Americans, at least since the Founding era, have cherished the ideal of political equality. Unlike European nations, the United States inherited no economic class distinctions from a feudal past. ... read more
Americans, at least since the Founding era, have cherished the ideal of political equality. Unlike European nations, the United States inherited no economic class distinctions from a feudal past. Time and again, American social reformers and mass movements have highlighted inconsistencies between the value of equality and the actual practice of democracy. Through the extension of rights to citizens who were previously excluded or treated as second-class citizens, such as women and African Americans, the polity has become more inclusive over time. Over the last three decades, however, American citizens have grown increasingly unequal in terms of income and wealth. Economic inequality is now greater than at any other point in American history except for the Gilded Age, and it continues to escalate. Far greater economic inequality exists in the United States today than in other western, industrialized nations. This new inequality began to emerge soon after the “rights revolution” had ended formal, legal discrimination. Tragically, economic divisions now reinforce many of the old divisions of race, ethnicity, and gender, undermining the promise of greater equality. The central question posed by this course is the implications of such vast economic inequality for American democracy. Do these disparities between citizens curtail, limit, and perhaps threaten the functioning of genuinely representative governance? The material in this outline examines this question from several angles. By way of introduction, it explores what other social scientists—mostly economists and sociologists—know about contemporary inequality, particularly in terms of its causes, manifestation, and socio-economic effects. Second, this curricular framework considers the concept of inequality in political theory and in American political thought, and examines American public opinion with respect to matters of inequality. The major focus of the course outline involves the current relationship between economic inequality and each of three major aspects of the American political system: political voice, governance, and public policy. First, the course examines the implications of inequality for those processes and mechanisms through which citizens can influence the political process and have their voice heard. It considers citizen participation in political activities, interest groups, political parties (mass level), social movements, and civic associations. In each case, the materials in this course ask how class intersects with other social divisions such as gender, race, ethnicity, and educational level. Second, the curricular outline examines the implications of inequality for the allocation of power in American government institutions and processes of making policy by exploring the following: influence and decision-making in Congress and the executive branch; the agenda of political parties at the elite level; and the allocation of tasks of governance between the national and sub-national government through federalism. The relationship between money and politics will be examined in this section. Third, the materials in this course examine the relationship between public policy and inequality by considering the following: the extent to which United States policy ameliorates or exacerbates inequality, in both historical and comparative perspective; the extent to which growing inequality undercut the promises of the “rights revolution;” how some policies have ameliorated economic inequality and, in turn, elevated the political participation of affected citizens. Finally, this course outline raises the question of whether public policy can make a difference in rectifying the extreme levels of inequality facing the United States today.