In a previous post, we discussed how the Varieties of Democracy “V-Dem” project measures “political equality.” V-Dem is an expert survey. They guide the expert-respondents’ attention to particular groups’ political equality. These groups are: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.
In this post, we discuss how they measure “Power distributed by sexual orientation.”
V-Dem creates two groups. Group (A) are the “heterosexuals” and “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) members of the polity who are not open about their sexuality.” Group (B) are LGBT who are open about their sexuality. V-Dem argues that these groups should be compared to one another in terms of their political power.
I do not follow the logic of the next two sentences: “Note that in comparing the political power of these two groups we are comparing their power per person. So, when we say that LGBT have less, equal, or more power than heterosexuals we mean relative to their share of the population (as near as this can be estimated).” What is “power per person”? Next, they argue that the LGBT should be compared to heterosexuals “relative to their share of the population.” Who does “their” refer to? Does it refer to Group A or Group B?
Step (0) is total exclusion except for voting (which “may” be). Step (1) is that LGBT has “much less power” but they can vote. Here, V-Dem introduces the term, “informal norms” to their political equality measure. These norms serve to keep LGBT from power. It can be argued that the informal norms also keep the other groups (socioeconomic, social, and gender) out of power. Step (2) is simply relational, and does not include the information of Step (1); it simply states that the power differential is “somewhat less.”
It is in Step (3) that we get a glimpse of what they meant about “power per person.” Here, LGBT and heterosexuals have “about the same” amount of power, “that is roughly proportional to their population.” So, if one group is 10 percent and the other is 90 percent of the population, does that mean that the 10 percent is about the same amount of power as the 90 percent? Or does it mean that the 10 percent is surely less political power because they are a numerical minority, but they still have some substantial political power?
Step (4), “LGBTs enjoy somewhat more political power than heterosexuals by virtue of greater wealth, education, and high level of organization and mobilization,” is notable for two reasons. First, unlike the other items, Step (4) is not political equality utopia, but rather it is political inequality. It also introduces a mechanism for political equality: wealth, education, organization, and mobilization. These mechanisms are missing from the other measures.
In a previous post, we discussed how the Varieties of Democracy “V-Dem” project measures “political equality.” V-Dem is an expert survey. They guide the expert-respondents’ attention to particular groups’ political equality. These groups are: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.
In this post, we discuss how they measure “Power distributed by social group.”
V-Dem tells the expert to focus on “caste, ethnicity, language, race, region, religion, or some combination thereof” but not sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. They say nothing about “gender” as constituting social groups, here, probably because it comes next (“Power distributed by gender”).
V-Dem does acknowledge intersectionality but do not dwell much on it. After the list of social groups, they include the intersectionality-esque phrase, “some combination thereof.” Next, they write that “Social group identities are also likely to cross-cut, so that a given person could be defined in multiple ways, i.e., as part of multiple groups.” The “cross-cut” can be construed as an intersection.
We should not make too much of their attempt at intersectionality, however. The concept of identity, critical to intersectionality research (see Hughes and Dubrow 2017) is lost when they mention only that people can “be defined,” and makes no mention of how people define themselves. The next word after that sentence (that starts the next sentence) is “nonetheless,” defined as “in spite of that,” and thus lessens the impact of a potential accounting for intersectionality.
Clearly, intersectionality is not V-Dem’s purpose for this item.
Again, this is a zero to four scale that starts with one social group monopolizing power, and that this monopoly does not often change (it is “institutionalized”). V-Dem refers to this powerful “social group” as a “minority:” “Political power is monopolized by one social group comprising a minority of the population.” Minority, as it is often used in the social sciences, is usually about the relative power, status, and resources of a social group; here, they might mean numerical minority.
The next level toward equality (1) is several social groups, also being minorities, and also enjoying an institutionalized monopoly on power. The difference between (1) and (2) is that the several social groups are now a “majority:” “Political power is monopolized by several social groups comprising a majority of the population.” It is hard to see this as a step up towards equality. Whether the group is a numerical minority or a numerical majority does not seem to matter much for the degree of power they have. Thus, I see it as not a step up, but a step different.
When we get to (3), we get a very different step:
“Either all social groups possess some political power, with some groups having more power than others; or different social groups alternate in power, with one group controlling much of the political power for a period of time, followed by another – but all significant groups have a turn at the seat of power.”
There are several issues with this formulation, both for quantitative approaches to intersectionality research that feature power structures, and for political equality studies in general. First, the phrase, “all social groups possess some political power” is problematic because while V-Dem does define political equality (as a distributional thing) they do not define political power. Certainly, if we take the interdependency approach to political inequality, as Piven and Cloward (2005), does, we see the power process as not merely distributional one, but between opposing political actors.
Second, for social groups’ distribution of power V-Dem introduces a time element:
“different social groups alternate in power, with one group controlling much of the political power for a period of time, followed by another,”
which might mean that some groups have power at one point in time, and that is followed by another group in another time period. This time element is missing from their set-up to the issue of political equality and does not appear in the other “Power distributed by…” items. It is hard to know what an expert is to make of the sudden introduction of time.
Third, they introduce the term, “significant group,” as in: “all significant groups have a turn at the seat of power.” Since time is now an element, when is a group significant? When they have the power? Can a group be significant and not hold power before? Again, I do not know how the experts can make sense of the item.
Finally, point (4) is a social group political equality utopia, where “Social group characteristics are not relevant to politics.” There has never been a society where there are social groups and also where (and when) this utopia exists.
In this post, I examine and critique the “political equality” measure of V-Dem, with a focus on how they contend with the issue of intersectionality.
What is V-Dem?
V-Dem is a democracy-measuring project that created “a multidimensional and disaggregated dataset” that is designed to capture the many different strands of democracy. V-Dem is based on expert surveys. They argue that democracy has seven principles: electoral, liberal, majoritarian, consensual, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian.
The “egalitarian” dimension is where they situate the “political equality” measure. According to Coppedge et al (2015), the egalitarian dimension:
“…holds that material and immaterial inequalities inhibit the actual use formal political (electoral) rights and liberties. It therefore addresses the goal of political equality across social groups – as defined by income, wealth, education, ethnicity, religion, caste, race, language, region, gender, sexual identity, or other ascriptive characteristics. Ideally, all groups should enjoy equal de jure and de facto capabilities to participate; to serve in positions of political power; to put issues on the agenda; and to influence policymaking. (This does not entail equality of power between leaders and citizens, as leaders in all polities are by definition more powerful.) Following the literature in this tradition, gross inequalities of health, education, or income are understood to inhibit the exercise of political power and the de facto enjoyment of political rights. Hence, a more equal distribution of these resources across social groups may be needed in order to achieve political equality” (23).
