Money in Politics: Empirical evidence for what we all know

I just finished reading two papers that show without any doubt that money in politics is an excellent investment.

  1. Economic elites, and organized groups representing business interests, have substantial impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no influence.
  2. Congressional officials grant preferential access to constituents who reveal that they are active campaign donors.

Paper 1: Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics 12, 3 (September 2014), 564–581.

What do their findings say about democracy in America?

They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, their findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

The authors were interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

Paper 2: Joshua L. Kalla and David E. Broockman,  “Congressional Officials Grant Access to Individuals Because They Have Contributed to Campaigns: A Randomized Field Experiment.” Open Computing Facility, University of California, Berkeley.


Concern that donations to political campaigns secure preferential treatment from lawmakers has long occupied judges, scholars, and the public. However, the effects of political donations on legislators’ behavior have proven notoriously difficult to assess. The authors present the first randomized field experiment on the effects of campaign contributions on access to policymakers. In the experiment, a political organization attempted to schedule meetings between 191 Congressional offices and active campaign donors in their districts. However, the organization randomly assigned whether it revealed to Congressional offices that prospective attendees had contributed to campaigns. When informed prospective attendees were political donors, senior policymakers made themselves available between three and four times more often (p < 0.01). These findings underscore concerns about the Supreme Court’s recent decisions deregulating campaign finance.

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