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Proof of Wealth’s Power Over Policy

Credit Mobilier editorial cartoon, 1873
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Paul Krugman says we’re living in a “New Gilded Age,” an era of government of the rich, for the rich, and by the rich. Last week’s McCutcheon decision from the Supreme Court, which struck down the aggregate limit an individual can contribute in capped political donations, does not disabuse us of this notion. And now the world of social science brings forth even more proof that the wealthy overwhelmingly control our political institutions.

Writing for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels discusses a forthcoming study in Perspectives in Politics by fellow poli-sci acedemics Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page. Their research provides stunning new evidence of the hegemonic dominance of the rich in our democracy.

Looking at 1,779 national policy outcomes in the United States over a period of over twenty years, Gilens and Page found that:

economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.

The differences between the influence of average people and moneyed elites on the policy-making process were not small, either. Bartels says that the preferences of economic elites (defined here as citizens at the 90th percentile or above of the income distribution) were fifteen times as important in affecting the government policies that were enacted on the national level.

The same pattern held for interest groups. “Mass-based interest groups,” says Bartels, mattered “only about half as much as business interest groups.” As the authors note, their findings reflect not only “the ability of actors to shape policy outcomes on contested issues” but also “their ability to shape the agenda that policy makers consider.” In other words, the wealthy have massive influence on which issues policymakers will even take into consideration in the first place. The power to rule an issue off the nation’s political agenda altogether may be the greatest political power of all.

Credit Mobilier editorial cartoon, 1873

An editorial cartoon about the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal, from our previous Gilded Age. By Joseph Keppler in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 1873.

This new Gilens and Page paper is no outlier; it is just the latest study in a growing body of academic literature that documents the staggering domination of wealthy elites over our political system. In his 2012 book, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, Gilens found that when Americans of different income levels disagree about policy, “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.”

According to Gilens, were it not for the opposition of the wealthy, Congress would have enacted “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.” All policies that overwhelming numbers of low- and middle-income Americans support.

Bartels’s own research confirms these results, as well. In his paper “Economic Inequality and Political Representation,” Bartels showed that U.S. senators are highly solicitous towards constituents in the top third of the income distribution, much less so towards those in the middle third, and not responsive at all to those in the bottom third (“The opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes,” he writes.)

Experimental studies find more of the same. In his Washington Post piece, Bartels cites research by political scientists Joshua Kalla and David Broockman, which showed that when members of a political organization requested meetings with a member of Congress, they were nearly four times as likely to be granted such a meeting if they identified themselves as donors rather than ordinary constituents.

It’s clear that we have a government for the rich. What’s not pointed out nearly often enough is the extent to which our government is of and by the rich as well. But Duke political scientist Nicholas Carnes, author of the book White Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making, notes that, although millionaires make up only 3 percent of the population, they “have a majority in the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, a 5 to 4 majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House.” Working class people—whom he defines as “people with manual-labor and service-industry jobs”—make up more than half of the population. Yet, he says, people from working class backgrounds have never held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.

Carnes’s research found that when it comes to a legislator’s voting record, class background matters—a lot. Looking at roll-call data in Congress, Carnes discovered that:

Like ordinary Americans, legislators who worked primarily in white-collar jobs before getting elected to Congress—especially profit-oriented jobs in the private sector—tend to vote with business interests far more often than legislators who worked primarily in blue-collar jobs.

Carnes’s research shows that a number of important economic victories for the right “probably wouldn’t have passed if Congress had been made up of the same mix of classes as the nation it represents.” The 2001 Bush tax cuts, for example, “didn’t receive a single vote from a legislator with significant experience in working-class jobs,” In general, the absence of working class legislators is associated with “tax policies [that] are more favorable to businesses, social safety net programs [that] are stingier, protections for workers [that] are weaker, and economic inequality [that] is significantly worse.”

Each new study on the subject of the domination of the rich in our democracy is more depressing than the last. There appears to be no end in sight to our New Gilded Age. In that earlier Gilded Age, the last third of the nineteenth century, members of Congress were bought outright. The corrupt Crédit Mobilier corporation, for one, simply made a sitting Congressman, Oakes Ames, its head, thus eliminating those inefficient middlemen.

Our modern-day Congress hasn’t quite sunk back to that outrageous, blatant level of political corruption—yet. But give them a few more Supreme Court decisions like McCutcheon and they’ll get there, all right.

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