The New Gilded Age

The New Gilded Age

The New Gilded Age

The New Gilded Age


"We are the 99%" has quickly become the slogan of our political era as growing numbers of Americans express concern about the disappearing middle class and the ever-widening gap between the super-rich and everyone else. Has America really entered a New Gilded Age? What are the political consequences of the growing income gap? Can democracy survive such vast economic inequality? These questions dominate our political moment--and Larry Bartels provides answers backed by sobering data.

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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?”

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.”

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%. It seems natural to wonder whether the pluralistic democracy Dahl found in the 1950s has survived this rapid concentration of vast additional resources in the hands of America’s wealthiest citizens.

Meanwhile, the political process has evolved in ways that seem likely to reinforce the advantages of wealth. Political campaigns have become dramatically more expensive since the 1950s, increasing the reliance of elected officials on people who can afford to help finance their bids for reelection. Lobbying activities by corporations and business and professional organizations have accelerated greatly, outpacing the growth of public interest groups. Membership . . .

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