Economic and political inequality are among the most significant aspects of U.S. decline. Both topics are the focus of the most recent work of Princeton Political Scientist Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. In his book, Bartels sets out to analyze the political causes and consequences of economic inequality, arguing that these are both substantial and urgently relevant to alleviating injustice.
Naturally, Bartels begins by assessing the extent to which economic inequality exists in the United States. After detailed review of current literature and government data, Bartels offers findings very much in line with those of The End of the American Century, essentially that “current levels of inequality rival those of the Roaring Twenties,” making it fitting to speak of a “New Gilded Age” or a “retrogression of historic scope.” As Mason points out, this sort of inequality can lead to monstrous disparities, such as CEOs making more than 500 times their average employee, and has effectively caused the United States to become more unequal than “any advanced industrialized country.”
Like The End of the American Century, Bartels finds that current inequality is not a recent phenomenon, but has been growing sharply since the 1970s. Although this observation is generally accepted, Bartels then goes on to make a less mainstream claim—that increasing economic inequality is a largely a result of public policy. While Bartels readily concedes that economic factors like globalization and technology have contributed to inequality, he staunchly refuses to attribute the entire dynamic to arcane “market forces” or inculpable “economic realities.” Rather, a significant role is played by political intervention, an idea Mason also highlights by discussing issues like the “elimination of the federal welfare system” and the “stagnation of the minimum wage.”
Bartels goes one step further. He argues that U.S. economic inequality is “profoundly shaped by partisan politics”—specifically that “middleclass and poor families” have “fared much worse under Republican presidents than they have under Democratic presidents.” This is not necessarily a novel notion, but rarely has it been supported by such detailed analysis. Using exclusively Census Bureau data and controlling for non-partisan variables such as international crisis, Bartels conclusively demonstrates that the incomes of most have grown at substantially higher rates under Democratic presidents than under their Republican counterparts.
After illustrating his findings with three chapter-length case studies, Bartels turns to his second major point—the political consequences of inequality. Here, his research is particularly disturbing. In calculating the recent responsiveness of U.S. Senators to their constituents, Bartels finds that:
Senators’ roll call votes were quite responsive to the ideological views of their middle- and high-income constituents. In contrast, the views of low-income constituents had no discernible impact on the voting behavior of the senators…the statistical results are quite consistent in suggesting that the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution were utterly irrelevant.
Examining the potential causes of this mass political exclusion, Bartels finds that “biases” in “senators’ responsiveness to rich and poor constituents are not primarily due to differences between rich and poor constituents in turnout, political knowledge, or contacting.” Rather, “the data are consistent with the hypothesis that senators represented their campaign contributors to the exclusion of other constituents.” As Mason puts it, “When people do not…contribute to political campaigns, they are less likely to be listened to by legislators or policymakers, and their interests are less likely to be taken into account in the political process.”
In analyzing the totality of his findings, Bartels delivers a particularly sobering assessment:
In Aristotle’s terms, our political system seems to be functioning not as a 'democracy,' but as an 'oligarchy.' If we insist on flattering ourselves by referring to is as a democracy, we should be clear that is a starkly unequal democracy.
Despite such foreboding, Bartels attempts to end with a more hopeful thought: Since inequality has been largely been brought about by conscious political action, there seems to be potential for prescriptive change. As Bartels puts it, “We can make these choices.” But as Mason points out, we are quickly running out of time.