Meghan Condon and Amber Wichowsky have written an incredibly timely and fascinating study of our understanding of income inequality in the United States, and how this understanding contributes to the policies that are pursued, or, to their point, may not be pursued by elected officials to solve some of these entrenched economic problems. The Economic Other centers on understanding how we, individually, see ourselves in cross-class comparisons and how this comparison—either looking “upwards” towards those who are wealthier than we are, or “downwards” towards those who are less economically affluent than we are—shapes our understanding of economic inequality, shapes our sense of political efficacy, and shapes our demands (or lack of demands) for policies to rectify this economic gulf. Condon and Wichowsky used a complex mixed method approach to the research, including conducting experiments and surveys for their research, asking respondents to consider themselves in these various economic comparisons, while also providing respondents with the opportunity to describe their own sense of their understanding of those who are seen as either wealthy or poor.
The analysis looks at the way that we understand our positions in society, especially economically, as relational, and therefore it is necessary to understand how this relational assessment contributes to how individuals comprehend the growing income divide in the United States. The research surfaced information that shows how social comparison thinking—our comparisons with others up and down the economic ladder—is animated by race and gender as well, connecting class politics with identity politics, noting that economic inequality or class inequality can’t be solved without attention to the racialized and gendered dimensions that are associated with income inequality. Condon and Wichowsky also explain that political rhetoric has played a role in how we understand our economic position and context, as have popular culture renderings, particularly in context of reality television programming about rich Americans. The Economic Other: Inequality in the American Political Imagination (U Chicago Press, 2020) is an important contribution to our understanding of how Americans understand ourselves, especially in regard to our own, personal economic status, and how this shapes our demands on politicians and policies to solve, or not solve, economic anxiety and precarity in the United States.
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).
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.