Gender Quotas in Politics

Gender quotas in politics are rules that aim at providing opportunities for women to be in parliament or to appear on candidate lists in elections for political office.

In this post, we discuss the types of gender quotas in politics, how parliaments in democracy adopt quotas, whether they are effective in placing more women in positions of power, and the consequences of gender quotas for democracy and society.

At a glance

  1. Types of Gender Quotas
  2. How are quotas adopted?
  3. Are gender quotas in politics effective?
  4. What are the consequences of gender quotas for politics and society?
  5. Conclusion: Gender Quotas in Politics Matter

Types of Gender Quotas

There is some form of quota in almost every European country, but the form of the quota varies by the country’s socio-cultural context, its fit with the electoral system, whether it is for candidate lists or seats in parliament, how and by how much the candidate list should be structured, and if it is for local, national, or European Parliament elections, to name a few dimensions.

The plethora of dimensions to quota policies worldwide has led scholars to pragmatically declare that if we want to study quota causes and consequences, we should match specific definitions to relevant research questions (e.g. Krook 2014: 10).

To simplify but not terribly over-simplify matters, we can say that in Europe there are a few main gender quota types.

Reserved Seats

This is a set percentage or seat allocation for women.

Legislative or Electoral law quotas

Quotas are mandated by a specific electoral or constitutional law about the form of quotas and, perhaps, how they are implemented and enforced.

Voluntary party quotas

Political parties adopt quotas within their own party organization, but are not compelled by a national law of any kind to do so.

Reserved seats directly place women into parliament and are rare. Legislative and voluntary quotas are about increasing the number of women as candidates and are popular.

How are quotas adopted?

There are so many types of quotas and quota regimes that there is no one path to this policy. The main, interlacing factors to consider are the:

  • Form of the quota (reserved seat, legislative, or voluntary party quota);
  • National and transnational factors and actors, including their motivations (e.g. activists, NGOs, and parties);
  • Extent to which the quota push was top-down (i.e. elite driven) or bottom-up (mass or interest group driven);
  • Historical context (Krook 2006, 2007; Dahlerup and Antic Gaber 2017).

Scholars consider women and women’s interest groups in the form of activist organizations, NGOs, INGOs, and WINGOs, as important mobilizing forces that move quotas from idea to reality (Krook 2007; Tripp and Kang 2008; Hughes et al 2017).

At the same time, the political elite may see electoral advantages for quota adoption (for themselves or for their party) or are simply driven by the equality principle behind it (Krook 2007; Caul 2001). Indeed, Poland’s adoption of a legislative gender quota was a result of simultaneous bottom-up and top-down approaches as women’s groups among activists and NGOs coordinated with a group of women from the Sejm (Króliczek 2012; Gwiazda 2015; Fuszara 2017; Śledzińska-Simon and Bodnar 2013).

A main path has been the transnational diffusion of both quota policy and implementation ideas (Krook 2006; Hughes et al 2015). International bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union have, through democracy promotion policies that encourage Western notions of gender equality norms, played an important role in the diffusion of gender quotas, especially for developing countries and EU hopefuls (Krook and O’Brien 2010; Bush 2011; Rosen 2017). Late adopters to quotas follow the trail left by early adopters: the proliferation of quotas has led to the greater proliferation of quotas (Paxton and Hughes 2015).

The path toward gender quota policy is neither smooth nor straight as parties and parliamentarians have sought to deny access and entry (Krook 2016; Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2010). Access and entry are controlled, in part, by leftist parties who tend to support quota adoption and, once in office, attempt to legislate them into existence (Caul 2001). Leftist encouragement is a long-standing factor, but in South East Europe, some centrist and rightist parties have outpaced the left in promoting women in parliament (Rashkova and Zankina 2017).

Parties matter. Party ideology is important but it does not explain everything. Party pragmatism in terms of how quotas can benefit party electoral success is another powerful explanation (Murray et al 2012). A pragmatic perspective sees parties as cost-benefit electoral calculators where ideology plays second fiddle to gaining seats by any means at their disposal.

Are gender quotas in politics effective?

As to whether quotas put more women in office, the answer is yes, clearly, electoral quotas lead to more women in parliament.

“Yet,” Krook (2106) reminds us, “in the vast majority of cases, elections produce lower – sometimes much lower – numbers of women in parliament than the proportions identified in quota policies” (268). 

Numeric gain depends on the electoral system (Paxton et al 2007), but a more important factor is where women are placed on the ballot and the enforcement of the policy (Schwindt-Bayer 2009).

As with all things, intersectionality matters. Gender intersects with ethnicity and other potential points of advantage and disadvantage as personal identities can translate into experiences of inequality. Much of the quotas and intersectionality literature is on gender and ethnicity. The ethnic situation and other aspects of the power structure combine to make gender quotas more or less effective for women of particular intersections (Hughes 2011; Celis et al 2014).

Murray et al’s (2012) “pragmatic parties” may see and act on the advantages of gender quotas, but parties seeking diversity in their candidate lists may select ethnic minority women over ethnic minority men (Celis et al 2014). The particular effect of quota regime on a particular intersection depends on the form of the quota (see Hughes 2011: Table 5, p. 616).

For example, voluntary party quotas are more likely to place ethnic majority women in parliament than they are to place ethnic minority women or men (Hughes 2011), whereas legislated quotas help ethnic majority women more, but also help ethnic minority women to a non-trivial degree. As Hughes (2011: 616) states: “… quotas designed to increase the representation of one marginalized group appear to come often at the expense of other marginalized groups, rather than majority men.”  

What are the consequences of gender quotas for politics and society?

Another view of “effective” is beyond seat gains and toward other consequences. Parliamentary seats for women are one gain, but for implementing gender quota policies, there are other possible gains. Those gains are largely connected with how the political, economic, and social landscape changes when exposed to the need and pressure to place women into powerful positions. The changes beyond seat attainment are context-dependent and are not often explicitly stated in the text of quota policies.

In sum, quotas are effective in that they open the political gate for more women, but the exact consequence is not always in the way the policy explicitly states. 

