Tag Archives: Donor Class

The rich own our democracy, new evidence suggests

Two new studies by political scientists offer compelling evidence that the rich use their wealth to control the political system and that the U.S. is a democratic republic in name only.

In a study of Senate voting patterns, Michael Jay Barber found that “senators’ preferences reflect the preferences of the average donor better than any other group.” In a similar study of the House of Representatives, Jesse H. Rhodes and Brian F. Schaffner found that, “millionaires receive about twice as much representation when they comprise about 5 percent of the district’s population than the poorest wealth group does when it makes up 50 percent of the district.” In fact, the increasing influence of the rich over Congress is the leading driver of polarization in modern politics, with the rich using the political system to entrench wealth by pushing for tax breaks and blocking redistributive policies.

At the turn of the decade, political scientists Larry Bartels, Jacob Hacker and Martin Gilens wrote several incredibly influential important books arguing, persuasively, that the preferences of the rich were better represented in Congress than the poor. After the books were published, there was a flurry of research arguing that they had overstated their case.

Critics alleged two key defects in Bartels’ and Gilens’ arguments. First, because polling data on the super-wealthy were sparse, it was difficult to prove that there were large differences in opinion. Political scientists often rely on composite measures of policy liberalism, but since the poor tend to be more economically liberal but socially conservative, the differences between the poor and moderately rich can often be obscured. Second, there was no way to show that influence of the wealthy was caused directly by the influence of money. It might well be that the rich are simply opinion leaders or are more likely to vote.

Recent research offers compelling answers to these criticisms. The new evidence adds credence to the Bartels-Gilens-Hacker view that money is corrupting American politics. By using a massive database of ideology that includes the super wealthy, Schaffner and Rhodes found that “members of Congress are much more responsive to the wealthy than to their poor constituents.” However, this difference is not equal between both parties; rather, Democrats are far more responsive to the poor than Republicans. (This is not surprising; other research supports this claim.) They find that both parties strongly favor the upper-middle class, those with $100,000 to $300,000 in wealth. But Republicans are not only more responsive to the rich, but particularly to rich donors. Schaffner and Rhodes argue that, “campaign donations, but not voter registration or participation in primary or general election, may help explain the disproportionate influence of the wealthy among Republican representatives.”

Barber’s study is the first to directly examine the policy preferences of the donor class. Barber sent 20,500 letters to people who contributed to 22 Senate elections in 2012 and asked about various policy questions. This allowed Barber to examine the differences in representation between donors and non-donors. His finding: Donors’ preferences tend to be far better represented than non-donors’. The chart below measures the ideological differences between various groups, with 0 indicating a perfect fit. The data show that Senators are almost perfectly aligned with their donors, but rather distant from voters.


In fact, politicians are almost perfectly aligned with donors, but less aligned with partisans (people who voted for the Senator and share party affiliation), supporters (people who voted for the Senator) and voters in general. He Barber also finds that donors tend to be far more extreme in their views (see chart below). For instance, while about sixty percent of non-donor Republicans oppose the Affordable Care Act, opposition among donors is “almost unanimous.” Barber also notes that donors tend to be far more extreme than non-donors (see chart). (This is supported by other studies).


Such data could explain the rising polarization of Congress, as politicians increasingly respond to their donors, rather than to voters. Political scientists Walter J. Stone and Elizabeth N. Simas have found that challengers raise more money when they take extreme positions, which helps explain why incumbent representatives tend to bemore partisan than departing representatives. It certainly explains the intransigence of the last two Congresses: Republicans, who are responding to their rich donor base, are incentivized to oppose any action, particularly those supporting Obama, lest they lose funding. Since Senators have to raise approximately $3,300 a day every year for six years to remain viable, they will inevitably have to succumb to the power of money if they wish to be reelected.

This research raises the disturbing thought that our political system is no longer representative. As Barber notes, about half of all donors are from out of state, meaning that politicians are no longer responsive to their voters (though they are slightly more during election years). Given that only .22 percent of Americans made a donation of more than $200 (the level Barber studies) in 2014, we have power evidence that America is now a government of the one percent — indeed, of the one-fifth of one percent.

