Studying inequality and American democracy: Findings and challenges

Larry Jacobs, Theda Skocpol

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

4 Scopus citations


Social scientific research at its best performs "the vital function of helping our democracy to know itself better" (Herring 1953, 71).1 Earlier generations of scholars grappled with the impact of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and ethnic variety on American democracy; probed the processes by which modern party and governmental practices challenged nineteenth-century patronage politics; investigated how well U.S. national government coped with the challenges of world war and depression; and reflected on the changing meaning and prospects of American democracy in the eras of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement. Today, scholars who study American politics work in an era of new challenges and paradoxes. In the wake of the rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. democracy has become in many ways more equal and inclusive. Yet the polity must also function in an era of sharply rising disparities of income and wealth, even as new waves of immigration and new kinds of social tensions are roiling American society. How do the momentous economic and social transformations of our time affect patterns of political participation and government responsiveness? What difference do government policies make for economic and political inequalities? Is American politics becoming more disproportionately attentive to the needs and values of the privileged few, rather than the majority? As U.S. government does less than it once did to expand opportunity and ensure widespread security in an era of rapid, marketdriven changes, are ordinary Americans becoming disillusioned with government and convinced that political participation has little to offer-thus creating the risk of a self-reinforcing cycle of democratic decline? Much current research speaks to these pressing questions, yet the an swers are far from clear-cut. Each core chapter in this volume has pieced together findings synthesized from many specialized literatures and studies- findings that sometimes add up to larger conclusions and sometimes leave major gaps. Fundamental questions and challenges remain to be tackled by future research in political science and beyond. Social scientists today must resist the temptations of overspecialization and in-group reference to remain true to the broader mission of "helping our democracy to know itself better." Rich research literatures document inequalities in American democracy in the overlapping arenas of political voice, governance, and public policy. After reviewing key findings in each area, we reflect on lacunae in current literatures and the pressing issues that remain to be addressed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationInequality and American Democracy
Subtitle of host publicationWhat We Know and What We Need to Learn
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)087154413X, 9780871544148
StatePublished - Dec 1 2007


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