Monthly Archives: May 2016

To Influence Policy, You Have to Be More than Rich

It’s a common refrain — politicians don’t listen to everyday Americans. But is that really true? And if so, whom do they listen to? Last year, two political scientists, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, attempted to answer that question in abombshell paper that suggested “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

The paper was widely lauded in the press culminating in an appearance on The Daily Show. But that fame came with misinterpretations of their research in attention-grabbing headlines painting their findings as nearly dystopian. Heath Brown, a political scientist at the CUNY Graduate Center, tells me, “Despite the assertion of certain headline writers, concluding that Gilens and Page demonstrated that we live in an oligarchy is not true to what they themselves claim nor the key findings of the research.” The paper’s popularity, along with these misinterpretations, lead to a wave of other research that has enriched the debate.

In their paper, Gilens and Page use a dataset Gilens compiled for his 2012 book,Affluence and Influence, which includes 1,779 policy cases between 1981 and 2002 as well as poll data measuring citizens’ preferences regarding those policies. They used the responses of the poorest 10 percent as the poor, median income individuals to represent average voters and the preferences of the richest 10 percent as a proxy for “economic elites.” They also compiled the policy preferences of interest groups like the NRA and Chamber of Commerce. They then compared the preferences of individuals across the economic spectrum to actual political outcomes. When they ran the preferences of each group separately, as the sole predictor of policy change, they found strong congruence with the policy preferences of average citizens, elites and interest groups and outcomes (though the elite group had the strongest congruence). However, when they ran the model with all the preferences combined, they found that the preferences of the middle class no longer predicted effects on outcomes. They report that when the preferences of ordinary Americans and elites differ, “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” In short, the rich get what they want. This analysis adds on the original analysis that Gilens did in his book, which was slightly different. There, he examined how representation shifted as preference gaps increased (the preference gap is the percentage point difference in the share of each class supporting the policy). He found that on issues where preference gaps were low (a less than 5 point difference between the percentage of the rich and middle class or poor opposed), representation was equal. However, as preference gaps increased, policymakers favored the rich. Combined, the book and the paper make a strong case for inequality of representation.

A more nuanced portrayal of this research, along with a survey of points made by its critics, suggests that frequently the views of the middle class and rich coincide closely. Thanks to party politics and a general bias toward the status quo, the policy preferences of Americans from all walks of life tend to converge. The data also reveal that the rich have an important ability to veto possible change. Instead, it’s the uber-rich, especially the subset who donate heavily to political campaigns and causes, who along with corporate lobbyists hold far greater sway than everyday voters in influencing government policymaking.

Democracy By Coincidence?
The core critique of Page and Gilens’ work is that the policy preferences of wealthy voters don’t actually differ that greatly from those of other voter classes (something they note in their paper, but which was almost entirely ignored in the media flurry). Further, critics argue that when the preferences do differ, it’s not clear that the rich are always the winners.

Take a yet-to-be published article by political scientists J. Alexander Branham, Stuart Soroka and Christopher Wlezien: “the rich and middle agree more than 90 percent of the time; when they disagree, the rich win only a little more often than the middle.” These authors wanted to examine specifically the issues in which there were clear class differences in policy. Rather than using a model or preference gaps, they examined issues in which there were clear divides in opinion: in which a majority of the wealthy favored one policy and the middle class or poor opposed it. This method certainly has advantages, but as Gilens notes in Affluence and Influence, because of status quo bias, there is a difference between a policy supported by 51% of a group and 75% of the group.

Among the full sample of policies, Branham, Soroka, and Wlezien examine majority support and opposition. They find that in the case of 1,594 policies (or 90% of the sample) the rich and middle class agree. There are 616 policies that both groups oppose and 978 that both groups favor. That leaves 185 policies that the rich and middle are split on. On 78 policies, the middle favor the policy and the rich do not, on the other 107, the rich favor but the middle do not. Here, the average gap in support is 10.9 percentage points on average. When examining only policies where there are opposed majorities, the “win rate,” or share of times the group has its preferences enacted are similar (though the rich are still advantaged). The authors also note that the poor do suffer slightly lower representation than other groups (policies they favor and other groups dislike are the least likely to pass). On the whole, however, they find representation is relatively equal when examining majority support (see the table below, Table 3 in their paper). They also find that wins for the rich and middle class do not break down easily ideologically, though the rich are slightly more likely to block left-leaning policies than conservative ones.

Another critique comes from Cornell political scientist Peter Enns, who proposesrelative policy support as an important metric: policies must be considered not independently, but relative to other policies. Imagine a scenario in which 60% of the rich supported a higher minimum wage and 70% of the middle class did, but 90% of the rich and 80% of the middle class supported a government health insurance program for children. Enns argues that, regardless of who the government was representing, both the middle class and rich would prefer a government health insurance program for children to a higher minimum wage. In this case, he argues that coincidental representation is occurring.

Charts help illustrate his case. The chart (below, Figure 5 in his paper) shows the high correlation between those at the median and those in the 90th percentile with the hollow dots representing the (large majority) of cases in which preference gaps are lower than 10 points. Of the full sample, there are only 322 policies in which there is a more than 10 point gap between the rich and middle class (there are 747 polices with a more than ten point gap between the rich and poor). Because of this, the possibilities for relative policy support are quite large. In his criticism, Enns writes, that because of similar patterns of relative policy support, “Even if policy only responds to the wealthy… we should expect that policy ends up about where those in the middle would expect if they received the same representation as affluent individuals.”

The most recent criticism, from Ph.D. student Omar Bashir, argues, “that average Americans have received their preferred policy outcome roughly as often as elites have when the two groups have disagreed with each other.” He argues that because of the incredibly high correlation between the preferences of the middle and the wealthy, the model that Gilens and Page constructed makes it difficult to discern patterns of representation. (As of publication, Gilens maintains that Bashir’s analysis contains methodological flaws, telling me, “the central claims he draws from is simulation are not supported”). Enns tells me that while scholars often disagree on the most appropriate analytical approach, Bashir’s approach appears defensible to him.

The authors often employ different methods of determining the similarity of preferences, which is important because American policy is strongly biased towards the status quo, and it often requires more than a simple majority to produce change. For instance, in the cases of a narrow pro-change majority, the policy preference of the public was adopted only 30% of the time. Even in cases of overwhelmingly majority support (80%) among the public, the policy change was only achieved 43% of the time (see chart below, Figure 3.2 in his book). This almost certainly helps explain why the middle class has little independent influence.

Gilens notes that if one examines issues on which 75% or more of the middle class support a policy (or 75% or more oppose it) and a 10-point preference gap, the middle class have a lower success rate than the rich. Only 34% of the time that that three-quarters of the middle class express a policy preference (and there is a 10 point gap with the rich) is neither policy preference enacted, compared with 66% of the time for the rich. Gilens writes that, “affluent Americans do not always get the policies they prefer either. But the affluent are twice as likely to see the policies they strongly favor adopted (46% compared with 19%), while the policies they strongly oppose are only one-fifth as likely to be adopted as those that are strongly opposed by the middle class (6% compared to 32%).” Further, Gilens notes that issues regarding redistribution are among those with the most intense disagreement between the rich and poor, and on these issues the rich win the most.

Enns responds that these policies (in which three quarters of the middle class have a preference and there is a 10 point gap compared to the rich) make about 5% of the sample. However, many of these questions are important questions about redistribution. Using data compiled by political scientist Matt Grossman, the chart below shows the areas with the biggest gaps between the median income and the top decile. It shows that key questions of redistribution are frequently fraught, with the median far more supportive of higher taxes on the rich and other redistributive policies.

