American Democracy and Inequality

American Democracy and Inequality

In the fall of 2002, the American Political Science Association appointed a Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy. The fifteen members of the task force are Lawrence Jacobs, chair (University of Minnesota), Ben Barber (University of Maryland), Larry Bartels (Princeton University), Michael Dawson (Harvard University), Morris Fiorina (Stanford University), Jacob Hacker, chair (Yale University), Rodney Hero (Notre Dame University), Hugh Heclo (George Mason University), Claire Jean Kim (University of California, Irvine), Suzanne Mettler (Syracuse University), Benjamin Page (Northwestern University), Dianne Pinderhughes (University of Illinois, Champagne–Urbana), Kay Lehman Schlozman (Boston College), Theda Skocpol (Harvard University), and Sidney Verba (Harvard University).

A short version of their report appeared in the APSA journal Perspectives on Politics, December 2004. Our excerpt is from that text, pp. 655-658, published here with the kind agreement of the editors of Perspectives, members of the Task Force, and the APSA. The full report will be published by Cambridge University Press, and this section is reprinted with their permission. The two figures included here come from the 1990 Citizen Participation Study Data Base; we are grateful to Sidney Verba, Kay L. Schlozman, and Henry Brady for permission to reprint them. —Eds.

Only some Americans fully exercise their rights as citizens, and they usually come from the more advantaged segments of society. Those who enjoy higher incomes, more occupational success, and the highest levels of formal education are the ones most likely to participate in politics and make their needs and values known to government officials. Our review of research on inequality and political participation as well as other components of American political life demonstrates an extraordinary association between economic and political inequality.

The more daunting challenge is to define precisely the relationships between the two. At this point, there is no consistent evidence of simple paths from rising economic inequality to political and policy developments. There is, however, ample research suggesting complex interrelationships between increased economic inequality and changes in American institutions, political behavior, and public policy. As we suggest below, there is an urgent need for research that analyzes these interconnections.

The Half Who VoteVoting is the most obvious means for Americans to exercise their rights of citizenship, yet only a third of eligible voters participate in mid-term congressional elections, and only about half turn out for presidential elections. Even voters in presidential elections tend to be from the ranks of the most advantaged Americans. Figure 1, based on a national survey of Americans in 1990, compares the political activity of two income groups (each of which constituted roughly one-fifth of the sample)—those having fam...