Interview with Gwangeun Choi on Economic and Political Inequality in Cross-national Perspective

Gwangeun Choi presented the paper, “The Link between Economic and Political Inequality in Cross-National Perspective” at the Politics and Inequality conference held in Warsaw, Poland in December 2018.

Dr. Choi recently received a PhD in Government at the University of Essex in the UK. His research interests are in the areas of democracy, quality of democracy, political inequality, economic inequality, perceived inequality, redistributive preferences, redistribution, and universal basic income. His latest article, “Revisiting the Redistribution Hypothesis with Perceived Inequality and Redistributive Preferences” appeared at the European Journal of Political Economy (2019).

We asked Gwangeun Choi for an extended abstract of his Politics and Inequality conference paper and, via email, some questions about his research. We are thankful for his positive and detailed response.

Extended Abstract by Gwangeun Choi

It is widely believed that there exists a debilitating feedback cycle linking economic and political inequality. However, there has been a lack of empirical evidence about this association, particularly, in cross-national comparative research. It is largely because cross-national measures of political inequality are underdeveloped. To fill this gap, this study introduces the Political Inequality Index (PII) and the Political Power Inequality Index (PPII). The PII is composed of the two dimensions: participation and representation, which are based on the reconceptualization of political inequality from the perspective of a middle-range conception. The PPII comes from the indicators that measure the distribution of political power across socioeconomic position, social group, and gender, which the Varieties of Democracy provides. This inquiry then investigates the two-way causal relationship between economic and political inequality. In the first causal direction, net income inequality is used as a proxy for economic inequality, while in the reverse causal linkage political inequality is supposed to influence market income inequality and redistribution separately, as income inequality is considered as an outcome of the two different distributive stages. In doing so, both causal directions between economic and political inequality are integrated into a unified framework. With respect to estimation techniques, a system GMM estimator for a dynamic panel data model, which is an increasingly popular estimation method, is mainly used to address the issue of endogeneity. The findings show that net income inequality does not significantly affect political inequality and that political inequality appears to have little impact on market income inequality, while political inequality seems to contribute to economic inequality by influencing redistribution in a negative direction.

Interview with Gwangeun Choi

The research you presented at the Politics and Inequality conference was on the relationship between political inequality and economic inequality in cross-national perspective. How did you get interested in this topic? And how is this topic connected to other research that you are doing?

I first became interested in a concept ‘political equality’ while I was doing research on the quality of democracy. In my framework designed to conceptualize and measure the level of democracy, political equality was one of the three core principles of democracy. Thus, it was easy for me to construct a new measure of political inequality, building on this framework. The next step was to investigate the reciprocal relationship between economic inequality and political inequality, as I realized that there is a lack of empirical evidence on this linkage although no one seems to doubt the widespread belief of the vicious cycle between economic and political inequality.

What is most challenging about measuring political inequality, and why?

I think that the most challenging part is to provide convincing theoretical arguments on the conceptualization of political inequality. Measuring the quality of democracy is also faced with the same issue. My study on democracy and political inequality and several other studies attempting to measure them with relatively thick concepts reached a consensus in excluding both minimalist and maximalist approaches. However, this does not guarantee that the majority of scholars agree with a specific middle-range concept of democracy or political inequality. This is therefore a more pressing issue than a range of measurement problems.

What surprised you most about your research on political and economic inequalities?

What surprised me most is the consistent findings of the paper I presented across the different measures of political inequality that are based on a middle-range approach: Political Inequality Index (PII) and Political Power Inequality Index (PPII). I reported the results at the conference that political inequality significantly reduces the level of redistribution, not market income inequality, while the effect of net income inequality on political inequality is not significant. After the conference, I got to know that the dataset of the Democracy Matrix directed by Hans-Joachim Lauth has become publicly available since last December. The Democracy Matrix is also based on a middle-range conception of democracy, and political equality is one of its three principles. I constructed another measure of political inequality right away from the aggregate index of political equality in this dataset and redid the main analysis of the paper with this new measure. Surprisingly, the results strongly support the main findings of the inquiry.

Imagine that you only have a minute or two to tell someone about your paper. What is the main message of your paper that you want people to remember?

The main findings of my paper should be interpreted with caution⸺that net income inequality does not significantly affect political inequality, while political inequality contributes to economic inequality by influencing redistribution rather than market income inequality. First, the concept of political equality in my paper focuses on securing an equal opportunity by encouraging political participation and making a more representative political system, not guaranteeing equal political outcomes.

Second, addressing either economic inequality or political inequality, not both of them, is incomplete, irrespective of to what extent they are associated, as economic inequality and political inequality are ubiquitous and troublesome in the modern world. Last, the finding that enhancing political equality in terms of participation and representation has clear limitations in influencing market income inequality leads us to pay more attention to other political efforts beyond enhancing redistributive policies, given that both market conditioning policies and redistributive policies are important to redress economic disparities that may influence politics in myriad ways.

