Research | Spring 2019 Issue

Money. Politics. Power.

Martin Gilens imagines a new democracy

By Richard E. Meyer

Martin Gilens is not surprised that some people think he’s scary.

He wants to take private money out of political campaigns and use public funding in­stead; make voter registration automatic and universal; declare Election Day a holi­day to give working people more time to vote; designate additional polling places; keep them open longer; let ex-felons vote, per­haps felons, too; maybe even make voting com­pulsory and fine those who don’t cast ballots.

Twenty-eight countries do.

Gilens also wants to abolish primaries; eliminate or neuter the electoral college; choose of­ficeholders in general elections with ranked voting and instant run­offs; or better yet, combine Congress and the presidency into a uniquely American par­liament with proportional representation and multimember districts.

All of this to make the United States more democratic.

Gilens doesn’t look scary. He is a professor of public policy at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, mild-mannered, soft-spoken and quick to smile. His proposals are based on research for his latest book, Democracy in Amer­ica? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do about It, written with Benjamin I. Page, the Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University.

Gilens laughs about being feared, but he understands why certain people may think that he should be. During an interview in his office, cluttered with books and scholarly papers, he said his work “shines a light on something that rich and powerful people would prefer not to draw attention to – the inequality of political influence in our country. . . .”

“People with a lot power,” he said, “might find it inconvenient that scholars are studying this issue and bringing the tools of social science research to bear. But most Americans will not find this scary. If anything, they would say, ‘It’s nice to see some hard evidence of what I have believed all along.’ ”

Average Americans know about unemployment, flat-line wages, spiraling medical costs and attempts to cut or privatize Social Security. They ride rick­ety trains. They drive on crumbling streets and cross shaky bridges. They worry about the environ­ment and inattention to climate change. They fear gun violence. Their chil­dren at­tend ne­glected schools and can’t afford college. Meanwhile, their pleas to make taxes more progressive are ignored.

Surveys show they want to change all this, but they don’t think they can.

What’s most discouraging, Gilens said, is that they are right.

Against the clout of the rich and powerful – many of whom are more interested in downsizing government, limiting social spending and lowering taxes on the wealthy – average Americans don’t have much muscle.

The culprit, Gilens said, is too little democracy. Gilens and Page define democracy as “policy responsiveness to ordinary citizens – that is, popular control of government. Or simply ‘majority rule.’ ”

“We should be outraged at the degree to which the wealthy and the powerful have hijacked our political system,” Gilens said. “Things have gotten worse over time in an era when we’ve actually become more affluent as a country. That is unconscionable. It’s not that we can’t, as a country, provide a secure life for our citi­zens; it’s that we choose not to. And the central reason, I believe, is because political influence is so unequally distributed.”

He and Page call it an “explosion of inequality.”

From California and back

Gilens was born and grew up in Sherman Oaks, earned his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, then taught political science at Yale, where a fascination with inequality took hold and he began his previous book, Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.

He taught at UCLA for three years, then at Princeton for 15 years, where he finished Affluence & Influence and began working with Page on Democracy in America? It was published in 2017 by the University of Chicago Press.

Gilens returned to UCLA last year to join the Luskin School. His wife, Janet Felton, who also grew up in Los Angeles, teaches at the UCLA Graduate School of Education lab school. With their two children grown and gone, Gilens says, they were happy to come back to “our homeland.”

His concern about inequality has not waned. The title of one of his works in progress is Campaign Finance and Repre­sentational Inequality.

How to pay for politics

The most important reform for America, Gilens said, is taking private money out of politics. “Money profoundly corrupts U.S. politics,” he and Page write in De­mocracy in America? “We’re not talking about bribery,” Gilens said in his interview. Bribery is a quid pro quo exchange of something valuable – often money – for a favor. It is a crime, and it’s comparatively rare. More common, Gilens said, is sys­temic corruption. “It’s not an envelope of cash.”

He and Page quote Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard ethicist and law professor, as saying that a government institution – Congress, for instance – is systemically cor­rupted when its members are subject to an “improper or conflicting dependency.” During the most recent election cycle, political parties and their candidates raised and spent – and thus depended uponmore than $6.9 billion in private campaign contributions.

Average Americans, whom he and Page define as “those in the middle of the income distribution,” cannot afford large political donations. As a consequence, Page and Gilens write, “they have little or no influence over the making of U.S. government policy.” On the other hand, they say, “wealthy Americans wield a lot of influence. . . .

