

BP/MG: There are four main pathways to more democracy, each of them important. Curtail the political power of money; enfranchise all citizens and make sure their votes count; depolarize and democratize the political parties; and democratize our political institutions and election rules. Our book spells out many specific reforms that can help advance these goals.

The most urgent job is to get clean election laws and public funding of campaigns. Then we can begin to escape the political tyranny of money. Along with that, we need automatic universal registration of voters, while also making it easier to vote — with Election Day a national holiday. We need to get our political parties depolarized and listening to ordinary citizens by curtailing the power of big donors and extremist party activists in low-turnout, unrepresentative primary elections. The best way to do that would be more competitive and less money-dominated elections, forcing politicians to respond to the needs of ordinary citizens as opposed to campaign donors, partisan activists or interest groups.

But smaller measures could help, too, such as reform of the one-party House of Representatives so that a few extremists can no longer block legislation Americans want. Those things could be done fairly quickly and easily if people insist on them. Some other crucial reforms, such as getting a more democratic Senate, will take longer.

JB: I get the sense that you are at least somewhat optimistic about the potential for real improvement in the representativeness of U.S. politics. If that’s right, why?

BP/MG: That brings us back to the second meaning of the question mark — can America become more democratic?  Our answer is a resounding yes! The vast majority of Americans recognize that our society and economy are failing millions of citizens. Most of them understand that those failures result from a dysfunctional political system. Today, Americans are politically engaged at levels we have not seen for decades. States and localities are leading the way, with raises in the minimum wage, adoption of family leave laws and electoral reforms such as publicly funded elections and automatic voter registration. Entrenched interests are fighting back, but with enough effort by enough people over a long enough time, progressive change is possible. Americans have done it before. We can do it again!