How Gilded Ages End

tags: unions, inequality, WEALTHY

Paul Starr is co-founder and co-editor of the The American Prospect. and professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and the Bancroft Prize in American history, he is the author of seven books, including most recently Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle over Heath Care Reform (Yale University Press, revised ed. 2013).

... During the past century, popular movements in the advanced democracies, including unions and political parties allied with them, enabled ordinary people to share in the gains of economic growth and to enjoy both more security and more freedom. Changes in legal doctrines subordinating property rights to the general welfare allowed for stronger regulation of the economy. These developments bore fruit in the three decades after World War II, when both prosperity and political power were widely shared in Western Europe and North America.

In the United States, the relatively balanced pluralism of the postwar decades has increasingly given way to a more polarized political economy. The long decline of unions has probably been the single most important factor in the slide toward greater inequality in power and economic rewards. Beginning in the 1970s, while business interests mobilized, the engagement of ordinary citizens in civic and political life atrophied. Rather than relying on local volunteers going door to door, political campaigns became increasingly dependent on paid media and consequently on financial donors. And since money is distributed less equally than time, the pursuit of office has increasingly sent candidates in pursuit of patronage by the affluent.

A series of empirical studies have demonstrated the consequences of these changes for political participation and government responsiveness. Union members accounted for 25 percent of political activity in 1967 but only 11 percent in 2006, according to an estimate by Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady in The Unheavenly Chorus, a 2012 study of trends in participation. (The title is an allusion to a well-known line by E.E. Schattschneider: “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.”) Surveying the representation of group interests in Washington as of the early 2000s, Schlozman and her colleagues find those interests to be overwhelmingly weighted in favor of business.

An “upper-class accent” is an understatement of the bias of policy. In Affluence and Influence, also published in 2012, Martin Gilens uses data from nearly 2,000 questions in public opinion surveys about proposed policies from 1981 to 2002 to measure the government’s responsiveness to people at different income levels. The policies adopted, Gilens finds, were strongly related to the views of upper-income people, but not at all to the preferences of poor or even middle-income Americans. Expanding the analysis to include interest groups, Gilens and Benjamin I. Page find the same pattern of elite domination. Whether individually or through groups, average citizens had no independent effect on what government actually did.

This research, it should be stressed, concerns a period—1981 to 2002—when Republicans dominated national policy-making; Democrats had control of both the presidency and Congress for only two years (1993–1994). Even in regard to the “age of Reagan,” the findings do not prove Winters’s argument about oligarchy, which is about the influence of the .001 percent on policies that impinge on their fortunes. A recent study of the wealthy elite in the Chicago area confirms, however, that the truly wealthy are highly active in politics (often in direct touch with their senators and other political leaders) and that their views on key economic questions diverge markedly from those of the public at large....

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