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Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age

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Using a vast swath of data spanning the past six decades, Unequal Democracy debunks many myths about politics in contemporary America, using the widening gap between the rich and the poor to shed disturbing light on the workings of American democracy. Larry Bartels shows the gap between the rich and poor has increased greatly under Republican administrations and decreased Using a vast swath of data spanning the past six decades, Unequal Democracy debunks many myths about politics in contemporary America, using the widening gap between the rich and the poor to shed disturbing light on the workings of American democracy. Larry Bartels shows the gap between the rich and poor has increased greatly under Republican administrations and decreased slightly under Democrats, leaving America grossly unequal. This is not simply the result of economic forces, but the product of broad-reaching policy choices in a political system dominated by partisan ideologies and the interests of the wealthy. 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.


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Using a vast swath of data spanning the past six decades, Unequal Democracy debunks many myths about politics in contemporary America, using the widening gap between the rich and the poor to shed disturbing light on the workings of American democracy. Larry Bartels shows the gap between the rich and poor has increased greatly under Republican administrations and decreased Using a vast swath of data spanning the past six decades, Unequal Democracy debunks many myths about politics in contemporary America, using the widening gap between the rich and the poor to shed disturbing light on the workings of American democracy. Larry Bartels shows the gap between the rich and poor has increased greatly under Republican administrations and decreased slightly under Democrats, leaving America grossly unequal. This is not simply the result of economic forces, but the product of broad-reaching policy choices in a political system dominated by partisan ideologies and the interests of the wealthy. 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.

30 review for Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age

  1. 5 out of 5

    Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin

    Lays out in stats and charts what most people (outside the Trump cult) know. Republican rule makes the public poorer, sicker, and dumber and jacks up inequality. I would simply say it is common knowledge that Right is toxic and corporate centrists are at best useless. It is nice to see the charts and the 8 by 10 color glossy photos but I already knew this. thanks

  2. 4 out of 5

    rmn

    This is political scientist Larry Bartels' statistical look at the growing income inequality in America and the effects income has on American politics (and vice versa). He uses data and regression analysis to show that income inequality grows during Republican presidencies and rich people have more influence on how representatives vote. Wow, really Captain Obvious? It took you six years and 300 pages to figure that out? It is rumored that in his next book, Bartels will use deep statistical This is political scientist Larry Bartels' statistical look at the growing income inequality in America and the effects income has on American politics (and vice versa). He uses data and regression analysis to show that income inequality grows during Republican presidencies and rich people have more influence on how representatives vote. Wow, really Captain Obvious? It took you six years and 300 pages to figure that out? It is rumored that in his next book, Bartels will use deep statistical analysis to prove that the sun rises in the morning and fat people eat more than skinny people. In all seriousness, while some of the results are obvious, the statistics behind them are interesting as well as some of the factors leading to those results. Most interestingly, Bartels does his best to approach the data and results in a non-biased and factual manner. He claims not to have voted in an election since 1984 when he voted for Reagan, so he's not a left wing nut, though his findings in the book have clearly swung his political views to the left. In the end, one is left wondering why anyone would ever vote Republican if economics are their main concern since all levels of income earners do better under Democratic presidents and six of the last seven recessions have happened under Republican presidents. Bartels attempts to show why these seemingly nonsensical and non-constituent maximizing political results happen by highlighting the effects of information asymmetry, economic standing, short sightedness of voters, and party line voting. He examines seemingly incongruous results through real world data and examples such as the minimum wage and estate tax. Independents and Republicans should read this book as it is not a polemic and is as reasoned as a conclusion making political book can be. Data doesn't lie, nor do statistics, despite what Mark Twain opined.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Rob

    Read the 2nd edition which came out in 2016. A highly sophisticated example of political science research that clearly demonstrates that the economy does better during Democratic administrations, the wealthy benefit greatly during Republican administrations, and that government primarily ignores the poor, barely pays attention to the middle class, while catering significantly to the interests of the wealthy. Our political system is an example of what Aristotle meant by an oligarchy. As Bartels Read the 2nd edition which came out in 2016. A highly sophisticated example of political science research that clearly demonstrates that the economy does better during Democratic administrations, the wealthy benefit greatly during Republican administrations, and that government primarily ignores the poor, barely pays attention to the middle class, while catering significantly to the interests of the wealthy. Our political system is an example of what Aristotle meant by an oligarchy. As Bartels notes, however, "if we insist on flattering ourselves by referring to it as a democracy, we should be clear that it is a starkly 'unequal democracy'."

