Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans

Benjamin I. Pagea1, Larry M. Bartelsa2 and Jason Seawrighta3

a1 Northwestern University. E-mail: b-page@northwestern.edu

a2 Vanderbilt University. E-mail: larry.bartels@vanderbilt.edu

a3 Northwestern University. E-mail: j-seawright@northwestern.edu

Abstract

It is important to know what wealthy Americans seek from politics and how (if at all) their policy preferences differ from those of other citizens. There can be little doubt that the wealthy exert more political influence than the less affluent do. If they tend to get their way in some areas of public policy, and if they have policy preferences that differ significantly from those of most Americans, the results could be troubling for democratic policy making. Recent evidence indicates that “affluent” Americans in the top fifth of the income distribution are socially more liberal but economically more conservative than others. But until now there has been little systematic evidence about the truly wealthy, such as the top 1 percent. We report the results of a pilot study of the political views and activities of the top 1 percent or so of US wealth-holders. We find that they are extremely active politically and that they are much more conservative than the American public as a whole with respect to important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation, and especially social welfare programs. Variation within this wealthy group suggests that the top one-tenth of 1 percent of wealth-holders (people with $40 million or more in net worth) may tend to hold still more conservative views that are even more distinct from those of the general public. We suggest that these distinctive policy preferences may help account for why certain public policies in the United States appear to deviate from what the majority of US citizens wants the government to do. If this is so, it raises serious issues for democratic theory.

Benjamin I. Page is Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University (b-page@northwestern.edu). His books about American politics include (with Lawrence R. Jacobs) Class War?: What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality (University of Chicago Press).

Larry M. Bartels is the May Werthan Shayne Professor of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University (larry.bartels@vanderbilt.edu) and the author of Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University Press).

Jason Seawright is Assistant Professor at Northwestern University (j-seawright@northwestern.edu) and is most recently the author of Party-System Collapse: The Roots of Crisis in Peru and Venezuela (Stanford University Press).

Footnotes

  The authors are grateful to the Russell Sage Foundation for funding the SESA pilot study and especially to its president, Eric Wanner, for suggesting many ideas and topics for SESA to investigate; to their colleagues around the country (particularly Christopher Jencks) for helping design and implement the survey; and to their outstanding team at NORC—most notably Cathy Haggerty (project director), Fritz Scheuren, Steven Pedlow, Ned English, Bernie Dugoni, Suzanne Bard, Nola Dutoit, Miryung Kim, Theresa Gordon, Killian Walsh, Chucak Locasso, and Dean Stier—for conducting the survey and helping with design and analysis. They are also grateful to the Chicago-area respondents who generously gave their time and energy to being interviewed; to Fiona Chin, Rachel Moskowitz, Joshua Robison, Cari Hennessy, and Thomas Leeper for giving able research assistance; and (for commenting on an earlier version of the paper delivered at the 2011 American Political Science Association meetings in Seattle) to Jane Mansbridge and Andrew Kelley.

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