Affluence and Influence Create Supercitizens

According to Martin Gilens in his book Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, with great wealth comes great influence on the policies that are enacted in this country. While many believe that though there is economic difference in society there is still political equality, Gilens shows that an individual’s amount of affluence mirrors their level influence on policies. In a recent article by Chrystia Freeland for New York Times, the affluent are described as “supercitizens” because of their more extensive influence when it comes to policy changes. Freeland explains why this is the case in the article.

When Supercitizens Pull Up the Opportunity Ladder

MIAMI — Louis D. Brandeis, the American jurist, famously warned: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

randeis’s cri de coeur was inspired by an indignant observation of the shenanigans of America’s robber barons during the Gilded Age. Today, we live in a data-driven age, and some careful students of the connection between money and politics have now amassed a powerful body of evidence to support Brandeis’s moral claim. A lot of it is assembled in a report by the progressive research organization Demos, published this week.

One of the most striking findings is the extent to which economic power translates into political power.

Institutionally, this is an era of unprecedented democracy — one of the triumphs of the 20th century has been the extension of voting rights to all adults in a lot of the world.

But even in the United States, the country that thinks of itself as being the world’s leading democracy, it turns out that those rights do not translate into much actual political power. David Callahan, co-author of “Stacked Deck,” the Demos report, describes the superrich as “supercitizens, with an outsized footprint in the public square.”

“I think most Americans believe in the idea of political equality,” Dr. Callahan told me. “That idea is obviously corrupted when in 2012, one guy, Sheldon Adelson, can make more political donations than the residents of 12 states put together.”

The Demos study draws in part on the quantitative research of Martin Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton University, in New Jersey, and author of “Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.” Dr. Gilens, who focused on the divide between the top 10 percent and everyone else, found a high degree of what he calls political inequality.

Read the FULL article here.

Gilens_AffluenceCan a country be a democracy if its government only responds to the preferences of the rich? In an ideal democracy, all citizens should have equal influence on government policy–but as this book demonstrates, America’s policymakers respond almost exclusively to the preferences of the economically advantaged. Affluence and Influence definitively explores how political inequality in the United States has evolved over the last several decades and how this growing disparity has been shaped by interest groups, parties, and elections.

With sharp analysis and an impressive range of data, Martin Gilens looks at thousands of proposed policy changes, and the degree of support for each among poor, middle-class, and affluent Americans. His findings are staggering: when preferences of low- or middle-income Americans diverge from those of the affluent, there is virtually no relationship between policy outcomes and the desires of less advantaged groups. In contrast, affluent Americans’ preferences exhibit a substantial relationship with policy outcomes whether their preferences are shared by lower-income groups or not. Gilens shows that representational inequality is spread widely across different policy domains and time periods. Yet Gilens also shows that under specific circumstances the preferences of the middle class and, to a lesser extent, the poor, do seem to matter. In particular, impending elections–especially presidential elections–and an even partisan division in Congress mitigate representational inequality and boost responsiveness to the preferences of the broader public.

At a time when economic and political inequality in the United States only continues to rise, Affluence and Influence raises important questions about whether American democracy is truly responding to the needs of all its citizens.

Martin Gilens is professor of politics at Princeton University. He is the author of Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy.