Category Archives: Inequality

There’s powerful evidence that racial attitudes drive Tea Party support

This piece was co-written with Jason McDaniel, an assistant professor of political science at San Francisco State University.

The success of Donald Trump and other “outsider” candidates this election cycle picks up on a trend perhaps best pioneered by the Tea Party.

Though the Tea Party has moved back to the margins under the shadow of Trump’s success, it has demonstrated the enduring power of racial resentment in American politics. For decades, social scientists have found that attitudes about race, particularlytoward African Americans, persistently impact political attitudes and opinions toward government services, spending, and welfare.

Trump does not fit the profile of a Tea Party candidate, but he does build on their anti-establishment attitudes and rhetoric surrounding people of color. Trump also recently won the endorsement of Sarah Palin, a Tea Party favorite, and polls that include Tea Partiers show that Trump has consistently been a favorite among the group.

Amid this, we present new and powerful evidence that support for the Tea Party, opposition to government spending, and opposition to aid to the poor are motivated by racial attitudes, not economic anxiety.

How to measure racial resentment and economic peril

 Jason McDaniel

Tea Party support versus racial resentment and economic peril.

We analyzed individual Tea Party support using data from the 2012 American National Election Study, which surveyed the political attitudes and behaviors of more than 5,000 respondents before and after the 2012 presidential election. We created a five-question scale to measure each individual’s level of racial resentment — a subtle form of racism that hinges on the belief that African Americans tend to get “more than they deserve,” that they should “try harder” and should not be granted “special favors,” and disagreement about the level of discrimination faced by blacks.

For economic insecurity, we created a scale from five questions that asked whether each respondent knew anyone who had lost a job, worried about his or her financial situation, and whether he or she would be able to make necessary housing and health care payments. The analysis included statistical controls for a variety of individual characteristics and beliefs that tend to be related to political attitudes, such as race/ethnicity, partisanship, ideology, income, education level, gender, age, and religiosity. The model also included controls for overt racial stereotypes and attitudes toward illegal immigrants.

The graph illustrates a comparison of the effects of racial resentment and economic peril.

As racial resentment increases, there is a sharp increase in support for the Tea Party. At the highest levels of racial resentment, Tea Party support is strong. While economic peril does appear to have a modest effect in increasing support for the Tea Party, the effect is not statistically significant. At the highest levels of economic peril, Tea Party support is in line with national averages, closer to opposition than support. Those like Thomas Frank who want to chalk up the success of the Tea Party to economic anxiety are missing the key variable: race.

It’s worth noting what else the model suggests: Ideological conservatism (based on self-response), more than identifying as a Republican, strongly predicts Tea Party support. Even more important, however, is partisan independence.

It has been shown that partisan independents tend to behave just like strong partisans. Nonetheless, it is those who identify as independents who are most likely to strongly support the Tea Party.

Tea Party support by party identification and ideologyJason McDaniel

Tea Party support by party identification and ideology.

Next we examined attitudes toward government spending, with the same controls. Here we find that black voters are far more likely to support larger government, while independents and Republicans support a smaller government.

Again, we find that racial resentment has significant explanatory power; higher levels of racial resentment are correlated with a preference for decreased government spending and services. Increased economic insecurity does appear to move people toward a preference for increased government spending and services, but the effect is not statistically significant.

According to these results, if we compare the government spending preferences of a person who expresses zero economic peril with those of a person at the highest level of economic peril, we cannot be certain that there is a real difference of opinion between the two.

Government services vs. government spending tradeoffs when layered with economic peril and racial resentment Jason McDaniel

Government services versus government spending trade-offs when layered with economic peril and racial resentment.

What all this tells us about economic anxiety versus racism

These findings suggest that economic peril, or economic anxiety more broadly, are not driving opposition to government and the Tea Party. Instead, these views are rooted in racialized views on who is helped by government programs. Our findings may seem surprising, but they are rooted in a wide literature.

Racism strongly correlates with state-level TANF benefits, even after controlling for state-level revenues and ideology. Political scientists Richard Fording, Sanford Schram, and Joe Soss note in their book Disciplining the Poor, “Concerns over welfare were significantly more likely to be activated among respondents who perceived ‘most blacks’ as lazier than ‘most whites.’”

Political scientist Martin Gilens also finds that “racial considerations are the single most important factor shaping whites’ views of welfare.” He finds that whites hold far more negative stereotypes of black mothers on welfare than white mothers on welfare.

It’s worth noting that the research above examines the effect of racial stereotyping (i.e., “are black people lazier than whites”), which does not have a significant effect after controlling for other factors. This is likely because outright stereotyping has declined and “colorblind” racism has become the main way racism is expressed. By examining measures of resentment, we can see how racism has mutated as a political weapon. These days those who oppose welfare don’t say, “Black people are lazy,” but rather, “Black people need to work harder to be as successful as whites.”

Why might racial resentment be the cause?

Why does race so strongly affect attitudes toward government but not economic peril? It is certainly the case that right-wing politicians have opportunistically exploited race to weaken the welfare state, as legal scholar Ian Haney-López has shown. Attitudes of racial resentment are more prevalent on the right, though they also certainly exist among Democrats.

Mass media is certainly part of the explanation. In another paper, Gilens finds, “Network TV news and weekly newsmagazines portray the poor as substantially more black than is really the case.” He also finds that black people are most frequently shown when discussing the “undeserving” poor, while white people are shown when discussing the working poor.

He notes, “I found that 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 nonblacks).”

Political scientists discuss the Koch Brothers

During 2015 the Koch Network (a network of donors that is organized by the Koch Brothers) spent nearly $400 million to influence politics. That compares to the $404 million spent by the RNC and the $319 million spent by the DNC during the entire 2012 cycle. Increasingly, the Koch Network resembles a political party, with its own research and mobilization operations, as well as sophisticated data analytics that many candidates believe to be superior to the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) data capabilities. In addition, the Koch Network has begun vetting, cultivating and supporting candidates to run for office, fulfilling more party-like aspects.

