Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

Can Democracy Reduce Inequality

Despite two decades of social policies targeting poverty and inequality, Latin America remains one of the most economically unequal regions in the world. Recurrent protests motivated by economic grievances have been a regular reminder of this reality. The ongoing health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately harmed already vulnerable populations, undoing some of the progress made. At the same time, democracy has taken root in the region, and participation in elections is growing. Then why hasn’t democracy been more effective in resolving Latin America’s persistent inequality?

Research shows voters are not able to make their demands for greater redistribution heard, while governments are not implementing redistributive policies at the desired pace. Reasons include unequal political participation, institutional bias against redistribution, and vote buying. Until such impediments are removed, democracy’s impact on inequality will remain limited.

Between 2000 and 2018, income inequality in Latin America, as measured by the Gini index, gradually fell from 53.3 to 45.7. During the same period, government spending on social protection steadily increased by almost one percentage point of GDP. While these trends seem promising, inequality in Latin America remains high and social spending low by the standards of more advanced economies. For example, the thirty-six countries of the OECD reported a Gini index of only 33.2 in 2018. That is puzzling, given that at least on paper, Latin America is built on similar economic and political principles—market economies and representative democracies. One would expect that the democratic process, which by design is based on the egalitarian principle of “one person, one vote”, would lead to policies that reduce market inequalities. In other words, in a well-functioning democracy, inequality should to some extent be self-correcting. Why isn’t this happening to a greater degree in Latin America?

Weak Voter Demand for Policies that Lower Inequality

A first explanation is that voter demand for inequality-reducing policies remains relatively weak. Lack of voter pressure can be seen in limited and unequal political participation. Despite the widespread use of compulsory voting, voter turnout in the region has remained below 70% on average. More importantly, turnout is biased in a way that is detrimental to the poor, as voting is less common among the less educated and the less wealthy.

Even when they do vote, the less well-off are less informed, and thus less effective in choosing candidates that represent their economic interests. The poor are the greatest beneficiaries of basic public services, such as public education and health care. Unfortunately, voter demand for government investments in these public goods is tenuous, either due to low trust in the ability of public officials to spend public resources in these areas effectively, or due to a preference for immediate benefits such as cash transfers, at the expense of longer-term benefits such as high-quality education and public safety.

Weak Supply of Policies Designed to Reduce Inequality

A second explanation is that the policymaking process may fail to internalize popular demand for redistribution. In some cases, this occurs because political institutions can be manipulated by incumbents to retain power, for example through legislative malapportionment. Others argue that elements of the elite gain access to and remain in power using campaign donations from narrow interest groups, obviating the need to rely on broad popular support.

More recent research has shown that vote buying by political candidates, a prevalent phenomenon in many Latin American democracies, subverts the normal functioning of the budget process. Voters targeted with vote buying prior to an election may receive no government benefits after the election. As poorer voters are more susceptible to vote buying, they are often left unrepresented in the subsequent negotiations over the budget. Thus, vote buying crowds out redistributive spending that could reduce inequality.

Stronger Democracies Better Alleviate Inequality

In a chapter of the recent IDB report entitled The Inequality Crisis I present new data patterns that support the idea that the strength of democracy matters for the alleviation of inequality. I use the Economist Intelligence Unit democracy index to rank democratic quality along five dimensions. Among Latin American countries, stronger democracies provide more redistributive spending. At one end of the spectrum, Nicaragua spends less than 1% of GDP on social protection, compared to almost 7% in Uruguay, at the other end of the spectrum. Interestingly, stronger democracies are also characterized by higher voter turnout and fewer protests. This suggests that voting, rather than protesting, is a catalyst for government redistribution. Protests appear to be a symptom of unmet economic expectations.

Some development institutions, such as the UNDP, have suggested that inequality may be one of democracy’s greatest weaknesses. As the less well-off are economically marginalized, they become more disengaged with the democratic process. However, a weaker democracy may also fail to alleviate inequality. Overcoming this vicious circle remains a challenge for Latin America’s young democracies. Political and civic leaders in the region should renew their commitment to strengthening democratic institutions, chief among them free elections, civic liberties, and independent media. Over time, better-functioning democracies should improve economic equity. Democracy can certainly reduce inequality, as long as it functions as intended.



How Inequality Undermines Democracy?

Inequality has been on the rise over the last three decades, and has been a pervasive issue in the recent U.S. national election. On one level, income inequality is a non-issue in a market economy where there will always be winners and losers. In a market where individuals are free to make choices and reap the rewards of the choices they make, it is a given that some will wind up with more than others. We cannot all be equal because we don’t all have the same natural endowments. Those with certain skills and abilities will often wind up with more than those without. And those who went to school to train for specific occupations that pay well will earn more than those who did not. In short, skilled workers will earn more than non-skilled workers. Consequently, in an increasingly global economy where there will be two classes —  skilled and educated workers at the top earning high wages and unskilled and poorly educated workers at the bottom earning low wages — there is bound to be inequality. Moreover, as these trends continue, the gap between the top and the bottom is only bound to grow. On another level, however, income inequality is a seminal issue because of what it really speaks to: the disappearance of the middle class. Inequality per se may not be the problem; rather it is the rate of increase in inequality. In this essay, I argue that to the extent that inequality effectively speaks to a shrinking middle class it represents a threat to democracy.

