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Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans

Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans

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Published by Umkc Economists
Study performed in Chicago area. Shows preferences of wealthy americans. Authors: Page, Bartels, Seawright
Study performed in Chicago area. Shows preferences of wealthy americans. Authors: Page, Bartels, Seawright

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Published by: Umkc Economists on Mar 13, 2013
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03/13/2013

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Democracyand the Policy Preferencesof Wealthy Americans
 Benjamin I. PageNorthwestern Universityb-page@northwestern.edu Larry M. BartelsVanderbilt Universitylarry.bartels@vanderbilt.edu Jason SeawrightNorthwestern University j-seawright@northwestern.edu For presentation at the annual meetings of the American Political Science Association,Seattle, Washington, Aug. 31-Sept. 4, 2011REVISED 9/29/11
 
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Abstract
 There can be little doubt that the wealthiest Americans exert more politicalinfluence than the less affluent do. But there has been little systematic evidence aboutprecisely what sorts of public policies the wealthy want government to pursue, or how thepolicy preferences of wealthy Americans resemble or differ from the preferences of ordinary citizens. Data from our recently completed SESA pilot study indicate that thetop 1% or so of U.S. wealth-holders differ rather sharply from the American public over anumber of important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation, and especiallysocial welfare programs. The more rarified, top 1/10
th
of 1% or so of wealth-holders(people with $40 million or more in net worth) appear on the average to hold still moreconservative views – views that are even more distinct from those of the general public.We suggest that these distinctive policy preferences may help account for whyseveral types of public policies in the United States appear to deviate markedly from whatthe average U.S. citizen wants government to do. We discuss the implications of ourfindings for democratic theory.
 
3There can be little doubt that the wealthiest Americans exert more politicalinfluence than their less-affluent fellow citizens do. Historians, journalists, and common-sense observers have always known or suspected this. Recent quantitative evidence tendsto confirm it. Bartels (2008) and Gilens (2005, 2012), for example, have shown thatsenators’ roll call votes and actual federal government policy correspond much moreclosely with the policy preferences of “affluent” Americans (those in the top third or topfifth of the income distribution) than with the preferences of low- or middle-incomecitizens. Ferguson (1995), Domhoff (2010), Block (2007), and others have long arguedthat “major investors” or business elites dominate the making of public policy and theagendas of both the Republican and the Democratic parties. Winters (2011) maintainsthat the top 1/10 of 1% of U.S. wealth-holders constitute an “oligarchy” with decisivepower over certain key policy areas related to what he calls “income defense.”But the implications of unequal political influence depend heavily upon exactlywhat wealthy Americans actually want government to do. If – as Soroka and Wliezien(2010) suggest – the policy preferences of the affluent are much the same as everyoneelse’s, then it is hard to see how their unequal influence would make much practicaldifference.
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On the other hand, if the wealthy pursue their own narrow economic self interests against the interests of other citizens, their disproportionate influence wouldseem to be a serious problem for the working of democracy in the United States. If thewealthy use their extra clout to seek what they see as the common good but do so in waysopposed to the expressed policy preferences of the citizenry as a whole, we have a moreambiguous normative situation. Either way, if the wealthy pursue policies opposed by

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