Notes on Manza’s Essay “Political Inequality”

Social Scientist Jeff Manza Explored Political Inequality

Social scientist Jeff Manza wrote an article for Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences on “Political Inequality” (2015).

This post, in, provides notes and critique of Jeff Manza’s article.

Manza: Economic Inequality is Political Inequality

The abstract of the essay makes the ubiquitous argument that where there is democracy, there is also political inequality. Manza explains that his essay is about the impact of economic inequality on democratic politics. From the jump, Manza is arguing that political inequality is a dependent concept on economic inequality – the article is, after all, called “political inequality,” but Manza does not argue that political inequality is an analytically distinct form of inequality, on par with economic, gender, racial, etc. inequalities.

As Manza defines the term:

“Political inequality may refer to either differential inputs into policymaking processes, in which some actors have more influence than others, or it can refer to policy outputs, in particular those which encourage or sustain income and wealth inequality.” (1)

In Manza’s essay, political outcomes are seen in how they impact economic inequality, e.g. either income or wealth. Thus, the essay is more about the relationship of political inequality to economic inequality, rather than on political inequality as a distinct concept.

Manza begins with the idea that democracy can, theoretically, redistribute economic resources, but it does not do so in an equal way. Citing Galbraith:

“in Galbraith’s (1952) famous formulation, democratic political systems can be relatively egalitarian and produce redistributive outcomes so long as ordinary citizens have sufficient “countervailing power” to contest economic and political elites” (2).

Galbraith’s formulation was purely theoretical — no modern society, neither America nor any other, was ever politically equal. Manza argues that it is usually the left that provides Galbraith’s “countervailing power.” In capitalist democracies, governments must strongly include, and unequally include, business interests.

Capitalism has always produced an unequal economy – thus, the economically unequal also become the political beneficiaries. The result is what Manza calls the “structural conditions for a bias toward protecting and promoting the interests of economic elites and firms over everyone else” (3). Manza assumes that when the left comes into power, the structural conditions change. Manza admits that there are few cross-national studies that support this “structural power hypothesis” (3).

DALL-E generated picture: “Basquiat painting of money and voice”

Manza: Elite and Oligarchic Theories

Manza notes that democracies are unfairly redistributive. To explain this phenomenon, theories of political inequality are needed. In essence, Manza is looking for theories that explain the link between political inequality and economic inequality.

Elites come from a narrow slice of the social structure and wield disproportionate influence over the spheres in which they are elite – some of these elites occupy multiple spheres of influence. See Pareto, Mills, Domhoff, and other classic elite theorists.

Manza discusses here the book by Jeffrey Winters called Oligarchy (2011). Winters argues that extreme wealth holders work within the political system to defend their economic interests. Winters calls these people, “oligarchs.” Oligarchs create and support policy that furthers their wealth, or defends it from radical redistribution. Marx thought the same, but Manza does not make that point. Manza points out that Winters’ theory does not explain why non-oligarchs – i.e. the 99% – support the policies that oligarchs support.

Manza: Power Resources

Power resources is the most popular theory, writes Manza:

“The dominant political sociological model for studying comparative political inequality in recent decades has been what is loosely known as the power resources approach (Esping-Andersen, 1990; Korpi, 1983).” (7)

As Fred Solt and others also wrote, unequal economic relationships – manifested in the class structure – create organized groups. These groups can be manifested as parties that compete for power over economic redistribution.

Elections are supposed to be a way for democracy to cleanly and fairly sort out these competing interests. The result, however, has been economic inequality. Why? Because organized groups have different organizational capacities – some are better organized than others, usually because they have greater access to the economic resources that enable organizational capacity.

As Manza notes, Esping-Anderson argued that there are three types of political regimes that emerge from the many democratic class struggles:

“social democracies (typically those of Northern Europe), Christian democracies (common in Continental Europe), and liberal democracies (primarily in the Anglo-American countries). In each case, a combination of similar political forces and political institutions give rise to similar kinds of policy outputs.” (8)

There are alternatives to this simplistic tripartite typology, as exemplified in the “Varieties of Capitalism” literature.

Manza argues that the power resources model does not explain why “in an era where unions and social democratic parties are declining or retreating from historic commitments, redistributive social spending in many countries has persisted at high levels (albeit not enough to reverse rising income inequality).”

One could argue that this is a simplistic model that does not capture changes in the last few decades in the varieties of party ideologies, or why disadvantaged groups, such as the working class, support lower levels of economic redistribution.

Manza: The Globalization Hypothesis

Manza argues that political inequality has risen around the world. He provides no evidence to support the claim, unless one measures political inequality with economic inequality. Manza argues that a major aspect of globalization is the mobility of capital:

“Here, the growing international mobility of capital is viewed as inducing “race to the bottom”: that is, pressures on governments seeking to maintain competitiveness and avoid disinvestment lead governments to avoid adopting tax and transfer programs that will discourage investment. In limiting the policy options available to national governments, economic globalization provides incentive for policymakers to turn away from traditional forms of social provision in favor of growth politics that favor capital accumulation.” (8 – 9)

However, nations can do many things to protect themselves from the pernicious effects of globalization while attempting to reap benefits. Globalization does not necessarily lead to an increase in political inequality. Again, it is worth pointing out that Manza does not specify “political inequality of what?”, and thus he cannot point out any mechanism of globalization that would impact political inequality.

Manza: Participatory Inequalities, Political Insiders and Outsiders

In Manza’ essay, participatory inequalities seem to refer to access to politicians and the political decisions they make. This refers to voting and other classic forms of political participation. Manza’s point is that there are group differences in political participation.

Manza: Future Research on Political and Economic Inequality

On trying to define future research, Manza argues that we need to examine the causal link between political and economic inequalities. He advocates going deep inside a particular country to explore these mechanisms. He argues that the links between political and economic inequalities are not straightforward. For example, while most posit that “money in politics” is a problem for the US, there is little evidence that legislators’ votes are “bought” by directly by donors.

One reaches a similar conclusion about political lobbying in the US:

“Political lobbying is perhaps better viewed as an arms race—given its pervasiveness, few groups will feel comfortable not participating, so everyone does it, but the impacts are mixed, hard to pin down, and in general cannot systematically explain political inequality.” (12)

Further Reading

Ansolabehere, S., de Figueiredo, J., & Snyder, J. (2003). Why is there so little money in U.S. politics? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17, 105–130.


Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives Edited by Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow, Routledge – 2014.

Lopez, Matias and Joshua K. Dubrow. 2020. “Politics and Inequality in Comparative Perspective: A Research Agenda.” American Behavioral Scientist 64(9): 1199 – 1210.

Schakel, Wouter, and Brian Burgoon. “The party road to representation: Unequal responsiveness in party platforms.” European Journal of Political Research 61, no. 2 (2022): 304-325.