  4. 4 out of 5

    Shel Schipper

    Great glimpse at the quandary that extreme capitalism brings to the democratic process. T As the author wrote, "...scientists since Aristotle have wrestled with the question of whether substantial economic inequality is compatible with democracy..." Bartels fills his book with facts, statistics, charts all enumerating the unparalleled economic disparity of modern America and goes on to show studies that look at the psychology of why more people aren't up in arms at this fact.This is a Great glimpse at the quandary that extreme capitalism brings to the democratic process. T As the author wrote, "...scientists since Aristotle have wrestled with the question of whether substantial economic inequality is compatible with democracy..." Bartels fills his book with facts, statistics, charts all enumerating the unparalleled economic disparity of modern America and goes on to show studies that look at the psychology of why more people aren't up in arms at this fact.This is a fascinating book that should compel more of us to be outraged and to show it in the voting booths. Interesting quotes: "Meanwhile, the political process has evolved in ways that seem likely to reinforce the advantages of wealth. Political campaigns have become dramatically more expensive since the 1950's, increasing the reliance of elected officials on people who can afford to help finance their bids for reelection. Lobbying activities by corporations and business and professional organizations have accelerated greatly, outpacing the growth of public interest groups.Membership in labor unions have declined substantially, eroding the primary mechanism for organized representation of working people in the governmental process." "The real value of the minimum wage has declined by more than 40% since the late 1960's, despite remarkably strong and consistent public support for minimum wage increases." "For example, while the real income of taxpayers at the 99th percentile doubled between 1981 and 2005, the real income of taxpayers at the 99.9th percentile nearly tripled, and the real income of taxpayers at the 99.99th percentile - a hyper-rich stratum comprising of about 13,000 taxpayers - increased fivefold." "In 2005, the New York Times published a 20-year retrospective on the list of the 400 wealthiest Americans produced annually by Forbes magazine. The Times noted that the average net worth of these 400 economic luminaries increased more than fourfold over that period (from $600 million in 1985 to $2.81 billion in 2005) and that their combined net wealth in 2005 exceeded the gross domestic product of Canada. The median household income of Americans has been stuck at around $44,000 for five years now. The poverty rate is up.Members of the Forbes 400, meanwhile, are richer than Croesus and every hour are getting richer." "Although it is common for Americans to suppose that the nation's collective wealth makes even poor people better off than they otherwise would be, the reality is that poor people in America seem to be distinctly less well off than poor people in countries that are less wealthy but less unequal. A careful comparison of the living standards of poor children in 13 rich democracies in the 1990's found the United States ranking next to last......worry that inequality itself may have deleterious social implications in the realms of family and community life, health and education." "Middle-class America didn't emerge by accident. It was created by what has been called the Great Compression of incomes that took place during World Wat II and sustained for a generation by social norms that favored equality, strong labor unions, and progressive taxation. Since the 1970's, all of those sustaining forces have lost their power. Since 1980 in particular, U.S.government policies have consistently favored the wealthy at the expense of working families - and under the current (George W. Bush) administration, that favoritism has become extreme and relentless. From tax cuts that favor the rich to bankruptcy 'reform' that punishes the unlucky, almost every domestic policy seems intended to accelerate our march back to the robber baron era." and with an election coming up, here's food for thought: "On average, the real incomes of middle-class families have grown twice as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans, while the real incomes of working poor families have grown six times as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans. These substantial partisan differences persist even after allowing for differences in economic circumstances and historical trends beyond the control of individual presidents. They suggest that escalating inequality is not simply an inevitable economic trend - and that a great deal of economic inequality in the contemporary United States is specifically attributable to the policies and priorities of Republican presidents."

