Surprising Studies Find DC Does What Wealthiest Want, Majority Opposes

Dave Johnson

A new study, Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans, by Professors Benjamin I. Page, Jason Seawright and Larry M. Bartels sought to gauge the political and policy priorities of the wealthy, and how these concerns contrast with the concerns of the rest of us. Amazingly, the priorities of the 1% match up with the priorities of our political class, while the priorities and needs of the vast majorities of us are ignored.

The study questioned people with wealth that placed them in the top 1%. They were asked what they felt were the “very important problems” facing the country. The most common response was the budget deficit, with 87 percent believing this to me the most important problem. This contrasts with the rest of the population, with only 7% saying this is the country’s most pressing problem. Of course jobs and the miserable state of the economy for people what are not in that 1% were cited by regular people as the most important problem.

The 1%’ers want “entitlement programs” like Social Security and healthcare cut while the American Majority want (and need) them expanded.

The 1%’ers opposed raising the minimum wage, government help for the unemployed, government spending to ensure that all children have access to good-quality public schools, expanding government programs to ensure that everyone who wants to go to college can do so, and investing more in worker retraining and education. The American Majority supports all of these programs.

The 1%’ers also opposed more regulation of large corporations, raising the Social Security “cap,” using corporate taxes to raise revenue and taxing the rich to address inequality. The public supports these.

(Note – both the 1%’ers and the rest felt that the country needs to spend more on repairing and modernizing the country’s infrastructure.)

If the priorities of the wealthy seem to line up with the priorities of our DC elite, there is a reason. In an LA Times op-ed, The 1% aren’t like the rest of us, Professors Page and Bartels explained,

Over the last two years, President Obama and Congress have put the country on track to reduce projected federal budget deficits by nearly $4 trillion. Yet when that process began, in early 2011, only about 12% of Americans in Gallup polls cited federal debt as the nation’s most important problem. Two to three times as many cited unemployment and jobs as the biggest challenge facing the country.

So why did policymakers focus so intently on the deficit issue? One reason may be that the small minority that saw the deficit as the nation’s priority had more clout than the majority that didn’t.

This clout is further explained,

Two-thirds of the respondents had contributed money (averaging $4,633) in the most recent presidential election, and fully one-fifth of them “bundled” contributions from others. About half recently initiated contact with a U.S. senator or representative, and nearly half (44%) of those contacts concerned matters of relatively narrow economic self-interest rather than broader national concerns. This kind of access to elected officials suggests an outsized influence in Washington.

Stacked Deck

A recent report by Demos’ David Callahan, Stacked Deck: How the Dominance of Politics by the Affluent Undermines Economic Mobility in America, looks at a number of sources including the work by Page, Bartels and Seawright, as well as work done by Martin Gilens of Princeton and author of “Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America” and says, “Wealthy interests are keenly focused on concerns not shared by the rest of the American public.” Callahan’s report describes the super-rich as “supercitizens, with an outsized footprint in the public square.”

Callahan focuses on what this is doing to “social mobility” and concludes that by catering only to the interests of the wealthy, “political and economic inequality are mutually reinforcing.” In other words, we are locking people into their economic situation — people at lower income levels are less able to “move up” and do better than the economic level they are born into.

Among Callahan’s findings:

  • 68 percent of the general public believes Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job. Only 19 percent of the wealthy believe the same.
  • The general public is twice as likely to support raising the minimum wage high enough to keep families out of poverty as affluent respondents.
  • People of color are disproportionately represented in the bottom third income percentile—53 percent of African Americans and 45 percent of Latino Americans are in the bottom third of income distribution.
  • While polling has long shown that a majority of Americans think that wealth should be taxed at the same rate as work, the “donor class,” which almost perfectly overlaps with the small percentage of Americans benefiting from low capital gains rates, has secured cuts time and again.
  • Of those who contribute more than $200 to a campaign, 85 percent have annual household incomes of $100,000 or more.
  • Just 0.07 percent of the U.S. population made campaign donations of $2,500 or more in 2012.

Chrystia Freeland, in The political clout of the superrich looks at Callahan’s report, and interviews Gilens,

Gilens, who focused on the divide between the top 10 percent and everyone else, found a high degree of what he calls political inequality.

“I looked at lots of survey data that indicated what people at different income levels wanted the government to do, and then I looked at what the government did,” Gilens explained.

“For people at the top 10 percent, you could predict what the government would do based on their preferences,” he said. “But when the preferences of people at lower income levels diverged from the affluent, that had no impact at all on the policies that were adopted. That was true not only for the poor but for the middle class as well.”

Freeland’s piece is worth reading in its entirety.

Believing Their Own Propaganda

A folklore has grown up around our politics’ refusal to address the concerns and needs to the vast majority of us. Politicians and opinion leaders have come to believe that the public actually wants conservative policies, even though the public actually does not.

A recent study looked at the beliefs of lawmakers at the state legislative level, and found that there is a widespread belief that the public is much more “conservative” than it actually is.

At the Huffington Post, Luke Johnson explains, in Politicians Massively Overestimate Conservatism Of Constituents: Study,

David E. Broockman of the University of California at Berkeley and Christopher Skovron of the University of Michigan surveyed nearly 2,000 state legislative candidates in the 2012 election and asked them what percentage of their constituents they thought supported same-sex marriage, a universal health care system and abolishing all welfare programs.

The result was a vast conservative misperception. Constituents, on average, supported gay marriage and universal health care by 10 percentage points more than their politicians had estimated. For conservative politicians, the spread was around 20 percentage points, meaning that conservative legislators tend to greatly overestimate how conservative their constituents actually are.

… The authors note that their findings rebuke Nixonian notions of a “silent majority,” or more recently, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s contention that “real America” supported her and Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz) 2008 ticket.

In the Washington Post, Dylan Matthews applies this to how the legislative process responds to these beliefs, in One study explains why it’s tough to pass liberal laws,

Broockman and Skovron find that legislators consistently believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. This includes Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron write. This finding held up across a range of issues.

What this means is that while politicians act almost exclusively in the interests of the wealthy, many of them believe that the public is behind them.

But the public is not behind them, and the wealthy-favoring policies that governments at all levels are enacting are hurting 99% of us, and the economy.

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