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

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

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

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

Extended Abstract of Zagorski and Santana

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

Interview with Piotr Zagorski

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

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

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

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

Interview with Jan Falkowski on Political Power and Land Inequality in Poland

Jan Falkowski, of the University of Warsaw, Poland, recently presented a paper, “Do Political and Economic Inequalities Go Together? Mayors’ Turnover, Elite Families and the Distribution of Agricultural Land” at the Politics and Inequality conference held in Warsaw, Poland.

Jan Falkowski is an Assistant Professor with the University of Warsaw, Faculty of Economic Sciences, Chair of Political Economy. His primary research interests are in the impact of institutions and politics on economic processes, and the reciprocal influence of economic conditions on institutional environment and political life. His paper, “Promoting Change or Preserving the Status Quo? The Consequences of Dominating Local Politics By Agricultural Interests” was published in Land Use Policy (2017), and his paper with Grażyna Bukowska  and Piotr Wójcik, “The Political Power of Large‐Scale Farmers and Land Inequality: Some Evidence from Poland,” was just published by Sociologia Ruralis (2018).

Interview with Jan Falkowski

The research you presented at the Politics and Inequality conference was on the economic impact of the distribution of political power. How did you get interested in this topic? And how is this topic connected to other research that you are doing?

The interlinkage between  political and economic power has always been of interest to me. Looking at the connection between political and economic inequalities seemed to me as a natural consequence of studying the former relationship since the distribution of power and the distribution of resources (be it political or economic) are closely related.

In this paper, you use an original dataset. Please briefly describe these data and why they are well-suited for your research.

Measuring economic inequality poses some difficulties as people are typically not so willing to share with others detailed information on how much wealth they have. We needed therefore to overcome this problem or, at least, to try to do so. We discovered that it should be possible to achieve this goal by looking at a specific, but coherent, part of the population, namely farmers. What we do in the paper is we take advantage of the fact that in Poland the information on those who received agricultural subsidies is public. So it is possible to gather, at the individual level, the information on how much money a given person received in the form of the so-called direct payments. In the system that Poland uses to subsidize farmers, direct payments are granted to farmers based on a national flat rate per eligible hectare, and – contrary to what we observe in many other EU Member States – they do not depend on the historical reference period. Thus, the distribution of direct payments at the municipality level can serve as a good approximation of land use distribution. This, in turn, can be used to measure the distribution of wealth.  Obviously, the shortcoming is that it can serve as a good approximation of wealth distribution only in rural areas, in which the dependence on agriculture as a source of living is high. In the paper we collate these data with the data on mayors’ turnover which we use as an approximation of political inequality.

 What surprised you most about your research on political power distribution?

The first surprise was to observe that, even though we have good theories describing potential determinants of the distribution of political power or the theories predicting various consequences that the distribution of political power may bring about, actual evidence (especially the quantitative one) on these issues is sparse. The second surprise was that the distribution of political power can have many different impacts also in areas which we typically do not associate so much with the way in which political resources are distributed.

Imagine that you only have a minute or two to tell someone about your paper. What is the main message of your paper that you want people to remember?

With the caveat that this is still ‘work in progress’, the main message would be as follows: in municipalities characterized by a higher levels of political inequality we observe that the most influential families are able to amass disproportionately large amount of land.

What’s the next step for your research on this topic?

The next step is to better understand the origins of political inequality and in particular to link it to the functioning of informal institutions as measured by (the changes in) religious behavior.

Please list two of your recent favorite articles or books in the field of politics and inequality, and why you chose them.

One could be Pablo Querubin’s work on political dynasties in Philippines and the other one the work by Michael Albertus on land reforms and land inequality. Both of them use fantastic datasets and very sound empirical methods to uncover new things about the way in which politics and economics interact with each other.

What’s an older article or book in the field of politics and inequality that you like, and why?

I think one can find a lot of inspirations from reading Albert O Hirschman. The relatively recently edited book by Princeton University Press entitled “The Essential Hirschman” could be a good reading I believe.

