To Influence Policy, You Have to Be More than Rich

It’s a common refrain — politicians don’t listen to everyday Americans. But is that really true? And if so, whom do they listen to? Last year, two political scientists, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, attempted to answer that question in a bombshell paper that suggested “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

The paper was widely lauded in the press culminating in an appearance on The Daily Show. But that fame came with misinterpretations of their research in attention-grabbing headlines painting their findings as nearly dystopian. Heath Brown, a political scientist at the CUNY Graduate Center, tells me, “Despite the assertion of certain headline writers, concluding that Gilens and Page demonstrated that we live in an oligarchy is not true to what they themselves claim nor the key findings of the research.” The paper’s popularity, along with these misinterpretations, lead to a wave of other research that has enriched the debate.

In their paper, Gilens and Page use a dataset Gilens compiled for his 2012 book, Affluence and Influence, which includes 1,779 policy cases between 1981 and 2002 as well as poll data measuring citizens’ preferences regarding those policies. They used the responses of the poorest 10 percent as the poor, median income individuals to represent average voters and the preferences of the richest 10 percent as a proxy for “economic elites.” They also compiled the policy preferences of interest groups like the NRA and Chamber of Commerce. They then compared the preferences of individuals across the economic spectrum to actual political outcomes. When they ran the preferences of each group separately, as the sole predictor of policy change, they found strong congruence with the policy preferences of average citizens, elites and interest groups and outcomes (though the elite group had the strongest congruence). However, when they ran the model with all the preferences combined, they found that the preferences of the middle class no longer predicted effects on outcomes. They report that when the preferences of ordinary Americans and elites differ, “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.” In short, the rich get what they want. This analysis adds on the original analysis that Gilens did in his book, which was slightly different. There, he examined how representation shifted as preference gaps increased (the preference gap is the percentage point difference in the share of each class supporting the policy). He found that on issues where preference gaps were low (a less than 5 point difference between the percentage of the rich and middle class or poor opposed), representation was equal. However, as preference gaps increased, policymakers favored the rich. Combined, the book and the paper make a strong case for inequality of representation.

A more nuanced portrayal of this research, along with a survey of points made by its critics, suggests that frequently the views of the middle class and rich coincide closely. Thanks to party politics and a general bias toward the status quo, the policy preferences of Americans from all walks of life tend to converge. The data also reveal that the rich have an important ability to veto possible change. Instead, it’s the uber-rich, especially the subset who donate heavily to political campaigns and causes, who along with corporate lobbyists hold far greater sway than everyday voters in influencing government policymaking.

Democracy By Coincidence?
The core critique of Page and Gilens’ work is that the policy preferences of wealthy voters don’t actually differ that greatly from those of other voter classes (something they note in their paper, but which was almost entirely ignored in the media flurry). Further, critics argue that when the preferences do differ, it’s not clear that the rich are always the winners.

Take a yet-to-be published article by political scientists J. Alexander Branham, Stuart Soroka and Christopher Wlezien: “the rich and middle agree more than 90 percent of the time; when they disagree, the rich win only a little more often than the middle.” These authors wanted to examine specifically the issues in which there were clear class differences in policy. Rather than using a model or preference gaps, they examined issues in which there were clear divides in opinion: in which a majority of the wealthy favored one policy and the middle class or poor opposed it. This method certainly has advantages, but as Gilens notes in Affluence and Influence, because of status quo bias, there is a difference between a policy supported by 51% of a group and 75% of the group.

Among the full sample of policies, Branham, Soroka, and Wlezien examine majority support and opposition. They find that in the case of 1,594 policies (or 90% of the sample) the rich and middle class agree. There are 616 policies that both groups oppose and 978 that both groups favor. That leaves 185 policies that the rich and middle are split on. On 78 policies, the middle favor the policy and the rich do not, on the other 107, the rich favor but the middle do not. Here, the average gap in support is 10.9 percentage points on average. When examining only policies where there are opposed majorities, the “win rate,” or share of times the group has its preferences enacted are similar (though the rich are still advantaged). The authors also note that the poor do suffer slightly lower representation than other groups (policies they favor and other groups dislike are the least likely to pass). On the whole, however, they find representation is relatively equal when examining majority support (see the table below, Table 3 in their paper). They also find that wins for the rich and middle class do not break down easily ideologically, though the rich are slightly more likely to block left-leaning policies than conservative ones.

Another critique comes from Cornell political scientist Peter Enns, who proposes relative policy support as an important metric: policies must be considered not independently, but relative to other policies. Imagine a scenario in which 60% of the rich supported a higher minimum wage and 70% of the middle class did, but 90% of the rich and 80% of the middle class supported a government health insurance program for children. Enns argues that, regardless of who the government was representing, both the middle class and rich would prefer a government health insurance program for children to a higher minimum wage. In this case, he argues that coincidental representation is occurring.