V-Dem defines political equality in terms of capabilities and do not define it in terms of opportunities (they do not even mention outcomes). In the dictionary, “capable” can be defined as “having the ability, fitness, or quality necessary to do or achieve a specified thing.” Opportunity can be defined a set of circumstances that makes the thing possible. In opportunity, the focus is on the larger structures (including political regimes, policies and laws, institutions) that surround the group. Opportunities interact with capabilities in a similar way that a social structure influences a social group.
Thus, V-Dem’s focus is on the requisite characteristics that groups must possess – they must have within them the requisite characteristics to “participate,” to be in powerful positions, and to influence the agenda and policy.
The difference between capabilities and opportunities matters because, for V-Dem, the structures of power are found within the characteristics of groups rather than in the set of institutions and other circumstances where those social groups operate.
Defining Political Equality according to V-Dem
The project manager for the “political equality” measure is John Gerring who specializes in social science methodology and comparative politics. Gerring (V-Dem 2022 codebook v.12) does define political equality as “the extent to which members of a polity possess equal political power” (207). Gerring also argues that political equality is distributional: “It is … about the distribution of political power among identifiable groups within the population” (207). They make the well-known argument that political power cannot be directly observed.
Thus, power must be inferred from groups’ possession of power. According to V-Dem, the possession of power can be observed in: (a) Active participation, such as voting; (b) involvement in civil society organizations; (c) representation in government, which they say must be “secure”; (d) can set the agenda; (e) influence the decisions made by political decision-makers; and (f) influence how the decisions are implemented.
The V-Dem codebook v.12 defines the measure, “Political Equality” (pp. 207 – 209). V-Dem guides the experts attention to particular groups’ political equality: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.
Let’s take them one at a time.
V-Dem: “Power distributed by socioeconomic position”
V-Dem tells the expert that all countries have economic inequality, whether wealth or income, to at least some degree. V-Dem is concerned here with the link, as Manza (2015) does, between economic inequality and the distribution of political power, or what they call the “political effects” of unequal economic distribution.
V-Dem posits three hypothetical groups – the wealthy, the average person, and the poor.
There are four possible responses: (0) Wealthy have a monopoly on power; (1) Wealthy are dominant, the average have little power, the poor none at all; (2) the wealthy have a “strong hold on power,” and the average and the poor have a little bit of power but only over the things that the wealthy do not bother to contest; (3) The wealthy and the average have about equal influence, and the poor has significant influence; (4) complete political equality between the three groups.
Gurr’s famous “relative deprivation theory” was about political violence, or what he called “civil strife,” and not mundane political participation like signing a petition. The theory included political and social deprivation, but modern studies that cite Gurr generally consider only economic deprivation (or, what Gurr called, “economic discrimination”).
Finally, Gurr (1968) was clear that that deprivation has three dimensions, and all of them are important
Pervasiveness: proportion of society impacted by the deprivation.
Intensity: How strong the deprivation is.
Duration: Gurr thought that short-term deprivation is what leads to political violence. In sum, there has never been a full test of Gurr’s Relative Deprivation theory on non-electoral participation using modern cross-national data. I’m not even sure it should be tested on NEP, because Gurr was studying riots and rebellions, of which “attending a demonstration” was at the lowest level. Gurr’s theory has a lot of problems, but it doesn’t deserve the shallow treatment it has gotten from modern scholars.
Gurr focuses on civil strife, not all mundane forms of nonelectoral participation.
He defines civil strife as “all collective, nongovernmental attacks on persons or property” within a defined territory (1107). It is a mix of violent and non-violent “symbolic demonstrative attacks on political persons or policies, e.g., political demonstrations” (1107), and legal and illegal.
Civil strife has levels. At the lowest level of civil strife are strikes, riots, and local rebellions. The next level are conspiracies that turned into assassinations, coups, and small-scale wars. At the highest level is internal war, and that also includes terrorism and revolts.
Civil strife is not political participation as it appears in cross-national surveys. Clearly, “signing a petition” or “contacting a public official” or “boycotting a product” is not a part of Gurr’s 1968 study. In short, Gurr’s theory is about political violence in particular. The theory does not state that the causes of political violence are also the causes of mundane political participation.
Gurr’s relative deprivation
Gurr’s main argument is a psychosocial explanation for why there is civil strife that he called “relative deprivation” (Gurr 1968: 1104).
Relative deprivation is:
“actors’ perceptions of discrepancy between their value expectations (the goods and conditions of the life to which they believe they are justifiably entitled) and their value capabilities (the amounts of those goods and conditions that they think they are able to get and keep).”
Relative deprivation is an explicitly psychological concept that says that when people perceive a large enough gap between what they expect and what they think they can get, they respond with anger. Their anger turns into aggression. “Relative,” here, connotes perception.
The relationship between civil strife and relative deprivation
Gurr discusses four factors that influence the relationship between deprivation and civil strife.
Coercion as a force to stop strife amplifies the deprivation and therefore strengthens the relationship between deprivation and civil strife. He notes that if the coercive forces are strongly loyal to the regime, then they can reduce the efficacy of the deprived and thereby reduce civil strife.
This is “the extent to which societal structures beyond the primary level are broad in scope, command substantial resources and/ or personnel, and are stable and persisting” (1105). I have no idea what a primary level societal structure is, and such a thing is not defined by Gurr (1968). I googled it and it wasn’t defined anywhere. These non-primary structures expand the range of ways that people can “attain value satisfaction.” Of these structures are unions, parties, and other associations that provide routinized ways for people to express their discontent.
Social and environmental conditions
These factors include a prior history of civil strife. It also includes facilitation, which refers to the physical infrastructure (“terrain and transportation network”), and social characteristics defined as the extent to which the discontented can and do collectively organize. This being 1968, Gurr included strength of the Communist Party in this part of the index. A third facilitation is “external support” of the “initiators” that others provide such as training, refuge, advice, and so on.