The interview was conducted via email by Joshua K. Dubrow, who also edited this piece, including the embedding of web links. This work was funded in part by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916).

Political Inequality and the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine

This is a guest post by Olga Zelinska, Polish Academy of Sciences, based on an early article (2015) on local Maidans.

The Start of Euromaidan in Ukraine

It was the summer of 2013 and the people of Ukraine felt helpless. 

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

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

The government’s order to reverse the foreign policy course on European integration was a last straw. Ukrainians marched onto public squares in Kyiv and in towns and villages throughout the nation.

It was the Maidan protest movement, and what was called the Revolution of Dignity.

From Euromaidan to Local Maidans

To understand the many local Maidans that had sprung from Euromaidan, I asked three main questions:

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

Data and Methods of the Study

I analyzed 94 resolutions issued by local Maidans in the 57 cities and towns of the country. My analysis suggests that the Revolution of Dignity was not only about European integration or the impeachment of Ukrainian President Yanukovych.

Results of the Study

I found that:

• Protestors, or “claimants” in the language of Contentious Politics (Tilly and Tarrow 2007) primarily identified with their right to direct democracy, including influence over national and local policies. Activists associated themselves with the popular assemblies, or ‘viches.’ The viches proclaimed their legitimate right to exist and promoted the decisions they adopted.

• The claimants framed their actions as a legitimate non-violent civic resistance campaign. They perceived themselves as “civil society in action,” guarding the country’s democracy by monitoring the government’s conduct of foreign policy and European integration, implementation of human rights, and protection of constitutional rights for peaceful assembly.

• National-level factors played a key role in leading people to the streets. Outrageous human rights violations, a deepening political crisis, and major institutional failures were, to the claimants, the key triggers of contention.

To address these problems, protesters demanded resignations of top national officials and snap elections of the president and the parliament. The desired changes included change in the ranks of the political elite and a significant transformation of political structures. Protesters issued further specific demands of increased public oversight and more meaningful and effective institutions of political participation. This included direct democracy, designed to enhance everyday citizen impact on political decisions.

This is based on the article “Who Were the Protestors and What Did They Want? Contentious Politics of Local Maidans across Ukraine, 2013-2014”, published in Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, issue 23 (4) Fall 2015: 379-400.

Olga Zelinska obtained her PhD at the Polish Academy of Sciences after completing her doctoral training at the Graduate School for Social Research. She was a Petro Jacyk Visiting International Graduate Student at the Center of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto. She is currently a researcher, project PI. Institute of Social Sciences, SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Poland. “The Relationship between Social Movements and Political Parties for the Democratic Representation of Social Groups in Europe” project funded by Poland’s National Science Centre (UMO-2021/40/C/HS6/00229).

Further Reading

Zelinska, Olga. 2017. “Ukrainian Euromaidan protest: Dynamics, causes, and aftermath.” Sociology Compass. 1–12

Zelinska, Olga. 2020. “How Protesters and the State Learn From One Another: Spiraling Repertoires of Contention and Repression in Ukraine, 1990-2014.” American Behavioral Scientist, 64(9),

Zelinska, Olga. 2021. “How Social Movement Actors Assess Social Change: An Exploration of the Consequences of Ukraine’s Local Maidan Protests.” International Journal of Sociology, doi: 10.1080/00207659.2021.1910429

Cover photo by Volodymyr Tokar on Unsplash

Neoliberalism and Democracy

The planet earth swimming in an unreal sea of money

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

What is neoliberalism and how does it impact democracy?

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

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

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

Table of Contents

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

Understanding Democracies’ Political Shift toward Neoliberalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neoliberalism and Four Dimensions of Democratic Organization

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

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Economic Sphere

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

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Social and Political Spheres

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

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

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Cultural Sphere

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

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

Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do the elite care about inequality?

