Political Science The Politics of Income Inequality in the United States
Christopher Faricy
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0147


How have political factors contributed to the growing income gap? And how has the rise of income inequality affected American democracy? Income inequality in the United States has grown since the late 1960s and has reached historic levels. A host of new research places political causes alongside extant economic and sociological theories in explaining the recent rise of income inequality. In addition, scholarly attention directed at examining issues of representation within the context of the growing wealth gap in America has increased noticeably. The nascent field of the politics of income inequality stretches across subfields within political science and includes work from economics, sociology, and psychology. This line of research has challenged some of the conventional wisdom, created new scholarly debates, informed actual policymaking, and reenergized the study of political equality and representation. However, many of the major works on the politics of income inequality are criticized for the lack of attention given to the intersection of race, class, and gender. The research in each subfield examines both the political causes and the effects of income inequality. In studies of public opinion, scholars examine the degree to which citizens are knowledgeable about the rise and levels of inequality and the redistributive effects of public policy. Some scholars evaluate how rising inequality affects the formation of citizens’ attitudes toward government spending, social welfare policies, and other programs designed to increase economic security. The most scholarly attention is being given to studying political representation within the context of income inequality and economic insecurity. This scholarship often examines differences in policy preferences across income class and determines whether representation is skewed toward wealthier or more advantaged populations. Debates are evolving as to the extent of socioeconomic class differences across policy preferences, values, and partisanship. While many of these studies find evidence that the wealthy’s preferences are more reflected in policy changes than those of the middle class or working class, serious disagreements exist about whether the US government has been more or less responsive to the average voter. The list of factors from this line of scholarship on which conditions in American politics produce more or less responsive governing is growing. Political behavior scholarship documents the disparities in political participation and mobilization across demographic groups. These studies find that citizens do not participate (nor are they asked to participate) evenly across demographic groups, and, thus, advantaged groups tend to vote more than disadvantaged groups. These discrepancies are reflected in who gets elected, interest group influence, and policy outcomes. Another line of research assesses the role of formal and informal institutions in the politics of income inequality. For example, some research has found that political party control of the presidency produces increases in income inequality while other works have questioned whether or not the presidency has the capacity to influence large changes in national income distribution. A number of books observe a difference between the economic policies of the Democratic and Republican Parties and the subsequent effects on the direction and magnitude of income inequality. The consensus is that Republican Party control results in economic policies that increase income inequality while Democratic rule assuages inequality. Studies of elections find that political parties in government become more responsive to the mass electorate closer to elections. A number of studies on the politics of income inequality also examine the role of congressional institutions, political polarization, interest group activity, campaigning, and the changing nature of bureaucracy. To date little work has been done on how the court system influences redistributive policies or how high levels of inequality impact the functioning of the courts. There is also potential in using theories of political economy to examine the politics of income inequality in the United States (see Jacobs and Soss 2010, cited under Political Institutions).

General Overviews

The emerging field of the politics of US income inequality has few, if any, overviews of the existing literature. An edited volume, Jacobs and Skocpol 2005, which is a product of the American Political Science Association (APSA) taskforce, comes closest to an organizing work on the topic of income inequality, although many significant studies have been published since 2005. Most notably, Bartels 2008, influential book, examines the role of politics in producing policies that disproportionately benefit the rich and the erosion of programs that help the poor. For example, Bartels shows that Republican presidents produce lower levels of economic growth and generate higher levels of inequality. He argues that voters contribute to the political causes of inequality through misunderstandings of their economic self-interest and rewarding recent rather than long-term economic growth. Unequal Democracy also finds that legislators disproportionately respond more to the policy demands of the wealthy. An edited volume, Enns and Wlezien 2011 presents numerous studies on the differences in public opinion across groups and policy representation. This book reflects the variety of viewpoints and debate in the literature on whether the US government is more responsive to the wealthy or the average voter. Gilens 2012 examines the relationship between policy preferences and changes in American laws over decades. Gilens finds that when the preferences between the rich and everyone else diverge, policy changes follow the demands of the rich. He argues that this pattern is most likely the result of the increased role of money in campaigns and elections as well as the influence of lobbying. Finally, Erikson 2015 reviews the literature on differences in policy preferences and democratic representation as it pertains to income inequality.

  • Bartels, Larry. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.

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    A pioneering work in the politics of income inequality. This book examines paradoxes of public opinion and how policymakers respond to opinion changes across class. Bartels finds that citizens are often confused about their economic self-interest, policymakers respond more to the opinion changes of the rich, and Republican administrations pursue fiscal policies that result in increased inequality.