Gilens also notes that even focusing on majoritarian preferences, gaps arise. In cases where both the rich and middle class agree, if the rich have greater support, the policy is more likely to pass (44% compared with 35%). This aligns with the analysis contained in Gilens’s original book, in which he shows that as preference gaps increase, the affluent become more likely to win compared to the middle class. In addition, the rich have an important veto power: among policies that both the middle class and rich oppose, when rich opposition was greater, only 17% of the policies passed. When middle class opposition was greater 28% of the policies passed. Indeed, a second look at their third table suggests the rich have a powerful veto power: only 20% of the policies favored by the middle and poor (but opposed by the rich) passed, compared with 39% of the policies that the rich favor and the middle and poor oppose.

Thus, though different methods reduce representational inequality, they do not eliminate it. Further, analysis suggests there is evidence that policymakers respond to the preferences of the middle-class and poor, though unequally. The question at the core of Gilens and Page is whether middle class and low-income people have independent influence on policy, rather than simply their preferences being congruent with outcomes. As Gilens writes, “coincidental representation is a pale, counterfeit, simulacrum of democracy.”

The corollary of this argument is that parties may matter more than income. In a 2013 paper, economists Eric Brunner, Stephen Ross, and Ebonya Washington argue that, “Differences in representation by income are largely explained by the correlation between constituent income and party affiliation.” A working paper by political scientist Chris Tausanovitch argues, “In recent years, representation occurs primarily through the selection of a legislator from the appropriate party.” In his paper, Enns argues that, “Although scholars have increasingly focused on the lack of responsiveness to middle-income Americans, it may be that partisan divisions matter most for policy outcomes.”

While this is an important point, but it’s not entirely clear that it undermines Gilens and Page. For one, parties in America are strongly divided by class but with a key caveat: while Republicans expertly represent the interests of the very rich, it’s not clear that Democrats do a superb job of representing the working class. But further, a working paper (discussed here) by political scientists Jesse Rhodes and Brian Schaffner finds that, Republican members of Congress are “more strongly associated with the ideological predispositions of individuals in higher wealth brackets,” while Democrats are less strongly associated with millionaires. However, they also find that, “millionaires receive about twice as much representation when they comprise just 5% of the district’s population than the poorest wealth group does when it makes up 50% of the district.” Their work therefore suggests that differential representation is mediated by parties, but parties can’t explain everything.

The Donors And The Lobbyists
One limitation of the current literature is that many studies don’t pay special attention to the ultra wealthy (the .1% and .01%), and particularly the donor class (whose views are disproportionately represented), instead grouping them in with the merely affluent (those in the top 10 percentile). There is good reason to believe that the wealthiest of the wealthy have views that are far from the general public,particularly regarding redistribution. In addition, there are reasons to believe the donor class, which is a unique subset of the wealthy, have differing views from both the general public and other wealthy people. Political scientist Michael Barber sent out a survey to donors who had given more than $200 to the 2012 Presidential campaign and around 2,870 responded. While 69% of Americans have a net worth below $250,000, only 8% of those in his sample did (18% of this sample had a net worth over $10 million – the threshold to be in the top 1% in 2012 was $8.4 million). He finds differences between donors and non-donors of the same party, with donors holding more extreme positions than voters. He also finds, not surprisingly, that politicians are more responsive to donors than co-partisans, individuals who voted for them, and voters in their state. In a 2010 study three scholars, Brittany H. Bramlett, James G. Gimpel, and Frances E. Lee find thatneighborhoods with high-concentrations of donors have preferences that differ from the rest of the nation. They write, “Even after accounting for their higher income and education, Democratic residents of high-donor areas are far more supportive of free trade and less concerned with job losses resulting from foreign competition than is typical for members of their party.” Political scientists Peter Francia, John Green, Paul Herrnson, Lynda Powell, and Clyde Wilcox find thatRepublican and Democratic donors are distinct from their bases, tending to be more ideologically extreme. They find that New Democrats, a significant part of the Democratic donors class actually had a more favorable view of the Chamber of Commerce than the AFL-CIO. On the other side of the aisle, “Large majorities of Republican donors belong to business organizations and support fiscally conservative economic policies.” A study of CCES data by political scientists Nolan McCarty and Didi Kuo finds “very substantial differences between donors and non-donors across a variety of issues. Not surprisingly, donors are considerably more conservative on economic policy.”

In addition, we may need to put greater emphasis on the influence of highly mobilized constituencies, like business groups, and how they distort the policy process. These groups tend to be the most out of line with the general public, and also to have the most clout when it comes to changing policy. It’s worth noting an important finding of the Page and Gilens’s paper that was largely buried during the press deluge: the biggest divergence in preferences was not between the rich and the poor, but rather all Americans and corporations and their lobbyists. It’s important to begin examining how income and power influences not just who wins when an issue comes to the roll call, but rather what determines which issues are discussed.

Finally, scholars should further examine how race and gender interact with income and representation. Studies suggest that low-income black women, for example, are particularly likely to be ignored by policymakers. The fact that donors tend to bewhite, male, and rich has profound implications for representation in a political system that is driven by donors.

The critics of Gilens and Page make a key point: because of high levels of congruence between the rich and middle class, when policymakers respond to the rich, they frequently enact the policy preferences of average Americans. However, full accounting of the evidence leaves the core finding of Gilens and Page standing: the views of the wealthy are disproportionately represented by policymakers, and representation for low and middle income Americans primarily comes from their congruence with the wealthy. It also includes the reality that policies opposed by the rich are far more likely to have the policies they dislike fail.

We must discuss how political information is mediated through social networks and the importance of working class mobilization. We must focus on the overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy donor class, and the dynamics of race and representation. The influence of the Koch Brothers and other billionaire donors certainly pulls our politics to the right. Finally, we must consider overwhelmingly powerful business groups which spend heavily on campaign contributions and lobbying. The solutions to these problems are many, but disclosure and public financing are the most potent tools available given the current makeup of the Supreme Court. By empowering small donors, and bringing non-donors into the system, such a system could limit the power of big donors. Another solution would be building up legislative and research capacity for Congress, so they are less dependent on lobbyists. Research at the state level suggests that professionalized legislatures are more responsive to their constituents and less likely to pass model bills pushed by outside organizations like ALEC. Such a system could be structured to also give money to parties, a bulwark against private interests. In addition, progressives should see higher voter turnout as a way to disempower the donor class. A policy combination of automatic voter registration, universal vote by mail, campaign donations disclosure and public financing would be a strong anti-plutocracy agenda. But it’s only a start.

This piece originally appeared on Washington Monthly. 

Inequality is destroying American democracy

Last year two political scientists, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, released a bombshell paper suggesting that “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened” because policymakers overwhelmingly respond to the wishes of the wealthy rather than the majority of voters. The paper expanded on Gilens’ earlier work and was widely lauded in the press, with the two authors appearing on “The Daily Show.”

But as shocking as their findings were, new evidence suggests that the superrich may have even more divergent opinions from average Americans’ and that these gaps may help explain the rise of reactionary politicians such as Donald Trump.

Trump’s extended lead in GOP presidential polling has come as quite a surprise to Beltway journalists. However, new data from a 2012 survey that includes a relatively large sample of high-income individuals suggest one reason for the divide: The richest of the rich have dramatically different views from average Americans’. Gilens provided mewith the following data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), a 50,000-person survey with a large sample of wealthy individuals. The sample included 118 individuals whose annual income was over $500,000, 171 who earned $350,000 to $499,999 and 343 earning $250,000 to $349,999. The median annual income in the U.S. is $52,000, and an income of $385,195 is enough to put an individual in the top 1 percent.

