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Gilens on the Disproportionate Influence of the Wealthy

A New York Times article discussing the dangers of private campaign funding cited Public Policy Professor Martin Gilens’ research on the disproportionate influence of wealthy Americans in politics. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case allowed corporations to spend freely on electioneering, making it easier for wealthy individuals and corporations to translate their economic power into political power. The article cited a dinner party last year at the Trump International Hotel, where wealthy donors spoke to President Trump about their corporate interests. They included the owner of a steel-making company who urged the president to let truck drivers work longer hours, even though studies show that driver fatigue is a frequent factor in fatal crashes. In their 2017 book “Democracy in America?,” Gilens and co-author Benjamin Page illustrate the disproportionate influence that the wealthiest Americans exercise in politics. According to Gilens, wealthy Americans are particularly successful in blocking even broadly popular policies they don’t like.


image of protestor holding sign that reads, Democracy is not for sale"

Citizens United Ruling Was ‘Outrageous,’ Dukakis Says

Michael Dukakis, 1988 Democratic presidential candidate and visiting professor of public policy, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee ruling and its profound effects on American politics. It has been 10 years since the momentous Supreme Court ruling that declared corporations had the same rights as people under the First Amendment and therefore were exempt from restrictions on political spending. Dukakis said the concept of a corporation having First Amendment rights is “outrageous.” Since the ruling, campaign finance has changed and Dukakis believes it does not align with what the Founding Fathers envisioned for the country.  “The Founders who wrote the Constitution would be astonished,” he said. “The right has been peddling this idea for years, and it’s nonsense.”


 

Roy on Rise of Radical Democracy in Troubled Times

Ananya Roy, director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin, shared her views on the renewal of civic engagement in troubled times as part of the “55 Voices for Democracy” series presented by the Thomas Mann House. “It is no stretch to argue that the problem of the 21st century is the enduring problem of the color line,” Roy said. She argued, however, that amid vast income inequality and racial division, freedom dreams thrive, powered not by elite institutions but by grassroots activism and poor-people’s movements. Roy cited several examples: in the face of institutionalized white supremacy, a robust national discussion about black reparations; amid skyrocketing student debt, growing political interest in free college for all; as thousands of men and women live on the streets, calls for an ambitious public housing program and national rent control. “Radical democracy is demanded and created anew at each historical conjuncture, including this one,” Roy said.

Public Financing of Elections Empowers Voters, Gilens Says

Professor of Public Policy Martin Gilens penned an opinion piece for the Times Union in support of publicly financed state elections in New York. A change in the language used in the New York state budget created a commission to review the potential of publicly financing elections. Gilens argued that New York can “reclaim democracy from the jaws of Big Money through a statewide system of publicly financed elections.” Reform is necessary because 40 percent of the money spent on federal elections came from 0.01 percent of the population in 2016, he argued. Affluent and organized interest groups hold more influence over the outcomes of elections, while the lower and middle classes hold virtually no influence, Gilens’ research found. Gilens said New York has the opportunity to challenge the status quo and promote a government for the people.


 

California Is Up for Grabs, Yaroslavsky Says

Director of the Los Angeles Initiative Zev Yaroslavsky spoke to the Guardian about the political climate surrounding the California Democratic Party Convention, a three-day gathering that took place in San Francisco. Fourteen Democratic presidential candidates for the 2020 election converged at the convention in hopes of securing support from California voters. Yaroslavsky described California as “the leader of the resistance to Trump,” where voters “care more about replacing Trump than about where someone fits ideologically.” Yaroslavsky predicted that California will play a critical role in the 2020 election, explaining that “whether it’s on healthcare, the environment or offshore drilling, disaster aid or a woman’s right to choose, from A to Z, [President Donald Trump] is always looking for ways to punish California. … There’s a lot at stake for California in this election.” According to Yaroslavsky, “California is up for grabs and it’s likely to be up for grabs for some time.”


Gilens Argues for Increasing Democratic Representation Through Public Policy

In an episode of the P.S. You’re Interesting podcast, UCLA Professor of Public Policy Martin Gilens discusses economic and political inequalities within democracies. Gilens’ research has found that “how much political influence a person has depends highly on how much income or assets they own. … Once you take into account the preferences of interest groups and the well-to-do, what middle-class Americans want bears almost no relationship to what the government actually does.” Despite levels of economic inequality that are the “highest in our history,” Gilens argues that Americans “shouldn’t accept the current degree of inequality and lack of responsiveness of the government to its citizens as something inevitable or out of our control.” Gilens’ solution of “more democracy” consists of facilitating engagement of citizens in the democratic process, including Election Day holidays and automatic voting registration, and forcing government decision-makers to respond to the preferences of citizens.


Gilens on Ranked-Choice Voting to Bolster Democracy

Just in time for the midterm elections, UCLA Luskin Policy Professor Martin Gilens co-wrote an American Prospect article with Northwestern University Professor Benjamin Page proposing extensive yet perhaps much needed changes to our democratic process. The first and foremost change that Gilens advocates is a transition from our current system of plurality voting or “first past the post” to a system called rank-choice voting, or RCV. Our current system can produce elected officials who are not representative of their districts; this was the case in Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial election, in which far-right politician Paul LePage won with 38 percent of the popular vote, which was split among three candidates. After this upset, Maine instituted RCV, a system where “voters do not just pick one candidate; they rank all the candidates in order of preference, from most favored to least favored.” This system, if applied nationally, would reduce party polarization as well as produce more representative elected officials, the article said.