What’s the next step for your research on this topic?

The empirical analysis of the current paper could not directly test the theories of political inequality discussed in the literature so far. For instance, to examine the elite theory, we need to exactly define the elite and measure their disproportionate political influence, but there is no such measure currently available. As Jeff Manza argues, contemporary theories of political inequality, such as elite and oligarchic theories, power resources theories, and globalization models, do not present a satisfactory explanation for the causes and consequences of political inequality, and they are also faced with many cases that contradict the theories. Therefore, theory building in the study of political inequality is pressing although it is a challenging task. Further investigation of the channels of influence between economic and political inequality, using various research methods beyond macro-level analysis, will open up an avenue for that.

Please list two of your recent favorite articles or books in the field of politics and inequality, and why you chose them.

I’d like to list Unequal and Unrepresented: Political Inequality and the People’s Voice in the New Gilded Age (Schlozman, Brady, and Verba, 2018) as one of the books I recommend. I would say that this book is a newly published classic as it is a brief summary or a synthesis of their earlier works, Voice and Equality (1995) and The Unheavenly Chorus (2012), as well as an updated empirical research with recent data reflecting the new political and economic landscape. Another one is the completely revised and updated second edition of Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Bartels, 2018). The two books seem to be complimentary to each other in the sense that the former focuses on political voice, while the latter addresses political responsiveness. Reading these books may give readers something more than that: the whole picture of political inequality and critical thinking towards different views on political inequality.

What’s an older article or book in the field of politics and inequality that you like, and why?

The Power Elite (1956) by American sociologist C. Wright Mills is one of the great classics for social scientists, but its profound insights can also shed new light on contemporary democracies in which political and economic inequality has been growing. In 2006, G. William Domhoff, a successor to Millsian elite theory, said, “Mills looks even better than he did 50 years ago.” Many advanced democracies as well as the United States appear to be dominated by an elite ownership class that monopolizes political and economic power. The growing importance of the asset economy since 1970’s and its accompanying politics require us to rediscover and reinterpret the elite theory in revealing the mechanisms of the interplay between political inequality and economic inequality.

The interview was conducted via email by Joshua K. Dubrow, who also edited this piece, including the embedding of web links. This work was funded by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916).

Be sure to read:

Choi, Gwangeun. “Revisiting the redistribution hypothesis with perceived inequality and redistributive preferences.” European Journal of Political Economy 58 (2019): 220-244.

Choi, Gwangeun. “Conceptualizing and Measuring Political Inequality in a Cross-National Perspective.” Comparative Sociology 20, no. 1 (2021): 1-44.

Interview with Constantin Manuel Bosancianu on Party–Voter Ideological Congruence and Socioeconomic Biases in Representation

Constantin Manuel Bosancianu, of WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Germany, presented the paper, “Party–Voter Ideological Congruence and Socio-Economic Biases in Representation: OECD over the Past 5 Decades” at the Politics and Inequality conference held in Warsaw, Poland in December 2018.

Constantin Manuel Bosancianu is a postdoctoral researcher in the “Institutions and Political Inequality” unit at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). He focuses on the intersection of political economy and electoral behavior: how to measure political inequalities between citizens of both developed and developing countries, and what the linkages between political and economic inequalities are. Dr. Bosancianu received his PhD in 2007 from the Central European University, Budapest, with a dissertation on how the dynamics of party ideological shifts, economic inequality, and individual political participation unfold over time. He is interested in statistics, data visualization, and the history of Leftist parties. In the past, Dr. Bosancianu taught or assisted with teaching methods courses at the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) Winter and Summer Methods Schools, University of Heidelberg or University of Gießen, with a focus on regression analysis, R, Bayesian analysis, and multilevel modelling.

We asked Constantin Manuel Bosancianu for an extended abstract of his Politics and Inequality conference paper and, via email, some questions about his research. We are thankful for his positive and detailed response.

Extended Abstract

Disparities in political representation between socio-economic groups, if perpetuated over time, can lead to growing disenchantment with the political process, dropout from political life, and even the appearance of new political movements that challenge representative institutions (Taggart, 2002). Starting with the early investigations of Gilens (2005, 2009, 2012) for the US context, a series of analyses have found disparities in political representation across a larger number of consolidated democracies (Elsässer, Hense, & Schäfer, 2018; Giger, Rosset, & Bernauer, 2012; Peters & Ensink, 2015; Rosset, Giger, & Bernauer, 2013; Rosset, 2013). Despite the consistent results, we continue to have very limited knowledge about the causes and mechanisms for these disparities.

