Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age

By Larry M. Bartels | Go to book overview
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THIS BOOK REPORTS the results of a six-year exploration of the political causes and consequences of economic inequality in America. It is inspired, in significant part, by a major change in American society over the past three decades—the substantial escalation of economic inequality that I refer to as the “New Gilded Age.” That economic transformation has attracted considerable attention from economists but much less attention from political scientists. It seemed to me, as a student of American politics, that careful attention to public opinion, partisan politics, and public policy might shed valuable new light on how and why the economic fortunes of affluent, middle-class, and poor people have diverged so dramatically in the contemporary United States.

As a student of democracy, it also seemed important to me to explore the ramifications of escalating economic inequality for the American political system. Probably most sentient observers of American politics suspect that the concentration of vast additional wealth in the hands of affluent people has augmented their influence in the political arena, while the stagnating economic fortunes of middle-class and poor people have diminished their influence. However, systematic measurement of political influence is at a very rudimentary stage, leaving political scientists remarkably ill-equipped to confirm, refute, or qualify that suspicion. I have attempted here, through a combination of systematic statistical analysis and case studies, to assess the extent to which economic inequality in contemporary America gets translated into political inequality.

Some readers are likely to see the product of my efforts as a rather partisan book, at least by academic standards. For what it is worth, I can report that it did not start out that way. I began the project as an unusually apolitical political scientist. (The last time I voted was in 1984, and that was for Ronald Reagan.) While I was prepared to find that parties and partisanship play an important role in the politics of economic inequality, as they do in many domains of American politics, I was quite surprised to discover how often and how profoundly partisan differences in ideologies and values have shaped key policy decisions and economic outcomes. I have done my best to follow my evidence where it led me.

In telling this story I have attempted to balance the demands of scholarship and accessibility. My aim has been to make the text and figures comprehensible to general readers—at least to general readers who have some patience for the twists and turns of serious arguments and systematic evidence. Tables and notes provide additional scholarly detail, some of


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Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age


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