The small but important group of super-rich funders of the Democratic party

by Andrew Gelman on May 26, 2012 · 18 comments

in Campaigns and elections

Jay Livingston alerted me to this remark by conservative journalist Andrew Ferguson:

That the “rich and powerful” are identical to conservatives and Republicans—Edsall’s assumption—is a hoary idea dear to many Democrats and essential to their self-image as the opponents of privilege. It persists even though many of the plushest and most powerful institutions of American life are in the hands of liberal Democrats: public and private universities, government bureaucra-cies, nonprofit foundations, movie studios, television networks, museums, newspapers and magazines, Silicon Valley .  .  . Among the fabled “1 percent,” according to Gallup, the number of self-identified Republicans is only slightly greater than the number of Democrats. As Christopher Caldwell has pointed out in these pages, political donations from 19 of the 20 richest ZIP codes in the United States go overwhelmingly to Democrats, by a ratio of four to one or more. Democrats are the party of what Democrats used to call the superrich. Only Democrats seem not to realize this.

The above paragraph has truth but is also misleading.

First, the truth:

Ferguson is right that “the rich and powerful” are not “identical to conservatives and Republicans.” In fact, “conservatives” aren’t even identical to “Republicans.” There are many conservative Democrats out there. (To start with, just think of all those conservatives who aren’t so extreme as to want to vote for Rick Santorum, for example.)

Ferguson is also correct that Democrats control many important American institutions and that the rich, even the super-rich, are important parts of the Democratic party. When a hedge-fund billionaire or a software executive talks to Obama, you can bet he’s listening.

Next, the misleading part:

Ferguson’s mistake is to posit a symmetry between the two parties with regard to the super-rich. Yes, there are some rich and powerful Democrats, but all the evidence I’ve seen (extrapolation from preferences of the top 5%, data on campaign contributions, and data on political attitudes of the top third of income) suggests that there are lots more rich and powerful Republicans. Ferguson writes, “Democrats are the party of what Democrats used to call the superrich.” And so are the Republicans, even more so.

Also—and this should be relevant to Ferguson—rich Democrats tend to be moderate on economic policy, whereas rich Republicans tend to be highly economically conservative. Thus, to the extent that the Democratic party is under the control of the super-rich, I think this should make Ferguson happy, as it should lead to more conservative economic policy.

Conflicting goals

How do I make sense of this? I suppose Ferguson has different goals, that he wears three “hats”: he is a journalist, a conservative, and a Republican.

As a journalist, Ferguson wants to be read. By getting this link, he is well on the way to satisfying that particular goal.

As a conservative, Ferguson supports the implementation of conservative policies. I don’t know his particular views, but my guess is that Ferguson, in his role as conservative, should be happy that rich people have a high profile in the Democratic party, for reasons described above.

As a Republican, Ferguson wants his party to look good and the other party to look bad, Thus he can use richies’ support for Democrats as an attack: they claim to be the party of the people but they’re really not, etc.

Thus, it seems to me that in this case, Ferguson’s goal as a conservative conflicts with his goal as a partisan Republican. Instead of applauding the Democrats’ move toward big business (consider their support for the bank bailout and their lack of support for massive tax increases), Ferguson merely notes the existence of rich Democrats and moves on.

P.S. The main point of Ferguson’s column is a criticism of some recent research in psychology on personality differences between liberals and conservatives. I don’t want to get into this here, but if Ferguson is interested in learning more on the topic, I recommend he take a closer look at the work of John Jost, who has explicitly discussed the taboo aspect of such research.

{ 18 comments }

Dave Hansen May 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm

“Ferguson, in his role as conservative, should be happy that rich people have a high profile in the Democratic party.”

Perhaps, but aren’t conservatives and libertarians (and Wall Street Occupiers) also concerned about the potential for rent-seeking and corporatism that might occur, especially when its rich people in the party of more government who are having influence? This isn’t to say that the Republican Party is somehow immune from giving in to wealthy rent-seekers, but a conservative Republican is probably more prone to think that corporate welfare is systematic in the other party than his own, whether true or not.