Rising Inequality

Income inequality is an amorphous concept. When we talk about income inequality we are often talking about the gap between the top and the bottom. The extent to which it is a problem is contingent on just how it is measured. General income inequality, as measured by the ratio of the incomes of the top fifth of the population to those of the bottom fifth, for instance, includes in all income; not just income earned laboring. For those at the top this can include wages, interest and dividend income.[i] For those at the bottom this can include income supports, which are usually subsidies or in-kind assistance that has the effect of boosting the wages of those at the bottom or their effective purchasing power. Income at the bottom, then, often includes wages plus these supports, whether through public assistance transfer programs and/or disability programs. Therefore, wage income will not be the same as income inequality, and this gap between the top and bottom will tend to be less.

General income inequality has in recent decades been on the rise. Those at the top of the distribution have seen their incomes increase while those at the bottom have seen their incomes decrease in real terms. Prior to 1973, the incomes of families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution in the U.S. grew more rapidly than the income of families in other countries. After 1973 low-income families in the U.S. experienced a steady decline in real income, especially from the late 1970s through the middle of the 1990s. Between 1979 and 2007, the top one percent of families had 60 percent of the income gains while the bottom 90 percent only had about 9 percent of those income gains (Belman and Wolfson 2014). Income inequality, especially after 1980, exploded with the top decile share of the national income rising to between 45-50 percent in the 2000s. This may nonetheless understate the problem, which in recent years has been couched as the very top pulling away from the rest because a subclass of “supermanagers” — those at the top of the distribution with great ability and talent, who in some cases were viewed as “superstars” because they were able to make their companies profitable and return a high rate of return to shareholders — emerged who were earning extremely high compensation (Hacker and Pierson 2010; Piketty 2014).

The Threat to Democracy

Democratic theory assumes a society of free, equal, and autonomous individuals. Although democracy may have different meanings for different people, an ideal of democracy is that all individuals are supposed to have equal standing. This means that each individual is equal before the law, has the same vote as other individuals, the same right to express oneself in the political sphere, and perhaps most importantly the same potential to influence what government does, even if they opt not to exercise that potential. All citizens, then, have the same access to governing institutions. Within this theoretical construct, which may also characterize American democracy, money is supposed to be irrelevant to one’s standing. Both the rich and the poor are equal before government (Hacker and Pierson 2010). This conception of equality, otherwise known as procedural equality is not usually concerned with how resources, wealth and income are distributed, but with how individuals stand in relation to one another. Individuals can have more than others so long as they are equal in terms of their legal and political standing. Procedural equality is especially critical to democratic society because it serves to secure another essential condition: personal freedom, which is also a necessary condition for individuals to function autonomously. The greater their autonomy, the more likely they are to participate in the democratic process. Individuals are free to pursue their goals and objectives—i.e. self-interests—so long as their pursuit does not interfere with others’ ability to pursue their own goals and objectives. In a very basic sense, and certainly within the context of classical political thought, this is what it means to talk about personal independence or autonomy. But as Tocqueville observed there cannot be real political equality without some measure of economic equality as well, because a society with great concentrations of poor people can be dangerous (Zetterbaum 1987). Therefore, economic inequality could pose serious problems in a procedural democracy.

Why, then, might inequality be so dangerous to democracy? According to Acemoglu and Robinson (2006), unrest is often a consequence of inequality. And yet, changes are more likely to occur in those societies with greater inequality between elites and citizens. The more equals the society, the less likely are the masses to demand democratization. Democratization requires that society be sufficiently unequal so that the threat of revolution is credible. Therefore, elite may be willing to begin a transition by extending the right of franchise because it is in its interests to do so. The transition effectively preserves the status quo by staving off the threat of revolution, which in the end may preserve the power base of the elite. Yet, the elite only democratizes to the degree necessary to stave off the threat of revolution, because the former effectively limits the power of the majority by diluting popular pressure and undermining the power of the majority. Democratization refers to achieving voice through fair procedures. But democratization could mean achieving greater equality through the redistribution of resources aimed at achieving equality of result.

Economic equality, then, effectively promotes democracy because it effectively reduces the pressure for redistribution, which could occur as a byproduct of mass revolution and the subsequent creation of an authoritarian regime (Boix 2003). More unequal distribution of wealth increases the redistributive demands of the population and the ultimate level of taxes in a democratic system. But what happens when the political system is unresponsive to a so-called democratic vote on the tax rate?

A truly democratic regime would not simply take away from the wealthy elite for the benefit of the masses, but it might set a higher tax rate for purposes of redistribution. In a democracy, everybody votes on the tax rate in accordance with what is known as the median voter theorem. This holds that the more inequality there is the greater will be the distance between the median income and society’s average income. The greater the distance, the more calls there are for redistribution, and it is the distance itself that effectively determines the tax rate (Meltzer and Richard 1981).

