The wealthy wheel gets the grease (and everything else)

Larry Bartels, a Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, published a book this year called Unequal Democracy, and he spent a week  shamelessly plugging it over at Table for One earlier in the year (1,2,3,4,5). Generally speaking, Bartels’s book is about how political power is shared by the citizens of the United States, and more specifically how certain groups of people hold disproportionately large shares of that power. Although we all know this in our hearts to be true, especially radical liberal extremist special interests like my own, Bartels apparently does a great job of actually doing research and substantiating his conclusions with evidence. His aim, he says, was to use “the politics of economic inequality as a starting point for a more general examination of how American democracy really works”; this examination involved in large part looking at how the interactions between a political party and its constituents translated into policy decisions, which constituents had a greater influence on the policy decisions, and why. His conclusion about the economic correlates with ability to affect policy are most interesting to me; in his discussion at Table for One he summarizes one of his conclusions like so:

Insofar as elected officials are responsive to the policy views of their constituents, only the views of affluent and middle-class people really matter. The preferences of millions of low-income citizens (in the bottom third of the income distribution) have no discernible effect on senators’ roll call votes, whether we consider the whole range of issues that come before Congress or specific salient roll call votes focusing on the federal budget, the minimum wage, civil rights, and abortion.

Although we all know this to be true, as I said, the degree to which it has been shown to be true by Bartels is fairly alarming. In a later post, he reiterates the statement that “there is no evidence of any discernible responsiveness to the preferences of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution.” The bottom third! No evidence!

Along a similar line, Associate Professor of Politics Martin Gilens, also at Princeton, published an article in Public Opinion Quarterly in 2005 about the correlation between “democratic responsiveness” and socioeconomic class (full text, PDF). He studied data from nearly 2000 survey questions asked of the American public between 1981 and 2002 with the aim not of determining whether public opinion influenced policy, but rather who out of the survey respondents had the greatest ability to influence policy. By analyzing policies where the opinions of low and high economic classes diverged, Gilens found that rich people had much more ability to affect the outcomes of policy decisions than poor people: “For the 887 policy questions on which well-off and poor Americans disagreed by eight percentage points or more […], outcomes are fairly strongly related to the preferences of the well-to-do (b = 1.92, p = .000) but wholly unrelated to the preferences of the poor (b = 0.04, p = .92).” He concludes, somewhat pessimistically,

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.

This is all quite apalling. And although this problem appears to be worsening, at least since the fifties, there is one small consolation in the election of Obama: according to Bartels, the incomes of the middle class and the working poor have tended (since 1948) to grow much more quickly under Democrat leadership than Republican leadership.

(h/t Henry at Crooked Timber)


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