While parties may be reluctant to change, the combined push for quotas and the adoption of quota policy pressures the parties themselves to change. Parties change by taking gender equality seriously: “The main effect of properly implemented quota systems,” Dahlerup (2007) writes, “is that they make the political parties start recruiting women in a serious way” (88). In the early stages of the policy, however, quotas may not be enough to take down and remake male dominated party structures (Verge and De la Fuente 2014).

Quotas also impact the composition of parliaments and the policy they discuss. While the obvious effect is greater gender diversity, gender quotas may also make the European Parliament a more inclusive place by reducing differences in legislative experience (Aldrich and Daniel 2019).

Case studies of Italy (Baltrunaite 2014), Sweden (Besley et al 2017), and Germany (Xydias 2007) have shown how quotas can change parliament. In direct contrast to rhetorical fears that the so-called “quota women,” who were elected with the assistance of quotas, would be inferior in terms of qualifications, the latest social science evidence shows that they are no different than any other parliamentarian (Allen et al 2016; see also Nugent and Krook 2015).

Quotas have a larger societal effect by opening new doors for women in other realms of social life.

Gender quotas in parliament lead to more women in leadership positions throughout the political structure (O’Brien and Rickne 2016). They also lead to a growth in the acceptance of women in politics and other occupations. France, for example, moved from being strongly against gender quotas, to reluctantly passing a gender quota electoral law, to rapidly expanding toward gender quotas in other occupations – all within just two decades (Lépinard 2016).

The gender quota literature has expanded from quotas in politics to quotas in corporations (e.g. Hughes et al 2017; Meier 2013). The societal result of quotas is that women attain positions of power that society had long deemed out of bounds (Meier and Lombardo 2013; Xydias 2014). 

Conclusion: Gender Quotas in Politics Matter

  • While there are many definitions of gender quotas, scholars identify three main types: reserved seat, electoral (i.e. legislated), and voluntary party.
  • The paths to implementation wind according to the type of quota and the political and social context of the quota push.
  • Quotas are effective, but they tend to put more ethnic majority women in parliament.
  • The effectiveness does not stop there: quotas, by placing more women in places of power, lead to changes in parliament and parties, to new legislation that benefit women, and to transformation of the society in general.

This was based on the book chapter, “An Introduction to Gender Quotas in Europe,” by Joshua K. Dubrow and Adrianna Zabrzewska.

Readings: Gender Quotas in Politics

Aldrich, Andrea S., and William T. Daniel. “The Consequences of Quotas: Assessing the Effect of Varied Gender Quotas on Legislator Experience in the European Parliament.” Politics & Gender (2019): 1-30.

Allen, Peter, David Cutts, and Rosie Campbell. “Measuring the quality of politicians elected by gender quotas–are they any different?.” Political Studies 64, no. 1 (2016): 143-163.

Ballington, Julie, and Francesca Binda, eds. “The implementation of quotas: European experiences.” International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, IDEA, in collaboration with European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity, 2006.

Baltrunaite, Audinga, Piera Bello, Alessandra Casarico, and Paola Profeta. “Gender Quotas and the Quality of Politicians.” Journal of Public Economics 118 (2014): 62-74.

Besley, Timothy, Olle Folke, Torsten Persson, and Johanna Rickne. “Gender quotas and the crisis of the mediocre man: Theory and evidence from Sweden.” American Economic Review 107, no. 8 (2017): 2204-42.

Bush, Sarah Sunn. “International politics and the spread of quotas for women in legislatures.” International Organization 65, no. 1 (2011): 103-137.

Caul, Miki. “Political parties and the adoption of candidate gender quotas: A cross–national analysis.” Journal of Politics 63, no. 4 (2001): 1214-1229.

Celis, Karen, Mona Lena Krook, and Petra Meier. “The rise of gender quota laws: Expanding the spectrum of determinants for electoral reform.” West European Politics 34, no. 3 (2011): 514-530.

Celis, Karen, Silvia Erzeel, Liza Mügge, and Alyt Damstra. “Quotas and intersectionality: Ethnicity and gender in candidate selection.” International Political Science Review 35, no. 1 (2014): 41-54.

Chiru, Mihail, and Marina Popescu. “The Value of Legislative Versus Electoral Experience and Gender in Explaining Candidate List Placement in Closed-List PR.” Problems of Post-Communism 64, no. 2 (2017): 65-78.

Constantinescu, Sorana. “Gender quotas in Romania-A critical overview of the debate.” Europolis, Journal Of Political Science And Theory 10, no. 10 (2) (2016): 169-185.

Dahlerup, Drude, and Milica Antic Gaber. “The legitimacy and effectiveness of gender quotas in politics in CE Europe.” Teorija in Praksa 54, no. 2 (2017): 307.

Dahlerup, Drude, ed. Women, Quotas and Politics. Routledge, 2013.

Dahlerup, Drude, and Lenita Freidenvall. Electoral gender quota systems and their implementation in Europe. European Parliament, 2011.

Dahlerup, Drude, and Lenita Freidenvall. “Judging gender quotas: predictions and results.” Policy & Politics 38, no. 3 (2010): 407-425.

Dahlerup, Drude. “Electoral gender quotas: Between equality of opportunity and equality of result.” Representation 43, no. 2 (2007): 73-92.

Dean, Laura A., and Pedro AG Dos Santos. “The Implications of Gender Quotas In Ukraine: A Case Study of Legislated Candidate Quotas in Eastern Europe’s Most Precarious Democracy.” Teorija in Praksa 54, no. 2 (2017): 355.

Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf. “Dynamics of political inequality of voice: Romanian and Polish women’s parliamentary representation since 1945.” Studia Universitatis Babes-Bolyai-Sociologia 57, no. 1 (2012): 3-25.

Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf. “The importance of party ideology: Explaining parliamentarian support for political party gender quotas in Eastern Europe.” Party Politics 17, no. 5 (2011): 561-579.

Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf, and Dorota Woroniecka. “Polish Parliamentarian Attitudes toward Gender Equality and Gender Quotas: National and European Influences.” National and European (2010): 125-148.

Franceschet, Susan , Mona Lena Krook, and Jennifer M. Piscopo. The Impact of Gender Quotas. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Fuszara, Małgorzata. “Poland – A Success Story? Political History of Introducing Gender Quota in Post-Communist Poland.” Teorija in Praksa 54, no. 2 (2017): 317.