On an individual level, unequal distribution of wealth and income, however, may adversely affect individuals’ ability to participate in the democratic process as equals. It may result in procedural inequality to the extent that those lacking in wealth and income may not enjoy the same access to political and policy officials as those who possess wealth and income enjoy. With a greater concentration of wealth at the top, elites are in a better position to use their wealth toward the attainment of their political and other ideological objectives (Bachrach and Botwinick 1992: 4-5). Those at the top of the distribution often enjoy inordinate power and are able to not only limit redistribution, but shape the rules of the game in favor of those with more resources (Stiglitz 2012). Various studies have found legislative bodies to be more responsive to affluent constituents than to non-affluent constituents (Bartels 2008; Gilens 2012; Volscho and Kelly 2012).

Inequality, especially in its extreme form of poverty, does in the end deprive us of our capabilities, which is said to be a kind of freedom. To the extent that individuals at the bottom of the income distribution could be said to be poor, poverty deprives individuals of their capabilities. Therefore, there is a strong case to be made for judging individual advantage in terms of the capability that a person has — “the substantive freedoms he or she enjoys to lead the kind of life he or she has reason to value” (Sen 1999, p.87). Such freedoms are the basis of individual autonomy. Those with more resources may be better positioned to pursue their goals and objectives, while those with fewer resources may find that their ability to pursue their goals and objectives are limited.

An individual’s ability to pursue their goals and objectives is important to democracy for yet another reason. A democracy, especially as its legitimacy and power are derived from popular consent, assumes that individuals have the capacity to reason for themselves, i.e. to deliberate in the public square, and to act on that capacity in a responsible manner. They cannot effectively participate, whether it be in full policy discussions or selecting their own representatives, if they cannot deliberate in a rational manner. As democracy requires that individuals execute their agency, human agency must be protected. But this human agency also presupposes that basic material needs will have been met, which may be less likely given ever widening disparities in wealth and income. Democracy also requires a measure of trust between people, and growing income inequality is said to threaten trust as various groups, mainly those at the bottom, experience political alienation and perceive the system not to be fair. As social capital is the glue that holds society together (Stiglitz 2012), if individuals believe that the economic and political system is unfair, the glue does not work and society does not function well. This is because institutions effectively promote trust. A trusting population tends to be more cooperative, and governments with trusting populations tend to be less corrupt and function with less conflict and greater responsiveness (Uslaner 2008).

Impact of Inequality on Civic Participation

Income inequality not only distorts democracy in terms of how institutions and political actors respond to different levels of income, but it may have a profound effect on the development of social capital, which affects civic engagement. Democracy requires the active participation of citizens in the affairs of their communities, which extends beyond mere voting. Underlying social capital is the notion that civic virtue is most powerful when it is embedded in a dense network of social relations. American civil society has been defined by its associative life, in which Americans belong to voluntary organizations. And through these organizations, they participate in the affairs of their communities (Putnam 2000).

In a study of the relationship between income inequality and civic engagement, Levin-Waldman (2013) found that in 2008 individuals in households with different levels of income had different levels of civic engagement. Six measures of civic engagement were considered: daily discussions of politics, daily reading of newspapers — which were intended to speak to one’s knowledge about and interest in politics — involvement in protests, attendance at political meetings, visiting public officials, and participating in civic organizations. Participation was found to be greater on all measures of participation among those in households earning more than $100,000 a year than among those earning less than $30,000. Those at the highest end of the distribution were not necessarily more likely to be engaged than those between $30,000 and $99,999, but those in households between $30,000 to $59,999 were considerably more likely to be engaged than those in households below $30,000. Participation appeared to improve dramatically when one was in a household with income greater than $30,000. These differences alone would suggest that entry into the middle class might result in greater levels of civic participation. Moreover, logistical regressions found that those with higher incomes were more likely to be civically engaged, and that those earning less than a minimum wage were least likely to be engaged.

Aside from the adverse impact that income inequality has on civic engagement, it could also lead to political anomie. As family income inequality increases, those families below the median are further from the social norm than before. Similarly, those at the top of the distribution see a larger gap between themselves and the rest of the population. Families at the bottom of the distribution may end up drifting further from the mainstream, and thus may also experience greater alienation as those with greater resources may come to see them as both more distinct and undeserving. This may also have consequences for how citizens in turn view the potential role and functions of government (Haveman, Sandefeur, Wolfe, and Voyer 2004). Poor people experience greater social alienation because of their tendency to participate less, which means that they may be out of touch with common interests. But participation is also less likely because the alienation coming from social isolation will lead many to the conclusion that there really is no benefit from participation in the common project of which they are part. When resources are unequally distributed, those at the top and the bottom might not see themselves as sharing the same fate. Consequently, they have less reason to trust people of different backgrounds. Where inequality is high, people may be less optimistic about being masters of their own fate. Increasing inequality results in less participation because of declining trust (Uslaner and Brown 2005).