This analysis probes into this issue. By relying on an original data set of merged voter studies in 30 OECD countries, going as far back in time as the 1960s and 70s, I compute a measure of ideological congruence between voters and political parties. Called the Earth Mover’s Distance (Lupu, Selios, & Warner, 2017), it is based on citizens’ self-placement on a standard Left-Right axis, as well as their placement of parties on the same scale (Powell Jr., 2009). By relying on voters’ perceptions of parties rather than legislator self-placements (Lupu & Warner, 2018), my data overcomes the potential flaw of different understandings of “Left” and “Right” between people and political elites. This measure of congruence is then used to ascertain: (1) if representation gaps between voters at the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum are found in my sample, and (2) whether the gaps in representation are associated with a demand-side characteristic (disparities in political participation between the same socio-economic groups) or a supply-side factor (party ideological changes over time).

Preliminary findings do little to dispel the mystery surrounding the causes of unequal representation for poorer citizens, though they conclusively establish that such a gap exists. They furthermore establish that overall quality of representation is associated with disparities in participation: contexts where turnout between income groups is more unequal have worse overall representation of income groups. However, even when relying on a measure of participation disparities generated from individual-level data, no clear association exists between disparities in political voice and gaps in representation between income groups. Neither do party-system dynamics appear to explain the disparity in ideological convergence between income groups. Though inconclusive, the findings confirm those of Lupu and Warner (2018) and will hopefully spur the focus on additional mechanisms to explain the relative disadvantage in representation that poorer citizens are faced with.

Interview with Constantin Manuel Bosancianu

The research you presented at the Politics and Inequality conference was on party–voter congruence. How did you get interested in this topic? And is this topic connected to other research that you are doing?

The interest in political representation, for which party-voter ideological congruence is one proxy, came about through my focus on understanding how to measure the facets of political inequality between individuals and groups. For the past few years I have been interested in disparities in political voice between individuals and groups—aspects such as turnout, non-electoral participation, or political efficacy. These are shaped by individual resource endowments, which naturally generate inequalities in voice. This is only part of the story, though. Another part is how disparities in voice and political influence are shaped by systemic features pertaining to, say, the electoral system or party system configurations. Some of Orit Kedar’s work is an excellent example of this, as is that of Karen L. Jusko. My own attempts refer to another feature of the system: the distribution of parties along a Left–Right ideological dimension.

Continue reading “Interview with Constantin Manuel Bosancianu on Party–Voter Ideological Congruence and Socioeconomic Biases in Representation”

Interview with Jan Falkowski on Political Power and Land Inequality in Poland

Jan Falkowski, of the University of Warsaw, Poland, recently presented a paper, “Do Political and Economic Inequalities Go Together? Mayors’ Turnover, Elite Families and the Distribution of Agricultural Land” at the Politics and Inequality conference held in Warsaw, Poland.

Jan Falkowski is an Assistant Professor with the University of Warsaw, Faculty of Economic Sciences, Chair of Political Economy. His primary research interests are in the impact of institutions and politics on economic processes, and the reciprocal influence of economic conditions on institutional environment and political life. His paper, “Promoting Change or Preserving the Status Quo? The Consequences of Dominating Local Politics By Agricultural Interests” was published in Land Use Policy (2017), and his paper with Grażyna Bukowska  and Piotr Wójcik, “The Political Power of Large‐Scale Farmers and Land Inequality: Some Evidence from Poland,” was just published by Sociologia Ruralis (2018).

Interview with Jan Falkowski

The research you presented at the Politics and Inequality conference was on the economic impact of the distribution of political power. How did you get interested in this topic? And how is this topic connected to other research that you are doing?

The interlinkage between  political and economic power has always been of interest to me. Looking at the connection between political and economic inequalities seemed to me as a natural consequence of studying the former relationship since the distribution of power and the distribution of resources (be it political or economic) are closely related.

In this paper, you use an original dataset. Please briefly describe these data and why they are well-suited for your research.

Measuring economic inequality poses some difficulties as people are typically not so willing to share with others detailed information on how much wealth they have. We needed therefore to overcome this problem or, at least, to try to do so. We discovered that it should be possible to achieve this goal by looking at a specific, but coherent, part of the population, namely farmers. What we do in the paper is we take advantage of the fact that in Poland the information on those who received agricultural subsidies is public. So it is possible to gather, at the individual level, the information on how much money a given person received in the form of the so-called direct payments. In the system that Poland uses to subsidize farmers, direct payments are granted to farmers based on a national flat rate per eligible hectare, and – contrary to what we observe in many other EU Member States – they do not depend on the historical reference period. Thus, the distribution of direct payments at the municipality level can serve as a good approximation of land use distribution. This, in turn, can be used to measure the distribution of wealth.  Obviously, the shortcoming is that it can serve as a good approximation of wealth distribution only in rural areas, in which the dependence on agriculture as a source of living is high. In the paper we collate these data with the data on mayors’ turnover which we use as an approximation of political inequality.