Andrew Gelman May 26, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Dave:

I agree, but also here I’m particularly referring to the fact that rich Democrats are likely to be moderate, not far left, on economic issues. If Ferguson has the choice of a Democratic party run by ultra-rich donors, or a Democratic party run by labor unions, I think he’d prefer the former, at least on policy grounds.

Dave Hansen May 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm

I see your point. Thank you for responding!

RobC May 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm

You assert that Ferguson wears three hats: he is a journalist, a conservative and a Republican. Are you willing to be equally analytical about yourself and acknowledge that you’re an academic, a liberal and a Democrat? Or do you prefer to hedge or say that’s not relevant. Because if we need to surmise what Ferguson’s goals are to assess what he’s saying, don’t we need to do the same about your goals to assess what you’re saying?

Andrew Gelman May 26, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Rob:

If you want to give me three roles here, I’d say they are blogger, political scientist, and statistician. The issue is not that Ferguson happens to be conservative and Republican; these identities are central to his journalism in the same way that my identities as political scientist and statistician are relevant to my blogging.

RobC May 26, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Seriously? We’re supposed to examine Ferguson’s statements through the prism of his being a conservative and a Republican, and not yours through the prism of your being a liberal and a Democrat? For example, to paraphrase you, as a Democrat, you want your party to look good and the other party to look bad, Thus you can use richies’ support for Republicans as an attack: it’s Democrats who are the party of the people.

BTW, I’m not saying you’re wrong to examine Ferguson’s possible motivations. I just think if this kind of ad hominem analysis is legitimate, we need to apply it not just to conservative journalists like Ferguson but also to liberal journalists like those at the New York Times and NBC News and Reuters, etc., etc., etc. And we need to apply it not just to journalists but also to social scientists, whose biases are pretty evident in much of their writing and research design (e.g., the phrasing of many questionnaires).

In the present case, what explains your belief that the attitudes of the superrich, who have succeeded in amassing enough money that it need never be an issue for them, are congruent with the merely rich (top 5%) or even moderately well-off (the top third of income), who are respectively trying to achieve that level of wealth that might permit them to be indifferent to accumulating more or trying to get by? Shouldn’t we consider the possibility that, wearing your hat as a Democrat, you resist any analysis that shows a higher level of Democratic affiliation among the superrich than among the rich or moderately well-off, because you want to preserve the idea that the Republican Party is the party of the rich and the Democratic Party the party of the people?

In short, the notion that you are a dispassionate observer of the political scene whereas Andrew Ferguson is operating with ulterior motives is more than a little self-serving. People who live in ivory towers shouldn’t throw tusks.

Andrew Gelman May 26, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Rob:

You misunderstand what I am writing. I don’t have any reason to think Ferguson has ulterior motives! As a columnist, he’s an advocate. That’s what he does. He’s open about it, just as Paul Krugman is, or Jonathan Chait, or whoever. At the Monkey Cage, we are playing a different role. I don’t think that being a scholar is superior to being an advocate. I think advocates are important, and I respect what Ferguson does. The fact that I see a contradiction in his roles doesn’t mean that I disrespect him.

Second, I can’t see why you write that I “want to preserve the idea that the Republican Party is the party of the rich and the Democratic Party the party of the people.” In the above post, I wrote, “the rich, even the super-rich, are important parts of the Democratic party. When a hedge-fund billionaire or a software executive talks to Obama, you can bet he’s listening.”

Finally, you ask, “what explains your belief that the attitudes of the superrich, who have succeeded in amassing enough money that it need never be an issue for them, are congruent with the merely rich (top 5%) or even moderately well-off…?” You can take a look at Red State Blue State where we discuss the topic briefly. Analyses of campaign contributions by the richest Americans over the years have found them generally to strongly support the Republican party. As we say in academia (especially when asking for funding), more research is needed. But given what I’ve seen, I have every reason to believe that the “one percent” and “0.1 percent” indeed lean Republican and conservative, especially on economic issues.

