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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Interview with Piotr Zagorski on Education and Support for Right-wing Populist Parties in Central and Eastern Europe

Piotr Zagorski and Andrés Santana, of Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain, recently presented their paper, “Voice or Exit: Education, Support for Right-wing Populist Parties, and Abstention in Central and Eastern Europe,” at the Politics and Inequality conference held December 2018 in Warsaw, Poland.

Piotr Zagórski is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Faculty of Law, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. He holds an MA in Sociology from Universidad de Granada. His research interests include electoral behavior with a special focus on turnout and comparative politics with an emphasis on European populist parties. Zagorski’s co author, Andrés Santana, is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Pompeu Fabra University, an MA in Sociology from the Juan March Institute, and a Graduate Degree in Data Analysis from the University of Essex. Dr. Santana has published in the European Sociological Review and Politics & Gender, among others, as well as several book chapters and books. His fields of interest are electoral behavior, populist parties, political elites, women’s representation, research methodology, and quantitative research techniques.

We asked Piotr Zagorski for an extended abstract of their Politics and Inequality conference paper and, via email, some questions about their research.

Extended Abstract of Zagorski and Santana

The growth in the success of populist parties in many developed democracies has prompted a parallel increase in the studies on the electoral sociology of right-wing populist parties (RPP) in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). However, the relationship between populism and turnout has been understudied in the literature. Existing scholarship fails to clarify whether voting for RPP and abstention are two largely interchangeable outcomes provoked by a common set of factors or two alternative courses of action undertaken by different types of individuals. If the former were true, RPP might be a corrective for democracy in terms of closing the representational gap for citizens whose preferences are unmet by the political supply of other parties. Thus, RPP might manage to reduce the existent political inequalities in political participation. This paper aims at examining the sociodemographic characteristics of those who vote for RPP and those who abstain, in comparison to those who cast their ballots for other parties. As education reduces the propensity of both voting for RPP and of abstention, we focus on explaining when low levels of education lead to voice (voting for RPP) and when do they increase the chances of exit (abstention). We estimate multinomial logistic regression models using cross-sectional data of the 2014 European Elections Study for 9 CEE countries. This approach enables us to show that education affects RPP voting and abstention differently. We find that, after taking into account anti-immigration attitudes and Euroscepticism, education has no independent effect on RPP support. Moreover, anti-immigrant and anti-EU attitudes do not mobilize highly educated citizens to cast a ballot for RPP. We also show that, although RPP are successful in drawing the low educated and anti-immigrant or Eurosceptic citizens to the polls, many of them choose to stay home on the election day.

Interview

The research co-authored with Andrés Santana that you presented at the Politics and Inequality conference was on voting for right wing populist parties in Central and Eastern Europe. How did you get interested in this topic? And how is this topic connected to other research that you are doing?

Nowadays it is quite hard to avoid to study populism in Political Science. Due to a remarkable number of papers presented on this topic during the last ECPR (European Consortium for Political Research) General Conference in Hamburg, the joke was that it should be renamed as “European Consortium for Populism Research”. Given the recent surge of populist parties and candidates around the world, it does not come as a surprise that political scientists try to understand and explain this phenomenon. From my own perspective, as I come from Poland, my interest in right-wing populist parties (RPP) in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is obviously related to the success of Law and Justice and its consequences for democracy in my homeland.

As we point out in the paper, research linking RPP voting with electoral turnout is scarce, especially for CEE. Both Andrés and I are passionate about studying electoral turnout. Andrés wrote his dissertation on the rational calculus of voting, and he is also one of the supervisors of my dissertation on electoral turnout in CEE. In this paper, we wanted to assess the connections between turnout and voting for populist parties. The rationale behind it was to see whether RPP can have a corrective effect on democracy, by reducing some of the political inequalities produced by the distinct levels of electoral participation among citizens with different social profiles. To put it differently: can voting for RPP and abstention be considered as two alternative courses of action (voice or exit, respectively) for citizens who do not find non-populist parties as attractive options?

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How Do Digital Technologies Impact Political Inequality?

Part I.

Digital technologies have enabled a dystopic political inequality where politics is possible for the few and impossible for the many. The way out is a variant on Timothy Leary’s life advice with a Luddite twist: Turn off the machines, tune out the information noise, and drop in to the homes of family and friends. The way forward is to pop the information bubble, re-connect with human beings, boycott the segmenters, and dare to be brave.

Please allow me to explain.

Voice & Response

Politics is a tool used to gain power over important decisions that impact our lives. This tool has two parts: Voice and Response.

Voice is how we express our political complaints, desires, demands, and interests to our fellow human beings across nations, to our fellow citizens within nations, and to government. Voice activates directly through what social scientists call “political participation,” such as public marches, writing letters to our representatives or to the media, boycotting products, and voluntarily organizing the political interests of particular groups, to name a few. We also activate our political voice indirectly via people and organizations that claim to carry our voice into government, such as parliamentarians, political parties, non-governmental organizations in civil society, and special independent arms of the government (the ombudsperson or special envoy, for example).

Response is what the decision-makers do with our voice. They can respond with mere symbols, such as declaring Black History Month to address institutional racism. They can respond with formal and informal policy initiatives.

We Are Politically Unequal

Today’s modern societies in which digital technology plays a starring role is characterized by political inequality. Political equality is the assumed foundation of modern democracy. Yet, everywhere there is democracy – indeed, everywhere there is politics – there is political inequality. Political inequality is structured differences in influence over government decisions and the outcomes of those decisions. It is inequality of voice and it is inequality of response.

