So asks James Ledbetter in Slate.
And the answer is . . . No!
Here’s what happened in 2008:
OK, that’s how people vote. How bout party identification and ideology? Check these out:
And here it is, sliced a different way:
Of, if you want to see it in map form, check out this article (with Daniel and Yair).
P.S. A skeptic might comment that the above graphs, which are based on national poll data, only break down incomes to the top 5% or so. What about the truly rich. Here are my thoughts on the political attitudes of the super-rich.
P.P.S. Ledbetter actually makes some good points in his article, which is about the campaign contributions of rich Americans. The article relies on a recent book by David Callahan, which seems to echo the work of Tom Ferguson (cited in the above-linked blog entry), who’s tracked campaign contributions by industry over many years.
I think that Ferguson (and Callahan) are on to something important, and I’m glad that Ledbetter is thinking about the implications of these trends. I just think his headline is silly and unhelpful. And the fact that it got out there at all–I assume Ledbetter didn’t write the headline himself–is evidence that there is still a lot of confusion about income and voting in the news media.
P.P.P.S. Some more clarification. Let me emphasize that I’m not trying to get into a fight with Ledbetter; I just think he needs to modify one of his empirical claims.
Ledbetter raises important issues in his article. Campaign financing is hugely important, and I agree that it’s important to look at contributions from different industries.
But I’m bothered by his headline, and even more by the sub-headline that answers “Sort of” to the question “Are all rich people liberals?” The data just don’t bear this one out. Yes, some rich people are liberals. But, as we discussed in Red State, Blue State, this varies a lot by region. It’s no coincidence that your article mentions rich people in California, Connecticut, and New York: These are states where there is essentially zero correlation between income and how people vote. There are a lot of other rich people in the country, though. In Texas you’ll be seeing a different story. And, in aggregate, all the evidence I’ve seen suggests that richer people are more likely to be conservative Republicans.
And this is not just about self-definition. See the third graph above. The top row is self-declared ideology and bottom two rows are economic and social ideology, each computed by averaging a bunch of issue questions from a survey. Unsuprisingly, income is more correlated with conservatism for economic than for social ideology. In either case, it’s not at all the case that rich people are liberal.
I’ll say it again. Ledbetter writes: “David Callahan takes aim at this notion, using reams of data to make two ambitious arguments: first, that America’s rich now tilt politically left in their opinions and campaign contributions, and second, despite the surge in corporate funding of Democrats, the Democrats pursue far more liberal economic and business policies than Republicans.”
I think the second claim is definitely true. But the first claim, “that America’s rich now tilt politically left,” is not supported by the evidence I’ve seen.
To put it another way, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to believe the following propositions:
1. Rich people are an increasingly important source of funding for the Democratic Party
2. Democratic officeholders–even those such as Barack Obama who are from the liberal wing of the party–seem to have an instinctive sympathy for the upper class.
3. The Republican party is even more pro-rich-people than the Democrats are.
4. Richer Americans are more conservative and Republican than middle-income or lower-income Americans. Rich people do _not_ tilt politically left.
I was bothered by Ledbetter’s headline for the same reason I was bothered by Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Frank’s credulity toward a P.R. man’s claim about the opinions of the super-rich: The claim of “billiionaires for Obama” is often the first step in a pseudo-populist argument about partisan support. See, for example, these ludicrous claims from Michael Barone, who should really know better.
If Ledbetter wants to argue that the Democratic Party has been captured by Wall Street–or if his counterpart on the other side of the fence wants to argue that the Republican Party is fighting for middle-class Americans–that’s fine. But I’d rather see these arguments made directly (as you do in the meat of your article) rather than via incorrect or misinterpreted statistics (as in the writings of Frank or Barone).
I’m sympathetic to Ledbetter’s point about Democratic economic policies, and I think he weakens his own argument when he ties it to a statistical misconception that rich people are liberal. In chapter 9 of Red State, Blue State we discuss some of the political implications of different patterns of income, ideology, and voting in different states.