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The Politics of the Top 1 Percent

What are the political attitudes of the very wealthy?  How, and how much, do they differ from the less wealthy?  The combination of growing inequality, a weak economy, and Occupy Wall Street’s ability to focus political debate on inequality makes the answers to these questions particularly relevant.

One answer to these questions comes from a new analysis by Gallup that made the rounds last week.  By aggregating 61 polls from 2009-2011, they were able to measure the opinions of about 400 respondents with annual incomes of $500,000 or above.  Gallup reports only modest differences in their party identification: 57 percent of the 1 percent identify as or lean Republican, compared to 44 percent of the 99 percent.  There are virtually no differences in how they identify ideologically: 39 percent of the 1 percent identify as conservative, compared to 40 percent of the 99 percent.

But the Gallup analysis may overstate the similarity of the two groups.  A second study, authored by the political scientists Benjamin Page, Fay Lomax Cook, and Rachel Moskowitz and recently released by the Russell Sage Foundation, found that the politics of the very wealthy are strikingly different.

Their study, which was part of a larger project called the Study of Economically Successful Americans and the Common Good, involved something unusual: a random sample of the rich.  In particular, they interviewed 104 wealthy individuals in the Chicago area between February and June 2011.  The sampling frame, constructed from various sources, was essentially the top 1 percent in terms of wealth (not income, as in the Gallup analysis).  The response rate among the wealthy individuals they contacted was 37 percent, which may seem low on its face but is quite respectable by contemporary standards.  The median wealth of this group was $7.5 million.  (Of course, the broader project is surveying wealthy people nationwide, not only in Chicago.)

What did the survey find?  For one, balance of party identification in this sample is very similar to what Gallup found: 58 percent of this sample identified as or lean Republican.  In several other ways, however, the political behavior of the top 1 percent diverges more strongly from the 99 percent than Gallup’s analysis suggests.

The 1 percent cares more about deficits than the economy.  When asked to name the most important problem facing the country, 32 percent of respondents said the deficit and 11 percent said the economy.  By contrast, in an April 2011 CBS News/New York Times poll, 49 percent of Americans said the economy or jobs and only 5 percent said the deficit.

The 1 percent wants private-sector solutions, not government solutions.  Among those who considered the deficit the most important problem, 65 percent favored spending cuts and 24 percent favored a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases.  By contrast, a September 2011 New York Times/CBS News poll found that only 21 percent of respondents favored spending cuts exclusively.  The majority (71 percent) favored spending cuts and tax increases.

The 1 percent is vastly more politically active. In the Chicago sample, 99 percent reported voting in 2008; in the 2008 American National Election Study, only 78 percent of a nationally representative sample reported voting.  Both numbers are probably inflated – nowhere near 78 percent of Americans actually voted in 2008 — but it seems unlikely that misleading survey responses would fully account for the gap between the 1 percent and Americans as a whole.  Other measures of participation show even larger gaps.  For example, 41 percent of the very wealthy reported attending a political meeting.  Only 9 percent of Americans did so in 2008.  And 68 percent of the very wealthy reported giving money to a political candidate, party, or cause in the last four years.  In 2008–a year in which “small donors” were numerous–only 13 percent of Americans donated to a political candidate or party.  Again, there are small differences in the wording of the questions between the two surveys, but they are not likely responsible for the 55-point gap.

There is more in the study.  Here, for example, is a taste of Page, Cook, and Moskowitz’s findings regarding philanthropy:

Although many of our respondents express skepticism about government programs, and although some explicitly say that private philanthropy offers a superior approach, there is no strong tendency for those who are most suspicious of government to do more in the way of charitable activity.

To be sure, this is very much a project in progress.  But even these initial results, however unsurprising, are important.  Other scholars have found that, when the attitudes of the wealthy and less wealthy diverge, policy is much more in line with the attitudes of the wealthy.  The activism evident in the Chicago sample may explain why: they do much more to articulate their views to politicians.  (Of course, politicians themselves are often in the 1 percent.)  These inequalities in political voice may then give rise to policies that perpetuate unequal outcomes.

John Sides is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and is one of the authors of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”