The notion that political parties are a key determinant of income inequality has been around for a long time. I suspect many non-academics take its truth for granted. Among American scholars, the notion is perhaps most closely associated with Douglas Hibbs . . .
[In his recent book, Unequal Democracy], Larry Bartels suggests that a key part of the story is different policies pursued by Democratic and Republican presidents. . . . Bartels’ argument, while by no means novel, is very much a fresh one. It is based on extensive empirical analysis of the post-World War II period. Is he correct? I think Bartels probably has it right for part of this period, but I’m not convinced that his hypothesis holds up for the other part. . . .
After seeing Larry Bartels present his findings on how the economy has done better, for the poor and middle class, under Democratic presidents than Republican presidents, I was puzzled. Not that it couldn’t be true, but it seemed a little mysterious, given the general sense that presidents don’t have much control over the econony–business cycles just seem to happen sometime.
But the general perceptions about Presidents and the economy have changed over time.
I might be wrong here, not having lived through the entire postwar period, but my perception is that, during most of this time, “competence” was not an issue; rather, there was a general belief that the president could do some things, most notably help labor (for the Democrats) or business (for the Republicans).
The exception here was the 1976-1996 period, during which there was a real sense of economic incompetence or powerlessness of some presidents (Ford with his Whip Inflation Now, Carter with stagflation, the residual view of Democrats being incompetent for the economy, George H.W. Bush with the deficit and the regression, perhaps extending to Dole in 1996). Then, since 2000, we’ve returned to the general attitude that both parties have essential competence but have different goals. (Not that everyone agrees on the “competence” issue, but it seems to me that the battle is more being fought on priorities than competence–in contrast to 1992, for example.)
So, the conventional wisdom based on the 1976-1996 period is that presidents can’t do much, they’re at the mercy of the business cycle, etc., which makes Bartels’s results seem like some sort of fluke, or a perhaps meaningless juxtaposition of one-off results. But taking the 1948-1972 and 2000-2004 perspectives, Bartels’s graph makes a lot of sense. From this perspective, the Democrats did their thing, and the Republicans did theirs, and you’d expect to see a big difference at the low end of the income scale. (Again, this is inherently short-term reasoning, not long-term, but as Larry pointed out in his talk, the evidence is that voters are susceptible to short-term inferences.)
In summary: we’re used to thinking of presidents as fairly powerless surfers on the global economy, able to tinker with tax rates but not much more–but thinking about the entire postwar period, there’s certainly been at least the perception that presidents can deliver the economic goods to their constituencies. So from that perspective, Larry’s curves should not be much of a surprise–at least in that the slope for Democrats goes down (i.e., poor people do better under Democratic presidents) and the slope for Republicans goes up (i.e., rich people do better under Republican presidents). The relative positions of the lines is another story, which perhaps corresponds to random alignments of the business cycle.
Perhaps Kenworthy can connect this thinking more directly to his arguments. My time frames don’t quite align with his, but it’s a similar idea of breaking the period into smaller segments.
And, to comment on my comments . . . when posting the above in 2006, I wrote, “since 2000, we’ve returned to the general attitude that both parties have essential competence but have different goals. . . . we’re used to thinking of presidents as fairly powerless surfers on the global economy, able to tinker with tax rates but not much more. . .” Things sure have changed in 2 1/2 years!