A survey of over 800 elites in six Latin American countries reveals that they acknowledge economic inequality as a problem, but see little incentive to reduce inequality. The elite from stronger and more stable democracies tend to be more aware of inequality as a political problem. Yet they do not view equitable income re-distribution as the answer.

The Problem of an Elite in Democracy

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

That a tiny elite accumulates excessive wealth and power prompts concern about the future of democracy. We know from several studies that this inequality may generate conflict and support for non-democratic leadership — a perilous situation recognized by citizens of the United States and Europe.

Questions:

  • What do elites themselves think about the risks of inequality?
  • Do they feel comfortable living with these risks, or do they feel worried about them?
  • And if they feel worried, what are they willing to do about it?

Exploring Elites and Democracy in Latin America

To answer these questions, Latin America provides a very useful set of cases.

Many large and durable democracies in the region, such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, have high levels of economic inequality even though this inequality creates urban violence and social unrest. Extreme inequality in a democracy is a problem for average citizens because it puts in doubt Lincoln’s principle of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Meanwhile, elites also have good reasons to fear inequality as they are clearly impacted by the political turmoil and the social violence that can follow.

I looked at the University of São Paulo survey conducted in six Latin American countries of over 800 members of the elite in the realms of politics, business, and civil society.

I found out that most of the elite share the usual concerns about inequality and democratic stability.

But the relationship between concern and action has not to do with inequality itself, but with the strength and stability of democracy.

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

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

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

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

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

matias-lopez-elite-figure-1

Source: USP 2008

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

Summary

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

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

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

The Political Voice of Xenophobes

This is a guest post by Irina Tomescu-Dubrow, Polish Academy of Sciences and Kazimierz M. Slomczynski, The Ohio State University

Xenophobes and those discriminated based on ethnicity have political voice

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

Let’s consider those who feel discriminated for their ethnicity and those who espouse anti-immigrant attitudes, i.e. xenophobes – two groups at the heart of the socio-cultural cleavage common in European democracies.

Are they similar?

Definitions of Xenophobes and the Discriminated

We define the ethno-discriminated as people who feel they were discriminated against based on their culture, ethnicity, religion or language. We define xenophobes as individuals who express the views that immigrants damage the economic, cultural and social fabric of the receiving country.

Ethno-discriminated and xenophobes can be seen as extremes, and form, in principle, minorities in opposition to each other.

Yet, scholars have analyzed these groups’ political behaviors separately, that is, either for ethnic minorities, or for persons with anti-immigrant attitudes. Moreover, far more attention is given to ethnic minority participation.

Our Study of the Political Voice of Xenophobes and the Discriminated

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

To understand how the ethno-discriminated and the xenophobes behave politically, we argued that marginalization theory and group conflict theory should be synthesized. We argued that the two groups are similar in some civic domains while quite different in others.

We found clear empirical support for these two hypotheses:

1. Trust in institutions matters

On trust in democratic institutions, the effect of belonging to either of these two groups is negative and relatively strong (net of other factors).

2. Those discriminated based on ethnicity participate in politics more than the xenophobes

On political participation, those who feel ethno-discriminated tend to participate more, while xenophobes tend to participate less (in comparison with the wider society).

Moreover, feeling discriminated based on ethnicity has a positive influence on working with political parties or other organizations. We also predicted that xenophobes would differ significantly from the ethno-discriminated, but not from the wider society. Yet, we found that, other things equal, xenophobes are engaged in this kind of activity significantly less than the society’s majority.

Future studies of the political participation of xenophobes should focus on national contexts

Other political contextual factors likely influence the democratic engagement of these groups. We suspect that a substantial presence of right-wing parties and the strength of the multicultural environment are key factors that would determine how the ethno-discriminated and the xenophobes participate.

In political campaign seasons, right-wing parties hold political rallies that attract the xenophobic and repel the ethno-discriminated. Once in government, right-wing parties use legitimate democratic platforms – parliamentary debates, for example – to publicly express their worldviews. Both situations attract media attention and thus right wing parties can use newspapers, television, radio and Internet to broadcast xenophobia. This environment would likely encourage expression of relatively unpopular, anti-immigrant policy preferences in either forums of public discourse – such as lawful demonstrations – or to work directly with the right-wing political organizations.

