Durable Democracy? Economic Inequality and Democratic Accountability in the New Gilded Age

Benjamin J. Newman and Thomas J. Hayes

A central question in the study of democratic politics is whether citizens hold their elected officials accountable for their voting decisions, policy outcomes, and prevailing societal conditions—otherwise known as “democratic accountability.” Indeed, in his classic work on congressional behavior, R. Douglas Arnold argued that the extent to which individuals are able to control their government in a representative system “should be one of the central questions in political science” (Arnold 1990, p. 265).  In our forthcoming article, we address a question of pressing importance that has yet to be assessed in the congressional voting and accountability literatures: do voters hold legislators accountable for economic inequality?

We offer a theory of inequality backlash, which begins with the assertion that voter punishment of elected officials for economic inequality is likely, as prior research firmly documents Americans’ dislike for inequality, poverty, and unfairness.  Given this predisposing factor, we argue that punishment of elites will occur among voters as a function of their level of exposure to inequality in their local residential context.  We theorize that residence in contexts where inequality is high, and is thus a visible feature of daily life, will enhance the probability of voting against incumbents.  We argue that voter punishment for inequality is heightened by an officeholders’ culpability for inequality, which in coarse form can be comprised of their record of voting for inequality-enhancing economic policies.

Relying upon multiple large-N national survey datasets, we uncover consistent evidence of punishment of inequality-enhancing incumbents among voters exposed to high levels of local economic inequality. Interestingly, we also uncover evidence of reward for inequality-attenuating incumbents among voters exposed to high levels of local inequality. Importantly, we find that while our results do not vary by incumbent party or voter party or income, they do vary by voter’s level of political information.  The results from our study provide intriguing initial evidence of the resilience of democracy—in the form of voter backlash against growing and visible inequality in their daily lives. Voters enact punishment for inequality upon elected officials, thus providing some push-back against market forces generating unequal outcomes.



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