Policies Reflect Preferences of Affluent Americans, Gilens Finds

Professor of Public Policy and Social Welfare Martin Gilens was featured in an Atlantic article about the influence of wealth on politics. In his research, Gilens has found notable differences in the policy preferences of affluent Americans compared to the middle class. These differences are not limited to economic matters like taxation, but also include funding for public education, racial equity and environmental protections, which the wealthy are less likely to support. These differences in policy preferences are significant because of the influence the rich have over government officials. In one report, Gilens analyzed thousands of public survey responses and found that, on issues where the views of wealthy voters diverged significantly from those of the rest of the populace, the policies ultimately put in place “strongly reflected the desires of the most affluent respondents.” Gilens concluded that the policies on these controversial issues “bore virtually no relationship to the preferences of poorer Americans.”


Gilens Publishes Research on Campaign Finance Regulations

Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens‘ research into the impact of campaign finance regulations was published in American Political Science Review. Many scholars have expressed concern about the dominance of moneyed interests in American politics, and studies have shown that lobbying group interests and federal policies primarily reflect the desires of well-off citizens and well-funded interest groups, not ordinary citizens. While previous reports have faced difficulties drawing causal inferences from observational data, Gilens and his co-authors were able to analyze the effects of an exogenous change in state campaign finance law. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision held that corporations and unions have the same speech rights as individuals, and that corporate spending to influence elections does not give rise to corruption, as long as it is not coordinated with a political campaign. Gilens and his co-authors analyzed the impact of the ruling, which affected 23 states that had bans on independent expenditures by unions or corporations. After the bans were lifted under Citizens United, the states adopted more “corporate-friendly” policies on issues with broad effects on corporations’ welfare, they found. The authors concluded that “even relatively narrow changes in campaign finance regulations can have a substantively meaningful influence on government policy making.” The article, “Campaign Finance Regulations and Public Policy,” was written by Gilens, a professor of public policy, political science and social welfare; Professor Shawn Patterson Jr. of Southern Oregon University; and Professor Pavielle Haines of Rollins College. — Zoe Day


 

Gilens on American Attitudes Toward Welfare

A Fortune article summarized Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens’ analysis of American attitudes toward welfare in order to better understand the effect of the pandemic on the country. New studies have found that the poorest Americans have gotten poorer during the pandemic, despite unemployment benefit programs such as the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. On the other side of the U.S.-Canada border, Canadians received $2,000 deposited directly into their bank accounts days after filling out an online form as part of the Canadian Economic Recovery Benefit. Canada’s social safety net and collectivist mindset have supported Canadians during the pandemic, resulting in fewer deaths and COVID-19 infections compared to the U.S. after adjusting for population size differences, the article stated. It cited Gilens’ book “Why Americans Hate Welfare,” which argues that individualism, economic self-interest, the trope of the “undeserving” welfare recipient and racial discrimination each contribute to American attitudes on wealth redistribution through taxation.


Gilens on the Gender Gap in U.S. Politics

Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens was featured in a New York Times article on the gender gap in U.S. politics. Over the years, women have been more likely than men to favor government spending on social issues. Trying to explain the gap, some scholars argued that women were voting in their self-interest. The article cited a counterargument Gilens wrote in the 1980s. “I do not believe that ‘women’s issues’ such as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) or abortion, nor economic conditions such as the growing number of impoverished women, are primarily responsible for the gender gap,” he wrote. “The gender gap reflects traditional differences in male and female values and personalities, differences such as men’s greater competitiveness and concerns with issues of power and control, and women’s greater compassion and nurturance, rejection of force and violence, and concern with interpersonal relations.” In 2020, Gilens noted, “women see [President Trump] as being the opposite of someone who is caring.” 