Legitimacy of the regime
Gurr also argues that legitimacy of the regime influences this relationship. Legitimacy is “popular support for the regime” (1106). More support, less strife. When people feel that their frustration is justified, they will be less aggressive, and thus less likely to engage in civil strife.
How can we measure relative deprivation?
Gurr argues that deprivation must be pervasive — a proportion of the population affected — and intense.
The duration matters, too. In long-term deprivation people can adjust their expectations. But in short-term deprivation, people may resort to strife.
“Any sharp increase in peoples’ expectations that is unaccompanied by the perception of an increase in value capabilities, or any abrupt limitation on what they have or can hope to obtain, constitute relative deprivation. We inferred that short-term, relative declines in system economic and political performance were likely to be perceived as increased deprivation for substantial numbers of people.” (1110)
Short term deprivation measures include inflation, changes in trade value or GDP, and a bad economic situation, such as crop failures, unemployment, and other economic crises. It also includes new restrictions on political voice, such as participation and representation. These include “harassment and banning of parties of various sizes, banning of political activity, and improper dismissal of elected assemblies and executives” (1111).
Lastly, it includes the catch-all, “New value-depriving policies of government,” which he
“defined as any new programs or actions that appeared to take away some significant proportion of attained values from a numerically or socially significant group, for example land reform, tax increases, restrictions on trade, limitations of civil liberties, restrictive actions against ethnic, religious, or economic groups, and so forth. Two aspects of such policies were taken into account in scaling for intensity: the degree of deprivation imposed, and their equality of application” (1112).
In sum, for short-term deprivation, there has to be something new, unpleasant, and intense. It can be economic, social, or political.
Gurr proposed several types of deprivation. Two of them are Economic and Political. Economic deprivation stems from economic discrimination, defined as “systematic exclusion of social groups from higher economic value positions on ascriptive bases.” Political discrimination is “similarly defined in terms of systematic limitation in form, norm, or practice of social groups’ opportunities to participate in political activities or to attain elite positions on the basis of ascribed characteristics” (1109). The general idea is that economic or political opportunities are closed for some social groups.
Additional measures of deprivation are “Dependence on private foreign capital,” “Religious cleavages,” and “Lack of educational opportunity.”
The rest of the article goes into details of the measures and the correlations between them.
Gurr thought that short-term deprivation is what leads to political violence. In sum, there has never been a full test of Gurr’s Relative Deprivation theory on non-electoral participation using modern cross-national data because Gurr was studying riots and rebellions, of which “attending a demonstration” was at the lowest level. Gurr’s theory can be criticized, but it doesn’t deserve the shallow treatment it has gotten from modern scholars of political participation.
In my book published by Routledge, I defined political inequality as structured differences in influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions.
That’s the short answer. But you should know that there are many definitions of political inequality. In this post, I discuss these many definitions.
I examine several definitions of political inequality that are in the literature. I end the section with an interdisciplinary definition that can be applied across a variety of social and political systems.
Political Equality of Opportunities vs. Political Equality of Outcomes
Most definitions can be traced to the distinction made in the classic social stratification literature on equality of opportunities versus equality of outcomes (Kerbo 2003: Chapter One; see also the philosophical literature, e.g. Ware 1981: 393; Baynes 2008: 15; and Roemer 1998: 1-2).
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, as well.
The Distributional Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality
A popular definition usually posited in terms of equality of opportunities is what I call the “distributional approach:” 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 (Ware 1981: 393-4; Wall 2007: 416 ).
Many years ago, Max Weber (1946) argued that the tripartite scheme of class, status and party is but “phenomena of the distribution of power within a community” (181). The distributional approach is reflected in the 1996 American Political Science Association presidential address, in which Lijphart warned that “the inequality in representation and influence are not randomly distributed but systematically biased in favor of more privileged citizens” (1997: 1).
Problems with the Distributional Approach
The notion of “political resources” is an appealing analogy to economic resources, yet it presents dilemmas for concept and measurement.
A primary issue is that political resources are anything one can use to influence a political decision. Moreover, the means of wielding these resources varies by level – individual, group, organization or country – and by context. Some simplify by equating material resources in modern democracies – money, most of all – with political power (Winters and Page 2009; Brady 2009: 98 – 99). This is problematic, as social scientists have long argued that political resources are context-dependent and therefore can be more than just economic.
Weber (1946) viewed power resources of political organizations as almost anything , while Dahl (1996) defines political resources as, literally, “almost anything” – including money, reputation, legal status, social capital and knowledge, to name a few – that has value and can be used to achieve political ends.
Political resources can be drawn from 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 (Dahl 1996; Yamokoski and Dubrow 2008; Wall 2007: 418; for an exhaustive review of the political resources literature, see Piven and Cloward 2005: 38 – 40).
Identifying the mechanism by which political resources are distributed poses further dilemmas. Who distributes these resources? Is distribution done in the same manner across all political interactions and if not, by what rules does it vary? And, if political resources can be distributed, does the “distributor” hoard all of the resources that are important for the political interaction, or are there some resources that are beyond the hoarder’s control? We face these dilemmas when we strictly define political inequality as a matter of distribution.
The Interdependency Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality
An interdependency approach, as inspired by Piven and Cloward (2005), poses a way out of the dilemma by regarding political inequality as outcome of a relational process — and not merely distributional one — between opposing political actors. Key to the interdependency approach, political influence is found in the range of actions an actor can take within a political interaction.
Piven and Cloward (2005) argue that even apparently powerless actors actually have great potential for political influence, which turns the drawback of the distributional approach into a strength: “from this perspective, power resources are the attributes or things that one actor can use to coerce or induce another actor… almost everyone has something that can be used to influence somebody” (37).
In the interdependency approach, political power is inherently relational and resources are replaced with potential actions. Still, similarly to the distributional approach, actions used to influence governments and other political decision-makers are context-dependent: they must be appropriate to the task at hand; characteristics of the relationship between the interacting groups reveal possible (political power) actions.
The interdependency approach circumvents the problematic assumptions of (a) a hypothetical cache of ready-for-use political resources, and (b) a mechanism of resource distribution that is external to the interaction.
Problems with the Interdependency Approach
The interdependency approach has its own shortcomings.
For one, it does not account well for the use of physical force, a powerful resource that the state wields in any political interaction. This leads to the other troublesome assumption that all sides in a political skirmish have equal potential for political gain. The interdependency approach assumes equality of political opportunities. Yet, when the state wields physical force, or at least threatens it, the interactions appear to be imbalanced.
