Five Problems with Measuring Political Inequality

How much political inequality is there? Is political inequality rising, falling, or staying the same? To answer these questions, we would have to measure the idea of “political inequality.”

Here are five main problems in measuring political inequality:  

1. Political influence is hard for scientists to observe.  Political 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.

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

3. Political outcomes is also hard 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 (see the Gilens and Page argument below). Similar work outside the American context is rare.

4. Political equality never existed. 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?

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.

The Gilens and Page Measure of Political Inequality

A recent article on inequality and policy outcomes by Gilens and Page highlights the promise and the difficulties in measuring political inequality. Their unique data consists of 1779 policies taken up by the U.S. Congress from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Each policy is matched to a public opinion survey research question asked during the time the policy was introduced (“this policy says X, to what extent do you agree with it?”) and to a set of interest groups who have taken a position on the policy. With these data, they gauged the extent to which the policy outcome reflects (a) the will of the median voter – identified within the surveys and (b) types of interest groups, such as economic elites, business interests, and mass public interest groups. They found that policy outcomes tend to favor the will of economic elites, not the median voter. Their study provides solid, further evidence of the paucity of pluralism in American democracy.

Gilens and Page recently published a spirited and convincing defense of their findings, but we should consider how the basis of their study — the measure of political inequality — has some fundamental problems.

A. They chose policies based on whether they were asked in public opinion surveys, and that means the many, not-so-famous policy debates that also shape key economic distribution policies were excluded.

B. Nor can it account for the policies that are off the Congressional agenda, the type of power that Bachrach and Baratz (1962) warned that is most pernicious: the power to compel voters to not even ask for the policy in the first place.

C. It is also specific to the American experience; though it can be replicated elsewhere, so far there is no cross-national equivalent to these data.

Gilens and Page conducted what is likely one of the best and most unique studies on American political inequality, and it’s just a start.

Josh (2)

 

Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow is an Associate Professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences. This post is adapted from the article, “Political Inequality is International, Interdisciplinary, and Intersectional,” published by Sociology Compass in 2015.