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Who Are the 1 Percent? | The Nation

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Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie

 Politics, wonkery and everything in between.

Who Are the 1 Percent?

By way of political scientist John Sides and the Sunlight Foundation come two fascinating analyses of the top 1 percent in terms of their political beliefs and activity. Sides, writing for the New York Times, flags a study from the Russell Sage Foundation, which—as part of a larger survey—polled a random selection of 104 wealthy individuals (median wealth, $7.5 million) from the Chicago area over a period of five months.

As Sides points out, these people—and the 1 percent writ large—are distinctive in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. To wit, the 1 percent cares more about deficit reduction that it does economic growth or job creation. It prefers private-sector action to that by government, and it is far more politically active than the average American. Ninety-nine percent reported voting in 2008, 41 percent reported attending a political meeting (compared to 9 percent for Americans overall) and 68 percent reported giving money to a political candidate, party or cause in the last four years—a fifty-five-point gap compared to Americans as a whole.

On the other side of things, the Sunlight Foundation has released an exhaustive study of the .01 percent of all political donors. “In the 2010 election cycle,” writes Sunlight’s Lee Drutman, “26,783 individuals (or slightly less than one in ten thousand Americans) each contributed more than $10,000 to federal political campaigns. Combined, these donors spent $774 million.” To put this in somewhat more dramatic terms, almost a quarter of the total donations from individuals to nearly every actor in the political system came from a group that’s slightly larger than the undergraduate class at a state university like Virginia Tech. Overwhelmingly, these people are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists and lawyers. They are highly ideological, and live in a handful of urban areas: New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles. As Drutman notes, they are the gatekeepers to political activity:

Prospective candidates need to be able to tap into these networks if they want to be taken seriously. And party leaders on both sides are keenly aware that more than 80% of party committee money now comes from these elite donors. [Emphasis mine]

It’s not just that these are fascinating data dumps; both underscore the extent to which the wealthy have immense influence on our politics. That both parties are preoccupied with deficit reduction is almost certainly a product of the 1 percent, its outsized concern with deficits and its ability to affect the political conversation through immense spending at every level of political organization.

While it’s tempting to pivot from here to a generic call to remove money from politics, it’s simply true that those restrictions don’t work. If you’re rich enough—and sufficiently invested in the political process—you’ll find a way to give money to favored causes and candidates. What’s more, it’s hard to say that money isn’t a legitimate form of speech; it differs in its efficiency (vis-à-vis other methods of influence), but it’s of a kind with most other forms of political activity.

When you drill down, the problem isn’t that there’s money being spent in politics, it’s that it comes from a small, unrepresentative group of people. A world in which large majorities of Americans donated small sums to candidates would involve far more money in politics, but would also be more democratic (and more representative) than the world we live in. Given the degree to which the Supreme Court is hostile to restrictions on political donations, the best thing that reformers could do is turn their attention to methods that encourage and maximize the influence of small donors on elections. The 99 percent can’t stop the 1 percent from spending money, but we can try to outweigh them.

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