Winner-Take-All Politics: Inequality, Political Organization, and the Rise of Top Income in the United States

Politics & Society, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 152-204, 2010

Posted: 12 Oct 2011

See all articles by Jacob S. Hacker

Jacob S. Hacker

Yale University - Department of Political Science; Yale University - Institution for Social and Policy Studies

Paul Pierson

University of California, Berkeley

Date Written: June 1, 2010

Abstract

The dramatic rise in inequality in the United States over the past generation has occasioned considerable attention from economists, but strikingly little from students of American politics. This has started to change: in recent years, a small but growing body of political science research on rising inequality has challenged standard economic accounts that emphasize apolitical processes of economic change. For all the sophistication of this new scholarship, however, it too fails to provide a compelling account of the political sources and effects of rising inequality. In particular, these studies share with dominant economic accounts three weaknesses: (1) they downplay the distinctive feature of American inequality — namely, the extreme concentration of income gains at the top of the economic ladder; (2) they miss the profound role of government policy in creating this “winner-take-all” pattern; and (3) they give little attention or weight to the dramatic long-term transformation of the organizational landscape of American politics that lies behind these changes in policy. These weaknesses are interrelated, stemming ultimately from a conception of politics that emphasizes the sway (or lack thereof) of the “median voter” in electoral politics, rather than the influence of organized interests in the process of policy making. A perspective centered on organizational and policy change — one that identifies the major policy shifts that have bolstered the economic standing of those at the top and then links those shifts to concrete organizational efforts by resourceful private interests — fares much better at explaining why the American political economy has become distinctively winner-take-all.

Suggested Citation

Hacker, Jacob S. and Pierson, Paul, Winner-Take-All Politics: Inequality, Political Organization, and the Rise of Top Income in the United States (June 1, 2010). Politics & Society, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 152-204, 2010. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1942908

Jacob S. Hacker (Contact Author)

Yale University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Box 208269
New Haven, DC 06520-8269
United States

HOME PAGE: http://pantheon.yale.edu/~jhacker

Yale University - Institution for Social and Policy Studies ( email )

89 Trumbull Street
New Haven, CT 06515
United States

Paul Pierson

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

310 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

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