The Insufficiency of “Democracy by Coincidence”: A Response to Peter K. Enns

PPSby Martin Gilens

In “Relative Policy Support and Coincidental Representation,” Peter Enns (2015) focuses on a crucially important question: Given the large disparities in political influence of more and less well-off Americans, “why don’t those in the economic middle elect politicians who might better represent their interests?” (1053). This question has been debated at least since Werner Sombart asked why there is no socialism in the United States,1 and the answer Enns proposes is not unlike Sombart’s. “We do not observe a political backlash from those in the economic middle,” Enns argues, “because policy typically corresponds with the median’s preferences” (1054). By this account, middle class Americans either don’t notice or don’t care about their lack of influence, because they are more or less satisfied with the policy outcomes that are determined by others. Enns’ hypothesized explanation rests on two important points that I have repeatedly noted in my work on representational inequality: (1) the theoretical distinction between a group’s influence over government policy and the congruence of the group’s preferences with policy outcomes, and (2) the empirical observation that the policy preferences of different income groups are positively correlated and frequently aligned. Reflecting the combination of these two factors, Gilens and Page write “our evidence does not indicate that in U.S. policy making the average citizen always loses out. Since the preferences of ordinary citizens tend to be positively correlated with the preferences of economic elites, ordinary citizens often win the policies they want, even if they are more or less coincident beneficiaries rather than causes of the victory.” [Read more.]

The Insufficiency of “Democracy by Coincidence”: A Response to Peter K. Enns by Martin Gilens / Perspectives on Politics / Volume 13 / Issue 04 / December 2015, pp 1065-1071