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What Do Wealthy Super Citizens Want from Government?

David Callahan

It's no secret that wealthy people have a lot more clout when it comes to politics and civic life. They are more likely to vote, contact their representatives, belong to advocacy organizations, and -- of course -- contribute to politicians, parties, and PACs. Compared to ordinary folks, many of the wealthy are "super citizens." 

More controversial, though, is whether these disparaties pervert our democracy -- or whether it's no big deal to have super citizens wielding what Demos has called "million dollar megaphones." 

One way to examine whether disproportionate influence matters is to take a close look at what the wealthy actually want from government. Political inequality might not be such a big deal if there was no difference between the preferences of affluent Americans and the rest of the nation. It is a very big deal if the affluent have their own separate agenda, and the clout to pursue it. 

Several political scientists, including Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens, have recently examined the question of what the affluent want compared to the rest of America, and what policymakers deliver. Their findings are alarming, as I discuss in a new Demos report, "Stacked Deck," written with my colleague Mijin Cha. 

The most important study in this area is by the political scientist Martin Gilens, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. Gilens looked at public opinion on numerous proposed policies over the past few decades including economic, social, and foreign policy issues. By comparing the policy preferences of different income groups with actual policy outcomes, he was able to determine how much influence different groups have had over policy. Gilens writes of his findings: “The American government does respond to the public’s preferences- that responsiveness is strongly tilted toward the most affluent citizens. Indeed, under most circumstances, the preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which policies the government does or doesn’t adopt.” Gilens shows that, in many cases, public policy outcomes would have been quite different if Congress and the president had been equally responsive to all income groups.

The affluent don’t diverge from ordinary Americans on all issues. But notably, Gilens found that “the starkest difference in responsiveness to the affluent and the middle class occurs on economic policy, a consequence of high-income Americans’ stronger opposition to taxes and corporate regulation. . ." In other words, on core issues of how the economy works and how fair it is, the affluent wield the greatest influence.

Research by the political scientist Larry Bartels has found similar patterns. Bartels stresses that, in contrast to the affluent, low-income Americans have little or no influence over policy outcomes. As he writes in his 2008 study Unequal Democracy “the preferences of people in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent impact on the behavior of their elected officials.” 

As it happens, though, neither Gilens nor Bartels were able to look at the views of the truly rich, because survey data isn't available on that group. Instead, their research relies on surveys where the top income cutoff was typically $100,000. 

But a new study is just out that does look at the policy preferences of the wealthy, co-authored by Bartels, Benjamin Page, and Jason Seawright. The study relies on a very small sample of wealthy people in the Chicago area -- some with net worths in the tens of millions.  If the results can be extrapolated nationally, we should all be worried. 

The study finds that these wealthy individuals are even greater super citizens than their merely affluent counterparts -- with a stunning 40 percent of respondents saying they've contacted their U.S. Senator and two-thirds saying they have made campaign contributions. 

What do the wealthy want from the political system? That's hard to say, exactly, but the new study finds that the wealthy are far to the right of the American public when it comes to such issues as regulation, job creation, the deficit, education, taxes, and funding for social safety net programs. The table belows shows some of these differences in more detail. With the exception of infrastructure and scientific research, the public favors more spending on a range of domestic priorities -- and by large margins. 

Source: Bartels, Page, Seawright study

These findings have profound ramifications in thinking about the health of America's democracy. Basically, the people with the most money and clout in U.S. society -- the kind of people who can get their U.S. Senator on the phone -- have a much more constricted vision of what government should be doing than the mass of ordinary voters.

That's a problem, especially since there's a lot of evidence coming out of Washington that political leaders are listening closely right now to the wishes of these wealthy super citizens.