With rising inequality, it ought to be clear that there are serious challenges to democracy. It cannot be predicted with certainty just how disruptive inequality will be to democracy, as this is contingent on the fragility of democracy. In the U.S., we are clearly seeing an erosion in democracy in that elected representatives no longer represent all people equally. Rather there is greater responsiveness to those with resources, especially those contributing to political campaigns. Increasingly those without resources find themselves frozen out. In more fragile democracies, the response is unrest. And even in the U.S. we see some of that with various social protest movements. Although the results of the 2016 national election were not necessarily a response to rising income inequality, they were clearly a response to the larger economic conditions of which rising income inequality has been a symptom. Specifically, voters appeared to be rebelling against political elites who apparently were unable to deliver good job growth with rising wages. Voters chose a candidate who, rhetorically at least, was opposed to open borders and free trade, and were effectively challenging the commitment of elites to globalism — the same globalism that has resulted in the two-tier economy with highly skilled and paid workers at the top and poorly skilled and paid workers at the bottom. It might be a stretch to conclude that the election of Donald Trump represents a desire for authoritarianism. And yet, his critics view him as such, and if the voters were not choosing what they might have thought were authoritarian solutions to economic conditions, they were clearly responding to the very economic conditions that have been the source of rising inequality in recent years.

Notes and References

[i]  Dividend income is income from stocks and/or other types of investments.

Acemoglu, Daron and James A. Robinson. 2006. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and  Democracy. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bachrach, Peter and Aryeh Botwinick. 1992. Power and Empowerment: A Radical Theory of Participatory Democracy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Bartels, Larry M. 2008. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Belman, Dale and Paul J. Wolfson. 2014. What Does the Minimum Wage Do? Kalamazoo, MI: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

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

Gilens, Martin. 2012. Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. Princeton and New York: Princeton University Press/Russell Sage Foundation.

Hacker, Jacob S. & Paul Pierson. 2010. Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — And Turned its Back on the Middle Class. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Haveman, Robert, Gary Sandefeur, Barbara Wolfe, and Andrea Voyer. 2004. “Trends in Children’s Attainments and Their Determinants as Family Income Inequality Has Increased.” in Kathryn Neckerman ed., Social Inequality. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Levin-Waldman, Oren M. 2013. “Income, Civic Participation and Achieving Greater Democracy. Journal of Socio-Economics. 43,2:83-92.

Meltzer, Alan H. and Scott F. Richard. 1981. “A Rational Theory of the Size of Government.” Journal of Political Economy. 89,5: 914-927.

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Putnam, Robert. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. 2012. The Price of Inequality. New York: W.W. Norton.

Uslaner, Eric. 2008. “The Foundations of Trust: Macro and Micro.” Cambridge Journal of Economics. 32:289-294.

—————– and Mitchell Brown. 2005. “Inequality, Trust, and Civic Engagement.” American Politics Research. 33,6 (November):868-894.

Volscho, Thomas W. Jr. and Nathan J. Kelly. 2012. “The Rise of the Super-Rich: Power Resources, Taxes, Financial Markets, and the Dynamics of the Top 1 Percent, 1949-2008.” American Sociological Review. 77,5:679-699.

Zetterbaum, Marvin. 1987. “Alexis De Tocqueville.” In Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey eds., History of Political Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Can Democracy Help with Inequality?

Inequality is currently a prominent topic of debate in Western democracies. In democratic countries, we might expect rising inequality to be partially offset by an increase in political support for redistribution. This column argues that the relationship between democracy, redistribution, and inequality is more complicated than that. Elites in newly democratized countries may hold on to power in other ways, the liberalization of occupational choice may increase inequality among previously excluded groups, and the middle classes may redistribute income away from the poor as well as the rich.

There is a great deal of concern at the moment about the consequences of rising levels of inequality in North America and Western Europe. Will this lead to an oligarchisation of the political system, and imperil political and social stability? Many find such dynamics puzzling given that it is happening in democratic countries. In democratic societies, there ought to be political mechanisms that can inhibit or reverse large rises in inequality, most likely through the fiscal system. Indeed, one of the most central models in political economy, due originally to Meltzer and Richard (1981), suggests that high inequality in a democracy should lead the politically powerful (in their model the voter at the median of the income distribution) to vote for higher levels of taxes and redistribution, which would partially offset rising inequality.

But before asking about what happens in a democracy, we could start with some even more fundamental questions. Is it correct factually that democracies redistribute more income than dictatorships? When a country becomes democratic, does this tend to increase redistribution and reduce inequality? The existing scholarship on these questions, though vast, is quite contradictory. Historical studies, such as Acemoglu and Robinson (2000) and Lindert (2004), tend to suggest that democratization increases redistribution and reduces inequality. Using cross-national data, Gil et al. (2004) find no correlation between democracy as measured by the Polity score and any government spending or policy outcome. The evidence on the impact of democracy on inequality is similarly puzzling. An early survey by Sirowy and Inkeles (1990) concludes, “the existing evidence suggests that the level of political democracy as measured at one point in time tends not to be widely associated with lower levels of income inequality” (p. 151), though Rodrik (1999) finds that both the Freedom House and Polity III measures of democracy were positively correlated with average real wages in manufacturing and the share of wages in national income (in specifications that also control for productivity, GDP per capita, and a price index).

