An Agenda for the Critical Study of American Democracy

Over the last decade and half, political economy has become increasingly concerned with rising inequality within democratic societies. In PS: Political Science & Politics, Lawrence Jacobs and Theda Skocpol lay out an agenda for a critical study of American democracy, which would focus on inequality and growing concentrations of power.

One of the enduring projects of students of politics has been to describe and analyze, as Easton (1953) put it, the “tendency in mass societies for power to concentrate in the hands of a minority.” Questions about the asymmetries of power and its sources have animated scholars as diverse as Max Weber and Karl Marx, Robert Michels and Robert Dahl, and V. O. Key, Charles Lindblom, and E. E. Schattschneider. This commitment to studying power stems, in part, from the development of disciplinary responsibility for analysis of government authority and its use and from the normative concern ~as Easton described it! to “transfer a large share of political control to the people” (Easton 1953, 41, 121; Bang 1998). The sustained focus on power has provided a common focus for social science research, offering a valuable counterbalance to the hyper-fragmentation into ever more disconnected research communities that are of diminishing importance to understanding the state of democratic life. This is an important contribution to political science research.

Sharp increases in economic inequality make it imperative that we renew and reinvigorate the study of political power. We want to be clear, though, that research by colleagues as well as our own analysis does not support a simple economistic explanation: profound changes in the distribution of income and wealth have important implications for American democracy, but the sources and nature of those impacts are quite likely to involve interactions as well as indirect and reciprocal effects related to developments in political organizations, governmental institutions, and elite mobilizing strategies. Indeed, the Task Force’s work repeatedly emphasized that rising economic inequality corresponds with persistent levels of unequal political voice and influence…