Galligan, Yvonne, and Sara Clavero. “Prospects for women’s legislative representation in postsocialist Europe: The views of female politicians.” Gender & Society 22, no. 2 (2008): 149-171.

Gendźwiłł, Adam, and Tomasz Żółtak. “Do Parties and Voters Counteract Quota Regulations? The Impact of Legislative Gender Quotas on Ballot Ranking and Preference Voting in Poland.” Politics & Gender (2019): 1-31.

Górecki, Maciej A., and Paula Kukołowicz. “Gender quotas, candidate background and the election of women: A paradox of gender quotas in open-list proportional representation systems.” Electoral Studies 36 (2014): 65-80.

Gwiazda, Anna. “Women in parliament: assessing the effectiveness of gender quotas in Poland.” The Journal of Legislative Studies 23, no. 3 (2017): 326-347.

Gwiazda, Anna. “Women’s representation and gender quotas: the case of the Polish parliament.” Democratization 22, no. 4 (2015): 679-697.

Hughes, Melanie M. “Intersectionality, quotas, and minority women’s political representation worldwide.” American Political Science Review 105, no. 3 (2011): 604-620.

Hughes, Melanie M., Mona Lena Krook, and Pamela Paxton. “Transnational women’s activism and the global diffusion of gender quotas.” International Studies Quarterly 59, no. 2 (2015): 357-372.

Hughes, Melanie M., Pamela Paxton, Amanda B. Clayton, and Pär Zetterberg. “Global gender quota adoption, implementation, and reform.” Comparative Politics 51, no. 2 (2019): 219-238.

Hughes, Melanie M., Pamela Paxton, Amanda Clayton, and Pär Zetterberg. 2017. Quota Adoption and Reform Over Time (QAROT), 1947-2015. [Computer file]. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], http://doi.org/10.3886/E100918V1.

Hughes, Melanie M., Pamela Paxton, and Mona Lena Krook. “Gender quotas for legislatures and corporate boards.” Annual Review of Sociology 43 (2017): 331-352.

Jankowski, Michael, and Kamil Marcinkiewicz. “Ineffective and Counterproductive? The Impact of Gender Quotas in Open-List Proportional Representation Systems.” Politics & Gender (2017): 1-33.

Króliczek, Karolina. “The Feminist Way Forward: Gender Quota Policy in Poland.” PhD diss., PhD thesis, Department of Politics, University of York, 2012.

Krook, Mona Lena, and Pär Zetterberg, eds. Gender Quotas and Women’s Representation: New Directions in Research. Routledge, 2017.

Krook, Mona Lena. “Contesting gender quotas: dynamics of resistance.” Politics, Groups, and Identities 4, no. 2 (2016): 268-283.

Krook, Mona Lena. “Electoral gender quotas: A conceptual analysis.” Comparative Political Studies 47, no. 9 (2014): 1268-1293.

Krook, Mona Lena, and Pär Zetterberg. “Electoral quotas and political representation: Comparative perspectives.” International Political Science Review 35, no. 1 (2014): 3-11.

Krook, Mona Lena, and Diana Z. O’Brien. “The politics of group representation: Quotas for women and minorities worldwide.” Comparative Politics 42, no. 3 (2010): 253-272.

Krook, Mona Lena. Quotas for women in politics: Gender and candidate selection reform worldwide. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Krook, Mona Lena, Joni Lovenduski, and Judith Squires. “Gender quotas and models of political citizenship.” British Journal of Political Science 39, no. 4 (2009): 781-803.

Krook, Mona Lena. “Candidate gender quotas: A framework for analysis.” European Journal of Political Research 46, no. 3 (2007): 367-394.

Krook, Mona Lena. “Reforming representation: The diffusion of candidate gender quotas worldwide.” Politics & Gender 2, no. 3 (2006): 303-327.

Kukołowicz, Paula. “Do voters read gender? Stereotypes as voting cues in electoral settings.” Polish Sociological Review 182, no. 2 (2013): 223-238.

Lépinard, Éléonore, and Ruth Rubio-Marín. Transforming Gender Citizenship. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Lépinard, Éléonore. “From breaking the rule to making the rules: the adoption, entrenchment, and diffusion of gender quotas in France.” Politics, Groups, and Identities 4, no. 2 (2016): 231-245.

Matland, Richard E. Women’s access to political power in post-communist Europe. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Meier, Petra, and Emanuela Lombardo. “Gender quotas, gender mainstreaming and gender relations in politics.” Political Science 65, no. 1 (2013): 46-62.

Meier, Petra. “Quotas, quotas everywhere: From party regulations to gender quotas for corporate management boards. Another case of contagion.” Representation 49, no. 4 (2013): 453-466.

Millard, Frances. “Not much happened: The impact of gender quotas in Poland.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 47, no. 1 (2014): 1-11.

Murray, Rainbow, Mona Lena Krook, and Katherine AR Opello. “Why are gender quotas adopted? Party pragmatism and parity in France.” Political Research Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2012): 529-543.

Murray, Rainbow. Parties, Gender Quotas and Candidate Selection in France. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.

Nugent, Mary K., and Mona Lena Krook. “All-women shortlists: myths and realities.” Parliamentary Affairs 69, no. 1 (2015): 115-135.

O’Brien, Diana Z., and Johanna Rickne. “Gender quotas and women’s political leadership.” American Political Science Review 110, no. 1 (2016): 112-126.

Paxton, Pamela, and Melanie M. Hughes. “The increasing effectiveness of national gender quotas, 1990–2010.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 40, no. 3 (2015): 331-362.

Rashkova, Ekaterina R., and Emilia Zankina. “Ministerial Politics in Southeastern Europe: Appointment and Portfolio Allocation to Female Ministers.” Politics & Gender (2019): 1-29.

Rashkova, Ekaterina R., and Emilia Zankina. “Women in Politics in Eastern Europe: A Changing Outlook.” Women, Policy and Political Leadership (2015): 87.

Rashkova, Ekaterina R., and Emilia Zankina. “Women’s Representation in Politics in South Eastern Europe: Quotas and the Importance of Party Differences.” Teorija in Praksa 54, no. 2 (2017): 376-393.

Rosen, Jennifer. “Gender quotas for women in national politics: A comparative analysis across development thresholds.” Social science research 66 (2017): 82-101.

Schwindt‐Bayer, Leslie A. “Making quotas work: The effect of gender quota laws on the election of women.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 34, no. 1 (2009): 5-28.

Śledzińska-Simon, Anna, and Adam Bodnar. “Gender equality from beneath: electoral gender quotas in Poland.” Canadian Journal of Law & Society/La Revue Canadienne Droit et Société 28, no. 2 (2013): 151-168.

Tremblay, Manon, ed. Women and Legislative Representation: Electoral Systems, Political Parties, and Sex Quotas. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Tripp, Aili Mari, and Alice Kang. “The global impact of quotas: On the fast track to increased female legislative representation.” Comparative Political Studies 41, no. 3 (2008): 338-361.

Verge, Tània, and Ana Espírito-Santo. “Interactions between party and legislative quotas: candidate selection and quota compliance in Portugal and Spain.” Government and Opposition 51, no. 3 (2016): 416-439.

Verge, Tània, and María De la Fuente. “Playing with different cards: Party politics, gender quotas and women’s empowerment.” International Political Science Review 35, no. 1 (2014): 67-79.

Verloo, Mieke, ed. Varieties of opposition to gender equality in Europe. Routledge, 2018.

Xydias, Christina V. “Inviting more women to the party: gender quotas and women’s substantive representation in Germany.” International Journal of Sociology 37, no. 4 (2007): 52-66.

Xydias, Christina. “Women’s rights in Germany: generations and gender quotas.” Politics & Gender 10, no. 1 (2014): 4-32.

Further Reading: Major Books and Reports

Ballington, Julie, and Francesca Binda, eds. “The implementation of quotas: European experiences.” International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, IDEA, in collaboration with European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity, 2006.

Dahlerup, Drude, ed. Women, Quotas and Politics. Routledge, 2006.

Dahlerup, Drude, and Milica Antic Gaber. Gender Quotas in Politics in Central East Europe. University of Ljubljana, 2017.

Dahlerup, Drude, and Lenita Freidenvall. Electoral gender quota systems and their implementation in Europe. European Parliament, 2011.

Franceschet, Susan, Mona Lena Krook, and Jennifer M. Piscopo. The Impact of Gender Quotas. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Krook, Mona Lena, and Pär Zetterberg, eds. Gender Quotas and Women’s Representation: New Directions in Research. Routledge, 2017.

Krook, Mona Lena. Quotas for Women in Politics: Gender and Candidate Selection Reform Worldwide. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Lépinard, Éléonore, and Ruth Rubio-Marín, eds. Transforming Gender Citizenship. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Matland, Richard, and Kathleen Montgomery, eds. Women’s Access to Political Power in Post-Communist Europe. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Murray, Rainbow. Parties, Gender Quotas and Candidate Selection in France. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.

Tremblay, Manon, ed. Women and Legislative Representation: Electoral Systems, Political Parties, and Sex Quotas. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Verloo, Mieke, ed. Varieties of Opposition to Gender Equality in Europe. Routledge, 2018.

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by gender”

In a previous post, we discussed how the Varieties of Democracy “V-Dem” project measures “political equality.” V-Dem is an expert survey. They guide the expert-respondents’ attention to particular groups’ political equality. These groups are: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.

In this post, we discuss how they measure “Power distributed by gender.”

See also

Political Inequality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by socioeconomic position”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by social groups”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by sexual orientation”

V-Dem: “Power distributed by gender”

V-Dem asks, “Is political power distributed according to gender?”

The two groups are men and women.

As with the others thus far, the scale ranges from zero to four, upwardly toward equality. The two groups are compared only with respect to “political power.”

The difference between (0) and (1) is slight. At (0), men have a “near-monopoly.” At step (1), men have a “dominant hold” and women have “marginal influence” (note the conflation of the terms, power and influence). The difference between (1) and (2) is also slight. At Step (2) men have much more than women, which I guess is somewhat less than a “dominant hold.”

Only at Step (3) do we see a clearer difference, where men have “somewhat more.”

Finally, at Step (4), we do not have complete equality, but “roughly equal” amounts.

Apparently, according to V-Dem, that is the highest level of gender equality society can aspire to.

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by sexual orientation”

In a previous post, we discussed how the Varieties of Democracy “V-Dem” project measures “political equality.” V-Dem is an expert survey. They guide the expert-respondents’ attention to particular groups’ political equality. These groups are: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.

In this post, we discuss how they measure “Power distributed by sexual orientation.”

Political Inequality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by socioeconomic position”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by social groups”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by gender”

V-Dem: “Power distributed by sexual orientation”

V-Dem creates two groups. Group (A) are the “heterosexuals” and “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) members of the polity who are not open about their sexuality.” Group (B) are LGBT who are open about their sexuality. V-Dem argues that these groups should be compared to one another in terms of their political power.

I do not follow the logic of the next two sentences: “Note that in comparing the political power of these two groups we are comparing their power per person. So, when we say that LGBT have less, equal, or more power than heterosexuals we mean relative to their share of the population (as near as this can be estimated).” What is “power per person”? Next, they argue that the LGBT should be compared to heterosexuals “relative to their share of the population.” Who does “their” refer to? Does it refer to Group A or Group B?

Step (0) is total exclusion except for voting (which “may” be). Step (1) is that LGBT has “much less power” but they can vote. Here, V-Dem introduces the term, “informal norms” to their political equality measure. These norms serve to keep LGBT from power. It can be argued that the informal norms also keep the other groups (socioeconomic, social, and gender) out of power. Step (2) is simply relational, and does not include the information of Step (1); it simply states that the power differential is “somewhat less.”

It is in Step (3) that we get a glimpse of what they meant about “power per person.” Here, LGBT and heterosexuals have “about the same” amount of power, “that is roughly proportional to their population.” So, if one group is 10 percent and the other is 90 percent of the population, does that mean that the 10 percent is about the same amount of power as the 90 percent? Or does it mean that the 10 percent is surely less political power because they are a numerical minority, but they still have some substantial political power?