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When Local Governments Protest

by Irina Tomescu-Dubrow and Joshua K. Dubrow, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences

Trump administration policies are inspiring mass protests. Yet, we have not seen local government protest – resolutions, ordinances, town hall proclamations – against Trump administration policy. The history of local gov’t protest suggests that we are due for a nation-wide protest.

The US Presidential election sparked protests across the nation: Mass demonstrations over immigration and refugee policies, pro-Trump rallies, town hall debates over health care, the Women’s March on Washington, and declarations of support for sanctuary cities, to name just a few. We have not seen such mass protests since the Tea Party in 2009.

The US has a long history of protests. Yet, local government protest (this is when city, town, or village governments vote on resolutions to symbolically denounce a federal policy) has not occurred on a large scale.

If history is our guide — and the conditions are ripe — then these protests are likely on the way.

What Is Local Government Protest?

In an article published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, we investigated local gov’t protest over the USA PATRIOT Act (United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001). The Patriot Act came as a direct response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and signed into law a little over a month later.

Patriotactsigning
President Bush signing the Patriot Act into law (photo by Eric Draper)

What’s interesting here is the scale of local government resistance to the Patriot Act.

On January 7, 2002, the city council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, passed a resolution condemning aspects of the Patriot Act and, among other things, urged local law enforcement officials to not enforce parts of the law that seemed in violation of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. The resolution stipulated that a copy be distributed to President Bush, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Michigan’s members of Congress. Two and a half months later, the city council of Denver, Colorado passed a similar resolution. Within four months of Denver, seven local governments from a diverse group of states, including Massachusetts and North Carolina, took similar actions. As of March 2005, close to 300 places (as defined by the US Census), 45 counties, and four states passed some form of resolution regarding perceived negative aspects of the Patriot Act.

This was one of the largest-scale local government protests against a singular federal action in US history.

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Elections during War: Political Inequality of Ukraine’s IDPs

by Dorota Woroniecka-Krzyżanowska, University of Lodz, and Nika Palaguta, Polish Academy of Sciences

By law, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) should enjoy all the relevant rights and freedoms guaranteed by the legal system. In a recent article in the Journal of Refugee Studies, the authors explain how IDPs living under military conflict in Ukraine suffer inequality under discriminatory legislation and practices that deny IDPs equal opportunities for electoral participation. The authors suggest solutions to this ongoing problem.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are citizens who, despite being forced to move, live within the boundaries of their own country. By law, IDPs should enjoy all the relevant rights and freedoms guaranteed by the legal system. In addition to any domestic laws, the rights and freedoms of internally displaced are reaffirmed by a set of internationally-recognized standards for assistance and protection to IDPs called the Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement. These Principles assert IDPs’ rights for full equality in their home country: this includes the right for political representation and participation.

The reality on the ground often falls short of the Principles, including discriminatory electoral legislation and practices across different geographical and political contexts.

The example of IDPs living under military conflict in Ukraine shows how discriminatory legislation and practices deny displaced persons equal opportunities for electoral participation.

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Political Inequality and the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine

by Olga Zelinska, Polish Academy of Sciences

It was the summer of 2013 and the people of Ukraine felt helpless. During this time of ‘soft authoritarianism,’ they saw rampant corruption while corporations and other business interests enjoyed a privileged place in the center of Ukrainian politics. The highly centralized state apparatus, controlled by one political and business ‘family’, made public influence over policy-making ineffective. Frustrated with meaningless mechanisms to participate in political decision-making and suffering from economic hardships, those unhappy with the status quo demanded social change with the contentious means.

While the right to political participation is guaranteed by the Constitution, Ukrainian democracy’s various mechanisms, such as public hearings or public councils, remained weak and did not bring the desired results.

The government’s order to reverse the foreign policy course on European integration was a last straw. Ukrainians marched onto public squares in Kyiv and in towns and villages throughout the nation. It was the Maidan protest movement, and what was called the Revolution of Dignity.

By Helgi - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29821993
By Helgi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29821993

I analyzed 94 resolutions issued by local Maidans in the 57 cities and towns of the country. I asked three main questions:

(1) How did the claimants identify themselves and their actions?
(2) How did they justify their actions?
(3) What did the claimants want?

My analysis suggests that the Revolution of Dignity was not only about European integration or the impeachment of Ukrainian President Yanukovych. I found that:

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Voices in Opposition: Political Participation of Xenophobes and the Ethnically Discriminated in Europe

by Irina Tomescu-Dubrow, Polish Academy of Sciences and Kazimierz M. Slomczynski, The Ohio State University

In an inclusive and tolerant society that values political equality, expression of political voice is supposed to be open to everyone.

Let’s consider those who feel discriminated for their ethnicity and those who espouse anti-immigrant attitudes, i.e. xenophobes – two groups at the heart of the socio-cultural cleavage common in European democracies. We define the ethno-discriminated as people who feel they were discriminated against based on their culture, ethnicity, religion or language. We define xenophobes as individuals who express the views that immigrants damage the economic, cultural and social fabric of the receiving country.

Ethno-discriminated and xenophobes can be seen as extremes, and form, in principle, minorities in opposition to each other. Yet, scholars have analyzed these groups’ political behaviors separately, that is, either for ethnic minorities, or for persons with anti-immigrant attitudes. Moreover, far more attention is given to ethnic minority participation.

We used the European Social Survey 2012 to examine how these groups engage with two complementary expressions of political voice: attitudes toward key democratic institutions, and political participation.

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