Does economic inequality matter all that much? Some economists would say no. After all, if Bill Gates earns an extra, say, $20 million this year, while the poorest 10 million Americans improve their lot by $1,000 apiece, inequality would go up, sure, but everyone would be better off. The economy would boom; more color TVs for everyone. What, the reasoning goes, is so bad about that? As Anne Krueger of the International Monetary Fund said in 2002, “[I]t seems far better to focus on impoverishment than on inequality.” Americans seem to agree; polls suggest that most people in the United States aren’t bothered by inequality per se, so long as everyone has a reasonable chance to move up the income ladder through hard work and a bit of ingenuity.
Not everyone does get that chance, of course—upward mobility in the United States is nothing to brag about—but that’s another story. What’s interesting is that, to judge by the polls, the only kind of inequality that really bothers Americans is political inequality—that is, if the government isn’t representing everyone equally. And over time, the public has increasingly felt that to be the case: Between the 1960s and 1990s the percentage of Americans who felt that “the government is run by a few big special interests looking out only for themselves” doubled to reach 76 percent.
Yet few people seem to consider the connection between economic inequality and political inequality. Why is the government being run by a “few big special interests”? Is it because those interests are particularly tenacious and clever? Or is it because, increasingly, a tiny portion of the population has an inordinate amount of wealth—and therefore influence? Political scientists are converging around the latter view, and in a recent symposium entitled “Inequality and American Democracy,” laid out the full array of evidence to support it.
“Our country’s ideals of equal citizenship and responsive government,” the task force report concludes, “may be under growing threat in an era of persistent and rising inequalities.” The notion isn’t terribly groundbreaking—even casual observers of politics know that money can buy power—but the APSA research goes a long ways towards pinning down exactly how this works.
How pronounced is inequality in America? Between 1979 and 2003, the income of the richest 1 percent of Americans more than doubled, the income of the middle 15 percent grew by only 15 percent, and the income of the poorest 20 percent barely budged, according to CBO data. By the late 1990s, the richest one percent of Americans households had a third of all wealth in the economy, and took in 60 percent of the country’s income—a greater share than at any point since the Great Depression. Incomes in the United States are far more unequal than in other industrialized countries, while mobility, contrary to widespread myth, is hardly much better—if you are born poor in America, you are very likely to stay that way your entire life.
In politics, this all matters very much, as the APSA findings reveal. Larry Bartels of Princeton has studied the voting record of the Senate between 1989 and 1994—a time, note, when Democrats controlled Congress. He found that Senators were very responsive to the preferences of the upper third of the income spectrum, somewhat less attentive to the middle third, and completely ignored the policy preferences of the poorest third of Americans. In one striking example, Bartels discovered that Senators were only likely to vote for a minimum wage increase if and when their wealthier constituents favored it—the views of those directly affected by the hike had “no discernible impact.”
Nor is this pattern limited to domestic policy. Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota and Benjamin Page of Northwestern found that that the foreign policy views of the executive and legislative branches are primarily influenced by business leaders, policy experts—whose think tanks are often funded by businesses—and, to a lesser extent, organized labor. Surprisingly, Jacobs and Page found, the views of the broader public have essentially zero impact on the government when it comes to tariffs, treaties, diplomacy, or military action. The political theorist Walter Russell Mead famously argued that “Jacksonian” nationalism in the heartland drove American foreign policy, but the data doesn’t back him up. Business still runs the world.
To some extent, these findings are probably a result of the fact that elected officials tend to hail from the upper classes, and so tend to be the sort of people who worry more about the burden the estate tax imposes than, say, food insecurity or too-high heating bills. In 2003, financial records revealed that 40 senators and 123 representatives were millionaires. This shouldn’t be surprising. Without publicly-financed elections, it takes a good deal of personal wealth to run for office—the average Senate campaign in 2006 will cost about $10 million, minimum, according to a recent University of Washington study.
But that’s only the most obvious way economic power begets political power. Consider the fact that wealthy Americans are far more likely to vote: 86 percent of those in families with incomes over $75,000 reported voting in 1990, compared to only 52 percent of those in families with incomes under $15,000. Whether that’s because the well-off are more likely to believe that government will work for them—a reasonable assumption, evidently—or because they have more time and opportunity to inform themselves and do their civic duty remains unknown. Nevertheless, those numbers matter. And it’s not just voting. People in the $75,000 bracket are much more likely to join a political advocacy group like the NRA or the NAACP (73 percent vs. 29 percent), and much more likely to make campaign contributions (56 percent vs. 6 percent).
Indeed, in the 2000 election, 95 percent of those donors making substantial campaign contributions came from households making over $100,000. With some exceptions, political influence generally isn’t a straightforward matter of slipping across a few hundreds in exchange for a vote; outright bribery is relatively rare. But those who contribute do have a better chance of ensuring that those candidates sympathetic to their concerns will make it into office. Mega-contributors lucky enough to win an audience with a Senator or member of Congress, meanwhile, can’t demand specific votes, but they can make sure their concerns are heard—while, say, advocates for the homeless are left picketing outside the gates. That counts for a lot. George W. Bush once reportedly told the Rev. Jim Wallis, “I don’t understand how poor people think.” Presumably he doesn’t hear much on the subject during face time with key donors.
Back in the postwar era, the working classes at least had unions to fight for their concerns, some of the time. But thanks to the decline of manufacturing and the assault on organized labor over the past three decades, union density has shriveled—from 24 percent in 1973 to 12.5 percent today. Meanwhile, in the late 1970s, in response to inflation that was eating away at the wealth of the top 1 percent, “business refined its ability to act as a class, submerging competitive instincts in favor of joint, cooperative action in the legislative arena,” as the journalist Thomas Edsall wrote in his 1986 book, The New Politics of Inequality. And it worked. The leveling forces of the 1970s were overturned by the Reagan revolution, and the upper classes did very well from there on out.
That dynamic is only likely to intensify. The political scientist Theda Skocpol has noted that there are more well-educated Americans in rapidly-growing professional societies than there are lesser-educated workers in trade unions. Absent a countervailing force, the political influence of the wealthiest Americans will continue to expand. On the other side of the Atlantic, European nations have managed to reduce inequality, partly by redistributing wealth through the welfare state. Unless the United States figures out how to do something similar—or else find some way to strengthen civic participation—the ideal of “equal citizenship” will continue its long erosion.