This disturbing trend affects politics at all levels. At the state level, political scientists Gerald Wright and Elizabeth Rigby found that state party platforms are far more influenced by the rich than the poor. Elsewhere, Barber foundevidence that presidents are more responsive to donors than non-donors. Recently Griffin and Newman foundrepresentation gaps between whites and people of color as well as low-income voters. This finding is supported by Christopher Ellis, who found that donors were better represented than non-donors (although using a less comprehensive method than Barber). In a frank moment, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D – Conn.) said, “I talked a lot more about carried interest inside of that call room than I did in the supermarket.” He’s correct: Donors tending to be far richer and wealthier than non-donors (see chart).


There are still unanswered questions. It is possible that politicians cast ideological votes to appease donors and partisans (for instance, the vain attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act dozens of times), while also working to benefit the poor and middle class through less visible means. This might explain why political journalists, who often focus on major legislation, miss the distributional impacts of political appointments and regulatory action. It may be that politicians work to maximize votes, and then political donations follow (though there is strong evidence this isn’t the case). Either way, the most up-to-date evidence strongly suggests that money is distorting our system, and that evidence appears to be growing stronger by the day.


The solution, as a recent Demos report suggests, is to help reformist candidates gather donations with a public matching system. Since voters who are non-donors are less ideological, the solution is to balance out the political distortions from the donor class by turning these non-donors into donors. Citizens United has only increased the stranglehold of moneyed interests on our political system, and is daily choking the life of our democracy. Only by restoring influence to all voters will our republic be restored.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

How Donors Distort Democracy

It’s early, but arguably the most important paper of the year has already been released. The author, Michael Jay Barber, finds persuasive evidence that those who donate more than $200 (.22% of the population in 2014), wield more influence over our political system than anyone else.

Demos has explored this issue extensively, arguing that the rise of money in politics has hampered both racial justice and economic mobility. However, the new evidence makes our case even stronger, and more important than ever.

Barber mailed out 20,500 letters to people who donated to Senate campaigns in 2012 and then analyzed how similar the positions taken by politicians were to donor and  non-donors in the state. He notes that politicians almost perfectly align with the views of donors, align strongly with the preferences of those who are from the same party and voted for them, less well with those who voted for them and not at all with their constituents (see chart).

But the paper contains another disturbing fact: donors are polarizing our politics.

As I’ve noted before, polarization is an important driver of inequality, and the polarization is largely driven by elite control of the political system. Barber’s evidence supports this argument: he finds that donors are far more extreme than voters in general and supporters of the candidates (see chart).

He observes that while about 60% of Republican voters dislike the Affordable Care Act, opposition is nearly unanimous among donors. It is donors, not Republican voters, that are driving the numerous efforts to repeal Obamacare. Barber concludes that even among the rich, donors are far better represented than voters, and more extreme.

He finds support in a recent paper by Jesse Rhodes and Brian Schaffner, who wrote (in a study of the House of Representatives), “we estimate that millionaires receive about twice as much representation when they comprise about 5% of the district’s population than the poorest wealth group does when it makes up 50% of the district.” They find that conservative politicians are more responsive to the donor class than liberals (a finding supported elsewhere).

But is the story here that politicians are responding to donors, or donors responding to the positions of politicians. Another paper by Barber suggests that extreme donors are driving extreme politicians. He examines state-level campaign contribution limits and finds that states with higher limits have more polarized legislatures. This suggests that politicians become more extreme to get money from the donor class. Patrick Flavin notes that in states with stricter campaign finance laws devote a large portion of their budgets to programs that benefit the poor. In another study, Walter Stone and Elizabeth Simas find, “that challengers closer to the extreme received greater financial contributions, which enhanced their chances of victory.”

In a 2014 study, Barber, Brandice Canes-Wrone and Sharece Thrower examined how Presidents respond to the donor class. They find that, “there is no clear relationship between general public opinion on an issue and the president’s support for that issue.” However, they find,

when examining presidential issue support alongside co-partisan donor issue support, we observe a clear positive relationship. Particularly, as donors increase their support for an issue, so does the president. While this conforms to our expectations, we also see that there exists a similar positive relationship between the positions of the president and non-donors of his party.

