How Do Digital Technologies Impact Political Inequality?

Part I.

Digital technologies have enabled a dystopic political inequality where politics is possible for the few and impossible for the many. The way out is a variant on Timothy Leary’s life advice with a Luddite twist: Turn off the machines, tune out the information noise, and drop in to the homes of family and friends. The way forward is to pop the information bubble, re-connect with human beings, boycott the segmenters, and dare to be brave.

Please allow me to explain.

Voice & Response

Politics is a tool used to gain power over important decisions that impact our lives. This tool has two parts: Voice and Response.

Voice is how we express our political complaints, desires, demands, and interests to our fellow human beings across nations, to our fellow citizens within nations, and to government. Voice activates directly through what social scientists call “political participation,” such as public marches, writing letters to our representatives or to the media, boycotting products, and voluntarily organizing the political interests of particular groups, to name a few. We also activate our political voice indirectly via people and organizations that claim to carry our voice into government, such as parliamentarians, political parties, non-governmental organizations in civil society, and special independent arms of the government (the ombudsperson or special envoy, for example).

Response is what the decision-makers do with our voice. They can respond with mere symbols, such as declaring Black History Month to address institutional racism. They can respond with formal and informal policy initiatives.

We Are Politically Unequal

Today’s modern societies in which digital technology plays a starring role is characterized by political inequality. Political equality is the assumed foundation of modern democracy. Yet, everywhere there is democracy – indeed, everywhere there is politics – there is political inequality. Political inequality is structured differences in influence over government decisions and the outcomes of those decisions. It is inequality of voice and it is inequality of response.

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New Project: Political Voice and Economic Inequality across Nations and Time

Poland’s National Science Centre has awarded a grant for the project, “Political Voice and Economic Inequality across Nations and Time,” for the period 2017 -2020. The Principal Investigator is Joshua K. Dubrow, Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences.

The purpose of the project is to advance the theory, methods, and empirical base for studying the relationship between political inequality and economic inequality. The fundamental research questions are:

(1) How and to what extent are the main components of political voice inequality – political participation and party representation – related to each other once main features of political and economic institutions are accounted for?

(2) At the macro-level, how and to what extent do political voice inequality and economic inequality influence each other?

This project builds on empirical research on how economic resources and political voice connects, accounting for how political institutions moderate this connection.

The social sciences do not have appropriate cross-national and over-time measures of political voice inequality and thus has never adequately addressed our research questions. Thus, we will create the Political Inequality Database (POLINQ) which is a multi-country multi-year dataset with cross-national measures of political voice inequality from harmonized survey and non-survey data for over 65 democratic countries from 1990 to 2015.

We have selected two graduate research assistants and are awaiting approval from the Scientific Council of IFiS.

We announce a call for a post-doctoral scholar. The Polish language Call for Applications can be found on the IFiS PAN website. The English language CfA can be found in EURAXESS. The complete application must be received via email to secretar@ifispan.waw.pl by November 27, 2017.

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When Local Governments Protest

by Irina Tomescu-Dubrow and Joshua K. Dubrow, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences

Trump administration policies are inspiring mass protests. Yet, we have not seen local government protest – resolutions, ordinances, town hall proclamations – against Trump administration policy. The history of local gov’t protest suggests that we are due for a nation-wide protest.

The US Presidential election sparked protests across the nation: Mass demonstrations over immigration and refugee policies, pro-Trump rallies, town hall debates over health care, the Women’s March on Washington, and declarations of support for sanctuary cities, to name just a few. We have not seen such mass protests since the Tea Party in 2009.

The US has a long history of protests. Yet, local government protest (this is when city, town, or village governments vote on resolutions to symbolically denounce a federal policy) has not occurred on a large scale.

If history is our guide — and the conditions are ripe — then these protests are likely on the way.

What Is Local Government Protest?

In an article published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, we investigated local gov’t protest over the USA PATRIOT Act (United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001). The Patriot Act came as a direct response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and signed into law a little over a month later.

Patriotactsigning
President Bush signing the Patriot Act into law (photo by Eric Draper)

What’s interesting here is the scale of local government resistance to the Patriot Act.

On January 7, 2002, the city council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, passed a resolution condemning aspects of the Patriot Act and, among other things, urged local law enforcement officials to not enforce parts of the law that seemed in violation of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. The resolution stipulated that a copy be distributed to President Bush, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Michigan’s members of Congress. Two and a half months later, the city council of Denver, Colorado passed a similar resolution. Within four months of Denver, seven local governments from a diverse group of states, including Massachusetts and North Carolina, took similar actions. As of March 2005, close to 300 places (as defined by the US Census), 45 counties, and four states passed some form of resolution regarding perceived negative aspects of the Patriot Act.

This was one of the largest-scale local government protests against a singular federal action in US history.

