Experts and students gathered in the Sanford School of Public Policy Wednesday for the event "Who Does Government Work For" to talk about political accountability and answer the question—who runs Washington.
The discussion, organized by the Research Triangle chapter of the Scholar Strategy Network, began with comments from each of the five panelists who spoke on topics ranging from the influence of different groups in policymaking to possible future strategies for political parties. Although the speakers did not reach a consensus on who controls government, they did allude to a particularly influential group.
"The ability of affluent Americans to shape federal policy is overwhelmingly greater than that of people in less wealthy circumstances," said Martin Gilens, professor of politics at Princeton University and author of "Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America." "There is a very strong correlation between what the rich want and what government does."
Gilens spoke about the differences in preferences between the rich and the poor over issues like market approaches to public policy, social policy and progressive tax structures and suggested that affluent Americans tend to have their way. The inequality in political influence, however, varies depending on political circumstances. Political campaigns reduce the representation gap between the rich and the poor as politicians try to emphasize equal attentiveness to the needs of all socioeconomic groups.
Instead of talking about the perspectives of the rich, Meredith Sadin, senior analyst at the Analyst Institute, emphasized public perceptions about the rich, especially the rich who run for office.
"Voters give upper class candidates more credit because they associate that success with hard work and competency," she said. "But how they got there is important too. Working class origins are a lot more relatable to voters than those born wealthy."
The talk then shifted to the difficulty of addressing the wide distribution of misinformation and misleading claims in politics.
"The first solution we think of is to educate people about politics," said Brendan Nyhan, assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. "But in fact, it's the people with the most political knowledge that are most often supportive of misleading claims that align with their beliefs."
Earlier this year, Nyhan published a study finding evidence of this in people's reactions when presented with evidence debunking the "death panel" myth that arose during debate on the Affordable Care Act.
For states like North Carolina that have citizen legislatures, whose members often possess little political experience, misinformation or biased information from junk research can present a huge challenge to political accountability, said Alexandra Sirota, director of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center. The reliance of these legislators on external groups that are all too eager to rush forward with policy prescriptions creates a major weakness for the political system, she added, when the groups provide research and the data skewed to their particular interests.
Mac McCorkle, associate professor of the practice of public policy and former Democratic political consultant, closed the panel's comments by asking the audience to reconsider the foundations of political strategies. He recommended a moment of self reflection.
"We have to really start thinking, maybe in quiet, hushed rooms, while we are attacking Republican injustice, we have to ask ourselves, what is our justice?" McCorkle said.
The event is the first in a series of discussions that the Research Triangle's Scholar Strategy Network hopes to host.
"We try to connect scholars who want to share their work with the broader community to the journalists, politicians, civic activists and engaged citizens who want to hear from them," said Nicholas Carnes, assistant professor of public policy and co-director of the Research Triangle chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network.
Carnes considers the turnout a success. It brought together a good mix of undergraduates, graduate students, doctoral students and faculty to talk about an important issue, he said.
Hannah Matschek, a junior majoring in public policy and environmental science, said Gilens' discussion of the influence of affluent Americans was particularly interesting.
"A lot of Americans think that they can change politics, but only a few people have that kind of power," she said.