The Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis: Future of Global Governance and Political Inequality

by Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow, Polish Academy of Sciences

Is global governance inevitable? Is democratic global governance likely?

Borrowing from Elke Krahmann, we can define global governance as regulation of international relations without centralized authority, meaning that collaborative efforts to address interdependent needs are voluntary. Because global governance challenges national sovereignty, nation-states resist centralizing too much power in a single global body.

Despite that global governance challenges national sovereignty, its institutionalization has accelerated; nations are aware that no one nation can solve global problems, and globalization has forced even the most nationalistic countries to collaborate across state lines.

Rival Hypotheses

In addressing the question of governance inevitability, there are two major hypotheses: the global governance hypothesis, and the nationalist retrenchment hypothesis.

Global Governance Hypothesis: The more problems are global in scope, the greater the chance that global governance will emerge and be enhanced.

An alternative hypothesis posits a world in which the opposite occurs: Despite growing global problems, countries will shrink from international commitments that they think will limit their ability to act in their parochial self-interest. This is the nationalist
retrenchment hypothesis.

Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis: The more problems are global in scope, the greater the nationalist retrenchment.

By nationalist, I mean a nation-centric view of world events, akin to unilateralism. By retrenchment, I mean a stop and backslide toward unilaterialism in which countries eschew global governance strategies.

Is Nationalist Retrenchment a Possibility?

Nationalist retrenchment may be a mere theoretical counterfactual, something that at its fullest extent is not now possible. What evidence do we have in the modern era of nationalist retrenchment? The relationship between the United States and the UN is a useful case study. The “U.S. out of the UN!” movement has its roots in the ultra-right wing John Birch Society, and despite some occasional resurgence, it has never truly threatened to pull the United States from the UN or eject the UN from its New York City headquarters. Although the U.S. Congress has historically been skeptical of the UN, diehard members of the nationalist retrenchment club—anachronistic throwbacks to the pre- Wilsonian era (or the 1930s)—are a rare breed.

Political Inequality at Home –> Political Inequality in Global Governance

If global governance is inevitable, we can now turn to the next question: Is democratic global governance likely? Here is where the notion of political inequality is important.

There is plenty of evidence to support the view that global governance organizations are characterized by political inequality. Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the UN, said that “we cannot claim that there is perfect equality between member states.” Political inequality, according to Annan, can differ in extent: he says that the “small and powerless feel less unequal” at the UN than in other major international organizations.  Nevertheless, political inequality in terms of unequal voice and response continues to challenge the legitimacy of existing global governance institutions.

If international organizations, individual nations and social movements have thus far been relatively ineffective democratizers of global governance structures, it may be because political inequality at home translates into political inequality on the global stage.

Nationalists and internationalists—or, unilateralists and multilateralists—battle for supremacy over foreign policy within their own nations and in global governance organizations. We can imagine a situation in which nationalists win policy battles more often than internationalists, and where the scope of the policies made by nationalists precludes or minimizes actions to internationalize.

In a world where few countries have a lot and most have little, nationalist retrenchment can also weaken democratic development of these structures by de-funding these organizations and neglecting the needs of the disadvantaged.

This post is based on the article, Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf. 2013. “Democratic Global Governance, Political Inequality, and the Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis.” International Journal of Sociology 43(2): 55 – 69.




Five Problems with Measuring Political Inequality

How much political inequality is there? Is political inequality rising, falling, or staying the same? To answer these questions, we would have to measure the idea of “political inequality.”

Here are five main problems in measuring political inequality:  

1. Political influence is hard for scientists to observe.  Political influence is notoriously difficult to measure because it is an interaction between power wielders that is more inferred than directly observed.  We tend to “see” power after the decision is made, not during the decision process.

2. The range of potential political resources is extremely diverse and heavily dependent on context.  Political resources are anything one can use to influence a political decision: 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. In international perspective, this is further complicated by seeking a measure that is functionally equivalent across nations.  

3. Political outcomes is also hard to measure. To answer the question, “does political inequality matter?”, we would have to empirically demonstrate that governmental decisions systematically favor some groups over others. Some recent work in the U.S. is exemplary (see the Gilens and Page argument below). Similar work outside the American context is rare.

4. Political equality never existed. Is political equality a real, empirically visible end of the continuum? If political equality is an ideal then does a theoretical endpoint belong in an empirical measure?

