Winner Take All Politics.pdf


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153

Hacker and Pierson

at the top and then links those shifts to concrete organizational efforts by resourceful
private interests –fares much better at explaining why the American political economy
has become distinctively winner-take-all.
Keywords
inequality, American politics, business, power, public policy, political organization
Amid the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, the growing gap between
the middle class and the rich has moved from the periphery to the center of political
debate. Revelations about the Wall Street excesses that fueled the present crisis—
excesses often promoted by public officials—have led many to conclude that those at
the top have benefited from a rigged system that has allowed privileged insiders to
make fortunes while shifting the negative effects of their activities onto the broader
public.1 Although the current crisis has given the issue new urgency, the distributional
tilt that it highlights is hardly new. Fueled by the outsized gains of the affluent, inequality has been increasing for more than a quarter century, fundamentally reshaping the
distribution of income in the United States.
The dramatic rise in inequality has prompted a huge outpouring of commentary and
analysis. Until recently, however, most of this discussion has focused on the hypothesized economic roots of rising inequality: increasing global integration, rising returns to
education, changing technology, heightened domestic competition, and so on. The relationship between American politics and the sharp rise in inequality, by contrast, has
been notable for its absence.
This has started to change. The past few years have seen a small but prominent wave of
books and articles on rising inequality by students of American politics.2 These valuable
works suggest that politics and public policy have played a more central role in the rise in
inequality than economic accounts suggest, and they have begun to investigate the previously neglected links between growing inequality and the actions of public officials.
Yet these works, too, are incomplete. They rightly depart from standard economic
accounts that focus on depoliticized processes of economic change. Yet they have not
produced a convincing political analysis of the political roots of rising inequality that
can rival the dominant economic perspective on the issue that casts inequality as a
political—in large part because they approach the politics of U.S. inequality with a
relatively narrow analytic frame that embodies a number of constraining features of
contemporary American politics research.
By a “convincing political analysis,” we mean an analysis that meets two tests.
First, it must be consistent with the known facts about inequality. In particular, we
argue that it must be consistent with the fact that American inequality is “winnertake-all,” with a very small slice of the population becoming dramatically richer and
the rest largely holding steady. Second, a convincing analysis must show how political
processes and government policy are causally related to the known facts about economic inequality. In other words, it must identify the correct set of outcomes and
explicate their relationship to Americans politics and public policy.

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