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  • Enns, Peter K., and Christopher Wlezien, eds. Who Gets Represented? New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011.

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    This edited book with contributions from leading scholars examines the differences in policy preferences across race, class, and partisan groups. There is some evidence, especially from Wlezien and Soroka and Walsh, that little difference exists among socioeconomic classes in their policy preferences except for welfare. However, other studies, particularly Gilens, find more policy responsiveness to the preferences of the rich.

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  • Erikson, Robert S. “Income Inequality and Policy Responsiveness.” Annual Review of Political Science 18 (2015): 11–29.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-polisci-020614-094706Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article reviews the literature on inequality and representation. Erikson examines the puzzle of why research shows that the working class is underrepresented but policy outcomes continually move in a liberal direction.

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  • Gilens, Martin. Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

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    This book is a focused examination of the relationship between class-based preferences and changes to public policy. Gilens finds that when the policy preferences of the rich diverge from the middle class and working class that policy outcomes reflect the desires of the rich. However, the preferences of the middle class do matter for policy closer to a presidential election, during periods of divided government, and when they correlate with the rich.

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  • Jacobs, Lawrence, and Theda Skocpol. Inequality and American Democracy: What We Know and What We Need to Learn. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2005.

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    This book expands on the APSA taskforce report released in 2004 and reviews the literature, to date, on inequalities in political participation, governance, and public policy.

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A significant amount of research on the politics of U.S. income inequality is published in the general political science journals, including the American Journal of Political Science, the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, Political Research Quarterly, PS: Political Science & Politics, Perspectives on Politics, and the British Journal of Political Science. Studies of public opinion, political psychology, partisan attitudes, and income inequality are increasingly found in Public Opinion Quarterly and Political Behavior. Work also appears in more general sociological and economic journals, such as the American Sociological Review. No journal is dedicated specifically to the study of the politics of income inequality.

Public Opinion and Income Inequality

Research examining the relationship between changes to public opinion and redistributive policies, and how the rise in inequality influences changes to public opinion, has grown greatly. In particular, scholars examine how aware and concerned the American public is over the rise in income inequality and what if anything they want government to do about it. In addition, some scholars assess whether policy preferences diverge across socioeconomic groups and, if they do, which group receives the most attention from policymakers.

Attitudes Toward Redistribution and Inequality

These studies evaluate citizens’ knowledge of rising inequality and how perceptions about inequality influence voter preferences for redistributive policies. Jacobs and Page 2009, Xu and Garand 2010, and McCall and Kenworthy 2009 examine citizens’ awareness of the growing income gap in the United States. Hochschild 1981, a seminal work, shows that Americans prefer equality of opportunity but are less supportive of explicit redistribution. Relatedly, McCall 2013 finds that citizens hold the wealthy responsible for the rise of inequality and decrease in equal opportunity and prefer policies that expand worker opportunities in the labor market. Campbell 2009; Faricy and Ellis 2014; Franko, et al. 2013; and Lupia, et al. 2007 study the attitudes of voters toward the distributive properties of the tax system. Finally, Kuziemko, et al. 2015 examine how information about the rising level of income inequality influences citizens’ policy preferences.

  • Campbell, Andrea Louise. “What Americans Think of Taxes.” In The New Fiscal Sociology: Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspective. Edited by Isaac Martin William, Ajay K. Mehrotra, and Monica Prasad, 48–67. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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    Campbell examines American attitudes toward taxes over time and across groups. She finds that citizens are sensitive to the costs of taxation and the relationship between the two has strengthened over time. Citizens are less pessimistic toward taxes when the overall level of taxation is low. The rise in elite rhetoric about taxes has increased the saliency of tax policy among voters.

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  • Faricy, Christopher, and Christopher Ellis. “Public Attitudes toward Social Spending in the United States: The Differences between Direct Spending and Tax Expenditures.” Political Behavior 36.1 (2014): 53–76.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11109-013-9225-5Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This paper uses a survey experiment to examine differences in public attitudes toward “direct” and “indirect” government spending. Faricy and Ellis find that support for otherwise identical social programs is generally higher when such programs are portrayed as being delivered as a tax expenditure. However, support drops when citizens are provided information about the redistributive effects of tax expenditures. This is true more for Democrats than Republicans.

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  • Franko, William, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Christopher Witko. “Inequality, Self-Interest, and Public Support for ‘Robin Hood’ Tax Policies.” Political Research Quarterly 66.4 (2013): 923–937.

    DOI: 10.1177/1065912913485441Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study uses Washington State’s Prop 1098 to examine public opinion toward tax policy. The authors find that self-interest and partisanship correlate with preferences for tax policy. In particular, low-income voters favored raising taxes on the wealthy.

