• At democracy’s gate


    A controversial April 9, 2014 study by two American political scientists, Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, have sent an earthquake like impact among political scientists. This study attempts to answer the question: “Who really matters in our democracy—the general public, or wealthy elites?”

    Since the Philippines mirrors the American democracy model, it behooves us to understand the study and see how our democracy has evolved. In understanding the Gilens and Page study, it is important in relating the same to the role of Filipino oligarchs, electoral politics and policy formulation.

    Entitled, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Gilens and Page studied how each of “four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics—which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism—offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.”

    A great deal of empirical research “speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. This study is an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues. Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.”

    When the authors look at the preferences of average citizens only, it appears that they do have a pretty big effect on policy change. But when they add the preferences of economic elites and interest groups to the analysis, the impact of average citizens vanishes entirely. Basically, “average citizens only get what they want if economic elites or interest groups also want it. In contrast, the preferences of economic elites and interest groups—especially economic elites—are each quite influential, when the preferences of the other two groups are held constant.” Interestingly, “if fewer than 20 percent of wealthy Americans supported a policy change, it only happened about 18 percent of the time. But when 80 percent of them were in support, the change ended up happening 45 percent of the time. There’s no similar effect for average Americans.”

    Juxtapose these findings with the book of French economist, Thomas Piketty, in his seminal book, Capital in the 21st Century, where he argued “that capitalism, left unchecked, subverts democracy by always and everywhere concentrating wealth at the top. That creates a class with so much economic power that they begin wielding tremendous political power, too. And then they use that political power to further increase their wealth, and then they use that wealth to further increase their political power, and so on.”

    Thus such neutral terms as the 99% and the 1% and Occupy and its derivatives become the rallying points across political boundaries.

    Scary when seen at the level of development the Philippines is experiencing under the Aquino administration where the wealthy are getting wealthier and the poor a lot poorer. The decoupling seems to have been cemented further with hunger and employment indices.

    A lot scarier when viewed in terms of electoral politics in the recent past, present and future. As I have said, every administration has its own economic power players. They can be old rich or nouveau rich. They can be rich from old money or rich from illegal activities. But invariably, both are involved in high political stakes whenever we hit May every six years.

    The removal of president Joseph Estrada was the first act of direct intervention by the oligarchs on the removal of an incumbent and the replacement by their chosen acolyte, allowing the same to seek a re-election only to be rejected for what the administration stood for since the oligarchs’ bottoms may have been affected. Then we had an oligarch-backed and assisted administration where major players are reaping a huge pile necessitating a continuity campaign to ensure they get their guy on the throne and that seems not to be the incumbent Vice President. This despite the massive popularity of the VP and his very high survey ratings.

    At democracy’s gate, we ask if we are better off today than four years ago and whether the automation of our elections has truly reflected the will of the electorate after two presidential and by elections. At democracy’s gate, is the electoral majority rule truly reflective of the populist norms or does it represent the tyranny of numbers? At democracy’s gate, is our foreign policy reflective of what Filipinos need? When an MIT professor by the name of Noam Chomsky said “majority of US policies are opposed to what wide swaths of the public want” and concludes that “US behaves nothing like a democracy,” should we be slighted, if at all the pivot to Asia is just that, a pivot to a different theater of the same defense industry that is the basis of its domestic economy?

    Should we even seriously consider the Asian democratic model? With the Asean integration coming whether we like it or not, would democracy have any meaning at all?


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