Panel on Government Accountability Examines Role of Wealthy vs. Ordinary Citizens

“Money talks” has long been a truism in politics, but can ordinary citizen be heard by politicians and hold them accountable for policy? A panel of political scientists and practitioners discussed the question at the Sanford School of Public Policy on Wednesday night.

While politicians are generally more responsive to the concerns of the rich, the degree of responsiveness depends upon the circumstances, said Martin Gilens, professor of politics at Princeton University. He has conducted more than 2,000 surveys during his career to understand the influence of different groups in politics. The general trend over the past three decades has been toward policies that favor the wealthy, but that changes during elections. “Elections force policymakers to respond more equally,” he said.

Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan pointed to political misinformation as a stumbling block for accountability. “People may not know what politicians have done,” he said. He pointed to two widespread examples of misinformation–the idea that 9/11 was an inside job and the idea that Obama is not a U.S. citizen. Increased knowledge and education, and the rise of fact-checking in the media have not produced the expected results. “Humans are good at resisting information they don’t like,” he said.

Misinformation is not just a problem with voters, but also among legislators. Alexandra Sirota, director of the nonpartisan NC Budget and Tax Center, said North Carolina’s citizen legislature has little policy expertise and small staffs, “who rely on outside groups, who are happy to rush in.” These groups provide “packaged brands” that support a particular agenda, such as the recent Laffer study that uses faulty methodology to make a case for eliminating corporate taxes. Such studies are “the empty calories of the policy world,” she said, adding that peer-reviewed research is “the anecdote to junk food research.”  She said stories need to be shared, through social and traditional media, to make it clear what choices have been made.

Meredith Sadin drew on her experience as both a policy analyst and as a member of the analytics team for the Obama campaign in Chicago. She saw opportunity through the use of data “to lower the cost of volunteering,” for example by being able to determine the best location of a campaign office by the location of a certain number of volunteers. “It has the potential to personalize campaigning and move away from labels like ‘the NASCAR dad’ and the ‘soccer mom’,” she said.

Mac McCorkle, Sanford associate professor and longtime political consultant, brought the discussion to a more local level. “There is a lot of concern over where the state is headed:  are we Alabama rising or Colorado coming around the corner?” he said. The state’s progressive policies are now targeted by the new Republican governor and legislature and North Carolina may become “a lot more like Alabama than anyone expected.”

In the 1990s, Colorado moved right, but has now come back to more progressive policies. Pointing to policy decisions by the McCrory administration such as the refusal of the Medicaid expansion, he said, “It is a real time for activism.”

During the question and answer period, the panelists seemed to agree that the answer to the influence of the wealthy is increased activism. “Accountability is complex at the national level,” said Nyhan, but the number of people involved in politics is actually quite small, so “activists have a disproportionate influence.”   

“It comes down to money and votes,” said Gilens. Politicians are compelled by votes during elections and by money the rest of the time, so we need to reduce the role of money, he said.

The panel was organized and moderated by Nick Carnes, assistant professor of public policy, and sponsored by the Scholars Strategy Network and the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy.