The Small but Important Group of Super-Rich Funders of the Democratic Party

Jay Livingston alerted me to this remark by conservative journalist Andrew Ferguson:

That the “rich and powerful” are identical to conservatives and Republicans—Edsall’s assumption—is a hoary idea dear to many Democrats and essential to their self-image as the opponents of privilege. It persists even though many of the plushest and most powerful institutions of American life are in the hands of liberal Democrats: public and private universities, government bureaucra-cies, nonprofit foundations, movie studios, television networks, museums, newspapers and magazines, Silicon Valley .  .  . Among the fabled “1 percent,” according to Gallup, the number of self-identified Republicans is only slightly greater than the number of Democrats. As Christopher Caldwell has pointed out in these pages, political donations from 19 of the 20 richest ZIP codes in the United States go overwhelmingly to Democrats, by a ratio of four to one or more. Democrats are the party of what Democrats used to call the superrich. Only Democrats seem not to realize this.

The above paragraph has truth but is also misleading.

First, the truth:

Ferguson is right that “the rich and powerful” are not “identical to conservatives and Republicans.” In fact, “conservatives” aren’t even identical to “Republicans.” There are many conservative Democrats out there. (To start with, just think of all those conservatives who aren’t so extreme as to want to vote for Rick Santorum, for example.)

Ferguson is also correct that Democrats control many important American institutions and that the rich, even the super-rich, are important parts of the Democratic party. When a hedge-fund billionaire or a software executive talks to Obama, you can bet he’s listening.

Next, the misleading part:

Ferguson’s mistake is to posit a symmetry between the two parties with regard to the super-rich. Yes, there are some rich and powerful Democrats, but all the evidence I’ve seen (extrapolation from preferences of the top 5%, data on campaign contributions, and data on political attitudes of the top third of income) suggests that there are lots more rich and powerful Republicans. Ferguson writes, “Democrats are the party of what Democrats used to call the superrich.” And so are the Republicans, even more so.

Also—and this should be relevant to Ferguson—rich Democrats tend to be moderate on economic policy, whereas rich Republicans tend to be highly economically conservative. Thus, to the extent that the Democratic party is under the control of the super-rich, I think this should make Ferguson happy, as it should lead to more conservative economic policy.

Conflicting goals

How do I make sense of this? I suppose Ferguson has different goals, that he wears three “hats”: he is a journalist, a conservative, and a Republican.

As a journalist, Ferguson wants to be read. By getting this link, he is well on the way to satisfying that particular goal.

As a conservative, Ferguson supports the implementation of conservative policies. I don’t know his particular views, but my guess is that Ferguson, in his role as conservative, should be happy that rich people have a high profile in the Democratic party, for reasons described above.

As a Republican, Ferguson wants his party to look good and the other party to look bad, Thus he can use richies’ support for Democrats as an attack: they claim to be the party of the people but they’re really not, etc.

Thus, it seems to me that in this case, Ferguson’s goal as a conservative conflicts with his goal as a partisan Republican. Instead of applauding the Democrats’ move toward big business (consider their support for the bank bailout and their lack of support for massive tax increases), Ferguson merely notes the existence of rich Democrats and moves on.

P.S. The main point of Ferguson’s column is a criticism of some recent research in psychology on personality differences between liberals and conservatives. I don’t want to get into this here, but if Ferguson is interested in learning more on the topic, I recommend he take a closer look at the work of John Jost, who has explicitly discussed the taboo aspect of such research.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.