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Unequal Democracy:
The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age
Larry M. Bartels

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Larry M. Bartels
Larry M. Bartels

Talking Points with Larry M. Bartels

Why is America becoming more unequal?

Technology, globalization, and other economic forces have contributed to growing inequality over the past 35 years. But politics has also played a major role. Historically, Republican policies on macroeconomics, taxes, and social spending have produced substantial increases in inequality, while Democratic policies have produced relatively equal income growth across the economic spectrum.

How much does partisan politics matter?

Over the past six decades, the real incomes of middle-class families have increased twice as fast under Democratic presidents as they have under Republican presidents. The real incomes of working poor families have increased six times as fast under Democratic presidents as they have under Republican presidents. These differences are not attributable to long-term demographic or social trends, economic shocks such as oil crises, or other confounding factors.

If income growth is greater under Democrats than Republicans, why have the Republicans won the presidency so often?

Republicans win because voters tend to be narrow-minded and short-sighted in their assessments of economic performance--focusing on income growth only in the year of the election. Republicans have generally produced greater income gains in election years, while Democrats tend to produce greater income growth in earlier years of the administration.

How has the Republican Party won over the white working class?

It hasn't. Thomas Frank's portrait (in What's the Matter with Kansas?) of poor whites alienated by liberal Democratic positions on abortion, guns, and gay marriage is highly misleading. Economic issues still trump cultural issues for low-income voters. And outside the South, where Republicans have made major gains in every income class due to the end of the unnatural Democratic monopoly of the Jim Crow era, net Republican gains have come entirely from middle- and high-income white voters. Continues. . . .

The minimum wage--why is it so low?

The real value of the minimum wage has fallen substantially over the past 40 years despite strong, consistent public support for minimum wage increases. Minimum wage policy is driven not by public sentiment but by ideology and partisanship. The eroding value of the minimum wage is primarily attributable to the decline of labor unions and to Republican control of the White House and Congress.

Why did Congress pass the Bush tax cuts?

The tax cuts were driven by the ideology of conservative political elites, not by public demand. Public support for the Bush tax cuts was substantial, but remarkably shallow and confused. Many people supported the tax cuts out of unenlightened self-interest, ignoring or misunderstanding their implications for the government budget, the progressivity of federal tax burdens, and prevailing levels of economic inequality.

If Americans want less inequality, why is the estate tax so unpopular?

Americans don't like the estate tax, even if they have modest incomes, want more spending on government programs, regret growing economic inequality, and say that rich people pay less than they should in taxes. It is tempting to attribute this odd antipathy to a decade of propagandizing against the "death tax" by conservative interest groups; but there is good reason to believe that the estate tax has always been quite unpopular. The fact that it survived for several decades (and will almost certainly return once the current temporary repeal expires) is another testament to the importance of elite ideology--in this case, the support of liberal Democrats since the New Deal era for what one liberal economist has called "the closest thing to a perfect tax we have."

Why do the rich always win?

Elected officials respond to the views of affluent constituents, but the preferences of people in the bottom third of the income distribution have no discernible impact on their representatives' behavior in Washington. This striking pattern of unequal responsiveness should be troubling to anyone who values political equality as a democratic ideal. However, it does not imply that the rich always win in the policy-making process. The contrasting ideologies of Democratic and Republican officials lead them to support very different policies, even when they represent exactly the same constituents. Thus, the interests of middle-class and poor people are likely to be furthered when Democrats win.

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File created: 4/21/2008

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