The basics of modern life — job, education, and income — can shape our interest in politics, our desire to discuss politics with others, and our decision to vote. In the parlance of social science, occupation and socioeconomic status may impact “political engagement.”
We politically engage, or not, during an age of rising economic inequality.
Economic inequality matters. It chastens social mobility: the rich stay rich and the poor have extreme difficulty, especially in hard times, to climb up the social ladder.
Economic inequality is something you can see. You can see somebody driving down the street in a car that you can’t afford. You can walk the city and gape at the rich neighborhoods. The economic “gap” can stimulate or irritate; it is something you feel.
Frederick Solt, now an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa, thought that the economic inequality all around us influences our socioeconomic situation which, in turn, influences our political engagement.
This is a story of two of Fred Solt’s research articles on how political voice fares in an age of rising economic inequality.
The Theories of Engagement
If economic inequality touches so many areas of modern life, then, he reasoned, it must also play a role in whether people care about politics and show up to the voting booth. But how can inequality – that there are rich and poor and that there is a large gap between them – influence political engagement?
Solt consulted the literature on politics and inequality and sorted through the explanations, old and new. He read Moore, Dahl, Brady, Schlozman, and Verba. He read de Tocqueville, Schattschneider, Rueschemeyer, Stephens, and Stephens, Lijphart, and Lukes.
He built on their work and devised three main theories.
Power is Relative
One explanation is what Solt called, “relative power theory.” It works like this: in capitalist democracies, money translates easily into political voice. The rich have lots of money and enjoy strong connections to their fellow economic elite. Money and connections are resources that allow the rich, more so than the poor, to win open political conflicts over economic redistribution. You don’t need a conspiracy of the elite for this long-term winning to happen: it’s simply a matter of the rich fighting hard to win arguments in matters where their interests lie. The rich can even control the agenda – what gets said and debated, and whose voice is heard and how loud. The rich win so often that the poor are ground down, dispirited and broken. The poor see the arena from afar, but don’t think to enter it. Eventually, they don’t even care enough to watch the game on TV.
At high levels of economic inequality there is a very wide power gap. Over time, the rich gain even more power. As a result, the poor feel ineffectual and powerless.
The rich assume that they don’t have a worthy opponent among the poor; why do the rich fight in the political arena? Well, Solt reasoned, the rich still have to fight among themselves for resources. So, the rich engage in politics among themselves, leaving the poor to languish on the political sidelines.
Get in the Ring
Solt offered a competing explanation that he called, simply, “conflict theory.” The same things happen as in “relative power” theory, but the political outcome is different. In conflict theory, the poor see inequality as something to fight. What policy do they fight over? The poor want a policy called, “redistribution.” In redistribution, the pie is more equally shared, presumably through government policy. The rich do not mind some redistribution, but too much sharing would be too much for them. The poor, far from being ground down, broken and dispirited, are riled up about this inequality. They fight back, hard.
In conflict theory, greater inequality leads to more political engagement, not less.
What Have You
Solt then wrote of a third theory, what he called, “resource theory.” It starts, like conflict theory and relative power theory, with the premise that the resources you have matters for political engagement. Now, this sounds similar to relative power theory. But in resource theory, economic inequality is a specific mechanism that differentiates rich and poor: it creates more resources for the rich to engage and less for the poor.
There’s another difference from relative power theory, and it’s in the assumptions as to why rich and poor would be politically engaged. In both relative power and conflict theories, the fight is over the political agenda and the distribution of resources.
In resource theory, people treat engagement as a cost-benefit decision. If they have the resources, they’ll engage. If they don’t, they won’t.
Inequality badly distributes the economic resources needed for political engagement. The rich pat their fat wallets and gaze upon their iPhone contact list chock-a-block with powerful friends and, gliding down the golden escalator, enter the political arena. The poor finger the lint in their pockets and see everyone they know in the same situation; they sit out the political fight.
Only in conflict theory are the poor politically mobilized. In relative power and resource theories, the poor are demobilized.