In a recent working paper (Acemoglu et al. 2013), we revisit these questions both theoretically and empirically.

Theoretical Nuances

Theoretically, we point out why the relationship between democracy, redistribution, and inequality may be more complex than the discussion above might suggest. First, democracy may be ‘captured’ or ‘constrained’. In particular, even though democracy clearly changes the distribution of de jure power in society, policy outcomes and inequality depend not just on the de jure but also the de facto distribution of power. Acemoglu and Robinson (2008) argue that, under certain circumstances, elites who see their de jure power eroded by democratization may sufficiently increase their investments in de facto power (e.g. via control of local law enforcement, mobilization of non-state armed actors, lobbying, and other means of capturing the party system) in order to continue to control the political process. If so, we would not see much impact of democratization on redistribution and inequality. Similarly, democracy may be constrained by other de jure institutions such as constitutions, conservative political parties, and judiciaries, or by de facto threats of coups, capital flight, or widespread tax evasion by the elite.

Democratization can also result in ‘inequality-increasing market opportunities’. Non-democracy may exclude a large fraction of the population from productive occupations (e.g. skilled occupations) and entrepreneurship (including lucrative contracts), as in Apartheid South Africa or the former Soviet Union. To the extent that there is significant heterogeneity within this population, the freedom to take part in economic activities on a more level playing field with the previous elite may actually increase inequality within the excluded or repressed group, and consequently the entire society.

Finally, consistent with Stigler’s ‘Director’s Law’ (1970), democracy may transfer political power to the middle class, rather than the poor. If so, redistribution may increase and inequality may be curtailed only if the middle class is in favour of such redistribution.
But what are the basic robust facts, and do they support any of these mechanisms?

Empirical Evidence

Cross-sectional (cross-national) regressions, or regressions that do not control for country fixed effects, will be heavily confounded with other factors likely to be simultaneously correlated with democracy and inequality. In our work we therefore focus on a consistent panel of countries, and investigate whether countries that become democratic redistribute more and reduce inequality relative to others. We also focus on a consistent definition of democratization based on Freedom House and Polity indices, building on the work by Papaioannou and Siourounis (2008).

One of the problems of these indices is the significant measurement error, which creates spurious movements in democracy. To minimize the influence of such measurement error, we create a dichotomous measure of democracy using information from both the Freedom House and Polity data sets, as well as other codings of democracies, to resolve ambiguous cases. This leads to a binary measure of democracy for 184 countries annually from 1960 (or post-1960 year of independence) to 2010. We also pay special attention to modeling the dynamics of our outcomes of interest – taxes as a percentage of GDP, and various measures of structural change and inequality.

Our empirical investigation uncovers a number of interesting patterns. First, we find a robust and quantitatively large effect of democracy on tax revenues as a percentage of GDP (and also on total government revenues as a percentage of GDP). The long-run effect of democracy in our preferred specification is about a 16% increase in tax revenues as a fraction of GDP. This pattern is robust to various different econometric techniques and to the inclusion of other potential determinants of taxes, such as unrest, war, and education.

Second, we find an effect of democracy on secondary school enrolment and the extent of structural transformation (e.g. an impact on the nonagricultural shares of employment and output).

Third, however, we find a much more limited effect of democracy on inequality. Even though some measures and some specifications indicate that inequality declines after democratization, there is no robust pattern in the data (certainly nothing comparable to the results on taxes and government revenue). This may reflect the poorer quality of inequality data. But we also suspect it may be related to the more complex, nuanced theoretical relationships between democracy and inequality pointed out above.

Fourth, we investigate whether there are heterogeneous effects of democracy on taxes and inequality consistent with these more nuanced theoretical relationships. The evidence here points to an inequality-increasing impact of democracy in societies with a high degree of land inequality, which we interpret as evidence of (partial) capture of democratic decision-making by landed elites. We also find that inequality increases following a democratisation in relatively nonagricultural societies, and also when the extent of disequalising economic activities is greater in the global economy as measured by US top income shares (though this effect is less robust). These correlations are consistent with the inequality-inducing effects of access to market opportunities created by democracy. We also find that democracy tends to increase inequality and taxation when the middle class are relatively richer compared to the rich and poor. These correlations are consistent with Director’s Law, which suggests that democracy allows the middle class to redistribute from both the rich and the poor to itself.


These results do suggest that some of our basic intuitions about democracy are right – democracy does represent a real shift in political power away from elites that has first-order consequences for redistribution and government policy. But the impact of democracy on inequality may be more limited than one might have expected.

This might be because recent increases in inequality are ‘market-induced’ in the sense of being caused by technological change. But at the same time, our work also suggests reasons why democracy may not counteract inequality. Most importantly, this may be because, as in the Director’s Law, the middle classes use democracy to redistribute to themselves. Nevertheless, since the increase in inequality in the US has been associated with a significant surge in the share of income accruing to the very rich, compared to both the middle class and the poor, Director’s Law-type mechanisms seem unlikely to be able to explain why policy has not changed to counteract this. Clearly other political mechanisms must be at work, the nature of which requires a great deal of research.


