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Inequality is destroying American democracy

The very rich support unpopular economic policies and often get their way

December 23, 2015 2:00AM ET

Last year two political scientists, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, released a bombshell paper suggesting that “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened” because policymakers overwhelmingly respond to the wishes of the wealthy rather than the majority of voters. The paper expanded on Gilens’ earlier work and was widely lauded in the press, with the two authors appearing on “The Daily Show.”

But as shocking as their findings were, new evidence suggests that the superrich may have even more divergent opinions from average Americans’ and that these gaps may help explain the rise of reactionary politicians such as Donald Trump.

Trump’s extended lead in GOP presidential polling has come as quite a surprise to Beltway journalists. However, new data from a 2012 survey that includes a relatively large sample of high-income individuals suggest one reason for the divide: The richest of the rich have dramatically different views from average Americans’. Gilens provided me with the following data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), a 50,000-person survey with a large sample of wealthy individuals. The sample included 118 individuals whose annual income was over $500,000, 171 who earned $350,000 to $499,999 and 343 earning $250,000 to $349,999. The median annual income in the U.S. is $52,000, and an income of $385,195 is enough to put an individual in the top 1 percent.

The data provided by Gilens suggest startling divides between the rich and the rest of Americans on issues related to budgets and redistribution. To begin with, there’s the hotly contested Bowles-Simpson budget — a proposal from the 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform created by President Barack Obama and chaired by Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson. The CCES informed the people it polled that the budget would reduce the debt by 21 percent by 2020 by cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense spending by 15 percent and by eliminating tax breaks for individuals and corporations. The budget was supported by a bipartisan group of politicians and heavily promoted by mainstream media. New York Times columnist David Brooks, for instance, claimed that Bowles-Simpson would “lay the foundation for decades of prosperity” and “galvanize a new-center left majority.”

The problem is that the plan fails to find favor with Americans in general. On average, 49 percent of Americans support Bowles-Simpson and 51 percent oppose it when its essential features are described in survey questions. These gaps are strongly defined by class. Among those earning less than $30,000 a year, only 41 percent support it, while among those earning $500,000 or more, support was 72 percent.

A more draconian budget supported by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, which, the CCES informed respondents, “would cut Medicare and Medicaid by 42 percent” and “would reduce debt by 16 percent by 2020,” also produced divergent responses. Only 18 percent of the full sample supported the Ryan plan, but among those earning $250,000 or more, support was 31 percent. Among those earning less than $30,000, only 13 percent supported the Ryan budget, compared with 36 percent of those earning $500,000 or more.

One CCES question asked whether survey subjects supported extending the Tax Hike Prevention Act, which would renew President George W. Bush’s tax cuts on all earners. Though presented as cuts that benefit all Americans, data suggest that the tax cuts are heavily favorable toward the wealthy, with 30 percent of the tax cuts going to the richest 1 percent. On that question, again, there were deep class divides. Among those earning less than $30,000 a year, 24 percent of respondents supported extending the Bush tax cuts. Among those earning $500,000 or more, 43 percent did. On average, support for full extension of the Bush tax cuts stood at just 26 percent, while among those earning $250,000 or more, it was 37 percent.

These data supplement a working paper (which I’ve written about for Al Jazeera America) by political scientists Jesse Rhodes and Brian Schaffner. They found 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. Rhodes and Schaffner also found that “millionaires receive about twice as much representation when they comprise just 5 percent of the district’s population [as] the poorest wealth group does when it makes up 50 percent of the district.” In addition, Rhodes and Schaffner highlighted important divides between the rich and average Americans.

Fraudulent democracy goes a long way to accounting for the appeal of populism across the ideological spectrum.

Critics of Gilens and Page noted that there is significant overlap between the rich and the middle class on many issues. But as Gilens wrote in a response, “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, 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.”

He added that issues regarding wealth redistribution produce some of the sharpest disagreements between rich and poor, saying, “What are these policies that are popular with the middle-class but not the affluent? The majority are redistributive policies” — policies like raising the minimum wage, boosting income taxes on the wealthy or cutting payroll taxes that hit the poor hardest.

As Mijin Cha and David Callahan, former colleagues of mine at the progressive think tank Demos, have argued, one of the key divides between the political donor class and nondonors is on the issue of austerity. The latest data suggest that the wealthy have strongly different priorities on the budget from the nonwealthy.

The rise of Trump and the tea party movement owes a lot to these divides. On the other side of the aisle, supporters of avowed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign may be justifiably upset about the many centrist Democrats who have supported GOP-backed austerity policies, likely bowing to pressure from the increasingly powerful economic elite. As Gilens wrote, “coincidental representation is a pale, counterfeit, simulacrum of democracy.” This fraudulent democracy goes a long way to accounting for the appeal of populism across the ideological spectrum.

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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