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System Capture 2020: The Role of the Upper-Class in Shaping Democratic Primary Politics


The Democratic primary season is upon us, and the party’s candidate list is a useful starting point for assessing the impact of affluence on American politics. Classic works by sociologists of decades past, including C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff, posited that U.S. political institutions were captured by elite economic actors, who seek to enhance their own material positions at the expense of the many.

It’s no accident that affluence is tied to political elitism. Donald Trump is the wealthiest U.S. President in modern history, and is one of the most pro-business in his policies, pursuing tax cuts for the wealthy, and pushing environmental and health care policies to benefit health insurance corporations and the fossil fuel industry, at the expense of access to quality care and environmental sustainability.

We see a similar trend of elitism when examining the current crop of Democratic candidates vying for the party’s presidential nomination. Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Joe Biden rank as three of the four wealthiest candidates (O’Rourke at $9.9 million, and Harris and Biden each at $4 million in net worth), and they are well to the right in their economic policies compared to more progressive candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. O’Rourke built his national image in the Barack Obama vein, via a storied Texas Senate campaign against Ted Cruz that emphasized generic themes such as national unity, while his presidential campaign thus far has been thin in terms of laying out a left economic policy agenda. Harris’s most prominent achievement thus far is lashing out at Joe Biden for his opposition to busing, while herself failing to establish a vision herself for how to tackle the powder keg of U.S. racial segregation. Harris has contradicted herself on health care policy, rhetorically supporting Medicare-for-all, then walking back that support in favor of privatized care. Finally, Joe Biden is an arch neoliberal, as demonstrated by his tenure in office as Vice President during an Obama presidency that saw much by way of promises for progressive reform, accompanied by a pro-Wall Street agenda that produced growing inequality. Biden, revealingly, has promised wealthy Americans that “nothing” of any significance “would change” regarding their position of privilege, should he be elected.

Numerous social scientists, including Benjamin Page, Martin Gilens, Nicholas Carnes, and others have identified how the top 10 percent of American income earners (and white collar professionals more generally) dominate the policy process. Sociologist Rachel Sherman documents how the top one percent of earners construct notions of “hard work” and “worthiness” to justify their extreme wealth in an era of growing inequality. But for all its novelty, Sherman’s book only looks at a small number of decadent Americans living in one city: New York. It cannot generalize about upper-class Americans across the United States. Furthermore, the current research on the political values of economic elites (the top one percenters) by Page and his associates (see here and here) is geographically limited to wealthy Americans in the Midwest.

Finding surveys with a large enough sample of upper-class Americans to generalize from has historically been a great challenge for pollsters. To my knowledge, there has not yet been a single national study examining the role of upper-class affluence in impacting the political preferences of the wealthy. So my findings here represent a first effort to address the role of upper-class elitism on attitude formation. Sadly, they suggest that little is likely to change in the future in terms of prospects for a “Green New Deal” or the introduction of a progressive governing regime, so long as wealthy individuals continue to dominate American politics. To better understand the politics of affluence, I examined national survey data from the 2010s from Princeton University’s Pew Research Center, which queried Americans on their self-described economic status as “upper,” “upper-middle,” “middle,” “lower-middle,” and “lower-class.” Only about 1 percent of Americans self-identify in these surveys as “upper-class” when asked, speaking to their exclusive economic status. Unsurprisingly, upper-class status is tightly linked with income, as the majority of those identifying as upper-class (60 percent in 2016) reported making incomes over $150,000 a year. These upper-class Americans are significantly different from the rest of the population, particularly when it comes to economic issues in which there is the potential to adopt stances rejecting the ruling economic order. For all of the survey questions I examined, upper-class Americans were from 20 to 30 percentage points more likely than the rest of the population to embrace conservative values, and to reject progressive ones. Upper-class Americans were significantly more likely: to embrace the claim that the economy is “fair to most all Americans”; to disagree that “too much power” exists “in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations”; to agree with the meritocratic claim that “if you work hard, you can get ahead” in America; to disagree that the U.S. is “divided” between “haves and have-nots”; to reject the position that U.S. “financial institutions and banks are a major threat to society”; to agree that “Wall Street helps the economy more than it hurts”; and to oppose progressive-left protest groups like Occupy Wall Street, which sought to spotlight issues such as economic stagnation, corporate greed, and Wall Street political power. One’s upper-class status is a highly significant predictor of economic attitudes, after statistically accounting for survey respondents’ other demographics, including partisanship, education level, gender, race, ideology, and age.

My findings are significant for the 2020 Democratic Primary race considering recent research that examines how political officials’ affluence impacts how they behave once in office. Carnes documents the substantive differences between U.S. political leaders with prior white-collar and blue-collar professional backgrounds, and how these differences impact their voting toward progressive-left economic policy proposals. His study shows that the relationship between economic elitism and conservative policymaking is longstanding, spanning decades in the United States. We would do well to heed Carnes’ warning about the dangers of elite capture of government in a time of rising inequality, which has occurred amidst rising family stress and work hours, stagnating incomes, and constant cost of living increases for essential goods like health care and education beyond the inflation rate. When Americans find themselves falling further and further behind in the “land of opportunity,” electing more elites to the highest office of the land is likely to exacerbate inequality and strengthen the democratic deficit between what the masses expect from government and the policies that it actually produces.

Early polling data suggests that Democratic partisans have continued to elevate neoliberal “electable” Dems when it comes to the highest office in the land, although progressive candidates are gaining ground. Polling from mid-July of this year reveals that Joe Biden leads all candidates, with 32 percent support. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are not far behind, each polling at 19 and 14 percent respectively, while Kamala Harris stands at 13 percent support. These results suggest that there is a real struggle among Democratic partisans to determine the future direction of the party, with the top four candidates as of mid-2019 split between establishment neoliberals on the one hand, and New Dealer-style liberal-progressive reformers on the other. Whoever prevails in the primaries, one thing appears clear. Should a neoliberal candidate win the 2020 nomination, there is little reason to expect a reverse in the status quo-elitism of the Democratic Party.