The data provided by Gilens suggest startling divides between the rich and the rest of Americans on issues related to budgets and redistribution. To begin with, there’s the hotly contested Bowles-Simpson budget — a proposal from the 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform created by President Barack Obama and chaired by Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson. The CCES informed the people it polled that the budget would reduce the debt by 21 percent by 2020 by cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense spending by 15 percent and by eliminating tax breaks for individuals and corporations. The budget was supported by a bipartisan group of politicians and heavily promoted by mainstream media. New York Times columnist David Brooks, for instance, claimed that Bowles-Simpson would “lay the foundation for decades of prosperity” and “galvanize a new-center left majority.”

The problem is that the plan fails to find favor with Americans in general. On average, 49 percent of Americans support Bowles-Simpson and 51 percent oppose it when its essential features are described in survey questions. These gaps are strongly defined by class. Among those earning less than $30,000 a year, only 41 percent support it, while among those earning $500,000 or more, support was 72 percent.


A more draconian budget supported by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, which, the CCES informed respondents, “would cut Medicare and Medicaid by 42 percent” and “would reduce debt by 16 percent by 2020,” also produced divergent responses. Only 18 percent of the full sample supported the Ryan plan, but among those earning $250,000 or more, support was 31 percent. Among those earning less than $30,000, only 13 percent supported the Ryan budget, compared with 36 percent of those earning $500,000 or more.


One CCES question asked whether survey subjects supported extending the Tax Hike Prevention Act, which would renew President George W. Bush’s tax cuts on all earners. Though presented as cuts that benefit all Americans, data suggest that the tax cuts are heavily favorable toward the wealthy, with 30 percent of the tax cuts going to the richest 1 percent. On that question, again, there were deep class divides. Among those earning less than $30,000 a year, 24 percent of respondents supported extending the Bush tax cuts. Among those earning $500,000 or more, 43 percent did. On average, support for full extension of the Bush tax cuts stood at just 26 percent, while among those earning $250,000 or more, it was 37 percent.


These data supplement a working paper (which I’ve written about for Al Jazeera America) by political scientists Jesse Rhodes and Brian Schaffner. They found that Republican members of Congress are “more strongly associated with the ideological predispositions of individuals in higher wealth brackets” while Democrats are less strongly associated with millionaires. Rhodes and Schaffner also found that “millionaires receive about twice as much representation when they comprise just 5 percent of the district’s population [as] the poorest wealth group does when it makes up 50 percent of the district.” In addition, Rhodes and Schaffner highlighted important divides between the rich and average Americans.

Fraudulent democracy goes a long way to accounting for the appeal of populism across the ideological spectrum.

Critics of Gilens and Page noted that there is significant overlap between the rich and the middle class on many issues. But as Gilens wrote in a response, “affluent Americans do not always get the policies they prefer either. But the affluent are twice as likely to see the policies they strongly favor adopted, while the policies they strongly oppose are only one-fifth as likely to be adopted as those that are strongly opposed by the middle class.”

He added that issues regarding wealth redistribution produce some of the sharpest disagreements between rich and poor, saying, “What are these policies that are popular with the middle-class but not the affluent? The majority are redistributive policies” — policies like raising the minimum wage, boosting income taxes on the wealthy or cutting payroll taxes that hit the poor hardest.

As Mijin Cha and David Callahan, former colleagues of mine at the progressive think tank Demos, have argued, one of the key divides between the political donor class and nondonors is on the issue of austerity. The latest data suggest that the wealthy have strongly different priorities on the budget from the nonwealthy.

The rise of Trump and the tea party movement owes a lot to these divides. On the other side of the aisle, supporters of avowed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign may be justifiably upset about the many centrist Democrats who have supported GOP-backed austerity policies, likely bowing to pressure from the increasingly powerful economic elite. As Gilens wrote, “coincidental representation is a pale, counterfeit, simulacrum of democracy.” This fraudulent democracy goes a long way to accounting for the appeal of populism across the ideological spectrum.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

Higher voter turnout could limit the far right

One of the most disturbing trends in the American political system is the rapid ascent of the far right. As FiveThirtyEight editor Nate Silver recently noted, “The most conservative Republicans in the House 25 or 30 years ago would be among the most liberal members now.” In “Why Voting Matters,” my latest report for Demos, a progressive public-policy organization, I make the case that higher turnout would dramatically change policy in the United States by moderating the power of the far right.

I consulted the American National Election Studies 2012 data, focusing on differences in opinion between voters and nonvoters who identified as Republican. I began by examining the three areas of federal spending that most closely relate to the government’s role in the social safety net: Social Security, child care and subsidies for the poor. Each question asks respondents whether they want to increase, decrease or keep the same funding for each. I examine net support, which means subtracting the share of those who want to decrease spending from those who want to increase it. As the chart below shows, nonvoters were significantly more likely to support the social safety net than voters.

Voting chart 1

I also examined the rate of turnout by partisan affiliation. As the chart below shows, individuals with the strongest partisan identification were most likely to turn out to vote. In 2012, 88 percent of strong Democrats and 92 percent of strong Republicans voted, compared with 76 percent of independent Democrats and 77 percent of independent Republicans.

Voting chart 2

Finally, I explored the ideology of Republican voters and nonvoters. Among self-identified Republicans, individuals who identify as extremely conservative were most likely to vote, while those who are middle of the road were less likely. Liberal Republicans were the least likely to vote.

Voting chart 3

The data suggest that Republicans who don’t vote are far more moderate than Republicans who do and that higher turnout would lead to a more moderate Republican Party. There is a strong theoretical reason to believe that higher turnout would lead to less polarization, because marginal voters are less polarized than regular voters. In arecent study, researchers Ryan Enos, Anthony Fowler and Lynn Vavreck found that a propensity to vote strongly correlates with strong party identification and extreme ideology.

Two scholars of political polarization, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, argue that boosting turnout would push politicians to woo voters in the center, pointing to the example of Australia’s compulsory voting. As they wrote, “Australian politicians of all stripes say that knowing their party’s base will all be there, as will the base of the other side, requires them to focus on those persuadable voters in the middle.”

Similarly, in a 2012 paper, researcher Justin Valasek found that “measures to increase turnout decrease political polarization.” In an earlier working version of the paper, he points to the implementation of voting by mail in Oregon, noting that, “between 1982 and 1994 the Oregon delegation was more polarized than the national average, and in all subsequent elections, where all citizens were allowed to vote by mail, it was less polarized.” Though there is not enough data to conclusively show that voting by mail was responsible (thus it was cut from the final paper), it is certainly suggestive.

The greater influence of political donors compared with other voters can also affect polarization. A recent paper by economist Razvan Vlaicu argued that the increasing power of political donors has led candidates to pursue partisan policy goals rather than ones that have more popular support. Because donors are more polarized, if politicians are courting donors rather than other voters (or constituents), they will pursue more extreme policies. In a recent study, political scientists Seth Hill and Chris Tausanovitch found that “with respect to the policy questions in our data and the broader ideologies they represent, Americans tend to be no more distant from one another today than they were in the 1950s. The public has not ‘moved apart’ on these questions of government policy.” That is, what political polarization has occurred can’t really be attributed to the views of the general public, which have remained remarkably constant over time. For that reason, higher turnout, by wresting control of policy from a polarized donor class, could lead to more moderate governance.

Policies such as automatic voter registration could reduce polarization and make our politics more representative of the popular will.

There may also be a reinforcing effect from polarization and low voter turnout. A recent study by political scientist Jon Rogowski found that “increasing levels of ideological conflict reduce voter turnout and are robust across a wide range of empirical specifications.” This leads to a self-reinforcing cycle in which polarization pulls down turnout, further enabling polarization.

Other research also suggests polarization reduces turnout. Yale University political scientist Daniel Butlerfound that an incumbent’s voting “responds to the sizes of the different voting blocs in the district: increases in the proportion of independents and the size of the opposition’s base are related to increasing moderation; increases in the size of the incumbent’s base correspond to increasing extremism.” He hypothesized that higher turnout could lead to more moderate voters, causing candidates to tack toward the center.