To gain deeper insights on the Koch Brothers, who have been active in politics for more than three decades, and their network, I interviewed three distinguished political scientists. Alex Hertel-Fernandez has spent years studying the Koch Networkwith Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol. Brian Schaffner is a professor of political science at U-Mass Amherst and is considered a leading expert on campaign finance. His latest book, “Campaign Finance and Political Polarization: When Purists Prevail” is discussed here. Heath Brown is an assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. He previously authored a book “The Tea Party Divided: The Hidden Diversity of a Maturing Movement,” about the origins of the Tea Party, and has an upcoming book on money in the political system.

Together we discuss the long-term strategy of the Koch Brothers, how the decline of the GOP has strengthened Trump and how to reduce the influence of money in politics.

Alex, could you lay out the three-pronged strategy of the Koch brothers, their overarching strategy to push their agenda?

Alex Hertel-Fernandez: I think an important thing to know is that the strategy has changed over time. They started off much more interested in ideas and funding think-tanks and academics through organizations like Cato and the Mercatus Center in the 1970s and ’80s. Then they switched gears to focus more on policy advocacy during the Clinton administration with organizations like Citizens for a Sound Economy and, later, at the 60 Plus Association and the Center to Protect Patient Rights. Then you’ve seen kind of a new innovation in the form of AFP [Americans For Prosperity], which was spun off of Citizens for a Sound Economy, where they’re not just lobbying in D.C., but they actually had a federated grassroots presence across the state. We think this is a really key innovation on the part of the Koch Network. They’re able to have this centrally directed organization, where the priorities are set from above, from the Koch’s inner circle of political leaders, but they have grassroots members in these chapters across the states and paid staffers at both the state and the regional levels, so they have the capacity to intervene both in state and national politics in that way.

I think the final move that the Kochs have made that’s important to know is moving to coordinating donors. They’ve moved from giving simply their own money into politics into corralling other wealthy conservative donors to give to their network and supporting organizations that they’ve created and are maintaining over time. These are the twice-yearly Koch seminars that now are putting together several hundred millionaires and billionaires who are right-leaning.

And where we’ve seen policy shifts at the state level coming from the Kochs? Where would their big wins be?

A.H.F.: I think two areas that I can speak to are Medicaid expansion as part of the Affordable Care Act, and then labor policies, which are two areas I’ve looked at with Theda and with another co-author in the case of Medicaid. We looked at these battles of whether or not the state would expand Medicaid to cover newly uninsured adults who were previously ineligible for the program and, it turns out, that Americans for Prosperity has been one of the key organizations pushing back against expansion in the state. What’s remarkable is that, in many cases, they’re lobbying precisely the GOPers that they helped to elect. I think Tennessee gives us a good example of this. Andrew Ogles is the AFP director there, who worked to elect many of the state’s legislative GOP members in the past electoral cycle and then immediately pivoted to joining the AFP and pushing them to reject expansion of Medicaid. That’s one area where you’ve seen [policy shifts], because that network’s been ineffective at pushing the state-level policy. The other one is right-to-work law as another measure to cut back public sector labor unions. We found that one of the best predictors of where you saw these cuts in 2011 passing legislatures was where AFP had the stronger presence and where they really made public sector labor unions a priority.

Right. Brian, I’m actually curious about your research on the state level. Do you think that there are big impacts coming from campaign contributions at the state level? Has the environment changed in the last few years with wealthy people mobilizing? What are your thoughts there, in terms of what we can gain from the research that you’ve done and other people have done?

Brian Schaffner: Yes. We can look at that several-decades time span in our book. Issue groups played significant roles in terms of campaign contributions but they were actually relatively small group compared to business interest, union interest and parties. In the more recent periods, the more recent decade, the issue groups like the Koch Brothers and other kinds of organizations like that have started giving more money in the state races. They tend to get to more extreme candidates and, also, the independent spending by these groups has taken off quite a bit and it’s been quite pronounced in a lot of states.

Does that spending correlate with wins? That is, are the Koch brothers getting a return on their investment? I’m specifically thinking of 2010 and 2014, this has been crippling for the Democrats. We expect losses off-cycle, but is there any possibility that the massive amount of spending has exacerbated those losses? What’s your read on the literature there?

B.S.: Well, I mean, it’s hard to say to what extent that matters compared to the simple changes of turnout and redistricting and another kinds of things that were happening at the same times. I hesitate to say that this is all the result of any one given force.

You think there’s evidence that this has had an impact?

B.S.: Sure. There are races, marginal races, in which these investments have I’m sure had to play some role in terms of moving a few legislative districts or a few state races that might’ve gone the other way.

Heath, you have studied the Tea Party and there’s sort of a running debate as to whether the Tea Party is a grassroots movement or a very corporate donor-class movement, driven by people like the Koch brothers, and your take is that it’s both; what is your read on the Tea Party and how it’s affecting politics?

Heath Brown: Well, I think your take is right. What I found in the book is what others have found, that there have been these two things going on. The Tea Party is sort of a name that we call a certain dimension of a much longer tradition that goes back to maybe the 1940s or so. The Koch brothers, in some way, have entered into the Tea Party phenomenon in 2009, 2010, 2011. But they were around, funding groups that preceded the Tea Party, that supported the Tea Party and will last past when the Tea Party is no longer called the Tea Party. That, I think, is going on but, at the very same time, the grassroots work that has very little association with big money, has very little association with the Koch brothers, it’s also a very real phenomenon.

They just so happen to use a lot of the intellectual stuff that’s been created by organizations like Cato and all the others that are around them. In that way, even if the grassroots, or grassroots organizations, and grassroots activists who have never received a dollar from any of the Koch brothers’ associated organizations, they still have been deeply influenced by the intellectual infrastructure that has been built over the last 30 to 40, even longer, years. I think that influence can be absorbed in tangible ways with dollars given to organizations, but also in much less tangible ways with simply the array of policies that have been a part of the Tea Party agenda since 2009.

