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Inequality and the Dynamics of Public Opinion: The Self-Reinforcing Link Between Economic Inequality and Mass Preferences


  • Nathan J. Kelly, Department of Political Science, 1001 McClung Tower, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996 ( Peter K. Enns, Department of Government, 214 White Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853 (

  • A previous version of this article was presented at the EPOP 2009 conference. The authors thank three anonymous reviewers, Larry Bartels, Chris Ellis, Martin Gilens, Suzanne Mettler, Chris Wlezien, and the Junior Faculty Workshop at the University of Tennessee Department of Political Science for comments on previous versions of this article. All remaining errors are, of course, the responsibility of the authors. We also thank Brian Richman for research assistance. Support for this research came from NSF Grant SES-0318044. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Data needed to replicate the analyses presented in this article can be found at


This article assesses the influence of income inequality on the public's policy mood. Recent work has produced divergent perspectives on the relationship between inequality, public opinion, and government redistribution. One group of scholars suggests that unequal representation of different income groups reproduces inequality as politicians respond to the preferences of the rich. Another group of scholars pays relatively little attention to distributional outcomes but shows that government is generally just as responsive to the poor as to the rich. Utilizing theoretical insights from comparative political economy and time-series data from 1952 to 2006, supplemented with cross-sectional analysis where appropriate, we show that economic inequality is, in fact, self-reinforcing, but that this is fully consistent with the idea that government tends to respond equally to rich and poor in its policy enactments.