The Party or the Purse? Unequal Representation in the U.S. Senate

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Gabriela Vitela, covers the new article by Jeffrey R. Lax, Justin H. Phillips, Columbia University and Adam Zelizer, University of Chicago, The Party or the Purse? Unequal Representation in the U.S. Senate”

 

 

Who do legislators respond to? Do lawmakers follow the issue priorities of the public or is it the other way around? To whom should we expect members of Congress to be responsive: the general public, attentive voters, or their staunchest supporters? These are the questions that Barberá et al. answer in their recent article, “Who Leads? Who Follows? Measuring Issue Attention and Agenda Setting by Legislators and the Mass Public Using Social Media Data.”

Countering growing concerns about the political power of the wealthy, the authors find that when forced to take sides between the affluent and their party base, senators are more likely to side with their party.

In “The Party or the Purse? Unequal Representation in the U.S. Senate,” Lax, Phillips, and Zelizer wade into debates closely linked to the current political moment. They ask whether senators are more responsive to the preferences of constituents from their own party or the preferences of wealthy individuals. The authors suggest that this question is complicated and that answering it requires us to consider how partisanship and the influence of the wealthy interact. Countering growing concerns about the political power of the wealthy, the authors find that when forced to take sides between the affluent and their party base, senators are more likely to side with their party. In fact, they argue that we can’t understand the influence of the wealthy on contemporary politics without understanding how their influence is shaped by partisanship.

The authors look at votes in the Senate to determine if senators respond more to the policy preferences of the wealthy or of their co-partisans, i.e. the people back in their state who identify as the same political party. Lax et al. begin by laying out statistics on the policy differences between high- and low-income constituents as well as between members of different political parties. The authors point out that income-based disagreements in public opinion are almost always quite small compared to partisan disagreements. By and large, they find that among rich, middle class, and poor individuals, there is a general overlap of preferences on the majority of policy issues. This makes it easy for senators to satisfy different economic classes simultaneously, but not different partisan groups.

So what happens when there is a conflict between the policy preferences of different groups? The authors find that high income individuals are slightly more likely than the poor to get their preferred policies voted on by their senators. But those most likely to see their desired policies enacted are “the base” or the constituents back home from a senator’s own party. Though entire political movements have sprung up around the influence of the wealthy, this research draws our attention to the great influence a party’s base has over senators and the policymaking process.

This holds true for both Republicans and Democrats though to very different degrees. Lax et al. find that the assumption that elected officials are more responsive to the affluent is driven in large part by the behavior of Republicans, whose political base tends to support the same policies as the wealthy. And while Republican senators tend to be more responsive to the wealthy, Democratic senators tend to be more responsive to the poor. While this may seem like a shocking finding, the authors emphasize that in practice there are minimal differences between high- and low-income voters to begin with and that more often than not their policy preferences align.

The most significant difference in influence is the degree to which the most partisan members of a senator’s party see their policy preferences enacted over the preferences of the average constituent. Lax. et al find that senators are more likely to follow the preferences of their primary voters than of the average voter in their state. As these findings suggest, this research has important implications for democratic representation and party politics.

This article demonstrates that when a senator has to choose between supporting the policy preferences of their electoral base or affluent interests, they are most likely to favor the preferences of their electoral base. But surprisingly, senators often do not have to choose between these groups as there is little variation in policy preferences among income divisions. This research offers important insights for current debates over the influence of money on our elected officials and complicates the prevalent, powerful narrative that the wealthy dominate American democracy.

 


  • Gabriela Vitela is a PhD candidate and on the job market. Her research interests include American politics, institutions, public policy, and race, gender and ethnicity. Gabriela’s dissertation examines how women of color, particularly Latinas, navigate campaign finance specifically looking at how well they are able to raise money to run for the House of Representatives. She argues that current literature into how women and minorities fund campaigns fail to take into account the particularities of being both a woman and a racial or ethnic minority. Gabriela is a first generation scholar and a Chicana from Texas and enjoys sharing her experiences with her students.
  • Article details: American Political Science ReviewFirst View, The Party or the Purse? Unequal Representation in the US SenatePublished online: 12 July 2019
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.

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