The extent to which this environment discourages the democratic engagement of the ethno-discriminated depends on the countervailing multiculturalist forces that already exist in the political environment (e.g. the strength of pro-immigrant left-wing parties and the country’s recent history in promoting multiculturalism and fighting xenophobia).

This article is based on the chapter, “Democratic Engagement of Xenophobes and the Ethno-Discriminated in Europe,” in Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives, edited by Joshua K. Dubrow (Routledge 2015).

Irina Tomescu-Dubrow is a Professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Director of the Graduate School for Social Research.

Kazimierz M. Slomczynski is Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University.

xenophobia

Five Problems with Measuring Political Inequality

Political equality is a foundation of democracy, but in every democracy citizens are politically unequal. Some voices are louder than others, whether it has to do with their political participation or the level of economic inequality. As a consequence, there is democratic backsliding, and other political problems.

If we want to know, Is political inequality rising, falling, or staying the same? We would have to measure the concept of “political inequality.”

Measuring political inequality has multiple challenges.

In this post, I pose five main problems in measuring political inequality:  

1. Political power and influence is difficult to observe.  

Political power and 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.

Read: What is Power? What is a Power Structure?

2. The range of potential political resources is extremely diverse and heavily context dependent.  

We discussed how 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.  

Read: Defining and Measuring Political Resources

3. Political outcomes is difficult 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. Similar work outside the American context is rare.

Read: Gilens and Page

4. Political equality never existed.

Political equality has never existed in any democracy or any other political system ever. 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?

Read: The Many Definitions of Political Inequality

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.

If we are to measure political inequality, we need to know how to define it. There are many definitions of political inequality. Start with a definition, and then build the measure.

Read: The Many Definitions of Political Inequality

Notes on Winters and Page’s “Oligarchy in the U.S.?”

 In this post, I summarize the article “Oligarchy in the U.S.,” by Winters and Page (2009).

Winters and Page: Oligarchy in the USA

Winters and Page (Hereafter, WP) argue that all modern democracies, regardless of level of democracy, can be oligarchies.   Oligarchy and democracy can, and do, “coexist comfortably” (731).  WP ask whether the U.S. is an oligarchy.

WP want to “advance the research agenda” of the APSA Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, and goad political scientists to “treat power… more seriously” (732).

Defining Oligarchy


Citing Aristotle, WP argue that wealth is the primary power resource.  WP define oligarchy as a “type of political system” in which “the wealthiest citizens deploy unique and concentrated power resources to defend their unique minority interests” (731).  WP argue that oligarchy is a form of extreme political and economic inequality: “Oligarchy refers broadly to extreme political inequalities that necessarily accompany extreme material inequalities” (732).  Oligarchs, due to their wealth, are a powerful minority that dominates policy in modern democracy. 

Why wealth? 

Wealth is “a material form of power that is distinct from all other power resources, and which can be readily deployed for political purposes” (732).  (Material, as opposed to other types of) wealth is an individual power resource for three main reasons: (1) It is concentrated in the hands of the few; (2) it is easily used as a means of political influence; and (3) it implies a set of political interests: specifically, the desire to protect the wealth they have and get more of it.  The core political interest is in property and income defense.  Concentrated wealth is both power and a motivation to use power.  WP acknowledge other sources of political power: position within government, full political citizenship, position within organizations, personal capacity to mobilize people, and access to the means of violence.  In their view, wealth is the most consistent major political power source.

WP acknowledge that oligarchs do not control all political life: just the major ones concerning property and income.  Oligarchs do not have to exhibit “explicit coordination or cohesion” (731).  Their common interest in wealth protection is enough to bind them and coordinate their actions.  This common interest also insulates the oligarchal system from radical changes resulting from circulation of elites. 