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  • Hochschild, Jennifer. What’s Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

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    Hochschild examines the lack of support for redistribution in the United States. Using extensive interviews, the author finds little support among the poor for progressive economic redistribution. She argues that citizens conceptually segregate equality, subscribing to it politically and procedurally but not economically. American voters, particularly working-class ones, do not support economic egalitarianism and are often ambivalent about policies that address inequality.

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  • Jacobs, Benjamin, and Lawrence Page. Class War? What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

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    Jacobs and Page find that citizens are concerned about growing inequality and have similar views on how government should address it. This book uses an extension national survey to show that Americans are “conservative egalitarians” who identify as conservative but hold liberal views on social welfare policy and government redistribution.

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  • Kuziemko, Ilyana, Michael I. Norton, Emmanuel Saez, and Stefanie Stantcheva. “How Elastic Are Preferences for Redistribution? Evidence from Randomized Survey Experiments.” American Economic Review 105.4 (2015): 1478–1508.

    DOI: 10.1257/aer.20130360Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors use survey experiments to examine how providing information to respondents changes their preferences for government redistribution. The authors find large informational effects on whether citizens view inequality as problematic and in support for the estate tax. In particular, informing citizens about the skewed distribution of the estate tax lowers trust in government.

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  • Lupia, Arthur, Adam Seth Levine, Jesse O. Manning, and Gisela Sin. “Were Bush Tax Cut Supporters ‘Simply Ignorant?’ A Second Look at Conservatives and Liberals in ‘Homer Gets a Tax Cut.’” Perspectives on Politics 5.4 (2007): 773–784.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592707072210Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article directly responds to a chapter in Bartels 2008 (cited under General Overviews) about voter misinformation and tax cuts. The authors show that informational effects were conditioned by respondents’ partisanship. Specifically, highly informed conservatives and Republicans supported the Bush tax cuts while informed liberals and Democrats did not support the tax cuts.

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  • McCall, Leslie. The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs about Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139225687Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    McCall uses survey data and media analysis to examine attitudes of citizens toward income inequality and their policy preferences in response to it. She finds that citizens have worried about inequality for decades and view the rich as flourishing as others have limited opportunity for jobs, wages, and quality education. Voters prefer policies that expand opportunity and redistribute income in the market rather than through more government taxing and spending.

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  • McCall, Leslie, and Lane Kenworthy. “Americans’ Social Preferences in the Era of Rising Inequality.” Perspectives on Politics 7.3 (2009): 459–484.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592709990818Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study examines whether citizens know and care about income inequality. Citizens are concerned about rising inequality, and they show more support for policies that enhance personal job opportunities than for traditional social welfare policies.

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  • Xu, Ping, and James C. Garand. “Economic Context and Americans’ Perceptions of Income Inequality.” Social Science Quarterly 91.5 (2010): 1220–1241.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2010.00729.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article examines Americans’ perceptions of rising income inequality. Xu and Garand find that voters in states with high inequality and with low incomes are more likely to report observing increases in inequality at the national level.

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Class, Gender, and Race

Burns and Gallagher 2010 provides an overview of the recent public opinion literature on gender and politics. Gilens 1999 examines how perceptions of race intersect with attitudes toward welfare. Hutchings and Valentino 2004 reviews relevant studies on the persistent racial gap in policy preferences, especially for redistributive policies. Fiske 2011 and Walsh 2012 examine the role of group consciousness in affecting the relationship between class and public opinion. Page, et al. 2013 and Khan 2012 study the role of elites and elite opinion on producing policies that drive up inequality.

  • Burns, Nancy, and Katherine Gallagher. “Public Opinion on Gender Issues: The Politics of Equity and Roles.” Annual Review of Political Science 13 (2010): 425–443.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.12.040507.142213Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Burns and Gallagher examine the literature on how citizens think about gender and how conceptions of gender shape political views and policy preferences.

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  • Fiske, Susan T. Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011.

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    This book examines why citizens compare themselves to both the rich and the poor and how these inform in-group and out-group evaluations. Fiske finds that a majority of citizens rate the rich as competent but not warm and view the poor and homeless as neither warm nor competent.

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  • Gilens, Martin. Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226293660.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Gilens uses poll data, media content analysis, and survey experiments in examining the perception of welfare among citizens. He finds that negative feelings toward welfare are correlated with perceptions of the program mainly benefiting African Americans and the media’s misrepresentation of welfare recipients as black and underserving.

