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Abstract

Is the U.S. political system necessarily “rigged” in favor of the affluent? There is no shortage of people, both inside and outside of political science, who believe so. Using an underexploited resource, party platforms, I contend that the Democratic Party generally offers better representation than Republicans to the non-affluent and groups such as trade unions—but not in issue domains outside of economics. Meanwhile, the Republican Party generally best represents the affluent—but not for areas such as social issues, where the party’s official stances are more in line with the preferences of lower-income Americans. I therefore argue for a more-nuanced view of inequality and representation, one that focuses not just on structural factors but on issue types and the contributions of each major political party.The first essay focuses on U.S. national party platforms, the importance of which many professional politicians and political scientists have disputed. Politicians regularly claim that American party platforms are irrelevant documents that virtually no one reads, while some political scientists contend that they may be nothing more than “cheap talk.” Using data for more than 2,500 proposed federal policy changes and the positions of party platforms on those proposed changes, I find that both major parties’ platforms are positively associated with the actions they will take in the future. As a result, I argue that party platforms are an underused data source for studying both party coalition-building and topics such as inequality and representation. Based on interviews with officials involved in the platform-drafting process, I further argue that platforms represent a key means of solving coordination problems among key interest-group stakeholders. The second contribution focuses on inequality and representation during the Obama Administration. Using a new dataset of public opinion data and federal policy outcomes during the Obama Administration, I find that federal policy changes during the Obama years more closely reflect the preferences of lower- and middle-income Americans, rather than the preferred policies of the affluent. I find the association between lower-income Americans’ preferences and policy outcomes to be strongest for domestic economic issues, which account for about 70 percent of the issues in the dataset. These findings complicate the narrative that structural factors in the American political system necessarily lead to economic policy outcomes that favor the affluent. The third part of the dissertation focuses on the extent to which the two major American political parties contribute to unequal representation. Using an underutilized data source, party platforms, I find that the Democratic platforms tend to be consistent with the preferences of lower-income Americans and mass economic organizations such as trade unions, whereas Republican platforms generally favor the preferences of the affluent, and business and socially conservative interest groups. I further find that, even conditioned on public opinion and interest group preferences, party platforms have a statistically significant association with federal policy outcomes. These results suggest that increasing Democratic control of the federal government should be associated with policy federal outputs that favor the non-affluent and mass economic organizations. However, the strength of this relationship differs by issue domain. For economic issues, the non-affluent may receive better representation than previous research suggests: over a more than thirty-year period, I find that lower-income Americans achieve their desired policy outcomes on economic issues just as frequently as the well-to-do. However, the preferences of the affluent are strongly associated with policymaking for foreign policy and social issues, with the latter area showing that Democratic platform positions are more closely associated with the preferences of the affluent than of lower- and middle-class Americans.

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