WASHINGTON -- Perhaps the biggest shift in American politics is the growing affluence of the Democrats' congressional constituencies and the influence they wield over party tax policy.
While Democrats like to portray themselves as the champions of middle- and lower-income Americans, a new study finds that they now represent a majority of the country's wealthiest districts and their richest voters are the ones they are listening to when it comes to tax reform.
In a little-noticed, district-by-district study of incomes, based on Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Census Bureau data, the Heritage Foundation not only found a majority of the nation's richest districts were represented by Democrats but more than half of the wealthiest households were concentrated in the 18 states where Democrats hold both Senate seats.
"If you take the wealthiest one-third of the 435 congressional districts, we found that Democrats represent about 58 percent of those jurisdictions," said Heritage vice president Michael Franc, who directed the study.
The flip side of this political equation is equally surprising. Franc's study found that, contrary to the Democrats' propensity to define Republicans as the party of the rich, "the vast majority of unabashed conservative House members hail from profoundly middle-income districts," he said.
But a deeper examination of his findings reveals how these well-heeled Democratic constituencies are using both their affluence and influence to change tax policies that would cut into their wealth. And key Democrats are only too happy to accommodate them.
"What the data suggests is that there will be a natural limit to how far and how much the Democrats can sock it to the rich, because in doing so it means they will have to sock it to their own constituents," Franc said.
"Increasingly, we will see Democrats responding to the economic demands of this particular upper-income constituency," he said.
We have already seen their influence in the Democrats' turnaround on the alternative minimum tax (AMT) that they enacted in 1969 to prevent wealthier taxpayers who used available tax breaks to avoid paying taxes on their income.
What happened is that, as middle-class incomes rose, people found they were being shoved into higher brackets that socked them with the AMT. The largest share of these taxpayers live in overwhelmingly Democratic "blue" states of the Northeast, Midwest and the West Coast.
It wasn't long before liberal Democrats in these areas, such as New York Sens. Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, were joining Republicans in pushing to eliminate the AMT.