Tag Archives: Gilens

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. 

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.

Conservatives defend inequality out of self-interest — nothing more

Conservatives have justified inequality for decades, arguing that it is an inevitable byproduct of capitalism and broadly beneficial. This intellectual edifice has begun to collapse.

Supply-side economics rest on the assumption that the wealthy drive economic growth, and that by reducing taxes on them, we can unleash latent economic potential. In fact, however, investment is driven by demand, not supply (a point acknowledged by the relatively conservative Martin Feldstein). If there are viable investments, they will be made regardless of tax rates, and if there are no investments, cutting taxes is merely pushing on a string. Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, two top economists on inequality, find no correlation between marginal tax rates and economic growth.

Recently, two IMF papers confirmed what Keynesians like Joseph Stiglitz have long argued: Inequality reduces the incomes of the middle class, and therefore demand. This stunted demand means fewer opportunities for investment, stunting growth.

Add to this growing body of research the fact that a robust defense of inequality is increasingly difficult to muster when every other OECD country has far lower levels of inequality than the United States. Greg Mankiw’s defense of the 1 percent was widely decried, because a large swath of research shows that the rise of the 1 percent did not come from natural economic forces, but rather rent-seeking.

The evidence is clear: The economic benefits of inequality have been massively oversold. Inequality is, in fact, a detriment to growth. So why has the right not conceded the argument?

The answer is class interest.

“Class interest” does not mean that the wealthy are nefarious schemers. Instead, it means there are various cognitive biases that lead them to justify and perpetuate inequality. For instance, Kris-Stella Trump conducted experiments in which participants were asked to solve anagrams in a high inequality scenario (the winner received $9 and the loser $1) and a low inequality scenario (the winner got $6 and the loser $4). When asked what a fair distribution would look like, the high inequality group preferred an inequality of $5.54 ($7.77-$2.23) while the low inequality group preferred inequality of $2.30 ($6.15-$3.85). She concludes: “Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality are influenced by actual inequality.” Inequality perpetuates inequality.

Paul Piff finds that the wealthy feel more entitled to their earnings and are more likely to show personality traits typically associated with narcissism. Recent research by Andrew J. Oswald and Natavudh Powdthavee finds that lottery winners in the UK are more likely to switch their political affiliation to the right, and also more likely to believe that current distributions of wealth are fair. As people get richer, they think that tax policies favoring the rich are fair — not because of the macro-economic benefits, but because of how they benefit me.

These cognitive biases, rooted in class distinctions, have deep implications. As a young economist argued in 1846, “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships.” Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright examined the policy preferences of the very wealthy and found that they generally fall in line with their class interests. The wealthy were far less likely than the general public to believe that “government must see that no one is without food, clothing, or shelter,” or that minimum wage must be “high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below official poverty line,” or that “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job.”

This is not meant to demean the policy preferences of the wealthy — only to examine the motives. For too long, the wealthy have couched their economic ideas as being broadly good for the country, but in fact, de-unionization, capital market liberalization, and austerity benefit themwhile leaving the rest of us far worse off. It’s time that we were all honest about why we support the policies we support.

Now of course, not everyone who supports conservative economic policy is wealthy. Indeed, there is a large literature devoted to the question why the working class supports policies against their own interests. Engles calls this phenomenon “false consciousness,” writing to Franz Mehring, “the real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process.” Thomas Frank proposes that working-class conservatives are swayed by social issues. Ian Haney Lopez argues that racial animus still plays a role. Rick Perlstein notes the power of identity politics. The American ethos of upward mobility certainly plays a role; truck drivers in Tallahassee vote for tax breaks on Wall Street believing that they may someday posses enough wealth that an estate tax might affect them. John Steinbeck noted the power of aspiration, writing, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

But when it comes to wealthy conservatives who favor economic policies that hurt many Americans: Bartels’ previous investigation of economic and political power finds, unsurprisingly, that those with a higher socioeconomic status have more influence on legislative outcomes. Martin GilensDorian WarrenJacob HackerPaul Pierson, and Kay Lehman Schlozman have all recorded similar findings. It seems obvious, but it is important to connect these dots: Not only do the wealthy have interests divorced from the broader interests of society, but they also have the political heft to turn those interests into policy.

It is considered rather gauche to discuss class today, and the inequality debate is therefore situated in a purely theoretical realm. Liberals are constantly confused and aggravated about why the preponderance of evidence that austerity doesn’t work (while stimulus does) and that inequality harms society is lost on a large portion of conservatives.

Well, let’s face it: Those who support austerity and inequality are not really about “trickle-down” economics or “efficiency and equity.” They are protecting the interests of the upper class.

As Jonathan Swift warned, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

Originally published on The Week.