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:


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.


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.

Democracy, Global Governance, and Political Inequality: A Special Issue of Sociologias and the International Journal of Sociology

Members of the Working Group on Political inequality —  Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow and Soraya Vargas Cortes — have guest edited special issues on the the topic of, “Democracy, Global Governance, and Political Inequality.”  The table of context for each issue is here.

The first, “Desigualdade Política, Democracia e Governança Global,” is published in Sociologias, Brazil’s leading sociology journal in Spring 2013.  Articles are in Portuguese.

The second, “Democracy, Global Governance, and Political Inequality,” was published by the International Journal of Sociology in Summer 2013.  Articles are in English, including a new article by Chase-Dunn and colleagues, and a translation of John Markoff’s Sociologias article.  For a limited time, the issue is open access.

Abstract for IJS:  “This issue connects and extends recent international and sociological discussions begun at the latest World Congress of the International Sociological Association (2010) on democratic global governance, two recent issues of the International Journal of Sociology (Winter 2007-8 and Summer 2011) on the topic of political inequality, and a new issue of the Brazilian journal Sociologias on democracy, global governance, and political inequality, in which two articles being published here will appear in Portuguese.”

Abstract for Sociologias:  “Sociologias em seu trigésimo segundo número aborda o tema “Desigualdade Política, Democracia e GovernançaGlobal”. Ao examinar como a democracia e a governança global estão relacionadas às desigualdades políticas, o dossiê conecta as duas discussões – a que trata da‘democracia’ e ‘governança global’ e a que aborda ‘desigualdades políticas’ – no esforço de avançar o debate sobre as temáticas tanto isoladamente como no que se refere às suas conexões. A discussão apresentada no dossiê dá continuidade, por um lado, ao diálogo iniciado no Congresso Mundial da International Sociological Association (ISA), em Gotemburgo, Suécia, em 2010 e, por outro lado, é caudatário do debate apresentado no volume especial (volume 41), de 2011, do International Journal of Sociology (IJS), ‘Desigualdade Política na América Latina’ (Political Inequality in Latin América), em 2011, editado pelos Professores Soraya Vargas Cortes e Joshua Kjerlf Dubrow. Na seção Artigos, Lígia Mori Madeira e Fabiano Engelmann fazem uma análise dos estudos sociojurídicos no Brasil. Em outro artigo, Afonso de Oliveira Sobrinho retoma a temática da ideologia higienista associando-a a ideia de modernidade, no contexto do espaço urbano da cidade de São Paulo, na virada entre os séculos 19 e 20. Madel Luz, Cesar Sabino e Rafael Mattos, em “A Ciência como Cultura do Mundo Contemporâneo: a utopia dos saberes das (bio)ciências e a construção midiática do imaginário social”, alertam para pouca ênfase dada na sociologia às questões da vida e da saúde humanas. Os autores debatem o papel desempenhado pela ciência na construção da cultura contemporânea envolvendo os conceitos de vida e saúde. Na seção Interfaces, Darío Rodriguez, Rodrigo Flores Guerrero e Paula Miranda Sánchez trazem um estudo de casos sobre as relações de colaboração estabelecidas entre empresas espanholas baseadas no Chile e organizações não governamentais chilenas, no contexto de programas de responsabilidade social daquelas empresas. Na seção de Resenhas, Mário Augusto Medeiros da Silva apresenta a obra O Romancista e o Engenho: José Lins do Rego e o regionalismo nordestino dos anos 1920 e 1930, de Mariana Chaguri.”

Sociologias 2013 Political Inequality, Democracy and Global Gov

Cross-National Measures of Political inequality of Voice

Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf.  2010.  “Cross-National Measures of Political Inequality of Voice.”  ASK: Research and Methods 19: 93-110.


Social scientists have long argued that political power is a key dimension of stratification, yet few empirically analyze political inequality or explicitly discuss the methodological implications of their measures of it. Political inequality is a distinct dimension of social stratification and a form of power inequality whose domain is all things related to political processes.  It is a multidimensional concept – comprised of voice, response, and policy – that occurs in all types of governance structures.  Conceptions of political inequality of voice reflect the well-established finding that position within the social and political structure impacts individual and group political influence. I argue that definitions and measures of political inequality of voice should focus on the extent of influence given its connection, but not reduction, to economic resources.  This article proposes and evaluates cross-national structural measures of political inequality of voice based on the relationship between socioeconomic status and political participation.  I explore the relationships between the measures and the rankings of European countries using data from the European Social Survey 2008 and the Economist Intelligence Unit Index of Democracy 2008’s “political participation” category.

Does the Internet Reduce Political Inequality of Voice?