“Political money makes a mockery of the idea of one person, one vote.”

In their research, Page and Gilens define affluent Americans as those in the top 20 percent of the money distribution, with annual incomes of at least $160,000 in 2016. However, they write, “we suspect that much of the influence that we have detected is being wielded by a tiny group within the affluent: the ‘truly wealthy’ – that is, multimillionaires and billionaires who can afford to donate thou­sands, even millions, of dollars to super powerful political action committees (PACS, or super PACS) that can accept unlimited donations.”

Timing is nearly as important as volume. Early money is crucial; without it, politicians drop out. Dur­ing the first six months of 2015, almost half of the money backing Republican or Democratic presidential candidates for the 2016 election – $179 million – came from only 158 families or their com­panies. The families tried to hide information about their contributions. Gilens and Page credit investigative reporters with finding out that most of the families gave to can­didates “who pledged to cut back economic regulations; to cut taxes on high incomes, capital gains and estates; and to shrink entitlement pro­grams” such as Social Security.

Those are not the priorities of average Americans. “Money counts in politics,” Gilens said. “Big money counts most.” Although Democrats have their billionaires, most of those with big money are Republicans. The ones who contribute most, “es­pecially wealthy individuals, multibillion-dollar corporations, and corporate owners and managers, get, in effect, many extra votes to decide which public policies will be enacted and which rejected. . . .”

“It’s more like one dollar, one vote,” Gilens said. “The wealthy few tend to rule. Average citizens lose political power. Democracy declines.”

In Democracy in America?, Gilens and Page graph 1,779 important changes in federal policy proposed between 1981 and 2002. It mattered not whether 20 percent or 80 percent of average Americans opposed or favored a change. Regardless, the change happened only 30 percent of the time.

On the other hand, support or opposition from affluent Americans and organized interest groups made a significant difference.

The graph is visual proof of the weakness of ordinary citizens. “The essence of democracy is popular control of government, with each citizen hav­ing an equal voice,” Page and Gilens write. Without that, democracy can turn into “tyranny on short notice.”

One commentator, Ezra Klein, editor-at-large and co-founder of Vox, called their research “terrifying.”

Gilens and Page propose:

  • Changing the Supreme Court – its justices and its doctrine. Starting with Buckey v. Valeo in 1976, then with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and Speech Now v. Federal Election Commission, both in 2010, the court has loos­ened restrictions on both private and corporate campaign contributions so signifi­cantly that its rulings have become “destructive of democracy,” Gilens and Page write. In 2012, these rulings made it possible for only one tenth of one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans to provide almost half of the money spent in federal elections. It might require a constitutional amendment, Gilens said, but it is important to end the trend toward more and more campaign funding coming “from fewer and fewer rich people.” As of three years ago, 16 states favored an amendment to overturn Citizens United. In 2014, a majority of the U.S. Senate voted in support of such an amend­ment.
  • Requiring full disclosure of all major political contributions. Contributors of $200 or more to federal candidates and PACS must be reported to the Federal Elec­tion Commission, which makes the donors and amounts public. But so-called social welfare organizations need not report who contributes to them, or say how much each donor gives. Page and Gilens call this “stealth politics.” By means of secret spending, they write, it “enhances the power of private money by making it hard to identify the donors or to work against them. Full legal disclosure of how much money is spent, by whom, for which causes or candidates, would help create ac­countability. In 2012, Page and Gilens say, “more than $300 million was spent by groups that did not disclose their donors.”
  • Using public money to fund campaigns. Gilens and Page credit Lessig for being a leading proponent of Democracy Vouchers – value cards from the U.S. Treasury worth $50 to donate to a candidate or candidates. Page and Gilens would add this stipulation: To accept Democracy Vouchers, candi­dates would have to agree not to take any other money. “If the vouchers were big enough so that all candidates would accept them,” they write, “it could ultimately lead to totally ending the role of private money in elections.” And that, complete public funding, Gilens said, is what he wants most of all.

 

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After taking private money out of politics, he said, the second-most important reform is making it easier for people to vote.

Only about two-thirds of Americans register. The reason is that voters are required to do it personally, Gilens said. It often requires an inconvenient trip to an office and well before the election itself when politics is not on people’s minds. In many states, whole categories of people – such as ex-felons who have already paid their debt to society – are forbidden to register. “It’s not even obvious,” Gilens said, “why you should lose your right to vote if you’ve been convicted at all. . . .”

