Gender Quotas in Politics

Gender quotas in politics are rules that aim at providing opportunities for women to be in parliament or to appear on candidate lists in elections for political office.

In this post, we discuss the types of gender quotas in politics, how parliaments in democracy adopt quotas, whether they are effective in placing more women in positions of power, and the consequences of gender quotas for democracy and society.

At a glance

  1. Types of Gender Quotas
  2. How are quotas adopted?
  3. Are gender quotas in politics effective?
  4. What are the consequences of gender quotas for politics and society?
  5. Conclusion: Gender Quotas in Politics Matter

Types of Gender Quotas

There is some form of quota in almost every European country, but the form of the quota varies by the country’s socio-cultural context, its fit with the electoral system, whether it is for candidate lists or seats in parliament, how and by how much the candidate list should be structured, and if it is for local, national, or European Parliament elections, to name a few dimensions.

The plethora of dimensions to quota policies worldwide has led scholars to pragmatically declare that if we want to study quota causes and consequences, we should match specific definitions to relevant research questions (e.g. Krook 2014: 10).

To simplify but not terribly over-simplify matters, we can say that in Europe there are a few main gender quota types.

Reserved Seats

This is a set percentage or seat allocation for women.

Legislative or Electoral law quotas

Quotas are mandated by a specific electoral or constitutional law about the form of quotas and, perhaps, how they are implemented and enforced.

Voluntary party quotas

Political parties adopt quotas within their own party organization, but are not compelled by a national law of any kind to do so.

Reserved seats directly place women into parliament and are rare. Legislative and voluntary quotas are about increasing the number of women as candidates and are popular.

How are quotas adopted?

There are so many types of quotas and quota regimes that there is no one path to this policy. The main, interlacing factors to consider are the:

  • Form of the quota (reserved seat, legislative, or voluntary party quota);
  • National and transnational factors and actors, including their motivations (e.g. activists, NGOs, and parties);
  • Extent to which the quota push was top-down (i.e. elite driven) or bottom-up (mass or interest group driven);
  • Historical context (Krook 2006, 2007; Dahlerup and Antic Gaber 2017).

Scholars consider women and women’s interest groups in the form of activist organizations, NGOs, INGOs, and WINGOs, as important mobilizing forces that move quotas from idea to reality (Krook 2007; Tripp and Kang 2008; Hughes et al 2017).

At the same time, the political elite may see electoral advantages for quota adoption (for themselves or for their party) or are simply driven by the equality principle behind it (Krook 2007; Caul 2001). Indeed, Poland’s adoption of a legislative gender quota was a result of simultaneous bottom-up and top-down approaches as women’s groups among activists and NGOs coordinated with a group of women from the Sejm (Króliczek 2012; Gwiazda 2015; Fuszara 2017; Śledzińska-Simon and Bodnar 2013).

A main path has been the transnational diffusion of both quota policy and implementation ideas (Krook 2006; Hughes et al 2015). International bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union have, through democracy promotion policies that encourage Western notions of gender equality norms, played an important role in the diffusion of gender quotas, especially for developing countries and EU hopefuls (Krook and O’Brien 2010; Bush 2011; Rosen 2017). Late adopters to quotas follow the trail left by early adopters: the proliferation of quotas has led to the greater proliferation of quotas (Paxton and Hughes 2015).

The path toward gender quota policy is neither smooth nor straight as parties and parliamentarians have sought to deny access and entry (Krook 2016; Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2010). Access and entry are controlled, in part, by leftist parties who tend to support quota adoption and, once in office, attempt to legislate them into existence (Caul 2001). Leftist encouragement is a long-standing factor, but in South East Europe, some centrist and rightist parties have outpaced the left in promoting women in parliament (Rashkova and Zankina 2017).

Parties matter. Party ideology is important but it does not explain everything. Party pragmatism in terms of how quotas can benefit party electoral success is another powerful explanation (Murray et al 2012). A pragmatic perspective sees parties as cost-benefit electoral calculators where ideology plays second fiddle to gaining seats by any means at their disposal.

Are gender quotas in politics effective?

As to whether quotas put more women in office, the answer is yes, clearly, electoral quotas lead to more women in parliament.

“Yet,” Krook (2106) reminds us, “in the vast majority of cases, elections produce lower – sometimes much lower – numbers of women in parliament than the proportions identified in quota policies” (268). 

Numeric gain depends on the electoral system (Paxton et al 2007), but a more important factor is where women are placed on the ballot and the enforcement of the policy (Schwindt-Bayer 2009).

As with all things, intersectionality matters. Gender intersects with ethnicity and other potential points of advantage and disadvantage as personal identities can translate into experiences of inequality. Much of the quotas and intersectionality literature is on gender and ethnicity. The ethnic situation and other aspects of the power structure combine to make gender quotas more or less effective for women of particular intersections (Hughes 2011; Celis et al 2014).

Murray et al’s (2012) “pragmatic parties” may see and act on the advantages of gender quotas, but parties seeking diversity in their candidate lists may select ethnic minority women over ethnic minority men (Celis et al 2014). The particular effect of quota regime on a particular intersection depends on the form of the quota (see Hughes 2011: Table 5, p. 616).

For example, voluntary party quotas are more likely to place ethnic majority women in parliament than they are to place ethnic minority women or men (Hughes 2011), whereas legislated quotas help ethnic majority women more, but also help ethnic minority women to a non-trivial degree. As Hughes (2011: 616) states: “… quotas designed to increase the representation of one marginalized group appear to come often at the expense of other marginalized groups, rather than majority men.”  

What are the consequences of gender quotas for politics and society?

Another view of “effective” is beyond seat gains and toward other consequences. Parliamentary seats for women are one gain, but for implementing gender quota policies, there are other possible gains. Those gains are largely connected with how the political, economic, and social landscape changes when exposed to the need and pressure to place women into powerful positions. The changes beyond seat attainment are context-dependent and are not often explicitly stated in the text of quota policies.

In sum, quotas are effective in that they open the political gate for more women, but the exact consequence is not always in the way the policy explicitly states. 

While parties may be reluctant to change, the combined push for quotas and the adoption of quota policy pressures the parties themselves to change. Parties change by taking gender equality seriously: “The main effect of properly implemented quota systems,” Dahlerup (2007) writes, “is that they make the political parties start recruiting women in a serious way” (88). In the early stages of the policy, however, quotas may not be enough to take down and remake male dominated party structures (Verge and De la Fuente 2014).

Quotas also impact the composition of parliaments and the policy they discuss. While the obvious effect is greater gender diversity, gender quotas may also make the European Parliament a more inclusive place by reducing differences in legislative experience (Aldrich and Daniel 2019).

Case studies of Italy (Baltrunaite 2014), Sweden (Besley et al 2017), and Germany (Xydias 2007) have shown how quotas can change parliament. In direct contrast to rhetorical fears that the so-called “quota women,” who were elected with the assistance of quotas, would be inferior in terms of qualifications, the latest social science evidence shows that they are no different than any other parliamentarian (Allen et al 2016; see also Nugent and Krook 2015).

Quotas have a larger societal effect by opening new doors for women in other realms of social life.

Gender quotas in parliament lead to more women in leadership positions throughout the political structure (O’Brien and Rickne 2016). They also lead to a growth in the acceptance of women in politics and other occupations. France, for example, moved from being strongly against gender quotas, to reluctantly passing a gender quota electoral law, to rapidly expanding toward gender quotas in other occupations – all within just two decades (Lépinard 2016).

The gender quota literature has expanded from quotas in politics to quotas in corporations (e.g. Hughes et al 2017; Meier 2013). The societal result of quotas is that women attain positions of power that society had long deemed out of bounds (Meier and Lombardo 2013; Xydias 2014). 

Conclusion: Gender Quotas in Politics Matter

  • While there are many definitions of gender quotas, scholars identify three main types: reserved seat, electoral (i.e. legislated), and voluntary party.
  • The paths to implementation wind according to the type of quota and the political and social context of the quota push.
  • Quotas are effective, but they tend to put more ethnic majority women in parliament.
  • The effectiveness does not stop there: quotas, by placing more women in places of power, lead to changes in parliament and parties, to new legislation that benefit women, and to transformation of the society in general.

This was based on the book chapter, “An Introduction to Gender Quotas in Europe,” by Joshua K. Dubrow and Adrianna Zabrzewska.

Readings: Gender Quotas in Politics

Aldrich, Andrea S., and William T. Daniel. “The Consequences of Quotas: Assessing the Effect of Varied Gender Quotas on Legislator Experience in the European Parliament.” Politics & Gender (2019): 1-30.