Charts help illustrate his case. The chart (below, Figure 5 in his paper) shows the high correlation between those at the median and those in the 90th percentile with the hollow dots representing the (large majority) of cases in which preference gaps are lower than 10 points. Of the full sample, there are only 322 policies in which there is a more than 10 point gap between the rich and middle class (there are 747 polices with a more than ten point gap between the rich and poor). Because of this, the possibilities for relative policy support are quite large. In his criticism, Enns writes, that because of similar patterns of relative policy support, “Even if policy only responds to the wealthy… we should expect that policy ends up about where those in the middle would expect if they received the same representation as affluent individuals.”

The most recent criticism, from Ph.D. student Omar Bashir, argues, “that average Americans have received their preferred policy outcome roughly as often as elites have when the two groups have disagreed with each other.” He argues that because of the incredibly high correlation between the preferences of the middle and the wealthy, the model that Gilens and Page constructed makes it difficult to discern patterns of representation. (As of publication, Gilens maintains that Bashir’s analysis contains methodological flaws, telling me, “the central claims he draws from is simulation are not supported”). Enns tells me that while scholars often disagree on the most appropriate analytical approach, Bashir’s approach appears defensible to him.

The authors often employ different methods of determining the similarity of preferences, which is important because American policy is strongly biased towards the status quo, and it often requires more than a simple majority to produce change. For instance, in the cases of a narrow pro-change majority, the policy preference of the public was adopted only 30% of the time. Even in cases of overwhelmingly majority support (80%) among the public, the policy change was only achieved 43% of the time (see chart below, Figure 3.2 in his book). This almost certainly helps explain why the middle class has little independent influence.

Gilens notes that if one examines issues on which 75% or more of the middle class support a policy (or 75% or more oppose it) and a 10-point preference gap, the middle class have a lower success rate than the rich. Only 34% of the time that that three-quarters of the middle class express a policy preference (and there is a 10 point gap with the rich) is neither policy preference enacted, compared with 66% of the time for the rich. Gilens writes that, “affluent Americans do not always get the policies they prefer either. But the affluent are twice as likely to see the policies they strongly favor adopted (46% compared with 19%), while the policies they strongly oppose are only one-fifth as likely to be adopted as those that are strongly opposed by the middle class (6% compared to 32%).” Further, Gilens notes that issues regarding redistribution are among those with the most intense disagreement between the rich and poor, and on these issues the rich win the most.

Enns responds that these policies (in which three quarters of the middle class have a preference and there is a 10 point gap compared to the rich) make about 5% of the sample. However, many of these questions are important questions about redistribution. Using data compiled by political scientist Matt Grossman, the chart below shows the areas with the biggest gaps between the median income and the top decile. It shows that key questions of redistribution are frequently fraught, with the median far more supportive of higher taxes on the rich and other redistributive policies.

Gilens also notes that even focusing on majoritarian preferences, gaps arise. In cases where both the rich and middle class agree, if the rich have greater support, the policy is more likely to pass (44% compared with 35%). This aligns with the analysis contained in Gilens’s original book, in which he shows that as preference gaps increase, the affluent become more likely to win compared to the middle class. In addition, the rich have an important veto power: among policies that both the middle class and rich oppose, when rich opposition was greater, only 17% of the policies passed. When middle class opposition was greater 28% of the policies passed. Indeed, a second look at their third table suggests the rich have a powerful veto power: only 20% of the policies favored by the middle and poor (but opposed by the rich) passed, compared with 39% of the policies that the rich favor and the middle and poor oppose.

Thus, though different methods reduce representational inequality, they do not eliminate it. Further, analysis suggests there is evidence that policymakers respond to the preferences of the middle-class and poor, though unequally. The question at the core of Gilens and Page is whether middle class and low-income people have independent influence on policy, rather than simply their preferences being congruent with outcomes. As Gilens writes, “coincidental representation is a pale, counterfeit, simulacrum of democracy.”

The corollary of this argument is that parties may matter more than income. In a 2013 paper, economists Eric Brunner, Stephen Ross, and Ebonya Washington argue that, “Differences in representation by income are largely explained by the correlation between constituent income and party affiliation.” A working paper by political scientist Chris Tausanovitch argues, “In recent years, representation occurs primarily through the selection of a legislator from the appropriate party.” In his paper, Enns argues that, “Although scholars have increasingly focused on the lack of responsiveness to middle-income Americans, it may be that partisan divisions matter most for policy outcomes.”