How do oligarchs use wealth? 

Wealth is a gateway to purchasing the means of control and furthering their political interests.  They command large organizations.  They hire “armies” of skilled professionals.  They are “denizens of foundations, think tanks, politically connected law firms, consultancies, and lobbying organizations” (732). Oligarchs do not have to have extensive engagement in political participation to be oligarchs.  They argue that oligarchs do not have to hold formal government positions to wield power: rather, “indirect influence is sufficient” (731). 

Masses do not rebel against this state of affairs because of a stable “oligarch-mass” settlement.  In exchange for extreme inequality, masses receive universal suffrage.  The masses are divided in terms of their interests.  Oligarchs operate within a — limited — pluralistic environment. 

WP argue that oligarchy became a muddled concept in the hands of the classic elite theorists of Mosca, Pareto and Michels, who included resources other than wealth in their lists of what constitutes power resources for oligarchs.
  

How Winters and Page Measure Individual Political Power?


WP argue that there are many possible political power measures, and they encourage empirical investigation into them.  Their measure of political power is based on indices of income and wealth.  They note (endnote 21) that income and wealth does not necessarily have a 1:1 relationship with political power, such that twice the wealth equals twice the political power.  They argue that such relationships are open for empirical investigation.  Yet, in Table 1, this is exactly how they calculate “individual power index.” 

“The Individual Power Index for each income fractile is a ratio, calculated as the average income for that fractile divided by the average income of the bottom 90%” (735, Table 1).

Individuals in the top 1/100 of 1% with an average income of over 25 million dollars have 882.8 times as much “individual power” as an individual in the bottom 90%.  Due to this form of calculation, the bottom 90% will always have an individual power index score of 1.

WP also measure individual power based on the wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans and distributions based on estate tax and data from the Survey of Consumer Finances.

They do not have a threshold at which a certain level of political power (based on income or wealth) is oligarchy: “Any fixed quantitative criterion used to identify oligarchs is bound to be arbitrary… we would argue strongly against any mechanical rule” (737).  Yet, they argue that in the U.S., “a definitional boundary that identifies the top tenth of 1 percent of the wealthiest households as potential oligarchs seems fairly plausible” (738).
  

What Oligarchs Control


Oligarchs do not control all policy.  Rather, they control key policies that offer the best wealth protection.
Policy types that oligarchs exert over-influence are:

  1. International economic policy (important for a globalizing world)
  2. Monetary policy (important during economic crisis)
  3. Tax policy (which influences government spending and other government budgetary matters)
  4. Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies.

How Oligarchs Control

  1. Lobbying (which has got more professional and more expensive)
  2. Elections (campaign contributions influence who gets elected to office)
  3. Opinion shaping (media and more subtle ways that they do not specify)
  4. Constitutional rules (including the appointment of judges)

  

Critiques of Winters and Page


This is an interesting a provocative article.  I especially appreciate their attempt to measure political power.  I have some criticisms of their approach.

They do not consistently distinguish between “power” resources and “political” resources.  They refer mostly to political power, but their vocabulary is not precisely deployed.

Though they reference Aristotle in their claim that wealth is the primary power resource in democracies for oligarchs, they do not explicitly reference the deep roots their ideas have in Marxism and neo-Marxism.  Their thesis of why the masses accept this arrangement is very close to the Marxian theory of state compromise/class compromise.  In exchange for their larger monetary and political control, the ruling class grants concessions to the proletariat, including limited political influence and limited economic redistribution. 

Further, WP argue that masses are “persuaded” as a result of this settlement.  In Marxian terms, the settlement leads to false consciousness (they do not use the term “consciousness”).  Lacking wealth as a motivator for political action, masses are divided over their different interests.  This implies that wealth is the only thing in modern democracy that can successfully bind a group together and motivate each individual to act as if they have a common interest with their fellow group members. 

