Martin Gilens’ Affluence & Influence (2012): A Review

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by Dr. Roger I. Roots

There is a book (and several studies) by Princeton Sociologist Martin Gilens making the rounds among “campaign finance reformers” of late. Gilens purports to have analyzed extensive data regarding the political preferences of the affluent, the middle class, and the poor, and to have distinguished between the three. The book is essentially Marxist in its obsession with class struggle, and government’s responsiveness to the wishes of the poor, as opposed to those of the middle class, as opposed to those of the rich.

Gilens’ overarching theme and conclusion is that the political system responds more favorably to the policy preferences of the affluent than to the policy preferences of the poor or the middle class. His work is cited commonly by the government-trusting “left” as grounds for constitutional amendments, “democracy vouchers,” and other mechanisms to further empower the government in the area of campaign messaging.

This research might be criticized on many grounds. Gilens has made dozens—maybe hundreds, maybe thousands—of choices regarding which polls to cite, and which statutes of Congress or policies of the president to count as successful enactments. By picking some polls and not others, or pointing to some policies and not others, Gilens pronounces (don’t laugh) that the U.S. government has veered deeply toward a free-market, libertarian agenda—as (he claims) is favored by the ultra-rich.

Of course, even the most superficial scrutiny of long-term trends (e.g., the growing share of GDP taken up by government) demonstrates the general falsity of some of Gilens’ assertions.

Gilens’ work contains a built-in bias favoring the notion that “democracy” works best when political representatives are most responsive to majorities. But most people (rich, poor or otherwise) would probably admit that majorities are often wrong, or hold opinions that are superficial and not well thought-out. Minorities with more in-depth knowledge or experience in a given topic area might hold “better” opinions on some things, and any wise policymaker should be well aware of this.
But Gilens is obsessed with notions that any failure by government to respond to voting majorities represents proof of manipulation by the affluent.

Totally lacking in Gilens’ analysis is any notion that government has an interest, or that that interest could ever be malevolent. Gilens appears to have overlooked vast polling which shows Americans have become highly suspicious of government, that voters regard government as “an immediate threat” (Gallup’s words) to their lives, that voters overwhelmingly (by supermajorities) favor tax cuts, and that voters believe the federal government wastes the majority of money it receives.

The true scandal of modern American politics, of course, is that democratic majorities want more freedom and are not getting it.

There is an interesting discussion of the Bush tax cuts in Chapter 7 of Affluence & Influence. Gilens is deeply troubled by the seemingly (to him) unexpected support by the poor for tax cuts that helped the rich. In Gilens’ view, there could be no good reason (other than “false consciousness”) for the poor to favor free-market reforms of any kind. The poor, according to Gilens, should support nothing other than socialism and redistribution as being in their best interests. Gilens has almost certainly never read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.

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