It’s not entirely certain, however, that higher turnout would decrease polarization. It could simply bolster the left flank of American politics, as mandatory voting has in Australia and Brazil. Furthermore, the evidence that primaries lead to increased polarization is decidedly mixed.

It’s also possible that the very act of voting increase an individual’s partisanship. One recent study found that voting for a candidate leads to a stronger favorable rating for that candidate. Another found that when individuals register with a party, they become more likely to support that party.

However, even if lower turnout hasn’t caused polarization, higher turnout could still reduce it. Because polarization has been primarily driven by the increasing extremism of the right, reducing it would require finding a way to shift the Republican Party toward the center. Increased voter turnout would bring more moderate, center-right and left-leaning voters into the electorate.

To appeal to these new voters, the GOP would have to stop tossing red meat to its base and address the deeper problems facing the country. It’s likely that the new voters would skew Democratic, but because they are more likely to identify as independent and will tend to be less supportive of incumbents, both parties would be forced to fight for their votes. The number of competitive seats, which has declined dramatically in the past few election cycles, would likely increase.

Higher turnout has the possibility of weakening the donor class’s grip on policy. It could also reduce the influence of the extreme right wing on politics. It’s not surprising that the GOP, which benefits from a low-turnout, strong-donor environment, supports voting laws that tend to reduce turnout. Policies such as automatic voter registration, which would work to bolster turnout, could therefore reduce polarization and make our politics more representative of the popular will.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

The education myth

This piece was co-written with Marshall Steinbaum, a research economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Almost everyone agrees that education, innovation and human capital are critical to economic growth and security. And anyone who can’t find a job or is stuck with a low-paying job is told to acquire the skills necessary to succeed in today’s economy.

Unfortunately, the results of believing in that myth have been catastrophic. Earnings have stagnated or declined for everyone except the very top earners, even for those who have educational qualifications, and jobs that didn’t previously require credentials now do. College-educated workers are increasingly forced to take jobs in low-paying industries.

The skills gap is not why workers aren’t prospering. If it were, those with higher skills should be doing better, not worse. Instead, employees are victimized first by policy failure — since the economy is not operating at full employment, those who depend on their labor for living may not find work — and second by the deluded guidance of experts who point to education as a panacea for all their problems.

As the chart below illustrates, the most-educated workers have seen their wages stagnate for the past seven years, and everyone else has suffered outright declines. A new study by sociologists Richard Breen and Inkwan Chung found that most of the increase in inequality over the last three decades occurred within different educational attainment groups rather than between them (i.e. the gap isn’t between high-school and college grads but within different educational categories). Instead, inequality primarily derives from the top 1 percent and 0.1 percent taking an increasingly large share of the national income. Breen and Chung conclude that equalizing educational attainment would do little to ameliorate such inequality.

wage change

Education hasn’t protected workers from falling wages. (Source: The Economic Policy Institute)

The education myth has also harmed the U.S. economy. For many young people, the harms are embodied in the increase in student debt and related pathologies such as job lock (being forced to stick with a bad job to make student loan payments) and low household formation (indebted graduates being forced to living with their parents). It also enables economic leeches such as for-profit higher education providers, senior universityadministrators and the student loan industry to prosper off young people.

Anxiety over bad job prospects reached its height during the recent recession and its immediate aftermath. At the same time, average student debt and payment levels as well as enrollment in for-profit colleges — whose students often depend on loans to finance their educations — increased starkly. Implicit federal subsidies to for-profit schools have also expanded dramatically, even as state-level appropriations to public institutions of higher education continue to be slashed. This was done on the premise that students will finance their educations when the benefits of doing so are obvious and the means exists in the form of loans.

The results are beginning to show in a wave of delinquencies, including the high-profile case of Corinthian Colleges,which went belly up in the face of state and federal regulatory scrutiny about its marketing promises and its graduates’ employment prospects. And employment and earnings outcomes for recent labor market entrantscontinue to lag their predecessors’. Those who continue to pay off debt accrued in pursuit of degrees they did or, worse, didn’t complete are laboring under the burden of a mistaken ideology. At the very best, professional credentials protect workers from the fate befalling those without — a very expensive rat race. But educational attainment alone doesn’t improve aggregate employment outcomes, nor do more degrees benefit the economy when it is operating below capacity.

The education myth dubiously posits that increasing access to higher education can increase upward mobility and reduce racial inequality. But in a recent study, economists William R. Emmons and Bryan J. Noeth found that the effects of higher education are not the same across racial and ethnic groups. As shown in the chart below, the median net worth of a non-Hispanic white family without a college degree is higher than the median net worth of a black or Hispanic family with a college degree.

There are deep racial gaps in employment rates, even among college graduates. Cherrie Bucknor, a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, reports (PDF) that wages for black men have fallen since the late 1970s, including for those who followed the education myth and obtained a college degree. In fact, according to a recent analysis by Demos and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, “increasing graduation rates would reduce the wealth disparity between black and white people by only 1 percent and between Latinos and whites by 3 percent.”

college graduates

Black and Hispanic workers with college degrees do worse than whites without one. (Source: William Emmons and Bryan Noeth, 2015)

While the benefits of college rarely accrue to black people and Latinos, the costs do. As shown in the chart below, black and Latino students are far more likely to borrow for a bachelor’s degree at public and private colleges and black students borrow nearly $4,000 more for their degrees. And such borrowing doesn’t guarantee a degree. “At all schools, nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) of black borrowers drop out of college, compared [with] 29 percent of white borrowers,” according to Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos.

public private

Black and low-income students borrow more for a bachelor’s degree. (Source: Mark Huelsman, Demos, 2015)

It is clear that more education doesn’t necessarily lead to economic security, but policymakers continue to tout higher education as a solution to the skills gap instead of addressing the economic malaise that prevents workers from putting their skills to productive use. In the 1998 film “Primary Colors,” presidential candidate Jack Stanton, played by actor John Travolta, tells laid-off New Hampshire factory workers to learn how to use “the muscle between your ears” to compete with foreign labor. Politicians, including Presidents Bill Clinton (after whom Stanton was modeled) and Barack Obama, have essentially made the same point in recent years.

Sadly, the ranks of the deluded include economists who continue to highlight the long-standing earning gapbetween those with and without college degrees as evidence that having more people earn degrees would close the gap. Many in the financial industry also apparently think that financing student loans is a socially productive use of capital and of their professional talent.

The education myth enjoys wide appeal because it follows a convenient pattern. It blames the victims of economic misfortune for being underskilled and offers them a way out through debt-financed higher education credentials. But the true culprit is an economy that’s not working, largely by the choice of the people who govern it. By conveniently highlighting the supposed individual responsibility of workers, especially the young, the education myth overlooks the responsibility of policymakers and economic experts to do their jobs and make the economy serve the interest of the public.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

The more unequal the country, the more the rich rule

In recent years, several academic researchers have argued that rising inequality erodes democracy. But the lack of international data has made it difficult to show whether inequality in fact exacerbates the apparent lack of political responsiveness to popular sentiment. Even scholars concerned about economic inequality, such as sociologist Lane Kenworthy, often hesitate to argue that economic inequality might bleed into the political sphere. New cross-national research, however, suggests that higher inequality does indeed limit political representation.

