Are The Views Of America's Wealthiest Undermining Democracy?

Apr 2 2014, 3:57pm CDT | by

Is there an oligarchy in the United States that makes important political decisions for the rest of the country? According to a new paper by professors at Northwestern and Vanderbilt, the top one-tenth of one percent of the wealthiest people in the U.S., those who have assets worth $40 million or more, hold undue sway over the positions politicians take on issues ranging from health care to global warming to defense spending. The wealthiest Americans, contends the paper, are more conservative than the public as a whole on many issues, and U.S. public policy reflects that.

The paper, published in the March issue of the journal Perspective on Politics and covered by blogger and Bloomberg contributor Barry Ritholtz, was written by Benjamin Page and Jason Seawright of Northwestern, and Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt. They set out to poll a sample of the wealthiest Americans in the Chicago area. General population surveys to date have only captured a slice of what the richest Americans believe. One such poll, the Survey of Consumer Finances, has looked specifically at economic questions. The new paper’s authors were interested in a broader range of issues: What do the wealthiest Americans think about federal spending on environmental protection, farm subsidies and job programs? How do they feel about funding scientific research?

To answer these questions, the authors have launched something called the Survey of Economically Successful Americans (SESA). They are working with colleagues across the U.S. to put together a robust data set. The just-published paper reports on findings from a SESA pilot study compiled in the Chicago area in the winter and spring of 2011. Through cross-referencing several lists, the researchers believe their sample represents the wealthiest one-tenth of 1%, or those with more than $40 million in assets. They wound up doing interviews, each lasting around 45 minutes, with 104 very wealthy people. It’s a small sample size from one region of the country, but the results are intriguing.

Those polled tend to be very active in politics with 68% contributing an average of $4,600 to political campaigns in the last year and 99% voting, compared to the 58% of the general population that turns out for federal elections. A striking 21% of survey respondents “bundled” other people’s political contributions, not something ordinary Americans do. Many of the respondents said they were on a first-name basis with local politicians like “Rahm” (Emmanuel, who was President Obama’s chief of staff at the time) and “David” (Axelrod, the President’s then-chief political counsel.) Just under half of the respondents said their contacts with Rahm and David had to do with narrow economic self-interest like “to try to get the Treasury to honor their commitment to extend TARP funds to a particular bank in Chicago.”

When the researchers asked respondents to prioritize 11 different issues, including education, terrorism and child poverty, the greatest share, 87%, said they cared most about budget deficits. Many also said they cared about unemployment and education, but only 11% said those issues were the most important facing the nation. The least important issue, according to those polled: global warming. Though the researchers didn’t poll average Americans, they made use of general population surveys from organizations like Gallup and CBS . Example: a CBS survey found that only 7% mentioned the budget deficit as the most important problem facing the country. Another general population study revealed that 68% of the general public believed the government “must see that no one is without food, clothing or shelter.” Only 43% of the very wealthy agreed with that statement. Not surprisingly, when asked whether the government should redistribute wealth by imposing heavy taxes on the rich, only 17% of the ultra-wealthy liked that idea while a 2009 Gallup poll showed that 52% of the general population did.

Some more findings: Only 40% of the very wealthy want to raise the minimum wage, versus 68% of the general public, just 13% of the wealthy want to raise the Earned Income Tax Credit, versus 49% of the public. Not surprisingly, the rich want to lower estate taxes and they don’t want to raise taxes on high-income earners. They oppose heightened regulation of Wall Street, the health care industry, small business and especially big corporations.

The authors express some humility about the pilot study’s findings. “[T]he distinctive policy preferences of wealthy Americans may reflect better information, deeper thinking about the problems facing the country, and a clearer-headed understanding of economic and social reality than most citizens have,” they write. But there is no question that the views of the very wealthy in this study conflict with the beliefs of the general population.

The authors’ conclusion:  If the polling results of the pilot hold true across the nation, then it’s clear that the very wealthy hold different political views from the general public. It also seems clear that the one-tenth-of-the 1% has greater political power than ordinary citizens and that they are backing policies that only some of us support.  That “raises a serious challenge to a core democratic value, i.e., the idea that government policymaking should be attentive to the interests of all citizens.”

 
 

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