Partisans' Progress

Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age by Larry M. Bartels, Princeton University Press, 325 pages, $29.95

The 2008 presidential election is shaping up to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Americans to break with the past. Barack Obama and John McCain each appeal to independents as well as core partisans yet differ sharply by age and ideology. Obviously divergent in their approaches to American global leadership, they are even more at odds in economic and social policy. McCain promises a continuation of free-market nostrums and upward-tilting tax breaks--essentially further rounds of Reaganism and Bushism. Obama promises to reorient taxes and benefits to help the beleaguered American middle class and less privileged families hoping to join it.

In Unequal Democracy, his new book on the effects of partisan politics and public policy on economic inequality, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels casts provocative light on what's at stake when Americans go to the polls. Drawing on disparate quantitative studies, Bartels makes a strong case that rising income inequalities are not merely inevitable concomitants of technological and global changes but hinge on political choices. He also takes sharp issue with those who portray Democrats and Republicans as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, drawn to middle-of-the-road policies to appeal to the median voter. On the contrary, Bartels shows, Republican and Democratic politicians and partisans have sharply different beliefs about social inequality and support policies with opposite distributive consequences. Senators of different parties representing the same states vote very differently. And while the privileged make sharp gains in income during Republican administrations, lower- and middle-income Americans do better under Democratic presidents. At scholarly conferences for the past several years, Bartels has shown graphs with these striking patterns, arousing skepticism because the exact mechanisms that presidents use to produce such radically different effects remain murky. But in this book, Bartels makes an incontrovertible case that election results do matter--and it is easy to see how the 2008 outcome could be another case in point.

An obvious question arises, though. If Democratic officeholders have done more to help the middle class and the poor, why haven't they enjoyed a solid string of electoral triumphs during the 1980s and 1990s, as ordinary people have experienced income stagnation and shrinking benefits? Americans value equal opportunity and sympathize with underdogs, Bartels reports; likewise he challenges the fashionable notion that working-class white voters ignore their economic interests to vote on cultural and life-style issues--guns, religion, and abortion. Outside of the South, he argues, white voters in the lower third of the income distribution continue to vote on economic issues, and more of them support Democratic presidential candidates. While all Americans pay more attention to cultural issues than they did decades ago, the shifts have been strongest for middle- and upper-income voters, not for the least privileged.

In Bartels' depiction, voter "myopia" is more important than cultural distraction. Ordinary citizens have trouble connecting values to particular policy differences, such as debates about alternative tax measures. And voters can be fooled. In the year before presidential elections, for example, conservatives feature populist policy moves, and voters tend to reward such short-term measures rather than properly assess how they have fared over an entire presidential term. This fall, if Bartels is right, we can expect highly touted populist gestures from McCain and Bush--and these moves may take in some less privileged, low-income voters (though maybe less so this time than in most elections, if the master trends in the economy are overwhelming and unmistakable).

Unequal Democracy strikes me as both convincing and radically incomplete. Bartels persuasively shows that partisan choices matter, and he offers a useful corrective to the notion that white lower-income voters are abandoning the Democrats. Yet he relies too much on a few national surveys and misses much of the changing shape of the polity. Whites, after all, make up a declining proportion of the voters in the lower third of the income distribution, and the Democrats, like the Republicans, must manage complex and changing alliances. Over the past four decades, Democrats have struggled to bridge racial and ethnic divides and found it hard to forge new, post-New Deal coalitions linking the middle strata and the poor.

American electoral contests don't express national trends in any simple way; they're patchworks in a federal system. The task Democrats face is to stitch together (often narrow) majorities in industrial states with victories on the coasts where ethnic minorities and upper-middle-class professionals weigh more heavily in their support base. Blue-collar unions have declined since the 1970s, while advocacy groups pushing minority and lifestyle issues have proliferated, reshaping public agendas. No wonder progressives have a hard time offering a clear set of compelling policies to economically struggling citizens.

In perhaps his most important omission, Bartels does not say enough about the changing mix of public policies that liberals and Democrats have been identified with in recent decades. In some areas, such as preserving Social Security, Democrats have made choices that the great mass of voters recognize and understand. Research by Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist Andrea Campbell shows that lower- and middle-income elderly voters are anything but myopic when it comes to protecting their retirement benefits. They know what is at stake and vote with unusual evenness across class lines for politicians who will protect Social Security and Medicare. But since the 1960s, working-aged, working-class voters have not had the benefit of such visible, easy-to-grasp support from the U.S. federal government. When it occurs at all, redistribution for them often takes the form of opaque budgetary or tax measures such as the Earned Income Tax Credit or subsidized bank loans to college students.

Arguably, the U.S. federal government has done little in recent times for average non-elderly Americans, and what little it has done is often hard to decipher without advice from a tax attorney. The problem, in short, may not be as much citizen myopia as timid and opaque government, not to mention wimpy Democrats. For all his stress on the difference partisanship can make, Bartels shows that U.S. government aid to lower-income and middle-class working Americans has been entirely inadequate to stem the tide of rising economic stress since the 1970s. If ordinary citizens do not fully comprehend what government might do for them, who can blame them?

So far, the debates of the 2008 election raise the exhilarating possibility that a long era of government neglect may come to an end, as Democrats make bold promises and masses of voters pay attention and turn out. Will the excitement of the Democratic primaries carry through the general election? And if they triumph at the polls in November, will the Democrats overcome the obstacles they'll face and deliver the goods? Only if they find ways to fashion comprehensible policies that actually enhance security and opportunity for most Americans will the circle of voter support and partisan choice that Bartels probes turn benign. Only then might the trajectory of American politics truly shift, through a new era of progressive reform and revitalized citizen engagement.