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  • Hutchings, Vincent L., and Nicholas A. Valentino. “The Centrality of Race in American Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science 7 (2004): 383–408.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.7.012003.104859Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article reviews a number of relevant topics, including the persistent racial gap on redistributive policies such as equal employment opportunity, affirmative action, spending on assistance to blacks, fair housing policies, and social services.

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  • Khan, Shamus Rahman. “The Sociology of Elites.” Annual Review of Sociology 38 (2012): 361–377.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-soc-071811-145542Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Khan studies elites as a vehicle for examining the relationship between power and inequality. He notes that recent studies point to an increasing concentration of power and resources among the top 1 percent of American society.

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  • Lamont, Michèle. The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2000.

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    Lamont undertakes extensive qualitative analysis in examining perceptions of work in the United States and France. She argues that working-class men discuss work in moral terms with whites focusing on self-discipline and blacks on caring and community. This moral view of work separates the worldview of the working-class from both the poor and the rich. There is also a racial separation within the working class based on divergent perceptions of labor.

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  • Page, Benjamin, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright. “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans.” Perspectives on Politics 11.1 (2013): 51–73.

    DOI: 10.1017/S153759271200360XSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article surveys the policy preferences of the American economic elite, the top 1 percent of income earners. They find the elite to be very active in politics and more economically conservative than the average citizen.

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  • Walsh, Katherine Cramer. “Putting Inequality in Its Place: Rural Consciousness and the Power of Perspective.” American Political Science Review 106.3 (2012): 517–532.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055412000305Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Walsh uses extensive fieldwork to study the role of group consciousness in structuring the relationship between the interests of citizens and policy preferences. She shows that the preference of rural citizens for limited government is a function of rural consciousness, which includes a distrust of urban political elites.

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Economic Conditions, Class, and Policy Preferences

A number of studies show the varied effects of socioeconomic class on perceptions of the economy, policy preferences, government spending, and political values. Levine 2015; Newman 2014; Hacker, et al. 2013; Margalit 2013; and Rehm, et al. 2012 evaluate how a rise in economic insecurity has influenced the preferences of voters for social policies and spending. Ellis and Faricy 2011 shows that the modality of government spending drives changes to the public mood. Hopkins 2012 studies how inequality has changed how citizens evaluate policymakers using economics. In contrast to previous studies, Kelly and Enns 2010 demonstrates that rising inequality moves the electorate to demand less government redistribution.

  • Ellis, Christopher, and Christopher Faricy. “Social Policy and Public Opinion: How the Ideological Direction of Spending Influences Public Mood.” The Journal of Politics 73.4 (2011): 1095–1110.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022381611000806Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Ellis and Faricy find that an increase in regressive tax expenditures results in the public demanding more liberal policies while an increase in public social spending moves public mood in a more conservative direction.

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  • Hacker, Jacob S., Philipp Rehm, and Mark Schlesinger. “The Insecure American: Economic Experiences, Financial Worries, and Policy Attitudes.” Perspectives on Politics 11.1 (2013): 23–49.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592712003647Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article uses a unique survey to construct a theory about the relationship between the economic experiences of citizens and their policy preferences toward social welfare policy. They find evidence that citizens who experienced economic shocks and heightened economic rick prefer greater government support for social insurance and welfare.

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  • Hopkins, Daniel J. “Whose Economy? Perceptions of National Economic Performance during Unequal Growth.” Public Opinion Quarterly 76.1 (2012): 50–71.

    DOI: 10.1093/poq/nfr039Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study explores how rising inequality has transformed citizen evaluations of politicians and policy using economic indicators. Hopkins finds that even with rising inequality citizens across income levels generally agree on the economy’s performance.

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  • Kelly, Nathan J., and Peter K. Enns. “Inequality and the Dynamics of Public Opinion: The Self-Reinforcing Link between Economic Inequality and Mass Preferences.” American Journal of Political Science 54.4 (2010): 855–870.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2010.00472.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article examines the relationship between income inequality and public opinion. Kelly and Enns use time-series data in a macro-level analysis to show that when inequality is high it results in a public mood that demands less government redistribution. These results run counter to the findings in Meltzer and Richard 1981 (cited under Representational Inequality) that inequality produces more public demand for redistribution.

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  • Levine, Adam Seth. American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400852130Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Levine examines how citizens are responding to the rise of economic insecurity in the United States. He examines the public’s ambivalence toward inequality and goes so far as to show that the rhetoric surrounding insecurity actually provokes fear and inaction among citizens. The major implication is that information about increased insecurity results in less citizen participation and subsequently fewer demands for redistributive policies.