  5. 5 out of 5

    David

    If you want to understand why we have so much econ disparity in this country this is a must read.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Doctor Moss

    An eye-opening book. Bartels makes 2 major points: - Partisan politics make a significant difference in income growth and income distribution. This is contrary to economic reductionism and some popular belief, i.e., that the economy will do what it does regardless of who we elect as president. The story is not good for Republicans and conservatives, but this is not an ideological argument -- it's statistical analysis. - There is no statistical evidence to claim that elected representatives An eye-opening book. Bartels makes 2 major points: - Partisan politics make a significant difference in income growth and income distribution. This is contrary to economic reductionism and some popular belief, i.e., that the economy will do what it does regardless of who we elect as president. The story is not good for Republicans and conservatives, but this is not an ideological argument -- it's statistical analysis. - There is no statistical evidence to claim that elected representatives (Democratic or Republican) pay any direct attention to the views of the lower third of income earners in their constituencies. That lower third shares a consistently diminishing portion of income growth and has no discernible share in political decisions made by their elected representatives (in Congress). Along the way, Bartels offers an alternative answer to the "What's the Matter with Kansas?" question -- Thomas Frank's book -- why voters (at least before the last election) vote for Republican candidates who do not appear to represent their best economic interests. Franks had said that, with those voters, "cultural value" issues (abortion, school prayer, etc.) had over-ridden economic interests. Bartels, again through statistical analysis, finds that those voters are actually voting their economic interests, but through a "myopic" lens -- voters' behaviors reflect election year economic performance to the exclusion of other years. Republican presidential candidates benefit from disproportionate economic growth during election years, while not paying the price of low or even negative growth and increasing inequality over the full course of their administrations. Democrats, despite producing higher overall income growth across all income segments and lower inequality, suffer from relatively poor growth during election years.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Wendy

    I really liked this book, but it is NOT for the innumerate, among whom I now find I have to count (haha) myself.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Greg

    Dr. Bartels' central concern in this book is to both demonstrate how dramatically unequal the United States has become AND why it is that so relatively few people -- despite sharing moderate to progressive views on most social, political and economic issues -- have repeatedly voted in ways that align with their sentiments. Since the degree of inequality is well discussed elsewhere -- and should, for most of us, be part of our "facts on file" in the first place -- I share with you my increased Dr. Bartels' central concern in this book is to both demonstrate how dramatically unequal the United States has become AND why it is that so relatively few people -- despite sharing moderate to progressive views on most social, political and economic issues -- have repeatedly voted in ways that align with their sentiments. Since the degree of inequality is well discussed elsewhere -- and should, for most of us, be part of our "facts on file" in the first place -- I share with you my increased uneasiness over "democracy" as a consequence of reading this book. For, in fact, the average person's true "state of knowledge" about the economy, politics, or even as to which party has most benefited persons like themselves over short and long periods of time IS ABYSMAL! "We the people" are remarkably uninformed, easily misled, our vision and imagination severely curtailed by ideological blinders, and woefully ignorant of history, even of recent history. Bartel gives us ample graphs and charts that show us the discontinuity between what people say they believe in, and how they actually express themselves on policy questions and how they vote. It suggests to me that, EVEN IF were were successful in bottling up the gross flood of money from the wealthy elite, and in curbing partisan redistricting, and in replacing a thrust to enhance voting rights rather than spreading efforts to curb them, and in eliminating the insidious effect of "false news" and the spreaders of deliberate misinformation, we would still face the overwhelming challenge of bringing our fellow men and women up to speed. And just how could/would we do that? What are essential, objective facts as opposed to subjective judgments or mistruths? And how do we get people talking to each other again with resorting to ideological fortresses? The degree of our Republic's weakness is actually remarkable. While this book may likely not provide you with answers as to "what to do" about the present dismal state of affairs, it will greatly inform you as to why we struggle so to advance in a climate permeated with ignorance and non-truth. Recommended!

