Une étude confirme un clivage croissant entre américains riches et pauvres et bizarrement les politiciens sont surtout à l’écoute des premiers
By allowing voters to choose among candidates with competing policy orientations and by providing incentives for incumbents to shape policy in the direction the public desires, elections are thought to provide the foundation that links government policy to the preferences of the governed. In this article I examine the extent to which the preference/policy link is biased toward the preferences of high-income Americans. Using an original data set of almost two thousand survey questions on proposed policy changes between 1981 and 2002, I find a moderately strong relationship between what the public wants and what the government does, albeit with a strong bias toward the status quo. But I also find that when Americans with different income levels differ in their policy preferences, actual policy outcomes strongly reflect the preferences of the most affluent but bear virtually no relationship to the preferences of poor or middle-income Americans. The vast discrepancy I find in government responsiveness to citizens with different incomes stands in stark contrast to the ideal of political equality that Americans hold dear. Although perfect political equality is an unrealistic goal, representational biases of this magnitude call into question the very democratic character of our society.
consistency versus influence
Raw correspondence between majority preferences and policy outcomes is one way to assess the relationship between preferences and policies. But consistency is a fairly crude measure that does not take into account the degree to which policy outcomes are influenced by the public’s preferences. For example, a policy change opposed by 51 percent of the public and one opposed by 99 percent of the public would both be inconsistent with public preferences, but the latter clearly represents a greater failure of policy to reflect public preferences.
More important for my purposes, raw consistency is an inappropriate measure to use in comparing democratic responsiveness across population groups. Although 59 percent of the policy changes proposed in these survey questions received majority support (among respondents expressing a preference), only 32 percent of the proposed changes actually took place (within the four-year coding window, at least).4 Consequently, if the majority of population group X prefers policy change less often than population group Y, group X will ceteris paribus have higher consistency scores. But influence over policy outcomes is reflected in the degree to which policy change is more or less likely to occur depending on whether or not members of that group support it. A group that favors only 10 percent of proposed policy changes will inevitably have a high consistency score, but if the probability of a change being implemented bears no relationship to the group’s preferences, the group cannot be said to have influence over policy outcomes. The weakness of raw consistency as a measure of policy influence is illustrated with a hypothetical example in the appendix.
If government policy is uniquely responsive to the preferences of affluent Americans, as the evidence above suggests, by what mechanisms do the affluent exert their influence? My data are not well suited to answering this question, and space constraints preclude even an adequate account of the possible mechanisms at work. But the most obvious source of influence over policy that distinguishes high-income Americans is money and the willingness to donate to parties, candidates, and interest organizations. For example, a study of donations to congressional candidates in 1996 finds that four-fifths of donors who gave $200 or more had incomes in the top 10 percent of all Americans (Green et al. 1998).8 Since not only the propensity to donate but also the size of donations increase with income level, this figure understates—probably to a very large degree—the extent to which political donations come from the most affluent Americans. Of course, money is not the only valued commodity in politics. Groups that can mobilize large numbers of volunteers (like labor and religious organizations) may exert a policy influence that competes with that of the affluent, at least on particular issues at particular points in time. In future research I hope to identify the issues and political conditions that are most and least conducive to the influence of the wealthy over government policy.
There has never been a democratic society in which citizens’ influence over government policy was unrelated to their financial resources. In this sense, the difference between democracy and plutocracy is one of degree. But by this same token, a government that is democratic in form but is in practice only responsive to its most affluent citizens is a democracy in name only.
Most middle-income Americans think that public officials do not care much about the preferences of “people like me.”9 Sadly, the results presented above suggest they may be right. Whether or not elected officials and other decision makers “care” about middle-class Americans, influence over actual policy outcomes appears to be reserved almost exclusively for those at the top of the income distribution.