Sorokin’s Authority Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality
Sorokin’s sociological definition is similar but simpler, in that its main criterion focuses solely on the structure of the political process (1959 ): 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. Sorokin’s definition implies that the hierarchical structure of authority matters for the magnitude of political inequality, in that the more layers of authority between the citizen and the decision, the greater the political inequality. Growth in political complexity exacerbates this inequality: More people mean more diverse interests, demands and services and thus greater complexity of state organization (echoing Weber’s theory of inexorable bureaucratization).
Problems with Sorokin’s Approach
Sorokin’s political stratification may be simple but its implication for eliminating political inequality is troublesome: Only in a landscape without authority divisions whatsoever would all groups would have equal say in legislation and policy. As Sorokin himself admits, not even in hunter-gatherer societies do we find that political world is flat, let alone in modern ones (69).
The Dahl and Lindblom Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality
Let us consider another definition rooted in the idea of equality of opportunities that is popular in political science and philosophy. Paraphrased from Dahl and Lindblom (1953: 4), political equality is when everybody’s preferences are equally weighted in political decisions (see also Verba 2003: 663; Ware 1981: 393; Agne 2006: 433-4; and Baynes 2008:9 ).
In this definition, political inequality is unequal weight in influence over 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. As Agne (2006) put it, “it is often assumed that democracy requires that the people affected by a decision should be able to participate in making it” (433). Agne (2006) makes a strong case that this standard is hard to implement at higher levels of aggregation, such as regional or global governance, and should be replaced with different formulations of autonomy and freedom from dominance (for a summary, see p. 453; on rights to political equality at different levels of administrative aggregation, see also Bohman (1999: 500 – 503)).
The Outcomes Only Approach to the Definition of Inequality
Other definitions shift the focus from opportunities to benefits, such that political equality is when outcomes are equal (Griffin and Newman 2008: 6-7, Chapter Two). Ware (1981: 401 – 406) makes the case for considering political outcomes when evaluating the extent to which a democracy is politically unequal. Democracy theorists and philosophers argue whether we need to distribute these benefits equally, or whether some should get more than others because of their historically marginalized status (in discussing the American experience, Griffin and Newman (2008) call this the race-conscious egalitarian standard). What this means for the study of political inequality is that the response side of the political process is as important to think about as the voice side. In this case, political inequality is the extent of structured differences in the outcomes of government decisions.
Problems with Dahl and Lindblom and the Outcomes Only Approaches
These definitions lead us to a critical question: What is equal in political equality? Is it equal voice or equal response? Is it equal opportunities or equal outcomes? If it is equal opportunities for voice, then political philosophers such as Rawls (1971), Ware (1981), Sen (1999) and Baynes (2008) point to an important element of the distribution of political resources. Being that political equality is tied not only to political rights, but also to political liberties, i.e. the freedom to engage in political processes, and we need to consider (a) those who, through brute luck (Baynes 2008: 2) or social misfortunes are not equally endowed with the resources to influence politics in the same way as others, and (b) those who simply choose not to engage politically (see also Verba’s 1999: 247-248 distinction between “they can’t,” “they don’t want to,” and “nobody asked”).
A Better Definition of Political Inequality
We can fashion an alternative definition rooted in inequality of opportunities if we merge Dahl and Lindblom’s and Piven and Cloward’s insights with Sorokin’s: Political inequality is the extent of structured differences in influence over government decisions. Here, individuals, groups and organizations are defined by how much political influence they can exert (i.e. their potential of political influence). This view does not preclude the distribution of political resources; nor does it depend on it. It is the distance between actors and the characteristics of their interaction that shape political influence. Most importantly, this definition explicitly recognizes that political power and influence is rooted in the stratification structure.
We can combine the Dahl and Lindblom with the Outcomes Only approach to create a better definition of political inequality: political inequality refers to structured differences in influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions.
Conclusion: Is Political Equality Real?
There is also another question, more philosophical in nature, worth considering: Is political equality “real”, can we achieve it, or is it rather the ideal, theoretical endpoint of the continuum of political influence?
The definitions I presented lead to different answers. From a Sorokin perspective, government is part of the overall political stratification structure. Since government makes decisions, the structure itself is unequal. Therefore, political equality is strictly theoretical.
From a distributional perspective, political power is often thought of as something that the government distributes. If so, both perfect political equality and inequality could be achieved in totalitarian systems where all power concentrates with the elite. Put simply, if the government distributes zero political power to the masses, then everyone outside of government has the same level of political power: Zero. Perfect equality among the masses is achieved and perfect political inequality between masses and elites is also achieved.
The interdependence approach turns this question on its head, as it assumes political equality rather than political inequality. In the interdependence approach, all actors inside and outside of the decision-making body potentially have the same level of influence over the final decision. Political equality can be achieved because in all power situations each actor has potentially equal power to influence the outcome. What looks like political inequality is just wasted potential. We can call this the “liberation narrative:” If political inequality is built through these interactions, it can be un-built through them, thereby liberating the politically weak.
Liberating interactions do not square with most people’s political experience. The mainstay of political life is inequality of influence; reminders that the losers in political interactions have potential for influence, too, do not change the scoreboard. Yet, it is the promise of democracy that the scoreboard can be changed. This promise leads to the idea that political equality and political inequality are dimensions of democracy.
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Democratic backsliding is when a democratic country shows signs of becoming autocratic or authoritarian. Backsliding can occur when a democracy has just a foothold (e.g. Poland in the early 1990s) or is firmly established as a democracy (the USA).
How do we know when democratic backsliding occurs?
Enter Roberto Foa & Yascha Mounk. Their famous 2016 article, The Danger of Deconsolidation, used the World Values Survey, a cross-national survey dataset of many countries around the globe, to understand who supports democracy. They argued that major democracy measures do a passable job, but we also need to understand, from the ground level, changes in mass support for democracy.
In this post, we examine Foa & Mounk’s argument and some of their critics.
The concept of “democratic backsliding” is also called “democratic deconsolidation.” An “established” democracy is consolidated. When it changes to authoritarianism, it has “deconsolidated.”
Democratic consolidation was a popular term in the 1980s and 1990s, around the time that the US had a policy of democracy promotion around the world. Around that time there was a proliferation of quantitative democracy measures.