To disentangle whether Presidential candidates were responding to donors or simply partisan supporters, they examined issues where partisan supporters and donors disagreed. In these conflicts, they find,

a one percentage increase in co-partisan donor support on an issue correlates with a one percentage increase in the probability that the president supports that same issue. Further, we find no significant effect of non-donor co-partisan opinion or general public opinion on presidential issue support.

That is, the views of the general public and even people of the same party of Presidential candidates has no effect on what issue a Presidential candidate supports. This is consistent with the work of Martin Gilens who finds,

economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

American democracy is controlled by a small donor class who advocate in favor of issues that the vast majority of Americans oppose.

This piece originally appeared on Policyshop.

The unbearable whiteness of America’s donor class

The rise of money in U.S. politics has been widely discussed in the wake of two controversial decisions by the Supreme Court: Citizen’s United and McCutcheon v. FEC. However, the discussion has largely been framed along class lines — with the voices of the poor and middle class drowned out by theexplosion of donations and political activity by wealthy elites. While this is true, there is also an important racial element to the rise of big money in politics. For example, a recent report by Demos found that the dominance of money in politics has slowed racial and economic progress (PDF) in the United States.

Political donations are deeply racialized, with more than 90 percent of contributions above $200 made to presidential campaigns and super PACs in 2012 coming from majority-white neighborhoods. A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution found that all of the most politically active U.S. billionaires, with possible exception of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is of Persian-American origin, are white. Similarly, the top 10 Republican and top 10 Democratic donors in 2012 appear to be white, according to Demos. There are scarcely any comprehensive data about the race of donors. A preliminary report on donors in New York City’s 2009 municipal electionsconducted by Public Campaign found that the lowest-tier contributions came from more diverse neighborhoods than the top-tier donations. Contributors from predominantly African-American neighborhoods accounted for 30 percent of donations of $10 or less but only 5 percent of donations over $2,500, according to the report.

For whites, the trend is reversed, with people from white neighborhoods accounting for 78 percent of donations over $2,500 and 38 percent of donations of $10 or less. The lowest-tier contributors were from neighborhoods where people of color make up 73 percent of the population, while those donating more than $2,500 lived in districts where people of color make up only 26 percent. Small donors lived in neighborhoods with a 17.14 percent poverty rate and a median income of $53,790, while the top donors came from communities with a 5.14 percent poverty rate and a median income of $111,170.


Campaign contributions facilitate access, influence legislative agendas and, of course, help get those agendas passed. The widening gap in the level of donations means that people of color will not be represented as well as whites. In their seminal work on political equality in the United States, John Griffin and Brian Newman found that “whites get what they want more often than do Latinos or African-Americans.” This lack of representation is not simply due to class differences. “This is true even beyond the effects of income differences between the groups and even when minorities make up a substantial proportion of a constituency,” according to Griffin and Newman.

In his book “Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America” Paul Frymer found that Democrats ignore the preferences of African-American voters, a “captured minority,” in order to win over white voters. Since blacks have chosen not to defect to the Republican Party, they struggle for representation by the Democrats. “All too often the Democratic Party has taken the black vote for granted, and all too often the Republican Party has written it off,” Jack Kemp, then a Republican nominee for vice president,said during a campaign stop in Harlem in 1999. In a study comparing voter preferences on government spending levels to presidential budget proposals from 1974 to 2010, Griffin and Newman found that “presidential requests are much more responsive to the budget preferences of whites and the wealthy.” They found that the gap for African-Americans is smaller when a Democrat is in office than when a Republican is.

This has important effects on legislation, as whites and people of color differ strongly on many issues, particularly those related to class. As the chart below shows, the differences on preferences about redistribution between whites and people of color (14 points) are stronger than the differences along class lines (10 points). A 2012 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that differences on whether the government should spend money on jobs versus reducing deficit are similarly strong along race lines (23 points) compared with class (11 points). On issues relating to race, recent polls show huge racial gaps on the perceptions of major American institutions.


