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America’s Inequality Trap (University of Chicago Press, 2020) focuses on the relationship between economic inequality and American politics. Nathan J. Kelly, Professor of Political...

America’s Inequality Trap (University of Chicago Press, 2020) focuses on the relationship between economic inequality and American politics. Nathan J. Kelly, Professor of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, argues that the increasing concentration of economic power effects political power, thus allowing the gap between the rich and everyone else to become more acute and more rigid. The increasing level of inequality, according to Kelly, also tends to be reinforced by public policies. This then creates a self-perpetuating plutocracy because those with more economic resources will have more political power or the capacity to influence those with political power and the kinds of policies that are being made. Thus, we have the theory of the inequality trap.

Kelly’s analysis is fairly specific to the United States, since the inequality trap itself combines aspects of the American political system that are rather unique, but he notes that the trip is not exclusive to the U.S., it is part of a “more general phenomenon.” In order to understand this inequality trap, Kelly’s research links politics, policy, and income inequality. He then explores different pathways that contribute to establishing and perpetuating this system, which concentrates more and more wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Each chapter assesses a different pathway: public opinion, elections, inegalitarian policy convergence, and policy stagnation, all of which contribute to economic inequality in the United States and how it operates within the political system. Public opinion and elections center around political attitudes and behavior while inegalitarian policy convergence and policy stagnation focus on policy-making institutions and processes. Each pathway shares the same outcome that they contribute to the inequality trap in which only those who are wealthy benefit from it.

In analyzing the effects of high inequality on each of the pathways, Kelly exposes the pattern of political response, or non-response, to the problem of inequality and the role of partisan politics within these dynamics. Kelly also emphasizes that racial bias and economic inequality play a substantial role in political decision making, especially in public opinion and elections. These distinct areas often have some overlap in terms of voter engagement and political behavior and choices and, according to the research, this also helps us understand the outcome in the 2016 presidential election. America’s Inequality Trap concludes with a discussion about economic inequality before the Great Depression and the Great Recession. Both events occurred during times of high economic inequality but there were distinct differences in the political response to that inequality and the economic collapses that followed. Kelly explains how and why the political responses differed, and by comparing the two, he suggests possible strategies for escaping the ongoing inequality trap.

Daniella Campos assisted with this podcast.


Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).