Economic Inequality and Public Support for Organized Labor

Published date01 December 2017
Date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(4) 918 –932
© 2017 University of Utah
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DOI: 10.1177/1065912917719501
In an era of rising economic inequality in the United
States, a question of importance is what kind of back-
lash—if any—might we expect among the mass public?
Scholarship has long theorized that inequality will trigger
demand for redistribution (Meltzer and Richard 1981),
and that political democracy enables the public to trans-
late this demand into policy output (Lipset 1960). Recent
research, however, casts doubt on this form of backlash,
as scholarship finds only a weak link between percep-
tions of inequality and policy mood liberalism (Hayes
2014), and that dissatisfaction with inequality is not asso-
ciated with increased support for spending on the poor or
progressive taxation (McCall 2013). Furthermore, analy-
sis of data over time finds that periods of increased
inequality in the United States are accompanied by
decreases in mass support for redistribution (N. J. Kelly
and Enns 2010; cf. Johnston and Newman 2016).
Moreover, even if the public were to demand redistribu-
tion in the face of inequality, scholarship suggests that
lower income citizens wield less political influence rela-
tive to affluent citizens (Bartels 2008; Gilens 2012;
Winters and Page 2009). Although findings for an explic-
itly pro-rich bias are somewhat mixed (Bashir 2015;
Gilens and Page 2014, 2016), the presence of an anti-
poor bias in political representation—particularly in
areas with high inequality, a low presence of organized
labor, and representation by a Republican legislator
(Branham, Soroka, and Wlezien 2017; Ellis 2013; Rigby
and Wright 2011, 2013)—casts doubt on the extent to
which even hypothetical support for redistribution in
response to inequality could, in fact, lead to the enact-
ment of redistributive policies.
With the failure of economic inequality to translate
into heightened public support for redistribution in the
United States, where else might scholarship look for pos-
sible evidence of a public backlash against inequality?
The impetus for the search for such a backlash is pro-
vided by the empirical fact that the majority of Americans
are concerned about income inequality, believe it is bad
for the country, and agree that a slim minority of super-
rich individuals and corporations have an inordinate
degree of power in American society (Bartels 2008;
Eichler 2011; McCall and Kenworthy 2009). These facts
depict a terrain of mass opinion with strong latent poten-
tial for some form of convulsion against rising inequality.
Given the limited responsiveness of political institutions
to low-income Americans (Branham, Soroka, and
Wlezien 2017; Rigby and Wright 2011, 2013), one might
question whether evidence of a backlash may be manifest
by citizens turning their support to nongovernmental
actors who offer to redress inequality. One such actor in
the economic and political arena is organized labor.
719501PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917719501Political Research QuarterlyNewman and Kane
1University of California, Riverside, USA
2New York University, New York City, USA
Corresponding Author:
Benjamin J. Newman, School of Public Policy and Department
of Political Science, University of California, Riverside, 4153
Interdisciplinary South, Riverside, CA 92521, USA.
Economic Inequality and Public Support
for Organized Labor
Benjamin J. Newman1 and John V. Kane2
When exploring the political response of citizens to economic inequality, scholarship primarily focuses on support for
left parties and demand for redistribution. This article expands upon this literature by exploring whether inequality
generates public support for a known inequality-attenuating force in society—labor unions. In contrast to prior work,
which largely focuses on national levels of inequality, we focus on the effect of citizens’ firsthand exposure to inequality
in their local context. We theorize that residing in a context with visible income inequality should generate support
for expanding the power of unions and should do so by augmenting the perceived exigency of unions in advocating for
the working class. Using observational analysis of national survey data, reinforced with matching, placebo tests, and a
survey experiment, we find strong support for our theoretical expectations.
labor unions, income inequality, public opinion

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