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.