Right. For this next part, I want to focus on the Koch brothers and the GOP. We’re seeing divides, but also a lot of cooperation here. Alex, I can see both arguments in your research. The GOP hates the Koch brothers because they can’t control the Koch brothers, and they create their own movements and sometimes publicly go against the GOP. But at the same time, the GOP should like the Koch brothers because they’re spending tons and tons of money to get Republicans elected. What do you think the relationship is between the Koch brothers and the GOP? Who’s gaining power? Who’s losing it? What’s going on there?

A.H.F.: It’s a tricky thing to wrap your head around. We struggled with it ourselves, because on the one hand, as you noted, the Koch Network has at this point built its own parallel operation that in many ways looks like the GOP and on some metrics is even larger than the GOP when it comes to staffers across the state at this point. It’s spending across all of its activities in the next electoral cycle, grassroots advocates who are on the ground and on the states on which AFP is operating and so on, so forth.

But on the other hand, as you mentioned, they are working with the GOP in order to advance their agenda, so the way we described it is as a force-field operating to the right of the GOP, pressuring them and pushing them further to the right, while taking advantage of this intertwined infrastructure. One thing that we noted about the Koch Network and AFP in particular is that many of the people who staffed the Koch Network have come from posts at the GOP. A large proportion of the people who are serving as directors of state chapters at AFP have previously served for state Republican lawmakers, on campaigns and whatnot, and will go back into GOP politics. These are closely intertwined organizations, and I think that’s a source of strength for the Koch Network. As I mentioned in the previous example of Tennessee, when this Andrew Ogles was tapped to lead the opposition to the Medicaid expansion, he knew exactly where to push because he had been helping elect all of the GOP folks in the legislature in the previous cycle. It’s a source of strength for the Kochs.

But from the perspective of the GOP, it’s a problem because it’s weakening their capacity to set agendas, defied candidates that they support, independently of these party groups. As we show in the changing organizational resources work that we’ve done, I think you stated that in the other piece, we were talking about that. The GOP does simply control fewer resources to direct towards politics than it once did, and a big, big part of that is that more money is flowing through the Koch Network.

Are we going see more outright antagonism between the GOP and the Koch Network? Or are we just starting to see it?

B.S.: I think the point of pressure that you’re going to see is not between the Koch Network and the institutional GOP per se, but it’s between the Koch Network and other longstanding members of the GOP coalition. Business, for instance. The Chamber of Commerce by all accounts is quite conservative; it’s taken really a hard right turn since the 1990s and yet it’s finding itself increasingly in tension with the Koch Network. The Koch Network has opposed things like a farm bill, infrastructure spending, export-import bank most recently, and these are all things that Chamber, however conservative, is supportive of. These are things that businesses want and need to maintain their revenues. I think you’re going to see more tensions like that where, especially in the business community, part of their folks were opposing the sort of priorities that the Kochs are pushing.

Right. Brian, can you sort of give me an overview of what you see has happened to the parties in the last few years and how your book shows that campaign finance has really been interwoven into the story?

B.S.: The parties have really taken quite a hit in the last several years, but I think part of that is that these Supreme Court decisions have really opened up pathways for money to come in in every way except through parties. So all the parties continue to be highly regulated, in terms of both disclosure and limitations on what they can support or how much money they can raise — these other groups are able to do almost whatever they want, and so it’s not surprising then to find that you’re getting a parallel party organization built alongside the Republican party that’s sometimes cooperating with the party, but sometimes fighting against the party. It’s really been to the detriment of the mainstream party and, as we argue, the ability of parties to compromise, because when the money comes in through outside groups, those groups are primarily interested in particular policy being passed, whereas the parties are, first and foremost, interested in [winning] elections so they’re willing to compromise what they think is going to be some of the electoral benefits from it.

But what we find, the groups run by, for example, the Koch brothers are not very interested in compromise. They’re very interested in seeing their policies pass. So, I think that’s been a huge deal in terms of both undermining the party organization and ultimately undermining compromise in terms of political process.

Heath, I want to direct this one to you. Brian, you can jump in too because you’re a big party partisan, you’re a fan of parties. I think political scientists really like parties, but most people don’t understand this. The idea that parties have to respond to voters and the Koch brothers don’t; at the end of the day, the Koch brothers have to run candidates who win primaries, right? When I’m reading Jane Mayer, most of what they do is they run ads, very bad ads, very deceiving ads. At the end of the day, they can still claim, if they want to, “Hey, all we’re doing is running candidates and winning elections.” Why do you think that we should be worried about the rise of extra-party organizations that are owned and operated by a very powerful billionaire network?

H.B.: I would say a couple of things. To me, one of the pieces of this is the question of political transparency, and it seems like, as much as anything else, the Koch brothers have gone and exposed the big gap, the regulatory gap that exists in how we think about disclosure of political money. Many of the ways in which the Koch brothers and others seek out influence is through the least transparent possible ways. Campaign contributions seems to be just one small part of the way in which they seek influence, and most of the other ways that they seek influence are highly non-transparent. I think that would be one of the reasons why I would be worried, is that the way in which they’re seeking out power really stands outside of the ways we have thought about tracking influence and tracking money. That would be one of the things that I would raise.

One of the others is going back to one of the earlier points, about some of the overlap between the parties in the ways in which certain social conservatives and Christian conservatives have found it very difficult to find common cause with some of the platforms that the Koch brothers have backed. Marijuana legalization, gay rights, reproductive rights, are all either not part of the agenda that they have been pushing or, in some ways, have been counter to the longstanding positions of Christian conservatives. I think that’s another way in which Republican Party politics has had to struggle with the rise of the Koch brothers’ institutions.


B.S.: Can I just emphasize one of Heath’s points, which is that I think one of the really critical and key differences is that parties can be held accountable in the way that these third-party groups cannot be. Parties are enduring institutions and they’re uniquely on the ballot in every election. If you think about the research, for example, on attack ads: if a candidate attacks another candidate with an ad, there’s the possibility that they themselves will be punished for being too negative or too harsh. The Koch brothers don’t have to worry about that. They’re not on the ballot. They can do things, be harsh, they can attack, they can be deceitful without any kind of electoral recourse because they can hide behind the guise that they’re not the candidate, they’re not on the ballot. Whereas parties are on the ballot so they can be openly held accountable for the ways in which they raise or spend campaign [funds], the things they do during campaigns.

