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Monday, September 1, 2008
Election Year Reality Check: Here's a Formula for Measuring the Political Clout of the Rich
Are complaints that the rich rule the nation the product of excessive cynicism? How much truth is there to them?
Martin Gilens, an associate professor of politics at Princeton University, sought to find out in a study first released as a working paper in August 2004 and later published in the Public Opinion Quarterly. He looked at the views Americans expressed toward various possible changes in federal policy in surveys conducted from 1992 and 1998 and checked whether the federal government ended up heeding the survey respondents’ wishes. He then broke down the results by income group, focusing his attention mainly on those whose incomes were at the 10th percentile (meaning they had less money than about nine out of ten Americans), those at the 90th percentile (who had more money than about nine out of ten), and those who were squarely in the middle, at the 50th percentile.
In aggregate, Gilens found, a policy that was overwhelmingly favored by people with incomes in the 10th through 50th percentile was about twice as likely to be implemented as a policy that was overwhelmingly opposed by them. A policy that was overwhelmingly favored by people at the 90th percentile was, by comparison, four times as likely to be implemented as a policy that they overwhelmingly opposed.
It’s wrong, however, to look at such numbers and conclude that the wealthy had about twice as much clout as those who are working- or solidly middle-class. That’s because on many questions—such as whether the federal budget should be balanced—both the rich and the poor held very similar views. It’s entirely possible that the government was carrying out the wishes of the poor simply because the rich wanted the same thing.
To get a clearer picture of which income groups had how much clout, Gilens looked at about 300 survey questions dealing with areas of substantial disagreement between the wealthy and poor. They included, for example, questions such as whether the government should enter free trade pacts like NAFTA, and whether it should cut capital gains and inheritance taxes. On such questions, Gilens found, the government’s actions were strongly correlated with the desires of the wealthy, but largely ignored the views of both the poor and middle class. A policy strongly supported by the wealthy was six times as likely to be implemented as a policy that the wealthy strongly opposed. A policy strongly supported by middle-income Americans was only 1.3 times as likely to be implemented as a policy they strongly opposed, and the views of the poor appeared to have almost no bearing on the government’s decisions at all.
Of course, it was possible something besides money was at work. Because both wealthy people and key decision-makers in government tend to be highly educated, maybe what they had in common was being smart and well-informed. But when Gilens tweaked his analysis to compare the highly educated of every income group, he found that money, in itself, still played a key role in determining whether people’s wishes were heard.
Gilens says the key advantage the wealthy have in shaping policy is the wherewithal to donate to parties, candidates, and interest organization. One might wonder, however, if the vast personal wealth of many in top positions in government also plays a role, and the picture would be different if more lower- and middle-income Americans stood a chance of rising to positions of power.
Gilens writes: “There has never been a democratic society in which citizens’ influence over government policy was unrelated to their financial resources. In this sense, the difference between democracy and plutocracy is one of degree. But, by this same token, a government that is democratic in form but is in practice only responsive to its most affluent citizens is a democracy in name only.”
A footnote of interest to readers of Color and Money: Gilens found that the poor were more likely to support affirmative action than the wealthy. The finding, he says, is not simply a reflection of the fact that black people are disproportionately represented at the bottom of the economic ladder. Other studies have found that poor white people are more likely to support affirmative action than people who are white and wealthy.