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

How do Americans make sense of inequality? In The Economic Other, we argue that people think about inequality in interpersonal, status-based, rather than statistical terms. They think of ‘imagined others’ rather than distributions. We illustrate how these conceptions shape political attitudes and political engagement and how cross-class social comparison has declined in recent decades, especially when it comes to comparison with the rich. We argue that the American response to inequality has been anemic, not because Americans don’t know or don’t care about it, but because at the same time that economic inequality has grown, most Americans have had fewer and fewer of the social comparative experiences that make inequality real and meaningful. The book draws upon six experimental studies, two conducted with large, nationally representative samples of Americans, as well as several observational data sources. This research has been supported in part by the Time-Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS).

Current 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.

“US-China Relations on the Campaign Trail: A Harbinger of Future Policy or Just Cheap Talk?” (with Jessica Chen Weiss, Cornell University)

In the 2010 midterm elections, candidates and organizations from both sides of the political aisle aired roughly 250 ads featuring China as the central villain. The prominence of China was striking not only for the sheer number of bipartisan attacks that mentioned the country, but also for the sharp language and imagery used to stoke American anxieties over the rise of China as an economic power. Whether such ads have implications for political discourse on US-China relations or for U.S. foreign policy remains unknown. Media analysts often see political ads as signaling the direction of policymaking. Political scientists have shown that the issues discussed on the campaign trail can affect the positions and priorities candidates assign to those issues once in office. In this paper, using data from the Wisconsin Advertising Project and newly collected data from the 2010 election cycle, we examine the place of China in US political campaigns from 2000 to 2010. In the first half of the paper we ask which candidates air ads on China and examine their motivations for doing so. In particular, we examine the roles of political party, constituency pressure and candidate background in explaining the distribution and issue-focus of campaign advertising on China. In the second half of the paper we show how candidates’ campaign positions on China correspond to their policy positions once in office. Are candidates who attack China on the campaign trail more likely to sponsor legislation affecting US-China policy? Do their campaign positions help predict their votes on legislation affecting US-China relations? In answering these questions this paper contributes to our understanding of whether and how domestic politics shape foreign policymaking.

“Punishing Partisanship?” (with Julia Azari, Marquette University)

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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