Unequal Democracy

I would recommend both Larry Bartels’ book Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age and Theda Skocpol’s review of the book. Bartels’ main point is that contrary to what many believe, partisan politics has a large impact on the course of economic change, with Republican presidents leading to strong income growth for rich people, and Democratic presidents being better than anyone else. Bartels further argues that Republican politician succeed in spite of this fact not because voters are “distracted” by other concerns, but instead primarily because:

— Voters tend to behave only as if election year economic performance matters, not performance across the entirety of a term.

— Fundraising impacts election outcomes in a way that puts a thumb on the scales for politicians with pro-rich-people policies.

— Voters have trouble fully understanding the choices in front of them.

One way of summing it up is simply with reference to Bartels’ first point partisan politics has a bigger impact on economic performance than most people believe, and minoritarian policies can succeed politically precisely because most people don’t understand how important partisan politics are to these kind of outcomes.


What this book made me wish for was more economics: Bartels gives us a lot of empirical political science data that seems to indicate that partisan control of the White House is more economically important than you would think. Contrary to this, there’s substantial economic theory that seems to argue that this can’t possibly be the case. What would be really fantastic would be for Bartels to team up with an economist to attempt a more thorough treatment of the causal mechanism issues than Unequal Democracy offers — a Bartels/Krugman All-Princeton Crossover Spectacular or something.