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  • Margalit, Yotam. “Explaining Social Policy Preferences: Evidence from the Great Recession.” American Political Science Review 107.1 (2013): 80–103.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055412000603Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article uses a longitudinal survey to examine how the economic circumstances of citizens affect their attitudes toward social welfare programs. Yotam finds that voters’ loss of employment increases their support for welfare programs especially among Republicans and Independents.

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  • Newman, Benjamin J. “My Poor Friend: Financial Distress in One’s Social Network, the Perceived Power of the Rich, and Support for Redistribution.” The Journal of Politics 76.1 (2014): 126–138.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022381613001138Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Newman surveys how economic distress in a voter’s social network influences preferences toward public policies. He finds that having economically distressed friends increases both perceptions of bias in politics toward the wealthy and support for more government redistribution.

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  • Rehm, Philipp, Jacob S. Hacker, and Mark Schlesinger. “Insecure Alliances: Risk, Inequality, and Support for the Welfare State.” American Political Science Review 106.2 (2012): 386–406.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055412000147Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This piece investigates the relationship among economic disadvantage, risk, and support for welfare policies. The authors find that when the economically disadvantaged and insecure are separate groups, support for the welfare state is broader; however, when there is significant overlap there is less support for redistributive policies.

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Participation, Mobilization, Voting, and Elections

There are a number of studies on socioeconomic class differences in political participation and mobilization. Leighley and Nagler 2013 examines factors that determine variation in voter turnout. Rosenstone and Hanson 1993 theorizes about how the behavior of political parties and interest groups influence voter turnout. Hill, et al. 1995; Gelman, et al. 2010; Rigby and Springer 2011; and Flavin 2012 study the causes and effects of class differences in voter turnout. Solt 2010 shows that increased inequality reduces turnout and increases income bias. Strolovitch 2007 demonstrates that interest group leaders overestimate the lobbying effort for disadvantaged groups and underestimate the impact of privileged groups. Scholzman, et al. 2012 reports on recent trends in interest group activity and civic participation. Oser, et al. 2013 compares the income gap in online and off-line political participation.

  • Flavin, Patrick. “Does Higher Voter Turnout among the Poor Lead to More Equal Policy Representation?” Social Science Journal 49.4 (2012): 405–412.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.soscij.2012.09.006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Flavin explores the relationship among class, voter turnout, and representation. He does not find that increased voting turnout among low-income families produces better representation in the Senate.

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  • Gelman, Andrew, Lane Kenworthy, and Yu-Sung Su. “Income Inequality and Partisan Voting in the United States.” Social Science Quarterly 91.5 (2010): 1203–1219.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2010.00728.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article examines socioeconomic voting trends from the 1940s through the 2000s at both the national and the state levels. The authors find no statistical evidence for a connection between increased inequality and socioeconomic partisan voting.

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  • Hill, Kim Q., Jan E. Leighley, and Angela Hinton-Anderson. “Lower-Class Mobilization and Policy Linkage in the U.S. States.” American Journal of Political Science 39 (1995): 75–86.

    DOI: 10.2307/2111758Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article uses a pooled time series to demonstrate that more working-class voters produce higher state social welfare spending.

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  • Leighley, Jan E., and Jonathen Nagler. Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400848621Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Leighley and Nagler ask who votes, who doesn’t, and does the difference matter for policy outcomes? They study institutional determinants of voting turnout; they show, for example, that the racial voting gap has narrowed over time. The authors find less evidence that legal changes intended to increase turnout have had much of an impact, except for absentee voting. Finally, Leighley and Nagler show that clear and consistent divisions exist between voters and nonvoters over preferences for redistributive economic policies.

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  • Oser, Jennifer, Marc Hooghe, and Sofie Marien. “Is Online Participation Distinct from Offline Participation? A Latent Class Analysis of Participation Types and Their Stratification.” Political Research Quarterly 66.1 (2013): 91–101.

    DOI: 10.1177/1065912912436695Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors inquire whether traditional socioeconomic disparities in political participation travel to online political participation. They show significant class differences are found among citizens in their political participation using the Internet.

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  • Rigby, Elizabeth, and Melanie J. Springer. “Does Electoral Reform Increase (or Decrease) Political Equality?” Political Research Quarterly 64.2 (2011): 420–434.

    DOI: 10.1177/1065912909358582Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors study whether electoral reforms at the state level reduce barriers to voting for poorer voters. Rigby and Springer find that eliminating the registration requirement closes the income gap in voting while convenience voting and registration reforms are less effective methods.

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  • Rosenstone, Steven J., and John Mark Hanson. Mobilization, Participation, and Democracy in America. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

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    This classic book argues that socioeconomic differences in voter turnout can be explained by who is asked to participate by parties and interest groups.

