Political Equality as Measured by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem)

If we want to measure the power structure of society, we can examine the extent of political equality. For a quantitative measure, one can use the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem, as it is commonly referred to) dataset’s “political equality” measure (see also Cole 2018).

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.

Links to the next measures:

Political Inequality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by social groups”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by gender”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by sexual orientation”

Democratic Backsliding: Definition and Measurement

What is democratic backsliding?

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?

Social scientists typically use democracy measures, such as Freedom House, or Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), or the Global State of Democracy, as a benchmark. First, they measure democracy in one year. That is their benchmark. Then, to measure change, in a subsequent year, they measure democracy again. A country that has a lower score from year to year may be backsliding.

However, democracy measures can have problems. A major problem is that they may not pick up smaller, more subtle signs of backsliding.

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.

Related to this article

History of Democratic Backsliding Studies

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 should be 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.

In the end, the core idea is that democracy is under threat of backsliding.

Foa and Mounk’s The Danger of Deconsolidation

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:

  1. Support for the whole system
  2. Support for “key” institutions of liberal democracy, e.g. civil rights
  3. Willingness to advance political causes
  4. 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. 

Photo by rob walsh on Unsplash

Critics of Foa and Mounk Miss the Point

Critique by Ronald Inglehart

Ronald Inglehart challenged the thesis of Foa and Mounk in a 2016 reply called “How Much Should We Worry?”, also published in the Journal of Democracy.

Inglehart argued that the strongest effects of democratic backsliding, as measured by Foa and Mounk, are in the US, and thus F&M’s argument is mostly about America. Inglehart blames political dysfunction, growing economic inequality, and growing political inequality.

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.

For example, Alexander and Welzel argue that

“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.

Foa and Mounk argue that, to prevent democratic backsliding, we need to pay attention to the small changes.

Further Reading

Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. 2005. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Alexander & Welzel. 2017. “The Myth of Deconsolidation: Rising Liberalism and the Populist Reaction” Journal of Democracy.

Diamond, Larry. 1999. Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kwak, Joonghyun, Irina Tomescu-Dubrow, Kazimierz M. Slomczynski, and Joshua K. Dubrow. 2020. “Youth, Institutional Trust, and Democratic Backsliding.” American Behavioral Scientist 64, no. 9: 1366-1390.

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.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow Politicalinequality.org 2022

  1. What is democratic backsliding?
  2. How do we know when democratic backsliding occurs?
    1. Related to this article
  3. History of Democratic Backsliding Studies
    1. Democratic Backsliding is about Transition
      1. In the end, the core idea is that democracy is under threat of backsliding.
  4. Foa and Mounk’s The Danger of Deconsolidation
    1. 1. Support for the whole system
      1. In sum, older people are more likely to support the regime than younger people.
    2. 2. Support for “key” institutions of liberal democracy, e.g. civil rights and 3. Willingness to advance political causes
      1. In sum, older cohorts are more likely to support the key institutions of democracy than post-baby boomer cohorts.
    3. 4. Openness to authoritarian regimes such as military rule
      1. 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.
  5. “Is Democracy Deconsolidating?”
  6. Critics of Foa and Mounk Miss the Point
    1. Critique by Ronald Inglehart
    2. Critiques of Data and Methods
      1. Foa and Mounk argue that, to prevent democratic backsliding, we need to pay attention to the small changes.

Democracy and Economic Inequality

Why does economic inequality rise in democracies?

Economic inequality is rising, and the United Nations reports that economic inequality impacts 70 percent of the world, even when we include democracies such as the US, UK, France, and Germany.

Why does democracy not reduce economic inequality? According to democratic theories, giving everyone the vote and allowing them to participate in democracy through protest should make policy-makers responsive to the public and reduce harm to them. Yet, this does not happen. Inequality rises in democracies.

Inequality may be the undoing of democracy.

This post explains why democracy has not reduced economic inequality. I rely on the innovative arguments of Dena Freeman in her seminal work, “De-Democratisation and Rising Inequality: The Underlying Cause of a Worrying Trend.”

Rising Inequality in Democracy: Elite Distribution and Voting Suffrage

Why has economic inequality increased alongside the rise in democratization? This is an old problem. Elites in the 19th century feared that the “universal suffrage” part of democracy would lead to the redistribution of wealth.

