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If You Worry About Civic Inequality, You Should Also Worry About Economic Inequality

David Callahan

Equality is a funny thing in America. For the most part, Americans don't fret that much about economic inequality and yet are said to believe deeply in civic equality -- the idea that everyone should have an equal say in our democracy and be treated the same under the law, no matter how high or mighty they are.

We tend to think it's okay that Bill Gates has a bazillion dollars. But we don't think he should be able to buy politicians or buy his way out of trouble with fancy lawyers.

What's weird, though, is how many Americans -- or, more worrisome, elite leaders -- don't get a simple fact of life: Economic inequality always translates into civic inequality. People with lots of money can (and do) use that money to buy political influence and special treatment under the law.

While this fact might seem intuitive and has been an often repeated idea in American politics since Theodore Roosevelt took on the outsized power of the trusts over a century ago, it remains a contested proposition. So contested, in fact, that the Russell Sage Foundation was moved to hand out a small fortune in grant money to scholars exploring the link between economic and political inequality.

The verdict of that research is now fully in. Four years ago, Larry Bartels -- a RSF grantee -- published his instant classic, Unequal Democracy: Politics in the New Gilded Age, which demonstrated that the outsized economic power of the rich was translating into outsized political power.

Now comes an even more detailed and disturbing look at how U.S. democracy actually works amid near record levels of inequality: Martin Gilens' new book, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.

Gilens' contribution is to provide a mountain of empirical evidence showing how the rich are more likely to get their way in numerous spheres of public policy. Gilens flatly states his findings this way:

In most circumstances, affluent Americans exert substantial influence over the policies adopted by the federal government, and less well off Americans exert virtually none. Even when Democrats control Congress and the White House, the less well off are no more influential.

Gilens compares public preferences with actual policy outcomes between 1964 and 2006, and finds that not only is there vast inequality in "influence over policymaking," but that "inequality is growing."

Gilens notes that the rich and poor "often agree on public policy," and so there are a number of areas where political inequality doesn't much matter. Programs like Social Security and Medicare enjoy broad support, as does spending on education, childcare, and job training. The class divide has been minor, too, when it comes to war and military intervention.

Where the divide does matter, says Gilens, is when the views of the rich and poor (or middle) diverge -- in which case it's the rich who always end up calling the shots. If that weren't the case, America would be a more economically equal place.

Greater representational equality would have a substantial effect on several important economic policies. We would have a higher minimum wage, more generous unemployment benefits, stricter corporate regulation (on the oil and gas industries in particular), and a more progressive tax regime. Some of these policies are favored by a majority of Americans at the 90th income percentile as well, but not with sufficient enthusiasm to overcome opposition from business and other interests. We would also see a more protectionist trade strategy and less foreign aid.

All that said, Gilens notes that "public preferences on redistributive economic policies don’t break down as cleanly as one might expect." There are policies that the rich favor, even though it seems at odds with their self-interest, and also areas where the poor hold views that undermine their self-interest:

Proposals to raise the minimum wage, expand federal college assistance, reduce taxes for low-income Americans, and protect or expand government support for health care receive strong support from affluent voters. In addition some upwardly redistributive policies—such as imposing work requirements and time limits on welfare recipients, eliminating the inheritance tax, and cutting capital gains tax rates—receive strong support even from the least well off.

I make pretty much this same point in my book on the liberal rich, Fortunes of Change. As well, I focus on another of Gilens' findings -- a familiar one -- which is that the affluent tend to more liberal on social issues and, thanks to their clout, America is more progressive in these spheres than would be the case if the lower classes had more say.

Gilens' research paints a depressing picture of how economic inequality translates into political inequality. But he also shows places where progressives can find strong allies in the upper class -- and areas where they have their work cut for them in changing the views of poorer Americans.