Allen, Peter, David Cutts, and Rosie Campbell. “Measuring the quality of politicians elected by gender quotas–are they any different?.” Political Studies 64, no. 1 (2016): 143-163.

Ballington, Julie, and Francesca Binda, eds. “The implementation of quotas: European experiences.” International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, IDEA, in collaboration with European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity, 2006.

Baltrunaite, Audinga, Piera Bello, Alessandra Casarico, and Paola Profeta. “Gender Quotas and the Quality of Politicians.” Journal of Public Economics 118 (2014): 62-74.

Besley, Timothy, Olle Folke, Torsten Persson, and Johanna Rickne. “Gender quotas and the crisis of the mediocre man: Theory and evidence from Sweden.” American Economic Review 107, no. 8 (2017): 2204-42.

Bush, Sarah Sunn. “International politics and the spread of quotas for women in legislatures.” International Organization 65, no. 1 (2011): 103-137.

Caul, Miki. “Political parties and the adoption of candidate gender quotas: A cross–national analysis.” Journal of Politics 63, no. 4 (2001): 1214-1229.

Celis, Karen, Mona Lena Krook, and Petra Meier. “The rise of gender quota laws: Expanding the spectrum of determinants for electoral reform.” West European Politics 34, no. 3 (2011): 514-530.

Celis, Karen, Silvia Erzeel, Liza Mügge, and Alyt Damstra. “Quotas and intersectionality: Ethnicity and gender in candidate selection.” International Political Science Review 35, no. 1 (2014): 41-54.

Chiru, Mihail, and Marina Popescu. “The Value of Legislative Versus Electoral Experience and Gender in Explaining Candidate List Placement in Closed-List PR.” Problems of Post-Communism 64, no. 2 (2017): 65-78.

Constantinescu, Sorana. “Gender quotas in Romania-A critical overview of the debate.” Europolis, Journal Of Political Science And Theory 10, no. 10 (2) (2016): 169-185.

Dahlerup, Drude, and Milica Antic Gaber. “The legitimacy and effectiveness of gender quotas in politics in CE Europe.” Teorija in Praksa 54, no. 2 (2017): 307.

Dahlerup, Drude, ed. Women, Quotas and Politics. Routledge, 2013.

Dahlerup, Drude, and Lenita Freidenvall. Electoral gender quota systems and their implementation in Europe. European Parliament, 2011.

Dahlerup, Drude, and Lenita Freidenvall. “Judging gender quotas: predictions and results.” Policy & Politics 38, no. 3 (2010): 407-425.

Dahlerup, Drude. “Electoral gender quotas: Between equality of opportunity and equality of result.” Representation 43, no. 2 (2007): 73-92.

Dean, Laura A., and Pedro AG Dos Santos. “The Implications of Gender Quotas In Ukraine: A Case Study of Legislated Candidate Quotas in Eastern Europe’s Most Precarious Democracy.” Teorija in Praksa 54, no. 2 (2017): 355.

Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf. “Dynamics of political inequality of voice: Romanian and Polish women’s parliamentary representation since 1945.” Studia Universitatis Babes-Bolyai-Sociologia 57, no. 1 (2012): 3-25.

Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf. “The importance of party ideology: Explaining parliamentarian support for political party gender quotas in Eastern Europe.” Party Politics 17, no. 5 (2011): 561-579.

Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf, and Dorota Woroniecka. “Polish Parliamentarian Attitudes toward Gender Equality and Gender Quotas: National and European Influences.” National and European (2010): 125-148.

Franceschet, Susan , Mona Lena Krook, and Jennifer M. Piscopo. The Impact of Gender Quotas. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Fuszara, Małgorzata. “Poland – A Success Story? Political History of Introducing Gender Quota in Post-Communist Poland.” Teorija in Praksa 54, no. 2 (2017): 317.

Galligan, Yvonne, and Sara Clavero. “Prospects for women’s legislative representation in postsocialist Europe: The views of female politicians.” Gender & Society 22, no. 2 (2008): 149-171.

Gendźwiłł, Adam, and Tomasz Żółtak. “Do Parties and Voters Counteract Quota Regulations? The Impact of Legislative Gender Quotas on Ballot Ranking and Preference Voting in Poland.” Politics & Gender (2019): 1-31.

Górecki, Maciej A., and Paula Kukołowicz. “Gender quotas, candidate background and the election of women: A paradox of gender quotas in open-list proportional representation systems.” Electoral Studies 36 (2014): 65-80.

Gwiazda, Anna. “Women in parliament: assessing the effectiveness of gender quotas in Poland.” The Journal of Legislative Studies 23, no. 3 (2017): 326-347.

Gwiazda, Anna. “Women’s representation and gender quotas: the case of the Polish parliament.” Democratization 22, no. 4 (2015): 679-697.

Hughes, Melanie M. “Intersectionality, quotas, and minority women’s political representation worldwide.” American Political Science Review 105, no. 3 (2011): 604-620.

Hughes, Melanie M., Mona Lena Krook, and Pamela Paxton. “Transnational women’s activism and the global diffusion of gender quotas.” International Studies Quarterly 59, no. 2 (2015): 357-372.

Hughes, Melanie M., Pamela Paxton, Amanda B. Clayton, and Pär Zetterberg. “Global gender quota adoption, implementation, and reform.” Comparative Politics 51, no. 2 (2019): 219-238.

Hughes, Melanie M., Pamela Paxton, Amanda Clayton, and Pär Zetterberg. 2017. Quota Adoption and Reform Over Time (QAROT), 1947-2015. [Computer file]. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor],

Hughes, Melanie M., Pamela Paxton, and Mona Lena Krook. “Gender quotas for legislatures and corporate boards.” Annual Review of Sociology 43 (2017): 331-352.

Jankowski, Michael, and Kamil Marcinkiewicz. “Ineffective and Counterproductive? The Impact of Gender Quotas in Open-List Proportional Representation Systems.” Politics & Gender (2017): 1-33.

Króliczek, Karolina. “The Feminist Way Forward: Gender Quota Policy in Poland.” PhD diss., PhD thesis, Department of Politics, University of York, 2012.

Krook, Mona Lena, and Pär Zetterberg, eds. Gender Quotas and Women’s Representation: New Directions in Research. Routledge, 2017.

Krook, Mona Lena. “Contesting gender quotas: dynamics of resistance.” Politics, Groups, and Identities 4, no. 2 (2016): 268-283.

Krook, Mona Lena. “Electoral gender quotas: A conceptual analysis.” Comparative Political Studies 47, no. 9 (2014): 1268-1293.

Krook, Mona Lena, and Pär Zetterberg. “Electoral quotas and political representation: Comparative perspectives.” International Political Science Review 35, no. 1 (2014): 3-11.

Krook, Mona Lena, and Diana Z. O’Brien. “The politics of group representation: Quotas for women and minorities worldwide.” Comparative Politics 42, no. 3 (2010): 253-272.

Krook, Mona Lena. Quotas for women in politics: Gender and candidate selection reform worldwide. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Krook, Mona Lena, Joni Lovenduski, and Judith Squires. “Gender quotas and models of political citizenship.” British Journal of Political Science 39, no. 4 (2009): 781-803.

Krook, Mona Lena. “Candidate gender quotas: A framework for analysis.” European Journal of Political Research 46, no. 3 (2007): 367-394.

Krook, Mona Lena. “Reforming representation: The diffusion of candidate gender quotas worldwide.” Politics & Gender 2, no. 3 (2006): 303-327.

Kukołowicz, Paula. “Do voters read gender? Stereotypes as voting cues in electoral settings.” Polish Sociological Review 182, no. 2 (2013): 223-238.

Lépinard, Éléonore, and Ruth Rubio-Marín. Transforming Gender Citizenship. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Lépinard, Éléonore. “From breaking the rule to making the rules: the adoption, entrenchment, and diffusion of gender quotas in France.” Politics, Groups, and Identities 4, no. 2 (2016): 231-245.

Matland, Richard E. Women’s access to political power in post-communist Europe. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Meier, Petra, and Emanuela Lombardo. “Gender quotas, gender mainstreaming and gender relations in politics.” Political Science 65, no. 1 (2013): 46-62.

Meier, Petra. “Quotas, quotas everywhere: From party regulations to gender quotas for corporate management boards. Another case of contagion.” Representation 49, no. 4 (2013): 453-466.

Millard, Frances. “Not much happened: The impact of gender quotas in Poland.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 47, no. 1 (2014): 1-11.