  9. 4 out of 5

    C M

    Larry Bartels' "Unequal Democracy" is an exemplary work of accessible and relevant political science, which unfortunately has become so rare theses days, particularly in the subfield of American politics. While not necessarily advancing a novel thesis, or being the first to investigate the question of the effects of economic inequality on American democracy, Bartels uses a wealth of mostly survey data, statistical analysis, and case studies to provide a comprehensive answer to the question. As Larry Bartels' "Unequal Democracy" is an exemplary work of accessible and relevant political science, which unfortunately has become so rare theses days, particularly in the subfield of American politics. While not necessarily advancing a novel thesis, or being the first to investigate the question of the effects of economic inequality on American democracy, Bartels uses a wealth of mostly survey data, statistical analysis, and case studies to provide a comprehensive answer to the question. As importantly, he is able to present all his analyses in a manner that is accessible to non-experts and non-political scientists. Probably the most original and surprising conclusion is his reformulation of Thomas Frank's highly popular "What's the Matter with Kansas" thesis of 'false consciousness.' Unfortunately, most media still present Frank's thesis rather than Bartels' thesis. This is a book about American politics, not political methodology or abstract theoretical models with little real-world relevance. I wish it would be taught as a prime case of political science research, together with books like "Us Against Them" by Kinder and Kam, rather than the often trivial and unreadable journal articles that dominate graduate courses in (American) political science.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Dwight

    An excellent and maddening book about the political and economic inequality that exists in the US. It takes on Thomas Frank's contention--in What's the Matter With Kansas?--that people are just stupidly voting against their own interests. It's not that people are stupid, it's that our entire political system is geared not only to get people to vote against their own interests, but also to favor the rich and their interests above all others. I'd be curious to see a future edition of this book An excellent and maddening book about the political and economic inequality that exists in the US. It takes on Thomas Frank's contention--in What's the Matter With Kansas?--that people are just stupidly voting against their own interests. It's not that people are stupid, it's that our entire political system is geared not only to get people to vote against their own interests, but also to favor the rich and their interests above all others. I'd be curious to see a future edition of this book after the economy has rebounded from its current downturn, and the aftermath of various economic policies and the influence of the so-called Tea Party movement can be evaluated. Will we have made some progress, or will it have been more of the same?

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tahir

    Quick summary: Sound argument against the Thomas Frank position on the Republican drift of working class (bottom third for Bartels) voters against their economic interests. Such voters are shown to be not change significantly their economic and social issue preferences. But more importantly, Bartels provides useful analyses on the lack of any responsiveness of either party to the preferences of the voters in the bottom third of income, with some effect by middle income voters, but largely Quick summary: Sound argument against the Thomas Frank position on the Republican drift of working class (bottom third for Bartels) voters against their economic interests. Such voters are shown to be not change significantly their economic and social issue preferences. But more importantly, Bartels provides useful analyses on the lack of any responsiveness of either party to the preferences of the voters in the bottom third of income, with some effect by middle income voters, but largely effected by the top income. Such a conclusion would seem to dovetail well with the investment theory of political parties from Ferguson and Rogers.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sylvia

    The statistics are very, very useful. The conclusions are absurd and the explanations are mostly sought in the opposite direction from where the answers lie. But perhaps it was the best way to successfully promote the publication to a broader audience. It would not be on Obama's reading list if it lacked the convenient conclusion. It contains some uncanny truths with a thin layer of - for relevant people acceptable - speculations on how to interpret the data, wrapped around it. 2 stars for The statistics are very, very useful. The conclusions are absurd and the explanations are mostly sought in the opposite direction from where the answers lie. But perhaps it was the best way to successfully promote the publication to a broader audience. It would not be on Obama's reading list if it lacked the convenient conclusion. It contains some uncanny truths with a thin layer of - for relevant people acceptable - speculations on how to interpret the data, wrapped around it. 2 stars for providing others with some empirical evidence to back up their more sensible claims about the fallacy of democracy in The States.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey Cavanaugh

