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What Affluent Americans Want from Politics (WP-11-08)

Benjamin Page and Cari Lynn Hennessy

Recent empirical evidence indicates that higher-income Americans have considerably more influence on national policy decisions than lower-income citizens do.   But the implications of these findings depend on what the affluent want from politics. If the affluent tend to pursue their own narrow economic self interests, they may bring about policy results that thwart the wishes of ordinary Americans and cause problems for democracy.  But what if affluent Americans tend to be altruistic and concerned about the common good?  What if they tend to agree with everyone else about public policy?

Currently available survey data based on samples of the general population generally include too few highly affluent respondents to draw inferences about them with any confidence.  Even combining respondents from several surveys is usually of limited use because of the “top-coding” problem: we seldom know respondents’ precise incomes, only their presence in a rather loose top-income category.

In this paper Page and his co-author take advantage of three unusual General Social Surveys that can be combined to identify roughly the top 4 percent of U.S. income earners. The political views of these affluent Americans turn out to be quite distinctive: much more socially liberal or libertarian, and more economically conservative, than those of the average American.  They are more distinctive than the opinions of the previously studied top third of income earners.  More comprehensive research at still higher levels of income and wealth is called for.

Benjamin Page, Gordon S. Fulcher Professor of Decision Making, and Faculty Associate, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Cari Lynn Hennessy, PhD candidate, Political Science, Northwestern University

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