Foa and Mounk in 2016 revived the term by trying to sound the alarm on “deconsolidation.” Because Foa and Mounk did not properly acknowledge the long history of democratic consolidation studies from the 1990s, they obscured those early studies’ original purpose, which was to sound the alarm on possible deconsolidation.
Foa and Mounk’s critics missed the point. We shouldbe looking for the small and troubling signs of democratic backsliding. Foa and Mounk’s (F&M) 2016 article outlasts their critics because their fundamental point was correct, even if their measures of democratic backsliding had some flaws.
Democratic Backsliding is about Transition
Consolidation is mainly seen as a process from transition democracies to consolidated democracies. The concern has always been the survival of democratic regimes, and thus intrinsically about democratic backsliding. The emphasis of the 1990s literature seemed to be on how transition societies – especially Latin America and Eastern Europe – could solidify their democratic gains into long term stability.
But Consolidated/Consolidation have always been fuzzy concepts. The various definitions can be compared and contrasted, but in the end (it’s sometimes called, “democratic decay”), there has been no singular definition of what a consolidated democracy looks like or what the process of consolidation entails. There are some similarities across authors’ arguments. F&M’s definition is a good place to start, but in the end, they do not offer enough specifics to identify a consolidated from a transitional democracy.
The literature has tendrils in many topics, such as democracy, democratization, states and regimes, transitions and development, political behavior (voting especially), and democratic values, but also civil society, bureaucracy, and economic development.
Foa & Mounk seek to warn us that we may be unjustifiably complacent about the well-being of consolidated democracies. We have not anticipated other extreme events (like the collapse of the USSR) and we may be in the midst of one now.
The authors note that, in North America and Western Europe, trust in institutions (such as parliament and the judicial system), party membership, and voter turnout has declined, and party identification has weakened. Voters are turning to anti-establishment parties, fueling a rise in populism. In these stable regions of the world, democracy seems to be in trouble.
Critics of the “decline of democracy” approach (Inglehart, Wezel, Norris, Dalton) argue that while support for particular governments regularly declines (what they call government legitimacy), support for democracy itself (what they call regime legitimacy) remains robust. The people know that democracy allows them these expressions of discontent and thus support the regime, but not the government.
F&M feel that that the critics argument is optimistic. They seek to challenge that view.
F&M use waves 3 through 6 of the World Values Surveys (1995–2014). With these data, they attempt to measure four types of regime legitimacy:
Support for the whole system
Support for “key” institutions of liberal democracy, e.g. civil rights
Willingness to advance political causes
Openness to authoritarian regimes such as military rule.
In their presentation style, they look at extreme values. The point of the article is to provoke and hunt for any sign, no matter how small, of deconsolidation.
1. Support for the whole system
In Figure 1, they measure support for the whole system with the “Percent of respondents rating it ‘essential’ (a rating of 10 on a 10-point scale) to ‘live in a country that is governed democratically’” (p. 7). They compare the US with “Europe.” The X axis is birth cohort by decade (1930s to 1980s) and the Y axis is percent that rated democracy as essential. Both the US and Europe show a negative relationship. The older cohorts (1930s to 1950s) still support democracy at above 50 percent. The younger cohorts (1960s to 1980s) are at 50 percent or less.
In Figure 2, their second measure of regime support is with “Percent responding that ‘having a democratic political system’ is a ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ way to ‘run this country,’ by age group.” They compare age groups in the US and Europe. Comparing age groups in the US as of 2011, the authors find a range of ca. 12 percent to nearly 25 percent, with older age groups evincing lower percentages. They find something similar in Europe, but the range is very small (from 6 percent to ca. 13 percent).
In sum, older people are more likely to support the regime than younger people.
2. Support for “key” institutions of liberal democracy, e.g. civil rights and 3. Willingness to advance political causes
It is possible that people can support democracy but not support its institutions or politically participate. Here, they don’t have graphs and don’t offer many numbers (but see Fig. 3).
They find that millennials support the idea that it is absolutely essential in a democracy for civil rights to protect liberty less (32 percent) than those born in the interwar and immediate post war environments (41 percent). The spread for Europe is much smaller (39 to 45 percent). They also find that, in the US, 14 percent of baby boomers argue that it is unimportant in a democracy that people “choose their leaders in free elections” as compared to millennials, 26 percent make that argument. In Europe, the spread is smaller and ranges from 9 to 13 percent. They looked at other regions of the world and did not find the same result.
Foa and Mounk claim that there is a widening gap between age groups in “political apathy.” Older cohorts are more likely to be interested in politics and to engage in political participation (both conventional/institutional and unconventional/non-institutional).
In sum, older cohorts are more likely to support the key institutions of democracy than post-baby boomer cohorts.
4. Openness to authoritarian regimes such as military rule
Here, they look for support among Americans and Europeans for military rule that they consider as an anti-democratic idea. Unlike the previous sections, in this section they combine income with age.
First, age: Overall, there is a trend in Americans who believe that it would be a good or very good thing if the army ruled the country (from 1 in 16 to 1 in 6). They note a predictable age gap in this attitude. “In Europe, the generation gap is somewhat less stark but equally clear, with 53 percent of older Europeans and only 36 percent of millennials strongly rejecting the notion that a government’s incompetence can justify having the army “take over”” (13).
Then, income. The authors looked at income groups and conclude that “whereas two decades ago affluent citizens were much more likely than people of lower income groups to defend democratic institutions, the wealthy are now moderately more likely than others to favor a strong leader who can ignore democratic institutions” (13).
And then, the combination of age and income. “In Europe in 1995, 6 percent of high-income earners born since 1970 favored the possibility of “army rule”; today, 17 percent of young upper-income Europeans favor it” (14).
In sum, they conclude that the affluent, the young, and the young and affluent are more likely to support military rule than other age and income groups.
“Is Democracy Deconsolidating?”
They ask the big question of whether all of this adds up to democratic deconsolidation. The authors present the finding of Przeworski and Limongi that “no consolidated democracy with a GDP per capita of over $6,000 in 1985 international prices has ever collapsed.”
The authors claim that this finding has blinded further research in the idea that consolidated democracies can deconsolidate. In this article they address whether data can tell us if stable, wealthy, and consolidated democracies can become unstable and deconsolidated.
How do we know if a democracy is consolidated? The authors quote Linz and Stefan: democracies are consolidated when they are the “only game in town.”