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  • Scholzman, Kay Lehman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady. The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

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    This book examines trends in civic participation alongside the activity of interest groups. The authors document many methods of class bias in the political system, including uneven participation in organized interests, individual-level participation patterns, and recruitment strategies.

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  • Solt, Frederick. “Does Economic Inequality Depress Electoral Participation? Testing the Schattschneider Hypothesis.” Political Behavior 32.2 (2010): 285–301.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11109-010-9106-0Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Solt uses multilevel analysis to examine survey responses across 144 gubernatorial elections. He finds that state-level income inequality reduces voter turnout and increases income bias in the electorate.

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  • Strolovitch, Dara Z. Affirmative Advocacy: Race, Class, and Gender in Interest Group Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226777450.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Strolovitch examines 286 advocacy groups in the areas of women’s rights, racial equality, and economic justice. She finds that interest groups do not promote the policy preferences of disadvantaged groups as well as groups that represent more advantaged groups. Strolovitch finds that group leaders tend to overestimate how much other groups are serving the interests of underrepresented populations and advantaged groups believe that their efforts will trickle down benefits to more vulnerable populations.

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Class and Partisan Identification

This line of research examines the relationship between socioeconomic class and the electoral coalitions of the major political parties. Stonecash 2000 and Ellis 2010 show that class cleavages still matter in party politics and have grown stronger over time. Gelman 2008 argues that while class-based partisanship is evident at the macro level, it is conditional at the state level.

  • Ellis, Christopher. “Why the New Deal Still Matters: Public Preferences, Elite Context, and American Mass Party Change, 1974–2006.” Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties 20.1 (2010): 103–132.

    DOI: 10.1080/17457280903450773Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study shows that issues of importance during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal still heavily determine individual party identification and macro-level coalitions.

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  • Gelman, Andrew. Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.

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    The author shows that rich states vote Democratic and rich individuals vote Republican. In particular, they demonstrate that income class correlates with party vote in poor states with richer citizens voting for the Republican Party and working-class voters aligning with the Democrats.

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  • Stonecash, Jeff. Class and Party in American Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000.

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    This book shows that class cleavages across the two parties have grown since the 1950s, especially with more working-class voters identifying with the Democratic Party.

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Partisan Polarization

A number of works examine the relationship between political polarization and income inequality. Bonica, et al. 2013 examines political factors, including polarization, that have failed to slow the rise of inequality. Clark and Arel-Bundock 2013 shows that the Federal Reserve Bank’s goals shift depending upon the party in control of the White House. Dettrey and Campbell 2013 demonstrates that rising inequality has not been responsible for the increase in political polarization among the electorate. McCarty, et al. 2006 and McCarty, et al. 2013 study how a rise in political polarization has contributed to both financial bubbles and increased income inequality. Mettler 2014 argues that polarization and plutocracy changed higher education policies in ways that help the wealthy and hurt the middle class. Ura and Ellis 2012 finds that polarization is asymmetric and driven by differences over redistributive policies.

  • Bonica, Adam, Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal. “Why Hasn’t Democracy Slowed Rising Inequality?” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 27.3 (2013): 103–123.

    DOI: 10.1257/jep.27.3.103Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study examines multiple reasons why democracy has not produced greater corrections for the rapid growth in economic inequality in the United States. The authors conclude that partisan ideological shifts, immigration, lobbying, campaign contributions, and gridlock have all contributed to a rise in inequality.

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  • Clark, William Roberts, and Vincent Arel-Bundock. “Independent but Not Indifferent: Partisan Bias in Monetary Policy at the Fed.” Economics and Politics 25.1 (2013): 1–16.

    DOI: 10.1111/ecpo.12006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study examines the political behavior of the independent Federal Reserve Bank. They find that the Fed responds to inflation by raising the main rate under Democratic administrations but addresses low output when a Republican is in the White House.

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  • Dettrey, Bryan J., and James E. Campbell. “Has Growing Inequality Polarized the American Electorate? Class, Party, and Ideological Polarization.” Social Science Quarterly 94.4 (2013): 1062–1083.

    DOI: 10.1111/ssqu.12026Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors inquire whether higher levels of income inequality result in the rich becoming more conservative and the poor becoming more liberal over time. They conclude that polarization has been caused by political elites and not by growing inequality.

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  • McCarty, Nolan, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal. Polarized America: The Dance of Unequal Riches. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006.

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    This book examines the relationship between political polarization and rising income inequality. The authors find that polarization and income inequality both dropped from 1913 to 1957 and then increased together from the 1970s onward. In addition, they argue that the move of the Republicans to the right together with increased immigration have augmented growing inequality.