Murray, Rainbow, Mona Lena Krook, and Katherine AR Opello. “Why are gender quotas adopted? Party pragmatism and parity in France.” Political Research Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2012): 529-543.

Murray, Rainbow. Parties, Gender Quotas and Candidate Selection in France. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.

Nugent, Mary K., and Mona Lena Krook. “All-women shortlists: myths and realities.” Parliamentary Affairs 69, no. 1 (2015): 115-135.

O’Brien, Diana Z., and Johanna Rickne. “Gender quotas and women’s political leadership.” American Political Science Review 110, no. 1 (2016): 112-126.

Paxton, Pamela, and Melanie M. Hughes. “The increasing effectiveness of national gender quotas, 1990–2010.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 40, no. 3 (2015): 331-362.

Rashkova, Ekaterina R., and Emilia Zankina. “Ministerial Politics in Southeastern Europe: Appointment and Portfolio Allocation to Female Ministers.” Politics & Gender (2019): 1-29.

Rashkova, Ekaterina R., and Emilia Zankina. “Women in Politics in Eastern Europe: A Changing Outlook.” Women, Policy and Political Leadership (2015): 87.

Rashkova, Ekaterina R., and Emilia Zankina. “Women’s Representation in Politics in South Eastern Europe: Quotas and the Importance of Party Differences.” Teorija in Praksa 54, no. 2 (2017): 376-393.

Rosen, Jennifer. “Gender quotas for women in national politics: A comparative analysis across development thresholds.” Social science research 66 (2017): 82-101.

Schwindt‐Bayer, Leslie A. “Making quotas work: The effect of gender quota laws on the election of women.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 34, no. 1 (2009): 5-28.

Śledzińska-Simon, Anna, and Adam Bodnar. “Gender equality from beneath: electoral gender quotas in Poland.” Canadian Journal of Law & Society/La Revue Canadienne Droit et Société 28, no. 2 (2013): 151-168.

Tremblay, Manon, ed. Women and Legislative Representation: Electoral Systems, Political Parties, and Sex Quotas. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Tripp, Aili Mari, and Alice Kang. “The global impact of quotas: On the fast track to increased female legislative representation.” Comparative Political Studies 41, no. 3 (2008): 338-361.

Verge, Tània, and Ana Espírito-Santo. “Interactions between party and legislative quotas: candidate selection and quota compliance in Portugal and Spain.” Government and Opposition 51, no. 3 (2016): 416-439.

Verge, Tània, and María De la Fuente. “Playing with different cards: Party politics, gender quotas and women’s empowerment.” International Political Science Review 35, no. 1 (2014): 67-79.

Verloo, Mieke, ed. Varieties of opposition to gender equality in Europe. Routledge, 2018.

Xydias, Christina V. “Inviting more women to the party: gender quotas and women’s substantive representation in Germany.” International Journal of Sociology 37, no. 4 (2007): 52-66.

Xydias, Christina. “Women’s rights in Germany: generations and gender quotas.” Politics & Gender 10, no. 1 (2014): 4-32.

Further Reading: Major Books and Reports

Ballington, Julie, and Francesca Binda, eds. “The implementation of quotas: European experiences.” International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, IDEA, in collaboration with European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity, 2006.

Dahlerup, Drude, ed. Women, Quotas and Politics. Routledge, 2006.

Dahlerup, Drude, and Milica Antic Gaber. Gender Quotas in Politics in Central East Europe. University of Ljubljana, 2017.

Dahlerup, Drude, and Lenita Freidenvall. Electoral gender quota systems and their implementation in Europe. European Parliament, 2011.

Franceschet, Susan, Mona Lena Krook, and Jennifer M. Piscopo. The Impact of Gender Quotas. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Krook, Mona Lena, and Pär Zetterberg, eds. Gender Quotas and Women’s Representation: New Directions in Research. Routledge, 2017.

Krook, Mona Lena. Quotas for Women in Politics: Gender and Candidate Selection Reform Worldwide. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Lépinard, Éléonore, and Ruth Rubio-Marín, eds. Transforming Gender Citizenship. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Matland, Richard, and Kathleen Montgomery, eds. Women’s Access to Political Power in Post-Communist Europe. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Murray, Rainbow. Parties, Gender Quotas and Candidate Selection in France. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.

Tremblay, Manon, ed. Women and Legislative Representation: Electoral Systems, Political Parties, and Sex Quotas. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Verloo, Mieke, ed. Varieties of Opposition to Gender Equality in Europe. Routledge, 2018.

Visions of a Post-Pandemic Society via Street Protest in Poland: NCN Grant (2021/43/B/HS6/01155)

We are looking for a post-doctoral scholar and a graduate research assistant to be part of the research team led by dr. hab. Joshua K. Dubrow at IFiS PAN on the implementation of the international research project funded by the National Science Centre, Poland (2021/43/B/HS6/01155) entitled “The Construction of Post-Pandemic Society: Covid-19 Street Protest in Poland.” (see here for a popular description in Polish).

Post-doc announcement on the IFiS PAN website

Graduate Research Assistant announcement on the IFiS PAN website

About the NCN grant on post-pandemic society

Whereas theories in political sociology explain the causes of protest emergence, they do not explain well the consequences of protest. This is because many factors, besides protest, can lead to social change.

The Covid-19 pandemic challenges and pressures democratic institutions and social relations, and thus has been the subject of protests worldwide. The consequence of these challenges, pressures, and protests will be a post-pandemic society, but political sociology has yet to develop theories and methods to properly understand this near-future society’s form and direction.

This project makes the needed innovative leap that the actions and demands of street protest are subjective projections of the future, i.e. visions, which are a set of empirically observable paths toward social change. Protests, conducted by street-level actors, are attempted social constructions of reality. They reveal the hopes of social groups – e.g. various intersections consisting of precarious frontline occupations, women, and Covid skeptics, among others — and thus form a perceptual basis from which post-pandemic society will emerge.

Research questions

In this theory-driven qualitative project, we ask: In Poland, what are, and what drives, protesters’ visions of post-pandemic society?

How we will address the research questions

To address our research questions, we will construct and analyze a qualitative dataset that consists of the universe of protest events about the pandemic in Poland. We build these data from primary and secondary sources: extant protest event data, newspaper articles, and publicly available videos. From these sources we will construct detailed Protest Event Reports, from which we will extract the protestors’ visions of post-pandemic society. In addition, the project will interview ca. 20 representatives of NGOs in Poland on the Covid-19 protests and their visions of Polish society after the pandemic.

See also

Dall-E: Protesters holding signs, one line drawing

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

In a previous post, we discussed how the Varieties of Democracy “V-Dem” project measures “political equality.” V-Dem is an expert survey. They guide the expert-respondents’ attention to particular groups’ political equality. These groups are: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.

In this post, we discuss how they measure “Power distributed by gender.”

See also

Political Inequality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by socioeconomic position”

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

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

V-Dem: “Power distributed by gender”

V-Dem asks, “Is political power distributed according to gender?”

The two groups are men and women.

As with the others thus far, the scale ranges from zero to four, upwardly toward equality. The two groups are compared only with respect to “political power.”

The difference between (0) and (1) is slight. At (0), men have a “near-monopoly.” At step (1), men have a “dominant hold” and women have “marginal influence” (note the conflation of the terms, power and influence). The difference between (1) and (2) is also slight. At Step (2) men have much more than women, which I guess is somewhat less than a “dominant hold.”

Only at Step (3) do we see a clearer difference, where men have “somewhat more.”

Finally, at Step (4), we do not have complete equality, but “roughly equal” amounts.

Apparently, according to V-Dem, that is the highest level of gender equality society can aspire to.

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

In a previous post, we discussed how the Varieties of Democracy “V-Dem” project measures “political equality.” V-Dem is an expert survey. They guide the expert-respondents’ attention to particular groups’ political equality. These groups are: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.

In this post, we discuss how they measure “Power distributed by sexual orientation.”

Political Inequality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by socioeconomic position”

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

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

V-Dem: “Power distributed by sexual orientation”

V-Dem creates two groups. Group (A) are the “heterosexuals” and “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) members of the polity who are not open about their sexuality.” Group (B) are LGBT who are open about their sexuality. V-Dem argues that these groups should be compared to one another in terms of their political power.

I do not follow the logic of the next two sentences: “Note that in comparing the political power of these two groups we are comparing their power per person. So, when we say that LGBT have less, equal, or more power than heterosexuals we mean relative to their share of the population (as near as this can be estimated).” What is “power per person”? Next, they argue that the LGBT should be compared to heterosexuals “relative to their share of the population.” Who does “their” refer to? Does it refer to Group A or Group B?