In a 2014 study on political representation, political scientists Jan Rosset, Nathalie Giger and Julian Bernauer concluded, “In economically more unequal societies, the party system represents the preferences of relatively poor citizens worse than in more equal societies.” Similarly, political scientists Michael Donnelly and Zoe Lefkofridifound in a working paper that in Europe, “Changes in overall attitudes toward redistribution have very little effect on redistributive policies. Changes in socio-cultural policies are driven largely by change in the attitudes of the affluent, and only weakly (if at all) by the middle class or poor.” They find that when the people get what they want, it’s typically because their views correspond with the affluent, rather than policymakers directly responding to their concerns.

In another study of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, researcher Pablo Torija Jimenez looked at data in 24 countries over 30 years. He examined how different governmental structures influence happiness across income groups and found that today “politicians in OECD countries maximize the happiness of the economic elite.” However, it was not always that way: In the past, left parties represented the poor, the center and the middle class. Now all the parties benefit the richest 1 percent of earners, Jimenez reports.

In a recent working paper, political scientist Larry Bartels finds the effect of politicians’ bias toward the rich has reduced real social spending per capita by 28 percent on average. Studying 23 OECD countries, Bartels finds that the rich are more likely to oppose spending increases, support budget cuts and reject promoting the welfare state — the idea that the government should ensure a decent standard of living.


The same tendencies occur at the state level. Patrick Flavin, a political scientist at Baylor University, examinedpolitical responsiveness in the U.S. at the state level. He found that inequality in a state strongly correlates with political representation: More unequal states tend to be less representative.

“The effect of income inequality is stronger than just about any other state contextual factor that I’ve looked at,” Flavin told me in a recent interview. “For example, it has a stronger predictive effect on the equality of political representation than the partisan composition of the state legislature/governor’s mansion, the median income of a state, or a state’s population.” Similarly, Elizabeth Rigby and Gerald Wright found that in more unequal states, Democrats tend to be less responsive to the poor.

Some political scientists have found more mixed results internationally. Political scientists James Adams and Lawrence Ezrow found that European democracies are more responsive to “opinion leaders,” or highly politically engaged citizens, than to class differences. “No evidence that European parties respond disproportionately to affluent or highly educated citizens, independently of their responsiveness to opinion leaders,” Adams and Ezrow wrote in 2009. That is, to the extent that the government is more responsive to the affluent, it is because of influential opinion makers among them. However, in a recent Monkey Cage post, Ezrow notes, “levels of economic inequality condition levels of political inequality.”

What’s the solution to rising inequality of responsiveness? More democracy, for one. In a study published last November, political scientists Yvette Peters and Sander J. Ensink examined political representation and responsiveness in 25 European countries. Using the European Social Survey from 2002 to 2010, they analyzed support for income redistribution policies across various categories.

“Governments tend to follow the preferences of the rich more than those of the poor,” Peters and Ensink write. “Higher levels of participation in elections seem to lead to reduced differential responsiveness, even though the effect of the poor and the rich on spending is not fully equalized.”

As I’ve argued previously, there is good reason to believe that increasing voter turnout among the poor and middle class will shift policy in their favor. For example, in a 2013 study, Loyola University’s Vincent Mahler found that voter turnout and class gaps both affect income redistribution.

Voter turnout, of course, will not entirely solve the problem of differential representation, but it can begin to alleviate it. When turnout is in the low 40s, as it is for many U.S. elections, politicians have no reason to fear losing their seat by only representing the donor class. By contrast, with mass participation, ignoring the desires of the public could cost a representative his seat. Using American National Election Studies data, Syracuse University political scientist Spencer Piston ran a unique analysis for Al Jazeera America. His data show that in terms of median income, the median non-voter is far poorer than the median voter — $32,500 per year compared with $57,500.

“Preferences of those with money are more likely to influence policy than the preferences of those without money, in no small part because the wealthy engage more in the political process,” Piston told me. “They vote more often, they donate more money, and they are in closer contact with public officials.” These data also understate the wealth of the donor class, since they include all donors. But the megadonors are increasingly influential: the richest .01 percent of donors (25,000 people) were responsible for 42 percent of donations in 2012.


So while voting will partially alleviate political inequality, we also need campaign-finance reforms such as public financing and more robust disclosure rules. Lobbying reforms and limits on campaign contributions have a proven track record at the state level.

On the whole, there is a strong evidence to suspect that representative democracy is not compatible with deep economic inequality. The American Founding Fathers, classic progressives such as Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and commentators such as economist Thomas Piketty are right to worry about how inequality undermines democracy. As FDR warned, “Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

Race and gender matter for representation

Much of the commentary on the policies of the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential contenders ignores how race, class and gender interact with political representation. The reality is that low-income constituents, women and people of color are not getting their fair share from the U.S. government. A new study by University of California researcher Zoltan L. Hajnal, currently under review by co-authors John Griffin, Brian Newman, and David Searle, examines the effects of class, race and gender on representation.

Their findings are stunning: For white people, class works as expected, with richer whites getting better representation than poorer whites. But, for black people, there is no class effect and high-income black households receive slightly less political representation than low-income black families. The authors also found that black women’s voices “are likely to overlooked” in policy decisions more than any other minority group.

For years, studies on representation focused primarily on class, education and political knowledge. In 2004 a task force commissioned by the American Political Science Association’s cautioned that (PDF) the United States’ “ideals of equal citizenship and responsive government may be under growing threat in an era of persistence and rising inequalities.” This prompted academics to dive deeper into the question of how race affects political influence and representation.

In their seminal 2009 book, “Minority Report,” political scientists Brian Newman and John Griffin found that black people and Hispanics had less representation than whites. More recently, legal scholar Nicholas Stephanopoulosanalyzed data from state exit polls and legislative outcomes over three decades and found that women, poor people and minorities had very little representation.

Hajnal and his co-authors use more than 40 years of data on preferences of individual voters for spending in 11 key federal policies, including foreign aid, crime and healthcare, to measure government responsiveness. The authors then examine government spending on those issues to see whether the government enacted the policy preferences of minorities and low-income individuals or not. (The authors treated those whose government spending preferences were enacted as winners and those whose preferences were ignored as policy losers.)

All groups enjoyed gains ranging from 30 to 40 percent based on spending preferences vis-à-vis spending outcomes. But the authors found a significant gap in representation across racial groups: Black people were policy winners 31.9 percent of the time, compared with 37.6 percent for white people. Asians enjoyed more representation than blacks and whites, Hispanics slightly less so. (The General Social Survey on Hispanics and Asian Americans is limited to a period of 10 years and thus not entirely comparable.) As the table below illustrates, there’s a 5.7 percentage point difference between blacks and whites, a 1.5-point difference between high-and low-income earners and 4.1 percentage difference based on educational status.

change in probablity of policy winner

The researchers also found a modest gap in representation based on class. (Unlike some other research, they don’t find a gender gap.) The chart below shows the percentage point differences in being a policy winner based on racial differences and levels of income. Put simply, it’s better to be poor and white than rich and black in the United States.

being a policy winner

The authors attribute the disparity in political representation and influence partly to the fact that white people and the wealthy favor the Republican Party, while black people and low-income voters prefer Democrats. All other things equal, Hajnal and his co-authors argue that Republicans are 6.3 percent more likely to win than Democrats. But this doesn’t fully explain the representation gap. Others have offered group size, African-Americans’ spending habits and their preference for the minority position, which has lower levels of support, to explain this gap. Yet none of this can explain the lack of their representation in U.S. government.

“Other racial and ethnic minorities (namely Asians), the poor, the young, the unemployed, Jews, and Catholics all get roughly equal influence or in some cases more influence than their numbers would suggest,” the researcherswrote in one of the dispiriting conclusions from the study. “Only Black voices are differentially ignored.” Unsurprisingly, they also noted that the richest one percent of Americans shape public policy. Despite black people’s near-total lack of representation, the winning rate differences are narrowed slightly more on welfare, healthcare and crime, areas with high levels of salience. This suggests that African-Americans have stronger (though not equal) rates of representation in areas most important to them.