Acemoglu, Daron and James A Robinson (2000), “Why Did the West Extend the Franchise?”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115: 1167–1199.

Acemoglu, Daron and James A Robinson (2008), “Persistence of Power, Elites and Institutions”, The American Economic Review, 98: 267–291.

Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, Pascual Restrepo, and James A Robinson (2013), “Democracy, Redistribution and Inequality”, NBER Working Paper 19746.

Gil, Ricard, Casey B Mulligan, and Xavier Sala-i-Martin (2004), “Do Democracies have different Public Policies than Nondemocracies?”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18: 51–74.

Lindert, Peter H (2004), Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Meltzer, Allan M and Scott F Richard (1981), “A Rational Theory of the Size of Government”, Journal of Political Economy, 89: 914–927.

Papaioannou, Elias and Gregorios Siourounis (2008), “Democratisation and Growth”, Economic Journal, 118(532): 1520–1551.

Rodrik, Dani (1999), “Democracies Pay Higher Wages”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 114: 707–738.

Sirowy, Larry and Alex Inkeles (1990), “The Effects of Democracy on Economic Growth and Inequality: A Review”, Studies in Comparative International Development, 25: 126–157.

Stigler, George J (1970), “Director’s Law of public income redistribution”, Journal of Law and Economics, 13: 1–10.


Fascism Is on the March. We Need Radical Education to Fight Back

October 19, 2020 Leave a comment

“We must believe in the Principle of Hope. A Marxist does not have the right to be a pessimist.” —Ernst Bloch

Something sinister and horrifying is happening to liberal democracies all over the globe. Democratic institutions, such as the independent media, schools, the legal system, certain financial institutions, and higher education are under siege worldwide. Some of the latest examples of this can be found in the resurgence of vigilantes and right-wing militia groups along the southern border and the intrusion of tech-based educational practices into schools producing curricula that some parents claim turn kids into zombies. Trump’s continued attack on higher education offers another highly visible example: His proposed 2020 budget request would enact a staggering $7.1 billion reduction in the Education Department as part of a policy to dismantle the department itself.

The promise of democracy is receding as present-day fascists work to subvert language, values, courage, vision and a critical consciousness. Education has increasingly become a tool of domination as the entrepreneurs of hate deploy right-wing pedagogical apparatuses to attack workers, Black youth, refugees, immigrants and others they consider disposable. In the midst of a moment when an older social order is crumbling and a new one is struggling to define itself, there emerges a moment of confusion and danger. We are once again at a historical juncture in which the structures of liberation and authoritarianism are vying over the future.

The history of the present has reached a point when, in the words of Peter Thompson, “possibilities are either realized or rejected but never disappear completely.” Two worlds are colliding: First, as a number of scholars have observed, there is the harsh and crumbling world of neoliberal globalization and its mobilizing passions that fuel different strands of fascism across the globe, including the United States. Power is now enamored with amassing profits and capital and is increasingly addicted to a politics of white nationalism and racial cleansing. Second, as Charles Derber argues in Welcome to the Revolution, there is the world of counter movements, which is growing especially among young people, with their search for a new politics that can rethink, reclaim and invent a new understanding of democratic socialism, untainted by capitalism.

What is not in doubt is that all across the world, the global thrust toward democratization that emerged after World War II is giving way once again to authoritarian tyrannies. As alarming as the signs may be, the public cannot look away and allow the terrors of the unforeseen to be given free rein. Those who believe in democratic socialism cannot allow the power of dreams and militant hopes to turn into nightmares.

Resisting Fascism Requires Making Education Central to Politics

It is hard to imagine a more urgent moment for making education central to politics. If we are going to develop a politics capable of awakening our critical, imaginative and historical sensibilities, it is crucial for educators and others to develop a collective language of critique and possibility. Such a language is necessary to enable the conditions to forge a collective international resistance among educators, youth, workers, artists and other cultural workers in defense of public goods. Such a movement is important to resist and overcome the tyrannical fascist nightmares that have descended upon the United States, Brazil and a number of other countries in Europe plagued by the rise of neo-Nazi parties. In an age of social isolation, information overflow, a culture of immediacy, consumer glut and spectacularized violence, it is all the more crucial to take seriously the notion that a democracy cannot exist or be defended without informed and critically engaged citizens.

Education, both in its symbolic and institutional forms, has a central role to play in fighting the resurgence of fascist cultures, mythic historical narratives and the emerging ideologies of white supremacy and white nationalism. Moreover, at a time when fascists across the globe are disseminating toxic racist and ultra-nationalist images of the past, it is essential to reclaim education as a form of historical consciousness and moral witnessing. This is especially true at a time when historical and social amnesia have become a national pastime, particularly in the United States, matched only by the masculinization of the public sphere and the increasing normalization of a fascist politics that thrives on ignorance, fear, hatred, social cleansing, the suppression of dissent and white supremacy. Education as a form of cultural work extends far beyond the classroom, and its pedagogical influence, while often imperceptible, is crucial to challenging and resisting the rise of fascist pedagogical formations and their rehabilitation of fascist principles and ideas.

