Study: Yep, American Presidents Are Guided By Wealthy Elites

FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2010, file photo President Barack Obama congratulates Warren Buffett after presenting him with a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom in an East Room ceremony at the White House in Washington. I... FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2010, file photo President Barack Obama congratulates Warren Buffett after presenting him with a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom in an East Room ceremony at the White House in Washington. In his weekly radio and internet address Saturday April 14, 2012, Obama urged Americans to ask their member of Congress to support the "Buffett Rule," named after the billionaire investor who says he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. Obama says the nation can't afford to keep giving tax cuts to the wealthiest, "who don't need them and didn't even ask for them." (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) MORE LESS
Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

The idea that U.S. presidents look out for the wealthy and powerful over the mass of ordinary Americans is nothing new. But a new study claims to confirm that assumption with hard data while seeking to spur a conversation over the flagging health of American democracy.

Echoing a much-discussed paper out of Princeton last year that argued the U.S. is no longer a proper representative democracy, the book, “Who Governs?” is an exploration of presidents, public opinion, and manipulation.

James N. Druckman from Northwesten University and Lawrence R. Jacobs from University of Minnesota make the case that presidents from both Republican and Democratic parties mainly serve and are guided by the wishes of the wealthy and political elites and exploit public opinion in order to serve those ends.

The duo turn to previously confidential documents from presidential archives, interviews with White House officials, and previously unquantified data to argue that “elites do most of the deciding,” since presidents purposefully aim to “shirk citizen control.”

“Presidents claim to speak for ‘the people’ and to serve the ‘public good,’ but we reveal the impact of narrow political and economic interests,” they write in the introduction.

Surveying the Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan administrations, the authors found evidence “that presidents — Reagan, in particular — were highly attentive to the demands of privileged segments of the electorate with high incomes and other politically valued resources.” (Druckman and Jacobs note that additional research on more recent presidents meshed with their general findings.)

Sticking with Reagan as an example:

When the general public’s opinions shift from 10 percent below to 10 percent above the average [in a conservative direction], Reagan became 3.5 percent more conservative, compared to a whopping 20 percent more conservative for an analogous move among the affluent …

Put simply, these results demonstrate that Reagan clearly paid dramatic attention to the views of the wealthy on economic issues.

It gets worse, according to Druckman and Jacobs: not only is the White House pursuing the interests and goals of elites at the expense of the public, it is also dedicated to “shaping public opinion to advance its interests and those of its narrow group of supporters.” Polling is a chance to exert further influence on the majority, rather than to learn what they want.

“Private White House polling that might on the surface appear to confirm responsiveness to the general public is used for quite different purposes — to cater to narrow interests and mobilize new political constituencies,” they write.

The pair conclude the paper brainstorming ways to overcome this cycle, from factionalizing elites and creating more intra-elite competition, to promoting stronger public forums so ordinary Americans can start identifying as citizens, not consumers, with a stake in the system.

Latest DC

Notable Replies

  1. I am shocked, shocked I tell you to learn that rich people have more access to the President than I do.

  2. The pair conclude the paper brainstorming ways to overcome this cycle, from factionalizing elites and creating more intra-elite competition, to promoting stronger public forums…

    Or, we could just stop defining corporations as people and money as speech.

    (Crazy talk; I know.)

  3. I also expect this study to be on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me this weekend

  4. But a new study claims to confirm that assumption with hard data while seeking to spur a conversation over the flagging health of American democracy.

    WOW!!! That’s prime science right there!!!

    Can we have a study with hard data to remove any doubt that water is really wet now?

  5. Avatar for theod theod says:

    And all along we thought the voices in Ronald Reagan’s head were just old movie scripts, Nancy, and the WH astrologer. Who knew?

Continue the discussion at forums.talkingpointsmemo.com

58 more replies

Participants

Avatar for system1 Avatar for littlegirlblue Avatar for brainpicnic Avatar for matthew1961 Avatar for Valentinus Avatar for theod Avatar for bradbennett Avatar for irasdad Avatar for horrido Avatar for judie_vc Avatar for gr Avatar for richardnixonhuberthumphrey Avatar for go2goal Avatar for martinheldt Avatar for atomicfern Avatar for jeffrey Avatar for dickweed Avatar for hugopreuss Avatar for jaybeeraybee Avatar for khaaannn Avatar for d_major Avatar for mikev Avatar for puppies Avatar for claccker

Continue Discussion
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Publisher:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: