The Senate as an institution is much more responsive to wealthy constituents’ views than to middle- and low-income voters’ policy preferences, according to political scientist Thomas J. Hayes of the University of Connecticut. In research first published in 2012 and released in print on Monday by Political Research Quarterly, Hayes demonstrates a chronic neglect of non-rich Americans by the upper chamber of Congress.
With income and wealth inequality spiking to historic highs after 2002, Hayes wondered if past research finding that members of congress were most responsive to the middle class and the wealthy would hold up under the increased societal strain of extreme inequality and the increased political influence that wealthy interests tend to obtain. Instead of a legislature that ignores the poor but is moderately attentive to middle-class concerns, however, Hayes found “evidence of responsiveness to only the wealthy, a distinct problem for any democracy.”
The journal article provides quantitative, statistic evidence for the common anecdotal gripe that the American political system primarily serves the richest and that its “oligarchic tendencies” become more pronounced as the wealthiest pull further and further away from the rest of the country. And it echoes past research that similarly shows that politicians respond much more to the wealthy and tend to ignore the needs of the poor.
Sequestration has provided an extreme example of this phenomenon. Head Start funding, Meals on Wheels programs, public housing funds, and public defenders’ offices around the country have been forced to stomach sequestration cuts. But Congress was quick to offer a one-off fix for Federal Aviation Administration funding once lines at airports began to get long and inconvenienced business class travelers.
Meanwhile, the rich continue to amass wealth. The growth of the financial sector has played a substantial role in the feedback loop between economic inequality and an inequitable political system that Hayes describes. Decades of deregulation pushed Wall Street to the forefront of the U.S. economy, and recent research indicates the financialization of the economy was a primary driver of modern inequality. At the same time, working folks have seen their earning power flatten out completely, making no gains whatsoever since 2000. The government’s response to the financial crisis returned Wall Street to record profits in just a few short years while failing to bring unemployment back to its pre-crisis levels along the same time frame.