The funding gap between black and white communities also makes it difficult for candidates of color to raise money. Candidates of color raised 47 percent less money than white candidates in all 2006 state legislative races and 64 percent less in the South. This is an important barrier for potential candidates who already face discrimination by voters. The lack of diversity in candidates is problematic, given the importance of descriptive representation (in which politicians share salient qualities such as race with their constituents) for substantive representation where candidates share their constituents’ policy preferences. “Descriptive representation independently improves the relative representation of minorities” and in some cases leads to political equality, according to Griffin and Newman. In a 2012 study in the American Journal of Political Science, Eric Juenke and Roper Preuhs found that candidates of color represent constituents of color better than white candidates do. However, as Jason Zengerle notes in The New Republic, black representatives, particularly in the South, are increasingly in the minority as white Democrats fall to coordinated campaign money from big donors. At all levels, big money politics stifles the representation of people of color.

The lack of representation has had major effects on people of color, as Adam Lioz documents in a series of case studies. For instance, the private prison system has lobbied extensively to maintain the carceral state, which primarily affects men of color. At the same time, the financial system has engaged in blatant racism, aided by lax regulatory policies. According to a study by the Center for Responsible Lending, among borrowers with good credit, people of color received a high interest rate loan three times as frequently as white borrowers. Reports also show racist lending practices by bank employees. “Employees had referred to blacks as ‘mud people’ and to subprime lending as ‘ghetto loans,’” according to a 2009 report by The New York Times. Such acts were possible because of lax regulation because of themassive political power of the financial sector.

There are several ways to fight the big money bias. For one, public financing has proved effective in eliminating the big money bias in the political system. A 2012 study published by The Election Law Journal found (PDF) that New York City’s donor-matching program has shifted the class and racial diversity of donors. It empowered small donors (a pool more diverse than large donors) and increased the absolute number of campaign contributors. Second, to limit the influence of big money in U.S. elections, we need policies that could boost voter turnout.

However, as Griffin and Newman point out, there are limits to the strategy: The benefits of representation are not as strong for blacks and Hispanics as for whites. In other words, African-Americans who vote aren’t that much better represented than those who don’t. This points to the importance of electing people of color to office, which does more to increase the representation of people of color. Still, a public financing program to reduce the influence of money in politics, sane lobbying reformssame-day registration, an end to felony disenfranchisement and increased descriptive representation could go a long way to thwart the influence of big money in our politics.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

How to tap latent conservative support for global warming policy

Both last month’s Senate Climate Talkathon and Tom Steyer’s $100 million dollarpledge to back environment-friendly candidates indicate the same thing: Democrats are getting serious about global warming again. But even when Democrats have managed to close ranks behind previous legislative efforts like Waxman-Markey, Republicans have stymied them. Can the left forge a coalition to tackle the problem?

The environment was once a bipartisan issue. The 1970 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, and the 1973 Endangered Species Act were all passed with bipartisan support, as was legislation strengthening those acts in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, the environment has become increasingly divisive. Data from the Pew Research Center show that the decrease in support for environmental protection is not only very recent but also one-sided:

Despite that decline, Republican support for environmental causes is stronger than it might appear. Two Ph.D. students at the University of California Santa Barbara, Phillip Ehret and Aaron Sparks, found that a quarter of individuals self-identifying as “very conservative” or “conservative” support environmental regulations, even if they risk harming the economy. A Yale Study finds that 85 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans favor “regulating CO2 as a pollutant” and majorities from both parties favor investing in renewable energy. If Republican voters are concerned about the environment, haven’t we seen an action?

One explanation is that the framing of environmental issues is often anathema to conservatives. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer’s important paper on the subject, “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes,” finds that liberals view environmental issues as moral concerns informed by a harm principle, while conservatives view environmental issues through the lens of purity, and particularly for religious people, stewardship.

In 1971’s Octogesima Adveniens, Pope Paul VI laid out a religious case for protecting the environment, using the language of responsibility, duty to future generations, and purity—in other words, the conservative framing under Feinberg and Willer’s standards:

Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation … thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable …. The Christian must turn to these new perceptions in order to take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all.

In his 2006 “Letter to a Southern Baptist Pastor,” E.O. Wilson showed how to use the religious framing in defense of the environment:

You have the power to help solve a great problem about which I care deeply. I hope you have the same concern. I suggest that we set aside our differences in order to save the Creation. The defense of living nature is a universal value. It doesn’t rise from, nor does it promote, any religious or ideological dogma. Rather, it serves without discrimination the interests of all humanity. Pastor, we need your help. The Creation—living nature—is in deep trouble.

