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‘Oligarchic tendencies’: Study finds only the wealthy get represented in the Senate

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Members of the U.S. Senate do not respond equally to the views of all their constituents, according to research to be published in Political Research Quarterly next month. Senators overall represent their wealthiest constituents, while those on bottom of the economic rung are neglected.

“The fact that lower income groups seem to be ignored by elected officials, although not a new finding, remains a troubling observation in American politics,” Thomas J. Hayes of Trinity University wrote in his study.

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The study used data from the 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey to compare constituents’ political opinion to the voting behavior of their Senators in the 107th through 111th Congresses. With more than 90,000 respondents, the NAES is the largest public opinion survey conducted during presidential elections.

In all of the five Congresses examined, the voting records of Senators were consistently aligned with the opinions of their wealthiest constituents. The opinions of lower-class constituents, however, never appeared to influence the Senators’ voting behavior.

The neglect of lower income groups was a bipartisan affair. Democrats were not any more responsive to the poor than Republicans.

“My analysis, which examines Senator behavior on a large number of votes, shows evidence of responsiveness to only the wealthy, a distinct problem for any democracy,” Hayes wrote in the study. “In some ways, this suggests oligarchic tendencies in the American system, a finding echoed in other research.”

Hayes found that middle-class opinion was only represented in two of the Congresses examined. In the 110th and 111th Congresses, when Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, the voting records of Senators reflected the opinions of middle-class constituents as well as upper-class constituents.

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Contrary to popular opinion, it was Democrats — not Republicans — who were more responsive to upper-class opinion in the 111th Congress.

“Although Americans might not easily identify along class lines, this does not mean that politicians representing these citizens do not respond to them in this manner. If equal responsiveness is a fundamental practice in a democratic society, my findings question the degree to which this occurs,” Hayes wrote.


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