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.
Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels deploy a wealth of social-scientific evidence, including ingenious original analyses of topics ranging from abortion politics and budget deficits to the Great Depression and shark attacks, to show that the familiar ideal of thoughtful citizens steering the ship of state from the voting booth is fundamentally misguided. They demonstrate that voters—even those who are well informed and politically engaged—mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents' control; the outcomes are essentially random. Thus, voters do not control the course of public policy, even indirectly.
Achen and Bartels argue that democratic theory needs to be founded on identity groups and political parties, not on the preferences of individual voters. Now with new analysis of the 2016 elections, Democracy for Realists provides a powerful challenge to conventional thinking, pointing the way toward a fundamentally different understanding of the realities and potential of democratic government.
The first edition of Unequal Democracy was an instant classic, shattering illusions about American democracy and spurring scholarly and popular interest in the political causes and consequences of escalating economic inequality. This revised, updated, and expanded second edition includes two new chapters on the political economy of the Obama era. One presents the Great Recession as a "stress test" of the American political system by analyzing the 2008 election and the impact of Barack Obama's "New New Deal" on the economic fortunes of the rich, middle class, and poor. The other assesses the politics of inequality in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the 2012 election, and the partisan gridlock of Obama’s second term. Larry Bartels offers a sobering account of the barriers to change posed by partisan ideologies and the political power of the wealthy. He also provides new analyses of tax policy, partisan differences in economic performance, the struggle to raise the minimum wage, and inequalities in congressional representation.
President Obama identified inequality as "the defining challenge of our time." Unequal Democracy is the definitive account of how and why our political system has failed to rise to that challenge. Now more than ever, this is a book every American needs to read.
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