The Political Influence of Economic Elites

Both scholars and citizens suspect economic elites have great influence on politics. Yet the scholarly research on money in politics has generally concluded that wealthy individuals and interest groups cannot simply ‘buy votes’ in institutions like Congress. This has led some to argue that the influence of money upon American political life is either "not much" or under estimated. The research findings in this tradition have mostly looked at the effects of campaign contributions upon Congressional roll call voting. The work is analytically sophisticated, and there are few reasons to doubt these particular empirical findings. However, the findings are of such a narrow range of phenomena that they miss much of the relationship between money and politics. Simply looking at roll call votes misses the “doing of politics”, and in particular, the entire sequence of political processes: how money might influence what does and does not arrive upon the floor for a vote, in what form it arrives, and then, how it is (or is not) implemented and enforced.

To address some of these issues, the Foundation issued an RFP in 2006 as part of a new research initiative to investigate the Politics of Inequality. This ongoing initiative is an effort to improve our understanding of how rising inequality has influenced the U.S. political process and the policies it has produced. Building on this initiative, sociologist Shamus Khan and political scientist Dorian Warren of Columbia University, together with thirteen other leading social scientists, have formed a working group to expand the research field of economic influence on political life by examining how economic elites have influenced the myriad ways politics is done and the relationship between these processes and inequality. The research questions to be explored through this Working Group are twofold. First, how do elites use their economic resources to influence political outcomes? And second, what and how is the relationship between that influence and inequality? The first question requires (a) exploring new terrain, what the Working Group is calling the expanded “doing of politics”; and (b) using this new terrain to test established (and discarded) mechanisms of influence, as well as to identify new ones. To address the second question, the working group will examine: (a) how the increase in inequality over the past forty years —particularly the increase in the wealth/income share of elites — has impacted processes of political influence; and (b) how the outcomes of political influence have affected the overall levels of inequality.

Nicholas Carnes, Duke University
Elisabeth Clemens, University of Chicago
Martin Gilens, Princeton University
Jacob Hacker, Yale University
Larry Jacobs, University of Minnesota
Shamus Khan, Columbia University
Bruce Kogut, Columbia University
David Lazer, Northeastern University
Jeff Manza, New York University
Leslie McCall, Northwestern University
Mark Mizruchi, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Ben Page, Northwestern University
Paul Pierson, University of California, Berkeley
Dorian Warren, Columbia University
Jeff Winters, Northwestern University

Working Group members’ current projects address the same overall research question on mechanisms of elite power and influence on political outcomes, but using different theoretical and methodological approaches. Collectively, the group is interested in a range of outcomes, including public policy, economic distribution and inequality, and structures of governance. Four goals that individual projects will seek to achieve as a contribution to the collective group include: 1) positing new major theoretical frameworks to help make sense of mechanisms of elite power and influence (including revisiting the power/pluralism debates); 2) contributing a range of empirical methodologies for measuring elite influence in politics; 3) collecting and making available new sources of data; and 4) focusing on political outcomes that matter for inequality and democratic governance.

Future research projects will aim to emphasize not just the presence of influence, but have an analytic design that allows for the empirically identifiable mechanisms of such influence. Such a strategy shifts the units of analysis to mobilization and organization. Elites do not just “have” influence – such influence must be mobilized in two ways, on the one hand, through collective coordination and, on the other, through the expression of influence and interest. Both of these processes require organizational activity. As such, mobilization and organization will be central mechanisms of interest.

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