Not yet and not in America, according to a recent article in Perspectives on Politics:

Perspectives on Politics, Volume 8, issue 2 (June 2010), p. 487-509

Weapon of the Strong? Participatory Inequality and the Internet

Schlozman, Kay Lehman; Verba, Sidney; Brady, Henry E

What is the impact of the possibility of political participation on the Internet on long-standing patterns of participatory inequality in American politics? An August 2008 representative survey of Americans conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project provides little evidence that there has been any change in the extent to which political participation is stratified by socio-economic status, but it suggests that the web has ameliorated the well-known participatory deficit among those who have just joined the electorate. Even when only that subset of the population with Internet access is considered, participatory acts such as contributing to candidates, contacting officials, signing a political petition, or communicating with political groups are as stratified socio-economically when done on the web as when done offline. The story is different for stratification by age where historically younger people have been less engaged than older people in most forms of political participation. Young adults are much more likely than their elders to be comfortable with electronic technologies and to use the Internet, but among Internet users, the young are not especially politically active. How these trends play out in the future depends on what happens to the current Web-savvy younger generation and the cohorts that follow and on the rapidly developing political capacities of the Web. Stay logged on …

Notes on Winters and Page’s “Oligarchy in the U.S.?”

 In this post, I summarize the article “Oligarchy in the U.S.,” by Winters and Page (2009).

Winters and Page: Oligarchy in the USA

Winters and Page (Hereafter, WP) argue that all modern democracies, regardless of level of democracy, can be oligarchies.   Oligarchy and democracy can, and do, “coexist comfortably” (731).  WP ask whether the U.S. is an oligarchy.

WP want to “advance the research agenda” of the APSA Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, and goad political scientists to “treat power… more seriously” (732).

Defining Oligarchy

Citing Aristotle, WP argue that wealth is the primary power resource.  WP define oligarchy as a “type of political system” in which “the wealthiest citizens deploy unique and concentrated power resources to defend their unique minority interests” (731).  WP argue that oligarchy is a form of extreme political and economic inequality: “Oligarchy refers broadly to extreme political inequalities that necessarily accompany extreme material inequalities” (732).  Oligarchs, due to their wealth, are a powerful minority that dominates policy in modern democracy. 

Why wealth? 

Wealth is “a material form of power that is distinct from all other power resources, and which can be readily deployed for political purposes” (732).  (Material, as opposed to other types of) wealth is an individual power resource for three main reasons: (1) It is concentrated in the hands of the few; (2) it is easily used as a means of political influence; and (3) it implies a set of political interests: specifically, the desire to protect the wealth they have and get more of it.  The core political interest is in property and income defense.  Concentrated wealth is both power and a motivation to use power.  WP acknowledge other sources of political power: position within government, full political citizenship, position within organizations, personal capacity to mobilize people, and access to the means of violence.  In their view, wealth is the most consistent major political power source.

WP acknowledge that oligarchs do not control all political life: just the major ones concerning property and income.  Oligarchs do not have to exhibit “explicit coordination or cohesion” (731).  Their common interest in wealth protection is enough to bind them and coordinate their actions.  This common interest also insulates the oligarchal system from radical changes resulting from circulation of elites. 

How do oligarchs use wealth? 

Wealth is a gateway to purchasing the means of control and furthering their political interests.  They command large organizations.  They hire “armies” of skilled professionals.  They are “denizens of foundations, think tanks, politically connected law firms, consultancies, and lobbying organizations” (732). Oligarchs do not have to have extensive engagement in political participation to be oligarchs.  They argue that oligarchs do not have to hold formal government positions to wield power: rather, “indirect influence is sufficient” (731). 

Masses do not rebel against this state of affairs because of a stable “oligarch-mass” settlement.  In exchange for extreme inequality, masses receive universal suffrage.  The masses are divided in terms of their interests.  Oligarchs operate within a — limited — pluralistic environment. 

WP argue that oligarchy became a muddled concept in the hands of the classic elite theorists of Mosca, Pareto and Michels, who included resources other than wealth in their lists of what constitutes power resources for oligarchs.

How Winters and Page Measure Individual Political Power?

WP argue that there are many possible political power measures, and they encourage empirical investigation into them.  Their measure of political power is based on indices of income and wealth.  They note (endnote 21) that income and wealth does not necessarily have a 1:1 relationship with political power, such that twice the wealth equals twice the political power.  They argue that such relationships are open for empirical investigation.  Yet, in Table 1, this is exactly how they calculate “individual power index.” 

“The Individual Power Index for each income fractile is a ratio, calculated as the average income for that fractile divided by the average income of the bottom 90%” (735, Table 1).

Individuals in the top 1/100 of 1% with an average income of over 25 million dollars have 882.8 times as much “individual power” as an individual in the bottom 90%.  Due to this form of calculation, the bottom 90% will always have an individual power index score of 1.

WP also measure individual power based on the wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans and distributions based on estate tax and data from the Survey of Consumer Finances.

They do not have a threshold at which a certain level of political power (based on income or wealth) is oligarchy: “Any fixed quantitative criterion used to identify oligarchs is bound to be arbitrary… we would argue strongly against any mechanical rule” (737).  Yet, they argue that in the U.S., “a definitional boundary that identifies the top tenth of 1 percent of the wealthiest households as potential oligarchs seems fairly plausible” (738).

