Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Echo Chamber of the 1% and the Muffled Voice of the Demos

The corrupting influence of big money and the never-ending campaign cycle on US politics extends beyond the pay to play and crony capitalism that can drive economic policy-making.  The constant fundraising that elected officials must do in order to obtain and retain elected office limits the ideas, opinions, and experiences to which they are exposed on a daily basis.  When politicians host dinners with entrance fees larger that what many Americans make in a year, they will be answering different questions and hearing different complaints and priorities than they would in a more economically diverse crowd.  As our opinions are shaped by our experiences and our daily interactions with others, the opinions of such politicians will inevitably conform more to that of their donors--if they had not conformed already.  Granted, if the opinions of the donor class matched those of the general public--a microcosm of the ideological spread of American society (but with yachts!), then the risk of the calcification of the Beltway echo chamber might not be as grave.  However, a recent study by social scientists at Northwestern and Vanderbilt proves otherwise.

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
Several other policy statements  hovered around 50% public support despite negligible support from the very wealthy:
  • "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
And, to fellow environmentalists, it should come as no surprise that, when the wealthy interviewees ranked a list of current problems by perceived importance, climate change was dead last--with only 16% viewing it as "very important."  (Budget deficits, on the other hand, were seen as "very important" by 87% of the wealthy subjects.)

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.

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