 What surprised you most about your research on political power distribution?

The first surprise was to observe that, even though we have good theories describing potential determinants of the distribution of political power or the theories predicting various consequences that the distribution of political power may bring about, actual evidence (especially the quantitative one) on these issues is sparse. The second surprise was that the distribution of political power can have many different impacts also in areas which we typically do not associate so much with the way in which political resources are distributed.

Imagine that you only have a minute or two to tell someone about your paper. What is the main message of your paper that you want people to remember?

With the caveat that this is still ‘work in progress’, the main message would be as follows: in municipalities characterized by a higher levels of political inequality we observe that the most influential families are able to amass disproportionately large amount of land.

What’s the next step for your research on this topic?

The next step is to better understand the origins of political inequality and in particular to link it to the functioning of informal institutions as measured by (the changes in) religious behavior.

Please list two of your recent favorite articles or books in the field of politics and inequality, and why you chose them.

One could be Pablo Querubin’s work on political dynasties in Philippines and the other one the work by Michael Albertus on land reforms and land inequality. Both of them use fantastic datasets and very sound empirical methods to uncover new things about the way in which politics and economics interact with each other.

What’s an older article or book in the field of politics and inequality that you like, and why?

I think one can find a lot of inspirations from reading Albert O Hirschman. The relatively recently edited book by Princeton University Press entitled “The Essential Hirschman” could be a good reading I believe.

The interview was conducted via email by Joshua K. Dubrow, who also edited this piece, including the embedding of web links. This work was funded in part by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916).

Interview with Katerina Vrablikova on Economic Hardship, Politicization and Protest

Katerina Vrablikova, of the University of Bath, UK, recently presented a paper, “Economic Hardship, Politicization and Protest in Western Democracies,” at the Politics and Inequality conference held in Warsaw, Poland.

Since Fall 2018, Kateřina Vráblíková has been a senior lecturer in Politics at the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath. During Spring 2019, she is also an Istvan Deak Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. She does research on social movements, political participation, political attitudes and culture, and democracy. Her book, What Kind of Democracy? Participation, Inclusiveness and Contestation was published by Routledge in 2017.

We asked Katerina Vrablikova for an extended abstract of her Politics and Inequality conference paper and, via email, some questions about her research. We are thankful for her positive and detailed response.

Extended Abstract: “Economic Hardship, Politicization and Protest in Western Democracies” 

How and why does economic crisis and similar situations trigger protest of poor? The paper argues that in addition to the expansion of the pool of deprived people, who can potentially protest (composition mechanism), events like the Economic crisis also provide a supportive political environment for political mobilization of socio-economically excluded groups (mobilization mechanism). As potentially very threatening and unpredictable event, economic crisis can skyrocket the salience of the economic problems in national politics. This opens space for the re-definition of economic issues and identities and for political mobilization of socio-economically deprived people, who, under normal circumstances do not participate much because they lack resources necessary for participation. Typically, protest attracts relatively resourceful and financially secure people, who get active around a variety of issues that are not directly related to their personal situation, such as environmental, anti-war, women’s rights, anti-corruption mobilizations. Protest of socio-economically deprived people is different. It is motivated by the personal experience of bad socio-economic conditions that becomes a purpose of mobilization and tales place despite the lack of individual resources. The article uses data from four waves of European Social Survey that are combined with macro-economic data and aggregated survey data (Eurobarometer) on public concern about national economy (percentage of people saying that the economic situation is very bad). The results show that poor people were most likely to protest in times of the Economic crisis in countries where the economic problems raised a very high concern. In the period before the Great Recession and in countries where economic problems were not recognized as severe and salient, poor people are much less likely to protest. In this special situation of economic crisis, poor thus get mobilized and join the better-off protesters, who are the usual suspects at ordinary protests that get mobilized by salient issues also during normal times.

Interview 

The research you presented at the Politics and Inequality conference was on the economic crisis and protest. How did you get interested in this topic? And how is this topic connected to other research that you are doing?

