Winner Take All Politics.pdf
Politics & Society 38(2)
Economic accounts generally falter on both these tests. Most have downplayed the
highly concentrated nature of economic gains, emphasizing instead the general widening of the gap between those with advanced degrees and skills and those without them.
And even those economic accounts that have recognized the top-heavy quality of
American inequality have had surprisingly little to say about the role of government
policy in fostering it. This would be unproblematic, of course, if public policy had
really played as limited a role as many of these economic accounts imply. But, as we
will show, there is very strong evidence for a central role for public policy, particularly
with regard to the run-up of incomes at the very top.
The new wave of political accounts fares much better, but still falls short on both
tests. For the most part, these accounts neither accurately describe the distributional
changes that have occurred nor offer plausible accounts of the political and policy
processes behind those changes. Yet the shortcomings of existing political accounts
stem from a different source than the shortcomings of existing economic accounts.
Economic accounts tend to ignore American politics entirely, to their considerable
detriment. Recent political science studies instead miss the mark because of a commitment to a particular vision of American politics that we call “politics as electoral
spectacle.” In this perspective, the driving force behind policy changes is the ability of
the so-called median voter—the swing voters in the middle of the distribution of opinion and income among voters—to discipline politicians through the “electoral
connection.”3 As we demonstrate, however, the sharp upward skew of income since
the 1970s is exceedingly hard to explain with models that revolve around the strength
or limits of median-voter influence. Instead, it calls for an alternative perspective—
which we call “politics as organized combat”—that emphasizes the role of organized
interests in shaping large-scale public policies that mediate distributional outcomes.
We make this argument in five steps. First, we present the evidence that American
economic inequality has been winner-take-all, with the gains at the top highly concentrated, sustained for a generation, and accompanied by few trickle-down benefits for
the rest of the population. Next, we show that existing economic accounts are largely
inconsistent with this pattern, and that existing political accounts, while stronger in
identifying the political roots of rising inequality, neglect some of the most important
policy foundations of winner-take-all inequality and some of the most fundamental
political mechanisms that have brought it about.
We trace this failure to a view of American politics that overemphasizes the voter–
politician nexus while neglecting the role of organized interests and the profound effects
of government on the distribution of market rewards. In place of this conventional view,
we develop an alternative organizationally minded and policy-focused perspective. This
alternative becomes the lens through which we examine how major organizational shifts
in the 1970s tilted the balance of political power sharply in favor of those at the very top
of the economic ladder, paving the way for America’s winner-take-all inequality. Finally,
we bring these analytic elements together to show that winner-take-all inequality is substantially rooted in fundamental shifts in four core areas of U.S. public policy—related
to financial markets, corporate governance, industrial relations, and taxation—that have
been powerfully driven by this political-organizational transformation.
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