RobC May 27, 2012 at 5:08 am

If extrapolating from data for the top 33% or top 5% gives you “every reason to believe” that the top 0.1% lean Republican and conservative, then so be it. There are data on the top 1% that may provide some guidance. Gallup combined its surveys from 2009-2011 to come up with a large enough sample to analyze the party self-identification of households earning more than $500,000 (equivalent to roughly the top 1%). It found that 33% identified as Republicans and 26% as Democrats, with a 6% margin of error. That’s pretty close to even, and the over $500,000 household income sample consists mostly of those who are still merely well-off, not even close to superrich. Since it’s not not too far-fetched to imagine that the attitudes of those who are beyond concern over their own wealth accumulation may differ from the attitudes of those who are very much concerned with it, drawing inferences about the party preferences of the top 0.1% (who have wealth of $40 million or so) or the top 0.01 (the airplane rich, who are probably the only ones willing to make independent political expenditures in the $1 million plus range) seems speculative at best. They may well lean Republican, and people like Buffett and Soros and Streisand and Winfrey and Burkle and Heinz are the exception. In the absence of something more substantial than extrapolations from very different populations, I lack your confidence in drawing any conclusions.

As for the issue of the legitimacy of ad hominem argument and whether, if it is legitimate, scholars are as appropriate objects of scrutiny as columnists, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

Andrew Gelman May 27, 2012 at 7:23 am

Rob:

Your definition of “ad hominem” seems to be different from mine and Merriam Webster’s.

RobC May 27, 2012 at 7:47 am

I was referring to ad hominem as discussed in Wikipedia, in particular ad hominem circumstantial.

Andrew Gelman May 27, 2012 at 8:09 am

Rob:

I followed your link and it says “Ad hominem circumstantial points out that someone is in circumstances such that he is disposed to take a particular position. Ad hominem circumstantial constitutes an attack on the bias of a source.” But that’s not what I was saying at all. I was not saying that Ferguson was biased, merely that he had conflicting goals.

In any case, I appreciate your taking the time to discuss all this. One of the benefits of blogging is to learn how people see things from different perspectives.

Orel Hazard May 27, 2012 at 9:52 am

I’m a critic of the idea that Democrats and liberals do not represent the super-rich, although I do so from the left rather than the right. In my case, this could be due to localism; I live and work in Los Angeles and Chicago, and the largest donors here are overwhelmingly Democrats. In any case, I’m interested in learning more about the stated imbalance among the very rich toward GOP support, and would appreciate being pointed to some data.

Liberalism is no less a defense of capitalism than its more bonkers counterpart on the right; capitalists have great need of Democrats to mount that defense in a way that avoids vocalizing capitalism’s militant, punitive core, as the right is glad to.

Mitchell Langbert January 26, 2013 at 10:45 am

Using aggregate statistics is misleading. Special interest theories of regualtion a la Mancur Olson and George Stigler are more convicning than naive public interest theories. The concentration of wealth at the very top, among the Forbes 400, is indicative because that is where controlling shares of true monopolies are concentrated. There, Democrats predominate. It is one of the ongoing lies of the Democratic Party that a guy who is worth one or two million is “rich.” Someone at that level of assets can’t afford to retire. Rather, leftists like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, David Rockefeller, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, Bruce Ratner, anjd the rest of the New York, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley crowd tend to be Democrats, not Republicans. Franklin Roosevelt was not a traitor to his class; he was a Federalist, a Whig, and a Wall Street investment operator.

Mitchell Langbert January 26, 2013 at 10:54 am

Using aggregate statistics is misleading. Special interest theories of regualtion a la Mancur Olson and George Stigler are more convicning than naive public interest theories. The concentration of wealth at the very top, among the Forbes 400, is indicative because that is where controlling shares of true monopolies are concentrated. There, Democrats predominate. It is one of the ongoing lies of the Democratic Party that a guy who is worth one or two million is “rich.” Someone at that level of assets can’t afford to retire. Rather, leftists like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, David Rockefeller, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, Bruce Ratner, anjd the rest of the New York, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley crowd tend to be Democrats, not Republicans. Franklin Roosevelt was not a traitor to his class; he was a Federalist, a Whig, and a Wall Street investment operator.