How would this redistribution happen? The democracy-reduces-inequality argument is the following:

In theory, the disadvantaged have greater voice in democracy, and therefore have greater impact on government response. This is an electoral politics argument about an agreement between the elite and the masses, otherwise known as “the class compromise of the post-war period.” It’s an exchange: The elite agree to redistribute economic resources through social welfare spending to the disadvantaged because the elite need the votes of the disadvantaged. The sheer size of the voting citizenry ensures that political parties operating within democracies must listen to a large and heterogeneous population. Thus, spending should be more universal than merely targeted to particular groups.

This is based, in part, on the median voter theory. This theory says that people are rational actors seeking to maximize benefits: parties want to win elections and thus end up proposing economic redistribution policies that benefit the median voter.

Democracies allow substantial bargaining power of labor — unions— that they can use to extract wages and other resources that reduce economic inequality.

DALL-E: “Photograph of Vote and Money”

Economic Redistribution Stopped Reducing Economic Inequality in the 1970s

Inequality did fall during the initial period of universal suffrage. But things changed dramatically during the 20th Century. As Piketty’s U-shaped graphs of economic inequality show, inequality declined, and then, in the 1970s, it rose.

Why the U turn? Unionization had helped to reduce economic inequality in the US, until the 1970s, when there was a great shift and a strong downturn in unionization. Some argue that the early 20th Century reduction in inequality was due to unusual circumstances. Once those circumstances ended, inequality resumed its normal upward path.

What were those circumstances? After the 1970s, there were major technological and economic changes:

Freeman’s Thesis: Vox Populi Lost Control over the Economy

Dena Freeman offers a different argument. She argues that the vox populi, the people in democracy, have lost control over the economic process. “Decisions regarding the organisation and functioning of economic matters,” Freeman writes, “have become less subject to democratic influence.”

In essence, democracy itself has changed, and not for the better.

Within the democratic process, people ceded control over the economy to private interests and the market, and thus lost political control over how the economy functions. This loss of control limits the policies that elected representatives can create and get through the legislative system.

The result, Freeman argues, is that “economic policies have increasingly been made in the interests of capital and the class compromise of the post-war period has been undermined.”

Neoliberalism and Democracy

Freeman blames neoliberalism. The economic crises of the 1970s introduced a change in economic ideology toward what would be called, “neoliberalism.” In neoliberalism, the economy is self-regulating, and thus the state should leave it alone. According to Freeman, Hayek’s “ideas about constitutional limits to democracy were effectively ways to ensure that the economic sphere would be carefully insulated from the demos and thus that democracy’s redistributive threat would be neutralized.” The economy should be lightly managed by experts and technocrats whose prime directive is to let the market dictate its own future.

Neoliberalism demands free markets that spread across the world. The free movement of capital around the world accelerated after the 1970s. The rich got richer and hid their wealth in tax havens.

Monetary Policy, Trade Agreements, and Democracy

Independent central banks that set monetary policy are out of the control of vox populi.  “Monetary policy is instead increasingly governed by the financial markets and the interests of financial capital,” writes Freeman. Policy is a tug of war between the interests of capital and the interests of labor, and capital is winning.

International trade agreements can create enduring and hard-to-revoke rights of capital in terms of strengthening property rights; these rights are designed to outlast the government that signed on to them, to endure as democratic elections produce new governments. Trade agreements can impose harsh penalties on governments that try to reverse the policy.

International Financial Institutions and Democracy

International Financial Institutions (IFIs) – G7 and G20, World Economic Forum, etc. – are global organizations that are not representative of all of the countries that they impact. Membership is based on invitation only, and the wealthy elite are the ones who control the invitations. These institutions define the space in which policies are discussed and decisions are made.

This restricts the policy options available to individual nations for a few reasons: The elite nations:

  • are deeply committed to neoliberalism and the global trade agreements that restrict national policies that could deal with within-nation income inequality;
  • promote international competition for international corporations to locate their businesses there (e.g. low corporate tax rates);
  • favor policies that promote economic growth instead of social welfare.

“In the post-1970s” Freeman writes, “firms and their interest associations have lobbied governments for rollbacks and efficiency-oriented reforms in national systems of social protection. They have argued that social programmes negatively affect profits, investment, and job creation and they have also used the threat of relocation to more favourable environments in order to put pressure on domestic policymakers.”

Rich countries have tools to resist these changes. Poor countries do not. As a result, the developing poor countries reduce public spending and take loans from the IMF and others to pay for what public spending they do.

The consequence is a spiral of debt and loans and more debt that reduces what little political leverage these countries have to change the policies of global finance. In addition, this debt is increasingly financialized, “packaged and repackaged in different forms of securities and traded on the bond market.” Thus, poor developing countries have a difficult time renegotiating and managing their debt with the rich countries.

