Political Voice and Economic Inequality: Institutional Factors

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

At a glance

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Government Forms

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

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

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

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


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

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

Political Parties

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

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

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

Social and Ecological Conditions

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

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

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


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

List of the 18 Articles on Political Voice and Economic Inequality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Joshua Dubrow Politicalinequality.org 2022

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?

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