Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age

Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age

Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age

Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age


Using a vast swath of data spanning the past six decades, Unequal Democracy debunks many myths about politics in contemporary America, using the widening gap between the rich and the poor to shed disturbing light on the workings of American democracy. Larry Bartels shows the gap between the rich and poor has increased greatly under Republican administrations and decreased slightly under Democrats, leaving America grossly unequal. This is not simply the result of economic forces, but the product of broad-reaching policy choices in a political system dominated by partisan ideologies and the interests of the wealthy.

Bartels demonstrates that elected officials respond to the views of affluent constituents but ignore the views of poor people. He shows that Republican presidents in particular have consistently produced much less income growth for middle-class and working-poor families than for affluent families, greatly increasing inequality. He provides revealing case studies of key policy shifts contributing to inequality, including the massive Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and the erosion of the minimum wage. Finally, he challenges conventional explanations for why many voters seem to vote against their own economic interests, contending that working-class voters have not been lured into the Republican camp by "values issues" like abortion and gay marriage, as commonly believed, but that Republican presidents have been remarkably successful in timing income growth to cater to short-sighted voters.

Unequal Democracy is social science at its very best. It provides a deep and searching analysis of the political causes and consequences of America's growing income gap, and a sobering assessment of the capacity of the American political system to live up to its democratic ideals.


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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