In the mid-1970s, rich democracies decided to limit vox populi on their democratic control over the economic system and the distribution of economic resources, especially over social welfare.

“Two new approaches were developed at this time – New Public Management Theory (NPM) and Governance theory. Both promoted their changes in the name of costcutting and efficiency. NPM can be seen as an extension of neoliberal theory as applied to the public sector. It calls for governments to embrace private sector management strategies.”

While the de-centralization of decision making within governments over economic matters can be seen as, on paper, more democratic, it ignores the basic problem of political inequality:

“While some have argued that this new form of policy-making is in fact more democratic than top-down government – because a wider range of stakeholders are involved, including also NGOs, consumer groups and other elements of civil society – it must be remembered that the resources available to large companies, TNCs and business associations to engage in these processes is far, far greater than that available to civil society groups, many of which are poorly funded and under-resourced. As one commentator noted, it is like lining up rowing boats against battle ships. Rather the shift to decision-making in multi-stakeholder policy networks has led to an increased representation of the private sector, and thus of capital, in the policy making process.”

Summary and Conclusion

Democracy was supposed to reduce economic inequality through economic redistribution to the masses. As the masses allow the elite to become representatives, the representatives were supposed to allow political control over the economic policies that make sure redistribution works.

This worked, until the 1970s. After then, there were large scale changes to the economy. There was a technological change that rewarded a small group of workers. Growing automation will only accelerate this trend. CEO compensation went through the roof. And the rules of global finance, accelerated through neoliberalism, made it easier to move money around the world, incentivizing the wealthy to hide their wealth (Panama Papers) and create tax havens (Pandora Papers).

Freeman argues that the people mentioned in “We the people” — vox populi — have lost political control over the economy. Democracy outsourced knowledge on financialization to the market and to political appointees who believe in the power of markets.

The result is the inequality grows, and democracy does little to stop it.

Further Reading

Acemoglu, Daron and James Robinson. 2008. Persistence of Power, Elites and Institutions. American Economic Review, 98: 267-291.

Boix, Carles. 2003. Democracy and Redistribution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brady, David, Beckfield, Jason & Wei Zhao. 2007. The Consequences of Economic Globalization for Affluent Democracies. Annual Review of Sociology, 33: 313-334.

Freeman, John, and Dennis Quinn. 2012. The Economic Origins of Democracy Reconsidered. American Political Science Review, 106: 58–80

Gradstein, Mark and Milanovic Branko. 2004. Does Liberte = Egalite? A Survey of the Empirical Links between Democracy and Inequality with some evidence on the Transition Economies. Journal of Economic Surveys, 18,4: 515-537

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty First Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (trans: Arthur Goldhammer)

Timmons, Jeffrey. 2010. Does Democracy Reduce Economic Inequality? British Journal of Political Science, 40, 4: 741-757.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow Politicalinequality.org 2022

  1. Why does economic inequality rise in democracies?
    1. Rising Inequality in Democracy: Elite Distribution and Voting Suffrage
    2. Economic Redistribution Stopped Reducing Economic Inequality in the 1970s
    3. Freeman’s Thesis: Vox Populi Lost Control over the Economy
      1. Neoliberalism and Democracy
      2. Monetary Policy, Trade Agreements, and Democracy
      3. International Financial Institutions and Democracy
    4. Summary and Conclusion

Notes on Manza’s Essay “Political Inequality”

Social Scientist Jeff Manza Explored Political Inequality

Social scientist Jeff Manza wrote an article for Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences on “Political Inequality” (2015).

This post, in politicalinequality.org, provides notes and critique of Jeff Manza’s article.

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).

DALL-E generated picture: “Basquiat painting of money and voice”

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)

However, nations can do many things to protect themselves from the pernicious effects of globalization while attempting to reap benefits. Globalization does not necessarily lead to an increase in political inequality. Again, it is worth pointing out that Manza does not specify “political inequality of what?”, and thus he cannot point out any mechanism of globalization that would impact political inequality.

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)

Further Reading

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.


Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives Edited by Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow, Routledge – 2014.

Lopez, Matias and Joshua K. Dubrow. 2020. “Politics and Inequality in Comparative Perspective: A Research Agenda.” American Behavioral Scientist 64(9): 1199 – 1210.

Schakel, Wouter, and Brian Burgoon. “The party road to representation: Unequal responsiveness in party platforms.” European Journal of Political Research 61, no. 2 (2022): 304-325.

