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Retreating from Redistribution? Trends in Democratic Party Fidelity to Economic Equality, 1984–2020

Amelia Malpas and Adam Hilton
From the journal The Forum


During his presidency, Barack Obama described rising economic inequality as “the defining challenge of our time.” But a growing number of scholars and journalists argue that rising inequality is in part a result of the Democratic Party’s diminishing fidelity to an egalitarian economic agenda and its embrace of neoliberalism. In this article, we assess the veracity of this claim through a content analysis of all national Democratic Party platforms issued since 1984. We find that broad assertions of Democratic retreat from economic equality are for the most part exaggerated. Specifically, we argue that Democrats’ support for egalitarian policies has been complex and varied over time, with a marked decline under the influence of the New Democrats in the 1990s followed by a significant resurgence thereafter. However, while party support for equalizing policies has rebounded overall, the extent of the party’s commitment to specific policies varies according to the purported deservingness of beneficiaries. Our findings have important implications for debates concerning Democratic Party change, the politics of inequality, and the policy agenda of the Joe Biden administration.

Corresponding author: Adam Hilton, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, USA, E-mail:


The authors acknowledge the helpful advice on earlier drafts of this article by Jessica Hejny, Charlton Copeland, and E.J. Fagan.


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Published Online: 2021-09-07

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