Ideas and Expertise Exchanged at Post-Debate Forum

The UCLA Luskin Public Policy community came together after the final presidential debate of 2020 to hear insights from an array of experts on the U.S. political landscape: Dean Gary Segura, an authority on polls and other measures of political opinion; Chair Martin Gilens, whose research focuses on political inequality; Professor Mark Peterson, who specializes in health-care policy; Sonja Diaz, executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative; and Chad Dunn, director of litigation for the UCLA Voting Rights Project. During the 90-minute Zoom gathering, the speakers assessed the exchange between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, which was deemed a step up from previous matchups, then fielded questions from students and alumni. The conversation touched on the accuracy of polling, the threat of voter intimidation, the electoral pathway to victory for each candidate, and even the risk that the country might veer toward fascism. Unless the vote count is tied up amid irregularities in a single, decisive state — as it was in Bush v. Gore in the 2000 race —Segura said the chance that the election’s outcome will be seriously challenged is small. “Try not to let the demons in your head and the demons from 2016 keep you awake at night,” he advised. The conversation was part of a series of forums designed to bring policy students, alumni, faculty and staff together to share concerns, perspectives and experiences within an informed and supportive community. At the next Policy Forum, on Nov. 5, faculty experts will parse the results of the election.


 

Electoral College is Anti-Democratic, Gilens Says

Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens spoke to UCLA Blueprint about the anti-democratic nature of the electoral college. In 2016, Donald Trump became the fifth candidate to be awarded the presidency despite having lost the popular vote. Gilens explained that the electoral college was originally created by the Founding Fathers to “give greater influence in choosing the president to slave states without actually allowing slaves to vote” as well as to “insulate the choice of the president from ordinary voters.” While Gilens considers a constitutional amendment eliminating the electoral college to be unlikely, he explained that the “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact” — an agreement among states to award all of their electors to whichever candidate wins the most votes nationwide — would make it possible to select the president by a majority vote.


Gilens on Shifting Views About the Social Safety Net

Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens spoke to the Los Angeles Times about Americans’ shifting opinions about government-funded social safety nets. During the health and economic crisis spurred by COVID-19, a wide range of individuals and businesses have benefited from U.S. stimulus spending, and this could shift the national discourse about the role Americans want government to play in their lives. “COVID is such a potentially transformational experience,” Gilens said. While he cautioned that views may change once the economy improves, he noted, “If there is a broader reckoning with the failures of our government, then maybe that will extend to how we deal with inequality and poverty, and we’ll be entertaining something that looks a little more like a European welfare state.”


 

Gilens Pushes for Democratization of Senate

Public Policy Professor Martin Gilens co-authored a Medium article on the importance of electing a Democratic majority in the Senate in November and the value of “small-d democratizing” the legislative body. If Joe Biden is elected president, a Democratic majority would be necessary for quick passage of coronavirus relief legislation. However, “majority-party ‘control’ of the Senate is not enough to get things done,” argued Gilens and co-author Benjamin I. Page. Misuse of the filibuster and a bias toward small, rural states make the Senate “profoundly undemocratic” and “unresponsive to the American citizenry as a whole,” they wrote. The authors proposed eventually amending the Constitution to allocate more senators or more votes per senator to the more populous states. “Today’s social movement for justice and democracy may be precisely the sort of force that can, over time, lead to major institutional changes, including moving toward a more democratic Senate,” they concluded.


A Celebration of the Extraordinary Amid once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, UCLA Luskin honors the Class of 2020

By Les Dunseith

It was a UCLA Luskin commencement ceremony unlike any other — delivered remotely by keynote speaker John A. Pérez to honor 281 graduates scattered across the nation and around the world amid a pandemic. 

“Clearly, these are not ordinary times,” Pérez said in his remarks, which remain available online and had been seen by a total of 1,265 new graduates and their loved ones as of midday Monday after the ceremony. The impact of the COVID-19 health crisis was obvious in the virtual setting, but Pérez, chair of the University of California Board of Regents and former speaker of the California Assembly, also took note of the political upheaval that has led hundreds of thousands of protesters worldwide to march for racial justice in recent weeks.

“My message to you today is also going to be somewhat different than usual. It has to be,” Pérez said. “It has to be different for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Stephon Clark and Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. For Sean Monterrosa and Manuel Ellis. And for Emmett Till and James Chaney and countless others — known and unknown — whose lives have been taken by the systemic racism that is the original sin and ongoing shame of our great nation.”