In their discussion of how wealth is used, they do not separate ownership from control over organizations.  For example, WP states that “the wealthy often control large organizations, such as business corporations, that can act for them” (732).  CEOs and boards of directors are the ones that usually control these organizations; while they are wealthy, it is not their material wealth that is used; rather, it is their position within a heavily resourced organization.  This fact undermines their argument that wealth is the key political force. 

A similar problem is with oligarchs relationship to think tanks, lobbying firms, and the like.  While funded by the wealthy, even the non-wealthy can be influential actors within these organizations.  These problems in their conceptualization are especially problematic because they operationalize political power solely on income and wealth indices.

While WP say that oligarchs do not control all political activities, their last form of control, “Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies” is vague enough to imply a much larger range of control than WP admit.  “Over-all” is far too imprecise to be operationalized.

What happens to WP ‘s theory when placed in a communist regime?  There, position within the state is more of a political power resource than wealth.  Clearly, the “wealth is most important” argument does not work there.  They do not discuss communist societies (which is understandable, if they concentrate only on putative democracies).

WP do not engage directly with the problem that oligarch influence is not directly observed.  They should do more to acknowledge that, in all such similar theories, influence is inferred, not explicitly seen.  This invisible hand argument has been troublesome for all elite theories.  Further, while they cite Domhoff and Mills (but not Parenti, surprisingly), they do not engage directly with their very similar theories.  Domhoff’s “upper class as ruling class” elite theory is substantively similar to WP’s oligarchy.

References

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

Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2022

Political Inequality Sessions at International Sociological Association 2010

I organized a general theme on political inequality for RC 18: Political Sociology at the World Congress of the International Sociological Association 2010 in Gothenburg, Sweden.  Here is a link to the RC18 website’s call for papers

General Theme: Political Inequality in Cross-National Perspective


(Convener: Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow, Polish Academy of Sciences)

Political inequality refers to structured differences in influence over government decisions and the outcomes of those decisions. Decades of research have clearly shown how position within the social structure impacts individual- and group-level political influence, such that political inequality interacts with a host of other inequalities, including those of gender, ethnicity, and class. Because political processes govern resource distribution, political inequality has profound consequences for the welfare of all people within society.

This general theme focuses on political inequality as a distinctive form of inequality and aims to examine methodological and substantive issues pertaining to it. While there are many clear definitions and well-established measures of other major types of inequality — e.g. economic and educational inequalities — that enable researchers to address basic empirical questions of, “how unequal is society?” and “what are the causes and consequences of this inequality?” there are few attempts to directly measure political inequality. As a result, crucial questions remain unaddressed.

Continuing the discussions initiated in the International Journal of Sociology special issue on “Causes and Consequences of Political Inequality in Cross-National Perspective” (2008), and inspired by the American Political Science Association’s “Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy,” this general theme seeks methodological, quantitative, and qualitative empirical papers that bridge sociology and political science to address crucial questions regarding political inequality in cross-national perspective.

Session 1: Consequences of Political Inequality


Papers in this session should address the question: What are the consequences of political inequality on peoples, societies and social structures? If political inequality is a distinctive form of inequality in its own right, consequences of its existence and durability must be demonstrated. Papers in this session should empirically examine how political inequality matters in the lives of disadvantaged groups, for the long-term health of democratic governance, for particular political policies and legislation, or for the establishment and durability of civil society and social movements.

Session 4: Measurement and Causality


Papers in this session should address one or more of the following questions: (a) How do we define and measure political inequality? (b) How politically unequal are modern democracies? and (c) What causes political inequality? From Pitirim Sorokin to Robert Dahl to Amartya Sen, among others, there is a strong theoretical base on which to support the contention that political inequality is a distinctive form of inequality as important as that of economic inequality. Yet, there is very little empirical work on how to operationalize its concepts, measure its extent, and identify its roots. Papers with a cross-national perspective should empirically examine forms of political inequality – such as underrepresentation of disadvantaged groups in government and unequal political participation, to name a couple – including how these forms endure over time and across societies, how they combine, or how they interact with other major forms of social inequality.