The Rich Rule America—But Don't Despair (Too Much)

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 24 2014 3:10 PM

The Silver Lining to Our Oligarchy

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My politics rule over yours.

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Does it matter what the poor think about policymaking? Depressingly in American politics, their opinion counts only once every four years—when it’s a presidential election year. That’s the only time policies adopted by the federal government bear any resemblance to those the poor say they prefer. Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton University, came to this conclusion, described in his 2012 essay for Boston Review, looking at data on public opinion surveys from the 1960s to earlier 2000s. Interest groups and affluent Americans—whom Gilens defined as the top 10 percent of income earners—have disproportionate influence on the direction policymaking takes. Policies included on national household opinion surveys have a 1-in-5 chance of passing if they are favored by 20 percent of the rich. If they are favored by 80 percent, the policy passes just under half the time. An average voter’s preferences hardly matter. Even labor unions, civil rights organizations, and the like do little to boost the influence of poor and middle-income Americans.

Gilens and his collaborator Benjamin Page of Northwestern University have just published a study to further explain this relationship. In it, the authors examine four theories for who’s shaping policymaking in the United States—average voters; elite individuals; interest groups representing the wishes of different voter segments; and interest groups advocating for particular policies (e.g., pro-business groups). Most commentators have been startled by its conclusions (some of which were addressed in Gilen’s earlier work). It ends with pessimistic tones: “Our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts,” the authors write. And if “policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans,” as they found, “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

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Has American politics always been so? As the authors point out, plenty of scholars argue that “a chief aim of the framers of the U.S. Constitution was to protect private property”, and this “favor[ed] the economic interests of [the] wealthy … rather than the interests of the then-majority.” Yet populism has had its moments in American politics. Few rich Americans liked the New Deal; most poor and middle-income ones did. FDR was indubitably elected with a popular mandate.

But in the more recent decades Gilens and Page examine, neither party has enacted policy that fulfilled the wishes of average Americans alone. It did not matter whether the majority party was Democrat or Republican—both tend to ignore the median public opinion. This does not necessarily mean the average voter always loses: Just as poor folk in Kansas sometimes favor policies that benefit the rich, affluent individuals and interest groups can favor policies that benefit the poor. Gilens points out in his 2012 essay that LBJ’s landmark Great Society bills enjoyed only slightly less popularity among elites than among low- and middle-income Americans, but were supported by both groups. Warren Buffett saying he ought to pay higher taxes may not be as unusual as it seems. But it is the support of the rich that matter. Policies favored by the average voter are likelier to pass based on the chance that the rich support them.

Over at the New York Times, Ruy Teixeira thinks political inequality aggravates economic inequality; Jelani Cobb thinks we’re letting the oligarchs rule. Paul Krugman’s response from Monday was more hopeful than most others. He writes:

“Obama has in fact significantly raised taxes on very high incomes, largely through special surcharges included in the Affordable Care Act; and what the Act does with the extra revenue is expand Medicaid and provide subsidies on the exchanges, both means-tested programs whose beneficiaries tend to be mainly lower-income adults.”

Indeed, it is worth pointing out that the most recent data analyzed for the paper ends in 2002. While the relative political clout of the rich has probably only increased, it also means that the data predate the clear expansions of welfare since then. Rich whites are more likely to dislike the Affordable Care Act, and yet it is here to stay. So I don’t think we should be unduly dour. Studying the relative fairness of representation between rich and poor and individuals and political groups is only possible in a mature, self-aware democracy with an eye toward self-improvement. Gilens concluded as much two years ago, when he wrote:

“American democracy is imperfect—so much so that its claim to that title is suspect. But our democracy was even more imperfect in earlier eras, lending some hope that, through their hard work, Americans’ attempts to build a more perfect union might not be in vain.”

P.S.— I asked Gilens and Page whether they thought the affluent and interest groups had more clout at local and state levels. Though their data couldn’t predict the answer, they suspect that the rich may be even more influential there.

Boer Deng is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter

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