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Economic Inequality and Political Power (Part 3 of 3)

- August 15, 2012

In response to the disproportionate influence of the well-off that I document in Affluence & Influence some have argued that policy reflects (and perhaps should reflect) the preferences of the affluent because affluent Americans are better informed, or because they care more, or because they are more likely to engage politically by voting, contacting their representatives, or working on political campaigns. None of these explanations can account for much of the representational inequality I found.

Faith in the wisdom of the affluent to guide public policy has been sorely tested by the enormous costs in money and human suffering resulting from the Great Recession. (Affluent Americans have been more enthusiastic about deregulation in general, and of the financial industry in particular, than the less well-off.) My data cast further doubt on the notion that representational inequality arises from the greater knowledge or better judgment of those with higher incomes. If government responds not simply to the most affluent but to the most knowledgeable citizens, we would expect education to be a stronger moderator of the preference/policy link than income. In fact, I find the opposite: when both are taken into account, income is a far stronger determinant of influence over policy outcomes than is education (see below).

As far as caring about policy outcomes is concerned, there is no evidence that I’m aware of that suggests that middle-class or poor Americans care less about policy outcomes than the well-off. When the 2004 ANES asked “How important is this issue to you personally?” with regard to half a dozen prominent policy issues, there were no differences across income levels. Similarly, my own data show no difference in the proportion of respondents at different income levels expressing “strong” versus “somewhat” favorable or unfavorable views toward proposed policy changes.

Poor people do vote at lower rates than middle-income or affluent Americans, and other forms of individual political engagement, like working on campaigns and contacting elected officials, also vary by income level. But Larry Bartels’ analyses of Senators’ voting patterns and the preferences of their low, middle, and high income constituents shows that little of the representational inequality he documents can be accounted for by class differences in turnout, political knowledge, or contacting elected officials (see Larry’s masterful book Unequal Democracy).

Moreover, the relationship between income and political engagement does not parallel the relationship between income and influence over policymaking. As the charts below indicate, it is the poor who are distinctively low in voting and campaign work, but as my first post showed, it is high income Americans who are distinctive in their ability to shape government policy.

What most distinguishes the affluent is, of course, their money. And unlike other forms of political participation, donations to campaigns, parties, PACs, and lobbying organizations are highly skewed toward the most affluent Americans:

Electoral campaigns are extraordinarily expensive, and they have become considerably more so over time. The “professionalization” of political campaigns, with their increased focus on paid advertising and sophisticated targeting operations, has increased the value of money relative to other resources (like the ability to mobilize large numbers of volunteers). The growing need for campaign cash has combined with a growing economic inequality that has concentrated more of the country’s wealth in the hands of fewer of its citizens. Together these developments threaten to produce a vicious cycle in which affluent Americans shape policy in ways that enhance their existing advantages and further their ability to determine the course of government policymaking.

Can anything be done to make policymakers more equally responsive to the preferences of all Americans? Campaign finance reforms that reduce the role of large donors are one avenue to pursue. The current climate does not seem auspicious, but Citizens United was a five-to-four decision and perhaps a future Court will be friendlier to campaign finance reform efforts. In addition, competition-enhancing reforms like non-partisan districting might produce more competitive elections and induce policymakers to attend more closely to the public’s preferences. Finally, advocates can focus on those policies that are supported by the affluent and poor alike. Majorities of affluent Americans support increases in the minimum wage, spending for education, job training programs, Social Security, and Medicare (albeit with somewhat less enthusiasm than the less well-off).

Reducing representational inequality will not be easy. But the stakes are so high in this era of enormous social and economic challenges that we cannot be content with a government by the few and for the few, especially when those few are distinguished solely by the size of their bank accounts.

A non-technical description of this project (with responses from 10 commentators) is in The Boston Review, some early findings and technical details are in Public Opinion Quarterly, and much more (including discussions of the quality of mass opinion, the role of interest groups, the difference between Democratic and Republican party control, and elite manipulation of public preferences) can be found in Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.