While this is an important point, but it’s not entirely clear that it undermines Gilens and Page. For one, parties in America are strongly divided by class but with a key caveat: while Republicans expertly represent the interests of the very rich, it’s not clear that Democrats do a superb job of representing the working class. But further, a working paper (discussed here) by political scientists Jesse Rhodes and Brian Schaffner finds that, Republican members of Congress are “more strongly associated with the ideological predispositions of individuals in higher wealth brackets,” while Democrats are less strongly associated with millionaires. However, they also find that, “millionaires receive about twice as much representation when they comprise just 5% of the district’s population than the poorest wealth group does when it makes up 50% of the district.” Their work therefore suggests that differential representation is mediated by parties, but parties can’t explain everything.

The Donors And The Lobbyists
One limitation of the current literature is that many studies don’t pay special attention to the ultra wealthy (the .1% and .01%), and particularly the donor class (whose views are disproportionately represented), instead grouping them in with the merely affluent (those in the top 10 percentile). There is good reason to believe that the wealthiest of the wealthy have views that are far from the general public, particularly regarding redistribution. In addition, there are reasons to believe the donor class, which is a unique subset of the wealthy, have differing views from both the general public and other wealthy people. Political scientist Michael Barber sent out a survey to donors who had given more than $200 to the 2012 Presidential campaign and around 2,870 responded. While 69% of Americans have a net worth below $250,000, only 8% of those in his sample did (18% of this sample had a net worth over $10 million – the threshold to be in the top 1% in 2012 was $8.4 million). He finds differences between donors and non-donors of the same party, with donors holding more extreme positions than voters. He also finds, not surprisingly, that politicians are more responsive to donors than co-partisans, individuals who voted for them, and voters in their state. In a 2010 study three scholars, Brittany H. Bramlett, James G. Gimpel, and Frances E. Lee find that neighborhoods with high-concentrations of donors have preferences that differ from the rest of the nation. They write, “Even after accounting for their higher income and education, Democratic residents of high-donor areas are far more supportive of free trade and less concerned with job losses resulting from foreign competition than is typical for members of their party.” Political scientists Peter Francia, John Green, Paul Herrnson, Lynda Powell, and Clyde Wilcox find that Republican and Democratic donors are distinct from their bases, tending to be more ideologically extreme. They find that New Democrats, a significant part of the Democratic donors class actually had a more favorable view of the Chamber of Commerce than the AFL-CIO. On the other side of the aisle, “Large majorities of Republican donors belong to business organizations and support fiscally conservative economic policies.” A study of CCES data by political scientists Nolan McCarty and Didi Kuo finds “very substantial differences between donors and non-donors across a variety of issues. Not surprisingly, donors are considerably more conservative on economic policy.”

In addition, we may need to put greater emphasis on the influence of highly mobilized constituencies, like business groups, and how they distort the policy process. These groups tend to be the most out of line with the general public, and also to have the most clout when it comes to changing policy. It’s worth noting an important finding of the Page and Gilens’s paper that was largely buried during the press deluge: the biggest divergence in preferences was not between the rich and the poor, but rather all Americans and corporations and their lobbyists. It’s important to begin examining how income and power influences not just who wins when an issue comes to the roll call, but rather what determines which issues are discussed.

Finally, scholars should further examine how race and gender interact with income and representation. Studies suggest that low-income black women, for example, are particularly likely to be ignored by policymakers. The fact that donors tend to be white, male, and rich has profound implications for representation in a political system that is driven by donors.

The critics of Gilens and Page make a key point: because of high levels of congruence between the rich and middle class, when policymakers respond to the rich, they frequently enact the policy preferences of average Americans. However, full accounting of the evidence leaves the core finding of Gilens and Page standing: the views of the wealthy are disproportionately represented by policymakers, and representation for low and middle income Americans primarily comes from their congruence with the wealthy. It also includes the reality that policies opposed by the rich are far more likely to have the policies they dislike fail.

We must discuss how political information is mediated through social networks and the importance of working class mobilization. We must focus on the overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy donor class, and the dynamics of race and representation. The influence of the Koch Brothers and other billionaire donors certainly pulls our politics to the right. Finally, we must consider overwhelmingly powerful business groups which spend heavily on campaign contributions and lobbying. The solutions to these problems are many, but disclosure and public financing are the most potent tools available given the current makeup of the Supreme Court. By empowering small donors, and bringing non-donors into the system, such a system could limit the power of big donors. Another solution would be building up legislative and research capacity for Congress, so they are less dependent on lobbyists. Research at the state level suggests that professionalized legislatures are more responsive to their constituents and less likely to pass model bills pushed by outside organizations like ALEC. Such a system could be structured to also give money to parties, a bulwark against private interests. In addition, progressives should see higher voter turnout as a way to disempower the donor class. A policy combination of automatic voter registration, universal vote by mail, campaign donations disclosure and public financing would be a strong anti-plutocracy agenda. But it’s only a start.

Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is a Research Associate at Demos. Follow him on Twitter: @SeanMcElwee.