Party Issue Positions and Legislative Actions on Corruption in Ukraine, 2002 – 2017

by Nika Palaguta, Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences

This research was funded by the Preludium grant of the National Science Centre, Poland [Narodowe Centrum Nauki]. Project number: 2017/25/N/HS6/01174. Project Name: Influence of party ideology and characteristics of parliamentarians on legislative actions on war, corruption and inequality in Ukraine [Wpływ ideologii partii i charakterystyk parlamentarzystów na działania ustawodawcze w sprawie wojny, korupcji i nierówności na Ukrainie].

What is corruption?

The most widely known definition of corruption is “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain” (Holmes 2015). Transparency International suggests three types of corruption: grand, petty and political. Grand corruption is a type of corruption happening on the highest levels of power and disrupting the functioning of state institutions; petty corruption is a small scale corruption that occurs among lower level state officials; political corruption, in contrast, is a manipulation of policies and rules for personal gain (Transparency International).

Corruption in Ukraine until Euromaidan

Corruption has been endemic in Ukraine since the country gained independence in 1991. Due to lack of government control on the initial stage of independence, corruption in Ukraine has become ubiquitous (Kalman 2004, Spector et al. 2006). After Euromaidan 2013/2014, when the country faced large-scale protests against attempts of implementation of authoritarian political practices by the dominant ruling party, the government officials should have started to implement some new anti-corruption legislation complying with the international norms (Fluri and Badrak 2016).

Ideology of Political Parties in Ukraine

Ideological positions expressed in electoral manifestos of political parties should be an indicator of the subsequent actions of the parliamentarians. Yet, when faced with countries with a weak party system, such as Ukraine (Kononchuk and Yiarosh 2010), the questions about the relevance of ideological positions for legislative action need to be revisited. Considering the last 25 years of electoral politics in Ukraine, the question arises as to the extent to which ideologies guide parties or the idea of “power for power’s sake” guides them. While there are more than 200 political parties in Ukraine, scholars suggest that major parties and blocs, and their parliamentarians, are more interested in the representation of business interests than that of the citizenry (Prymush 2014, Shveda 2012, Goniukova 2014, Kuzio 2014).

To study what Ukrainian political parties, blocs and parliamentarians in terms of their ideological positioning are inclined to embrace fight with corruption, I study electoral manifestos and legislative roll call voting on anti-corruption legislation in 2002 – 2017.

First, I measured ideological positions of political parties and blocs creating two scales of ideological positions (1) value positioning: conservative authoritarianism – liberalism; (2) economic positioning: state interventionism (statism) – economic liberalism.  In addition, the third scale measures positioning on the (3) populism scale: populism – pluralism. Then, to observe the link between issue position and legislative action, I used roll call voting data (the record of voting for each legislative act in the parliament) and parliamentary debates data.

To identify the legislation that deals with corruption, I use a targeted search using the key words: (a) corrupt (corruption) (“коруп”); (b) state serv… (state service) (“держ служб”); (c) publ… inform (publicly available information) (“публ інформац”). In total, I have collected 28 legislative acts. I merged the roll call voting data and coded manifesto data with EAST Pac Ukraine to (a) examine voting on particular legislative act and (b) construct multilevel cross-classified regression models exploring the associations between party ideological positions and voting for groups of legislative acts. I complemented the roll call voting data with the parliamentary debates data to study the motivation behind adoption of certain legislative acts and policies.  (1) East European Parliamentarian and Candidate Database (EAST PaC)[1] containing the universe of parties, candidates, and parliamentarians for national elective office in Ukraine (2002 – 2014).

Analyses and Results

I found that Ukrainian political parties and blocs pay attention to the issues related to corruption in their manifestos. Nonetheless, adoption of anti-corruption legislation has been slow so far: using the key-words search, I have identified 28 legislative acts dealing with corruption. The results of quantitative analysis show that Ukrainian there is a small (0.07) statistically significant association between populist parties and blocs and voting for the anti-corruption legislation: the more populist the party is the more the parliamentarians belonging to this party are inclined to support this type of legislation. Value positions (conservative authoritarianism – liberalism) and economic positions (statism – economic liberalism) show no statistically significant associations with voting for the anti-corruption legislation.


Overall, while the topic of corruption and adoption the anti-corruption legislation appears frequently in the manifestos of political parties and blocs, parliamentarians are reluctant to support implementation of necessary legislation regardless of their ideological positions.


Fluri, Philipp and Valentyn Badrak. 2016. Anti-Corruption Measures in Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity: Key Legislative Aspects, Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, Kyiv.

