Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton University discussed his research findings in the Olmstead Room on Mon, Jan. 25, 2016. In 2012 Gilens wrote a book titled “Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America”, which was the topic he spoke on at K. Approximately 100 people attended the event and a brief discussion followed.
Gilens spoke as a guest for the annual William Weber Lecture in Government and Society. President Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran and Professor Justin Berry introduced Gilens and gave a short history of the Weber Lectures.
“I was delighted to be asked to give the Weber Lecture at Kalamazoo College,” Gilens said. “Public interest in my work is personally gratifying. But more importantly, it reflects Americans’ deep concerns over a political system that is unresponsive to their needs and dominated by the wealthy and special interests.”
Gilens research concluded that affluent individuals have the most influence on policy making, and corporation and business-oriented interest groups follow. Lastly, ordinary citizens have the least amount of influence demonstrated by a 30 percent of policies suggested by ordinary income citizens being adopted.
Gilens based his results on 1,800 survey questions over three decades. He created three graphs—average citizens, economic elites, and interest groups—that predicted the likelihood of a policy being adopted where percent support was on the x-axis, and probability that a policy is adopted is on the y-axis. The average citizen’s line had no slope, while the economic elites and interest groups had different but positive slopes, indicating that money does indeed have an effect on a policy’s adoption.
Gilens went on to discuss issues such as unemployment, welfare, minimum wage raises, and deficits, and how their support varied between economic classes. He then shifted into discussing campaign funding to prove that the upper 0.01 percent of America controls the election funding. He showed a graph of Bernie Sanders’ campaign breakdown and how his funding consisted mainly of small donations of less than $200. He thought it possible for Sanders to win the democratic nomination with his current funding techniques.
“Will Bernie Sanders go on to win the national election with small donors?” Gilens asked the audience. “That strikes me as extremely unlikely, but time will tell.”
After offering numerous pieces of statistical evidence, Gilens told the audience several types of reform that could help – campaign finance, lobbying, and electoral.
“Change can’t take place unless you reform the political system to get money out of politics,” Gilens said. “If enough people care enough and work hard enough, I believe we can break the vicious cycle of political and economic power reinforcing each other.”