Inequality and American governance

Larry M. Bartels, Hugh Heclo, Rodney E. Hero, Lawrence R. Jacobs

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

8 Scopus citations


What government officials hear influences what they do. The processes of American governance-from the activities of interest groups and political parties to the often Byzantine operations of lawmakers-are readily penetrated by the strong, clear, and frequent political voices of privileged and highly active citizens. Differences in the abilities of individual citizens and groups to set the policy agenda, frame debates, and adapt to institutional processes prompts governing institutions to respond unevenly to the concerns and preferences of American citizens. Yet the governing process is not simply a mechanical cash register that tabulates the unequal political voices of the advantaged and organized. Entrenched institutional norms, patterns of behavior, and collective conceptions of purposes and goals interact with the struggle for political power among rival individuals and government bodies to prevent any single group or set of ideas from consistently steering government decisionmaking in one direction. The most persistent impact of stratified political participation is to reinforce the enduring bias of the American political process toward "deadlock and delay"-as the framers of the U.S. constitution and James Madison intended (Burns 1963). The recent growth in economic inequality appears to be increasing the power of individuals and groups who have a stake in doing little or nothing about substantially counteracting disparities based on income and wealth. American government is characterized by a level of individualization and lack of authoritative lines of control that makes it particularly ill suited to respond to a broad, aggregate phenomenon such as economic inequality by consistently enacting effective remedial policies. The American political process is geared toward particularistic, piecemeal issues rather than the big picture. Politicians and government may respond to the rising income and wealth of a small proportion of citizens in a thousand little (and not so little) ways, but they are not likely to consistently do so in one big way. Even if officeholders were generally motivated to enact egalitarian tax and spending policies to stem the rising tide of economic inequality, their efforts to significantly change these policies would likely run into the kind of collective action problems that have stalled efforts on environmental protection, heath care, and homeland security. The bias in the American political process toward inaction and responding to pressure from well-organized particularistic groups has created multiple and competing centers of influence and a corresponding patchwork of contradictory and incomplete economic and social welfare policies. One of the most demonstrable developments in the United States over the past half century has been the expansion of civil and political rights and, specifically, equality of opportunity in the economic realm and procedural equality in the political realm. Historically entrenched racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination has been challenged and the presence of previously underrepresented groups in the policymaking process has modestly expanded as a result. The ostensible aims of equity have been shaped, however, by the entrenched bias in the American political process to produce social rights for concrete and discrete groups such as seniors or the poor. The broader claims for establishing universal social rights and delivering substantive political and economic equality to all citizens lacked the intense support of powerful encompassing groups and institutional allies and clashed with the trajectory of American political development toward ensuring equality of opportunity more than equality of results. The consequence is that rising economic inequality has neither expanded nor reduced political inequality, nor even produced a dramatic redirection of overall government policy in the egalitarian or antiegalitarian direction. The pitched political battles over the past several decades and partisan cycles of frustrations and mobilizations have fueled the polarization of the Democratic and Republican parties and intimidated even the Democratic Party from energetically promoting the kind of egalitarian programs that some of its activists favor. This chapter-which is divided into four parts-is based on a review of existing research on American governing institutions, political organizations, and the making of public policy. Our review was undertaken with an eye to identifying continuity and change in who makes government policy, how, and to what effect. In particular, we examined research on whether and how political influences on government policy reflects enduring disparities in political voice and has changed as economic inequality has risen and long entrenched racial, ethnic, and gender inequalities have been challenged. We begin by acknowledging limitations on our efforts to evaluate the potential impact of unequal power in the making of public policy. The second section describes the broad institutional context of policymaking in the United States, including the complexities of the legislative process, federalism, and the nature of party politics. The third section outlines the role of interest groups and the impact of money in elections and in the policymaking process. The last section examines biases in political representation, with particular emphasis on whether patterns of unequal influence have altered in recent decades either with changing patterns of economic inequality or with expansions of civil and political rights.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationInequality and American Democracy
Subtitle of host publicationWhat We Know and What We Need to Learn
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages68
ISBN (Print)087154413X, 9780871544148
StatePublished - 2007
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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