Goniukova, Lilia. 2014. ‘Political Parties in Ukraine: Modernity and Development Prospects’ [Політичні партії України: сучасність та перспективи розвитку]. Information-analytical edition ‘Analitical Notes’ [Аналітичні записки], Democratic Intitiatives Fundation of Ilka Kucherev [Демократичні ініціативи імені Ілька Кучеріва].

Kalman, Alexander G. 2004. Organized Economic Crime and Corruption in Ukraine 2004. The Report by U.S. Department of Justice.

Kononchuk, Svitlana and Oleh Yiarosh. 2010. Ukrainian Party System: Ideological Dimension. Kyiv: Ukrainian Independent Center for Political Studies.

Kuzio, Taras. 2014. ‘Re-evaluating democratic revolutions, nationalism and organized crime in Ukraine from a comparative perspective. Introduction,’ Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 47 (2): 191-193.

Prymush, Mykola. 2014. ‘Ideological crisis of Ukrainian Political Parties’, Bulletin of National Law Academy (of Yaroslaw Mudrii) of Ukraine 1: 195-202.

Spector, Bertram I., Svetlana Winbourne, Jerry O’Brien and Eric Rudenshiold. 2006. Corruption Assessment: Ukraine. Final Report, World Bank.

Shveda Yurii. 2012. ‘Political parties or simulacra?’ Zaxid.net, May 29. Retrieved March 7, 2016 (http://zaxid.net/news/showNews.do?politichni_partiyi_chi_simulyakri&objectId=1256271)

[1] EAST PaC is a product of the research grant, “Who Wins and Who Loses in the Parliamentary Elections? From Formal Theory to Empirical Analysis,” funded by Poland’s National Science Centre (Sonata Bis decision number 2012/05/E/HS6/03556) PI: Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow.

Neoliberalism and Democracy

The planet earth swimming in an unreal sea of money

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

What is neoliberalism and how does it impact democracy?

Neoliberalism is based on the idea of ignoring fundamental human needs.

The success of neoliberal political strategies rests on a mixture of rhetoric and control of democracy’s major local and global institutions. It is also based on the erosion of the key actors and institutions that are the main underpinnings of contemporary democracies, such as pressure groups, civic organizations, and educational institutes.

In neoliberalism’s economic sphere, economic growth does not need to translate into growth of equality. Considering rising social, economic, and political inequalities, we are looking at abuse being taken for granted.

Table of Contents

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

Understanding Democracies’ Political Shift toward Neoliberalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neoliberalism and Four Dimensions of Democratic Organization

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

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Economic Sphere

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

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Social and Political Spheres

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

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

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Cultural Sphere

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

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

Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a guest post by Matias Lopez, Universidad Católica, Chile.

Do the elite care about inequality?

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.

The Problem of an Elite in Democracy

Latin America has some of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world, and it also has many democracies.

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.


  • 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?

Exploring Elites and Democracy in Latin America

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.

Stronger and more stable democracies tend to have more members of the elite concerned about inequality. This seems intuitive, since stronger democracies may have more to lose from the sort of social menaces that accompany extreme inequality.

But if concern over the perils of high inequality would, rationally speaking, lead the elite to act to reduce inequality, then my second finding is counter-intuitive:

I also found out that, by and large, the Latin American elite have little desire to lower the level of economic inequality.

Inequality, over the past decade, has decreased significantly in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Chile. I found that countries whose inequality dropped also have elite who show the highest levels of concern. Brazil is a very interesting case in this regard. The country’s inequality has recently fallen but remains among the highest in the world. As in other Latin American countries, Brazilian elites share concern over the problem of inequality, but do not feel that they should be part of the solution. For example, they are strongly averse to paying more taxes, as shown in the figure below.

Figure 1. Brazilian Elite Agreement with Further Social Investment and with Further Taxation


Source: USP 2008

Except for union leaders, all elite sectors in Brazil scored much higher for welfare spending than for taxation. Union leaders may believe that they will not be the ones paying extra taxes, as they often picture themselves as part of the working class, not the elite. Business elites seem to be aware that they would be preferential targets of taxation. On average, the elite do like the idea of increasing social welfare, as long as they are not asked to contribute more to it.


In sum, the elite often worry a lot about inequality. But they also feel that they get away with doing nothing substantive about it, and feel no need to sacrifice their own resources to end it.

This article is based on the chapter, “Elite Perception of Inequality as a Threat to Democracy in Six Latin American Countries,” in the book, Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives.

Matias Lopez is a PhD candidate in political science at the Universidad Católica, Chile. His research is on democratic stability in contexts of high inequality. He can be reached at matiaslopez.uy[at]gmail.com

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