Step (4), “LGBTs enjoy somewhat more political power than heterosexuals by virtue of greater wealth, education, and high level of organization and mobilization,” is notable for two reasons. First, unlike the other items, Step (4) is not political equality utopia, but rather it is political inequality. It also introduces a mechanism for political equality: wealth, education, organization, and mobilization. These mechanisms are missing from the other measures.

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by social group”

In a previous post, we discussed how the Varieties of Democracy “V-Dem” project measures “political equality.” V-Dem is an expert survey. They guide the expert-respondents’ attention to particular groups’ political equality. These groups are: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.

In this post, we discuss how they measure “Power distributed by social group.”

See also

Political Equality as Measured by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), which includes “power distributed by socioeconomic groups”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by gender”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by sexual orientation”

V-Dem: “Power distributed by social group”

V-Dem tells the expert to focus on “caste, ethnicity, language, race, region, religion, or some combination thereof” but not sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. They say nothing about “gender” as constituting social groups, here, probably because it comes next (“Power distributed by gender”).

V-Dem does acknowledge intersectionality but do not dwell much on it. After the list of social groups, they include the intersectionality-esque phrase, “some combination thereof.” Next, they write that “Social group identities are also likely to cross-cut, so that a given person could be defined in multiple ways, i.e., as part of multiple groups.” The “cross-cut” can be construed as an intersection.

We should not make too much of their attempt at intersectionality, however. The concept of identity, critical to intersectionality research (see Hughes and Dubrow 2017) is lost when they mention only that people can “be defined,” and makes no mention of how people define themselves. The next word after that sentence (that starts the next sentence) is “nonetheless,” defined as “in spite of that,” and thus lessens the impact of a potential accounting for intersectionality.

Clearly, intersectionality is not V-Dem’s purpose for this item.

Again, this is a zero to four scale that starts with one social group monopolizing power, and that this monopoly does not often change (it is “institutionalized”). V-Dem refers to this powerful “social group” as a “minority:” “Political power is monopolized by one social group comprising a minority of the population.” Minority, as it is often used in the social sciences, is usually about the relative power, status, and resources of a social group; here, they might mean numerical minority.

The next level toward equality (1) is several social groups, also being minorities, and also enjoying an institutionalized monopoly on power. The difference between (1) and (2) is that the several social groups are now a “majority:” “Political power is monopolized by several social groups comprising a majority of the population.” It is hard to see this as a step up towards equality. Whether the group is a numerical minority or a numerical majority does not seem to matter much for the degree of power they have. Thus, I see it as not a step up, but a step different.

When we get to (3), we get a very different step:

“Either all social groups possess some political power, with some groups having more power than others; or different social groups alternate in power, with one group controlling much of the political power for a period of time, followed by another – but all significant groups have a turn at the seat of power.”

There are several issues with this formulation, both for quantitative approaches to intersectionality research that feature power structures, and for political equality studies in general. First, the phrase, “all social groups possess some political power” is problematic because while V-Dem does define political equality (as a distributional thing) they do not define political power. Certainly, if we take the interdependency approach to political inequality, as Piven and Cloward (2005), does, we see the power process as not merely distributional one, but between opposing political actors.

For a discussion, see Definining and Measuring Power Resources.

Second, for social groups’ distribution of power V-Dem introduces a time element:

“different social groups alternate in power, with one group controlling much of the political power for a period of time, followed by another,”

which might mean that some groups have power at one point in time, and that is followed by another group in another time period. This time element is missing from their set-up to the issue of political equality and does not appear in the other “Power distributed by…” items. It is hard to know what an expert is to make of the sudden introduction of time.

Third, they introduce the term, “significant group,” as in: “all significant groups have a turn at the seat of power.” Since time is now an element, when is a group significant? When they have the power? Can a group be significant and not hold power before? Again, I do not know how the experts can make sense of the item.

Finally, point (4) is a social group political equality utopia, where “Social group characteristics are not relevant to politics.” There has never been a society where there are social groups and also where (and when) this utopia exists.

Political Equality as Measured by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem)

If we want to measure the power structure of society, we can examine the extent of political equality. For a quantitative measure, one can use the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem, as it is commonly referred to) dataset’s “political equality” measure (see also Cole 2018).

In this post, I examine and critique the “political equality” measure of V-Dem, with a focus on how they contend with the issue of intersectionality.

What is V-Dem?

V-Dem is a democracy-measuring project that created “a multidimensional and disaggregated dataset” that is designed to capture the many different strands of democracy. V-Dem is based on expert surveys. They argue that democracy has seven principles: electoral, liberal, majoritarian, consensual, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian.

The “egalitarian” dimension is where they situate the “political equality” measure. According to Coppedge et al (2015), the egalitarian dimension:


“…holds that material and immaterial inequalities inhibit the actual use formal political (electoral) rights and liberties. It therefore addresses the goal of political equality across social groups – as defined by income, wealth, education, ethnicity, religion, caste, race, language, region, gender, sexual identity, or other ascriptive characteristics. Ideally, all groups should enjoy equal de jure and de facto capabilities to participate; to serve in positions of political power; to put issues on the agenda; and to influence policymaking. (This does not entail equality of power between leaders and citizens, as leaders in all polities are by definition more powerful.) Following the literature in this tradition, gross inequalities of health, education, or income are understood to inhibit the exercise of political power and the de facto enjoyment of political rights. Hence, a more equal distribution of these resources across social groups may be needed in order to achieve political equality” (23).

V-Dem defines political equality in terms of capabilities and do not define it in terms of opportunities (they do not even mention outcomes). In the dictionary, “capable” can be defined as “having the ability, fitness, or quality necessary to do or achieve a specified thing.” Opportunity can be defined a set of circumstances that makes the thing possible. In opportunity, the focus is on the larger structures (including political regimes, policies and laws, institutions) that surround the group. Opportunities interact with capabilities in a similar way that a social structure influences a social group.

Thus, V-Dem’s focus is on the requisite characteristics that groups must possess – they must have within them the requisite characteristics to “participate,” to be in powerful positions, and to influence the agenda and policy.

