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Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches


  • Nolan McCarty

    () (Princeton University)

  • Keith T. Poole

    () (University of California, San Diego)

  • Howard Rosenthal

    () (New York University)


The idea of America as politically polarized—that there is an unbridgeable divide between right and left, red and blue states—has become a cliché. What commentators miss, however, is that increasing polarization in recent decades has been closely accompanied by fundamental social and economic changes—most notably, a parallel rise in income inequality. In Polarized America, Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal examine the relationships of polarization, wealth disparity, immigration, and other forces, characterizing it as a dance of give and take and back and forth causality. Using NOMINATE (a quantitative procedure that, like interest group ratings, scores politicians on the basis of their roll call voting records) to measure polarization in Congress and public opinion, census data and Federal Election Commission finance records to measure polarization among the public, the authors find that polarization and income inequality fell in tandem from 1913 to 1957 and rose together dramatically from 1977 on; they trace a parallel rise in immigration beginning in the 1970s. They show that Republicans have moved right, away from redistributive policies that would reduce income inequality. Immigration, meanwhile, has facilitated the move to the right: non-citizens, a larger share of the population and disproportionately poor, cannot vote; thus there is less political pressure from the bottom for redistribution than there is from the top against it. In "the choreography of American politics" inequality feeds directly into political polarization, and polarization in turn creates policies that further increase inequality.

Suggested Citation

  • Nolan McCarty & Keith T. Poole & Howard Rosenthal, 2008. "Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262633612, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:mtp:titles:0262633612

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Hughes, Niall, 2016. "Voting in legislative elections under plurality rule," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 166(C), pages 51-93.
    2. Azzimonti, Marina & Talbert, Matthew, 2014. "Polarized business cycles," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 67(C), pages 47-61.
    3. Daron Acemoglu & Alexander Wolitzky, 2012. "Cycles of Distrust: An Economic Model," Levine's Working Paper Archive 786969000000000502, David K. Levine.
    4. Ali Yurukoglu & Claire Lim, 2014. "Dynamic Natural Monopoly Regulation: Time Inconsistency, Asymmetric Information, and Political Environments," 2014 Meeting Papers 530, Society for Economic Dynamics.
    5. Eloi Laurent, 2014. "Inequality as pollution, pollution as inequality," Working Papers hal-01070526, HAL.
    6. Funke, Manuel & Schularick, Moritz & Trebesch, Christoph, 2016. "Going to extremes: Politics after financial crises, 1870–2014," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 88(C), pages 227-260.
    7. David Rueda, 2014. "Food Comes First, Then Morals: Redistribution Preferences, Altruism and Group Heterogeneity in Western Europe," CAGE Online Working Paper Series 200, Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE).
    8. Halberstam, Yosh & Montagnes, B. Pablo, 2015. "Presidential coattails versus the median voter: Senator selection in US elections," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 121(C), pages 40-51.
    9. Eloi Laurent, 2014. "Inequality as pollution, pollution as inequality : The social-ecological nexus," Sciences Po publications info:hdl:2441/f6h8764enu2, Sciences Po.

    More about this item


    political polarization; income inequality; NOMINATE;

    JEL classification:

    • J11 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Demographic Trends, Macroeconomic Effects, and Forecasts
    • P48 - Economic Systems - - Other Economic Systems - - - Political Economy; Legal Institutions; Property Rights; Natural Resources; Energy; Environment; Regional Studies


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