In summer 2012, the Czech Republic experienced relatively high level of anti-austerity protest. That time I just defended my dissertation on non-electoral participation and worked at the Czech Academy of Sciences. I was asked in a radio interview about the causes of such unusually high protest mobilization and I, in fact, was not able to tell much in reply. Because, normally, we would say that it is more resourceful people and people with post-materialist values, who usually participate in politics more, including protest. These protests, however, did not seem to fit to this “privileged postmaterialist protester” story. For instance, an anti-Roma march in a Czech regional capital (in fact one that I come from) was the largest collective mobilization in the city since the 1989 revolution and, according to observers, the participants included a handful of rightwing extremists and low-income and low-educated Czechs. The profile of participants thus corresponded to old social movement theories that expect socio-economic grievances to trigger protest and that were considered disapproved in mainstream political participation and social movement literature. So, I followed this up and read more about the role of mobilizing grievances. It turned out that political context might play an important role in activation of the relatively unusual grievance participatory mechanismAnd this point very well fitted to my general interest in how political environment shapes citizens’ activism and preferences. In my other research, I have examined the role of political institutions and political culture on individual non-electoral participation.

Continue reading “Interview with Katerina Vrablikova on Economic Hardship, Politicization and Protest”

When Local Governments Protested the USA Patriot Act

Mass Protests over Federal Government Policy

The US Presidential of 2016 election sparked protests across the nation. There were 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.

What Is Local Government Protest over federal policy?

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)

The scale of local government protest of the USA Patriot Act after 9/11

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.

What is Contentious Policy?

The intergovernmental relations literature discusses how relationships within the governmental system functions under particular conditions. These relationships can be characterized as conflict or cooperation. The nature of the relationship depends on what policy is being discussed and the social, political, and economic conditions of the discussion.

Protests performed by governments within the federal system is rare. Local government resolutions express, in a symbolic manner, policy stances. As a nexus of protest and policy, local government protest invites social scientists to extend the research on protest behavior, traditionally defined in terms of open conflict with state structures, to conflict within the state.

The practical impact of local government action on federal policy is debatable. At its core, this action is mostly symbolic; it expresses public displeasure and a sense of political efficacy with respect to a contentious policy.

A History of Local Government Protest over federal policy in the USA

The last three decades has witnessed profound instances of local government protest.

—  In the 1980s, 368 city and county councils, 444 town meetings, and 17 state legislatures endorsed principles of the Nuclear Freeze Movement (see Zinn 2003, p. 604); over 40 local governments across the United States, helped along by the religion-inspired Sanctuary Movement, passed ordinances and resolutions opposing federal immigration law.

—  During the 1990s, in direct opposition to the federal government’s refusal of the Kyoto Protocol treaty, over 950 cities endorsed resolutions affirming their desire to reduce greenhouse gases (see Krause 2010).

—  There were several in the 2000s. In 2003, the city of Pittsburgh condemned the Gun Industry Immunity Bill being debated in the U.S. Senate (the bill was later defeated). In April 2007, the state of Vermont passed a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Bush because of his foreign policies. With regard to the War on Terror, in 2002–2003 over 150 local governments passed resolutions that criticized the federal government’s policy of pre-emptive war in Iraq and called for diplomatic solutions.

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee Data

To investigate the conditions of protest, we need good data. And information on protests depend on individuals and organizations who spend the time to carefully document them.

In our Patriot Act study, we focused on the resolutions about the Patriot Act between 2002 and 2007. Our data came from the website of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC).

The BORDC was born out of opposition to the Patriot Act, and is still around today as a social movement organization concerned with the state of civil liberties in the United States. The BORDC provided free, public, and continually updated information on the list of places, counties, and states that opposed the Patriot Act. Without the BORDC, we would not have the crucial data on the who, what, when, and where of these local government actions.

Who protests? Urban places, with greater than average proportions of the college-educated and located within liberal-leaning states were the most likely. After state governments protested, the local cities, towns, and villages within that state’s borders were less likely to protest (the ‘state-suppressor effect’).

The BORDC is now now Rights and Dissent, and they are still providing data on local protest and bill passages across the USA.

Does local government protest over federal policy matter?

There isn’t much research on the effects of local government protest against federal policy, or for the protesters, for that matter. At best, we can say that this protest is a political symbol. It signals solidarity with a limited band of constituents and like-minded local governments.

Thus far, there have been few such large scale protests, and none since the early 2000s. With renewed anger toward the federal government by urban, college-educated liberals, the conditions may be ripe for another round of local government protest on a large scale.

This article is based on, Tomescu-Dubrow, Irina, Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow, and Kazimierz M. Slomczynski. 2014. “Ecological Determinants of Local Government Opposition to Federal Policy.” Journal of Urban Affairs 36, no. 3: 401-419

Neoliberalism and Democracy

The planet earth swimming in an unreal sea of money

This is a guest post by Alex Afouxenidis, Professor at the National Centre for Social Research, Athens, Greece. It is based on his chapter in, Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy (Routledge).

What is neoliberalism and how does it impact democracy?

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.