Step (0) is total exclusion except for voting (which “may” be). Step (1) is that LGBT has “much less power” but they can vote. Here, V-Dem introduces the term, “informal norms” to their political equality measure. These norms serve to keep LGBT from power. It can be argued that the informal norms also keep the other groups (socioeconomic, social, and gender) out of power. Step (2) is simply relational, and does not include the information of Step (1); it simply states that the power differential is “somewhat less.”

It is in Step (3) that we get a glimpse of what they meant about “power per person.” Here, LGBT and heterosexuals have “about the same” amount of power, “that is roughly proportional to their population.” So, if one group is 10 percent and the other is 90 percent of the population, does that mean that the 10 percent is about the same amount of power as the 90 percent? Or does it mean that the 10 percent is surely less political power because they are a numerical minority, but they still have some substantial political power?

Step (4), “LGBTs enjoy somewhat more political power than heterosexuals by virtue of greater wealth, education, and high level of organization and mobilization,” is notable for two reasons. First, unlike the other items, Step (4) is not political equality utopia, but rather it is political inequality. It also introduces a mechanism for political equality: wealth, education, organization, and mobilization. These mechanisms are missing from the other measures.

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

In a previous post, we discussed how the Varieties of Democracy “V-Dem” project measures “political equality.” V-Dem is an expert survey. They guide the expert-respondents’ attention to particular groups’ political equality. These groups are: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.

In this post, we discuss how they measure “Power distributed by social group.”

See also

Political Equality as Measured by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), which includes “power distributed by socioeconomic groups”

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

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

V-Dem: “Power distributed by social group”

V-Dem tells the expert to focus on “caste, ethnicity, language, race, region, religion, or some combination thereof” but not sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. They say nothing about “gender” as constituting social groups, here, probably because it comes next (“Power distributed by gender”).

V-Dem does acknowledge intersectionality but do not dwell much on it. After the list of social groups, they include the intersectionality-esque phrase, “some combination thereof.” Next, they write that “Social group identities are also likely to cross-cut, so that a given person could be defined in multiple ways, i.e., as part of multiple groups.” The “cross-cut” can be construed as an intersection.

We should not make too much of their attempt at intersectionality, however. The concept of identity, critical to intersectionality research (see Hughes and Dubrow 2017) is lost when they mention only that people can “be defined,” and makes no mention of how people define themselves. The next word after that sentence (that starts the next sentence) is “nonetheless,” defined as “in spite of that,” and thus lessens the impact of a potential accounting for intersectionality.

Clearly, intersectionality is not V-Dem’s purpose for this item.

Again, this is a zero to four scale that starts with one social group monopolizing power, and that this monopoly does not often change (it is “institutionalized”). V-Dem refers to this powerful “social group” as a “minority:” “Political power is monopolized by one social group comprising a minority of the population.” Minority, as it is often used in the social sciences, is usually about the relative power, status, and resources of a social group; here, they might mean numerical minority.

The next level toward equality (1) is several social groups, also being minorities, and also enjoying an institutionalized monopoly on power. The difference between (1) and (2) is that the several social groups are now a “majority:” “Political power is monopolized by several social groups comprising a majority of the population.” It is hard to see this as a step up towards equality. Whether the group is a numerical minority or a numerical majority does not seem to matter much for the degree of power they have. Thus, I see it as not a step up, but a step different.

When we get to (3), we get a very different step:

“Either all social groups possess some political power, with some groups having more power than others; or different social groups alternate in power, with one group controlling much of the political power for a period of time, followed by another – but all significant groups have a turn at the seat of power.”

There are several issues with this formulation, both for quantitative approaches to intersectionality research that feature power structures, and for political equality studies in general. First, the phrase, “all social groups possess some political power” is problematic because while V-Dem does define political equality (as a distributional thing) they do not define political power. Certainly, if we take the interdependency approach to political inequality, as Piven and Cloward (2005), does, we see the power process as not merely distributional one, but between opposing political actors.

For a discussion, see Definining and Measuring Power Resources.

Second, for social groups’ distribution of power V-Dem introduces a time element:

“different social groups alternate in power, with one group controlling much of the political power for a period of time, followed by another,”

which might mean that some groups have power at one point in time, and that is followed by another group in another time period. This time element is missing from their set-up to the issue of political equality and does not appear in the other “Power distributed by…” items. It is hard to know what an expert is to make of the sudden introduction of time.

Third, they introduce the term, “significant group,” as in: “all significant groups have a turn at the seat of power.” Since time is now an element, when is a group significant? When they have the power? Can a group be significant and not hold power before? Again, I do not know how the experts can make sense of the item.

Finally, point (4) is a social group political equality utopia, where “Social group characteristics are not relevant to politics.” There has never been a society where there are social groups and also where (and when) this utopia exists.

Political Voice and Economic Inequality: Institutional Factors

We at the POLINQ project examined 18 quantitative cross-national articles by major scholars in the leading journals to develop a typology of institutional factors that influence the relationship between political voice and economic inequality. We comment on how scholars have measured these factors, or “concepts.”

At a glance

  1. Institutional Factors that Link Voice to Inequality
    1. Economic
    2. Education
    3. Elections
    4. Democracy
    5. Government Forms
    6. Governance
    7. Political Parties
    8. Social and Ecological Conditions
    9. Values
  2. List of the 18 Articles on Political Voice and Economic Inequality


Economic Development: What Dalton and van Sickle (2005) called a “resource environment,” researchers typically argue that higher levels of economic resources increase probability of political behavior. Some form of this argument is used in at least 14 of the 18 papers. It is usually measured with GDP per capita and various iterations (tied to 2000 USD, adjusted for differences in purchasing power, and so on). Scruggs and Stockemer (2009) referred to it as “national wealth” and Teorell et al (2007) referred to it as “level of economic modernization.”

Economic Growth: Greater growth means greater resources which should, in turn, boost political participation. It is measured with change in GDP. Dalton and van Sickle (2005) examined this and found it was not significantly associated with political behavior.

Economic Globalization: Crenshaw et al (2017) write: “The integration of countries into the world economy creates greater global notice of contention, more salient targets, and more access to potential third party allies, resources, and witnesses who might respond to contenders.” Various measures are used.

Economic Inequality: Various theories posit the link between voice and inequality. Economic inequality is also referred to as income inequality. Usually measured with gini and usually with Solt’s SWIID, and other times with World Bank or CIA Fact Book. Karakoc (2013) squared Gini to account for change in Gini and found that it can boost participation.

Social Expenditure: This Welfare state argument is put forward by Lancee and Van de Werfhorst (2012) who argued that increased social expenditure (the funding of the welfare state) should boost participation. In interaction with income, social expenditure reduces the impact of income and economic inequality on civic and social participation. We explored this in the POLINQ project.


Education: Coffe and Bolzendahl (2011) examined the effect of an education index (literacy rates and enrollment in schools) in analyzing the gender gap in political participation: “higher levels of education are positively related to women’s voter registration, and are marginally related to political contact.” Fornos et al (2004) used literacy and found it was not related to turnout in Latin America.

Educational Inequality: Found in Persson (2010): the effect of inequality varies by educational groups. There is a cross-national measure of educational inequality “Measuring Education Inequality: Gini Coefficients of Education for 140 countries, 1960-2000.”


Compulsory Voting: When people have to vote under penalty of law, turnout will be higher. Usually measured as a dummy (1 = compulsory, 0 = not).

Election Environment, e.,g. Election Year: Other forms of political participation are influenced by whether it is an election year. Solt (2015) found that signing petitions is lower in election years. See also Concurrent Elections: Turnout is higher when the presidential and the legislative elections are close in time (Fornos et al (2004)). See also Turnout: Greater turnout can influence other forms of turnout, but the direction is not clear. It can boost it in a “participative environment” or it can decrease it because voting is seen as primary form of behavior, the “only one you need,” and thus competes with other political behaviors. Stockemer (2014) did not find a significant effect. See also Founding Elections: The first election that is a break from authoritarian past should boost turnout. This is a significant factor.

Electoral Competition: Fornos et al (2004) argued that higher levels of competition means that people are intensely interested in voting and thus should turnout in higher numbers – this is not the case for Latin America. See also electoral disproportionality – when two parties have widely divergent seat shares, this depresses turnout. Scruggs and Stockmeyer (2009) also did not find a significant impact of competitiveness. They did find a significant effect on voting for the “decisiveness” of the election – when many seats are in play that could tilt the ideological balance of the legislature or government.