Forbes breaks down the contributions in 2007. 121 Forbes 400 people gave to Republicans, but 101 gave to Democrats. There are few conservative Democrats in office, but a large share of Republicans are so-called Rockefeller Republicans, named after America’s first family of wealth and big government Progressives. If you combine big-government Progressive Republicans like David Rockefeller with left-wing Democrats like Gates, Soros, and Buffett, you get a preponderance of statist or left wingers among the Forbes 400. The number of libertarians, small government libertarians, is tiny, probably limited to the Kochs and one or two others. . But the news media never reports that. Soros’s contributions, done through NGOs, are ignored.

http://www.forbes.com/2007/10/01/election-candidates-politics-oped-cz_sr_1002richlist.html

As of Sept. 30, the Republican aspirants received $449,000 in total from the Forbes 400, representing 121 contributions from individuals. The corresponding number for the Democratic candidates: $501,000 and 101 donations from individuals.
As of Sept. 30, the Republican aspirants received $449,000 in total from the Forbes 400, representing 121 contributions from individuals. The corresponding number for the Democratic candidates: $501,000 and 101 donations from individuals.

Andrew Gelman January 26, 2013 at 11:25 am

Mitchell:

According to this report (which I found via a quick google on *forbes 400 contributions 2012*), the richest Americans lean Republican:

Romney leads with a total of $3.4 million raised for his campaign and the Republican National Committee (RNC) from 158 of the Forbes 400 through Oct. 17, exceeding the $2.8 million raised by Republican nominee Sen. John McCain four years ago. Obama and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) have raised $1.7 million from 62 of the richest billionaires through Oct. 17; four years ago he raised $1.3 million from this elite group.

Also:

Restore Our Future, the primary super PAC supporting Romney, received $44.8 million from 43 billionaires through the middle of October. Priorities USA Action, the super PAC supporting Obama, pulled in $16.6 million from 12 billionaires over the same period. Other super PACs and “dark money” nonprofit groups have raised tens of millions more from these billionaires.

Given the candidates’ rhetoric and policies, these differences are no surprise.

Mitchell Langbert May 1, 2013 at 11:46 pm

Andrew, although there is a slightly greater number of Republicans among the Forbes 400, many of the Republicans are to the left of the average Democrat. These include the late David Rockefeller and many of the Silk Stocking District Republicans in Manhattan, where I have been active politically a few times in the past. Mike Bloomberg currently calls himself a Republican, but he is to the left of most Democrats. If you combine the Rockefeller, Manhattan Republicans with the Democrats, the number of big-government advocates is much greater among the Forbes 400. In the last election Obama lost much of his earlier support from the super-rich. In 2008 Obama got much more from the financial community than he did in ’12. That explains the drop in his support among the super-rich. I’m willing to wager that a few of the big-time Democrats like Soros, Buffett, and Gates tended to drop him in ’12. His value was done (he had provided Wall Street with trillions in subsidies, much more than any Republican ever had), and his health care reform was a joke (although as a investor in the healthcare index I have been enjoying my Obama dividend).

Andrew Gelman May 2, 2013 at 6:12 am

Mitchell:

You originally wrote, “The concentration of wealth at the very top, among the Forbes 400, is indicative because that is where controlling shares of true monopolies are concentrated. There, Democrats predominate.”

The data do not show this.

You now retreat to the claim, “combine the Rockefeller, Manhattan Republicans with the Democrats, the number of big-government advocates is much greater among the Forbes 400.” I have no idea if this is true, but in any case you are making a mistake which is indicated by your statement, “the New York, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley crowd tend to be Democrats, not Republicans.” This crowd is only a subset of America’s rich. Among the rich, political attitudes vary by industry. Oil, chemical, and pharmaceutical executives, for example, lean Republican. In total, the data find that there are many rich Democrats, and even more rich Republicans in this country.

cd July 22, 2013 at 6:24 pm

How can i get funding?

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