A.H.F.: That’s a great point. I’d also say that, in addition to not being on the ballot, elections aren’t the only thing that they care about, as Heath mentioned. This is one in a long list of goals that they hope to achieve. They’re active both in the election but then after the election as well, with whoever is elected, pushing them to adopt the policies they prefer. It’s not just about elections for them.

Definitely. I want to conclude with the question of what do you do about the Kochs? What policies should we pursue? Do we need more journalists investigating this? Would disclosure also help with that? Alex, if you had to say, given the current composition of the Supreme Court, where do you think the best push is? If I wanted something that’s really politically possible. Where can we make inroads on the influence of big money in politics?

A.H.F.: Given the present political realities of the Supreme Court and of Congress right now, it seems like the best hope would be for people who disagree with the Koch Network to organize in the same ways that the Kochs have organized. A key leverage point for the Koch Network has been, at the state level, progressives and left-leaning groups have traditionally lacked a lot of capacity to lobby across the states simultaneously. I think that’s one clear area where a stronger progressive organizational push could really pay off well. If you can’t pass legislation, the other alternative is just to out-organize.

Brian, I think I know what your solution is, but what do you think the solution to a problem like the Kochs is?

B.S.: We argued in the book that giving the parties more of the ability to compete on a level playing field would be a good start. Removing or increasing the contribution limits to and from parties would at least help them kind of play at the same game. The parties also have to feel a little more bold themselves. The political parties generally try to stay out of things like primaries. In some states they’re in fact mandated to do so. But if they want to really push back against these groups, I think they’re going to have to get more involved earlier in the election cycle to encourage the right candidates to run and try and get their preferred candidate on the general election ballot. We’re kind of seeing how this plays out when the party doesn’t get very involved, right now, in the Republican side of the presidential election.

Yes. That was actually the question I was going to ask. Is the Trump phenomenon the result of weaker parties? Whenever I read “The Party Decides” literature, they’re like “The party, the elites decide the nominee.” How? How do elites control the process? Is it just that the parties are too weak to make their will decide the nomination that we’re seeing with Trump?

B.S.: I think, on the Republican side of things, actually what you have now is a party whose influence has been so eroded by the kind of presence of things like the Tea Party and the Koch brothers, that they’re too scared to get involved, like the elites are too scared to try to influence this in any way. Either through endorsements, getting together, or whatever. It’s not clear to me that it would actually matter anyway because the perception of the Republican party amongst conservatives is so poisoned, I think, the last four or five years, that most conservatives think the party is a big sellout to moderation and that it’s the Tea Party and these other groups that are really holding forth the conservative ideals. I’m not even sure the party at this point, because they let their power erode so much, I’m not sure they actually could do anything if they wanted to, but they’re certainly not trying.

Just to finish it up, Heath. What do you think is the solution to the Koch brothers, big money in politics? What would you see as the first steps?

H.B.: My sense is that the Koch brothers aren’t all that interested in democratic politics. I think their ideology and their strategy is just that they are as interested in the inside baseball side of government as much as they are in the very public side of election campaigns. What I would think of as a first step is much more attention to the hidden side, to the policymaking process that most people don’t see, because there isn’t a whole lot of attention given to it compared to the amount of attention given to the electoral cycle.

One of the things that I said in the presidential transition, that the process, that day after the election ends and everybody goes home, attention shifts away from politics to all sorts of other things. I think I would want to pay a lot of attention to that time period because I suspect that a group, I think institutions like the Koch brothers, would realize whoever ultimately wins, they can influence policy outcome if they could influence that process and that process, and that process is a whole lot more predictable then the vagaries of elections. I would want much more attention and much more transparency around some of the hidden ways that policies are made because the most visible, public ways may not go as far to determine the outcome of politics and also the interests of the Koch Brothers. That’s partially the role the media might play and also has to do with the information that is collected about politics.

This piece originally appeared on Salon. 

The GOP’s Class Divide on Austerity

As the 2016 election intensifies, one of the frequently discussed political fissures is that between the wealthy elites in each of the major parties and their bases. David Frum and other pundits have argued that the divide is most stark for the GOP, but no one has yet brought data to the question. So I used a mass survey that is performed each election year and that includes questions about austerity policies to examine the divide between wealthy and low-income Republicans and Democrats. I found striking results.

I drew from the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a survey with a large sample size of more than 50,000. (Of those, nearly 22,000 Democrats and 17,000 Republicans both reported their income and responded to a battery of questions related to the federal budget.) Many surveys stop dividing respondents by annual income after they reach $100,000, a practice known as top coding, but CCES includes a meaningful sample of respondents all the way up to $350,000. As a result, the data allow for a more granular examination of those at the highest levels of the economic ladder.

I examined support for three policies that relate closely to redistribution and inequality: the 2010 Bowles-Simpson bipartisan plan for deficit reduction; Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposal for FY2012, which he put forward as the GOP’s “Roadmap” to a fiscally sound future; and extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts. Each of these policies has the potential to divide the donor class and the base of each party, as they all involve key questions about redistribution, where the deepest class divides typically appear.

In the survey, each policy was explained to participants, who were then asked if they supported or opposed it. The data do in fact reveal deep class divides within the parties on redistributive issues, but particularly within the GOP.


Polling explanation: “The Budget plan would cut Medicare and Medicaid by 42%. Would reduce debt by 16% by 2020.”

Among all respondents in both parties, only 20 percent supported the budget, making it incredibly unpopular. Among Democrats, opposition was universal: Only 11 percent supported it. Among Republicans, support was equally tepid: Only a third of all Republicans supported the Ryan budget.

However, when looking at responses by income on the Republican side, wide gaps emerge. Among Republicans earning less than $50,000, only a quarter of respondents supported the budget, while among Republicans earning more than $350,000, a full 64 percent supported it.