Solt wanted to see if some other factors, as suggested by the scholars before him, also explain political engagement. For example, people tend to vote if they are compelled, by law, to vote: He looked at “compulsory voting.” Solt thought that if you’re married with kids, you might care about politics, but you also might be too darn busy to do anything about it, and thus being married with kids would make you less likely to be politically engaged. He thought being in a labor union might make you more politically active. Same thing for churches – you can discuss all sorts of things in and around church, politics included. He also thought that people talk about politics more when there’s an election year. He included age of the respondents, as well as their gender, education, income, and employment status. He included some other stuff, too.
Look at the Evidence
Theories are good in, well, theory. How can he know which theory is right? For that, he needed data.
If you want to know if people care about politics and vote, a good way is to look at surveys. Many cross-national surveys claim to have a representative sample of everyone in the country. The surveys that Solt was interested in had particular questions about socioeconomic status and political engagement. The surveys ask, how interested are you in politics? And they ask, how often do you discuss politics with your friends? And they ask, did you vote in the last election? With all that, he knew how to what extent survey respondents are interested in politics, how much they discuss politics, and whether they vote.
Solt thought these theories should be tested around the world. But, he reasoned, these theories would not work in all countries. He argued that the theories he came up with wouldn’t work in countries such as Afghanistan and Zimbabwe where the elites there win almost all the time and the authoritarian government represses everyone and, as a result, the poor have little chance to be engaged. He used survey data from a little over 20 democracies, like the UK, the USA, France, Germany, and other places where people can discuss politics openly, criticize the government, and probably not get shot while voting. The time period when those surveys were conducted was the 1980s and 1990s.
Fred Solt needed to measure “economic inequality” at the level of countries. In 2008, he turned to the Luxembourg Income Study, “LIS.” At the time, LIS was the best data available for comparing economic inequality across nations and time. Solt would later develop a better dataset for this purpose.
A Relative Winner
Solt analyzed how economic inequality at the national level relates to political engagement for people and groups. He found that, across more than 20 democracies, people who live in high economic inequality countries are less likely to be interested in politics, to discuss politics with friends, and be less likely to vote.
Well, not all people: inequality doesn’t touch the richer folks in this way. In high economic inequality countries, the rich, compared to those lower down the social ladder, are more likely to be interested in politics, to discuss politics with others, and to vote.
What theory won? It looks like relative power won and that’s bad news for democracy. He put it like this:
“…because it increases the relative power of richer citizens, economic inequality undermines political equality. The declining political engagement of nonaffluent citizens with rising inequality suggests that issues on which a consensus exists among richer individuals, such as redistribution, become increasingly unlikely even to be debated within the political process regardless of whether poorer citizens would care to raise them.” (2008: 57)
Resource theory also works because political engagement of the rich strengthens their control over the political apparatus. Almost tired of so much winning, the affluent control more and more of the political debate. Conflict theory lost: economic inequality was not associated with an increase in the political engagement of the less affluent.
In 2008, he published this paper in the American Journal of Political Science.
But there was more to do.
Updates and Innovations
Fred Solt continued to publish various papers in the field of politics and inequality and in 2015 he revisited his 2008 paper with updated data, different specifications, and a data innovation.
In the 2008 paper, the data were a little old – the 1980s and 1990s. For the new paper, he updated the study to the early 21st Century, but just for Europe, albeit 25 countries of that continent.
He changed other things, too. One change was that his “conflict theory” was now “grievance theory.” Conflict and grievance work the same way: economic inequality deeply bothers the poor and the fact of high inequality should mobilize them to protest.
Protest is a kind of political engagement. For the 2015 paper, instead of discussion, interest, and voting, Solt looked at the chances a person in the last year would sign a petition, boycott, or attend a public demonstration.
As with the 2008 paper, Solt thought that the distribution of political power should boost everyone’s chances of participating. Drawing on the work of Hanspeter Kriesi from the European University Institute and Katerina Vrablikova now at the University of Bath, Solt reasoned that both presidential and federal systems allow a greater number of access points to the political machinery and thus better enable people to voice their policy-preferences within it. He knew from the literature that people in the newer democracies of Europe, such as Poland and Hungary, are less likely to protest than those in the older democracies, and so he also looked at the age of the democracy.
