Political Inequality in Affluent Democracies

 for the SSRC: “A key characteristic of a democracy,” according to Robert Dahl, is “the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.” Much empirical research over the past half century, most of it focusing on the United States, has examined the relationship between citizens’ policy preferences and the policy choices of elected officials. According to Robert Shapiro, this research has generated “evidence for strong effects of public opinion on government policies,” providing “a sanguine picture of democracy at work.”

In recent years, however, scholars of American politics have produced striking evidence that the apparent “strong effects” of aggregate public opinion in these studies mask severe inequalities in responsiveness. As Martin Gilens put it, “The American government does respond to the public’s preferences, but that responsiveness is strongly tilted toward the most affluent citizens. Indeed, under most circumstances, the preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which policies the government does or doesn’t adopt.”

One possible interpretation of these findings is that the American political system is anomalous in its apparent disregard for the preferences of middle-class and poor people. In that case, the severe political inequality documented there would presumably be accounted for by distinctive features of the United States, such as its system of private campaign finance, its weak labor unions, or its individualistic political culture. But, what if severe political inequality is endemic in affluent democracies? That would suggest that fiddling with the political institutions of the United States to make them more like Denmark’s (or vice versa) would be unlikely to bring us significantly closer to satisfying Dahl’s standard of democratic equality. We would be forced to conclude either that Dahl’s standard is fundamentally misguided or that none of the political systems commonly identified as democratic comes anywhere close to meriting that designation.

Analyzing policy responsiveness

“I have attempted to test the extent to which policymakers in a variety of affluent democracies respond to the preferences of their citizens considered as political equals.”

To address this question, I have attempted to test the extent to which policymakers in a variety of affluent democracies respond to the preferences of their citizens considered as political equals. My analyses focus on the relationship between public opinion and government spending on social welfare programs, including pensions, health, education, and unemployment benefits. These programs represent a major share of government spending in every affluent democracy and, arguably, an important source of public well-being. Moreover, social spending figures prominently in the comparative literature on the political impact of public opinion in affluent democracies, with major scholarly works suggesting that it is significantly influenced by citizens’ preferences.

My analyses employ data on citizens’ views about social spending and the welfare state from three major cross-national survey projects—the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), the World Values Survey (WVS), and the European Values Survey (EVS). In combination, these three sources provide relevant opinion data from 160 surveys conducted between 1985 and 2012 in 30 countries, including most of the established democracies of Western Europe and the English-speaking world and some newer democracies in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. I examine shifts in (real per capita) social spending in the two years following each survey. Does greater public enthusiasm for the welfare state lead to increases in social spending, other things being equal? And, more importantly here, do the views of low-income people have the same apparent influence on policy as the views of affluent people?…(More)”.