How the rich get what they want

Princeton University professor of politics Martin Gilens has a new book Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America that spells out something that many of us instinctively sense, that America is a one-party state in which the rich get their own way, while the rest are shut out to an extent that threatens democracy itself.

His work is based on a detailed analysis of national surveys of public preferences on policy and actual government policies between 1964 and 2006. In a long essay in the July/August 2012 issue of the Boston Review, Gilens outlines his main conclusion.

If you judge how much say people have—their influence over policy—by the match between their policy preferences and subsequent policy outcomes, then American citizens are vastly unequal in their influence over policymaking, and that inequality is growing.

When preferences diverge, the views of the affluent make a big difference, while support among the middle class and the poor has almost no relationship to policy outcomes. Policies favored by 20 percent of affluent Americans, for example, have about a one-in-five chance of being adopted, while policies favored by 80 percent of affluent Americans are adopted about half the time. In contrast, the support or opposition of the poor or the middle class has no impact on a policy’s prospects of being adopted.

He compares what people say they would like to happen and what actually happens.

These patterns play out across numerous policy issues. American trade policy, for example, has become far less protectionist since the 1970s, in line with the positions of the affluent but in opposition to those of the poor. Similarly, income taxes have become less progressive over the past decades and corporate regulations have been loosened in a wide range of industries.

Low- and middle-income Americans have been united, for example, in opposing free trade agreements such as NAFTA and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and in supporting abortion restrictions such as requiring the prior consent of the biological father. But the affluent tend to favor free trade and to reject these kinds of abortion restrictions. And the affluent few have gotten what they want.

Gilens then poses the question of how things might be different if this inequality in influence were erased.

Greater representational equality would have a substantial effect on several important economic policies. We would have a higher minimum wage, more generous unemployment benefits, stricter corporate regulation (on the oil and gas industries in particular), and a more progressive tax regime.

He also looks at the question of whether which party in power has an effect on these results and finds that the answer is ‘no’, reflecting the fact that when it comes to major economic class issues, what we have is a one-party state.

Democrats have traditionally been viewed as the party of the working class and Republicans the well-to-do. But my findings suggest that both parties are inclined to ignore the public. Both seek to control government, and strong partisan control by either leads to policymaking with little regard for the preferences of the governed.

These findings may be disappointing to those who look to the Democratic Party as the ally of the disadvantaged. In some respects Democrats have in fact served this function in the social welfare domain. But in other domains, policies adopted under Democratic control are no more consistent with the preferences of the less well off than are those adopted during periods dominated by the Republican Party.

How exactly do the rich get their way? Gilens says that possible mechanisms are many and not easy to pinpoint.

The most straightforward explanation for representational inequality is that high-income Americans are more likely than are less well off citizens to vote, volunteer in campaigns, and make large political donations. All these political activities increase with income, but they do so in different ways. Low-income Americans are distinctive in their lower rates of voting and volunteering, while the differences between middle-income and affluent Americans are modest. But when it comes to campaign donations, high-income American stand out. Political donations, then, but not voting or volunteering, replicate the pattern of representational inequality described above: the affluent are distinctively influential while the middle class typically has no more sway than the poor.

He says that the affluent tend to agree with liberal views on social issues.

The disproportionate influence of the affluent does not always move policy in a conservative direction. On moral and religious issues, the well off tend to be more liberal than the poor. More equal representation would consequently lead to greater restrictions on abortion, such as banning RU-486. There would also be tighter limits on stem cell research and more support for school prayer.

As a result of the two parties not having clear distinct ideological lines, what party a person should support gets to be confusing and cannot be easily correlated with their economic class.

As we’ve seen, lower-income Americans align with the traditional policy orientation of the Democrats only on economic and social welfare issues and prefer Republicans’ positions on abortion, school prayer, and gay rights. And over the past few decades, the Democratic Party has shifted strongly in a free-market, anti-regulation, free-trade direction—a shift more consistent with the preferences of the affluent than of the less well off.

Finally, public preferences on redistributive economic policies don’t break down as cleanly as one might expect. Proposals to raise the minimum wage, expand federal college assistance, reduce taxes for low-income Americans, and protect or expand government support for health care receive strong support from affluent voters. In addition some upwardly redistributive policies—such as imposing work requirements and time limits on welfare recipients, eliminating the inheritance tax, and cutting capital gains tax rates—receive strong support even from the least well off.

He says that the only time when the less affluent have some influence is when there are close elections.

The one bright spot in this unhappy tale of unequal influence is that political competition increases the responsiveness of policymakers to the views of the public and generates policies that more equally reflect the preferences of all Americans. When elections are near and when control of the government is divided or uncertain, parties broaden their appeal, and influence becomes more equal. So the core elements of democratic government—electoral competition and partisan rivalry—force policymakers to take public preferences more fully into account.

But competition is rarely strong enough to create anything remotely resembling equal representation, and growing income inequality is pushing that ideal even further off.

Gilens’s conclusions will not come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog since much of it reflects what I have been saying for a long time, except that I was basing my views on an analysis of the politics and did not have the empirical basis that Gilens has provided.

Given this reality, it should not be a surprise that the number of poor people in the US is currently on track to reach a 46-year high.


  1. Dunc says

    I haven’t read the full essay (I’m at work) but the excerpts you quote make no mention of what I’ve long suspected to be the most important means by which the affluent shape policy… Whilst funding and political activity no doubt play their part, I think the most important thing is simply that political decision-makers move almost exclusively in the world of the affluent. They attend the same schools and colleges, they’re members of the same clubs and societies, they go to each other’s parties, they vacation in the same locations, and indeed, in many cases, they’re actually the same people. It’s perfectly natural for people to privilege the concerns and views of people they identify with and are around most of the time. It’s easier to understand your friends, colleagues, and people who occupy a similar social milieu, than it is to sympathise with people whose lives are utterly different from yours and whom you hardly ever encounter. It doesn’t require any kind of overt corruption or explicit quid-pro-quo arrangements, it’s just that we’re all more likely to relate to other people like ourselves, or people we spend a lot of time around.

    If you really want to see the interests of the poor and middle-classes represented in politics, you need to elect poor and middle-class politicians.

  2. says

    political decision-makers move almost exclusively in the world of the affluent.

    They’re almost exclusively from the affluent. If they aren’t when they get into politics, they are by the time they leave. There’s a “revolving door” at the top but it only revolves in in and out of the penthouse suite.

  3. smrnda says

    One reason poor people don’t often vote has nothing to do with cynicism about politics. How are you going to get to the polls on Wednesday when you have to work 12 hours most days? Sure, absentee ballots are there, but as long as the privileged have no problems getting to the polls and your average worker has a more substantial barrier in the way, the rich are basically keeping the poor from voting by keeping them making money for them.

    A reason why many poor people vote against things like universal health care is that they are poorly informed, on purpose. Fox News is telling the guy making minimum wage with no benefits that universal health care is a tax that will take from him and give to someone who ‘doesn’t work as hard as i do.’ Many people aren’t equipped to even realize that they are actually the people the policies they oppose will benefit.

    People with better educations perhaps might be better informed on issues like health care or worker protection measures, but when an educated person supports something like that, a lot of people just see an ‘elitist’ to is about to take their hard earned cash and give it to someone with an attitude of ‘entitlement.’ They don’t put it together that the person who would benefit from the policy is them.

  4. Jared A says

    This class of people is called “The Power Elite” and was well described by sociologist C. Wright Mills back in the 50’s and 60’s, IIRC. He predicted that if ever the news media joined the power elite class in force, then the government would functionally cease representing its people. I wonder if that could ever happen.

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