What Oligarchs Control

Oligarchs do not control all policy.  Rather, they control key policies that offer the best wealth protection.
Policy types that oligarchs exert over-influence are:

  1. International economic policy (important for a globalizing world)
  2. Monetary policy (important during economic crisis)
  3. Tax policy (which influences government spending and other government budgetary matters)
  4. Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies.

How Oligarchs Control

  1. Lobbying (which has got more professional and more expensive)
  2. Elections (campaign contributions influence who gets elected to office)
  3. Opinion shaping (media and more subtle ways that they do not specify)
  4. Constitutional rules (including the appointment of judges)


Critiques of Winters and Page

This is an interesting a provocative article.  I especially appreciate their attempt to measure political power.  I have some criticisms of their approach.

They do not consistently distinguish between “power” resources and “political” resources.  They refer mostly to political power, but their vocabulary is not precisely deployed.

Though they reference Aristotle in their claim that wealth is the primary power resource in democracies for oligarchs, they do not explicitly reference the deep roots their ideas have in Marxism and neo-Marxism.  Their thesis of why the masses accept this arrangement is very close to the Marxian theory of state compromise/class compromise.  In exchange for their larger monetary and political control, the ruling class grants concessions to the proletariat, including limited political influence and limited economic redistribution. 

Further, WP argue that masses are “persuaded” as a result of this settlement.  In Marxian terms, the settlement leads to false consciousness (they do not use the term “consciousness”).  Lacking wealth as a motivator for political action, masses are divided over their different interests.  This implies that wealth is the only thing in modern democracy that can successfully bind a group together and motivate each individual to act as if they have a common interest with their fellow group members. 

In their discussion of how wealth is used, they do not separate ownership from control over organizations.  For example, WP states that “the wealthy often control large organizations, such as business corporations, that can act for them” (732).  CEOs and boards of directors are the ones that usually control these organizations; while they are wealthy, it is not their material wealth that is used; rather, it is their position within a heavily resourced organization.  This fact undermines their argument that wealth is the key political force. 

A similar problem is with oligarchs relationship to think tanks, lobbying firms, and the like.  While funded by the wealthy, even the non-wealthy can be influential actors within these organizations.  These problems in their conceptualization are especially problematic because they operationalize political power solely on income and wealth indices.

While WP say that oligarchs do not control all political activities, their last form of control, “Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies” is vague enough to imply a much larger range of control than WP admit.  “Over-all” is far too imprecise to be operationalized.

What happens to WP ‘s theory when placed in a communist regime?  There, position within the state is more of a political power resource than wealth.  Clearly, the “wealth is most important” argument does not work there.  They do not discuss communist societies (which is understandable, if they concentrate only on putative democracies).

WP do not engage directly with the problem that oligarch influence is not directly observed.  They should do more to acknowledge that, in all such similar theories, influence is inferred, not explicitly seen.  This invisible hand argument has been troublesome for all elite theories.  Further, while they cite Domhoff and Mills (but not Parenti, surprisingly), they do not engage directly with their very similar theories.  Domhoff’s “upper class as ruling class” elite theory is substantively similar to WP’s oligarchy.


Winters, Jeffrey A. and Benjamin I. Page.  2009.  “Oligarchy in the United States?”  Perspectives on Politics 7(4): 731 – 751.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2022

Intersectionality and Political Inequality

I created a website that is a companion to a recently published paper on intersectionality and political participation.  The abstract is as follows:

Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf.  2008.  How Can We Account for Intersectionality in Quantitative Analysis of Survey Data?  Empirical Illustration of Central and Eastern Europe.”  ASK: Society, Research, Methods 17: 85-102.




While applying intersectionality is common in the qualitative literature, there are few methodological guides for the quantitative researcher.  I examine the challenges of incorporating intersectionality into quantitative survey analysis by comparing and contrasting statistical approaches in the analysis of the influence of intersectional demographics. To illustrate these approaches I use European Social Survey (2006) data and focus on gender, ethnicity, and class and their intersections to explain soft political protest in Central and East European countries. Logistic regression equations with dichotomous explanatory variables, including multiplicative interaction terms and their main effects, allow for testing variants of intersectionality theory and hypotheses testing cumulative disadvantage.  Some main guidelines for the cross-national quantitative analysis of intersectionality are: (1) multiplicative interaction terms are the best way to measure intersections and account for their properties as being beyond the sum of their parts; (2) care must be taken with the interpretation of main effects and higher and lower order interaction terms; and (3) each intersection has time and space specific consequences. In advocating for widespread use of quantitative techniques to analyze demographic intersections, large survey data sets, especially cross-national ones, provide opportunities for intersectionality researchers to provide empirical support for their theoretical statements and generalizability of their findings.