Inequality, Issue Salience, and Policy Responsiveness: A Comparative Study of the Politics of Inequality in the United States and the United Kingdom

Awarded Scholars:
Pepper Culpepper, European University Institute
Taeku Lee, University of California, Berkeley
Project Date:
Jan 2015
Award Amount:

Co-funded with the MacArthur Foundation

The decades-long rise in economic inequality has raised questions about political access and advantage, and how responsive the political system is, or can be, to the policy preferences of the less affluent. A major question is: under what conditions do policies related to economic inequality become salient, and under what conditions do they spur legislative debate and action? According to Professors Taeku Lee at UC Berkeley and Pepper Culpepper at the European University Institute, an evidentiary paradox surrounds this question. The literature on political economy suggests that politicians have every incentive to remain beholden to business interests in capitalist democracies. In contrast, the public opinion literature shows that the policy preferences of the American public, as measured through opinion polls, correlate strongly with legislative voting behavior, and that shifts in public opinion are congruent with shifts in public policy on those issues.

Lee and Culpepper will examine this apparent paradox by developing a more nuanced view of the political influence of business interests and the potential of public opinion to constrain that influence. They will systematically examine the conditions under which public opinion works as a credible incentive for lawmakers to discount the power and interests of business. They expect that the ability of public opinion to countervail business power will vary according to whether, and when, business interests choose to deliberately wield power. The strategic deployment of business power and its likelihood of success are expected to vary across the contexts in which citizens express their opinions. Issues that are more salient to mass publics are likelier to help define policy agendas and generate policy responsiveness.

To analyze the contexts in which issues become salient and the voice of public opinion is made more prominent in policy-making, Lee and Culpepper will carry out a multi-method approach to responsiveness that embeds the statistical analysis of survey data within specific policy histories in two areas: executive compensation and financial regulation. They see these as recent topics in which issue salience was high, public demands for policy or regulatory reform were elevated, and business was opposed to reform.


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