Our ‘Stealth Politics’ of Inequality
April 2, 2015 ⋅
Average Americans today have essentially zilch influence on public policy. You don’t need to trust your gut on that. Political scientist Benjamin Page has the data.
A democracy, notes Northwestern University political scientist Benjamin Page, ought to have a government that responds to the wishes of its citizens.
What happens — to democracy — when income and wealth concentrate?
A half-century ago, that question hardly seemed worth asking. In the decades right after World War II, Americans were living in a nation — and a world, for that matter — growing ever more equal.
But that America no longer exists. Robber barons once again walk among us. Grand fortunes once again tower over America’s social landscape.
Political scientists have noticed. They’ve begun generating a wealth of scholarship on wealth’s impact on our politics, and no researcher may be more central to that scholarship than Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page.
Six years ago, Page and the University of Minnesota’s Lawrence Jacobs co-authored Class War? What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality, an in-depth look at 70 years of public opinion polling on wealth and opportunity in America.
Last year, Page and Princeton’s Martin Gilens released what one commentator has called the “first-ever scientific study” of whether our contemporary United States still ranks as a democracy.
And what did that study conclude? Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati explored that question and more with Page last month in an interview conducted just off the Northwestern campus in Evanston, Illinois.
Too Much: A good many pundits these days are wondering why Americans aren’t doing more to protest inequality. Most Americans aren’t protesting, one school of thought holds, because they admire the rich and want to become rich themselves. You’ve spent a great deal of time studying poll data. What have you learned?We have all sorts of evidence that people are really quite unhappy with the present extent of inequality.
Ben Page: That conventional wisdom is about half right. Average Americans really do like the idea of social mobility, of having a chance to get ahead. In fact, people have exaggerated ideas about how well they or their kids might do.
But we also have all sorts of evidence that people are really quite unhappy with the present high level of inequality and unequal opportunity.
The more complicated question: What do they want to do about it?
If you ask abstract questions about whether the government should take money from the wealthy and redistribute it, there is not a lot of support for that.
But if you ask about concrete policies — like taxing the wealthy at higher levels or getting rid of loopholes that favor hedge fund managers — average Americans turn out to favor many policies that would have strong redistributive effects.
On the spending side, we see lots of support for things like jobs programs, the earned income tax credit, and Social Security. Most people want to increase these programs — at the very time when many political figures and pundits are telling us you have to cut, cut, cut.
Too Much: So do we have, in effect, a silent egalitarian majority?Average American turn out to favor many policies that would have strong redistributive effects.
Ben Page: Larry Jacobs came up with a phrase for our Class War book, “conservative egalitarianism.” Not so much egalitarianism in the abstract, but a great deal of desire for the government to make it easier for people to get ahead and to help those left behind.
Too Much: You’ve observed in the past that most Americans don’t really realize how unequal we’ve become as a nation. How wide has the gap grown between inequality’s reality and public recognition?
Ben Page: There is a gap, but it’s not as big as it once was. People have figured out what’s happening. If you ask what proportion of the wealth is owned by the top 1 percent, the average person now comes fairly close, saying 40 or 50 percent.
But if you ask people what a CEO of a major corporation earns, they’re way low in their estimates. And likewise for hedge fund managers and even surgeons and other top professionals.
But what’s remarkable: Even with these income misperceptions, people still feel that individuals in high-paying positions should be paid less than they’re paid now.
Too Much: Your recent work with Princeton’s Marty Gilens looked at the question whether the United States can rightfully claim to be a democracy. How do you go about scientifically answering a subjective question like that?
Ben Page: The subjectivity has a lot to do with what you think a democracy is. Marty and I start from the premise that democracy means a government that responds to the wishes of the average citizen. If you take that premise, it’s quite feasible to investigate this question objectively.Affluent people want some significantly different things from what the average person wants.
But it takes a lot of work. Marty Gilens spent about ten years gathering and analyzing data on 1,779 different policy issues that faced the federal government over a 20-year period.
Marty basically compared what comes out of the political system with what different groups of people want. Affluent people, roughly the top 20 percent, turn out to want some significantly different things from what the average person wants.
Marty also gathered data on organized interest groups, and he separated business corporations and business groups from mass-based groups.
You can do two things with all these data. You can simply compare how often these groups get what they want, and that tells you something descriptive about democracy, if you want to call it that.
By that measure, average citizens get what they want roughly two-thirds of the time. On the other hand, if you look at affluent people, they get what they want almost all the time. And organized interest groups also tend to get what they want more often than the average person.
So that’s the descriptive part of this. But the tricky thing is figuring out who’s exerting the influence. These descriptive results really don’t tell you how much influence the average citizen has.
For that you have to use multiple regression analysis. You have to look at what happens when you consider all these groups at the same time. Which ones get their way when they disagree with the others?If you look at affluent people, they get what they want almost all the time.
When you analyze the data that way, it becomes clear that affluent people exert a lot of influence. Interest groups also have very substantial influence. That’s especially true for corporations and business-oriented groups.
The so-called mass-based groups, on the average, don’t represent the average citizen very well at all — and don’t have much impact anyhow.
Too Much: What would be an example of a mass-based group?
Ben Page: Anything with a large membership, including the NRA, American Legion, ethnic and religious groups, and so forth. Most of these groups take positions that are somewhat out of touch with the average citizen, except for labor unions and AARP, which tend to be very close to what the average person wants but have much less influence than the Beltway wisdom says they have.
The bottom line we’re getting to here: If you take into account all these interest groups and affluent individuals, average citizens have no detectable influence at all upon federal policy. Rather amazing.
Too Much: You’re currently coordinating a project that’s collecting data on the political machinations of America’s billionaires. Any surprises in what you’re finding?
Ben Page: It’s hard to study billionaires, because you can’t just knock on Bill Gates’s door and expect to get half an hour to talk with him. So what we’re doing is looking at all the public statements and recorded actions of billionaires, with “Web-scraping” techniques my colleague Jay Seawright developed. Anything that’s been reported and shows up on the Web, we’re organizing to develop systematic data.Average citizens have no detectable influence on federal policy.
We started out looking at the 100 wealthiest U.S. billionaires. Based on a Chicago-area pilot survey of multi-millionaires that the National Opinion Research Center did for me and Larry Bartels and other political scientists, we suspected that our billionaires would not be enthusiastic about things like taxes, social spending, or government regulation.
But we discovered that many of these billionaires, who could get quoted any time they want, actually go out of their way not to say anything in public about issues like these.
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