There is persuasive evidence that the U.S. political system is not living up to our democratic ideals.

On many key policy issues there are deep divides between whites and people of color (in some cases even larger than the gaps between high and low-income people). For instance, while 53 percent of whites say the government should pursue policies to reduce the wealth gap, 67 percent of people of color agree.

reducing wealth gap

Similarly, when asked whether the government should spend money to create jobs or reduce the deficit, 50 percent of whites say reduce the deficit (compared with 42 percent for job creation); while 65 percent of people of color say spend money to create jobs (with 29 percent favoring deficit reduction).

creating jobs

Hajnal and his co-authors found that economic growth boosts political representation for everyone, with the strongest effect for African-Americans. However, this too doesn’t quite explain the evident racial bias aimed at reducing black people’s political participation. Moreover, campaign donors are overwhelmingly white and there are few successful politicians of color (particularly women of color), which exacerbates the unequal representation.

While this is the first study of its kind, I hope it inspires more research on the intersectionality of race, gender and income levels in representation. Other research suggests that voter turnout gaps between the healthy and unhealthy also bias policies.

In sum, there is persuasive evidence that the U.S. political system is not living up to our democratic ideals. We need reforms to ensure equal political representation for all Americans. Among other things, a reform agenda should include automatic voter registration and non-partisan get-out-the-vote campaigns to boost turnout among non-voting populations. We must also end the practice of disenfranchising felons. Finally, to fight the influence of money in politics, we need robust public financing.

Political scientists have long understood that the American democracy had an upper-class accent — now we know it’s overwhelmingly white as well.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

How the rich control policymaking

The United States of America is a democratic country. Over the past few decades, however, important questions about policy and budgets have been decided overwhelmingly against the interests and preferences of the middle and working classes. When the preferences of the rich and the middle class come into conflict, the rich tend to win.

Matt Grossmann, a political scientist and the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, is working on a project to expand upon the work of Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, whose bombshell paper last year revealed the impact of economic inequality on public opinion in the U.S. As part of his research, Grossmann examined 50 proposals in the Gilens data set on which opinions between the wealthiest Americans and the median voter diverged the most.

“Many of the largest income-based differences in public opinion on policy issues concern core issues affecting inequality like taxes, business regulation and social welfare,” Grossmann explains in an interview. “On these issues, the richest citizens are more opposed to new redistributive policies than the poor and they usually get their way.” The core areas in which the rich have disproportionate influence are stopping liberal economic policies and pushing forward liberal social policies. The chart below, created from his data, shows that there are large divides between the rich and other respondents on policies related to redistribution.


Of the policies listed on the chart, the only one that was passed within four years was the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was opposed by the lowest-income voters and the median voter. On the other hand, the three policies supported by the bottom and middle deciles but opposed by the richest decile — ranging from tax increases to workplace protections — never passed. Across the board, the richest are most skeptical of redistributive policies.

The data also reveal the persistent bias in favor of the status quo in American policymaking. As Grossman notes, “Only 14 of the 50 proposals were adopted, even though the rich were more supportive than the middle class in over half of the proposals.” Over the full data set, Gilens notes that even in cases of when the overwhelming majority of the public supported a policy, the policy change was achieved only 43 percent of the time. Status quo bias overwhelmingly benefits the rich.

The data set also speaks to the agenda-setting power of the rich. Some questions that the middle-class and poor broadly favored are no longer on the agenda. For instance, the policy proposal to “Require employers to give employees a year notice before shutting down their place of work,” raised in 1985, is no longer under consideration, though 72 percent of median-income respondents favored it at the time. And although 67 percent of respondents favored “creating a government-owned and -operated oil corporation to keep the private oil companies honest in their pricing and their operations,” this question too has faded from the public dialogue. As Paul Burstein notes, there simply aren’t any public opinion data on many of the issues that Congress decides on.

A comprehensive study by Grossmann finds that public opinion was a significant factor in 25 percent of policy changes since 1945. More influential factors have included interest groups (49 percent) and presidents exercising political capital (60 percent).

Why? First, public opinion is volatile, particularly among low-income people. While the rich are consistently in support and the middle class consistently opposed, the lowest decile fluctuates between support and opposition. As political scientist Chris Tausanovitch notes, “Although the preferences of higher income constituents account for more of the variation in legislator voting behavior, higher income constituents also account for much more of the variation in district preferences.” In other words, because low-income Americans have less clearly defined preferences, their opinions vary less, so politicians may be less likely to respond to them.

Political scientists Joseph Daniel Ura and Christopher Ellis argue that less-educated individuals, who are disproportionately low-income, are less likely to align their preferences about government size with class interest. This suggests that higher income opinion is more clearly defined.

Second, the decline of labor unions makes it difficult for low-income Americans to accurately identify and lobby for policies that are in their interest. In a recent study, political scientists Torben Iversen and David Soskice show that low-income people with little political information and who aren’t union members are more likely to support a right-wing party than those who are members of a union and high political information. Their work lines up with that of Anthony Fowler and Michele Margolis, who find that informing people about Republican and Democratic policies using objective information leads them to shift toward supporting Democrats.

Finally, there are good reasons to believe race, which is intimately tied to class in the U.S., may play a role in representation. James Stimson, a leading scholar of public opinion, argues that race could account for many of the gaps in policy preferences across income groups. A recent study using the Gilens data set suggests that people of color receive far less representation than whites, a view supported by other research. In addition, the fact that high-income people are more likely to vote and contact their representatives also makes it likely they will receive more representation.

There is certainly research that suggests constituents can influence legislation. For example, a recent study by Jeff Smith, a former state senator and now an assistant professor of politics and advocacy at the Milano School of International Affairs, shows that contacts from constituents affect the passage of legislation. But it also shows how the rich exercise influence. While 21 percent of those with an income below $30,000 reported contacting a government official, 49 percent of those earning $150,000 or more reported doing so.

According to a survey designed to examine the political activities of the top 1 percent, 55 percent of the wealthy reported contacting public officials. When the wealthy contact officials, they are more likely to report receiving a response. This could explain why political scientists David E. Broockman and Christopher Skovron find that both liberal and conservative policymakers systematically believe their constituents are more conservative than polls indicate, since the most conservative constituents are most likely to engage with the political system.


In short, policy is biased toward the rich. Diagnosing how this bias occurs is the key to prescribing remedies. It’s clear that lack of effective mobilization — in terms of voting and other political activities — is at the core of disproportionate representation. The overwhelming power of the donor class further hampers equal representation.

There are many possible solutions. Automatic voter registration would reduce barriers to participation in election. This step is being implemented in Oregon, which has already added 10,000 voters since the beginning of the year. Other states are likely to follow. Stronger unions would be able to push more successfully for policies that benefit the working and middle class. Finally, public financing of elections would create a more diverse pool of donors.

All of these policies are favored by majorities of Americans. The problem is that this might not matter.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

Racism undermines support for government spending

Racism divides the American political system, strengthening opposition to social programs and reinforcing a plutocratic agenda. This is the lesson to draw from new YouGov data, which reveals that most Americans wrongly believe African-Americans make up a majority of welfare recipients and are net “takers.”

The survey, an Internet-based poll with a sample of 1,000 respondents, was performed between Jan. 23 and 25. I requested that YouGov researchers ask respondents questions about how they perceive government benefits across race and class lines, in order to examine how racial prejudice affects these views.

As political scientist Jason McDaniel and I have shown, racial resentment strongly predicts opposition to government aid to the poor and support for the Tea Party. Extensive political science research shows that racial animus strengthens anti-welfare views and motivates right-wing movements like the Tea Party.

