American democracy in an era of rising inequality

Larry Jacobs, Theda Skocpol

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

11 Scopus citations


Equal political voice and democratically responsive government are widely cherished American ideals-yet as the United States aggressively promotes democracy abroad, these principles are under growing threat in an era of persistent and rising inequalities at home. Disparities of income, wealth, and access to opportunity are growing more sharply in the United States than in many other nations, and gaps between races and ethnic groups persist. Progress toward expanding democracy may have stalled, and in some arenas reversed. Generations of Americans have worked to equalize citizen voice across lines of income, race, and gender. Today, however, the voices of American citizens are raised and heard unequally. The privileged participate more than others and are increasingly well organized to press their demands on government. Public officials, in turn, are much more responsive to the privileged than to average citizens and the less affluent. The voices of citizens with lower or moderate incomes are lost on the ears of inattentive government officials, while the advantaged roar with a clarity and consistency that policymakers readily hear and routinely follow. The scourge of overt discrimination against African Americans and women has been replaced by a more subtle but potent threat-the growing concentration of the country's wealth, income, and political influence in the hands of the few. These are the conclusions that the Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy established by the American Political Science Association in 2002 reached. As one of several task forces recently formed to enhance the public relevance of political science, this group of scholars was charged with reviewing and assessing the best current scholarship about the health and functioning of U.S. democracy over recent decades, in a era of expanding social rights yet rising economic inequality.1 Speaking in its own voice and on the authority of the task force members alone, the group drew conclusions after surveying available evidence about three important, interlinked areas of concern: citizen participation, government responsiveness, and the impact of public policies on social inequalities and political participation. The core chapters of this book present in-depth reviews of research findings on these issues. With input and advice from other task force members, each chapter was prepared by a working group of scholars listed as the authors of that chapter. This introduction sets the context for detailed explorations of citizen participation, government responsiveness, and public policymaking. We begin with evidence about the changing patterns of inequality in the United States, and then consider why recent rising economic inequality may be of special concern. Although Americans tolerate varied fortunes produced by the market, they worry when economic disparities threaten equal citizen voice and undermine government responsiveness to the needs and values of the majority. Americans want their democracy to ensure and expand equal opportunity for all citizens. The research reviewed in this book speaks to basic concerns about the health and prospects of U.S. democracy.

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 pages18
ISBN (Print)087154413X, 9780871544148
StatePublished - Dec 1 2007


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