Polling explanation: “Plan would make 15% cuts across the board in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Defense, as well as other programs. Eliminate many tax breaks for individuals and corporations. Would reduce debt by 21% by 2020.”

Bowles-Simpson was hailed by centrist commentators as an ideal budget agreement, which would combine tax cuts and defense cuts with deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. However, more liberal critics, like economist Paul Krugman, argued that the deep cuts to safety-net programs would harm seniors and weaken growth.

In the survey, support was split directly down the middle among all respondents, with 50 percent in support and opposed. Indeed, even within parties, there was surprisingly little divide, with 49 percent of Democrats in support and 51 percent opposed, compared with 52 percent of Republicans in support and 48 percent opposed. However, there were once again deep class divides, this time in both parties.

Among Republicans earning less than $50,000, 47 percent supported Bowles-Simpson, and among Democrats, 44 percent supported the plan. However, among Republicans earning more than $350,000, 64 percent supported the plan, as did 66 percent of high-income Democrats. The sample of individuals earning more than $500,000 is small, but among that group, two-thirds of both Democrats and Republicans supported the policy.


Polling explanation: “Would extend Bush-era tax cuts for all individuals, regardless of income. Would increase the budget deficit by an estimated $405 billion.”

The Bush tax cuts were unpopular with both Democrats (only 13 percent support full extension) and Republicans (42 percent support full extension). However, among Republicans making less than $50,000 a year, only 37 percent supported full extension of the Bush tax cuts. Meanwhile, among those making more than $350,000 a year, a full 73 percent supported it.

Another questions asked survey participants about partial extension of the Bush tax cuts, in the form of the Middle Class Tax Cut Act, which would have extended Bush tax cuts for those with incomes below $200,000 and increased the budget deficit by an estimated $250 billion. Among Republicans who earn less than $200,000—those who would benefit from the bill—61 percent supported the extension. Among those who earned $200,000 or more, only 48 percent did. Among the highest earners, those making $350,000 or more, support dropped further, to only 43 percent.

These data also suggest that there are deep class divides not just between the parties but within them. Though the divides are deeper on the right, they exist in both parties. This can partially be explained by the fact that many white voters who are broadly supportive of safety-net programs are nonetheless pushed toward right-wing candidates by racial resentment. As the wealthy accrue more influence in the post–Citizens United world, these divides may become more powerful, particularly since leading GOP candidates have largely submitted to the demands of the donor class on taxes. On the other side, there are important divides in the Democratic coalition between those who prioritize deficit reduction and those who want looser fiscal policy. These class divides will become increasingly important as inequality becomes an increasingly focal point in American politics.

This piece originally appeared on The Nation. 

The secrets behind the Koch brothers: Inside the remarkable new book that details their dirtiest deeds

Jane Mayer’s new book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” has already revealed many previously unknown facts about the Koch brothers in particular. For instance, reporting in the book forms the bulk of her latest New Yorker essay, showing that the Kochs’ newfound interest in criminal justice reform is primarily a front to boost their P.R. and to gut health and safety laws. In addition, the book shows that family patriach Fred Koch’s fortune was cemented by lucrative deals with Stalin, and was forged by providing crucial support to the Nazi regime. But even these stunning results only touch the surface of the interesting facts, some new and some expounded, in Mayer’s new book.

The Nazi Connection

One of the earliest revelations from the book was the New York Times reporting that Fred Koch partnered with Nazi sympathizer William Rhodes Davis to build an oil refinery that was “a critical industrial cog in Hitler’s war machine.” This is damning enough, but other passages from the book are equally jarring. For instance, in 1938, Fred wrote that,

“Although nobody agrees with me, I am of the opinion that the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy and Japan, simply because they are all working and working hard….”

Mayer argues that he preferred their work ethic to the laziness and government dependence he believed was caused by the New Deal. Later, he hired a German nanny for his two sons who was “a fervent Nazi sympathizer who frequently touted Hitler’s virtues.” To round out his wrongheadedness, Fred claimed that, “the colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America,” expressed admiration of Mussolini and aided Stalin early in his career.

Ideological Indoctrination

One of the crucial parts of the Koch strategy is creating an intellectual infrastructure for their libertarian ideas. Mayer lays out the long history of the wealthy buying their way into universities, focusing on John M. Olin’s strategy of funding programs for “Law and Economics” at prestigious universities. Olin, who believed that Marxism and Keynesianism were essentially the same, and claimed that liberalism and socialism were “synonymous,” aimed to reshape the university. Rather than an explicitly conservative course, he preferred the law and economics program because it didn’t appear ideological, but noted that “Economic analysis tends to have conservatizing effects.” He said later, “Law and Economics is neutral, but it has the philosophical thrust in the direction of free markets and limited government. That is, like many disciplined, it seems neutral, but it isn’t in fact.”

The Koch brothers are slightly less subtle, funding organizations like the Mercatus Center, which unabashedly support a plutocratic agenda. Mayer writes that George Pearson, an early Koch advisor, believed gifts to universities “didn’t guarantee enough ideological control.” He suggested that donors maintain control over hires. As of 2015, Mayer reports that the Kochs subsidized programs in 207 colleges and universities and were set to expand into 18 more. In some cases, such as West Virginia University and Florida State University, their foundations exert influence over hires. At Florida State, one student reported that the new introductory economics course included lessons that “sweatshop labor wasn’t bad,” and “climate change wasn’t caused by humans and isn’t a big issue.” A libertarian donor gave grants to 63 colleges to fund programs that were “required to teach his favorite philosopher, the celebrator of self-interest Ayn Rand.” In North Carolina, Art Pope funded think-tanks that pushed to cut public university budgets at the same time as he gave grants to support programs in “Western civilization and free-market economics.”

Even more disturbingly, the Koch brothers have recently been pushing their ideology into high schools. The curriculum teaches that,

“Franklin Roosevelt didn’t alleviate the Depression, minimum wage laws and public assistance hurt the poor, lower pay for women was not discriminator, and the government, rather than business caused the 2008 recession.”