Electoral System: Scruggs and Stockemer (2009) argue that proportional representation systems encourage turnout because voter’s votes are more likely to produce an effect on party representation, and parties are more incentivized to encourage turnout. Majoritarian systems should have the opposite effect. They found that the effects are not significant. But, Solt (2015) found a negative effect of proportional representation systems on non-institutionalized forms of participation – when people see that proportional representation produces “more representative, consensual, and effective” governments, they tend to vote and not feel it necessary to engage in other forms. This seems similar to a “trust in institutions” argument.


Level of Democracy: The general idea is that democracies allow for a greater range of political expression of the kind asked about in surveys; the higher the level of democracy, the greater the level of political participation. This is usually measured with Freedom House, Polity, etc. The results are mixed. See also Rule of Law, measured with good governance indicators. The greater the rule of law, the greater the openness of the political opportunity structure. Generally, Rule of Law has a positive association with political participation.

Years of Democracy: The older the democracy, the more comfortable citizens feel to engage in lawful forms of participation. This is measured with old/new, in Europe it is post-communism/not post-communism (or, “experience with socialism”), or with number of years since the democratic transition. Some show no effect, some show that post-communism matters.

Government Forms

Unicameralism: Fornos et al (2004) argues that in unicameral legislatures, voters have a greater say in the ideological direction of the government with a single election and can easily see the ideological direction. Bicameral structures can obstruct legislation and make a less clear ideological governance situation. They find that it increases turnout in Latin America.

Bicameralism: Two-tiered legislatures produce more “access points” to the legislative arena and should boost participation. Solt (2015) found this for demonstrating, but not other forms. Persson (2010) found evidence for this for voting.

Federalism: Federalism decentralizes power and produces more “access points.” Some find that it boosts participation of various kinds, others find no effect. See also Horizontal Decentralization in which decentralized governments opens up the political opportunity structure. Vrablikova (2014) found that it increases non-electoral political behavior. See also Vrablikova (2014) Territorial Decentralization which opens multiple access points to influence – this has a positive impact on participation.

Presidentialism: Another “access point” theory, in which power is separated into government branches, and the president’s executive branch is separate from the parliament’s legislative branch. Solt (2008) found that it impacts participation, but Solt (2015) found that it did not in Europe. See also Parliamentarism that, for the same reason, boosts participation.


Good and Effective Governance: Perceptions of the quality of governance should boost participation. Coffe and Bolzendahl (2011) use Worldwide Governance Indicators WGI and do not find this to be the case. Welzel and Deutsch (2012) measure it with World Bank Voice and Accountability index and find a positive association.

Corruption: Some find that corruption (also, Clientelism) reduces turnout. Others find that low corruption reduces the gap between men and women in participation, but does not have a strong effect on participation in general.

Political Parties

Party Pluralism: The more parties, the more chances for mobilization for voting. Or, the more parties, the greater the difficulties in creating governing coalitions and thus the people turn to other forms of participation. See also Multipartyism. A usual measure is how many parties there are in the elections. Some find that it boosts some form of participation, others find that it has no effect. Some find that it has a negative impact on voting.

Party Polarization: With great polarization comes a lower ability to form governing coalitions which concentrates power in the hands of the wealthy. This should reduce turnout among the poor and middle class. Polarization is measured with party ideologies quantified and a distance measure between them. Jaime-Castillo (2009) found this to be the case. See also Extremism, measured with WVS left-right scale and aggregated to the country level – Dalton and Sickle (2005) found that extremism increases protest behavior.

Union Density: Like parties, unions seek to politically mobilize voters. Higher density leads to higher turnout, and attending a demonstration.

Social and Ecological Conditions

Ethnic Fractionalization: The greater the degree of ethnic heterogeneity, the greater the associational participation (Karakoc 2013).

Population: Some find that larger countries have greater turnout, some find no impact. Crenshaw et al (2017) argue that larger places have more resources, audience, and tensions that lead to contentious politics. They find that population is positively related to protest.

Urbanism: For the same reasons as population, urbanism should boost participation, but Fornos et al (2004) did not find this for Latin America.


Post-materialism and Emancipative Values: The greater the post-materialism, the greater the political participation. Some claim that this is the only variable that really matters.

List of the 18 Articles on Political Voice and Economic Inequality

Cicatiello, Lorenzo, Salvatore Ercolano, and Giuseppe Lucio Gaeta. 2015. “Income Distribution and Political Participation: A Multilevel Analysis.” Empirica 42: 447–479.

Coffe, Hilde, and Catherine Bolzendahl. 2011. “Gender Gaps in Political Participation Across Sub-Saharan African Nations.” Social Indicators Research 102: 245–264.

Crenshaw, Edward M., Kristopher K. Robison, and J. Craig Jenkins. 2017. “The Globalization of Political Contention:  The Effects of International Mass Media and Economic Globalization on Protest, Terrorism, and Warfare, 1976-2006.”

Dalton, Russell J., and Alix van Sickle. 2005. “The Resource, Structural, and Cultural Bases of Protest.” Center for the Study of Democracy UC Irvine.

Dalton, Russell, Alix van Sickle, and Steven Weldon. 2010. “The Individual–Institutional Nexus of Protest Behaviour.” British Journal of Political Science 40(1): 51–73.

Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf, Kazimierz M. Slomczynski, and Irina Tomescu-Dubrow. 2008. “Effects of Democracy and Inequality on Soft Political Protest in Europe. Exploring the European Social Survey Data.” International Journal of Sociology 38(3): 36–51.

Fornos, Carolina A., Timothy J. Power, and James C. Garand. 2004. “Explaining Voter Turnout in Latin America, 1980 to 2000.Comparative Political Studies 37(8): 909–940.

Jaime-Castillo, Antonio M. 2009. “Economic Inequality and Electoral Participation. A Cross-Country Evaluation.” Comparative Study of the Electoral Systems (CSES) Conference.

Karakoc, Ekrem. 2013. “Economic Inequality and Its Asymmetric Effect on Civic Engagement: Evidence from Post-Communist Countries.European Political Science Review 5(2): 197–223.

Lancee, Bram, and Herman G. Van de Werfhorst. 2012. “Income Inequality and Participation: A Comparison of 24 European Countries.” Social Science Research 41: 1166–1178.

Marien, Sofie, Marc Hooghe, and Ellen Quintelier. 2010. “Inequalities in Non-Institutionalised Forms of Political Participation: A Multi-Level Analysis of 25 Countries.” Political Studies 58: 187–213.

Persson, Mikael. 2010. “The Effects of Economic and Educational Inequality on Political Participation.” ECPR.

Scruggs, Lyle, and Daniel Stockemer. 2009. “The Impact of Inequality on Turnout – New Evidence on a Burgeoning Debate.” Midwest Political Science Association.

Solt, Frederick. 2008. “Economic Inequality and Democratic Political Engagement.” American Journal of Political Science, 52(1): 48–60.

Solt, Frederick. 2015. “Economic Inequality and Nonviolent Protest.” Social Science Quarterly 96(5): 1314–1327.

Stockemer, Daniel. 2014. “What Drives Unconventional Political participation? A Two Level Study.” The Social Science Journal 51: 201–211.

Teorell, Jan, Mariano Torcal, and José Ramón Montero. 2007. “Political Participation: Mapping the Terrain.” Pp. 334–357 in Citizenship and Involvement in European Democracies: A Comparative Analysis, edited by van W. van Deth, José Ramón Montero, and Anders Westholm, Routledge.

Vráblíková, Katerina. 2014. “How Context Matters? Mobilization, Political Opportunity Structures, and Nonelectoral Political Participation in Old and New Democracies.Comparative Political Studies 47(2): 203–229.

Welzel, Christian, and Franziska Deutsch. 2012. “Emancipative Values and Non-Violent Protest: The Importance of “Ecological” Effects.” British Journal of Political Science 42(2): 465–479.

This was created with the help of Dr. Olga Zelinska for the POLINQ project funded by the National Science Centre, Poland.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2022

Why Men Rebel: Ted Robert Gurr, Civil Strife, and Relative Deprivation

In the economic inequality, democracy, and political participation literature, scholars claim to test grievance or relative deprivation theory. When they do, they cite Ted Robert Gurr, whether it is his 1968 article in the American Political Science Review, or the 1970 book, Why Men Rebel.

Yet, modern scholars who apply it to political participation, like attending a demonstration or signing a petition, or even voting, have misused Gurr’s theory.