He and Page propose:

  • Making voter registration automatic and universal. Federal, state and local governments should keep accurate and complete lists of people who are eligible to vote, Gilens said in his interview. The only requirement to be listed, he said, should be citizenship. “We might – or might not – want to take one more step,” Page and Gilens say, “and make voting compulsory (perhaps with a small fine for nonparticipation).”
  • Adding polling places, lengthening voting hours and declaring Election Day a national holiday. Doing those things would make it easier for workers to cast their ballots, and the increase in turnout would relieve a significant skew in voters as a whole, who are not representative of the citizenry. “The affluent are much more likely to vote than the poor,” Page and Gilens say, “the old more likely than the young, and whites more likely than members of racial or ethnic minorities.” This is important because research shows that the policy preferences of voters differ in sig­nificant ways from the preferences of nonvoters. Historically, surveys show that peo­ple who do not vote have been nearly twice as likely to lack health insurance and more likely to favor universal health care, Page and Gilens write. Non-voters also have been more favorable to increasing the minimum wage, organizing unions, providing government job guarantees and giving federal aid to public schools. If all citizens voted at the same rate, Page and Gilens say, both major political parties would be forced to pay more attention to the prefer­ences of lower-income citizens, and “we might end up with . . . policies more reflec­tive of what majorities of all Americans want.”
  • Abolishing primary elections. Only a small number of atypical voters par­ticipate. Primary elections, Page and Gilens say, empower campaign donors, ideo­logical activists and special interest groups.
  • Eliminating or neutering the electoral college. “Surveys have regularly shown that large majorities of Americans favor moving to a strictly popular vote system,” Page and Gilens write. “One way to effectively abolish the electoral college without needing a constitutional amendment is for individual states to agree to award all their elec­toral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, contingent on enough other states doing the same, so that together they can determine the winner.”
  • Choosing of­ficeholders directly in general elections with ranked voting and instant runoffs. With primaries and the electoral college out of the way, put all candidates who collect “a substantial but not excessively burdensome” number of signatures directly onto the general-election ballot. Voters would rank their choices. If a candidate has more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins. If no candidate has more than half, then the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. Voters who selected the defeated candi­date would have their votes added to the total of their next-highest choice. The process continues until one candidate has more than half of all the votes. That candidate wins. Page and Gilens call the system an “instant run­off.”
  • Or scrapping the U.S. scheme of elections altogether. Substitute, they say, an American version of the parliamentary system of proportional representation used in Great Britain and scores of other nations around the world. Parliaments are not perfect, Page and Gilens write, but they “do well at ensuring that minorities as well as majorities are represented.” The American difference would be to pick more than one representative for each district. “American-style PR [proportional represen­tation], without primary elections and with multiple representatives chosen from each district, would give more voters a voice in their legislature, reduce the ability of party activists and donors to push through candidates who are out of step with their district, enhance the prospects of minor party candidates [and] provide a mech­anism by which new ideas can gain traction.”

Toward a movement

Reform is often greeted with fierce opposition. Adversaries have targeted not only these recommendations, but also Gilens’ proposal to ease gridlock by eliminat­ing veto points in government institutions – Senate filibusters, for example. Some also resist his call for a ban on gerrymandering and revolving-door policies that per­mit depart­ing officeholders to become lobbyists.

“Overall,” he said, “resistance mostly comes from Republicans because they, proba­bly accurately, believe that they would lose out.” He cited Sen­ate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s opposition to making Election Day a fed­eral holiday. McConnell called it a Democratic “power grab.”

Gilens and Page say that enacting more than a few of their suggestions probably would require a social move­ment, akin to the Civil Rights Movement or the Antiwar Movement.

Gilens has a proposal: Call it the Democracy Movement.

Richard E. Meyer

Richard E. Meyer

Meyer has been a White House correspondent and national news features writer for the Associated Press and a roving national correspondent and editor of long-form narratives at the Los Angeles Times. He has written two stories that were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and edited two that won. At Los Angeles magazine, he acquired and edited a story that won the National Magazine Award. He has won the Sigma Delta Chi award for magazine reporting and shared the Merriman Smith Award for deadline writing and the Worth Bingham Prize for investigative reporting.

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