The difference between capabilities and opportunities matters because, for V-Dem, the structures of power are found within the characteristics of groups rather than in the set of institutions and other circumstances where those social groups operate.

Defining Political Equality according to V-Dem

The project manager for the “political equality” measure is John Gerring who specializes in social science methodology and comparative politics. Gerring (V-Dem 2022 codebook v.12) does define political equality as “the extent to which members of a polity possess equal political power” (207). Gerring also argues that political equality is distributional: “It is … about the distribution of political power among identifiable groups within the population” (207). They make the well-known argument that political power cannot be directly observed.

Thus, power must be inferred from groups’ possession of power. According to V-Dem, the possession of power can be observed in: (a) Active participation, such as voting; (b) involvement in civil society organizations; (c) representation in government, which they say must be “secure”; (d) can set the agenda; (e) influence the decisions made by political decision-makers; and (f) influence how the decisions are implemented.

The V-Dem codebook v.12 defines the measure, “Political Equality” (pp. 207 – 209). V-Dem guides the experts attention to particular groups’ political equality: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.

Let’s take them one at a time.

V-Dem: “Power distributed by socioeconomic position”

V-Dem tells the expert that all countries have economic inequality, whether wealth or income, to at least some degree. V-Dem is concerned here with the link, as Manza (2015) does, between economic inequality and the distribution of political power, or what they call the “political effects” of unequal economic distribution.

V-Dem posits three hypothetical groups – the wealthy, the average person, and the poor.

There are four possible responses: (0) Wealthy have a monopoly on power; (1) Wealthy are dominant, the average have little power, the poor none at all; (2) the wealthy have a “strong hold on power,” and the average and the poor have a little bit of power but only over the things that the wealthy do not bother to contest; (3) The wealthy and the average have about equal influence, and the poor has significant influence; (4) complete political equality between the three groups.

Links to the next measures:

Political Inequality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by social groups”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by gender”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by sexual orientation”

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

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

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.”

Elections

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.

Democracy

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.

Governance

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.

Values

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

Why Men Rebel: Ted Robert Gurr, Civil Strife, and Relative Deprivation

In the economic inequality, democracy, and political participation literature, scholars claim to test grievance or relative deprivation theory. When they do, they cite Ted Robert Gurr, whether it is his 1968 article in the American Political Science Review, or the 1970 book, Why Men Rebel.

Yet, modern scholars who apply it to political participation, like attending a demonstration or signing a petition, or even voting, have misused Gurr’s theory.

  1. What Gurr’s Study Was Really About
  2. Gurr: Relative deprivation explains civil strife
    1. Gurr’s relative deprivation
  3. The relationship between civil strife and relative deprivation
    1. Coercion
    2. Institutionalization
    3. Social and environmental conditions
    4. Legitimacy of the regime
  4. How can we measure relative deprivation?
  5. Conclusion

What Gurr’s Study Was Really About

Gurr’s famous “relative deprivation theory” was about political violence, or what he called “civil strife,” and not mundane political participation like signing a petition. The theory included political and social deprivation, but modern studies that cite Gurr generally consider only economic deprivation (or, what Gurr called, “economic discrimination”).

Finally, Gurr (1968) was clear that that deprivation has three dimensions, and all of them are important

Pervasiveness: proportion of society impacted by the deprivation.

Intensity: How strong the deprivation is.

Duration: Gurr thought that short-term deprivation is what leads to political violence. In sum, there has never been a full test of Gurr’s Relative Deprivation theory on non-electoral participation using modern cross-national data. I’m not even sure it should be tested on NEP, because Gurr was studying riots and rebellions, of which “attending a demonstration” was at the lowest level. Gurr’s theory has a lot of problems, but it doesn’t deserve the shallow treatment it has gotten from modern scholars.

In this post, I focus on Gurr’s original argument that he published in 1968, “A Causal Model of Civil Strife: A Comparative Analysis Using New Indices.”

Gurr: Relative deprivation explains civil strife

Gurr focuses on civil strife, not all mundane forms of nonelectoral participation.

He defines civil strife as “all collective, nongovernmental attacks on persons or property” within a defined territory (1107). It is a mix of violent and non-violent “symbolic demonstrative attacks on political persons or policies, e.g., political demonstrations” (1107), and legal and illegal.

Civil strife has levels. At the lowest level of civil strife are strikes, riots, and local rebellions. The next level are conspiracies that turned into assassinations, coups, and small-scale wars. At the highest level is internal war, and that also includes terrorism and revolts.

Civil strife is not political participation as it appears in cross-national surveys. Clearly, “signing a petition” or “contacting a public official” or “boycotting a product” is not a part of Gurr’s 1968 study. In short, Gurr’s theory is about political violence in particular. The theory does not state that the causes of political violence are also the causes of mundane political participation.

Gurr’s relative deprivation

Gurr’s main argument is a psychosocial explanation for why there is civil strife that he called “relative deprivation” (Gurr 1968: 1104).

Relative deprivation is:

“actors’ perceptions of discrepancy between their value expectations (the goods and conditions of the life to which they believe they are justifiably entitled) and  their value capabilities (the amounts of those goods and conditions that they think they are able to get and keep).”

Relative deprivation is an explicitly psychological concept that says that when people perceive a large enough gap between what they expect and what they think they can get, they respond with anger. Their anger turns into aggression. “Relative,” here, connotes perception.

The relationship between civil strife and relative deprivation

Gurr discusses four factors that influence the relationship between deprivation and civil strife.

Coercion

Coercion as a force to stop strife amplifies the deprivation and therefore strengthens the relationship between deprivation and civil strife. He notes that if the coercive forces are strongly loyal to the regime, then they can reduce the efficacy of the deprived and thereby reduce civil strife.

Institutionalization

This is “the extent to which societal structures beyond the primary level are broad  in scope, command substantial resources and/ or personnel, and are stable and persisting” (1105). I have no idea what a primary level societal structure is, and such a thing is not defined by Gurr (1968). I googled it and it wasn’t defined anywhere. These non-primary structures expand the range of ways that people can “attain value satisfaction.” Of these structures are unions, parties, and other associations that provide routinized ways for people to express their discontent.