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  • McCarty, Nolan, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal. Political Bubbles: Financial Crises and the Failure of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

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    The authors argue that polarized ideologies, unresponsive political institutions, and unrepresentative interest groups cause political bubbles. In turn, political bubbles reward and incentivize market behaviors that result in financial crisis.

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  • Mettler, Suzanne. Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

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    Mettler examines how polarization and plutocracy created a higher education system that works well for the rich but has not maintained previous levels of support for the middle class.

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  • Ura, Joseph Daniel, and Christopher R. Ellis. “Partisan Moods: Polarization and the Dynamics of Mass Party Preferences.” The Journal of Politics 74.1 (2012): 277–291.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022381611001587Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors find that polarization is asymmetric, caused by differences over redistribution that resulted in Republicans moving far to the ideological right.

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Representational Inequality

The largest field of study in the politics of US income inequality relates to issues of representational inequality. Flavin 2011 and Rigby and Wright 2013 examine state-level representation at different stages of the policy process. Volscho and Kelly 2012 evaluates the political and economic conditions that produce income concentration. Mettler 2011 and Faricy 2015 examine the political factors that result in a rise in government tax subsidies, which increase inequality. Meltzer and Richard 1981 is a classic work that underpins many scholarly arguments about how democracy should respond to rising levels of inequality. Kelly 2009 studies the relationship among policy mood, power resources, and the level of income inequality in the United States. Griffin and Newman 2007 compares representation across race and ethnicity. Gilens and Page 2014 tests various democratic theories of American politics. Ellis 2013 examines the conditions under which the poor receive more responsive representation.

  • Ellis, Christopher. “Social Context and Economic Biases in Representation.” The Journal of Politics 75.3 (2013): 773–786.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022381613000376Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article examines how political context determines the presence and degree of economic bias in representation. He finds that poorer voters are better represented when the following conditions exist: tight party competition, districts with low median incomes, districts with less income inequality, areas with high union membership, and districts traditionally represented by Democrats.

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  • Faricy, Christopher. Welfare for the Wealthy: Parties, Spending, and Inequality in the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316181607Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This book examines the relationship among political parties, social spending, and income inequality. Faricy finds that Republican control of the federal government results in more social tax expenditures, less discretionary social spending, and higher levels of inequality.

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  • Flavin, Patrick. “Income Inequality and Policy Representation in the American States.” American Politics Research 40.1 (2011): 29–59.

    DOI: 10.1177/1532673X11416920Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This essay studies class differences in representation at the state level. Flavin finds that citizens from low-income households receive less representation than wealthier voters.

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  • Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin I. Page. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics 12.3 (2014): 564–581.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592714001595Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This widely discussed study examines different theories of American politics. Gilens and Page find evidence that the wealthy and business interests influence policy outcomes while the average voter and mass-based interest groups do not.

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  • Griffin, John D., and Brian Newman. “The Unequal Representation of Latinos and Whites.” The Journal of Politics 69.4 (2007): 1032–1046.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2508.2007.00605.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This work compares the ideological gap between Latinos and whites to their legislators. The authors find that increased concentration of Latinos does not translate into better representation, although Democrats or Latino legislators do improve government’s responsiveness to minority interests.

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  • Kelly, Nathan J. The Politics of Income Inequality in the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511576225Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study combines the macro-polity and power resource theories to examine how both mass public opinion and political institutions contribute to changes in inequality. Kelly shows that leftward shifts of public opinion and Democratic control of government results in lower income inequality through two mechanisms: market conditioning and redistribution.

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  • Meltzer, Allan H., and Scott F. Richard. “A Rational Theory of the Size of Government.” Journal of Political Economy 89.5 (1981): 914–927.

    DOI: 10.1086/261013Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Meltzer and Richard develop a model that shows an increase in income inequality should result in voters pushing government for public policy that redistributes national income. The authors argue that the median voter often has a lower than average income and will therefore call for higher levels of government redistribution.

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  • Mettler, Suzanne. The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226521664.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Mettler examines submerged policies (e.g., tax expenditures) that hide the role of government and highlight the private market in the areas of student aid, tax relief, and health care. She finds that submerged policies result in citizens being unaware of their government benefits and provide policy advantages to business interests.

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  • Rigby, Elizabeth, and Gerald Wright. “Political Parties and Representation of the Poor in the American States.” American Journal of Political Science 57.3 (2013): 552–565.

    DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12007Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Rigby and Wright examine representation at the state level at early stages of the policy process. They find that both political parties are much more responsive to the preferences of the wealthy and states with higher inequality produce the least responsive state-level Democratic Parties.

