How Political Voice Fares in an Age of Rising Inequality: Frederick Solt’s Research on Economic Inequality and Democracy

The basics of modern life — job, education, and income — can shape our interest in politics, our desire to discuss politics with others, and our decision to vote. In the parlance of social science, occupation and socioeconomic status may impact “political engagement.”

We politically engage, or not, during an age of rising economic inequality.

Economic inequality matters. It chastens social mobility: the rich stay rich and the poor have extreme difficulty, especially in hard times, to climb up the social ladder.

Economic inequality is something you can see. You can see somebody driving down the street in a car that you can’t afford. You can walk the city and gape at the rich neighborhoods. The economic “gap” can stimulate or irritate; it is something you feel.

Frederick Solt, now an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa, thought that the economic inequality all around us influences our socioeconomic situation which, in turn, influences our political engagement.

This is a story of two of Fred Solt’s research articles on how political voice fares in an age of rising economic inequality.

The Theories of Engagement

If economic inequality touches so many areas of modern life, then, he reasoned, it must also play a role in whether people care about politics and show up to the voting booth. But how can inequality – that there are rich and poor and that there is a large gap between them – influence political engagement?

Solt consulted the literature on politics and inequality and sorted through the explanations, old and new. He read Moore, Dahl, Brady, Schlozman, and Verba. He read de Tocqueville, Schattschneider, Rueschemeyer, Stephens, and Stephens, Lijphart, and Lukes.

He built on their work and devised three main theories.

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

by Matias Lopez, Universidad Católica, Chile

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

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

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

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

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

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