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Elections during War: Political Inequality of Ukraine’s IDPs

by Dorota Woroniecka-Krzyżanowska, University of Lodz, and Nika Palaguta, Polish Academy of Sciences

By law, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) should enjoy all the relevant rights and freedoms guaranteed by the legal system. In a recent article in the Journal of Refugee Studies, the authors explain how IDPs living under military conflict in Ukraine suffer inequality under discriminatory legislation and practices that deny IDPs equal opportunities for electoral participation. The authors suggest solutions to this ongoing problem.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are citizens who, despite being forced to move, live within the boundaries of their own country. By law, IDPs should enjoy all the relevant rights and freedoms guaranteed by the legal system. In addition to any domestic laws, the rights and freedoms of internally displaced are reaffirmed by a set of internationally-recognized standards for assistance and protection to IDPs called the Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement. These Principles assert IDPs’ rights for full equality in their home country: this includes the right for political representation and participation.

The reality on the ground often falls short of the Principles, including discriminatory electoral legislation and practices across different geographical and political contexts.

The example of IDPs living under military conflict in Ukraine shows how discriminatory legislation and practices deny displaced persons equal opportunities for electoral participation.

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Political Inequality and the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine

by Olga Zelinska, Polish Academy of Sciences

It was the summer of 2013 and the people of Ukraine felt helpless. During this time of ‘soft authoritarianism,’ they saw rampant corruption while corporations and other business interests enjoyed a privileged place in the center of Ukrainian politics. The highly centralized state apparatus, controlled by one political and business ‘family’, made public influence over policy-making ineffective. Frustrated with meaningless mechanisms to participate in political decision-making and suffering from economic hardships, those unhappy with the status quo demanded social change with the contentious means.

While the right to political participation is guaranteed by the Constitution, Ukrainian democracy’s various mechanisms, such as public hearings or public councils, remained weak and did not bring the desired results.

The government’s order to reverse the foreign policy course on European integration was a last straw. Ukrainians marched onto public squares in Kyiv and in towns and villages throughout the nation. It was the Maidan protest movement, and what was called the Revolution of Dignity.

By Helgi - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29821993
By Helgi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29821993

I analyzed 94 resolutions issued by local Maidans in the 57 cities and towns of the country. I asked three main questions:

(1) How did the claimants identify themselves and their actions?
(2) How did they justify their actions?
(3) What did the claimants want?

My analysis suggests that the Revolution of Dignity was not only about European integration or the impeachment of Ukrainian President Yanukovych. I found that:

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Neoliberalism and Democracy

by Alex Afouxenidis, National Centre for Social Research, Athens, Greece

Neoliberalism is based on the idea of ignoring fundamental human needs. The success of neoliberal political strategies rests on a mixture of rhetoric and control of democracy’s major local and global institutions. It is also based on the erosion of the key actors and institutions that are the main underpinnings of contemporary democracies, such as pressure groups, civic organizations, and educational institutes. In neoliberalism’s economic sphere, economic growth does not need to translate into growth of equality. Considering rising social, economic, and political inequalities, we are looking at abuse being taken for granted.

Understanding the Political Shift

The pervasive counter-democratic ideological force of neoliberalism has had a deep impact on people’s lives, identities and beliefs despite its obvious failure to sustain any meaningful sense of ‘economic growth’. This is evident in many regions across the world where economies are being re-structured and reformed generating greater forms of inequality and limiting political freedom. Political crises have become everyday occurrence for many nations. Governments are in a continuous state of instability and many turn to (semi?) authoritarian rule in order to retain power.

Market idealization is not working: it has generated profound constraints on people’s liberty and self-determination.

As one reflects upon the countless analyses and informed criticisms on the impact of neoliberal ideology and strategy, it becomes increasingly clear that the main constitutive element of this sort of ‘philosophy’ is related to the idea of ignoring fundamental human needs. This conceptualization has generated a rupture with respect to western classical liberal discourses such as those, for example, put forward by J. Locke, J.S. Mill or J. Rawls. For, even though they strongly suggested personal autonomy, they equally forcefully reflected upon the idea that if the needs of individuals are not adequately met then liberty will be limited.

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Elites care about inequality, but probably not in the way that you think

by Matias Lopez, Universidad Católica, Chile

A survey of over 800 elites in six Latin American countries reveals that they acknowledge economic inequality as a problem, but see little incentive to reduce inequality. The elite from stronger and more stable democracies tend to be more aware of inequality as a political problem. Yet they do not view equitable income re-distribution as the answer.

That a tiny elite accumulates excessive wealth and power prompts concern about the future of democracy. We know from several studies that this inequality may generate conflict and support for non-democratic leadership — a perilous situation recognized by citizens of the United States and Europe. But what do elites themselves think about the risks of inequality? Do they feel comfortable living with these risks, or do they feel worried about them? And if they feel worried, what are they willing to do about it?

To answer these questions, Latin America provides a very useful set of cases. Many large and durable democracies in the region, such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, have high levels of economic inequality even though this inequality creates urban violence and social unrest. Extreme inequality in a democracy is a problem for average citizens because it puts in doubt Lincoln’s principle of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Meanwhile, elites also have good reasons to fear inequality as they are clearly impacted by the political turmoil and the social violence that can follow.

I looked at the University of São Paulo survey conducted in six Latin American countries of over 800 members of the elite in the realms of politics, business, and civil society. I found out that most of the elite share the usual concerns about inequality and democratic stability.

But the relationship between concern and action has not to do with inequality itself, but with the strength and stability of democracy.

Continue reading “Elites care about inequality, but probably not in the way that you think”