    A rather good examination of the political aspects of economic inequality in the contemporary United States. The author pretty conclusively demonstrates that the US political system simply ignores the policy preferences of low-income individuals. This has created a feed-back loop wherein economic advantage leads to and reinforces political advantage and vice versa. It should come as no surprise, then, that economic inequality has reached heights not seen since the Gilded Age. Takeaway lesson? A rather good examination of the political aspects of economic inequality in the contemporary United States. The author pretty conclusively demonstrates that the US political system simply ignores the policy preferences of low-income individuals. This has created a feed-back loop wherein economic advantage leads to and reinforces political advantage and vice versa. It should come as no surprise, then, that economic inequality has reached heights not seen since the Gilded Age. Takeaway lesson? Don't be poor. If you are, expect the system to continuously screw you over.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Al Rowell

    The author utilizes his analysis of existing surveys to dehumanize the critical situation the nation faces with a worsening inequality in the distribution of wealth. The last fleeting references to the devastation of Katrina cannot save this work. It is a purely academic exercise that does little except to substantiate what should be obvious while failing to offer any solutions or proposals to restore greater balance. This was a very tedious read.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lance Cahill

    The book is a great statistical exploration of American public opinion focusing on economic inequality. The author's analyses refutes some commonly held assumptions regarding political opinions. However, argumentation was weak with respect to opinion formation and the apparent need to reaffirm his commitment to egalitarianism at various points throughout the book was grating.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Tamra

    Economics analysis that large disparities in income and wealth do not promote economic growth. Compares our stats to that of other countries, and we come up short in economic mobility and living standards for poor children. Book explains how we got where we are today. Wondering how we are so broke today as a nation? Read this book and you'll get a clear picture.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Bimus

    Incredible measurement of political economic consciousness over the last 40 or so years. Be prepared to know a little about statistics if you want to truly understand what the dynamics are. There are plain language bolts of lightning explaining some of the comparisons though. I suppose it would be near revolutionary in the proof it provides but in some sense we already knew this? You tell me.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jennell McHugh

    This is the most data-filled, research-stocked compilation that honestly and provocatively exposes devestatingly necessary reality. It's a very tough read but rewarding. I recommend it to anyone who doesn't understand the powerful relationship between american political parties and their direct influence of economic policy.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Michael Quinn

    Nothing short of a masterpiece. A damning account of the politics of inequality and the forces that have separated the rich from the rest for the last 30 years. There can be little doubt about the huge role that government plays in this process. Each section is great, but Bartles saves the best for the final chapter, which is heart wrenching.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    Fantastic statistical look on how presidential administrations affect the economy, with an emphasis on the effect it has on people of different income levels. It helps to be a little familiar with statistics to get everything he lays out, but he's done a decent job of making most of it accessible to the layman. No need to believe the spin from either side anymore - just look at the data.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jay Roberts, CFP®, CRPC ®

    Really good work for policy wonks. Tons of stats that show how little the divide is in America's political views... yet also showing how that narrow political divide is exploited by the top income brackets.

  22. 4 out of 5

    C. Scott

    Stuffed with deep analysis of intriguing studies... but a very trying read. Unless you're cool with reading charts - then reading detailed descriptions of said charts, this scholarly work will be hard to work your way through.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    Bartels sets out to write a book that appeals to both policy wonks and a general audience, and I'd say it succeeds. It is laden with statistics and data but nonetheless quite readable. It is also quite sobering to anyone who cares about social justice and income inequality.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Sonya

    Data analysis is interesting and comprehensive, leading to some surprising conclusions about the extent of political inequality and the role of partisan politics. This book was written in 2008, but still relevant now, especially post-2016 election.

  25. 5 out of 5

    John

    Great examination of inequality & american democracy. Accessible to advanced undergrads, but be prepared to provide explanations on basic stats. Most statistical models are quite simple, but presents enough evidence to get you thinking & posing questions.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Sam Snideman

    Actually not a bad book, and written especially for the non-political scientist.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ray

    great research. strong indictment against GOP for hurting practically everyone but the very rich. But how do they keep winning if this is true? His answer is not very compelling.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany Conner

    Chock full of frightening statistics that should really, really piss you off. Seriously.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Taylor Waters

    Good information, very dry.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Sandeep

    Informative but a tedious read at times.

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