Christina Wilkie and Joy Resmovits of Huffington Post report that the program, Young Entrepreneurs, which Charles and Elizabeth Koch founded in 1991, has expanded dramatically, with $1.45 million in assets in 2012. In 2012-2013, it was taught in 29 Kansas and Missouri schools, with plans to expand into 42.

Strategic Use of Racism

One of the dirtiest tactics on the right has long been the strategic use of racism for political gain. In his book on the subject, Ian Haney-Lopez argues that racism has been exploited to undermine the middle class. The Koch brothers and their network of organizations often stoop to low levels to ensure Republicans are elected.

Mayer reports that during now-Gov. Sam Brownback’s 1996 Senate race there was a “barrage of phone calls informing voters that his opponent Jill Docking, was a Jew.” According to later reporting from the Wall Street Journal, an operative on the Koch payroll was involved in the ads. Later, the American Future Fund, which “received more than 92 percent of its 2012 revenues from two organizations connected to Charles and David Koch,” became involved in an attack on former Democratic congressman Bruce Braley. The odious Koch-linked attack narrated,

“For centuries, Muslims built mosques where they won military victories. Now, they want to build a mosque at Ground Zero, where Islamic terrorists killed 3,000 Americans. It’s like the Japanese building at Pearl Harbor.”

Mayer notes that David Koch accepts the crank theory pushed by Dinesh D’Souza that Obama is secretly influenced by his father’s anti-colonial agenda. She cites an interview Matthew Continetti had with David in which Continetti reports:

David agreed. “He’s the most radical president we’ve ever had as a nation,” he said, “and has done more damage to the free enterprise system and long-term prosperity than any president we’ve ever had.” David suggested the president’s radicalism was tied to his upbringing. “His father was a hard core economic socialist in Kenya,” he said. “Obama didn’t really interact with his father face-to-face very much, but was apparently from what I read a great admirer of his father’s points of view. So he had sort of antibusiness, anti-free enterprise influences affecting him almost all his life. It just shows you what a person with a silver tongue can achieve.

Random Factoids

Mayer’s book is frequently difficult to stomach: Learning how a powerful group of donors is engaging in a coordinated assault on American democracy is never easy. Nor is it easy to read about the children of Crossett, Arkansas, who stay inside breathing from respirators because of Koch Industry pollution. However, the book contains a slew of anecdotes that are at least somewhat humorous, which can ease reading. For instance, Mayer notes that,

“Susan Gore, heiress to the a piece of the Gore-Tex fabric fortune and founder of a conservative think tank… was so intent on increasing her personal inheritance that she tried to adopt her ex-husband.”

The goal was to increase the share of the family trust she would inherit. Mayer’s book also highlights how the conservative plutocratic movement have often bought off seemingly anti-establishment characters. She notes that Glenn Beck is paid more than a million dollars a year to read what is termed “embedded content,” which he says on air, “making it sound as if it were his own opinion.”

Interestingly, the Koch brothers were not always loved by leading conservative intellectuals. Mayer notes that William F. Buckley Jr. called their ideas “Anarcho-Totalitarianism.” As I’ve documented, such criticisms may return as the Koch brothers continue to threaten the power and influence of other powerful right-wing interests,like the Chamber of Commerce.


Mayer’s book draws from other works, like Daniel Schulman, Ken Vogel and the brilliant investigative journalist Lee Fang. However, it offers a comprehensive history, not just of the Koch brothers, but of early funders of the conservative movement, like the Richard Mellon Scaife and John M. Olin. In addition, it includes detailed document of Art Pope’s takeover of North Carolina, the powerful DeVos family and the depravity of John Menard Jr., who once labeled arsenic-tainted mulch as “ideal for playgrounds.” As the Koch network becomes on track to spend a small fortune on the 2016 election, their history and strategy becomes even more compelling.

This piece originally appeared on Salon. 

How to defeat the Koch brothers: Here’s what it could take to end their right-wing stranglehold

Over the last decade, the Koch brothers have taken an increasingly important role in American politics. Recent reporting as well as academic research suggests that the Kochs now control a network that will likely outspend the Republican National Committee in 2016, and has sophisticated data analytic capacities, as well as a surveillance operation. The Kochs fund organizations that create model bills, run get-out-the-vote operations and recruit candidates. That is, the Koch network shares all of the things a traditional party does, without being accountable to voters. The remedy, say two political scientists, is to shift the campaign finance landscape to strengthen parties. But any reform must include public financing.

The rise of the Kochs

Though they have been involved in politics for more than four decades, the Koch brothers only recently began participating directly in electoral politics. However, their operations have expanded quickly. A recent Politico report finds,

Koch and his brother David Koch have quietly assembled, piece by piece, a privatized political and policy advocacy operation like no other in American history that today includes hundreds of donors and employs 1,200 full-time, year-round staffers in 107 offices nationwide. That’s about 3½ times as many employees as the Republican National Committee and its congressional campaign arms had on their main payrolls last month, according to POLITICO’s analysis of tax and campaign documents and interviews with sources familiar with the network.

At the same time as the Koch brothers have expanded into electoral politics, traditional party organizations have become weaker. Political scientists Theda Skocpol and Alex Hertel-Fernandez, who have studied organizations on the left and right extensively, find funding non-party organizations have increased dramatically on the right while the Republican Party has become weaker (see chart).



Hertel-Fernandez tells me,

“Political resources are now far less likely to flow through the official Republican committees than they were a decade ago. Instead, contributions are increasingly likely to go through outside groups. By far, the most prominent of these extra party funders is the array of groups directed by the Koch brothers.”

Their research aligns with extensive work by journalists. In his 2014 book, “Big Money,” Kenneth Vogel writes of the Koch network,

“Intentionally or not, this new system has eroded the power of the official parties that have rigidly controlled modern politics for decades… The result is the privatization of a system that we’d always thought of as public-a hi-jacking of American politics by the ultra-rich.”

