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. http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/taskforcereport.pdf. (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.

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