Inequality and Democratic Accountability
The ability of citizens to influence government policy is at the heart of democracy. But citizens are quite unequal in their ability to shape government policy to their liking. In this project I examine the association between what Americans say they want the federal government to do (based on national surveys) and what government does (based on detailed coding of public policy). I find a moderately strong relationship between public preferences and public policy, albeit with a strong bias toward the status quo. But I also find that when Americans with different income levels differ in their policy preferences, actual policy outcomes strongly reflect the preferences of the most affluent but bear virtually no relationship to the preferences of poor or middle income Americans. This vast discrepancy in government responsiveness to citizens with different incomes stands in stark contrast to the ideal of political equality that Americans hold dear. Although perfect political equality is an unrealistic goal, representational biases of this magnitude call into question the very democratic character of our society. I am currently working on a book manuscript based on this project. Some of the early findings from the project can be found in:
Gilens, Martin. 2012. Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. Princeton University Press and Russell Sage.
Gilens, Martin. 2011. “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness.” In Who Gets Represented, ed. Peter K. Enns and Christopher Wlezien. Russell Sage.
Gilens, Martin. 2009. “Preference Gaps and Inequality in Representation.” PS: Political Science and Politics 42(2):335-341.
Gilens, Martin. 2005. “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness.” Public Opinion Quarterly 69(5):778-896.
Altruism and Mass Political Preferences
Political scientists (as well as economists, sociologists, and other social scientists) have tended to focus on individual or in-group self-interest as a motive in shaping both political and non-political behaviors. But most people also appear to care for the well-being of others, and at times these altruistic inclinations appear strong enough to overcome self-interested concerns in determining political preferences. For example, most Americans, including a majority of those at the top of the income distribution, favor increasing the minimum wage. And despite a broad tendency to favor one's own racial or ethnic group in all sorts of contexts, many racially liberal white Americans express greater support for black political candidates than for otherwise identical white candidates (a tendency which was evident in patterns of support for Obama in 2008). Some of these sorts of preferences might be explained by enlightened self-interest, or by other factors unrelated to altruism. In this project I use the tools of behavioral economics and the insights of social psychology to explore the operation of altruism in shaping political behavior.
The Mass Media and American Elections, 1952-2000
In this project, Lynn Vavreck and I are exploring changing patterns of media use and the changing content of the mass media as they relate to presidential and congressional elections. We're especially interested in how these changes in media content and consumption have affected what citizens know about political candidates, how engaged they are with elections, and what sorts of considerations they use in choosing among candidates. To assess these changes, we combine National Election Study data collected over the past half-century with original content coding of news coverage and campaign advertising.
The first component of this project looks at presidential elections. We find that the amount of policy-oriented information in news coverage of presidential campaigns has declined and the level of news consumption has fallen since the 1950s. Yet, over this period of time Americans have just as much to say about the major-party presidential candidates, what they have to say is more policy oriented, the association of vote choice with policy considerations has strengthened while the association with character considerations has weakened, and factual knowledge about the presidential candidates' issue positions has not declined. We assess the role of education, party polarization, and paid advertising in explaining trends in Americans' political knowledge and engagement, finding that the public's steady level of information and increased focus on policy in presidential politics reflects the high level of policy content in paid ads, which have compensated for the shift of news coverage toward candidate character, scandal, and the horserace. We are currently extending this work to examine elections for the U.S. Congress.
Our findings on presidential elections can be found in:
Gilens, Martin, Lynn Vavreck, and Martin Cohen. 2007. “Mass Media and Public Perceptions of Presidential Candidates, 1952-2000”, The Journal of Politics.
The Psychology of Political Attitude Formation
Within this general area, my research has addressed the role of policy-specific information, informational shortcuts (or "cues"), and adult political socialization in shaping citizens' political attitudes. The question that unites these different inquiries is how ordinary citizens, who have demonstrably little information about political issues, nevertheless manage to form reasonably stable and often strongly-felt preferences, at least on some issues some of the time.
Gilens, Martin. 2011. “Two-thirds full? Citizen Competence and Democratic Governance.” In New Directions in Public Opinion, ed., Adam Berinsky. Routledge.
Gilens, Martin, and Naomi Murakawa. 2002. “Elite Cues and Political Decision-Making.” In Research in Micropolitics, vol. 6, ed. Michael X. Delli Carpini, Leonie Huddy, and Robert Y. Shapiro, pp. 15-50. Elsevier.
Gilens, Martin. 2001. “Political Ignorance and Collective Policy Preferences.” American Political Science Review 95(2):379-396.
Glaser, James M. and Martin Gilens. 1997. "Inter-Regional Migration and Political Resocialization: A Study of Racial Attitudes Under Pressure." Public Opinion Quarterly 61(1):72-86.
Racial Attitudes, Anti-Poverty Policy, and the Mass Media
I have conducted a variety of research on Americans' racial attitudes, the consequences of racial stereotypes for anti-poverty policy, and the role of the mass media in generating and perpetuating racial stereotypes and misperceptions. My work shows, for example, that Americans grossly exaggerate the proportion of the country's poor who are black and that among white Americans, this misperception is strongly associated with opposition to welfare. I also show that the news media too exaggerate the degree to which poor people in America are black and consistently associate images of blacks with the least sympathetic stories about poverty. This and related research can be found in journal articles (see my curriculum vita) and in my book:
Gilens, Martin. 1999. Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Policy. University of Chicago Press.