Scholars Benjamin Page (Northwestern), Larry Bartels (Vanderbilt), and Jason Scawright (Northwestern) analyzed how the policy priorities of the wealthy (near or in the top 1%) differ from that of the general public, and the divergence was often quite wide. The sharpest divergence in opinion often lay in questions of job creation. Whereas only 19% of wealthy Americans agreed that the government should ensure that everyone who wants to work can find work, 68% of the general public supported such a statement. Of any of the programs and proposals addressed in the survey, federal job creation ("The federal government should provide jobs for everyone able and willing who cannot find a job in private employment") had the weakest support (8%) among the very wealthy despite having 53% support among the general public. Likewise, whereas a strong 78% of the general public favored a living wage ("Minimum wage high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below the official poverty line"), less than half of wealthy respondents (40%) thought so. We can also gain some perspective on Mitt Romney's recent condescending comments about the "47 percent" when seeing that less than half of the wealthy Americans surveyed believed that the government should ensure that no one is without food, clothing, or shelter--even though over two-thirds of the general public (68%) thought it should.
Other policy statements that commanded well over 50% of general public support despite weak support among the affluent include the following
- National health insurance financed by tax money (i.e. single payer): 32% of wealthy vs. 61% of general public (Wonder why the public option got tossed aside so quickly?)
- "The federal government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have good public schools they can go to." --- 33% of wealthy vs. 87% of general public
- "The federal government should make sure that everyone who wants to go to college can do so." -- 28% of wealthy vs. 78% of general public
- "It is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes."--13% of wealthy vs. 46% of general public
- "Our government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich." -- 17% of wealthy vs. 52% of general public
This reminded me of a passage from a lecture John Dewey gave at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in 1938 entitled "Democracy and Education in the World Today," in which he paraphrased Felix Adler (NYSEC's founder) and offered his own insights:
"....that 'no matter how ignorant any person is there is one thing he knows better than anybody else, and that is where the shoes pinch on his own feet'; and because it is the individual that knows his own troubles, even if he is not sophisticated in other respects, the idea of democracy as opposed to any conception of aristocracy is that every individual must be consulted in such a way, actively not passively, that he himself must become a part of the process of authority, of the process of social control; that his needs and wants have a chance to be registered in a way where they count in a determining social policy..."
When the top 1 or 2% of the population have not only an inordinate share of wealth but an inordinate share of political influence, the conceptions of equal human worth and shared community upon which democracy rests will inevitably suffer.