As with the 2008 paper, Fred Solt needed to measure “economic inequality” at the level of countries. To do that, Solt turned to one of 21st century social sciences’ most needed innovations: the Standardized World Income Inequality Database, or SWIID, that he had created. The SWIID deserves its own story, but for the moment, let’s remember that before the SWIID, measures of income inequality, usually with the Gini coefficient and put out by organizations such as LIS and the United Nations, was widely used, but there were problems: these measures were not available in many countries around the world; worse yet, for many countries, the measures were not comparable. Solt developed a methodology to make these measures more widely available and comparable; he “standardized” the measure, and the SWIID was made.
With the SWIID in his toolkit, Solt discovered that, even with 21st Century data and limiting the analyses to protest in Europe, relative power theory wins again. Europe’s affluent within high levels of economic inequality are more likely to protest than are the poor. “By increasing the political power of richer individuals relative to poorer ones,” Solt writes, “greater inequality leads people of all but the highest income quintile to become less likely to participate in nonviolent protests.” (1325) In 2015, he published the results in Social Science Quarterly.
Why the Rich Fight
An underlying assumption of the relative power theory is that the specter of too much economic redistribution motivates the rich to be engaged, and to stay engaged. It assumes, though with surveys we do not directly observe it, that the affluent are fighting to keep some of the inequality that benefits them.
We remember, too, that the rich engage in politics to battle their fellow members of the elite over money and power. The policy results, as Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page found in 2014, are that the rich tend to get the policies they want, and the poor do not.
As titans battle in the political arena, leaving the rest of us on the hopeful end of a trickle-down economy, Solt’s articles tell a story of how the political voice of everyday folk fares in an age of rising economic inequality. As he concluded over a decade ago (2008: 58):
“Greater economic inequality increasingly stacks the deck of democracy in favor of the richest citizens, and as a result, most everyone else is more likely to conclude that politics is simply not a game worth playing.”
In the end, the rich fight among themselves to get more of what they have and to preserve as much of the inequitable status quo that society will allow.
This was written by me, Joshua K. Dubrow, and was funded in part by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916). It is based on the articles “Economic Inequality and Democratic Political Engagement” by Frederick Solt in American Journal of Political Science 2008, 52(1): 48–60 and “Economic Inequality and Nonviolent Protest” by Frederick Solt in Social Science Quarterly 2015, 96(5): 1314-1327. I showed a draft of this piece to Fred Solt who, in response, kindly offered some factual corrections. I then revised the piece. Any errors in the piece then and now are mine.
Fred Solt’s SWIID is free and available on his website, fsolt.org, and he describes it at length in Solt, Frederick. 2016. “The Standardized World Income Inequality Database.” Social Science Quarterly 97(5):1267-1281.
I also reference the work of Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page (2014): ‘Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.’ Perspectives on Politics 12(3): 564–81.
On theory names: Solt built on the previous literature (see his extensive reference list in his articles) and he named the theories based on the literature he read.
From the 2008 to the 2015 paper, the expectations of relative power theory changes slightly. In the 2008 paper, Solt argued that economic inequality depresses everyone’s engagement, including the rich: “Inequality should therefore have a negative impact on the political engagement of richer citizens as well as poorer citizens, although its effect on the former should be smaller than its effect on the latter” (49). Indeed, in 2008, this is what Solt found (p. 56, Table 2). But in 2015, this expectation was not specifically mentioned, and the probabilities of the richest quintile reflect this expectation only in the case of signing a petition and boycotting, and not in attending a demonstration (p. 1324, Figure 2).
A word or two on the use of surveys to understand political voice: perhaps our theories of what drives political voice would be further strengthened if we knew the topics of engagement and protest. The best cross-national survey data are an excellent tool for the study of political voice, but past surveys are just one of many possible points of observation and they have unpleasant limits. With extant survey data on political voice, we do not directly see what the political rally or demonstration was about, or what was the subject of their political discussion, or what it said on the petition that they signed, or what product they boycotted. Qualitative data and protest event data drawn from newspapers are also tools to use, but they, too, have their limits.