Table of Contents

  1. What is neoliberalism and how does it impact democracy?
    1. Understanding Democracies’ Political Shift toward Neoliberalism
      1. Market idealization is not working: it has generated profound constraints on people’s liberty and self-determination.
    2. Neoliberalism and Four Dimensions of Democratic Organization
      1. Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Economic Sphere
      2. Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Social and Political Spheres
      3. Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Cultural Sphere
        1. In global terms ‘neoliberalism’ itself has become part of popular culture packed with iconic figure heads such as Thatcher or Reagan and reactionary representational references to anti-statism, individuality, and consumerism.
    3. Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Crisis

Understanding Democracies’ Political Shift toward Neoliberalism

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.

This radical shift in the liberal ideological agenda that emerged during the early 1980s used the language of freedom and individuality to promote a basically dehumanizing and oppressive status quo. Humanity thus was re-defined vertically and horizontally along and across the usual bi-polarities: poor/wealthy, in/out of work, males/females, gay/straight, western/non-western, north/south, black/white, moral/immoral, productive/un-productive, private/public and so forth. The question, in this respect, is not so much whether these categories actually exist or not, but rather how and in which ways they are used to generate and reproduce a vocabulary and a subsequent series of political practices and agendas.

In fact these are populist images of societal structures based on rather simplistic belief systems. In cultural terms, they advocate exclusivity of the ‘West’ over all others, intentionally promoting ideas which view the ‘West’ as a single all embracing cultural unit. In political terms, the market and economic ‘freedom’ are dissociated from the inner workings of democracy. Hence, if democratic procedures and/or processes contradict neoliberal thinking, then they may be overlooked.

Success of neoliberal political strategies rests on a mixture of rhetoric, force and, more importantly, control of the major local and global institutions such as the state and/or international financial organizations. In addition, it is also very much based on the slow or rapid fragmentation and, ultimately, severe erosion if not destruction of diverse agents such as public actors, pressure groups, civic organizations, think tanks, educational institutes and a variety of other structures which have formed the main underpinnings of contemporary democracies.

Neoliberalism and Four Dimensions of Democratic Organization

Over the past 35 years, a very powerful fable has been used to legitimize economic and social intervention operating across the four major areas of democratic organization, namely the economic, political, social and cultural spheres.

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Economic Sphere

In the economic sphere, the main neoliberal idea is that societies and countries have to shift away from policies related to integration and replace them with policies – and the corresponding ideologies – of divergence. Economic growth therefore does not need to translate into growth of equality.

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Social and Political Spheres

Divergence and accompanying growing gaps in political inequality and social inequality have become accepted as systemic norms.

Accordingly, the nature of political systems has to be altered to accommodate for increased inequality, inequity and exploitation coupled by a reduced public sphere and an enlarged, dominating private sector through the diminution of all sorts of political participation and a reduction of the state’s capacity to organize civil life.

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Cultural Sphere

In simpler terms, in an enforced alteration of political culture, the façade of a well organized democracy is only required to counter-balance the harsh re-constitution of society: to make it somewhat more respectable to the eyes of people. In total, neoliberal strategies have played a significant role in the realignment of the cultural sphere and cultural politics.

DALL-E “Gustav Klimt painting of democracy and money”

Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Crisis

Although some writers seem to be rather optimistic on the reversal of the neoliberal political project, mostly because of the effects of the current crisis, we should be more cautious.

For a long time the system has gone through various crises, and has nevertheless flourished despite massive reactions from a variety of people and organizations across the world. Neoliberal ideology has not been fundamentally challenged and if anything it seems that neoliberalism has gained, for example via the post-2008 crisis, influence and as a consequence a whole new range of economic, political, social and cultural strategies have been deployed.

The political process has been ‘de-legitimized’ to a large extent and liberal democracy appears deficient, and yet for the neoliberal political agenda this is probably good news. When one looks at the rising figures of social and political inequality, the widening gap between rich and poor and instances of extreme poverty within and across nations and regions, one looks at the same time at abuse being taken for granted. And much more research is required precisely on that last point.

Prof. Alex Afouxenidis is a Researcher at the National Centre for Social Research, Athens, Greece and specializes in Political Sociology. He is the editor of The Greek Review of Social Research, and recently edited a special issue on social media and politics. He can be reached at www.ekke.gr and afouxenidis@ekke.gr

This piece is based on the chapter “Neoliberalism and Democracy”, in Dubrow, J. (ed), Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives, London: Routledge, pp. 40-48.

The Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis

As populist nationalists push back on neoliberal arguments on globalization, we see a diminished power of international bodies who attempt to solve global problems. Where once there was the hope of global governance, there is now Trumpism, John Birch-ism, Bolsanaro-ism, Orban-ism, and other societal ills.

A main cause of why nationalist retrenchment became so, well, entrenched, is that there was an inherent political inequality within nations and in the global governance institutions such as the United Nations.