Politicians and journalists fuel these racist narratives. President Ronald Reagan’s famous denunciations of “welfare queens” and a “strapping young buck” buying steak with food stamps offer quintessential examples of the former. As for the latter, political scientist Martin Gilens finds that “network TV news and weekly newsmagazines portray the poor as substantially more black than is really the case.” In fact, “the elderly constitute less than 1 percent of the black poor shown in these magazines (compared with 5 percent of the nonblack poor) and the working poor make up only 12 percent of poor blacks (compared with 27 percent of poor non-blacks).”

According to the YouGov survey, 41 percent of all respondents say the government does “a lot” to help black people, but this disguises deep partisan and racial divides. For instance, 48 percent of white respondents say “a lot” compared to 6 percent of black respondents. Similarly, 23 percent of Democrats say “a lot” compared with a whopping 66 percent of Republicans.

On the other hand, only 27 percent of respondents say the government does “a lot” to help white people. Among white respondents, 16 percent said “a lot,” and 30 percent said government does “nothing.” Among black respondents, 68 percent said “a lot and 8 percent said “nothing.” And among Democrats, 43 percent said that the government helps whites “a lot,” compared with 17 percent of Republicans.


When asked what racial group made up the majority of welfare recipients, 26 percent of all respondents correctly said “whites,” 34 percent said blacks, 13 percent said Hispanics and the rest were unsure. Again, however, these divides break down along racial and partisan lines, with 36 percent of white respondents incorrectly saying black people make up the majority of welfare recipients, compared with 32 percent of Hispanic respondents and 23 percent of black respondents. Among Democrats, 25 percent said blacks make up the majority of welfare recipients, compared with 45 percent of Republicans.


These popular notions are at odds with reality. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, more than 40 percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients are non-Hispanic whites, while a quarter are African-American. A Center for Budget and Policy Priorities study that examines the full range of government benefits found that “Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 64 percent of the population in 2010 and received 69 percent of the entitlement benefits.” They also found that African-Americans make up 12 percent of the population but receive 14 percent of benefits. These numbers are even more disturbing given that whites make up only 42 percent of the poor while African-Americans make up 22 percent of the poor.

The YouGov survey also had a unique set of questions that examine the “makers and takers” narrative that dominated the 2012 presidential campaign, after Republican candidate Mitt Romney was secretly recorded telling an audience:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.

He was referring specifically to the 47 percent of Americans who supposedly don’t pay taxes, though that statistic is muddled by payroll taxes, state and local taxes and consumption and sin taxes. Republican supporters of Romney doubled-down on these comments by drawing a sharp moral divide between the “makers” and “takers” in U.S. society. However, the comments also serve as a subtle racial provocation to white conservatives, many of whom believe that these “takers” are all people of color. More blatant examples are former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s famous “food stamp president” comment, and former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum’s claim that government spending goes to “blah people.”

These narratives appear to be deeply ingrained among white Americans, particularly among conservatives. In the YouGov survey, respondents were asked to say, “For the following groups of people indicated whether you think they tend to give more to society than they take or take more than they give.” On net, respondents said that working-class people (+62), middle-class people (+54) and women (+46) were givers. In the middle were white people (+18) and men (+13). The groups who were categorized as “takers” included Hispanic people (-4), black people (-25) and upper-class people (-31). Among whites, however there was a massive ideological gap on the question of whether black people were viewed as net contributors or net takers, with liberal whites saying black people were net contributors (+18), while moderate whites (-38) and conservative whites (-62) overwhelmingly said black people are net takers.


The data suggest that the makers and takers narrative likely isn’t about class, but about race. Among Republicans, black people are overwhelmingly considered “takers” (-53), while the working class is overwhelmingly seen as contributors (+56). It’s unlikely, then, that when a GOP politician says “takers” or refers disparagingly to those on welfare, he is trying to conjure up an image of a white construction worker who can’t pay taxes, as opposed to an unemployed black single mother.

The study makes it clear that American politics is still deeply driven by race. As Demos President Heather McGhee and scholar Ian Haney Lopez write, “In the post-war era, racism helped create the white middle class. Since the Reagan era, racism has helped destroy it.” They warn that progressives who worry about the weakness of the safety net often fail to appreciate that “racism has been the plutocrats’ scythe, cutting down social solidarity to harvest obscene wealth and power.” It’s clear that distorted views about who’s really benefiting from government spending remain widespread. For progressives to be successful, they need to fight these racist myths.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

Moneyed interests are blocking US action on climate change

Global warming is an increasingly pressing crisis. While the recent international climate accords in Paris are an important step forward, the power of wealthy interests in the United States still hampers progress. In her new book, “Dark Money,” journalist Jane Mayer traces how the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and their right-wing allies have funded an elaborate climate change denial operation that has successfully derailed climate legislation.

The denial apparatus

Donors in the Koch network have good reason to oppose climate change, as their business model relies on the market failing to price carbon correctly, due to government subsidies and inaction. As Mayer notes, “Coal, oil, and gas magnates formed the nucleus of the Koch donor network.” Indeed, Koch Industries is one of the country’s largest producers of toxic waste and greenhouse gas emissions. As journalist Tim Dickinson reports, one of the first wins for the Koch brothers was torpedoing President Bill Clinton’s first-term proposal to create an energy tax, which, one high-profile Koch executive said “may have destroyed our business.”

Though the Koch brothers claim to love markets, their overriding political goal is to prevent the pricing of externalities. Koch Industries, Mayer reports, increased its lobbying more than 20-fold to $20 million between 2004 and 2008, more than any other energy and gas company.

Lee Fang, a journalist at The Intercept, has written about how major donors like the Koch brothers have funneled millions into organizations that deny climate change and actively work to oppose climate legislation. He recently uncovered a massive network of secret political spending aimed at funding climate change denial.

A Drexel University study finds that there is an extensive network of organizations funding climate denial, with 140 primarily conservative foundations making donations totaling $558 million to 91 organizations between 2003 and 2010. They find that 5 percent of those donations, or $26.3 million, came from Koch-affiliated organizations. Big fossil fuel companies have spent millions funding climate denial groups, including money to support Willie Soon, a discredited researcher who inflated his credentials and denied climate change (Soon also received money from the Koch Brothers).

In 2009, the year the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES, also called Waxman-Markey after its Democratic co-authors, Reps. Henry Waxman and Edward Markey) was debated, OpenSecrets reported that whilepro-environmental groups spent $22.4 million on 489 lobbyists in favor of the bill, the oil and gas industry spent a whopping $175 million and hired 820 lobbyists to defeat it.

As University of Massachusetts-Amherst political scientist Brian Schaffner and I have shown, Republican donorsoverwhelmingly oppose action on climate change, while non-donors on the right are more supportive. But the problem is even deeper. As the chart below demonstrates (using data from the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study), non-donors (of any party) are more supportive of Waxman-Markey than donors, and big donors (those giving more than $1,000) are the least supportive. Among big GOP donors, only 8 percent were supportive of Waxman-Markey. If politicians responded to voters, rather than donors, there would be more support for pro-climate policies.


In their extensive survey of the opinions of wealthy Americans published in 2013, Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright found that climate change ranked dead last among issues threatening the U.S., behind “loss of traditional values,” “trade deficits” and “inflation.” While the wealthy in their study generally favored reducing spending on the environment, the public strongly favored increasing spending. The authors also found that within their sample, the wealthiest respondents were least likely to support regulating the economy. When asked about whether the oil industry needed more regulations, the wealthy were modestly in favor of more regulation (5 points net), while the general public was overwhelmingly favorable of more regulations (50 points net).

