Bryan Caplan  

The Logic of Gilensian Activism

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Martin Gilens' Affluence and Influence argues that when America's rich disagree with their fellow citizens, American democracy heeds the rich.  His evidence is hardly airtight, but by the standards of social science, it's fairly compelling.  To me, he provides an interesting story about why democracy isn't even worse.  Gilens himself, however, seems distraught.  As he and subsequent co-author Benjamin Page put it:
What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of "populistic" democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule -- at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.
Rather than renew debates about the rationality and selfishness of the American voter (no on both counts, but who's counting?), let's ponder a new question: What does Gilens' research imply for political activism?  Gilens could urge activists to wake the sleeping majority.  But American democracy's fixation on the preferences of the rich looks deeply rooted.  Gilens' results hold for the entire period he examines - from Johnson to Bush II.  There's no sign that matters used to be different.

The pragmatic response, then, is to tailor activism to Gilens' realities.  At first, you might sigh, "It's hopeless.  The rich will get their way no matter what activists do."  This would be a correct inference if rich voters relentlessly sought their objective self-interest.  But Gilens doesn't say that American democracy is heavily biased in favor of the interests of the rich; he says that it's heavily biased in favor of the opinions of the rich.  In fact, the opinions of the rich only sporadically differ from the general population's, which is why sophisticated statistics are required to detect the rich's oversize influence.

So contrary to appearances, Gilens' analysis doesn't imply that activism is futile.  The correct inference to draw, rather, is that effective activism must convert the rich.  Moneybags run the show, but they're open to persuasion.  Swallow your egalitarian scruples and figure out how to communicate effectively with the plutocracy.  Since income and education are highly correlated, you'll want to tailor your rhetoric to both economic and educational elites.  And since the young are far easier to convert than their elders, you'll want to focus on budding elites - not the whole age distribution.

The logic of Gilensian activism may sicken you, but it tantalizes me.  My writings, rationalist and iconoclastic to the core, will never appeal to the man in the street or the powers-that-be.  When I address young elites, however, my thoughts stand a fighting chance.  Even in the best-case scenario, this gives me little influence over short-run policy; young elites are only a minority of the influential class.  But persistence pays off.  Anyone who can convert two successive generations of young elites can move policy mountains.  See gay marriage.

Or how about immigration policy?  From the standpoint of mild liberalization in 2014, my abolitionism is quixotic, if not counter-productive.  The Center for Immigration Studies' Mark Krikorian isn't entirely wrong to tweet:
But Mark does miss the big picture.  Namely: The principled case for open borders is already making young elites wonder if mandatory discrimination against foreigners has a moral leg to stand on.  The more publicity my ideas get, the more young elites will wonder - and it's hard for them to wonder long without reaching the right answer.  Who cares what these overprivileged kids think?  Because if Gilens is right, their opinions will eventually decide policy.

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Christopher Chang writes:

I support your efforts to get "young elites", and others, to think about your ideas. I estimate that you have so far slightly *reduced* the legislative prospects of unwanted forms of immigration liberalization, while increasing interest in open borders as a long-term goal worth deliberately working toward, and I believe both of these effects are beneficial.

But in your endorsement of presidential fiat amnesty, you have gone way, way off the rails. Such a step is completely unnecessary for your stated "fast-forwarding" goal in a world where Argentina already practices open borders with citizen consent, and Sweden is a "rich country" in almost in the same boat. If you actually believe in the basic economic principle of mutually acceptable transactions, these are the obvious places for you to focus your attention. The future is here, and you can join it! What is the point of demanding "presidential fiat" dictatorial action in America instead of playing by the legislative rules that have served Americans well for so long, unless "minus 65% GDP" is your real objective? Take a close look at post-1920s Argentine history, see that people with your current level of arrogance managed to wreck a country with near-US levels of prosperity, and admit your mistake. (And helping them return to near-US prosperity would be an appropriate penance that, by any sane estimate, would also go a very long way toward advancing your vision.)

Lord Vader writes:

So how do you know the rich have similar opinions to the poor? I mean, how many opinions can there really be?

Also, if the rich carry the same opinions as the masses, that doesn't prove who's following who.

With that said, I do not believe wealth equates to an oversized effect. Fame probably does though.

Arthur B. writes:

Does Gilen offer a causal link? There are several explanations to the phenomenon which aren't.

- Rich people like the status quo
- People who dislike the status quo are less likely to become rich and more likely to lose money.

Is there evidence of the political status quo lagging the opinion of the wealthy?

mucgoo writes:

A video by Mike Stroud on open borders recently got shared into my facebook. The video is from 14th September 2014.

Mike Stroud is a young facebook/web personality (never previously heard of him). He's got 130,000 followers and posted an (unrefined) moral argument although never quite got to the end goal of open borders. No outrages and plenty of likes and shares.

The fact a web personality with 130,000 (of course the number matters, it represent a fairly broad reach) youthful followers is posting a video with a pro open border sentiment is precisely the "young elites wonder if mandatory discrimination against foreigners has a moral leg to stand on".

[comment edited with permission of commenter--Econlib Ed.]

Roger Koppl writes:

Brilliant and highly Misesian -- and Keynesian-- analysis!

ThomasH writes:

I think there is a lot in this. I don't really think that people opposing carbon taxes are doing so exclusively out of self-interest. Good science and good economic arguments will win out.

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