Are the Super-Wealthy Buying Democracy?

At the “American Gridlock” conference last week at American University, Keith Poole presented some work (PDF) that he’d been conducting with Adam Bonica, Nolan McCarty, and Howard Rosenthal. (His slides are here (PDF).) Part of this study concerned the role of the super-wealthy in the political system, and Poole showed two important graphs with rather different interpretations.

The first one shows the share of national income held by the top .01 percent of earners in the U.S. and the share of political contributions made by the same group:

This graph offers pretty unambiguous evidence that the very wealthy are playing a larger and larger role in the political system. Just three decades ago, the top .01 percent gave about 10 percent of all campaign contributions; now they give 40 percent. And note the big spike in the last cycle, right after the Citizens United decision.

Okay, so the very wealthy are clearly paying more. But are they getting more? That’s where the next graph comes in, which shows the estimated ideal points of several groups of donors (small donors, Fortune 500 CEOs, the top .01 percent, and the wealthiest 30 donors in the country) compared with those of several politicians. The wealthiest 30 donors appear at the top of the graph, arrayed by their ideal points:

This is a fascinating graph and contains a lot of information. But a few points stand out. First, small donors appear to be more polarized than the CEOs and the top .01 percent. All those donors are relatively polarized, with donors clustered around the party medians, but the wealthier folks are somewhat less so.

Second, the 30 wealthiest donors in the country are actually pretty moderate, at least judging from this measure. Apart from some extremists like George Soros and the Koch brothers, most exist between the party medians.

This presents an interesting conundrum. We know Congress has grown more polarized over the past three decades. And we know that the very wealthy are donating more and more each year. But the very wealthy aren’t necessarily that polarized. If they were buying the government they wanted, they’d be getting a more moderate one than we currently have.

Now, notwithstanding important research like that of Gilens and Page, the above suggests that the very wealthy aren’t necessarily getting what they’re paying for. Note that Sheldon Adelson appears in the above graph. He’s pretty conservative, according to these figures, and he memorably spent about $20 million in 2012 to buy Newt Gingrich the Republican presidential nomination, which kind of didn’t happen. That money simply served as a voluntary transfer of funds to local TV and radio stations in South Carolina and Georgia. But he definitely didn’t get what he paid for. (Okay, yeah, he sent a signal that he’s a rich guy who will spend money on politics, but people knew that already.)

While most donations aren’t quite at this level, they nonetheless follow a similar path, with a lot of them not really buying anything at all. To some extent, the money gives them access to politicians, which isn’t nothing. But politicians are wary of boldly adopting a wealthy donor’s views, and as the above graph suggests, they hear from a lot of wealthy donors across the political spectrum, who probably have conflicting ideas. The super wealthy are certainly paying a lot of money into the political system these days, but it’s far from clear what they’re getting out of it.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.