The environmental movement has stumbled because it has not framed the issue as Wilson and Paul VI did. A 2012 study by Matthew C. Nisbet, Ezra M. Markowitz, and John E. Kotcher found that climate campaigns overwhelming frame the issue in terms of harm and care, fairness, and oppression of marginalized groups. These frames fall into what Feinberg and Willer would consider left-wing frames, alienating conservatives.

Adopting a more conservative framing wouldn’t lead to liberals winning more elections. More likely, moderate Republican and centrist thought leaders could make green policy a bipartisan initiative of the sort that was common during the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush Sr. days. There are already right-leaning pro-environment groups, like Atlanta’s Green Tea Coalition and Ducks Unlimited. That’s unlikely to be enough to bridge the divide. Because people are more likely to respond to arguments made by someone within their community than outside of it, progress depends on more Republican voices.

But Republican thought leaders and policymakers have abandoned the environment in droves. ThinkProgress calculates that 56 percent of Republicans in the current congress deny anthropogenic global warming. Among the general public, 26 percent of adults don’t believe global warming is real (although only 11 percent of Democrats do, versus 46 percent of Republicans and an astonishing 70 percent of Tea Partiers). Deborah Guber, a professor at University of Vermont,argues that there has been a concerted effort among right-leaning elites to downplay the environmental issue. “Partisan conflicts are not inherent in the subject of climate change,” she writes. “Party sorting seems to occur only as citizens acquire information and become familiar with elite cues.” This helps explain the lack of political movement, despite evidence that conservative voters are concerned about the degradation of the environment.

Guber notes the infamous 2003 Frank Luntz memo arguing that the environment was the issue on which Republicans were most vulnerable. “The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science,” Luntz wrote. “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” Funders took Luntz’s idea and ran with it—with impressive success. A Drexel University study released in December bolsters the idea of a concerted denial campaign led by elites. The survey found that the climate-denial movement consists of 91 organizations supported by 140 primarily conservative foundations.

“The Republicans and (at least a large part of) the business community are against doing anything about climate change, because doing something about it would mean government intervention in the economy, which is ideologically bad but also having tangible and real economic costs on certain segments of the business world,” Benjamin Radcliff, a professor of politics at Notre Dame, told me.

Regulating greenhouse gases would hurt some big businesses. If IPCC estimates are correct, some 80 percent of existing fossil fuel reserves must remain unused. That presents a risk for companies like Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil—companies whose donations give them an outsize influence on the political process. Recently, Exxon said it is “highly unlikely” that governments would implement policies to significantly reduce emissions. (Just to be sure, the company has donated millions to climate denial groups.)

Tom Steyer’s example aside, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page find “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” And elites are less likely to be concerned about climate change than other citizens. Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright have found that the issue ranks below “the loss of traditional values,” budget deficits, and inflation among policy priorities for the wealthy. While the wealthy in their study generally favored reducing spending on the environment (the difference between “expanded” and “cut back” was -8) the public strongly favored increasing spending (+29).

Internationally, the environment isn’t so polarized. Right-leaning politicians like David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy have embraced the environment, and Angela Merkel won reelection in part by promising to phase out nuclear energy in favor of renewables. And within the U.S., some Democratic governors in red states have had success pursuing environmental issues. In Wyoming, the most conservative state in the country, Dave Freudenthal’s administration focused on a long-term strategy for resource extraction that included, among other things, preserving the state’s forests and regulating hydraulic fracking. The result: a reelection margin of 20 percent and a reputation as one of the most popular governors in the country, including 66 percent approval among Republicans.

But at the national level in the United States, environmental progress has been stymied by elites with a vested interest in fostering denial and the economic means to do so. This is not an easily surmountable challenge, but the polling reveals that underlying support offers hope for moving climate-change policy forward; and unlike hot-button issues like abortion or gay rights, the policy solutions are well agreed-upon. Yet the environmental movement has not helped itself by framing the issue in terms that appeal mostly to the converted. Activists will find more success if they focus on promoting sanctity and responsibility, showing how protecting the environment is economically beneficial and leaving a legacy for future generations.

Originally published on The Atlantic.