Political Inequality: Challenges and Opportunities

In the following pages I briefly reflect on three related aspects of political inequality: political parties, inequality of political influence, and electoral reform. I also point to three areas of particular promise for future research on the challenges facing American democracy: the U.S. states, social movements, and campaign finance regulations.

Parties and polarization.

The two issues that stand out most clearly to me with regard to the parties are polarization and their “capture” by activists and interest groups. The Democratic and Republican parties have become more internally homogenous and more distinct from each other over the past forty years (with somewhat more movement on both dimensions for the Republicans). Why this has happened and what the consequences are is not entirely clear. Some popular potential explanations for party polarization appear to play little or no role, including primary elections, increased geographic (state or congressional district) homogeneity, gerrymandering, and issue polarization among the public. Potential explanations left standing include:

  1. growing economic inequality and the greater importance of economic considerations in party identification and vote choice;
  2. the divergence of party positions on racial and “social” issues (e.g., abortion, gay rights); and
  3. the shifting of party control from office‐seeking collections of “professional" politicians to more ideological and interest‐driven activists and interest groups.


One widely (but not universally) perceived consequence of partisan polarization is a strategy of partisan obstructionism and gridlock. To date, obstructionism has played a significant role in the Republican Party’s approach to governing. Whether (and how much) this results from Republican elites’ greater ideological homogeneity, the particularities of recent administrations, the divergent political preferences of the parties (e.g., the Republicans’ general preference for “less government”), or other factors remains yet uncertain. In any case, the specter of polarized and obstructionist parties undermining the government’s ability to address pressing economic, environmental, and social issues is one very understandable source of “democratic anxiety.”

Irrespective of the impact of partisan polarization on policymaking, polarization appears to be contributing to a more hostile rhetorical environment. At the same time, the emergence of cable TV and the internet has created a media environment in which “broadcasting” has given way to “narrowcasting.” Centrist news outlets like CNN, or those with once dominant nightly network news shows, have lost viewers while more opinionated and politically polarized news sources have grown in popularity. Thus technological and economic changes in the media environment have facilitated and reinforced the hostile rhetoric that troubles many observers.

Do these changes in the nature of public discourse matter? There is little evidence that the American public has become more extreme in its policy views. But partisan identifiers are both more distinct from each other (due to easier sorting allowed by more homogenous parties) and more likely to express hostile views of the other party. Even if the partisan sniping and disparagement that characterizes opinionated news shows has not led many members of the public to adopt more extremist views, this rhetorical environment might well present an obstacle to mobilizing broad coalitions for political change that could otherwise be possible. For example, policies to broaden political influence (such as campaign finance reform) or bolster the middle class (such support for education or job creation) are vulnerable to opposition from partisan elites who have other priorities. When a substantial portion of politically involved Americans receive their information from strongly partisan sources, the ability of those partisan elites to undermine broadly beneficial policies is heightened.

Related to polarization is the notion that the parties have been captured by (or at least become more dependent on support from) interest groups and their comparatively extremist activist bases. From this perspective, control has shifted from Downsian office-seeking “professional” politicians whose policy preferences were secondary to their desire to obtain and retain office, to “policy-demanding” groups and (affluent) individuals for whom electoral victory is valued only as a means to achieving policy goals. Another source of anxiety, then, is the concern that not only are parties unable to make policy compromises due to dependence on these policy demanders, but that moneyed interests and narrow “single issue” subgroups of the public are pulling policy away from the interests and preferences of the majority of Americans.

Political inequality and policy responsiveness.

Following from the above, a second set of concerns focuses on policymakers’ lack of responsiveness to the preferences of the public. Recent work (including my own) suggests that federal policy responds fairly strongly to the preferences of the affluent, but weakly, if at all, to those of the middle class or the poor. It remains uncertain exactly how affluent (and how narrow) the group of Americans that wield influence over policymaking is.1 The lack of responsiveness to all but high‐income Americans extends across all policy domains, but is perhaps most evident and most concerning with regard to economic policy—where there is the prospect of a vicious cycle in which existing economic inequalities generate public policies that reinforce and exacerbate those inequalities. The feeble regulatory reforms following the economic crash of '07 and '08, and the lack of political will to adequately address the extremely uneven recovery that has followed, reflect the dominant influence of moneyed interests in shaping government policy.

