How Democracy Works

Cartoon by Barry

The cartoon has three panels. Each panel shows a crowd of milling citizens, who vary in sex, race, and age, yelling up to a giant white man wearing a suit and tie. The giant’s head is far distant from the citizens, and he gives no sign of hearing what they’re saying.

PANEL 1
GIANT: I’m PROUD I’ve been elected to represent the great people of this region!
CROWD1: I’ve been unemployed for six months!
CROWD2: How come the banks get help…

PANEL 2
From offpanel, a giant hand hands the giant white man a giant bundle of cash.
GIANT: I promise I’ll — Pardon me a moment. THANKS, Eric.
CROWD1: Medical costs keep going up…
CROWD2: In jail for a joint…

Panel 3
The giant resumes speaking while he pockets the bundle of cash.
GIANT: I PROMISE I’ll ALWAYS listen to the voices of ORDINARY CITIZENS!
CROWD1: Tuition has doubled…
CROWD2: Unemployed for ten months…

CAPTION (Running across the strip, under all three panels): HOW DEMOCRACY WORKS

Quoting a paper by Martin Gilens (pdf link):

Using an original data set of almost 2,000 survey questions on proposed policy changes between 1981 and 2002, I find a moderately strong relationship between what the public wants and what the government does, albeit with a strong bias toward the status quo. But I also find that when Americans with different income levels differ in their policy preferences, actual policy outcomes strongly reflect the preferences of the most affluent but bear little relationship to the preferences of poor or middle income Americans.

In the table above, the dark line represents the opinions of the highest-earning 10% of Americans. The further to the right the dark line goes, the more that top 10% wants a policy change to happen. And the further towards the top the dark line goes, the more likely it is that politicians will make the desired policy change happen. As you can see, the more the top 10% want a change, the more likely it is to happen.

The gray line represents the opinions of the lowest-earning 10% of Americans. As you can see, it’s completely irrelevant what they (er, we?) think. Politicians couldn’t care less. Gilens also has a similar graph showing that politicians barely listen any more to middle-class Americans than they do to poor Americans.

(See also, this essay by political scientist Larry Bartels.)

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