The new social welfare, planning and policy graduates earned their graduate degrees in extraordinary circumstances at a time that UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura views as a pivotal moment in the country’s history. He congratulated the Class of 2020 and also noted the high expectations they carry into their futures.

“This celebration is partly about what you have accomplished, but it is also about what you have yet to do,” said Segura, thanking the new graduates “for all that we expect you to do with all that you’ve learned.”

The virtual platform incorporated several wrinkles that set the 2020 celebration apart from previous UCLA Luskin graduations. In addition to the recorded remarks by Segura and Pérez, video presentations from California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, UC President Janet Napolitano and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block were woven into the online presentation that was made available to all graduates.

Other aspects of the ceremony were able to be customized for each of the three departments that awarded degrees. So, Chair Laura S. Abrams spoke to the Social Welfare graduates, Chair Vinit Mukhija addressed the Urban Planning Class of 2020, and Chair Martin Gilens offered advice and congratulations to the new Public Policy alumni.

Instead of the past tradition in which names of individual graduates were read as they walked across the stage at Royce Hall to be handed a diploma, this year’s graduating students got a few moments of dedicated screen time to themselves. Each graduate’s name appeared on screen as part of the departmental ceremony, often accompanied by a photo and a personal message of thanks or inspiration provided by the graduating student as a text message or a video clip — or both. And an online “Kudobard” allowed family and friends to offer messages of congratulations to the Class of 2020.

The presentations by the student speakers were also unique to each department this year. All three spoke of the memorable circumstances that they and their classmates experienced while wrapping up their graduate degrees during such an extraordinary time in history.

“No one wanted this. No one wants to live in this type of world,” said Social Welfare speaker Akinyi Shapiro, who views her graduation as a time for both celebration and reflection. “Listen to those who are being attacked for nothing other than the color of their skin. Decide who we want to be as social workers, how we’re going to change our communities and commit to anti-oppressive practices that will make this country better.”

Amy Zhou noted that the stay-at-home order in Los Angeles took place just as the winter quarter was winding up at UCLA. “We had no idea that the last time my classmates and I would see each other at the end of the winter quarter would be the last time that we would see each other in person as a graduating class.”

Zhou took advantage of the virtual platform to include a series of video clips that showed her and her classmates pledging solidarity in their dedication to practice planning in a manner that will uplift their communities. “When one falls, we all fall,” they conclude, their voices in unison. “When one rises, we all rise.”

As with any commencement, the virtual ceremony was also an opportunity for the graduating students to acknowledge their mentors — the faculty, friends and, especially, family members who have helped them along their journeys.

Muchisimas gracias,” said Kassandra Hernandez of Public Policy during her commencement remarks. “Thank you, mom and dad, for all that you’ve given me — all the sacrifices you have made for me.”

Hernandez then addressed her peers. “You are ready to take on the world and cause some change because we all know that that’s why we came to Luskin — to cause change.”

In his keynote address, Pérez also spoke of change. He talked about his time as a leader in California’s government, pointing to accomplishments such as health care reform and the creation of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. That financial reserve had grown to about $16 billion by the time of the pandemic, he noted, helping the current Legislature and governor lessen the economic damage from the COVID-19 downturn.

In Pérez’s view, making a meaningful difference to society requires not only a vision, but perseverance. 

“As graduates of one of the nation’s premier schools for progressive planning and policy, you need to be among the leaders. Make ripples. Make waves,” he said. “Push yourself. Push the system. And when you think you’ve pushed enough, take a step, take a pause, and then push some more.”

Call for Rebuilding an Equitable Nation Cites Gilens Data

A New York Times editorial on inequalities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic and the urgency of building a more resilient nation cited research by Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens on the distribution of political power. “This nation was ailing long before the coronavirus reached its shores,” the editorial stated, noting that the fragility of U.S. society made it particularly vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19. Policies designed not in the common interest but to protect the wealthy are at the root of this reality, the editorial argued. It cited research from Gilens and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University showing that between 1981 and 2002, policies supported by at least 80% of affluent voters passed into law about 45% of the time, while policies opposed by at least 80% of those voters passed into law just 18% of the time.  The views of poor and middle-class voters had little influence, the study found.