With sharp analysis and an impressive range of data, Martin Gilens looks at thousands of proposed policy changes, and the degree of support for each among poor, middle-class, and affluent Americans. His findings are staggering: when preferences of low- or middle-income Americans diverge from those of the affluent, there is virtually no relationship between policy outcomes and the desires of less advantaged groups. In contrast, affluent Americans' preferences exhibit a substantial relationship with policy outcomes whether their preferences are shared by lower-income groups or not. Gilens shows that representational inequality is spread widely across different policy domains and time periods. Yet Gilens also shows that under specific circumstances the preferences of the middle class and, to a lesser extent, the poor, do seem to matter. In particular, impending elections--especially presidential elections--and an even partisan division in Congress mitigate representational inequality and boost responsiveness to the preferences of the broader public.
At a time when economic and political inequality in the United States only continues to rise, Affluence and Influence raises important questions about whether American democracy is truly responding to the needs of all its citizens.
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.