Does your political opinion count?

It depends upon how rich you are.  So argues Larry Bartels, one of the smartest political scientists I have had the privilege to meet.  In an analysis of Senator's voting records in relation to the opinions of their constituents, here's what he found:

Senators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators? roll call votes.

In a sense, most of us probably already assume this to be true, but when backed up by Bartels' first-rate analysis (i.e., believe me, you can trust these results), it is really an amazingly damning statement about how our democracy works. 

Shamefully, rather than coming across this paper through my job as a political scientists, I actually just learned of it in a great New Republic article by Bradford Plumer that makes a pretty good case for why we have government by the rich.  With the recent populist tone of the Democratic party (e.g., Jim Webb's excellent response to the State of the Union), conservatives have been firing back by arguing that economic inequality does not matter.  Alas, one thing political scientists do know with pretty good certainty is that economic inequality really does matter, and Plumer lays out the case in the article.  Not even good liberals are going to argue that we need income equality, but certainly the greater disparity in income between rich and poor the greater disparity in political representation– something which really should be more equal. 

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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