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Is America’s political system really controlled by a wealthy elite?

Joe Biden
FILE – In this May 17, 2015, file photo, Vice President Joe Biden gestures after donning a pair of sunglasses as he delivers the Class Day Address at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Graduation season is winding down but among the eight commencement addresses given this year by three of the biggest names, President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, a few moments stood out that may last a little longer. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File) Jessica Hill/AP

Is America’s political system really controlled by a wealthy elite?

June 06, 07:00 AM June 06, 07:00 AM

For years, anti-capitalists have been highlighting what they see as the ever-increasing influence of a small financial elite over American politics. But if money alone did buy political power, Donald Trump would not have become the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.

He would probably have lost out to Jeb Bush, who raised far more in donations than Trump or any of the other potential candidates. And certainly, Trump would have lost the 2016 election to Hillary Clinton, who, together with her allies, joint committees with the Democratic Party and the super PACs that supported her, raised more than $1.2 billion for the full cycle. In contrast, Trump and his allies raised about $600 million.

If money alone could buy political power, Joe Biden would not be president today. More likely, the White House would be home to Michael Bloomberg, who at the time of his bid for the Democratic nomination was the eighth richest man in the world with a net worth of $61 billion. Probably never before in history has a candidate spent so much money in such a short time out of his own pocket on an election campaign — about a billion dollars in just over three months.

Nevertheless, the thesis that “money makes the world go round” is as popular as ever. One of the most frequently cited academic studies purporting to prove the power and influence of money in the United States is the 2013 paper “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans” by Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright.

The fact that the paper is so frequently cited as evidence of the extent to which wealthy Americans exert political influence is surprising. After all, the study only had 83 respondents, a very small base indeed for a quantitative study. Moreover, all of the respondents came from the Chicago metropolitan area. And many of the respondents were not all that rich either, as only 36 of the 83 had assets of $10 million or more.

The study was conducted in 2011. So it is interesting to ask whether, 10 years on, the wealthy got what they supposedly wanted from politicians. As the title of the study indicates, the researchers wanted to above all identify the “Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans.”

Of 11 possible problems facing the United States, “budget deficits” headed the wealthy respondents’ list (87%). In last place, only 16% of respondents called climate change an important problem. Ten years later, national debt, which the survey said wealthy Americans were so keen to see reduced, has risen from $15.6 trillion to $28.6 trillion, almost doubling.

If the greatest preference of wealthy Americans was to significantly reduce levels of national debt, this was certainly not fulfilled by President Barack Obama or Trump — and certainly not by Biden. In contrast, one of the top items on Biden’s agenda is precisely the issue that was mentioned least frequently by wealthy Americans in the survey a decade ago, namely the fight to mitigate climate change and launch a clean energy plan that involves a further expansion of the national debt.

Don’t the rich have influence over politics? Yes, they do, but less so on the big issues that are the subject of controversial public debates and that determine the direction of policy. The authors of the study stated: “One key finding is that, for contacts that could be coded, just under half (44 percent) acknowledged a focus on fairly narrow economic self-interest.” So the rich were not concerned with the “big issues” but with their own immediate economic interests.

John York (who wrote an excellent essay on the question “Does Rising Income Inequality Threaten Democracy?”) concluded that the activities of lobbyists tend to be more about pushing very specific interests than trying to influence the broader brushstrokes of policy. And this, he argued, could best be prevented by limiting the influence of the state on the economy: “Constraining government would also have the advantage of reducing the amount of money in politics …. Getting rid of regulations that distort the free market and rig the game for the politically connected, cutting wasteful government contracts and kickbacks for cronies, and calling out politicians who engage in these practices would stanch the river of cash flowing to D.C. at its source.”

Rainer Zitelmann is the author of The Power of Capitalism and The Rich in Public Opinion.

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