Can a country be a democracy if its government only responds to the preferences of the rich? In an ideal democracy, all citizens should have equal influence on government policy—but as this book demonstrates, America’s policymakers respond almost exclusively to the preferences of the economically advantaged. Affluence and Influence definitively explores how political inequality in the United States has evolved over the last several decades and how this growing disparity has been shaped by interest groups, parties, and elections.
With sharp analysis and an impressive range of data, Martin Gilens looks at thousands of proposed policy changes, and the degree of support for each among poor, middle-class, and affluent Americans. His findings are staggering: when preferences of low- or middle-income Americans diverge from those of the affluent, there is virtually no relationship between policy outcomes and the desires of less advantaged groups. In contrast, affluent Americans’ preferences exhibit a substantial relationship with policy outcomes whether their preferences are shared by lower-income groups or not. Gilens shows that representational inequality is spread widely across different policy domains and time periods. Yet Gilens also shows that under specific circumstances the preferences of the middle class and, to a lesser extent, the poor, do seem to matter. In particular, impending elections—especially presidential elections—and an even partisan division in Congress mitigate representational inequality and boost responsiveness to the preferences of the broader public.
At a time when economic and political inequality in the United States only continues to rise, Affluence and Influence raises important questions about whether American democracy is truly responding to the needs of all its citizens.
Awards and Recognition
- Winner of the 2016 AAPOR Book Award, American Association for Public Opinion Research
- Winner of the 2013 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award, American Political Science Association
- One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles Top 25 Academic Books for 2013
Martin Gilens is professor of politics at Princeton University. He is the author of Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy.
"Inequality in America is steadily worsening, and nowhere is that more worrying than in our politics. This deservedly prize-winning book offers compelling new evidence that affluent Americans have much more influence than their fellow citizens and that this disparity is growing."—Robert Putnam, Harvard University
"Our democracy isn't: That's the inescapable conclusion of this incredibly powerful and beautifully written book. Too important for academics alone, this is required reading for any citizen, or anyone anywhere trying to understand how history's most important democracy has lost its way."—Lawrence Lessig, Harvard University
"Democracy is based on the ideal that every citizen has an equal potential to shape what government does. With care and without cant, Gilens shows that we are very far from this ideal in contemporary American politics. The economically privileged don't always get what they want. But, according to Gilen's pioneering analysis, they are much more influential than those below them on the economic ladder. Affluence and Influence is a landmark in the study of representation."—Jacob Hacker, coauthor of Winner-Take-All Politics
"When the U.S. government makes policies on critical issues, it responds to the preferences of the affluent, but often ignores the poor and middle class. Using public opinion and policy data in innovative ways, this eye-opening book explores the reasons for unequal government responsiveness to citizen preferences. For anyone who cares about inequality and democracy in America, this book goes at the top of the reading list. A home run."—Theda Skocpol, Harvard University
"Affluence and Influence is social science at its best, melding sophisticated scholarship with moral purpose. The book shows how better-off Americans sway elections and get the laws they want. If other citizens feel unrepresented, Gilens's analysis could be a first step toward redress."—Andrew Hacker, Queens College
"This is an important book, destined to be a classic. It is the definitive statement to date on a big topic: how general public opinion, the opinions of affluent citizens, and the views of organized interest groups affect the making of U.S. public policy. Containing scrupulous analysis and well-supported claims, Affluence and Influence will have great scholarly impact and reach broad audiences concerned with American politics, public policy, and democratic theory."—Benjamin I. Page, Northwestern University
"This book addresses fundamental questions about equality and democratic responsiveness in the United States, and concludes that government policies are more responsive to affluent citizens than to others less well off. Part of the novelty and richness of the book comes from its description of specific policy issues and cases, which provides a detailed and important picture of real-world American politics."—Robert Y. Shapiro, Columbia University