Social and environmental conditions

These factors include a prior history of civil strife. It also includes facilitation, which refers to the physical infrastructure (“terrain and transportation network”), and social characteristics defined as the extent to which the discontented can and do collectively organize. This being 1968, Gurr included strength of the Communist Party in this part of the index. A third facilitation is “external support” of the “initiators” that others provide such as training, refuge, advice, and so on.

Legitimacy of the regime

Gurr also argues that legitimacy of the regime influences this relationship. Legitimacy is “popular support for the regime” (1106). More support, less strife. When people feel that their frustration is justified, they will be less aggressive, and thus less likely to engage in civil strife.

How can we measure relative deprivation?

Gurr argues that deprivation must be pervasive — a proportion of the population affected — and intense.

The duration matters, too. In long-term deprivation people can adjust their expectations. But in short-term deprivation, people may resort to strife.

“Any sharp increase in peoples’ expectations that is unaccompanied by the perception of an increase in value capabilities, or any abrupt limitation on what they have or can hope to obtain, constitute relative deprivation. We inferred that short-term, relative declines in system economic and political performance were likely to be perceived as increased deprivation for substantial numbers of people.” (1110)

Short term deprivation measures include inflation, changes in trade value or GDP, and a bad economic situation, such as crop failures, unemployment, and other economic crises. It also includes new restrictions on political voice, such as participation and representation. These include “harassment and banning of parties of various sizes, banning of political activity, and improper dismissal of elected assemblies and executives” (1111).

Lastly, it includes the catch-all, “New value-depriving policies of government,” which he

“defined as any new programs or actions that appeared to take away some significant proportion of attained values from a numerically or socially significant group, for example land reform, tax increases, restrictions on trade, limitations of civil liberties, restrictive actions against ethnic, religious, or economic groups, and so forth. Two aspects of such policies were taken into account in scaling for intensity: the degree of deprivation imposed, and their equality of application” (1112).

In sum, for short-term deprivation, there has to be something new, unpleasant, and intense. It can be economic, social, or political.

Gurr proposed several types of deprivation. Two of them are Economic and Political. Economic deprivation stems from economic discrimination, defined as “systematic exclusion of social groups from higher economic value positions on ascriptive bases.” Political discrimination is “similarly defined in terms of systematic limitation in form, norm, or practice of social groups’ opportunities to participate in political activities or to attain elite positions on the basis of ascribed characteristics” (1109). The general idea is that economic or political opportunities are closed for some social groups.

Additional measures of deprivation are “Dependence on private foreign capital,” “Religious cleavages,” and “Lack of educational opportunity.”

The rest of the article goes into details of the measures and the correlations between them.

Conclusion

Gurr thought that short-term deprivation is what leads to political violence. In sum, there has never been a full test of Gurr’s Relative Deprivation theory on non-electoral participation using modern cross-national data because Gurr was studying riots and rebellions, of which “attending a demonstration” was at the lowest level. Gurr’s theory can be criticized, but it doesn’t deserve the shallow treatment it has gotten from modern scholars of political participation.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow Politicalinequality.org 2022

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

Democracy and Economic Inequality

Why does economic inequality rise in democracies?

Economic inequality is rising, and the United Nations reports that economic inequality impacts 70 percent of the world, even when we include democracies such as the US, UK, France, and Germany.

Why does democracy not reduce economic inequality? According to democratic theories, giving everyone the vote and allowing them to participate in democracy through protest should make policy-makers responsive to the public and reduce harm to them. Yet, this does not happen. Inequality rises in democracies.

Inequality may be the undoing of democracy.

This post explains why democracy has not reduced economic inequality. I rely on the innovative arguments of Dena Freeman in her seminal work, “De-Democratisation and Rising Inequality: The Underlying Cause of a Worrying Trend.”

Rising Inequality in Democracy: Elite Distribution and Voting Suffrage

Why has economic inequality increased alongside the rise in democratization? This is an old problem. Elites in the 19th century feared that the “universal suffrage” part of democracy would lead to the redistribution of wealth.

How would this redistribution happen? The democracy-reduces-inequality argument is the following:

In theory, the disadvantaged have greater voice in democracy, and therefore have greater impact on government response. This is an electoral politics argument about an agreement between the elite and the masses, otherwise known as “the class compromise of the post-war period.” It’s an exchange: The elite agree to redistribute economic resources through social welfare spending to the disadvantaged because the elite need the votes of the disadvantaged. The sheer size of the voting citizenry ensures that political parties operating within democracies must listen to a large and heterogeneous population. Thus, spending should be more universal than merely targeted to particular groups.

This is based, in part, on the median voter theory. This theory says that people are rational actors seeking to maximize benefits: parties want to win elections and thus end up proposing economic redistribution policies that benefit the median voter.

Democracies allow substantial bargaining power of labor — unions— that they can use to extract wages and other resources that reduce economic inequality.

DALL-E: “Photograph of Vote and Money”

Economic Redistribution Stopped Reducing Economic Inequality in the 1970s

Inequality did fall during the initial period of universal suffrage. But things changed dramatically during the 20th Century. As Piketty’s U-shaped graphs of economic inequality show, inequality declined, and then, in the 1970s, it rose.

Why the U turn? Unionization had helped to reduce economic inequality in the US, until the 1970s, when there was a great shift and a strong downturn in unionization. Some argue that the early 20th Century reduction in inequality was due to unusual circumstances. Once those circumstances ended, inequality resumed its normal upward path.

What were those circumstances? After the 1970s, there were major technological and economic changes:

Freeman’s Thesis: Vox Populi Lost Control over the Economy

Dena Freeman offers a different argument. She argues that the vox populi, the people in democracy, have lost control over the economic process. “Decisions regarding the organisation and functioning of economic matters,” Freeman writes, “have become less subject to democratic influence.”

In essence, democracy itself has changed, and not for the better.

Within the democratic process, people ceded control over the economy to private interests and the market, and thus lost political control over how the economy functions. This loss of control limits the policies that elected representatives can create and get through the legislative system.

The result, Freeman argues, is that “economic policies have increasingly been made in the interests of capital and the class compromise of the post-war period has been undermined.”