5. We need to specify the particular type of political inequality. Political inequality can be found anywhere within the political process. Let’s simplify the political process to two parts – voice and response.   Voice refers to how constituencies express their interests to decision-makers directly or through representatives.  Response refers to how decision-makers act and react to their constituencies and is expressed via policy and symbols.

The Gilens and Page Measure of Political Inequality

A recent article on inequality and policy outcomes by Gilens and Page highlights the promise and the difficulties in measuring political inequality. Their unique data consists of 1779 policies taken up by the U.S. Congress from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Each policy is matched to a public opinion survey research question asked during the time the policy was introduced (“this policy says X, to what extent do you agree with it?”) and to a set of interest groups who have taken a position on the policy. With these data, they gauged the extent to which the policy outcome reflects (a) the will of the median voter – identified within the surveys and (b) types of interest groups, such as economic elites, business interests, and mass public interest groups. They found that policy outcomes tend to favor the will of economic elites, not the median voter. Their study provides solid, further evidence of the paucity of pluralism in American democracy.

Gilens and Page recently published a spirited and convincing defense of their findings, but we should consider how the basis of their study — the measure of political inequality — has some fundamental problems.

A. They chose policies based on whether they were asked in public opinion surveys, and that means the many, not-so-famous policy debates that also shape key economic distribution policies were excluded.

B. Nor can it account for the policies that are off the Congressional agenda, the type of power that Bachrach and Baratz (1962) warned that is most pernicious: the power to compel voters to not even ask for the policy in the first place.

C. It is also specific to the American experience; though it can be replicated elsewhere, so far there is no cross-national equivalent to these data.

Gilens and Page conducted what is likely one of the best and most unique studies on American political inequality, and it’s just a start.

Josh (2)


Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow is an Associate Professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences. This post is adapted from the article, “Political Inequality is International, Interdisciplinary, and Intersectional,” published by Sociology Compass in 2015.


What Is Political Inequality and How Unequal Are We?

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

We Know a lot about Economic Inequality

When the Occupy Wall Street movement reached its heyday in the Autumn of 2011, spreading to cities all over the world, the protesters’ rallying cry was, “We are the 99 percent.” They hoped for political change, among other things, but “99” was mainly understood as a statement about economic inequality.

If you want to know how much economic inequality there is in your country, and whether this inequality been rising, falling, or staying the same, you can turn to the terabytes worth of publicly available economic data and grind them through the many inequality equations to derive a multitude of statistics. With decades of innovations in the study of economics and inequality, led by the disciplines of sociology and economics, we can, at least, have a debate over economic inequality and its dynamics over time.

We Need More Eyes on the Problem 

Political inequality is a distinct form of inequality but has yet to attract sustained, systematic scholarly attention in the same way as its sibling inequalities. Although political equality is a foundation of modern democracy, we do not know how far from equality we are. Even the news media rarely addresses political inequality. We need more eyes on the problem.

Popular Definitions

The work of social scientists, philosophers and other scholars offer many definitions of political inequality. Political inequality’s conceptual roots are temporally deep and spread-out in many disciplines. Read together, they point to the idea that political inequality is at once a dimension of democracy and a dimension of stratification.

Continue reading “What Is Political Inequality and How Unequal Are We?”

Do Newspapers Write about Democracy and Equality?

Political inequality is both unequal influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions. Political equality is “a fundamental premise of democracy” (quoting celebrated political theorist Robert Dahl).

The news media has long reflected and shaped modern societies. In their pages we should expect that they present the news about democracy and equality and, in doing so, help shape national conversations about these issues.

Do they, much?

I observed how often news items about democracy and equality appear in six English language newspapers in the UK, USA and Canada from 1988 to 2013 (methodology) The newspapers are: The Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, USA Today, the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.

Here’s what I found:

  • Small: Overall, the level of coverage is small, especially the combination of democracy and equality, of which one can say that it hardly ever appears in major Western newspapers.
  • Inconsistent: Democracy and equality each have their different trends. Democracy coverage rises and falls by major world event: after the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe (1989 – 1991) and in the beginning of the Iraq War (2003 – 2005).
  • Very recent equality upswing: After the global economic crisis of 2008, there has been an upswing in equality coverage.
  • Weak connection: Since 2008, in three major newspapers (one each for the UK, US and Canada) there has been a marginal yet visible upswing in news media interest in how democracy connects with equality.

What is more fundamental to democracy than political equality? To help educate citizens, the news media should promote national conversations about democracy and equality.

Imagine if every major newspaper in the world devoted a couple of columns every week to discussions about the connection between democracy and equality.  Imagine the good this would do.