Dan Balz notes that,

“When W. Clement Stone, an insurance magnate and philanthropist, gave $2 million to Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 campaign, it caused public outrage and contributed to a movement that produced the post-Watergate reforms in campaign financing. Accounting for inflation, that $2 million would equal about $11 million in today’s dollars.”

In 2015, the Koch brothers revealed a spending goal of $889 million for their network, nearly 81 times more than Stone, and far more than the $657 million that the Republican Party spent in 2012. In her book “Dark Money,” Jane Mayer argues that this has long been a goal for some on the right, writing that Karl Rove “had long dreamed of creating a conservative political machine outside the traditional parties’ control that could be funded by virtually unlimited private fortunes.”

But Rove’s goal may soon become a nightmare. While most people have focused on the part of the GOP’s post-election autopsy that worried about its overwhelmingly white base, a more important nugget may well be its discussion of the increasing power of donors. The document reads,

“The current campaign finance environment has led to a handful of friends and allied groups dominating our side’s efforts. This is not healthy. A lot of centralized authority in the hand of a few people at these outside organizations is dangerous for our party.”

Take the Medicaid expansion, which has been stunted by powerful political interests, despite rather strong public support. Hertel-Fernandez, Theda Skocpol and Daniel Lynch find that while GOP governors and business groups were favorable to the Medicaid expansion, Koch-backed groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and AFP (Americans for Prosperity) fought vigorously against it (I’ve discussed this work here). As the Koch brothers grow stronger, there will be more fights between the GOP and this increasingly powerful and unaccountable family.

Meanwhile, Ken Vogel reports that in 2014, the Chamber of Commerce “considered wading into the 2014 Republican primary in a major way.” Their goal: “ousting tea party conservatives and replacing them with more business-friendly pragmatists.” Vogel cites Club for Growth president Chris Chocola who criticizes former Gov. Haley Barbour because,

“Haley wants every Republican to win, regardless of how they vote for office. The Club for Growth PAC helps elect candidates who support limited government and free markets. Unfortunately, the two goals coincide less often than the Republican Establishment cares to admit.” [emphasis mine]

Quotes like this indicate that there will be increasingly fraught relationships between outside groups and the GOP establishment.

Could the solution be stronger parties?

What, then, can be done? In their book, “Campaign Finance and Political Polarization,” political scientists Brian Schaffner and Ray La Raja use a vast amount of state-level data to argue that stronger parties lead to less ideological candidates. As the chart below from their book shows, the distribution of party money favors more moderate candidates, while issue groups like the Koch network favor more extreme candidates, and business groups favor the right. It’s also worth noting that these data suggest an asymmetry in the parties, with Republicans more likely to support candidates further to the extreme than Democrats (thus the rightward tilt of the “party money” graph). Their extensive analysis of state-level data, over a long historical period, suggests, “In states where parties face more restrictive campaign finance laws, legislators are further from the center than in states where parties are financially unconstrained.”


Although La Raja and Schaffner focus on polarization, a recent report by Daniel Weiner and Ian Vandewalker of the Brennan Center for Justice makes a different argument: Stronger parties could actually strengthen democracy. They write,

“Targeted measures to strengthen political parties, including public financing and a relaxing of certain campaign finance regulations, could help produce a more inclusive and transparent politics.”

Their core argument is that parties are accountable to voters, while donors are not. They compare two of the biggest spenders in 2014: the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), a party organization, and the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC. They note that,

“the Senate Majority PAC. The DSCC took in 44 percent of its contributions from small donors of $200 or less, while Senate Majority PAC received less than one tenth of one percent of its funds from small donors.”


“Of the $46 million that Senate Majority PAC spent in total, $36 million came from just 23 donors who each gave half a million dollars or more, according to FEC data.”

They also note that parties are more transparent than PACs, so stronger parties would bring more sunlight to the democratic process.

Though they approach the argument from different angles, the Brennan Center Report and the La Raja/Schaffner book share in common the proposal that public financing should be available to parties and that limits on party contributions to candidates should be reduced or eliminated. Brian explained his thinking to me thusly:

“While the Mitch McConnells and John Boehners of the world are certainly not moderates, they are not nearly as polarized or uncompromising as super PAC funders like the the Kochs and Adelson. And it’s the fear of backlash from those outside forces which is working against any kind of compromise in Washington.”

He adds, “The Koch network now has many of the aspects of a political party — GOTV, complex data analytics, candidate selection — without the accountability to voters.”

Political scientist Seth Masket notes that the proposal to strengthen parties had quite a bit of support at a Brookings event he attended. He argues for a system in which parties can funnel public money to preferred campaigns. However, political scientist Lee Drutman is highly skeptical, at least of the idea that unlimited funding would decrease polarization. He argues that there are t0o few competitive districts and little incentive from parties to run moderates if there were. He also notes, correctly, that it’s unlikely small donors would increase political polarization.


Because the current composition of the Supreme Court makes reform difficult, progressives have good reasons to be supportive of proposals to strengthen parties, but also good reasons to be wary. The reason to support such a campaign is, somewhat ironically, that as the Republican Party has become weaker, even more right-wing forces have become stronger. The rise of extreme candidates like Trumpcan certainly be explained in part by the weakness of the GOP compared to outside donors. The negative side is that the Democratic Party has never been particularly kind to economic progressivism, and that big money is inherently anti-democratic, whichever channel it flows through.

On the issue of public financing, there is mutual agreement: La Raja tells me, “I think reformers should be focused more on how the money is raised than on how it is spent. That is why some form of public financing makes sense.” He argues that campaigns should be seen as a public good (because they raise awareness, knowledge and mobilization) and therefore supported by public funds. Empowering small donors means empowering average Americans and bolstering independent political power for progressives and people of color, who currently make up a vanishing share of the donor class. Even more fundamentally, it’s obvious that tackling economic inequality is essential to tackling political inequality. As Louis Brandeis writes (in a quote Jane Mayer uses for the epigraph of her book), “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can’t have both.”

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

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. 

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. 

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. 

The wealthy are ruining American health care

This piece was co-written with Vijay Das, a healthcare advocate at Public Citizen. 

