Tag Archives: polarization

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.

Why Washington’s gridlock won’t go away

Pundits have suggested that the Republican control of U.S. Senate will lead to a new era of bipartisanship, which will offer new solutions on immigration, the environment and tax reform. These arguments are extremely myopic. A critical look at the recent structural shifts in the American political system shows that the gridlock in Washington is caused by increasing inequality and benefits the rich.

To be sure, Congress is facing an almost unparalleled level of gridlock. Since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, we have seen an unprecedented use of the filibustervery little major legislationlong delays in mundane appointments, government shutdowns and highly partisan attacks on a progressive legislative agenda.

To understand the current congressional gridlock, it’s important to look at who is benefiting from the stalemate. A recent report published by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville found (PDF) that gridlock in the U.S. political system benefits the rich and has significantly contributed to rising inequality. The findings have been confirmed by Alfred Stepan and Juan Linz, who conclude that the structure of the Senate, the majority-constraining capacity of veto players and the filibuster all contribute to rising inequality.

The question then becomes, Why have we not seen the same level of gridlock in our lifetimes?

The growing economic power of U.S. elites coincides with increasing political dominance. Numerous studies have shown that the U.S. political system is no longer responsive to the electorate. In part this is because the United States’ political system is designed to be slow moving, with multiple checks and balances. In addition, as with other developed countries, the United States has incredibly low voter turnout. The 2014 midterm elections saw the worst voter turnout in 72 years (a dismal 36.3 percent of eligible voters). Higher voter turnout is positively correlated internationally with higher income redistribution (PDF, see chart on page 27). A vast body of literature shows that low-income voter turnout leads to more-left-leaning governments. The U.S. political system has had persistent class bias, but in the past these factors did not prevent stymie important legislation that benefits the poor.

AJAM Figure1

The dramatic reduction in top tax rates and the deregulation of finance in the 1980s opened the door for mass inequality. Rising inequality had three important effects on U.S. politics. First, it allowed the rich to take over the political system. Research shows (PDF) that the richest 0.01 percent of Americans now provide 40 percent of political contributions — up from 10 percent in 1982.

AJAM Figure2

By nearly every measure, the rich are far more likely to participate in the political process, and the superrich make up most of the donors. A 2013 study in The Journal of Economic Perspectives found (PDF):

In 1980, the top contributor … gave $1.72 million (in 2012) dollars, nearly six times the amount given by the next largest contributor. In 2012, the two largest donors were Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who gave $56.8 million and $46.6 million, respectively. Other members of the Forbes 400 accompany the Adelsons; 388 current members are on record as having made political contributions. They account for 40 of the 155 individuals who contributed $1 million or more to state and federal elections during the 2012 election cycle.

At a time when Congress increasingly dominated by superrich (and white) politicians, these contributions buy enormous political influence. A similar study by Jesse H. Rhodes and Brian F. Schaffner found (PDF) that “millionaires receive about twice as much representation when they comprise just 5 percent of the district’s population than the poorest wealth group does when it makes up 50 percent of the district.” As Duke University professor Nicholas Carnes has demonstrated (PDF), “representatives from working-class occupations exhibit more liberal economic preferences than other legislators, especially those from profit-oriented industries.” But those measures often die or are shelved in deeply gridlocked Congress.

Second, rising inequality has created ideological structures. As the rich grow richer, they justify their wealth by inflating their sense of intelligence and superiority. The poor and middle class begin to accept this narrative,forgoing their desire for redistribution. Since individuals understand inequity by relating it to their circumstances, higher inequality leads to its growing acceptance. Given the United States’ racist history, whites try to avoid feeling being in the last place by punitively harming blacks. In turn, the rising inequality erodes the social trust necessary to reduce inequality.

“The best policy response to growing inequality is to enact universalistic social welfare programs,” Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner, wrote in a 2005 study (PDF) published by World Politics. “However, the social strains stemming from increased inequality make it almost impossible to enact such policies.” Because the rich views the poor as personally responsible for their failings, they see no reason to help them up the ladder. A recent Gallup poll found that fewer Americans than ever believe that hard work can help one get ahead in life. Data from the American National Election Survey shows the percentage of people who say the government is run “by a few big interests looking out for themselves” has grown dramatically. (See chart below.)


Finally, amid rising inequality, both Republicans and Democrats have moved to the right, rejecting liberal economic policies to woo wealthy donors. Democrats have struggled to maintain their coalition of single women, people of color and educated progressives. In fact, as Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright noted in the journal Perspectives on Politics last year (PDF), “on economic issues wealthy Democratic respondents tended to be more conservative than Democrats in the general population.”

Studies show that the strength of unions is a far more important bulwark against inequality than the number of Democrats in Congress. “The effect of the Democratic Party [on the rate of financial deregulation] is not very large, but rather varies along with the strength of unions,” writes Christopher Witko in an upcoming paper on the rise of finance. He argues the Democratic Party has been attempting to win the votes of professionals (that is, rich people), pulling them to the right. Other studies confirm that the decline of unions has led to steep rise in inequality.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest Americans have increasingly favored one party. In a 2003 paper, Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal examined 40 years of data and found that “partisanship has become more stratified by income.” In a later study, the researchers show how tight polarization tracks with inequality (PDF, see chart on page 108) and wages in the financial sector. American National Election data also confirm the rising class polarization of the electorate, particularly at the 68th to 95th income percentile range, which went from a nearly 40 point margin preference for Democrats in 1952 (58 percent Democratic, 20 percent of Republican) to a 5 point margin for Republicans (43 percent Democrat, 48 percent Republican) in 2008. In the 2008 elections, the poorest Americans (below the 16th income percentile) preferred Democrats by 42 points, while the richest (above the 96th income percentile) preferred Republicans by 40 points.

AJAM Figure4

Widening class divide

The increasing class divide within the two parties has made gridlock inevitable. But Republicans automatically win from gridlock. The asymmetric partisanship of the last six years is driven by a simple dynamic: Government inaction benefits the wealthy and harms the working class. When Republicans are in the majority, they hollow the government out from the inside with tax cuts, deregulation and austerity. When they are not in power, the easiest way to benefit the rich is to dither. In essence, the GOP serves a 1 percent agenda, based entirely on making government fail. “We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a moment of honesty earlier this summer.

Rising economic and political inequality have coincided over the past three decades. As the rich have grown richer, they have been able to exercise more political power. Their aim is to allow laissez-faire to do its dirty deeds by preventing the government from working for the poor and middle class. As a result, conservative-leaning rich Americans oppose reducing economic inequality. (See chart below.) Politics is nothing more than a class war by other means. The problem is that the poor are losing. Nothing that happened in this year’s midterm elections will change that.

AJAM Figure5

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera