I seek to create new knowledge by conducting research that leads to new discoveries about the social world, helping students develop curiosity about the dynamics of power in social and political life, and sharing insights from the social sciences with policymakers and the public in ways that generate deeper understanding and more informed policy choices. My research is fundamentally motivated by a desire to understand connections between citizens and political institutions. Much of my past research, as well as the projects I’m currently pursuing, focus on questions related to economic, social, and political inequality in democratic political institutions. The geographic context of my work has most often been the United States, but I am increasingly utilizing cross-national comparisons with a focus on Latin America. Methodologically, I emphasize quantitative methodologies supplemented by elite interviews, historical analysis, and other qualitative approaches as appropriate. I apply a variety of techniques in an effort to generate accurate and appropriately contextualized conclusions.
I am currently Professor of Political Science at the University of Tennessee. I have also been awarded an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship for my work on inequality and American democracy and have been hosted by the Russell Sage Foundation as a Visiting Scholar.
Find out more by . . .
Hijacking the agenda: Economic power and political influence
Why are the economic concerns of lower- and middle-class Americans so often ignored by the Congress, while the economic goals of the wealthiest are prioritized, often resulting in policies promoting their interests? In Hijacking the Agenda, political scientists Christopher Witko (Pennsylvania State University), Jana Morgan (University of Tennessee), Nathan J. Kelly (University of Tennessee), and Peter K. Enns (Cornell University) examine why Congress privileges the concerns of businesses and the wealthy over those of average Americans. They go beyond demonstrating this bias to document how and why economic policy is skewed in favor of the rich.
Inequality, Exclusion, and Tolerance for Political Dissent in Latin America
Although many countries meet electoral standards of democracy, often these regimes fail to promote social inclusion or meaningful representation. We argue that systems of exclusion have deleterious consequences for how people think about democracy, undermining tolerance for political dissent. Using cross-national public opinion data together with contextual measures of economic and political marginalization along ethnoracial lines, we evaluate the relationships between exclusion and political tolerance across Latin America. Over-time analysis in Bolivia further probes the mechanisms linking exclusion to intolerance. We find that tolerance of dissent is depressed where ethnoracial hierarchies are pronounced. We advance understanding of oft-unexplained society-level differences in political tolerance and emphasize the importance of the macro-structural context in shaping citizens’ commitments to basic democratic rights.
America's Inequality Trap
The gap between the rich and the poor has grown dramatically in the United States and is now at its widest since at least the early 1900s. While by most measures the economy has been improving, soaring cost of living and stagnant wages have done little to assuage economic anxieties. Conditions like these seem designed to produce a generation-defining intervention to balance the economic scales and enhance opportunities for those at the middle and bottom of the country’s economic ladder—but we have seen nothing of the sort. This book argues that a key reason for this is that rising concentrations of wealth create a politics that makes reducing economic inequality more difficult. I show that, when a small fraction of the people control most of the economic resources, they also hold a disproportionate amount of political power, hurtling us toward a self-perpetuating plutocracy, or an “inequality trap.” Among other things, the rich support a broad political campaign that convinces voters that policies to reduce inequality are unwise and not in the average voter’s interest, regardless of the real economic impact. They also take advantage of interest groups they generously support to influence Congress and the president, as well as state governments, in ways that stop or slow down reform. One of the key implications of this book is that social policies designed to combat inequality should work hand-in-hand with political reforms that enhance democratic governance and efforts to fight racism, and a coordinated effort on all of these fronts will be needed to reverse the decades-long trend.
Federalism, Government Liberalism, and Union Weakness in America
Unlike most other countries, in the United States, subnational governments (states) have substantial authority over collective bargaining and union organization laws. Because states compete for business investment and union (dis)organization likely has spillover effects beyond state borders, weak unions in one state may affect union organization in other states. We examine how union decline in one state is associated with union decline in neighboring states, and whether the presence of prounion (left-leaning) governments may limit the spread of union decline. Examining a period of major union decline (1983–2014), we find that union weakness in one state is associated with union weakness in nearby states. We observe that Democratic power in Congress is associated with higher unionization rates, but that liberal state governments have been relatively powerless to stop union decline in this period. These findings have important implications for understanding the historical and contemporary weakness of American unions and for the future of union strength in the United States.
Social Patterns of Inequality, Partisan Competition, and Latin American Support for Redistribution
This article argues that social patterns of inequality and structures of partisan competition play central roles in shaping support for redistribution, offering three important insights concerning redistribution attitude formation. First, pronounced income disparities between ethnic/racial groups reduce support for redistribution. Second, for members of marginalized ethnic groups, entrenched discrimination reflected in large between-group inequalities provokes skepticism regarding state redistributive efforts, undermining their generally favorable attitudes toward redistribution. Third, when party systems feature programmatic competition around distributional issues, citizens are more likely to view government redistribution favorably, particularly where meaningful left options are present, while in systems without programmatic parties advocating pro-poor policy, support for redistribution is weaker. The results based on multilevel analysis of survey data from 18 Latin American countries suggest that building political support for redistribution is more difficult when economic and ethnic inequalities overlap and when party systems lack programmatic appeals emphasizing distributive issues.
Moving Forward with Time Series Analysis
In a recent Research and Politics article, we showed that for many types of time series data, concerns about spurious relationships can be overcome by following standard procedures associated with cointegration tests and the general error correction model (GECM). Matthew Lebo and Patrick Kraft (LK) incorrectly argue that our recommended approach will lead researchers to identify false (i.e., spurious) relationships. In this article, we show how LK’s response is incorrect or misleading in multiple ways. Most importantly, when we correct their simulations, their results reinforce our previous findings, highlighting the utility of the GECM when estimated and interpreted correctly.
Class Bias in Voter Turnout, Representation, and Income Inequality
The mass franchise led to more responsive government and a more equitable distribution of resources in the United States and other democracies. Recently in America, however, voter participation has been low and increasingly biased toward the wealthy. We investigate whether this electoral “class bias”shapes government ideology, the substance of economic policy, and distributional outcomes, thereby shedding light on both the old question of whether who votes matters and the newer question of how politics has contributed to growing income inequality. Because both lower and upper income groups try to use their resources to mobilize their supporters and demobilize their opponents, we argue that variation in class bias in turnout is a good indicator of the balance of power between upper and lower income groups. And because lower income voters favor more liberal governments and economic policies we expect that less class bias will be associated with these outcomes and a more equal income distribution. Our analysis of data from the U.S. states confirms that class bias matters for these outcomes.
Don’t Jettison the General Error Correction Model Just Yet
In a recent issue of Political Analysis, Grant and Lebo authored two articles that forcefully argue against the use of the general error correction model (GECM) in nearly all time series applications of political data. We reconsider Grant and Lebo’s simulation results based on five common time series data scenarios. We show that Grant and Lebo’s simulations (as well as our own additional simulations) suggest the GECM performs quite well across these five data scenarios common in political science. The evidence shows that the problems Grant and Lebo highlight are almost exclusively the result of either incorrect applications of the GECM or the incorrect interpretation of results. Based on the prevailing evidence, we contend the GECM will often be a suitable model choice if implemented properly, and we offer practical advice on its use in applied settings.
Partisan Politics, Financial Deregulation, and the New Gilded Age
This paper examines how financial deregulation and the partisan underpinnings of deregulation shaped the path of income inequality in the United States. Using time-series data from 1914 to 2010, we assess the effect of partisan politics on financial deregulation and, in turn, the effect of deregulation on income inequality. We find that financial deregulation has generally declined when Democrats attain more power in Washington and that deregulation has contributed to rising inequality. We also learn that the partisan effect on deregulation has diminished since the early 1980s, suggesting that one way partisan politics has contributed to the recent rise in inequality is related to convergence on matters of financial deregulation. We explore several potential explanations for this post–1980 partisan convergence, finding evidence supporting the idea that globalization, the increasing availability of credit, and shifts in campaign finance were contributing factors.
Government Ideology and Unemployment in the U.S. States
Research shows that when the more liberal Democratic Party controls the national government, unemployment is lower, but whether liberal state governments are associated with lower unemployment has not been examined. We argue that more left-leaning governments in the U.S. states have the same preference for and willingness to use government to reduce unemployment, but that the greater resource and policymaking constraints that the states face during economic downturns limit their ability to shape unemployment to economic growth periods. We find evidence for these arguments in an analysis of the U.S. states for the period of 1975–2010. Specifically, when economic growth is low, liberal state governments are associated with increases in unemployment rates similar to or even somewhat higher than conservative governments, but when growth is moderate to high, liberal state governments are associated with greater-than-expected reductions in unemployment. We also provide some evidence that different state spending decisions between liberal and conservative state governments may explain these patterns.
Conditional Status Quo Bias and Top Income Shares
This article develops and tests a model of conditional status quo bias and American inequality. We find that institutional features that bias policy outcomes toward the status quo have played a central role in the path of inequality. Using time-series analysis of top income shares during the post-Depression period, we identify the Senate as a key actor in the politics of income inequality. Our findings suggest that the supermajoritarian nature of the Senate and policy stagnation, when coupled with economic and social factors that produce rising inequality, create a situation in which inequality becomes difficult to reverse.
Market Inequality and Redistribution in Latin America and the Caribbean
This article analyzes how politics influences Latin American and Caribbean income inequality. Most studies view the distributional process in two phases with inequality shaped first by markets and then by state redistribution. Typically, cross-national analyses of inequality limit the influence of politics to the redistributive phase. But we argue that a full understanding of how government affects inequality must also consider how politics shapes the market. While redistribution is undoubtedly an important mechanism employed by government to influence distributional outcomes, we find that inequality produced by the market is more responsive to politics than is redistribution. Left partisan power and public investment in human capital significantly reduce inequality in the market phase. In addition, social spending on human capital conditions the effect of economic growth. As human capital investment increases, growth becomes more equality enhancing, providing further evidence of the market conditioning effect of policy.
The Rise of the Super-Rich
The income share of the super-rich in the United States has grown rapidly since the early 1980s after a period of postwar stability. What factors drove this change? In this study, we investigate the institutional, policy, and economic shifts that may explain rising income concentration. We use single-equation error correction models to estimate the long- and short run effects of politics, policy, and economic factors on pretax top income shares between 1949 and 2008. We find that the rise of the super-rich is the result of rightward-shifts in Congress, the decline of labor unions, lower tax rates on high incomes, increased trade openness, and asset bubbles in stock and real estate markets.
Federalism and American Inequality
Studies of the political determinants of economic inequality have usually focused on the national government, but in federalist systems subnational governments may also be important. In recent decades, the U.S. national government has been less active in fighting inequality, but increasing devolution means that states wanting to address this problem have had a greater incentive and perhaps means by which to do so. Applying power resources theory, we argue that in states where left parties are stronger and more liberal politics are enacted, the government will reduce inequality and that this state effect becomes more pronounced as middle- and lower-class power wanes nationally. In the analysis we find that both federal and state governments influence inequality, and since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995, the states have played a more important role in shaping the income distribution
Inequality and the Dynamics of Public Opinion
This article assesses the influence of income inequality on the public’s policy mood. Recent work has produced divergent perspectives on the relationship between inequality, public opinion, and government redistribution. One group of scholars suggests that unequal representation of different income groups reproduces inequality as politicians respond to the preferences of the rich. Another group of scholars pays relatively little attention to distributional outcomes but shows that government is generally just as responsive to the poor as to the rich. Utilizing theoretical insights from comparative political economy and time-series data from 1952 to 2006, supplemented with cross-sectional analysis where appropriate, we show that economic inequality is, in fact, self-reinforcing, but that this is fully consistent with the idea that government tends to respond equally to rich and poor in its policy enactments.
Explaining Public Attitudes toward Fighting Inequality in Latin America
This paper uses the 2008 Americas Barometer survey data from 22 countries to explore the factors that shape Latin American attitudes about the role of the state in reducing inequality. Using multilevel analysis to properly model both the individual and country-level predictors of these attitudes, we find that traditional explanations of public attitudes about government’s redistributive role also carry weight in Latin America. Economic evaluations, personal wealth, trust in government, and assessments of government performance are each associated in predictable ways with attitudes about redistribution. But the analysis also identifies factors that have been overlooked in previous research on the state’s role in combating inequality, which has been primarily conducted in the context of the developed world. Namely, we find that Latin Americans appropriately view crime and inequality as interrelated, and as their perceptions of crime as a problem increase so does their support for government efforts to reduce inequality. This relationship is particularly important in poorer countries where inequality and poverty are widespread social ills. The analysis suggests that in the Latin American context it is appropriate to view pursuing anti-crime and anti-inequality policies as compatible rather than competing goals.
The Politics of Income Inequality in the United States
This book revolves around one central question: Do political dynamics have a systematic and predictable influence on distributional outcomes in the United States? The answer is a resounding yes. Utilizing data from mass income surveys, elite surveys, and aggregate time series, as well as theoretical insights from both American and comparative politics, Kelly shows that income inequality is a fundamental part of the U.S. macro political system. Shifts in public opinion, party control of government, and the ideological direction of policy all have important consequences for distributional outcomes. Specifically, shifts to the left produce reductions in inequality through two mechanisms - explicit redistribution and market conditioning. Whereas many previous studies focus only on the distributional impact of redistribution, this book shows that such a narrow strategy is misguided. In fact, market mechanisms matter far more than traditional redistribution in translating macro political shifts into distributional outcomes.
Legislative Productivity of the U.S. Congress, 1789–2004
We measure legislative productivity for the entire history of the U.S. Congress. Current measures of legislative productivity are problematic because they measure productivity for a limited number of decades and because they are based on different aspects of productivity. We provide a methodology for measuring (1) a Legislative Productivity Index (LPI) and (2) a Major Legislation Index (MLI). We use the W-CALC algorithm of Stimson (1999, Public opinion in America: Moods, cycles, and swings. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press) to combine information from previously used indicators of productivity into measures of the LPI and the MLI. We provide examinations of content, convergent, and construct validity. The construct validity model includes potential determinants of legislative productivity. We conclude that the LPI and the MLI are superior measures of productivity than other measures used in the literature.
Religious Traditionalism and Latino Politics in the United States
This article examines how and why ethnic context conditions the link between religious traditionalism and the political attitudes and behaviors of Latinos in the United States. Existing research shows that the impact of religious traditionalism on political attitudes varies by policy and religious context. Through an analysis of issue attitudes, ideology, and partisanship, we confirm this existing work and also show that religious traditionalism influences Latino political behavior differently than it influences Anglo politics. The impact of religious traditionalism is not nearly as strong among Latinos as among Anglos. To the extent that traditionalism does influence political attitudes and behavior, it generally produces greater ideological conservatism but does not translate into support for the Republican Party—the latter is quite different from its impact in the Anglo population.
Dynamic Models for Dynamic Theories: The Ins and Outs of Lagged Dependent Variables
A lagged dependent variable in an OLS regression is often used as a means of capturing dynamic effects in political processes and as a method for ridding the model of autocorrelation. But recent work contends that the lagged dependent variable specification is too problematic for use in most situations. More specifically, if residual autocorrelation is present, the lagged dependent variable causes the coefficients for explanatory variables to be biased downward. We use a Monte Carlo analysis to assess empirically how much bias is present when a lagged dependent variable is used under a wide variety of circumstances. In our analysis, we compare the performance of the lagged dependent variable model to several other time series models. We show that while the lagged dependent variable is inappropriate in some circumstances, it remains an appropriate model for the dynamic theories often tested by applied analysts. From the analysis, we develop several practical suggestions on when and how to use lagged dependent variables on the right-hand side of a model.
Political Choice, Public Policy, and Distributional Outcomes
I address the functioning of the U.S. governing system by analyzing distributional outcomes from 1947 to 2000. The key question is whether public policy influences distributional outcomes. The macropolitics model and power resource theory suggest that left policies should equalize the distribution of income. I utilize single equation error correction models to assess the impact of policy on income inequality through two mechanisms—market conditioning and redistribution. Since nearly every government action influences markets in some way, I examine policy in the aggregate rather than focusing only on policies explicitly designed to redistribute income. The analysis indicates that policy influences inequality through both mechanisms, with left policy producing more equality. The results are consistent with power resource theory and strongly support the macropolitics model. Furthermore, I find that market conditioning is as important as, and works in tandem with, explicit redistribution.
Religion and Latino Partisanship in the United States
This article examines the interplay among religion, ethnicity, and the partisanship of Latinos in the U.S. Using pooled data from the 1990-2000 National Election Studies, we assess denominational affiliation and religious commitment as explanations of partisanship. We show that there is more religious diversity among Latinos than is usually acknowledged in studies of Latino politics and that the political importance of religion among Latinos has not been adequately assessed because variation beyond a Catholic/non-Catholic dichotomy has been ignored. We demonstrate that variation in Latino religious affiliation has important political implications.
Issue Attitudes and Survey Continuity across Interview Mode in the 2000 NES
Can researchers draw consistent inferences about the U.S. public’s issue attitudes when studying survey results from both the in-person and telephone interview modes of the 2000 National Election Studies (NES) survey? We address this question through an analysis contrasting the distribution of issue attitudes across modes in the dual sample design of the 2000 NES. We find clear differences across mode even when applying a method devised by the NES to improve comparability by recoding issue attitude scales from the in-person mode. We present an alternative method of recoding these scales, which substantially improves comparability between modes. Through an analysis of the covariance structure of the issues and simple models of vote choice, we discuss the implications of the results for the study of issue attitudes in the 2000 NES.
Does Politics Really Matter? Policy and Government's Equalizing Influence in the United States
Analyses of the U.S. governing system indicate that national policy is influenced by public opinion, and this is interpreted as representation. Not as much is known about whether policy systematically influences societal outcomes. In fact, some analyses suggest that there is little connection between policies and the outcomes these policies seek to produce. This article seeks to determine whether such a connection exists for income inequality. Although connections should exist, various views of the policymaking process cast doubt on the prospect. Measures of government’s equalizing influence and aggregate policy are created for 1979-1996,and time series regression is used to test the connection between the two. Even in the presence of controls for economic and demographic factors, policy liberalism produces greater government redistribution. When assessed in light of earlier research, these results indicate that shifts in public opinion lead to important changes in the way government influences society.
Please use this form to get in touch with me. I would be delighted to discuss my work in more detail and answer any questions you might have. I am also happy to give research-based presentations to academic or public audiences. If you’d like for me to discuss economic inequality in the United States with your organization or group I am eager to hear from you. And if you’re a social scientist looking to fill spots in a speaker series, I am always eager to get feedback on my work from as broad a group of scholars as possible. I look forward to hearing from you!
Talk at Columbia University Political Science Department
Next week I will be presenting work from my current book project. The talk, scheduled for Tuesday, November 14 at noon will […]
Talk at Columbia University Center for the Study of Wealth and Inequality
I will be at Columbia University today talking about a portion of my latest book project. The talk is titled ” The […]
Latest Contribution to Debate over Error Correction Models Published
In an ongoing exchange relating to the proper application of the General Error Correction Model in time series analysis, my co-authors and […]