Why Is Inequality Higher in America?

by Henry Farrell on January 11, 2012 · 12 comments

in Comparative Politics,Political Economy

The Linz and Stepan article that I linked last week suggests that we need to look to comparative politics rather than Americanist political science in order to understand the sources of American inequality.

the preoccupation of many Americanists with America’s distinctive governmental institutions—Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court—obscures this inequality and what it means for the US political system. It thus seems to us that Americanists’ ability to analyze American politics would be enhanced by locating these problems in a larger, comparative context. Such a reconceptualization of American politics could help to broaden our discipline and enhance the quality of its generalizing theories.

To bolster this broad argument, they argue that the unusually large number of veto players in the US political system is a major cause of inequality.

A question thus arises, one both simple and surprisingly understudied by scholars of American politics: From a comparative perspective, does the United States have more “majority constraining” and “inequality inducing” political structures and veto players than other democracies? When we examine our set of 23 long-standing democracies in advanced economies, we find that slightly more than half of these countries (12.5) actually have only one electorally generated veto player … There are 7.5 countries with two veto players, two countries (Switzerland and Australia) with three veto players, and only one country, the United States of America, with four electorally generated veto players … In addition to having the highest number of veto players, there are four more constitutionally embedded features of the US political system that, taken together, make that system even more majority constraining and, we believe, inequality inducing, than any other democracy in our set … the principle that every state in the Union has an equal vote in the Senate … to compound the significance of the comparative inequality of representation of the US Senate, this most malapportioned chamber in our set has the most comparative power in our set. … Third, no constitution can foresee everything that the majority of the demos of the polity might eventually believe should become an equality-enhancing feature of their polis, such as the creation of a welfare state … the Tenth Amendment of the US Constitution creates the strong presumption that residual powers do not pass to the center, but rather to the states … Fourth … the US constitutional system enables minorities to block [constitutional] amendments with comparative ease.

Linz and Stepan argue that high numbers of electoral veto players are highly correlated with inequality, and that studies of other systems (Australia, Switzerland) suggests that more veto players create greater lags in introducing welfare systems and block reform (interestingly though, these cases involve referendums as a block to legislation rather than the kinds of vetos seen at the federal level in the US). However, they also claim that veto points are not destiny – the experience of reform in Brazil argues that Barack Obama could have instituted Senate reform and hence reduced down the effective number of veto players from four to one.

Despite four potential veto players in the United States, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, he had the majorities that in theory (and certainly in practice in West European democracies) could have allowed him to control three of the four veto players (the lower house, the Senate, and the presidency). Also, since none of the major reforms that he said he would implement if elected required constitutional amendments, the fourth veto player (the three-quarters of the states whose assent is needed) did not come into play. It thus makes analytic and political sense to argue that Obama, if he could have sold his party, and the American people, on the correctness and urgency of reducing inequality in the United States and fighting for the reform proposals for which he was elected, might have politically created a situation with one true veto player. How? Bruce Ackerman’s article in the American Prospect makes a convincing case that the filibuster could have been eliminated at the first session of a new Congress. … There are many other reasons why even Democrats might not have favored the Ackerman-Udall proposal. … We believe that parties in Europe, if they had the majority the Democrats had in January 2009, would not have been checked by the threat of polarization because they would have had sufficient party discipline to deliver a majority for their reforms. As far as we can tell, President Obama chose not to launch a major fight to get the 59 Democratic senators to support the elimination of the existing filibuster procedure, nor did he try to persuade the American public to support his efforts in this regard.

As a comparativist by training, I find the idea that Americanists should think about the US more in a comparative perspective highly attractive. I also think that the veto player perspective is a very helpful lens onto the ways in which the US resembles or differs from other advanced industrialized democracies. However, I wonder if Linz and Stepan aren’t guilty of a little wishful thinking in some of their arguments. While they dismiss the importance of public opinion, pointing to results that suggest that Americans favor various forms of welfare, it would have been good to see them engage with some of the findings that are less congenial for their political aspirations, perhaps including some of the work on the relationship between unequal outcomes and public opinion that our new co-blogger has co-authored. Nor do I think that their comparison with Brazil provides strong evidence that Obama could have reformed the Senate – the kinds of reform that they discuss in Brazil involved policy rather than fundamental changes to political institutions. When they say that parties in Europe would have had sufficient party discipline to deliver a majority, and then in the next sentence say that Obama made no effort to push Democratic Senators to support reform, they suggest that party discipline is a simple product of the will-power of the President as party leader – an implicit hypothesis that seems to me to run against the bulk of the work I am familiar with on US party organization etc. Linz and Stepan are right to say that Americanists should pay far more attention to comparativists. Equally, comparativists need to pay more attention to the Americanists whose way of thinking about the world is less immediately congenial than that of those with comparativist training or sympathies if we are to move to the next stage of the debate that Linz and Stepan would (rightly) like to see taking place.

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