In a hard-hitting New York Times op-ed on Friday, senior New York Democratic Rep. Steve Israel put all of Washington on notice. He is fed up with campaign fundraising. He joins Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., this year and Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., last year in retiring from Congress. They’ve had enough of shaking down America’s superrich.

Corporate lobbyists and wealthy activists dictate much of American politics today. In the 2012 presidential race, 0.01 percent of Americans contributed almost 30 percent of the money spent in that entire election cycle. Corporations spend billions of dollars annually on lobbying. America’s big spenders exert tremendous influence over elected leaders and have dramatically different priorities from everyday citizens’.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the political battle over the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which exemplifies how very wealthy political donors impair access to health care.

The law raised the income threshold for low-income Americans to qualify for Medicaid. Households with income up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible. However, the Supreme Court ruled this provision optional for states. For states that expand Medicaid, the federal government picks up all costs to cover additional Medicaid populations until 2017. States pick up 5 and then 10 percent of the tab thereafter. Twenty states have failed to expand Medicaid, leaving 3.1 million Americans uninsured. With a new executive order in Louisiana, the number will fall to 19 states, and an additional 200,000 Americans will eventually become insured.

Medicaid expansion is vital. If it were expanded in every state, it could have prevented 7,115 to 17,104 unnecessary deaths and 240,700 racked-up catastrophic medical bills each year.

Expansion also saves money. With it, states could spend far less on uncompensated emergency care. If Pennsylvania alone expanded Medicaid coverage, Rand Corp. economist Carter Price found that it could add $3 billion to the state’s GDP and create 35,000 jobs.

Yet expansion is being held up because of politics. New research shows that Charles Koch and David Koch’s advocacy group Americans for Prosperity is having great success blocking state Medicaid expansion. The organization’s 34 state chapters currently spend large sums to build its grass-roots advocacy and place political ads. It’s paying off in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott has all but retreated on his openness to expand Medicaid to cover 567,000 low-income Floridians.

This trend is unfortunate, because there’s fertile ground for Medicaid expansion nationwide. New research suggestsif public health activists could better mobilize, they could pressure lawmakers to expand Medicaid. Citizen advocates can trump the austerity-first agendas of billionaire-financed interest groups. They simply have to organize better.

The priorities of rich donors are out of line with voters. Brian Schaffner’s analysis from the 2014 cooperative congressional election study shows a large gap in opinion about Medicaid expansion between the average GOP supporters and the richest among them. Sixty-two percent of nondonor Republicans surveyed said they would refuse the Medicaid expansion, compared with 77 percent of donors who gave much more than $1,000.

AJAMHeatlhcare1Medicaid expansion aside, the political influence of the extremely rich undercuts American health care.

A study of wealthy Americans by political scientists Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright finds that while average Americans favor national health insurance, which would be publicly financed on the basis of one’s ability to pay, only 32 percent of the wealthy surveyed said they support the policy, compared with 61 percent of all Americans. When asked if average Americans were willing to “pay more taxes in order to provide health coverage for everyone,” 41 percent of the rich said yes, compared with 59 percent of the general public.


Donations from the wealthy and corporate contributions for lobbyists have also resulted in attacks on Medicare, the half-century-old national health insurance program for seniors and people with special needs. Raising Medicare’s eligibility age from 65 to 67 is a frequency cited idea among the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, even though it would dramatically curb health access for seniors. It’s not crazy to expect House Speaker Paul Ryan to sneak it into this year’s budget. President Barack Obama even offered it as part of a large budget deal in 2011.

This policy would force people off their health coverage, particularly in states that have not expanded Medicaid. An estimated 435,000 seniors would lose coverage by 2021 if the eligibility age were raised. If the eligibility age had been raised in 2014, seniors would have had to pay $3.7 billion more in out-of-pocket costs that year, preventing many of them from obtaining necessary treatments.

Most troubling is that this proposal would increase overall health care spending. Medicare is much better at controlling costs than private insurance, and it has lower administrative costs. Individuals kicked off Medicare likely would get private coverage, and their health care bills would add to overall U.S. health care spending. Thus any Medicare savings achieved by increasing the eligibility age would be canceled out. The Center for American Progress found that raising Medicare’s eligibility age would cost individuals, businesses and states twice as much as the federal savings suggested by the reform.

Though a large majority of Americans opposes raising the retirement age, it remains a fixture in health and federal budget discussions. Why? Because the policy has a powerful big money constituency in Washington. Most trade associations share the interests of their wealthy members: recklessly shrinking federal spending in the name of balancing the budget and eliminating tax obligations, no matter the consequences to the economy and public health.

Trade associations have outsize lobbying muscle. According to a seven-month analysis in 2014 by the Center for Public Integrity, nearly 85 percent of corporate donations for lobbying flowed to trade associations. For every dollar spent on lobbying on behalf of labor unions or citizen interests, corporations and their associations spend $34. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying, 95 consistently represent business.

Lobbying to gut Medicare and Social Security is a long-standing problem. Since 1998, the top three health care industry groups have spent three times as much on lobbying as AARP. The Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are the biggest spenders year after year. Both advocate raising the Medicare eligibility age.

There are ways to improve and save Medicare that align with citizens’ interests. We could lower the Medicare age to boost its solvency and achieve better health outcomes. We could save Medicare billions of dollars by allowing it to negotiate the price of prescription drugs. We don’t have to slash benefits and curb access for our hard-working seniors.

As candidates parade around the nation rattling their cups at $40,000-a-plate fundraising dinners, the health of American democracy worsens. When industry-sponsored evening banquets blanket the first 100 days of the next president, we will all suffer.

Many solutions can address the concentrated role big money plays in our politics. Public funding of campaigns is one way to renew the people’s faith in our elections because it would create a more level playing field, allowing a wider range of candidates to compete. At a minimum, we should empower voters by mandating disclosure of all contributions.

The very rich’s austerity agendas are literally killing people. It’s imperative we take the required steps to restore confidence in our democracy.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America.