Against a numbing indifference, despair or withdrawal into the private orbits of the isolated self, there is a need to create those cultural apparatuses and formative cultures that do the pedagogical work of promoting civic courage, fostering the capacity to listen to others, sustaining complex thoughts and engaging social problems. We have no other choice if we are to resist the increasing destabilization of democratic institutions such as those regulatory institutions that provide for people’s basic needs and their personal and political rights. In addition, there is also the need to resist the increasing assault on reason, the collapse of the distinction between fact and fiction, and the taste for brutality that now spreads like a plague across a number of countries, including the U.S.

Those who believe in democratic socialism cannot allow the power of dreams and militant hopes to turn into nightmares.

The pedagogical lesson here is that fascism begins with hateful words, the demonization of others considered disposable, and moves to an attack on ideas, the burning of books, the disappearance of intellectuals, and the emergence of the carceral state and the horrors of detention jails and camps. As a form of cultural politics, critical pedagogy provides the promise of a protected space within which to think against the grain of received opinion, to question and challenge, to imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives, to reflect upon ourselves in relation to others and, in so doing, to understand what it means to “assume a sense of political and social responsibility.”

Let’s Reverse the Neoliberal Dismantling of Public Education

Cultural politics in the last 20 years has turned toxic as ruling elites increasingly gain control of commanding cultural apparatuses, turning them into pedagogical disimagination machines that serve the forces of ethical tranquilization by producing and legitimating endless degrading and humiliating images of the poor, immigrants, Muslims and others considered excess, as wasted lives doomed to terminal exclusion. The capitalist dream machine is back with huge profits for the ultra-rich, hedge fund managers and major players in the financial service industries. In these new landscapes of wealth, and fraud, and social atomization, a brutal and fanatical capitalism promotes a winner-take-all ethos, a culture of cruelty and white nationalism, aggressively undermining the welfare state while pushing millions into hardship and misery. The geographies of moral and political decadence have become the organizing standard of the dream worlds of consumption, privatization, surveillance and deregulation. Within this increasingly fascist landscape, public spheres are replaced by zones of social abandonment and thrive on the energies of the walking dead and avatars of cruelty and misery. Education within the last three decades has diminished rapidly in its capacities to educate young people and others to be reflective, critical and socially engaged agents. Under neoliberal regimes now flirting with white supremacy, the apostles of authoritarianism have deemed the utopian possibilities formerly associated with public education as too dangerous to go unchecked. Increasingly public schools — which could have such a radical potential to promote social equality and support democracy — are falling subject to the toxic forces of privatization and mindless standardized curricula, while teachers are subjected to intolerable labor conditions. Higher education now mimics a business culture run by a managerial army of bureaucrats, drunk on market values, who resemble the high priests of a deadening instrumental rationality. The commanding visions of democracy are in exile at all levels of education.

Higher education now mimics a business culture run by a managerial army of bureaucrats, drunk on market values.

The struggle, however, is far from over. The good news is that there is an increasing wave of strikes by teachers, public servants, and workers both in the United States and abroad who are resisting the cruel machinery of exploitation, racism, austerity and disposability unleashed by neoliberalism in the past 40 years.

Critical thought and the imaginings of a better world present a direct threat to a neoliberal paradigm in which the future must always replicate the present in an endless circle. Capital and the identities that it legitimates merge with each other into what might be called a dead zone of the imagination and pedagogies of repression. This dystopian impulse thrives on producing myriad forms of violence — encompassing both the symbolic and the structural — as part of a broader attempt to define education in purely instrumental, privatized and anti-intellectual terms. It is precisely this replacement of educated hope with an aggressive dystopian project and cultural politics that now characterizes the current assault on public and higher education in various parts of the globe extending from the United States and the United Kingdom to Greece, Turkey and Spain.

It is crucial for educators to remember that language is not simply an instrument of fear, violence and intimidation; language is also a vehicle for critique, civic courage, resistance and engaged and informed agency. We live at a time when the language of democracy has been pillaged, stripped of its promises and hopes. If fascism is to be defeated, there is a need to make education an organizing principle of politics. In part, this can be done with a language that exposes and unravels falsehoods, systems of oppression and corrupt relations of power while making clear that an alternative future is possible. Hannah Arendt was right in arguing that language is crucial in highlighting the often hidden “crystalized elements” that make fascism likely. Language is a powerful tool in the search for truth and the condemnation of falsehoods and injustices.

This is even more reason for educators to make the political more pedagogical and the pedagogical more political in order to recognize, on the one hand, that pedagogy is always a struggle over agency, identities, desire and values. And, on the other, recognizing that it has a crucial role to play in addressing important social issues and to defend public and higher education as democratic public spheres. Making the political more pedagogical in this instance suggests producing modes of knowledge and social practices that not only affirm oppositional cultural work but also offer opportunities to mobilize instances of collective outrage, if not mass action, against a ruthless casino capitalism and an emerging fascist politics. Such mobilization must oppose the glaring material inequities and the growing cynical belief that democracy and capitalism are synonymous. At the very least, critical pedagogy proposes that education is a form of political intervention in the world and that it is capable of creating the possibilities for social transformation.

