What Affluent Americans Want from Politics?
17 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 31 Aug 2010
Date Written: 2010
Recent quantitative evidence indicates that higher-income Americans have considerably more influence than lower-income citizens on national policy decisions. But the implications of these findings depend on what the affluent want from politics. If their policy preferences closely resemble those of other Americans, the extent of their political power may make little difference. On the other hand, if the affluent tend to pursue their own narrow economic self interests, they may bring about policy results that thwart the wishes of ordinary Americans and cause problems for democracy. Or if affluent Americans tend to be altruistic and strongly concerned about the common good, any disproportionate power they exert may actually have benefits for society.
Currently available survey data based on samples of the general population include too few highly affluent respondents to tell us much about what they want from politics. Even combining respondents from several surveys is of limited use because of the “top-coding” problem: we seldom know respondents’ precise incomes, but only their presence in a rather loose top-income category.
In this paper we make the best use we can of existing data, combining respondents from three past years of General Social Surveys in order to identify some political views of (roughly) the top 4% of U.S. income earners. These views turn out to be quite distinctive: much more socially liberal or libertarian, and more economically conservative, than those of the average American. They are also more distinctive than the opinions of the top third of income earners.
These findings are suggestive. But they are tentative, limited in scope, and based on rather old data. We argue that it is important to conduct an original, highly-stratified survey of the political and social views of the most affluent Americans: particularly the rarified top 1% and top 1/10 of 1% of U.S. wealth-holders and income-earners. We briefly describe the project on “Affluent Americans and the Common Good,” which is undertaking to carry out such a survey, beginning with a small Pilot Study to be fielded this fall.
Keywords: Power, Inequality, Wealth, Income
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