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Northwestern University

Talking Politics with Jon Stewart

Professor Ben Page discusses his research on the elite’s influence on Washington

The provocative findings of a recent study by Northwestern University professor Benjamin Page and Princeton University professor Martin Gilens have stirred up much discussion in recent weeks, leading to an April 29 appearance by the political scientists on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

“The people love a quantitative analysis,” Stewart quipped before diving into the implications of the professors’ co-authored paper, titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”

The paper statistically confirms the common idea that there is a large disparity between the influence of affluent Americans and average voters on government policy.

Gilens had been working on the study for about 10 years before being joined by Page, who suggested that they draft a press release about the finished paper to see if it was of interest to the media.

On the show, Stewart cleverly referred to Page and Gilens as the very elites referred to in the study.

“It got me on your show, Jon!” Gilens replied.

In order to quantify the advantage elites hold in the development and implementation of public policy, Gilens and Page said they looked at a couple thousand potential policy changes in the United States over 25 years and measured what ordinary citizens wanted, what economic elites wanted, and where interest groups fell. A statistical model was then used to assess if and to what degree money plays a role in determining influence on the government.

Page said that Americans shouldn’t be too discouraged by the study’s findings, as the issue of unequal influence is a solvable problem.

“I think it takes a very big social movement,” he said. “I think it takes bipartisan leadership and it actually takes wealthy people on the same side to make it happen.”

“Do you know of a country where that could happen?” Stewart joked.

The paper by Page and Gilens will be published in the Fall 2014 edition — what Stewart called the “Swimsuit Edition” — of the academic journal Perspectives on Politics.

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