But the authors disagree with the premise, as they question how we would know if democracy is the only game in town. At the end of the article, Foa and Mounk offer their indicators of consolidated democracy:
“In our view, the degree to which a democracy is consolidated depends on three key characteristics: the degree of popular support for democracy as a system of government; the degree to which antisystem parties and movements are weak or nonexistent; and the degree to which the democratic rules are accepted.” (15)
In this article, they looked at “popular support for democracy,” but did not look directly at the degree to which antisystem parties are weak, or directly at the acceptance of democratic rules other than support for civil rights.
The authors note the rise of Trump, the rise of right wing populist parties, and the decline in approval of mainstream and long-established politicians as indicators of a challenge to democratic consolidation. As they summarize:
“Citizens of democracies are less and less content with their institutions; they are more and more willing to jettison institutions and norms that have traditionally been regarded as central components of democracy; and they are increasingly attracted to alternative regime forms.” (16)
Democracies that begin to deconsolidate may not fail, and democracy may not fall out of favor they argue. But, the signs of deconsolidation are apparent, they believe.
Inglehart then adds “value change.” The societies that F&M examine are undergoing a shift from materialism to post-materialism. It is a movement from insecurity to security. Secure people are more tolerant and tend to support democracy. Yet, within these societies, there are people who face an “existential insecurity” and the economic crises has exacerbated this sense. Existential insecurity means greater support for authoritarianism, xenophobia, and a breakdown of norms.
The young are particularly vulnerable, Inglehart argues: “Existential security has been declining for most of the population—especially the young, who face high levels of unemployment, even among those with university or postgraduate educations”.” (21).
In the long-run, modernization will win out. Why? Economic development leads to democracy because it creates the conditions in which democracy can flourish – economic security, an educated workforce, and a rise in self-expressive values.
When one argues that modernization leads to democracy, it is a classic way of theorizing: looking back in time, tying together trends, calling the trend something – modernization, in this case – and then declaring it a theory that would predict such a thing.
Critiques of Data and Methods
The other critics of Foa & Mounk’s 2016 The Dangers of Deconsolidation tend to attack the data and methods, writing that the signs are too small to matter or can be erased if one uses different measures or a different interpretation of the results.
“Foa and Mounk heavily overstate the age differences in democratic support. Second, the obvious age pattern in indicators of political disaffection has little to do with generations; it is instead a lifecycle effect: younger people showed stronger signs of disaffection already in earlier decades, but this age pattern is not linked to a uniform temporal trend towards increasing disaffection in the electorates of mature democracies…
Alexander and Welzel are right in that a core problem of democratic backsliding is political inequality:
“The source of the problem is certainly not the younger generation and its alleged loss of support for democracy. Instead, it is the growing marginalization of the lower social classes, their resulting ideological divergence from the increasingly progressive mainstream and the failure of the established parties, as well as the media, to adequately address the legitimate concerns of the “left behinds.””
Pippa Norris argues that, although backsliding has occurred in some countries, it has not done so in the West.
“Culturally, when more systematic survey data is examined across a broader range of more than two-dozen Western democracies and over a longer time period, in fact the claims by Foa and Mounk fail to prove consistently reliable and robust. The generational gaps presented by the authors are exaggerated both by cherry-picking cases and by the visual presentation and treatment of the survey data. Far from a uniform ‘European’ pattern, countries vary widely in public perception of democratic performance and persistent contrasts are observable. The data also suggests a persistent life-cycle effect.”
Erik Voeten argues that there simply has been no change.
“Millennials are not very different in their views of political systems than were young people in the mid-1990s. The evidence suggests that millennials in the U.S. are somewhat more skeptical of democracy than people of similar ages were twenty years ago. Nevertheless this evidence comes from one survey. Moreover, when we look at confidence in actual democratic institutions, then the opposite pattern emerges: older generations have lost faith in U.S. Congress and the Executive to a greater extent than millennials.
The take-away is not that there is no threat to consolidated democracies but rather that this does not come from abstract procedural preferences among (some part of) the populace for alternative regime types.”
However, these critics miss the point of Foa and Mounk: there are small and troubling signs of deconsolidation. The signs may be small. But they are troubling. Social scientists tend to miss major historical happenings and then jump to explanations of them after they occur. Foa and Mounk warned us of this in the first paragraphs of their article.
Linz, Juan J., and Alfred Stepan. 1996. Problems of democratic transition and consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and postcommunist Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Przeworski, Adam, Michael E. Alvarez, Jose Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi. 2000. Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950–1990. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Manza: Economic Inequality is Political Inequality
The abstract of the essay makes the ubiquitous argument that where there is democracy, there is also political inequality. Manza explains that his essay is about the impact of economic inequality on democratic politics. From the jump, Manza is arguing that political inequality is a dependent concept on economic inequality – the article is, after all, called “political inequality,” but Manza does not argue that political inequality is an analytically distinct form of inequality, on par with economic, gender, racial, etc. inequalities.
As Manza defines the term:
“Political inequality may refer to either differential inputs into policymaking processes, in which some actors have more influence than others, or it can refer to policy outputs, in particular those which encourage or sustain income and wealth inequality.” (1)
In Manza’s essay, political outcomes are seen in how they impact economic inequality, e.g. either income or wealth. Thus, the essay is more about the relationship of political inequality to economic inequality, rather than on political inequality as a distinct concept.
Manza begins with the idea that democracy can, theoretically, redistribute economic resources, but it does not do so in an equal way. Citing Galbraith:
“in Galbraith’s (1952) famous formulation, democratic political systems can be relatively egalitarian and produce redistributive outcomes so long as ordinary citizens have sufficient “countervailing power” to contest economic and political elites” (2).
Galbraith’s formulation was purely theoretical — no modern society, neither America nor any other, was ever politically equal. Manza argues that it is usually the left that provides Galbraith’s “countervailing power.” In capitalist democracies, governments must strongly include, and unequally include, business interests.
Capitalism has always produced an unequal economy – thus, the economically unequal also become the political beneficiaries. The result is what Manza calls the “structural conditions for a bias toward protecting and promoting the interests of economic elites and firms over everyone else” (3). Manza assumes that when the left comes into power, the structural conditions change. Manza admits that there are few cross-national studies that support this “structural power hypothesis” (3).