Formal electoral rules that influence voting and representation may play some small part in explaining the lack of policy responsiveness to public preferences (e.g., voting rights, felon disenfranchisement, districting laws). But lower voter turnout among less advantaged citizens does appear to account for the lack of responsiveness to their preferences. More encouragingly, I found that the massive inequality in responsiveness to the preferences of more and less well‐off Americans is reduced during presidential election years. Politicians need money to obtain and retain office, but they also need votes, and the impact of the electoral cycle on representation suggests two things: first, that the political system as it currently exists responds (somewhat and sometimes) to voters’ interests and desires; and second, that electoral reforms might hold promise for increasing the responsiveness of our government to the needs of its citizens.

Electoral reform.

Reforms that reduce barriers to voting are desirable as a matter of basic justice and as part of broader efforts to increase political interest and engagement among a largely unengaged public. But as I suggested above, I do not expect such reforms to have substantial impact on the content or amount of federal policymaking. Reducing the role of money in politics may be a more promising—if even more challenging—avenue of reform. This is a notoriously difficult task (often likened to squeezing a balloon) and recent court decisions have made it even more daunting. But numerous clever proposals have been offered to get around First Amendment concerns, and the U.S. states offer a range of “clean election” and public finance models. To my knowledge, there is little hard evidence that state campaign finance regulations have dramatically altered either the nature of elections or state policymaking, but there are hints of such effects and this remains a promising area for further research. 2

Directions for future research.

As the brief overviews above suggest, any effort to understand and address the challenges facing American democracy will benefit from greater insight into the causes and consequences of political polarization, the nature of political parties, and the conditions that enhance or retard policy responsiveness to public preferences.

One promising research direction looks to the U.S. states. Not only is there the obvious advantage of a sample fifty times larger than in studies of the federal government, but recent advances in data and analysis techniques have also created new opportunities. For example, ideal point estimates of state legislators have recently become available, as have multilevel modeling techniques for estimating state public opinion and other characteristics from national data.

A second promising direction concerns the role of social movements in drawing public attention to specific issues, generating political pressure to address those issues, and encouraging political engagement. Social movements have been studied by sociologists but severely neglected by political scientists. The twin examples of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street may help illuminate some of the possibilities and pitfalls of social movements in the current era. This effort would surely benefit, too, from a broader historical reach that includes not only the numerous (fairly successful) American social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, but also those of earlier decades and other countries.

Finally, campaign finance reform would appear to be one of the few policy levers that might hold substantial promise for redressing some of the shortcomings of American democracy across a wide range of substantive and procedural areas. Advocates of campaign finance reform often portray it—not unreasonably—as the “big problem” that underlies the numerous “little problems” of health care, education, economic reform, environmental protection, and so on. It is unclear what effective campaign finance reform might look like and whether it is achievable. But to the extent that the needs and desires of middle‐class Americans are not served by the political parties and are not reflected in government policy, most citizens will rightly feel that their government does not “belong” to them.

  1. My research contrasts the 90th income percentile with the less well-off, while Larry Bartels uses income terciles in his analyses. (Bartels. 2008. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.) Ben Page and Bartels are currently attempting to survey the political preferences and activities of a much smaller segment of truly rich Americans but to date only have data from a small pilot survey.
  2. For example, state campaign finance regulations have been shown to be related to the equality of resources between incumbents and challengers, incumbents’ vote shares, voter turnout levels, and the proportions of Democrats and women in state legislatures.
About the Author
Martin Gilens is a professor of politics at Princeton University. His most recent book is Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (Princeton University Press, 2012).