Shifting the agenda

One of the most successful campaigns by the big money climate change denialists has been to pressure the GOP into increasingly extreme stances. Mayer writes that, “[President George W.] Bush had vowed during the campaign to act on climate change by limiting greenhouse gas emissions, but once in office [Vice President Dick] Cheney countermanded him.” Instead of reining in greenhouse gas emissions, Cheney pushed for the 2005 energy bill, which included massive subsidies and tax breaks for dirty energy. The Kochs, belying their libertarian views, cashed in huge on the subsidies and lavish government contracts. Bush and Cheney also worked to undermine the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

As recently as 2008, Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain accepted the science behind climate change and pushed for action. Now that his close ally Sen. Lindsey Graham has dropped out of the presidential race after receiving negligible support, it is certain that the eventual GOP nominee will be a climate change denier.

One reason for this shift is that the Koch-backed group Americans For Prosperity has encouraged members of Congress to sign a “No Climate Tax Pledge,” committing them to opposing “any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.” In the 111th Congress (2009-2010), 46 percent of House GOP members and 26 percent of GOP Senators had signed the pledge. By the 113th Congress (2013-2014), a whopping 61 percent of House GOP members and 56 percent of GOP Senators had signed it.

But Harvard University political scientists Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez have shown that the constituents of these “No Climate Tax” pledge signers aren’t on board with this approach. As they note, 73 percent of the residents of their districts support action to regulate climate change.


GOP legislators who stray from the denialism dogma can find themselves under attack from Koch-backed groups. Consider Graham: When he began working with then-Democratic Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman to co-sponsor a Senate version of ACES, the Koch network immediately went into action. American Solutions, a political group formed by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich with ties to the coal industry, supported by key donors in the Koch network, attacked Graham for his support of the “gas tax.” Graham soon backed down.

Beyond politics

The actions of donors like the Koch brothers and their vast network go beyond politics. In 2010, David Koch funded an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution that predicted humans would evolve to adapt to climate change. Mayer reports that the Commonwealth Foundation For Public Policy Alternatives, a Pennsylvania think tank funded by secret money but likely tied to conservative publisher and Koch ally Richard Mellon Scaife, who died in 2014, “waged a war” to get a prominent climate scientist fired “and successfully lobbied Republican allies in the legislature to threaten to withhold Penn State’s funding” until they sanctioned the professor. This is just one example of the Koch brothers’ long-held strategy of taking over universities to win the war of ideas.

The Kochs and other groups have waged an extensive denial war modeled after the tobacco industry’s earlier campaigns against regulation. The aim is to discredit science. As a leaked memo by conservative pollster Frank Luntz advises, “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

The result of the denial war has been that since 1992, gaps on environmental policy between Republicans and Democrats have opened faster than on any other issue. Asked whether they agreed with the statement “There needs to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment” in 1992, 93 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Republicans agreed. In 2012, the percentage for Democrats was unchanged, but only 47 percent of Republicans agreed.


Similarly, Gallup data suggest that the share of Americans who accept the science of climate change steadily increased from 48 percent in 1998 up to 61 percent in 2008, but then dramatically fell, reaching a low of 49 percent in 2011, at the height of the denial campaign.

The overwhelming influence of the Koch brothers and their allies has shifted climate change from a bipartisan priority to a political non-starter. However, many elite pundits have still failed to recognize this. A recent piece by New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait entitled “Why Are Republicans the Only Climate-Science-Denying Party in the World?” doesn’t include a single reference to powerful moneyed interests. Instead, Chait has spent more time bashing the Keystone XL pipeline protestors.

Climate justice is an existential problem for the entire human race. But it’s also yet another example of how the will of the American people is being overridden by a small group of powerful interests.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

Young whites view race with rose-tinted glasses

This piece was co-written by Jesse Rhodes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. 

The United States Supreme Court’s decision to review the constitutionality of the University of Texas at Austin’s affirmative action program has brought renewed debate about the practice. While social science largely supportsthe proposition that affirmative action is beneficial to African-American and Latino applicants, many Americans feel that policies to remedy racial inequality  or to ensure diversity are unnecessary. In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor famously put an expiration date on racism, expressing a hope that 25 years from then, affirmative action would no longer be necessary.

What do Americans think? Affirmative action sharply divides Americans, largely along racial lines, even among millennials, the most racially diverse generational cohort. Even among young Democrats, white and nonwhite people have very different attitudes about the fairness and appropriateness of affirmative action policies.

Using data from the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a large-scale national survey, we are able to examine preferences about affirmative action among young people, who are most affected by affirmative action in education. The survey asked respondents, “Affirmative action programs give preference to racial minorities in employment and admissions in order to correct for past discrimination. Do you support or oppose affirmative action?” They were able to choose four options: strongly oppose, somewhat oppose, somewhat support and strongly support.

Across the full sample, affirmative action was quite unpopular, with 62 percent saying they either somewhat or strongly opposed it. Among young people (ages 17 to 34), opposition was somewhat less strong, with 54 percent opposed. Notably, while 17 percent of young people strongly support affirmative action (compared with 14 percent of the general population), 28 percent strongly oppose it (versus 37 percent of general population).

However, given the stakes in the UT-Austin case, the differences among age groups are less interesting than the deep racial divide among millennials. A full 66 percent of white millennials said they oppose affirmative action, including 36 percent who “strongly oppose,” and only 9 percent said they “strongly support” it. Among millennials of color, the reverse was true, with 67 percent supporting affirmative action, 32 percent strongly. Among black millennials, support for affirmative action was overwhelming: 75 percent said they favor affirmative action, with 41 percent saying their support is “strong.” Among Latino and Asian millennials, support was more muted, with 64 percent of Latinos and 56 percent of Asians in support.


Party affiliation may be an important factor here as well, as millennials of color are more likely to support Democrats than are white millennials. However, even among young Democrats, there are wide racial divisions. While a bit more than half of young white Democrats (53 percent) said they support affirmative action, there was supermajority support among young Democrats of color, with 80 percent of young black Democrats, 70 percent of young Latino Democrats and 68 percent of young Asian Democrats supporting the policy.

Overall, 76 percent of young Democrats of color said they support affirmative action, and a mere 9 percent said they strongly oppose it. In contrast, more young white Democrats said they strongly oppose affirmative action (19 percent) than strongly support it (16 percent). Strong support for affirmative action among young white Democrats was only slightly more than one-third of strong support among young black Democrats (45 percent) and less than half of strong support among young Democratic people of color (38 percent). This is consistent with other work suggesting young white people, even Democrats, aren’t particularly liberal on racial issues,  especially regarding policies that are perceived as affecting white interests directly.


One of the most persistent myths about race in America is that the color line will gradually fade out with the oldest generation. Unfortunately, the data suggest this is not true. In fact, research suggests millennials, particularly white ones, tend to view racism with rose-tinted glasses.

To examine broader preferences about government action, we turn to 2012 American National Election Studies data, and similar results emerge. Researchers asked respondents to place themselves on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 being “Government should help blacks” and 7 being “Blacks should help themselves.” As the chart shows, there are only small differences across age groups but large differences among racial groups — belying the notion that young white people are more racially progressive than their parents. Young liberal white people are more conservative than black people, by a rather dramatic margin.


These data all suggest that, rather than seeing racism as a persistent problem still in need of remedy, many young white people — including those who identify as Democrats — are inclined to believe America is a colorblind society and that little remains to be done to remedy past racial injustices. As psychologists Sarah Gaither, Leigh S. Wilton and Danielle M. Young note in a recent study, “Both white and black voters perceived the election of [Barack] Obama in 2012 to be a sign of increased racial progress while simultaneously serving as a signal for a reduced need for programs designed to address racial inequalities.”

Given the deep conservatism of the Supreme Court and the reality, demonstrated by political science and journalistic observation, that court decisions are decided by ideology and modestly constrained by public opinion, affirmative action may be in trouble.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America.