Manza: Elite and Oligarchic Theories
Manza notes that democracies are unfairly redistributive. To explain this phenomenon, theories of political inequality are needed. In essence, Manza is looking for theories that explain the link between political inequality and economic inequality.
Elites come from a narrow slice of the social structure and wield disproportionate influence over the spheres in which they are elite – some of these elites occupy multiple spheres of influence. See Pareto, Mills, Domhoff, and other classic elite theorists.
Manza discusses here the book by Jeffrey Winters called Oligarchy (2011). Winters argues that extreme wealth holders work within the political system to defend their economic interests. Winters calls these people, “oligarchs.” Oligarchs create and support policy that furthers their wealth, or defends it from radical redistribution. Marx thought the same, but Manza does not make that point. Manza points out that Winters’ theory does not explain why non-oligarchs – i.e. the 99% – support the policies that oligarchs support.
Manza: Power Resources
Power resources is the most popular theory, writes Manza:
“The dominant political sociological model for studying comparative political inequality in recent decades has been what is loosely known as the power resources approach (Esping-Andersen, 1990; Korpi, 1983).” (7)
As Fred Solt and others also wrote, unequal economic relationships – manifested in the class structure – create organized groups. These groups can be manifested as parties that compete for power over economic redistribution.
Elections are supposed to be a way for democracy to cleanly and fairly sort out these competing interests. The result, however, has been economic inequality. Why? Because organized groups have different organizational capacities – some are better organized than others, usually because they have greater access to the economic resources that enable organizational capacity.
As Manza notes, Esping-Anderson argued that there are three types of political regimes that emerge from the many democratic class struggles:
“social democracies (typically those of Northern Europe), Christian democracies (common in Continental Europe), and liberal democracies (primarily in the Anglo-American countries). In each case, a combination of similar political forces and political institutions give rise to similar kinds of policy outputs.” (8)
There are alternatives to this simplistic tripartite typology, as exemplified in the “Varieties of Capitalism” literature.
Manza argues that the power resources model does not explain why “in an era where unions and social democratic parties are declining or retreating from historic commitments, redistributive social spending in many countries has persisted at high levels (albeit not enough to reverse rising income inequality).”
One could argue that this is a simplistic model that does not capture changes in the last few decades in the varieties of party ideologies, or why disadvantaged groups, such as the working class, support lower levels of economic redistribution.
Manza: The Globalization Hypothesis
Manza argues that political inequality has risen around the world. He provides no evidence to support the claim, unless one measures political inequality with economic inequality. Manza argues that a major aspect of globalization is the mobility of capital:
“Here, the growing international mobility of capital is viewed as inducing “race to the bottom”: that is, pressures on governments seeking to maintain competitiveness and avoid disinvestment lead governments to avoid adopting tax and transfer programs that will discourage investment. In limiting the policy options available to national governments, economic globalization provides incentive for policymakers to turn away from traditional forms of social provision in favor of growth politics that favor capital accumulation.” (8 – 9)
Manza: Participatory Inequalities, Political Insiders and Outsiders
In Manza’ essay, participatory inequalities seem to refer to access to politicians and the political decisions they make. This refers to voting and other classic forms of political participation. Manza’s point is that there are group differences in political participation.
Manza: Future Research on Political and Economic Inequality
On trying to define future research, Manza argues that we need to examine the causal link between political and economic inequalities. He advocates going deep inside a particular country to explore these mechanisms. He argues that the links between political and economic inequalities are not straightforward. For example, while most posit that “money in politics” is a problem for the US, there is little evidence that legislators’ votes are “bought” by directly by donors.
One reaches a similar conclusion about political lobbying in the US:
“Political lobbying is perhaps better viewed as an arms race—given its pervasiveness, few groups will feel comfortable not participating, so everyone does it, but the impacts are mixed, hard to pin down, and in general cannot systematically explain political inequality.” (12)
Ansolabehere, S., de Figueiredo, J., & Snyder, J. (2003). Why is there so little money in U.S. politics? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17, 105–130.
What is the relationship between gender and political inequality (POLINQ)?
Despite the promises of political equality of the Communist era, and the promises of the post-Communist era, from 1945 to now women in Eastern Europe have endured political inequality.
Political inequality is defined as structured differences in influence over political decisions, and the outcomes of those decisions.
Women have been unequal to men in representation, whether it is fewer parliamentary seats than men, or whether it is in policy.
While much attention on gender and political inequality is about the USA and Western Europe, scholars have paid far less attention to the problem in Eastern Europe. We need updated, open access resources on the problem of gender and political inequality in Eastern Europe.
Scholarship on Gender and Political Inequality in the POLINQ Project
The POLINQ project partnered with scholars from the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, to produce three free & open access resources for activists, NGOs, politicians, students, and scholars to use.
Gender Quotas in Eastern Europe
Gender quotas are rules that aim at providing opportunities for women to be in parliament or to appear on candidate lists in elections for political office. Quota policy should be designed to provide substantial equitable opportunities and access to those decision-makers and their political decisions by the creation of new, favorable circumstances for women to be parliamentarians.
To understand gender quotas in Eastern Europe, the POLINQ project partnered with Dr. Adrianna Zabrzewska on the free, open access book:
This website provides basic knowledge for high school students and undergraduates, as well as any reader who is unfamiliar with the history and current issues of gender and politics in Eastern Europe. The project tells the story of gender and political change from the rise of Communism, the revolutions of 1989, and on to the present day.
Funding for this website comes from the Title VI Comprehensive National Resource Center grant from the International and Foreign Language Education division of the U.S. Department of Education, awarded to The Ohio State University’s Center for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (CSEEES).
Gender and Protest in Poland over the Abortion Ban
In autumn 2020, as the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic began, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal issued a ruling that severely restricted access to abortion. Massive street protests, led by Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike), quickly followed.
To understand this protest movement in Poland, the POLINQ project partnered with Dr. Adrianna Zabrzewska on the free, open access book:
POLINQ is an acronym for political inequality, defined as structured differences in political influence and its consequences. POLINQ is also the acronym of the National Science Foundation, Poland funded project (2016/23/B/HS6/03916), which ran from 2017 – 2022, with Joshua K. Dubrow as the Principle Investigator.
POLINQ’s main theoretical elaboration is on the relationships between voice, inequality, and institutions across various regime types and for various social groups.
Political voice can be defined minimally or maximally
Minimally, political voice is the expression of interests within the political system.