New Book by the Working Group: Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy

Political Inequality Routledge Book Cover 2014
Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives

Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives

Edited by Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow

Routledge – 2014 – 154 pages

Series: Routledge Advances in Sociology

The world has witnessed the creation of new democracies and the maturing of old ones. Yet, everywhere there is democracy, there is also political inequality. Voices of everyday folk struggle to be heard; often, they keep silent. Governments respond mostly to the influential and the already privileged. Our age of democracy, then, is the old age of inequality. This book builds on U.S. scholarship on the topic of political inequality to understand its forms, causes and consequences around the world.

Comprised of nine theoretical, methodological and empirical chapters, this path-creating edited collection contains original works by both established and young, up-and-coming social scientists, including those from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Greece and the U.S. Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy addresses the present and future of the concept of political inequality from multi-disciplinary and cross-national perspectives.

For more, please visit this book’s webpage.

Democracy, Global Governance, and Political Inequality: A Special Issue of Sociologias and the International Journal of Sociology

Members of the Working Group on Political inequality —  Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow and Soraya Vargas Cortes — have guest edited special issues on the the topic of, “Democracy, Global Governance, and Political Inequality.”  The table of context for each issue is here.

The first, “Desigualdade Política, Democracia e Governança Global,” is published in Sociologias, Brazil’s leading sociology journal in Spring 2013.  Articles are in Portuguese.

The second, “Democracy, Global Governance, and Political Inequality,” was published by the International Journal of Sociology in Summer 2013.  Articles are in English, including a new article by Chase-Dunn and colleagues, and a translation of John Markoff’s Sociologias article.  For a limited time, the issue is open access.

Abstract for IJS:  “This issue connects and extends recent international and sociological discussions begun at the latest World Congress of the International Sociological Association (2010) on democratic global governance, two recent issues of the International Journal of Sociology (Winter 2007-8 and Summer 2011) on the topic of political inequality, and a new issue of the Brazilian journal Sociologias on democracy, global governance, and political inequality, in which two articles being published here will appear in Portuguese.”

Abstract for Sociologias:  “Sociologias em seu trigésimo segundo número aborda o tema “Desigualdade Política, Democracia e GovernançaGlobal”. Ao examinar como a democracia e a governança global estão relacionadas às desigualdades políticas, o dossiê conecta as duas discussões – a que trata da‘democracia’ e ‘governança global’ e a que aborda ‘desigualdades políticas’ – no esforço de avançar o debate sobre as temáticas tanto isoladamente como no que se refere às suas conexões. A discussão apresentada no dossiê dá continuidade, por um lado, ao diálogo iniciado no Congresso Mundial da International Sociological Association (ISA), em Gotemburgo, Suécia, em 2010 e, por outro lado, é caudatário do debate apresentado no volume especial (volume 41), de 2011, do International Journal of Sociology (IJS), ‘Desigualdade Política na América Latina’ (Political Inequality in Latin América), em 2011, editado pelos Professores Soraya Vargas Cortes e Joshua Kjerlf Dubrow. Na seção Artigos, Lígia Mori Madeira e Fabiano Engelmann fazem uma análise dos estudos sociojurídicos no Brasil. Em outro artigo, Afonso de Oliveira Sobrinho retoma a temática da ideologia higienista associando-a a ideia de modernidade, no contexto do espaço urbano da cidade de São Paulo, na virada entre os séculos 19 e 20. Madel Luz, Cesar Sabino e Rafael Mattos, em “A Ciência como Cultura do Mundo Contemporâneo: a utopia dos saberes das (bio)ciências e a construção midiática do imaginário social”, alertam para pouca ênfase dada na sociologia às questões da vida e da saúde humanas. Os autores debatem o papel desempenhado pela ciência na construção da cultura contemporânea envolvendo os conceitos de vida e saúde. Na seção Interfaces, Darío Rodriguez, Rodrigo Flores Guerrero e Paula Miranda Sánchez trazem um estudo de casos sobre as relações de colaboração estabelecidas entre empresas espanholas baseadas no Chile e organizações não governamentais chilenas, no contexto de programas de responsabilidade social daquelas empresas. Na seção de Resenhas, Mário Augusto Medeiros da Silva apresenta a obra O Romancista e o Engenho: José Lins do Rego e o regionalismo nordestino dos anos 1920 e 1930, de Mariana Chaguri.”

Sociologias 2013 Political Inequality, Democracy and Global Gov