  1. What Gurr’s Study Was Really About
  2. Gurr: Relative deprivation explains civil strife
    1. Gurr’s relative deprivation
  3. The relationship between civil strife and relative deprivation
    1. Coercion
    2. Institutionalization
    3. Social and environmental conditions
    4. Legitimacy of the regime
  4. How can we measure relative deprivation?
  5. Conclusion

What Gurr’s Study Was Really About

Gurr’s famous “relative deprivation theory” was about political violence, or what he called “civil strife,” and not mundane political participation like signing a petition. The theory included political and social deprivation, but modern studies that cite Gurr generally consider only economic deprivation (or, what Gurr called, “economic discrimination”).

Finally, Gurr (1968) was clear that that deprivation has three dimensions, and all of them are important

Pervasiveness: proportion of society impacted by the deprivation.

Intensity: How strong the deprivation is.

Duration: Gurr thought that short-term deprivation is what leads to political violence. In sum, there has never been a full test of Gurr’s Relative Deprivation theory on non-electoral participation using modern cross-national data. I’m not even sure it should be tested on NEP, because Gurr was studying riots and rebellions, of which “attending a demonstration” was at the lowest level. Gurr’s theory has a lot of problems, but it doesn’t deserve the shallow treatment it has gotten from modern scholars.

In this post, I focus on Gurr’s original argument that he published in 1968, “A Causal Model of Civil Strife: A Comparative Analysis Using New Indices.”

Gurr: Relative deprivation explains civil strife

Gurr focuses on civil strife, not all mundane forms of nonelectoral participation.

He defines civil strife as “all collective, nongovernmental attacks on persons or property” within a defined territory (1107). It is a mix of violent and non-violent “symbolic demonstrative attacks on political persons or policies, e.g., political demonstrations” (1107), and legal and illegal.

Civil strife has levels. At the lowest level of civil strife are strikes, riots, and local rebellions. The next level are conspiracies that turned into assassinations, coups, and small-scale wars. At the highest level is internal war, and that also includes terrorism and revolts.

Civil strife is not political participation as it appears in cross-national surveys. Clearly, “signing a petition” or “contacting a public official” or “boycotting a product” is not a part of Gurr’s 1968 study. In short, Gurr’s theory is about political violence in particular. The theory does not state that the causes of political violence are also the causes of mundane political participation.

Gurr’s relative deprivation

Gurr’s main argument is a psychosocial explanation for why there is civil strife that he called “relative deprivation” (Gurr 1968: 1104).

Relative deprivation is:

“actors’ perceptions of discrepancy between their value expectations (the goods and conditions of the life to which they believe they are justifiably entitled) and  their value capabilities (the amounts of those goods and conditions that they think they are able to get and keep).”

Relative deprivation is an explicitly psychological concept that says that when people perceive a large enough gap between what they expect and what they think they can get, they respond with anger. Their anger turns into aggression. “Relative,” here, connotes perception.

The relationship between civil strife and relative deprivation

Gurr discusses four factors that influence the relationship between deprivation and civil strife.


Coercion as a force to stop strife amplifies the deprivation and therefore strengthens the relationship between deprivation and civil strife. He notes that if the coercive forces are strongly loyal to the regime, then they can reduce the efficacy of the deprived and thereby reduce civil strife.


This is “the extent to which societal structures beyond the primary level are broad  in scope, command substantial resources and/ or personnel, and are stable and persisting” (1105). I have no idea what a primary level societal structure is, and such a thing is not defined by Gurr (1968). I googled it and it wasn’t defined anywhere. These non-primary structures expand the range of ways that people can “attain value satisfaction.” Of these structures are unions, parties, and other associations that provide routinized ways for people to express their discontent.

Social and environmental conditions

These factors include a prior history of civil strife. It also includes facilitation, which refers to the physical infrastructure (“terrain and transportation network”), and social characteristics defined as the extent to which the discontented can and do collectively organize. This being 1968, Gurr included strength of the Communist Party in this part of the index. A third facilitation is “external support” of the “initiators” that others provide such as training, refuge, advice, and so on.

Legitimacy of the regime

Gurr also argues that legitimacy of the regime influences this relationship. Legitimacy is “popular support for the regime” (1106). More support, less strife. When people feel that their frustration is justified, they will be less aggressive, and thus less likely to engage in civil strife.

How can we measure relative deprivation?

Gurr argues that deprivation must be pervasive — a proportion of the population affected — and intense.

The duration matters, too. In long-term deprivation people can adjust their expectations. But in short-term deprivation, people may resort to strife.

“Any sharp increase in peoples’ expectations that is unaccompanied by the perception of an increase in value capabilities, or any abrupt limitation on what they have or can hope to obtain, constitute relative deprivation. We inferred that short-term, relative declines in system economic and political performance were likely to be perceived as increased deprivation for substantial numbers of people.” (1110)

Short term deprivation measures include inflation, changes in trade value or GDP, and a bad economic situation, such as crop failures, unemployment, and other economic crises. It also includes new restrictions on political voice, such as participation and representation. These include “harassment and banning of parties of various sizes, banning of political activity, and improper dismissal of elected assemblies and executives” (1111).

Lastly, it includes the catch-all, “New value-depriving policies of government,” which he

“defined as any new programs or actions that appeared to take away some significant proportion of attained values from a numerically or socially significant group, for example land reform, tax increases, restrictions on trade, limitations of civil liberties, restrictive actions against ethnic, religious, or economic groups, and so forth. Two aspects of such policies were taken into account in scaling for intensity: the degree of deprivation imposed, and their equality of application” (1112).

In sum, for short-term deprivation, there has to be something new, unpleasant, and intense. It can be economic, social, or political.

Gurr proposed several types of deprivation. Two of them are Economic and Political. Economic deprivation stems from economic discrimination, defined as “systematic exclusion of social groups from higher economic value positions on ascriptive bases.” Political discrimination is “similarly defined in terms of systematic limitation in form, norm, or practice of social groups’ opportunities to participate in political activities or to attain elite positions on the basis of ascribed characteristics” (1109). The general idea is that economic or political opportunities are closed for some social groups.

Additional measures of deprivation are “Dependence on private foreign capital,” “Religious cleavages,” and “Lack of educational opportunity.”

The rest of the article goes into details of the measures and the correlations between them.


Gurr thought that short-term deprivation is what leads to political violence. In sum, there has never been a full test of Gurr’s Relative Deprivation theory on non-electoral participation using modern cross-national data because Gurr was studying riots and rebellions, of which “attending a demonstration” was at the lowest level. Gurr’s theory can be criticized, but it doesn’t deserve the shallow treatment it has gotten from modern scholars of political participation.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2022

The Many Definitions of Political Inequality

Statue of Liberty Reading about political equality

What is the definition of political inequality?

Political inequality is worrisome for the future of democracy. Unequal access to political decision-makers means that the political voice of the few is louder than the political voice of the many.

But how can we define political inequality?

In my book published by Routledge, I defined political inequality as structured differences in influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions.

That’s the short answer. But you should know that there are many definitions of political inequality. In this post, I discuss these many definitions.

I examine several definitions of political inequality that are in the literature. I end the section with an interdisciplinary definition that can be applied across a variety of social and political systems.

Table of Contents

  1. What is the definition of political inequality?
    1. Political Equality of Opportunities vs. Political Equality of Outcomes
    2. The Distributional Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality
      1. Problems with the Distributional Approach
    3. The Interdependency Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality
      1. Problems with the Interdependency Approach
    4. Sorokin’s Authority Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality
      1. Problems with Sorokin’s Approach
    5. The Dahl and Lindblom Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality
    6. The Outcomes Only Approach to the Definition of Inequality
    7. Problems with Dahl and Lindblom and the Outcomes Only Approaches
    8. A Better Definition of Political Inequality
      1. We can combine the Dahl and Lindblom with the Outcomes Only approach to create a better definition of political inequality: political inequality refers to structured differences in influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions.
    9. Conclusion: Is Political Equality Real?

Political Equality of Opportunities vs. Political Equality of Outcomes

Most definitions can be traced to the distinction made in the classic social stratification literature on equality of opportunities versus equality of outcomes (Kerbo 2003: Chapter One; see also the philosophical literature, e.g. Ware 1981: 393; Baynes 2008: 15; and Roemer 1998: 1-2).

Equality of opportunities is about access to the political decision. Equality of outcomes refers to the law, symbols, policy or other output that is the result of the political process. Most definitions are based on the idea of equality of opportunities, but they could be modified to include outcomes, as well.