Maximally, political voice is (a) participation – verbal, physical, symbolic, monetary, or otherwise – in the political sphere by individuals, organizations, social groups, interest groups, or entire populations in electoral and non-electoral situations. In this maximalist sense, voice is also (b) representation by movements, organizations, or political leaders and other figures. From a voice perspective, representation is someone or something engaged in the expression of interests in the political sphere on behalf of others or to promote an idea.
Political voice’s two main dimensions — participation and representation– appear in different contexts and scholars can study voice from various methodological approaches.
Mechanisms: Elite coordination and mass discoordination
One mechanism is how elites reproduce inequalities, or “elite coordination.” A second mechanism is how social inequalities structure participation and contestation. We call this second mechanism, “mass discoordination.” The two key mechanisms of elite coordination and mass discoordination feed off of each other. The uneven distribution of power resources encourages the elite — who head the democratic institutions and set the rules — to pursue greater concentration; meanwhile, the elite-led institutions that allow such disparities to occur promote roadblocks that either prevent groups from participating, such as in the case of disenfranchised citizens, or discourages collective coordination around shared interests. The masses remain aggrieved yet disorganized.
POLINQ, social structure, and social groups
For everyday citizens, structured gender, economic, and age inequalities, in their intersection, prevent representative politics and political action from producing equality. Representation and participation should empower those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Yet, across nations and time, an individual’s position in the social structure interacts with the economic and political environment to repress the mass actions that could, potentially, push the elites toward fair economic redistribution.
POLINQ, economic inequality, social welfare, and clientelism
Political participation is a core aspect of POLINQ and it is a foundation of European democracies. Of the social forces that act in tandem to influence political participation, economic inequality, social spending, and clientelism loom large. Whereas economic inequality in modern capitalist societies is associated with the maldistribution of political power and unequal political engagement, institutional contexts of the political economy can amplify or dampen the impact of economic inequality. In theory, social spending should mitigate the negative externalities of economic inequality through the provision of the social and economic resources to individuals and social groups that they need to participate in politics. Equitable social spending across socioeconomic strata should relieve social and economic burdens that make it difficult for disadvantaged groups to participate in democratic life, and thus buoy the participatory environment. Yet, social spending is not necessarily equally distributed; clientelism intervenes to push resources towards already politically and economically advantaged groups, thus lowering the level of political participation.
Some conclusions of the POLINQ project
Political voice inequality is the inequality in influence – directly via political participation and indirectly through party representation – over the government decisions that impact society. Exacerbating voice inequality are economic conditions, including economic inequality. Whereas macro-level economic inequality matters under some conditions, what matters more is how structural inequalities, economic ones included, impact vulnerable disadvantaged social groups. Grievances of the masses are multi-dimensional – economic, as well as social and political – such that low income and low political opportunities leads to political dissatisfaction with external institutions and, at points, is associated with lower protest potential; however, perceived societal discrimination based on social attributes can increase protest potential. Across democracies, the youth are both the future of democracy and are among the most economically vulnerable groups. They may blame the political institutions for growing economic problems. We find that their distrust in political institutions can lead to democratic backsliding. To understand representational inequalities of social groups, we needed better data. To this end, POLINQ created two new publicly available datasets that, taken together, form the POLINQ Database: Party Representation of Social Groups (PaReSoGo) and POLINQ-Participation: Political Inequality of Voice.
Published Results of the POLINQ Project
POLINQ’s main published results are conceptual and theoretical articles, methodological articles and notes, and substantive articles.
POLINQ Conceptual and Theoretical Articles
We sought to elaborate on extant concepts in the field of studies of political voice, institutions, and inequality. This includes:
POLINQ sought to understand the relationship the bases of political voice from a methodological point of view. POLINQ tested various ways to measure political inequality of voice, and the results are two datasets that, combined are the POLINQ Database.
As befitting an intellectually open project that evolved over time, POLINQ made various discoveries.
(a) POLINQ explored the potential impact of major economic and political events during survey fieldwork:
Zelinska, Olga; Dubrow, Joshua K.: Party Representation of Social Groups (PaReSoGo) [data]. Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences [producer], Warsaw, 2021. PADS21317. Polish Social Data Archive [distributor], Repozytorium Danych Społecznych [publisher], 2021. https://doi.org/10.18150/NPXPAT, V1
The POLINQ project organized two rounds of seminars, pre-Covid 19 pandemic.
The first was at the University of Bucharest, Romania 2017 – 2018. The seminar centered on (a) the connection between politics and inequality across nations and time and, to add to graduate student training, (b) moving from ideas to manageable research projects, and publishing, in the social sciences. The second was at IFiS PAN 2019 – January 2020. This was a monthly meeting in which we discussed the latest academic research in the social sciences on the subject of politics.
Conferences of the POLINQ Project
POLINQ organized two major international conferences.
The international conference, “Politics and Inequality across Nations and Time: Theoretical and Empirical Approaches,” was held at IFiS PAN, December 12 – 14, 2018 in Warsaw, Poland. Presentations were on substantive and methodological issues related to political voice and economic inequality. There were 34 attendees from Europe, the United States, and Latin America. Of the fifteen conference presenters: eight were from institutions outside of Poland, and there were eight advanced researchers, three recent PhDs, and four PhD students. Students from the Graduate School for Social Research and the University of Warsaw attended. Participants hailed from across the social sciences, including sociology, political science, and economics.
The second international conference, “Building Multi-Source Databases for Comparative Analyses,” was held December 16-20, 2019 at IFiS PAN and was in cooperation with the project “Survey Data Recycling: New Analytic Framework, Integrated Database, and Tools for Cross-national Social, Behavioral and Economic Research”, a joint endeavour of the The Ohio State University and IFiS PAN. It explored the sources of data for the POLINQ project, including survey and administrative data.
Training of PhDs and Post-Docs of the POLINQ Project
Within the grant period, one of our research assistants achieved their PhD in sociology (Olga Zelinska, 2020, IFiS PAN), and three of our young researchers – Marta Kolczynska (2019/32/C/HS6 /00421) (former post-doc), Olga Zelinska (2021/40/C/HS6/00229) (Graduate Research Assistant), and Olga Lavrinenko (2021/40/C/HS6/00150) (recent Post-doc) – were awarded National Science Centre, Poland Sonatina Post-Doctoral Scholarships.
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.
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?
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.