This post asks, Is global governance inevitable? Is democratic global governance likely? The main thesis is that political inequality at home became political Inequality in global governance.

I wrote this in 2013. Unfortunately, the nationalist retrenchment thing happened. The nationalists are winning. Global governance is on the run. Democratic backsliding is real.

What is global governance?

Borrowing from Elke Krahmann, we can define global governance as regulation of international relations without centralized authority, meaning that collaborative efforts to address interdependent needs are voluntary. Because global governance challenges national sovereignty, nation-states resist centralizing too much power in a single global body.

Despite that global governance challenges national sovereignty, its institutionalization has accelerated; nations are aware that no one nation can solve global problems, and globalization has forced even the most nationalistic countries to collaborate across state lines.

Is global governance inevitable? Two Rival Hypotheses

In addressing the question of governance inevitability, there are two major hypotheses: the global governance hypothesis, and the nationalist retrenchment hypothesis.

Global Governance Hypothesis

The more problems are global in scope, the greater the chance that global governance will emerge and be enhanced.

An alternative hypothesis posits a world in which the opposite occurs: Despite growing global problems, countries will shrink from international commitments that they think will limit their ability to act in their parochial self-interest. This is the nationalist
retrenchment hypothesis.

Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis

The more problems are global in scope, the greater the nationalist retrenchment.

By nationalist, I mean a nation-centric view of world events, akin to unilateralism. By retrenchment, I mean a stop and backslide toward unilaterialism in which countries eschew global governance strategies.

Is Nationalist Retrenchment a Possibility? (I asked in 2013)

Nationalist retrenchment may be a mere theoretical counterfactual, something that at its fullest extent is not now possible.

What evidence do we have in the modern era of nationalist retrenchment? (I asked that in 2013. Josh in 2022 says, “Plenty“) The relationship between the United States and the UN is a useful case study. The “U.S. out of the UN!” movement has its roots in the ultra-right wing John Birch Society, and despite some occasional resurgence, it has never truly threatened to pull the United States from the UN or eject the UN from its New York City headquarters. Although the U.S. Congress has historically been skeptical of the UN, diehard members of the nationalist retrenchment club—anachronistic throwbacks to the pre- Wilsonian era (or the 1930s)—are a rare breed.

This possibility blossomed under Donald Trump’s surprise presidency in 2016, and culminated, thus far, in the insurrection (or “riot”) at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Political Inequality at Home leads to Political Inequality in Global Governance

If global governance is inevitable, we can now turn to the next question: Is democratic global governance likely?

Here is where the notion of political inequality is important.

There is plenty of evidence to support the view that global governance organizations are characterized by political inequality. Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the UN, said that “we cannot claim that there is perfect equality between member states.” Political inequality, according to Annan, can differ in extent: he says that the “small and powerless feel less unequal” at the UN than in other major international organizations.  Nevertheless, political inequality in terms of unequal voice and response continues to challenge the legitimacy of existing global governance institutions.

If international organizations, individual nations and social movements have thus far been relatively ineffective democratizers of global governance structures, it may be because political inequality at home translates into political inequality on the global stage.

Nationalists and internationalists—or, unilateralists and multilateralists— are battling for supremacy over foreign policy within their own nations and in global governance organizations. We can imagine a situation in which nationalists win policy battles more often than internationalists, and where the scope of the policies made by nationalists precludes or minimizes actions to internationalize.

In a world where few countries have a lot and most have little, nationalist retrenchment can also weaken democratic development of these structures by de-funding these organizations and neglecting the needs of the disadvantaged.

This post is based on the article, Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf. 2013. “Democratic Global Governance, Political Inequality, and the Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis.” International Journal of Sociology 43(2): 55 – 69.

Further Reading

What Populists Do to Democracies – The Atlantic

US Congress investigates the January 6, 2021 attack

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

What Is Political Inequality and How Unequal Are We?

We Know a lot about Economic Inequality

When the Occupy Wall Street movement reached its heyday in the Autumn of 2011, spreading to cities all over the world, the protesters’ rallying cry was, “We are the 99 percent.” They hoped for political change, among other things, but “99” was mainly understood as a statement about economic inequality.

If you want to know how much economic inequality there is in your country, and whether this inequality been rising, falling, or staying the same, you can turn to the terabytes worth of publicly available economic data and grind them through the many inequality equations to derive a multitude of statistics. With decades of innovations in the study of economics and inequality, led by the disciplines of sociology and economics, we can, at least, have a debate over economic inequality and its dynamics over time.

We know less about Political Inequality

Political inequality is a distinct form of inequality but has yet to attract sustained, systematic scholarly attention in the same way as its sibling inequalities. Although political equality is a foundation of modern democracy, we do not know how far from equality we are. Even the news media rarely addresses political inequality. We need more eyes on the problem.