The Distributional Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality

A popular definition usually posited in terms of equality of opportunities is what I call the “distributional approach:” political inequality is structured differences in the distribution of political resources. According to this definition, one group has greater or lesser access to or acquisition of political resources than another group (Ware 1981: 393-4; Wall 2007: 416 ).

Many years ago, Max Weber (1946) argued that the tripartite scheme of class, status and party is but “phenomena of the distribution of power within a community” (181). The distributional approach is reflected in the 1996 American Political Science Association presidential address, in which Lijphart warned that “the inequality in representation and influence are not randomly distributed but systematically biased in favor of more privileged citizens” (1997: 1).

Problems with the Distributional Approach

The notion of “political resources” is an appealing analogy to economic resources, yet it presents dilemmas for concept and measurement.

A primary issue is that political resources are anything one can use to influence a political decision. Moreover, the means of wielding these resources varies by level – individual, group, organization or country – and by context. Some simplify by equating material resources in modern democracies – money, most of all – with political power (Winters and Page 2009; Brady 2009: 98 – 99). This is problematic, as social scientists have long argued that political resources are context-dependent and therefore can be more than just economic.

Weber (1946) viewed power resources of political organizations as almost anything , while Dahl (1996) defines political resources as, literally, “almost anything” – including money, reputation, legal status, social capital and knowledge, to name a few – that has value and can be used to achieve political ends.

Political resources can be drawn from social or psychological factors – material, ideational, a personal attribute, a group level attribute, an authority position, a network connection – or an action, such as political participation (Dahl 1996; Yamokoski and Dubrow 2008; Wall 2007: 418; for an exhaustive review of the political resources literature, see Piven and Cloward 2005: 38 – 40).

Identifying the mechanism by which political resources are distributed poses further dilemmas. Who distributes these resources? Is distribution done in the same manner across all political interactions and if not, by what rules does it vary? And, if political resources can be distributed, does the “distributor” hoard all of the resources that are important for the political interaction, or are there some resources that are beyond the hoarder’s control? We face these dilemmas when we strictly define political inequality as a matter of distribution.

The Interdependency Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality

An interdependency approach, as inspired by Piven and Cloward (2005), poses a way out of the dilemma by regarding political inequality as outcome of a relational process — and not merely distributional one — between opposing political actors. Key to the interdependency approach, political influence is found in the range of actions an actor can take within a political interaction.

Piven and Cloward (2005) argue that even apparently powerless actors actually have great potential for political influence, which turns the drawback of the distributional approach into a strength: “from this perspective, power resources are the attributes or things that one actor can use to coerce or induce another actor… almost everyone has something that can be used to influence somebody” (37).

In the interdependency approach, political power is inherently relational and resources are replaced with potential actions. Still, similarly to the distributional approach, actions used to influence governments and other political decision-makers are context-dependent: they must be appropriate to the task at hand; characteristics of the relationship between the interacting groups reveal possible (political power) actions.

The interdependency approach circumvents the problematic assumptions of (a) a hypothetical cache of ready-for-use political resources, and (b) a mechanism of resource distribution that is external to the interaction.

Problems with the Interdependency Approach

The interdependency approach has its own shortcomings.

For one, it does not account well for the use of physical force, a powerful resource that the state wields in any political interaction. This leads to the other troublesome assumption that all sides in a political skirmish have equal potential for political gain. The interdependency approach assumes equality of political opportunities. Yet, when the state wields physical force, or at least threatens it, the interactions appear to be imbalanced.

Sorokin’s Authority Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality

Sorokin’s sociological definition is similar but simpler, in that its main criterion focuses solely on the structure of the political process (1959 [1927]): Political inequality is the existence of authority divisions. Here, we speak of political inequality when groups have unequal political input into the decisions that affect them. Sorokin’s definition implies that the hierarchical structure of authority matters for the magnitude of political inequality, in that the more layers of authority between the citizen and the decision, the greater the political inequality. Growth in political complexity exacerbates this inequality: More people mean more diverse interests, demands and services and thus greater complexity of state organization (echoing Weber’s theory of inexorable bureaucratization).

Problems with Sorokin’s Approach

Sorokin’s political stratification may be simple but its implication for eliminating political inequality is troublesome: Only in a landscape without authority divisions whatsoever would all groups would have equal say in legislation and policy. As Sorokin himself admits, not even in hunter-gatherer societies do we find that political world is flat, let alone in modern ones (69).

The Dahl and Lindblom Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality

Let us consider another definition rooted in the idea of equality of opportunities that is popular in political science and philosophy. Paraphrased from Dahl and Lindblom (1953: 4), political equality is when everybody’s preferences are equally weighted in political decisions (see also Verba 2003: 663; Ware 1981: 393; Agne 2006: 433-4; and Baynes 2008:9 ).

In this definition, political inequality is unequal weight in influence over political decisions. The definition of “everybody” matters, of course: Everybody could mean all citizens, or it could mean all who are potentially impacted by the decision. As Agne (2006) put it, “it is often assumed that democracy requires that the people affected by a decision should be able to participate in making it” (433). Agne (2006) makes a strong case that this standard is hard to implement at higher levels of aggregation, such as regional or global governance, and should be replaced with different formulations of autonomy and freedom from dominance (for a summary, see p. 453; on rights to political equality at different levels of administrative aggregation, see also Bohman (1999: 500 – 503)).

The Outcomes Only Approach to the Definition of Inequality

Other definitions shift the focus from opportunities to benefits, such that political equality is when outcomes are equal (Griffin and Newman 2008: 6-7, Chapter Two). Ware (1981: 401 – 406) makes the case for considering political outcomes when evaluating the extent to which a democracy is politically unequal. Democracy theorists and philosophers argue whether we need to distribute these benefits equally, or whether some should get more than others because of their historically marginalized status (in discussing the American experience, Griffin and Newman (2008) call this the race-conscious egalitarian standard). What this means for the study of political inequality is that the response side of the political process is as important to think about as the voice side. In this case, political inequality is the extent of structured differences in the outcomes of government decisions.

Problems with Dahl and Lindblom and the Outcomes Only Approaches

These definitions lead us to a critical question: What is equal in political equality? Is it equal voice or equal response? Is it equal opportunities or equal outcomes? If it is equal opportunities for voice, then political philosophers such as Rawls (1971), Ware (1981), Sen (1999) and Baynes (2008) point to an important element of the distribution of political resources. Being that political equality is tied not only to political rights, but also to political liberties, i.e. the freedom to engage in political processes, and we need to consider (a) those who, through brute luck (Baynes 2008: 2) or social misfortunes are not equally endowed with the resources to influence politics in the same way as others, and (b) those who simply choose not to engage politically (see also Verba’s 1999: 247-248 distinction between “they can’t,” “they don’t want to,” and “nobody asked”).

A Better Definition of Political Inequality

We can fashion an alternative definition rooted in inequality of opportunities if we merge Dahl and Lindblom’s and Piven and Cloward’s insights with Sorokin’s: Political inequality is the extent of structured differences in influence over government decisions. Here, individuals, groups and organizations are defined by how much political influence they can exert (i.e. their potential of political influence). This view does not preclude the distribution of political resources; nor does it depend on it. It is the distance between actors and the characteristics of their interaction that shape political influence. Most importantly, this definition explicitly recognizes that political power and influence is rooted in the stratification structure.

We can combine the Dahl and Lindblom with the Outcomes Only approach to create a better definition of political inequality: political inequality refers to structured differences in influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions.

Conclusion: Is Political Equality Real?

There is also another question, more philosophical in nature, worth considering: Is political equality “real”, can we achieve it, or is it rather the ideal, theoretical endpoint of the continuum of political influence?

The definitions I presented lead to different answers. From a Sorokin perspective, government is part of the overall political stratification structure. Since government makes decisions, the structure itself is unequal. Therefore, political equality is strictly theoretical.

From a distributional perspective, political power is often thought of as something that the government distributes. If so, both perfect political equality and inequality could be achieved in totalitarian systems where all power concentrates with the elite. Put simply, if the government distributes zero political power to the masses, then everyone outside of government has the same level of political power: Zero. Perfect equality among the masses is achieved and perfect political inequality between masses and elites is also achieved.

The interdependence approach turns this question on its head, as it assumes political equality rather than political inequality. In the interdependence approach, all actors inside and outside of the decision-making body potentially have the same level of influence over the final decision. Political equality can be achieved because in all power situations each actor has potentially equal power to influence the outcome. What looks like political inequality is just wasted potential. We can call this the “liberation narrative:” If political inequality is built through these interactions, it can be un-built through them, thereby liberating the politically weak.

