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.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow Politicalinequality.org 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).

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 is over the personnel in government and over the decisions they make. Participation is done by elections or through the actions of representatives. 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, not through representatives. Proponents of direct decision-making do not want to abolish representative institutions, but rather provide more opportunities for direct decision-making, say at the local level. The modern participatory budget making is an example of this.

Political participation is political discussion.

This follows from the so-called deliberative model of democracy. Deliberative democrats do not agree on whether deliberation is a means to form interests among the public, or 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 politicalinequality.org 2022

  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

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 Politicalinequality.org 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.


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.

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