Popular Definitions of Political Inequality

The work of social scientists, philosophers and other scholars offer many definitions of political inequality. Political inequality’s conceptual roots are temporally deep and spread-out in many disciplines. Read together, they point to the idea that political inequality is at once a dimension of democracy and a dimension of stratification.

Built on the classics, modern definitions of political inequality depend on whether one is concerned about equality of opportunities or equality of outcomes. In short, equality of opportunities is about access to the political decision. Equality of outcomes refers to the law, symbols, policy or other output that is the result of the political process. Most definitions are based on the idea of equality of opportunities, but they could be modified to include outcomes, too.

Let’s look at some popular definitions from my book on political inequality:

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Political inequality is structured differences in the distribution of political resources

According to this definition, one group has greater or lesser access to, or acquisition of, political resources than another group.

Political equality is when everybody’s preferences are equally weighted in political decisions.

The definition of “everybody” matters, of course: Everybody could mean all citizens, or it could mean all who are potentially impacted by the decision.

Political inequality is the existence of authority divisions

Here, we speak of political inequality when groups have unequal political input into the decisions that affect them. The more layers of authority between the citizen and the decision, the greater the political inequality.

We can usefully combine these approaches with a definition that both simple and flexible:

Political inequality refers to structured differences in influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions.

How Much Political Inequality Is There?

Short answer: nobody knows.

Why? Because there are no cross-national comprehensive measures of it. Nobody’s ever done it. And that’s because we need to ask, “for whom” and “of what.” Who is unequal? And are they unequal in terms of voice or government response? Those questions are hard to quantify.

This video explains why we don’t know:

Political Inequality Is the Shadow of Democracy

Democratic institutions set the rules of the political process and guarantee formal rights of political participation to a wide variety of citizens, but not to all of them. Many discussions of political inequality are debates about whether and how equality in democratic governance can be achieved. The coexistence of democracy with political inequality leads to the question of how realistic the idea is that all interested participants can enjoy equal influence on the governance decision or in its outcomes. A common thought is that we should seriously consider acceptable limits in who should be unequal and how to manage this inequality while still raising high the banner of democracy. This leads to a conclusion that political inequality is the shadow of democracy.

A recent article on inequality and policy outcomes by Gilens and Page (2014) 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, but their measure of political inequality has shortcomings. First, 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. Nor can it account for the policies that are off the Congressional agenda, the type of power that Bacharach and Baratz (1967) warned that is most pernicious: the power to compel voters to not even ask for the policy in the first place. 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 (2014) conducted what is likely one of the most unique studies on American political inequality, and it’s just a start.

Future Research in Political Inequality

Political inequality is an important topic for our times. We must be aware that the objective and subjective realities of political inequality rouses people to action.  That political inequality lives in democracies across the world is a troubling fact of life, and if we want to move closer to political equality, we can do better to understand it.

First, let’s study it more. While doing that, let’s see if we can measure it comprehensively across nations. And then, let’s see what can be done about it.

And, so we did. Please read our report on POLINQ: Political Inequality and Political Voice across Nations and Time.

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Copyright Joshua K. Dubrow 2022

Do Newspapers Write about Democracy and Equality?

What is political inequality?

Political inequality is both unequal influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions. Political equality is “a fundamental premise of democracy” (quoting celebrated political theorist Robert Dahl).

The news media has long reflected and shaped modern societies. In their pages we should expect that they present the news about democracy and equality and, in doing so, help shape national conversations about these issues.

Do they, much?

How do newspapers report on democracy and equality?

As part of the book on political inequality, I observed how often news items about democracy and equality appear in six English language newspapers in the UK, USA and Canada from 1988 to 2013 (methodology) The newspapers are: The Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, USA Today, the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.

Here’s what I found:

Its Small

Overall, the level of coverage is small, especially the combination of democracy and equality, of which one can say that it hardly ever appears in major Western newspapers.

Its inconsistent

Democracy and equality each have their different trends. Democracy coverage rises and falls by major world event: after the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe (1989 – 1991) and in the beginning of the Iraq War (2003 – 2005).

Equality upswing after 2008

After the global economic crisis of 2008, there has been an upswing in equality coverage.

Weak connection between democracy and equality

Since 2008, in three major newspapers (one each for the UK, US and Canada) there has been a marginal yet visible upswing in news media interest in how democracy connects with equality.

What is more fundamental to democracy than political equality?

To help educate citizens, the news media should promote national conversations about democracy and equality.

Imagine if every major newspaper in the world devoted a couple of columns every week to discussions about the connection between democracy and equality.  Imagine the good this would do.