Neoliberalism and Democracy

Freeman blames neoliberalism. The economic crises of the 1970s introduced a change in economic ideology toward what would be called, “neoliberalism.” In neoliberalism, the economy is self-regulating, and thus the state should leave it alone. According to Freeman, Hayek’s “ideas about constitutional limits to democracy were effectively ways to ensure that the economic sphere would be carefully insulated from the demos and thus that democracy’s redistributive threat would be neutralized.” The economy should be lightly managed by experts and technocrats whose prime directive is to let the market dictate its own future.

Neoliberalism demands free markets that spread across the world. The free movement of capital around the world accelerated after the 1970s. The rich got richer and hid their wealth in tax havens.

Monetary Policy, Trade Agreements, and Democracy

Independent central banks that set monetary policy are out of the control of vox populi.  “Monetary policy is instead increasingly governed by the financial markets and the interests of financial capital,” writes Freeman. Policy is a tug of war between the interests of capital and the interests of labor, and capital is winning.

International trade agreements can create enduring and hard-to-revoke rights of capital in terms of strengthening property rights; these rights are designed to outlast the government that signed on to them, to endure as democratic elections produce new governments. Trade agreements can impose harsh penalties on governments that try to reverse the policy.

International Financial Institutions and Democracy

International Financial Institutions (IFIs) – G7 and G20, World Economic Forum, etc. – are global organizations that are not representative of all of the countries that they impact. Membership is based on invitation only, and the wealthy elite are the ones who control the invitations. These institutions define the space in which policies are discussed and decisions are made.

This restricts the policy options available to individual nations for a few reasons: The elite nations:

  • are deeply committed to neoliberalism and the global trade agreements that restrict national policies that could deal with within-nation income inequality;
  • promote international competition for international corporations to locate their businesses there (e.g. low corporate tax rates);
  • favor policies that promote economic growth instead of social welfare.

“In the post-1970s” Freeman writes, “firms and their interest associations have lobbied governments for rollbacks and efficiency-oriented reforms in national systems of social protection. They have argued that social programmes negatively affect profits, investment, and job creation and they have also used the threat of relocation to more favourable environments in order to put pressure on domestic policymakers.”

Rich countries have tools to resist these changes. Poor countries do not. As a result, the developing poor countries reduce public spending and take loans from the IMF and others to pay for what public spending they do.

The consequence is a spiral of debt and loans and more debt that reduces what little political leverage these countries have to change the policies of global finance. In addition, this debt is increasingly financialized, “packaged and repackaged in different forms of securities and traded on the bond market.” Thus, poor developing countries have a difficult time renegotiating and managing their debt with the rich countries.

In the mid-1970s, rich democracies decided to limit vox populi on their democratic control over the economic system and the distribution of economic resources, especially over social welfare.

“Two new approaches were developed at this time – New Public Management Theory (NPM) and Governance theory. Both promoted their changes in the name of costcutting and efficiency. NPM can be seen as an extension of neoliberal theory as applied to the public sector. It calls for governments to embrace private sector management strategies.”

While the de-centralization of decision making within governments over economic matters can be seen as, on paper, more democratic, it ignores the basic problem of political inequality:

“While some have argued that this new form of policy-making is in fact more democratic than top-down government – because a wider range of stakeholders are involved, including also NGOs, consumer groups and other elements of civil society – it must be remembered that the resources available to large companies, TNCs and business associations to engage in these processes is far, far greater than that available to civil society groups, many of which are poorly funded and under-resourced. As one commentator noted, it is like lining up rowing boats against battle ships. Rather the shift to decision-making in multi-stakeholder policy networks has led to an increased representation of the private sector, and thus of capital, in the policy making process.”

Summary and Conclusion

Democracy was supposed to reduce economic inequality through economic redistribution to the masses. As the masses allow the elite to become representatives, the representatives were supposed to allow political control over the economic policies that make sure redistribution works.

This worked, until the 1970s. After then, there were large scale changes to the economy. There was a technological change that rewarded a small group of workers. Growing automation will only accelerate this trend. CEO compensation went through the roof. And the rules of global finance, accelerated through neoliberalism, made it easier to move money around the world, incentivizing the wealthy to hide their wealth (Panama Papers) and create tax havens (Pandora Papers).

Freeman argues that the people mentioned in “We the people” — vox populi — have lost political control over the economy. Democracy outsourced knowledge on financialization to the market and to political appointees who believe in the power of markets.

The result is the inequality grows, and democracy does little to stop it.

Further Reading

Acemoglu, Daron and James Robinson. 2008. Persistence of Power, Elites and Institutions. American Economic Review, 98: 267-291.

Boix, Carles. 2003. Democracy and Redistribution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brady, David, Beckfield, Jason & Wei Zhao. 2007. The Consequences of Economic Globalization for Affluent Democracies. Annual Review of Sociology, 33: 313-334.

Freeman, John, and Dennis Quinn. 2012. The Economic Origins of Democracy Reconsidered. American Political Science Review, 106: 58–80

Gradstein, Mark and Milanovic Branko. 2004. Does Liberte = Egalite? A Survey of the Empirical Links between Democracy and Inequality with some evidence on the Transition Economies. Journal of Economic Surveys, 18,4: 515-537

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty First Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (trans: Arthur Goldhammer)

Timmons, Jeffrey. 2010. Does Democracy Reduce Economic Inequality? British Journal of Political Science, 40, 4: 741-757.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow Politicalinequality.org 2022

  1. Why does economic inequality rise in democracies?
    1. Rising Inequality in Democracy: Elite Distribution and Voting Suffrage
    2. Economic Redistribution Stopped Reducing Economic Inequality in the 1970s
    3. Freeman’s Thesis: Vox Populi Lost Control over the Economy
      1. Neoliberalism and Democracy
      2. Monetary Policy, Trade Agreements, and Democracy
      3. International Financial Institutions and Democracy
    4. Summary and Conclusion

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 politicalinequality.org, 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.

Open Secrets: THE TOP 10 THINGS EVERY VOTER SHOULD KNOW ABOUT MONEY-IN-POLITICS

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.