Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in the United States


Wednesday, September 14, 2011, 4:10pm to 5:30pm


124 Mt. Auburn Street, Suite 200-North, Cambridge, MA

Martin Gilens

Martin Gilens, Princeton University

About the Seminar
By allowing voters to choose among candidates with competing policy orientations and by providing incentives for incumbents to shape policy in the direction the public desires, elections are thought to provide the foundation that links government policy to the preferences of the governed. In this seminar, Gilens examines the extent to which the preference/policy link is biased toward the preferences of high-income Americans. Using an original data set of almost two thousand survey questions on proposed policy changes between 1981 and 2002, he finds a moderately strong relationship between what the public wants and what the government does, albeit with a strong bias toward the status quo. But he also finds 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 virtually no relationship to the preferences of poor or middle-income Americans. The vast discrepancy he finds in government responsiveness to citizens with different incomes stands in stark contrast to the ideal of political equality that Americans hold dear. Although perfect political equality is an unrealistic goal, representational biases of this magnitude call into question the very democratic character of our society.

About the Speaker
Martin Gilens is associate professor of politics at Princeton University. His research examines public opinion and mass media, especially in relation to inequality, public policy, and citizen competence, and democratic responsiveness to public preferences. Professor Gilens is the author of Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy, and has published on political inequality, mass media, race, gender, and welfare politics in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, The Journal of Politics, the British Journal of Political Science, Public Opinion Quarterly, and the Berkeley Journal of Sociology. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California Berkeley, and taught at Yale University and UCLA before joining the faculty at Princeton. His research has been supported by grants from the Russell Sage Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council.

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