Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age

By Larry M. Bartels | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
The New Gilded Age

IN THE FIRST sentence of one of the greatest works of modern political science, Robert Dahl posed a question of profound importance for democratic theory and practice: “In a political system where nearly every adult may vote but where knowledge, wealth, social position, access to officials, and other resources are unequally distributed, who actually governs?”1

Dahl's answer to this question, for one American city in the late 1950s, was that political power was surprisingly widely dispersed. Examining politics and policy making in New Haven, Connecticut, he concluded that shifting, largely distinct coalitions of elected and unelected leaders influenced key decisions in different issue areas. This pluralistic pattern was facilitated by the fact that many individuals and groups with substantial resources at their disposal chose not to devote those resources to political activity. Even “economic notables”—the wealthy property owners, businessmen, and bank directors constituting the top tier of New Haven's economic elite—were “simply one of the many groups out of which individuals sporadically emerge to influence the policies and acts of city officials.”2

The significance of Dahl's question has been magnified, and the pertinence of his answer has been cast in doubt, by dramatic economic and political changes in the United States over the past half-century. Economically, America has become vastly richer and vastly more unequal. Perhaps most strikingly, the share of total income going to people at the level of Dahl's “economic notables”—the top 0.1% of income-earners—has more than tripled, from 3.2% in the late 1950s to 10.9% in 2005. The share going to the top 1% of income-earners—a much broader but still very affluent group—more than doubled over the same period, from 10.2% to 21.8%.3 It seems natural to wonder whether the pluralistic democracy Dahl found in the 1950s has survived

1 Dahl (1961), 1.

2 Of the 238 people in this group, only three were among the 23 most influential participants
in the city's politics and policy making. Nine more were “minor leaders”—all in the field of ur-
ban redevelopment, a policy area of distinctive relevance for their economic interests (Dahl
1961, 72 and chapter 6).

3 These figures are from tabulations by Piketty and Saez (2003), updated at http://elsa
.berkeley.edu/~saez/, table A3.

-1-

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