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The key finding of our research is that while mass-based interest organisations and regular citizens have little to no independent influence, economic elites and organised groups representing commercial interests have significant independent influences on U.S. government policy. However, neither majoritarian electoral democracy nor majoritarian pluralism are supported by our findings, only notions of economic-elite dominance and biassed pluralism.


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Electoral Majority Democracy

Majoritarian electoral democracy theories, as constructive or empirical theories, ascribe U.S. government actions primarily to the collective will of everyday residents, who are perceived as being empowered by democratic elections. Such ideas date at least to Tocqueville, who (during the Jacksonian era) fretted about the “tyranny of the majority” and considered American majorities as “omnipotent”—particularly at the state level. Footnote1 Robert Dahl called it “populistic democracy,” and Abraham Lincoln’s phrase “of the people, by the people, for the people” captures it.  

Theoretical Traditions

The literature produced by each of the four theoretical traditions we are examining is far too extensive for us to review it in full here. We are limited to mentioning a few key works from each tradition.

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Dominance of the economic elite

A very different theoretical tradition contends that those with significant economic resources, such as high levels of income or wealth—including, but not limited to, ownership of business firms—dominate U.S. policy making.

Democratized Pluralism

James Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10, which examined politics in terms of “factions,” a somewhat nebulous concept that apparently encompassed political parties and even popular majorities, as well as what we would today consider organised   groups, 

Partisan Pluralism

Olson’s argument draws attention to a significant divergent school of thought within the pluralist tradition: theories of “biassed” pluralism, which postulate conflicts between disparate interest groups.

Financial Elites

Even while our study likely understates the political effect of elites, economic-elite dominance hypotheses do pretty well. Though informative and the best we could come up with for a wide range of policy scenarios, our measure of wealthy  


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Structured Interest Groups

Because little to no prior study has been able to assess the extent of group influence while adjusting for the preferences of other significant non-governmental actors, our results of strong effect by interest groups are particularly startling. Our findings unequivocally shows that organised interest groups have a very significant independent influence on public policy, even after accounting for the influence of both the general populace and economic elites. There is substantial empirical evidence to support theories of interest-group pluralism.

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