Do the Democrats represent the rich?

Boris points to this post by Megan McArdle which discusses some of the political implications of the Democrats doing best among lower-income voters but winning the states and congressional districts where more of the higher-income Americans live. As McArdle puts it,

[Michael Franc] is actually making a good point: the constituency of the Democrats will force many of them to support the interests of the rich, even where they might ideologically prefer to oppose, because doing so is good for their district. Voters, especially poor voters, are highly influenced by local economic conditions. It is thus in Chuck Schumer’s strong political interest to keep the financial services industry happy, whether or not they vote for him. Ditto Nancy Pelosi and Silicon Valley.

This does seem like a real tension: I’d only add that it’s not just what the Democrats ideologically prefer, but also what their voters want. I haven’t looked at the data from Nancy Pelosi’s district, or for that matter at votes for Chuck Schumer, but where we have looked at voting (thanks to Henry Farrell for linking to our paper on this), the Democrats do better among the poor and the Republicans do better among the rich. It’s not a perfect correlation by any means, but to the extent that Nancy and Chuck are listening to their party’s supporters, they’d be listening to teachers, nurses, students, and, for that matter, unemployed people, not hedge fund managers.

McArdle writes,

Democrats indisputably represent more rich voters than Republicans; their constituency is the people in their district, not the people in their district who voted for them.

I’d respond to this with a Yes and No. In terms of the Constitution, I agree; for that matter, congressmembers also represent nonvoters and people such as children and noncitizens who are ineligible to vote, just as back in 1789 they were said to represent women, non-property-owners, and 3/5 of the slaves. On the other hand, the two parties are different, and voters generally have enough information about candidates to vote for the one who is closer to their preferences. So in that sense, congressmembers do actually represent the people who vote for them. After all, Democrats are much more liberal than Republicans in otherwise-comparable districts. (There’s lots of evidence on this; see, for example, the graph on page 213 of our recent book.)

Another way to look at this is to flip it around and consider the Republicans, who represent richer voters but poorer states. A simple geographically-based analysis would suggest that the Republicans would be trying to raise taxes on the rich and raise benefits for the poor. But they’re not. Arguably the Republicans’ pro-business, low-tax policies are ultimately what’s best for the poor (and also the rich), but they’re certainly don’t seem like the kind of populist notions that would make people in poorer districts happy.


The sweet spot for either party is spending that benefits its favored voters: rich people in poor states if you’re a Republican, or poor people in rich states if you’re a Democrat. This could be military contracts in the South (if you’re a Republican) or mass transit in the Northeast (if you’re a Democrat).

Now consider slopes. In the “red states,” the slope is steep so there’s not much of a motivation for R’s to support measures that help poor people in poor states (if there is such a program). But in the “blue states,” the slope is flat enough that there is a motivation for Chuck Schumer et al. to want to help out hedge fund managers (as well as to support programs such as Amtrak that benefit upper-middle-class types in the Northeast).

To put it another way, recall that the “red state, blue state” divide occurs among the rich, not among the poor. So you might expect the parties to have pretty consistent national policies on targeted benefits to the poor, but to be much more localized when considering benefits to the rich, with the Democrats favoring the financial and high-tech industries, and Republicans favoring agribusiness and small-business owners, for example. It would be interesting to see this studied more systematically.

The man-bites-dog factor

Another aspect of this is the idea that the Democrats are expected to be fighting the rich, and it’s a surprise for things to go the other way. If it’s the Republicans supporting the rich, this would not be news. To put it another way, Michael Franc’s article is titled, “Democrats wake up to being the party of the rich,” but on his terms (unwillingness to impose taxes on “mega-millionaires”), I assume the Republicans would be “the party of the rich” also.

Similarly, Fred Siegel writes that the Democrats are the party of the rich and that this is a trend since 1972. This may be the case but it doesn’t show up in the polling data. Consider this graph (from this paper by David Park and myself) showing the difference in proportion of Republican vote, comparing voters in the upper third of income to voters in the lower third:


The Republicans have been doing consistently best at the higher end of the income scale. Again, I’m not disagreeing with Franc and Siegel about the geographic and fundraising bases for the Democrats’ support; I’m just pointing out that with data such as shown above, it’s no surprise that the Republicans too are going in that direction.

Based on survey data, most voters tend to place themselves to the right of the Democrats on economic and on social issues, and most voters tend to place themselves to the left of the Republicans in both dimensions; see, for example, this graph based on National Election Study data from 2004. Each dot represents where a survey respondent places him or herself on economic and social issues: positive numbers are conservative and negative numbers are liberal, and “B” and “K” represent the voters’ average placements of Bush and Kerry on these scales:


Despite all the push by rich funders on both parties, the Hollywood parties and the oil money, this is where things stand. Larry Bartels has a story of why this is, but in any case, it doesn’t quite fit into a simple story of the Democrats being the party of the rich. At least not yet. They have to go a ways before they catch up to the Republicans on that one.

1 thought on “Do the Democrats represent the rich?

  1. McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal show fairly convincingly that Democrats in Congress consistently vote to the left of center (favoring more redistributive policies), AND that compared with the Republicans they have relatively greater support from low-income people. The reality is that the two-party system reflects economic class divisions more than anything else.

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