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  • Volscho, Thomas W., and Nathan J. Kelly. “The Rise of the Super-Rich: Power Resources, Taxes, Financial Markets, and the Dynamics of the Top 1 Percent, 1949 to 2008.” American Sociological Review 77.5 (2012): 679–699.

    DOI: 10.1177/0003122412458508Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article investigates the relationship among political institutions, policy, and higher income concentration. The authors use time-series analysis to find that increased income concentration correlates with more Republican legislative control, a decline of union power, lower marginal tax rates, more open trade, and frequent economic bubbles.

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Political Institutions

How have formal and informal political institutions affected changes to national income inequality? Carnes 2013 examines how the backgrounds of legislators influence policymaking and policies. Campbell 2011 questions Bartel’s findings on the relationship between control of the presidency and changes in income inequality. Enns, et al. 2014 examine how political and policy institutions have contributed to rising inequality. Ferguson 1995 introduces an investment theory of party competition and politics. Hibbs 1987 classic work examines how political party control produces economic policies that in turn influence income redistribution patterns. Lindblom 1977 in a seminal piece argues that the concentration of business power is a threat to democracy. Jacobs and Soss 2010 argue for the potential in applying political economy to the study of the politics of income inequality. Warren 2010 examines how race and politics affects union membership. Winters and Page 2009 evaluate the possibility of an American oligarchy. Skocpol 2013 argues that changes in civic participation and interest group activity results in public policies favoring the wealthy.

  • Campbell, James E. “The Economic Records of the Presidents: Party Differences and Inherited Economic Conditions.” The Forum 9 (2011): 1–29.

    DOI: 10.2202/1540-8884.1429Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article reexamines Bartels’s analysis of the relationship between party control of the White House and economic conditions, including inequality (see Bartels 2008, cited under General Overviews). Campbell argues that Bartels’s findings are a function of specification error and demonstrates that once lagged economic effects are controlled for in the model, there is no statistical evidence of party differences in gross domestic product (GDP), changes to unemployment, or income inequality.

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  • Carnes, Nicholas. White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226087283.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This book examines how the socioeconomic status of representatives influences policy outcomes in the United States. Carnes finds that the paucity of working-class representatives over time has produced policy that benefits the economic interests of the wealthy over the average voter.

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  • Enns, Peter K., Nathan J. Kelly, Jana Morgan, Thomas Volscho, and Christopher Witko. “Conditional Status Quo Bias and Top Income Shares: How U.S. Political Institutions Have Benefited the Rich.” The Journal of Politics 76 (2014): 289–303.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022381613001321Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors construct and test a theory of conditional status quo bias and inequality. They find that the structure of the US Senate along with policy drift contribute to rising inequality in America.

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  • Ferguson, Thomas. Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

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    A study of how increased campaign costs and money in politics determines nominations, structures national elections, and produces legislation that benefits the wealthy.

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  • Hibbs, Douglas A. The American Political Economy: Macroeconomics and Electoral Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

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    A seminal work examining how partisan control of the federal government produces different economic outcomes. Hibbs concludes that Republican presidents grow inequality while Democratic executives create policies that lower inequality.

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  • Jacobs, Lawrence, and Joe Soss. “The Politics of Inequality in America: A Political Economy Framework.” Annual Review of Political Science 13 (2010): 341–364.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.041608.140134Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Jacobs and Soss argue that classic theories of political economy are underutilized in theorizing about the politics of income inequality. This piece reviews the literature on the politics of income inequality and places it within various concepts of political economy.

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  • Lindblom, Charles E. Politics and Markets: The World’s Political Economic Systems. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

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    A classic text that compares the role that power plays between governments and the market. Lindblom argues that the largest threat to democracy comes from the power and influence of big business.

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  • Skocpol, Theda. Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.

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    Skocpol studies changes in interest groups and civic engagement over time. She argues that the interest group environment has shifted from federated groups interested in recruiting members to managed groups and nonprofits concerned about attracting donors. This shift has transferred political power from the public to business interests, resulting in more policies being passed that favor the wealthy.

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  • Warren, Dorian T. “The American Labor Movement in the Age of Obama: The Challenges and Opportunities of a Racialized Political Economy.” Perspectives on Politics 8.3 (2010): 847–860.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592710002082Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article examines the decline of labor union membership in the United States. Warren argues that American governing institutions, geography, and race are the salient factors in driving union participation down to historic lows.

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  • Winters, Jeffery A., and Benjamin I. Page. “Oligarchy in the United States?” Perspectives on Politics 7.4 (2009): 731–751.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592709991770Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Winters and Page use data to construct material power indexes in determining that wealthier American citizens have more political influence than others in certain policy areas.

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