Five Problems with Measuring Political Inequality

Political equality is a foundation of democracy, but in every democracy citizens are politically unequal. Some voices are louder than others, whether it has to do with their political participation or the level of economic inequality. As a consequence, there is democratic backsliding, and other political problems.

If we want to know, Is political inequality rising, falling, or staying the same? We would have to measure the concept of “political inequality.”

Measuring political inequality has multiple challenges.

In this post, I pose five main problems in measuring political inequality:  

1. Political power and influence is difficult to observe.  

Political power and influence is notoriously difficult to measure because it is an interaction between power wielders that is more inferred than directly observed.  We tend to “see” power after the decision is made, not during the decision process.

Read: What is Power? What is a Power Structure?

2. The range of potential political resources is extremely diverse and heavily context dependent.  

We discussed how political resources are anything one can use to influence a political decision: social or psychological factors – material, ideational, a personal attribute, a group level attribute, an authority position, a network connection – or an action, such as political participation. In international perspective, this is further complicated by seeking a measure that is functionally equivalent across nations.  

Read: Defining and Measuring Political Resources

3. Political outcomes is difficult to measure.

To answer the question, “does political inequality matter?”, we would have to empirically demonstrate that governmental decisions systematically favor some groups over others. Some recent work in the U.S. is exemplary. Similar work outside the American context is rare.

Read: Gilens and Page

4. Political equality never existed.

Political equality has never existed in any democracy or any other political system ever. Is political equality a real, empirically visible end of the continuum? If political equality is an ideal then does a theoretical endpoint belong in an empirical measure?

Read: The Many Definitions of Political Inequality

5. We need to specify the particular type of political inequality.

Political inequality can be found anywhere within the political process. Let’s simplify the political process to two parts – voice and response.   Voice refers to how constituencies express their interests to decision-makers directly or through representatives.  Response refers to how decision-makers act and react to their constituencies and is expressed via policy and symbols.

If we are to measure political inequality, we need to know how to define it. There are many definitions of political inequality. Start with a definition, and then build the measure.

Read: The Many Definitions of Political Inequality