Polarized America: The dance of ideology and unequal riches


The past 25 years in the United States have been marked by growing income inequality, increasing political divisions and rising immigration. A 2006 Princeton University study, “Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches,” looks at possible connections between these trends.

The study’s results, published in The Journal of Politics and subsequently published as a book, were based on states’ political attitudes, income inequality levels and votes by senators and congressional representatives from the early 1970s to the mid-2000s. Other data examined included public opinion polls, census data and campaign finance records.

The findings include:

  • Polarization and income inequality fell in tandem from 1913 to 1957 and partisan divisions became increasingly blurred. From 1977 on, both political divisions and income inequality grew simultaneously.
  • As a state’s income inequality rises, the congressional voting patterns become more partisan — Republicans shift farther right, while Democrats move to the left.
  • Citizens with strong partisan identifications are more likely to apply ideological labels to themselves and are the most likely to define politics in ideological terms.
  • Higher-income citizens are more likely to identify with and vote for Republicans than are lower-income voters, a consequence of the party’s increasing embrace of economic libertarian positions.
  • Rising immigration has facilitated the move to the right. While noncitizens are a larger share of the population, they cannot vote. “This has the effect of moving the median income voter closer to the mean income citizen, reducing the demand for [income] redistribution,” the author states.

In summary, the author writes, “High levels of income inequality generate high levels of political polarization in state electorates, and both income inequality and political polarization exhibit a strong influence on partisan polarization.”

Tags: poverty, inequality

Last updated: November 29, 2010


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Citation: McCarthy, Nolan, "Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches", June, 2006, MIT Press, PDF.