It's Not the Party—It's the Policies
The evidence Bartels presents in Unequal Democracy goes far in explaining this lack of progress, even though Bartels himself misses the connection. Most telling is a figure in the book that plots the rise of inequality under Democratic and Republican administrations from 1947 to 2005 [see figure below]. The figure shows that overall inequality did not rise by the end of the Republican Eisenhower administration in 1960 relative to when Eisenhower took office in 1953. Moreover, inequality rose under the Democratic presidency of Jimmy Carter at roughly the same sharp rate as it had in the immediately preceding Republican administrations of Nixon and Ford.
Finally, considering Bill Clinton's Democratic presidential term overall, inequality did not fall at all relative to the historically high levels that were attained under Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush. In fact, this figure makes clear that the only period between 1947 and 2005 when America became significantly more equal was during the Kennedy/Johnson years.
Because Bartels overlooks this major historical pattern in his own data, he also neglects to observe the dramatic transformation in policy-setting circles undergirding it. This was the shift in policy-setting influence from an ascendant Keynesian social democratic framework to a dominant neoliberal framework, whose intellectual leaders included Milton Friedman and his colleagues from the University of Chicago economics department.
This shift occurred in the mid-1970s, during the high inflation years under Jimmy Carter. It was during the Carter presidency that the movement toward deregulating business—including, in particular, global trade and financial markets—began gathering strong momentum. The most significant legislative action to deregulate US financial markets occurred during the Clinton presidency, when most of the remaining features of the 1930s-era Glass-Steagall financial regulatory system were repealed. Bartels is clearly aware of this shift in the broad policy landscape, writing, for example, "When Bill Clinton entered the White House in 1993, he apparently felt a good deal more constrained by the Federal Reserve Board and the bond markets than previous Democratic presidents had been."
The lesson is straightforward. Contrary to Bartels, electing Democrats to office will not by itself deliver a more equal society. This includes Democrats such as Barack Obama who openly profess a commitment to "spreading the wealth," as he did during his 2008 election-eve conversation with "Joe the Plumber." The fundamental challenge is, rather, to supplant the continued dominance of neoliberalism in setting the economic policy agenda with an up-to-date variant of a New Deal program. In addition to embracing environmental concerns at its forefront, this green New Deal would be an agenda that pushes the institutions of American capitalism to the limit in allowing democratic politics and egalitarian goals to gain ascendancy over the prerogatives of Wall Street and big business.