Martin Gilens – “Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America”

Martin Gilens, professor of politics at Princeton University and a member of the executive committee of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, discussed his new book as part of the Wilson School’s “Talk of 2012: The Upcoming Presidential Election” thematic lecture series. The discussion was co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics and the Department of Politics.


so in the mid-1960s in my
quantitative analysis
was a period of very low association
between public preferences and policy
outcomes the opposite set of political
conditions and the strongest period of
association between public preferences
and policy outcomes was much to my great
surprise during the early years of the
george w bush first term and when i did
that analysis and saw that not only
where the policy is adopted in 2001 and
2002 consistent with what affluent
Americans wanted but we’re also the most
consistent with what the middle class
and the poor wanted from any period of
in my data set it was fairly certain
there must be some sort of error there
in coding or something must have gone
wrong so like you know a good social
scientist that Ike scoured the data to
see like where this error had emerged
but the fact of the matter is that there
was no error there and the policies that
were adopted during those early Bush
years were in fact quite popular across
the income spectrum so so let me remind
you that you know Bush ran in 2000 as a
compassionate conservative right he
talked about his bipartisan work with
Texas Legislature and and so on and you
know I think a lot of people on the Left
kind of dismissed that as kind of a
cynical posturing but the truth is that
when Bush came into office you know
after a very close election and after
having lost the popular vote the the
most prominent policies that were
adopted were broadly supported centrist
policies in some cases bipartisan
policies adopted that he worked with
Democratic legislators so I’m thinking
of things like the Medicare drug benefit
a long-standing Democratic Party
priority No Child Left Behind education
reforms which whatever you may think of
them now was a bipartisan
policy that you know senator Kennedy
worked with the administration on Bush’s
faith-based initiative very popular
across income levels his compromise on
stem-cell funding which contrary to
widespread views actually increased the
like the range of stem cells that were
eligible for federal funding and even
his tax cuts which clearly provided most
of the benefits in terms of dollars to
the most well-off Americans were
strongly supported across the income
spectrum so so a lot of what happened
then was very consistent with what the
public wanted including what the middle
class and the poor wanted but it’s not
because of any sort of particular
commitment on the part of Bush or his
administration to you know serving as
advocates for the poor but it was
political circumstances so Congress in
2001 was more closely divided than it
had been at any time in half a century
right you may remember when Bush came
into office the Senate was split 50-50
with the vice president serving as a
deciding vote the Republicans had a very
slim majority in the house they lost
even that sort of you know deciding vote
majority in the Senate after Jim
Jeffords abandoned at the Republican
Party a couple months into the Bush’s
first term so it was a very closely
divided Congress with control being up
for grabs at the next election right and
this is the opposite of what we saw in
the mid-1960s and this these two periods
represent a consistent pattern within my
data that when control of government is
divided and uncertain you get policy
outcomes that more strongly reflect the
Preferences of the public and more
equally reflect the Preferences of low
and high-income Americans and when one
party has dominant control then you see
responsiveness to any group
the public decline and in fact that’s
exactly what happened when the
Republicans increased their control of
Congress so if you compare the
preference policy Association in the
first two years of Bush’s first term
with the first two years of Bush’s
second term right when Republicans for
the first time in half a century had
unified control of the national
government and strong majorities fairly
strong majorities in Congress not like
the 1960s but but relative to recent
years then what you saw is that the
responsiveness to the public plummeted
now I should mention if you are
concerned that 9/11 and the war on
terror and the wars in Afghanistan and
Iraq are responsible for these
relationships I was concerned about that
too I redid these analyses after
excluding all the policy questions
having to do with defense and terrorism
and in the wars and so on and when you
see the same pattern so that is some of
what was popular about the early years
of Bush’s first term was things like the
war on terror and some of what was less
popular in Bush’s later years but the
patterns remain the same even if we’re
only looking at domestic policy and
excluding things like on terror okay so
so the point here is that political
conditions right make a difference and
that’s one of the perhaps few sort of
hopeful findings from what for people
concerned about sort of normative
democratic concerns is in general and
not particularly hopeful or optimistic a
research project but but control of
government does matter and that means
parties can be constrained to pursue
policies that are more consistent with
what the public wants under the right
circumstances so there’s there’s a ray
of hope there you might expect if there
if that political circumstances to say
the tenuous nature of government control
makes a difference well so might some
other ..

Langston Hughes’ hidden influence on MLK

But during the most turbulent years of the civil rights movement, Dr. King never publicly uttered the poet’s name. Nor did the reverend overtly invoke the poet’s words.

