Voters on both the left and the right often claim that there is no difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties, and of course that isn’t true. There’s a big difference between Elena Kagan and Antonin Scalia, for one thing. But there may be more to this argument than you think.
Democrats now depend as much on affluent voters as on low-income voters. Democrats represent a majority of the richest congressional districts, and the party’s elected officials are more responsive to the policy agenda of the well-to-do than to average voters. The party and its candidates have come to rely on the elite 0.01 percent of the voting age population for a quarter of their financial backing and on large donors for another quarter.
The gulf between the two parties on socially fraught issues like abortion, immigration, same-sex marriage and voting rights remains vast. On economic issues, however, the Democratic Party has inched closer to the policy positions of conservatives, stepping back from championing the needs of working men and women, of the unemployed and of the so-called underclass.
In this respect, the Democratic Party and its elected officials have come to resemble their Republican counterparts far more than the public focus on polarization would lead you to expect. The current popularity of Bernie Sanders and his presidential candidacy notwithstanding, the mainstream of the Democratic Party supports centrist positions ranging from expanded free trade to stricter control of the government budget to time limits on welfare for the poor.
“Both Republicans and many Democrats have experienced an ideological shift toward acceptance of a form of free market capitalism which, among other characteristics, offers less support for government provision of transfers, lower marginal tax rates for those with high incomes, and deregulation of a number of industries,” the political scientists Adam Bonica, Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal write in a 2014 essay titled “Why Hasn’t Democracy Slowed Rising Inequality?”
The authors, from Stanford, Princeton, the University of Georgia and N.Y.U., respectively, go on to note that
the Democratic agenda has shifted away from general social welfare to policies that target ascriptive identities of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.
The structural forces changing the character of the Democratic Party appear in voting patterns and in the altered partisan allegiance of the professional classes and of the very rich.
Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the changing pattern of campaign contributions. In September, Bonica and Rosenthal completed an additional study, “The Wealth Elasticity of Political Contributions by the Forbes 400,” that demonstrates a substantial increase in campaign donations from the very wealthy to Democrats.
Between 1982 and 2012, the Republican share of contributions from the Forbes 400 has been steadily falling, to 59 percent from 68 percent. As membership in the Forbes 400 changes, this trend will accelerate because new members are more likely to direct their money to Democrats than the old members are, Rosenthal wrote me in an email: “Larry Page and Sergey Brin — co-founders of Google — are quintessential new money Democrats.”
In their 2014 paper, Bonica, McCarty, Rosenthal and Poole tracked the sources of money flowing to Democratic candidates and parties from 1980 to 2012. As the accompanying charts show, they found that the share of contributions to Democrats from the top 0.01 percent of adults — a much larger share of the population than the Forbes 400 list — has grown from about 7 percent of total campaign contributions in 1980 to more than 25 percent of contributions in 2012. The same pattern is visible among Republicans, where the growth of fundraising dependence on the superrich has been moving along the same trajectory.