Liberating interactions do not square with most people’s political experience. The mainstay of political life is inequality of influence; reminders that the losers in political interactions have potential for influence, too, do not change the scoreboard. Yet, it is the promise of democracy that the scoreboard can be changed. This promise leads to the idea that political equality and political inequality are dimensions of democracy.

Further Reading

APSA Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy. 2004. American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality. (accessed July 4, 2007)

Bachrach, Peter and Morton S. Baratz. 1962. “Two Faces of Power.” American Political Science Review 56(4): 947-952.

Bartels, Larry M. 2010. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Baynes, Kenneth. 2008. “Democratic Equality and Respect.” Theoria 55 (117): 1-25.

Dahl, R. A. 1996. “Equality versus Inequality.” PS: Political Science and Politics 29(4): 639-648.

Dahl, R. A. 2006. On Political Equality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. and Charles E. Lindblom. 1953. Politics, Economics and Welfare. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Gilens, Martin . 2012. Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Griffin, John D. and Brian Newman. 2008. Minority Report: Evaluating Political Equality in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Liphart, Arend. 1997. “Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma.” American Political Science Review 91(1): 1-14.

Piven, F. F. and R. A. Cloward.  2005.  ‘Rule Making, Rule Breaking, and Power’ pp. 33 – 53 in The Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization edited by Thomas J., R. Alford, A. Hicks, and M. A. Schwartz.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Solt, F.  2008.  ‘Economic Inequality and Democratic Political Engagement.’  American Journal of Political Science 52(1): 48-60. 

Sorokin, P.  1957.  Social and Cultural Mobility.  New York: Free Press. [originally published in 1927]

Vera, Sidney. 2003. “What If the Dream of Participation Turned Out to be a Nightmare?” Perspectives on Politics 1(4): 663-678.

Verba, S, N.H. Nie and J. Kim. 1978. Participation and Political Equality: A Seven-Nation Comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Verba, S.  2006.  “Fairness, Equality and Democracy: Three Big Words.”  Social Research 73(2)499-540.

Wall, Steven. 2007. “Democracy and Equality.” The Philosophical Quarterly 57(228): 416-438.

Ware, A.  1981.  “The Concept of Political Equality: A Post-Dahl Analysis.”  Political Studies 29(3): 393-406. 

Weber, M. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2022

Political Participation and Democracy

What is the relationship between political participation and democracy?

Democracy and political participation — such as protest or voting — feed off of each other. Social scientists argue that when democracy is strong, more people participate. Why? Because democracy opens up possibilities for political participation such as voting, protest, and working for political parties and other political organizations.

Some cross-national research using surveys bears this out (see Marien et al 2010 and Hooge). Other research finds that democracy is not as important as “good governance,” and when trust in institutions (trust in parliament, or trust in government, and so on) is high, people tend to participate (Hooghe and Marien 2013).

At a glance

  1. What is the relationship between political participation and democracy?
    1. What is political participation?
      1. Political participation is an attempt at influence.
      2. Political participation is direct decision-making.
      3. Political participation is political discussion.
    2. Some consequences of political participation for democracy
      1. The consequence of influence attempts
      2. The main consequence of direct decision-making
      3. The consequence of political discussion
    3. The causes of political participation
    4. The causes of political participation can lead to political inequality in democracy

What is political participation?

There are many definitions. A great start is to discuss noted democracy theorist Jan Teorell‘s “Political participation and three theories of democracy: A research inventory and agenda” (2006) and his classic definitions of political participation.

Teorell examines the conception, causes, and consequences of political participation as it connects to three broad theories of democracy. His theory is that what constitutes political participation depends on the theory of democracy.

Political participation is an attempt at influence.

Inspired by the work of Verba and Nie and perhaps the most popular definition, this is about influence over the personnel in government, and over the decisions they make. At heart is responsiveness – in keeping with Dahl’s idea that democracies are forms of government that are responsive to citizen demands, participation is a mechanism that -should- trigger response.

Participation is not a direct way to influence policy decisions – the direct way is to be a part of the group that makes the policy decisions.

Political participation is direct decision-making.

Here, participation in decision-making is done directly by citizens — not through representatives. Proponents of direct decision-making do not want to abolish representative institutions. Rather, they want to provide more opportunities for direct decision-making. The modern idea of participatory budget making is an example of quasi-direct decision making (depending on whether citizen decisions are binding).

Political participation is political discussion.

This follows from the so-called deliberative model of democracy. Deliberation is a means to form interests among the public, or it is the discussion that directly leads to the decisions themselves. Teorell prefers to call the deliberation as “discussion,” because discussion connotes a collective action (more than one person).

But, at the same time, it is different than direct decision making or an attempt at influence through voting and other participatory actions. As he puts it, “The point in defining deliberation as political discussion is that discussions aimed at forming opinions may occur even if no collective decision is to be reached” (791). 

We can measure the level of participation in society by thinking of these as three dimensions of participation. The overall level is thus related to the scores on each dimension.

DALL-E: “Edward Hopper painting of people at a protest holding signs”

Some consequences of political participation for democracy

Teorell neatly summarizes the theoretical consequences of political participation for democracy in his summary of Voice and Equality (792):

“This outcome-oriented evaluative criterion is given its fullest account in Verba et al.’s (1995) volume on participation in America. Their title, Voice and Equality, is suggestive in this regard. On the one hand, they are concerned with ‘voice’: what ‘preferences and needs’ are being transmitted to the political system through acts of political participation? On the other hand, they assess whether this voice is consistent with a principle of ‘equality’: are the activists representative to the general public in terms of the preferences and needs they transmit to the system? If not, the preferences and needs of each citizen are not given equal consideration. Taken together, these two facets form a picture of the degree of distortion in the participatory process. The more such distortion there is, the more imperfect is the protection of citizens’ interests (Verba et al. 1995: esp. Chapters 6–8, 16).”

Verba et al were concerned with whose voice is heard by government and how responsive the government is to all influencing attempts. The voice of all should be heard – but policy does not have to be a response to all voices.

Teorell summarizes his arguments as follows: a response model of democracy should include the degree to which

  1. the wants and needs of the general public is represented in the influencing attempts and
  2. the government is responsive.

The consequence of influence attempts

The consequence of influence attempts is the equal protection of interests.

Teorell then sets the research agenda, which was subsequently followed by Bartels, Gilens, and others:

“In terms of research design, answers to these questions would require data on preferences, needs and activity at the level of individual citizens, supplemented with elite level data from elected representatives and other key decision makers. Since responsiveness is an aggregate-level phenomenon, it must then be measured either across time within the same democratic system, or simultaneously across several systems. This would allow the necessary evaluation of the entire linkage chain running from citizens’ needs and preferences, over preferences expressed through participation, to preferences perceived, acted upon and dealt with by the elites” (794)

The main consequence of direct decision-making

The consequence of direct decision-making is self-development – it makes better citizens. Teorell’s definition of self-development is not clear. Most research is on the development of political efficacy – the belief that one has influence over government affairs. Also, the causal link is not clear. How do we know that it was direct decision-making that led to self-development?

The consequence of political discussion

The consequence of political discussion is that citizens become better informed, and form preferences. It can also lead to legitimacy of the democratic system: the discussion itself allows people to believe that government hears and understands their preferences; this belief is necessary for citizens to believe that their government is legitimate.  

The causes of political participation

The two main causes of participation are resources and incentives. Resources can be physical (material, such as income and wealth), human (education, knowledge, and skills) and social (access to networks that recruit one into a participatory action).

Next are incentives – these can general or selective. Teorell does not define a general incentive – it seems to be an expected reward for the entire collective (or, society). Individuals can still benefit from the reward even if they do nothing about it. If the world was only general incentives, no one would participate- this is the collective action problem. Teorell details selective incentives, which individuals can get specific, individualistic rewards for themselves if they do participate – excitement, money – or they do because there is a social norm (“voting as an obligation”).  Thus, people participate if they have the right kind or amount of incentives and resources. 

The causes of political participation can lead to political inequality in democracy

If the causes of political participation are material conditions, then any inequality in material conditions becomes a cause of political inequality. Even if the rewards are “selective,” the selectivity may be biased, and thus the outcome is political inequality.

As we discussed, democracy does not necessarily lead to economic equality. Rather, economic inequality has risen alongside the rise of democracy. Political inequality through unequal participation is both a cause of the rise of economic inequality and a cause of democratic backsliding.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2022

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 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.