The Economic Other: Inequality in the American Political Imagination, University of Chicago Press
(with Meghan Condon, Loyola University Chicago)

Economic inequality is at a record high in the United States, but public demand for redistribution is not rising with it. Meghan Condon and Amber Wichowsky show that this paradox and other mysteries about class and US politics can be solved through a focus on social comparison. Powerful currents compete to propel attention up or down—toward the rich or the poor—pulling politics along in the wake.

Through an astute blend of experiments, surveys, and descriptions people offer in their own words, The Economic Other reveals that when less-advantaged Americans compare with the rich, they become more accurate about their own status and want more from government. But American society is structured to prevent upward comparison. In an increasingly divided, anxious nation, opportunities to interact with the country’s richest are shrinking, and people prefer to compare to those below to feel secure. Even when comparison with the rich does occur, many lose confidence in their power to effect change. 

Laying bare how social comparisons drive political attitudes, The Economic Other is an essential look at the stubborn plight of inequality and the measures needed to solve it.

Related articles and working papers:

Condon, Meghan and Amber Wichowsky. Forthcoming. “Inequality in the Social Mind: Perceptions of Status and Support for Redistribution.” The Journal of Politics.

Condon, Meghan and Amber Wichowsky. 2015. “Same Blueprint, Different Bricks: Reexamining the Gender Gap in Ideology with an Item Response Model,” Politics, Groups, and Identities 3(1): 4-20.

Amber Wichowsky and Meghan Condon. “The Emergent Gender Gap in Economic Evaluations in the Age of Trump” (In preparation).

Condon, Meghan and Amber Wichowsky. “Anxious MTurkers: High Levels of Economic Anxiety Among Contingent Survey Workers” (Under Review)

Condon, Meghan and Amber Wichowsky. “Twentieth Century Drum Majors: Economic Anxiety and Racialized Class Politics.” (Working paper)

Condon, Meghan and Amber Wichowsky. “Our Status, Our (Political) Selves: How Gender and Inequality Structure Political Efficacy.” (Working paper).

Other working papers:

“The Promise of E-Gov? City Hall’s Responsiveness to Neighborhood Interests” (with Paru Shah, Amanda Heideman and Branden DuPont)

Democracy works better when citizens are willing and able to communicate their needs and preferences to their elected officials. By this standard, however, the quality of local democratic institutions is unclear. On the one hand, voter turnout in local elections is anemic, and often results in uneven consideration of political interests. On the other hand, information communication technologies (ICTs) — email, online forums, mobile apps — have made it easier for residents to communicate their preferences and voice their concerns. Political theorists and technology optimists have both laid claim to the democratizing potential of ICTs, but several questions remain. In this paper we ask whether ICTs help expand and diversify the civic arena, or just exacerbate existing socioeconomic biases in political voice. To do so, we leverage data from the city of Milwaukee on service requests to examine neighborhood variation in the utilization of e-gov services. We find that neighborhood need drives service requests, and no evidence that this form of government contact is positively related to more standard measures of political and civic engagement. We discuss the implications of these findings for reducing socioeconomic disparities in local civic engagement.

Creative placemaking as empowered participatory governance: does the promise fit the reality? (with Jennifer Gaul-Stout and Jill Birren)

The use of creative placemaking to revitalize distressed neighborhoods has grown in popularity in recent years. Such initiatives bring together a wide variety of actors and groups to activate neglected public and private spaces through arts and cultural projects. The hope is that these efforts pay broader dividends, generating physical and social transformations that will build social capital, improve public safety, and spur more inclusive economic development. This study examines who is active in envisioning, planning, and implementing placemaking projects, and how residents’ perspectives and voices are incorporated through each stage of the process. Who is empowered to participate and in what capacity? Do such efforts reduce or reinforce existing race-class inequalities in planning and development? We present an in-depth case study of a creative placemaking initiative located in one of the most segregated cities in the United States.

“Punishing Partisanship?” (with Julia Azari)

Do citizens assess the president and Congress according to different criteria? Conventional wisdom holds that the president is expected to rise above partisan politics and defend the national interest, while members of Congress are perceived as more responsive to parochial and partisan interests. However, the president’s role in domestic policy has expanded dramatically over time, and with it, presidential involvement in partisan politics. Have public attitudes and expectations followed this development and embraced the president as a partisan actor, or do citizens judge presidential partisanship more harshly than similar behaviors by members of Congress?  Through several survey experiments, we compare citizen assessments of the president and Congress, testing the assumptions of a conventional wisdom about the relative roles of these two institutions. In the second part of the project we assemble a unique dataset to look at the political rhetoric of congressional leaders and examine how they talk about compromise and bipartisanship with their constituents. This research has been supported by a Congressional Research Grant from the Dirksen Congressional Center.

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