Democracy is only for rich white guys: A definitive explanation for America's most shocking inequalities

A wealth of research data now demonstrates what should be obvious: The law only advances certain people's interests

Published July 11, 2015 2:45PM (EDT)

Donald Trump                              (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)

More than a century ago, German scholar Werner Sombart published a book entitled "Warum gibt es in den Vereinigten Staaten keinen Sozialismus?" or, “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” Today, many scholars and political thinkers ask the same question, and the answers vary broadly. While many of the answers -- racism, the malapportionment of the Senate, federalism, a pro-business Supreme Court, low levels of civic participation -- all have some truth and explanatory power, it remains difficult nonetheless to square democracy and inequality. Democracy was supposed to be “the road to socialism,” after all.

Now a new study by Nicholas Stephanopoulos sheds light on why “democracy” hasn’t reduced inequality: Because it doesn’t exist.

Stephanopoulos used two sources for his analysis: first, the massive database of public opinion surveys covering 2,074 questions over a 25-year period (1981-2006) compiled by Martin Gilens for his book "Affluence and Influence;" second, he combined state level exit polls from between 2000 and 2010 with an index of state policy liberalism, thus allowing him to compare the preferences of different groups with the outcomes of policy. He controlled for group size by multiplying a group’s support for a policy by its share of the population. Like Gilens, Stephanopoulos only compared policies in which preferences between the two groups being studied differed by more than 10 points.

As shown in the charts below, Gilens' dataset demonstrates convincingly that the preferences of women, people of color and those falling into low- and middle-income brackets have almost no effect on policy. A flat line indicates that policy preferences have no influence on policy, a downward-sloping line means that a group’s policy preferences have a negative impact on policy. An upward-sloping line indicates that a group’s preferences have a positive impact on policy -- that is, they get what they want. This dataset is incredibly useful, because rather than examining broad ideological measures, it directly asks: Do the people get what they want?

The answer is: Yes, if they’re rich white men.

The negative line for women is particularly troublesome. For more than half of the United States population, supporting a policy actually means policymakers are less likely to pass it. As Stephanopoulos explains,

“As male support increases from 0 percent to 100 percent, the odds of policy enactment rise from about 0 percent to about 90 percent. But as female support varies over the same range, the likelihood of adoption falls from roughly 80 percent to roughly 10 percent. When men and women disagree, then, stronger female backing for a policy seems entirely futile.”

This is absolutely insane.

While the Gilens dataset only measures policy outputs at the federal level, the second dataset examines how opinions and policy correlate at the state level. The charts below document how the ideology of different groups interact with the ideology of state policy.

As you can see, whites and Latinos have positive and statistically significant influence on policy, while blacks do not. This means that if blacks in Mississippi are more liberal than blacks in Alabama, that won’t affect the relative policies of each state. And, once again, women have no influence on policy at all, nor do low-income people. Indeed, Stephanopoulos writes that “state policy liberalism actually decreases from about 1 (or roughly Ohio’s policy set) to about -1 (or roughly New Hampshire’s) as the ideology of those making less than $30,000 varies over the same range.” That is, poor people’s preferences are negatively correlated with policy in their state.

Much of what Stephanopoulos finds meshes with other research on the subject: Other studies (particularly the work of John Griffin and Brian Newman) find that people of color have divergent preferences and that those preferences aren’t well represented. However, Stephanopoulos finds much larger gender gaps than other research has suggested. Griffin and Newman, for instance, found that gender gaps in representation were rather small. However, their method was based on how frequently women had policy “wins,” meaning that the policy they supported was enacted. This means that their methodology can’t recognize “democracy by coincidence,” which Stephanopoulos’s work suggests may be occurring.

In another work, Griffin and Newman with Christina Wolbrecht find that much of the gender gap could be explained by the fact that Republicans tend to oppose policies women support. Indeed, much of the work on class and race on representation finds that parties can serve as partial explanations for representation gaps by mediating preferences. The Republican Party has become “an efficient patronage machine for whites and the top 1 percent of U.S. earners.” Because the Republican party acts for the benefit of exclusively white rich men, whereas the Democratic party must juggle a broad and diverse coalition, the party system can give rise to representation gaps. However, parties are not the sole explanatory variable, because there is strong evidence that the Democratic party has shifted to the right in order to accommodate the increasing influence of the wealthy (and the declining influence of unions). In addition, Griffin and Newman note (see chapter 5) that while Democrats represent blacks and Latinos better than Republicans, they still favor the preferences of whites.

I have emphasized voter turnout frequently as a significant explanatory variable. The fact that people of color, young people, poor people and single women all turn out at a lower rate surely contributes to these gaps. The fact that nonvoters are more progressive than voters could explain the stubborn conservatism of our politics. Among these groups, who make up what pollster Celinda Lake refers to as the “Rising American Electorate,” 42 percent are unregistered, compared with 27 percent of non-RAE. Further, only 36.1 percent voted in the 2010 midterm, compared with 56.1 percent of non-RAE.

Turnout alone likely can’t explain these gaps, since women turn out at a higher rate than men, but still have less representation. However, turnout is only part of the equation: Wealthy white men also contribute far more to campaigns; Congress is full of rich white men, as are statehouses across the nation; and activists tend to be richer than non-activists. However, as long as voter turnout remains low, politicians can respond to the affluent first and foremost without fear. As political scientists Steven Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen write, “class differences in mobilization typically aggravate rather than mitigate the effects of class differences in political resources.”

Other scholars have emphasized the fact that inequality tends to reinforce itself in public opinion. For instance, Vladimir Gimpelson and Daniel Treisman find that “perceived level of inequality—and not the actual level—correlates strongly with demand for redistribution and reported conflict between rich and poor.” In addition, Kris-Stella Trump finds that rising inequality perpetuates itself, noting that, "Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality are influenced by actual inequality: when inequality changes, opinions regarding what is acceptable change in the same direction." Social experiments suggest that higher levels of inequality lead lower income people to “resign” to the levels of inequality, rather than take actions to reduce the power of the rich. However, there is still strong support for redistribution and policies to reduce inequality among Americans. The problem is that support for these policies is concentrated among the poor, people of color and women--the groups policymakers are least likely to listen to. The net result of the preferences of women, people of color, youth and poor people being ignored is to push American policy in a more conservative direction. Claims that Americans haven’t gotten redistribution because they aren’t aware of rising inequality or are too individualistic have some truth, but they obscure more than they illuminate. In reality, Americans want redistribution, but the elites who control the political system won’t give it to them. Why hasn’t democracy reduced inequality? Because it never had the chance.

By Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is founding executive director of Data for Progress. He tweets at @seanmcelwee.

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