You would think that King would be eager to do so; Hughes was one of the Harlem Renaissance’s leading poets, a master with words whose verses inspired millions of readers across the globe.

However, Hughes was also suspected of being a communist sympathizer. In March of 1953, he was even called to testify before Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare.

Meanwhile, King’s opponents were starting to make similar charges of communism against him and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, accusing the group of being a communist front. The red-baiting ended up serving as some of the most effective attacks against King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

It forced King to distance his organization from men with similar reputations – Bayard Rustin, Jack O’Dell and even his closest adviser, Stanley Levison.

It also meant he needed to sever any overt ties to Hughes.

But my research has found traces of Hughes’ poetry in King’s speeches and sermons. While King might not have been able to invoke Hughes’ name, he was nonetheless able to ensure that Hughes’ words would be broadcast to millions of Americans.


.. As the leading figure in the civil rights movement, King had to toe a delicate line. Because he needed to retain popular support – as well as be able to work with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – there could be no question about where he stood on the issue of communism.

So King needed to be shrewd about invoking Hughes’ poetry. Nonetheless, I’ve identified traces of no fewer than seven of Langston Hughes’ poems in King’s speeches and sermons.


.. But the roots of “I Have a Dream” go back even further. On Aug. 11, 1956, King delivered a speech titled “The Birth of a New Age.” Many King scholars consider this address – which talked about King’s vision for a new world – the thematic precursor to his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In this speech, I recognized what others had missed: King had subtly ended his speech by rewriting Langston Hughes’ “I Dream a World.”

    A world I dream where black or white,
    Whatever race you be, 
    Will share the bounties of the earth
    And every man is free.

What’s that term? The “halo effect”

.. the halo effect is a well-documented psychological bias, where a person has one trait that you like, and your positive feelings about this spill over to encompass the person as a whole. For example, if you find someone attractive, you’re also more likely to think of them as smart, considerate, approachable, and so on.

Research even shows that we tend to vote for the more attractive candidate in political elections. Something to keep in mind the next time you head to the polls!

Get the blinks for Influence, by Robert Cialdini.

Unicorns of the Intellectual Right

the real problem here is that media organizations are looking for unicorns: serious, honest, conservative intellectuals with real influence. Forty or fifty years ago, such people did exist. But now they don’t.

.. First, while there are many conservative economists with appointments at top universities, publications in top journals, and so on, they have no influence on conservative policymaking.

.. What the right wants are charlatans and cranks, in (conservative) Greg Mankiw’s famous phrase. If they use actual economists, they use them the way a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.

.. under Obama the director was always someone who was interested in real policy research, listened to what experts had to say, and was willing to change views in the face of evidence.

.. Obviously none of this is true in Kudlow’s case. He’s basically a TV personality, whose shtick is preaching the magic of tax cuts, and nothing – not the Kansas debacle, not the Clinton boom, not the strong job creation that followed Obama’s 2013 tax hike – will change his mind. And it’s not just that he’s incurious and inflexible: selling snake oil is his business model, and he can’t change without losing everything. And that’s the kind of guy Republicans want.

All this means that if you get a conservative economist who isn’t a charlatan and crank, you are more or less by definition getting someone with no influence on policymakers. But that’s not the only problem.

.. even aside from its complete lack of policy influence, it’s in an advanced state of both intellectual and moral decadence – something that has been obvious for a while, but became utterly clear after the 2008 crisis.

I’ve written a lot about the intellectual decadence. In macroeconomics, what began in the 60s and 70s as a usefully challenging critique of Keynesian views went all wrong in the 80s, because the anti-Keynesians refused to reconsider their views when their own models failed the reality test while Keynesian models, with some modification, performed pretty well. By the time the Great Recession struck, the right-leaning side of the profession had entered a Dark Age, having retrogressed to the point where famous economists trotted out 30s-era fallacies as deep insights.

.. What accounts for this moral decline? I suspect that it’s about a desperate attempt to retain some influence on a party that prefers the likes of Kudlow or Stephen Moore. People like John Taylor just keep hoping that if they toe the party line enough, they can still get on the inside.
.. we’re looking at asymmetric polarization... Am I saying that there are no conservative economists who have maintained their principles? Not at all. But they have no influence, zero, on GOP thinking.

.. News organizations don’t seem to have figured out how to deal with this reality, except by pretending that it doesn’t exist. And that’s why we keep having these Williamson-like debacles.