Henry A. Giroux,Truthout

April 30, 2019

Note: The author would like to thank Dr. Rania Filippakou for her insightful editorial comments on this article.


Doing Democracy Differently: Political Practices and Transnational Civil Society

December 11, 2019 Leave a comment


Henrike Knappe (2017)

Transnational civil society networks have become increasingly important democratizing actors in global politics. Still, the exploration of democracy in such networks remains conceptually and methodologically challenging. Practice theory provides a framework to study democracy as routinized performances even in contexts of fluid boundaries, temporal relations and a diffuse constituency. The author attempts to understand how new forms of democratic practice emerge in the interaction between political actors and their structural environments.

During recent decades, the arenas of political decision-making have increasingly shifted from national governments to intergovernmental and transnational political forums. At the same time, the number and relevance of non-state actors in international politics is steadily growing. These trends have led political scientists to study and theorize about new forms of democracy beyond the national political arenas (Archibugi 2004, Bexell et al. 2010, Nasström 2010). However, democracy beyond the nation state is difficult to conceptualize with the idea of an institutionalized democracy within the borders of nation-states. Therefore, many political scientists emphasize the role of civil society actors as a cure for the democratic deficit in inter-national politics (Steffek & Nanz 2008). Yet, normative and empirical problems arise over the extent of access, selection and role of civil society actors in international organizations (Tallberg et al. 2013). Furthermore, the normative relevance of transnational civil society actors makes it necessary to study their own democratic legitimacy.

While international organizations are mostly institutionalized and hierarchical governing bodies, the ever growing diffuse conglomerate of non-state actors is characterized by fluid structures, blurry boundaries and a multi-level setting of interaction (Keck & Sikkink 1998). Thus, in studying democratic practice in transnational civil society networks, we must ask: How institutionalized does political practice have to be and how flexible can it be, to still be considered democratic? Normative theorists reconceptualized democracy in the light of this changing context (Bohman 2007). Recent concepts of participatory, deliberative and representative democracy attempt to reconfigure existing democratic institutions through procedural elements (Fung & Wright 2003, Dryzek 2006) or innovative forms of representation (Phillips 1998, Mansbridge 2003, Castiglione & Warren 2006). This emerging theoretical framework is well suited to analyze the extent, to which democratic practice exists within transnational civil society networks.

By applying the concept of practice (Giddens 1984, Schatzki 2001) as a bridging tool between the empirical reality of fluid, temporary and open transnational civil society networks on the one hand and the institution-oriented democratic theory on the other hand, this study explores the extent to which democratic practice develops in a field that lacks traditional institutions to guarantee formal representation and deliberation as well citizen participation. As innovative transnational actors, civil society networks can bring up new forms of democratic practice (see Polletta 2006) that can potentially inspire the debate about transnational democracy as such. This study, with its innovate approach, hopes to invigorate the debate about transnational democracy and transnational civil society, which has stalled to some degree in recent years.

The study is divided into three parts: first, a conceptual part that clarifies the question of how democracy as practice can be theoretically conceptualized in transnational civil society networks, which is followed by an empirical exploration of political practice in the transnational civil society networks. In this second part, the main question is how participation, representation and deliberation practice develops in transnational civil society networks. Two cases of transnational civil society networks, the Clean Clothes Campaign and Friends of the Earth, are analyzed to provide insights into the democratic practice within transnational civil society. In the final part, the empirical findings are evaluated in the light of the outlined concepts of democratic theory in order to explore how democratic the political practice actually is.

The study identifies implicit and in-process practice of democratic norms in transnational civil society networks. Political practice in transnational civil society networks can become democratic through empowerment measures and trustful relationships. However, deliberation practice can be impeded by disembodied digital communication and complex decision-making. The study explores how new forms of democratic practice emerge in the interaction between political actors and the structural environments of actors and networks.

Open Access: This is an open access title, which is free to download

Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics

December 5, 2019 Leave a comment

Yochai Benkler et al (2018) Network Propaganda

Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts

Is social media destroying democracy? Are Russian propaganda or “Fake news” entrepreneurs on Facebook undermining our sense of a shared reality? A conventional wisdom has emerged since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 that new technologies and their manipulation by foreign actors played a decisive role in his victory and are responsible for the sense of a “post-truth” moment in which disinformation and propaganda thrives.

Network Propaganda challenges that received wisdom through the most comprehensive study yet published on media coverage of American presidential politics from the start of the election cycle in April 2015 to the one year anniversary of the Trump presidency. Analyzing millions of news stories together with Twitter and Facebook shares, broadcast television and YouTube, the book provides a comprehensive overview of the architecture of contemporary American political communications. Through data analysis and detailed qualitative case studies of coverage of immigration, Clinton scandals, and the Trump Russia investigation, the book finds that the right-wing media ecosystem operates fundamentally differently than the rest of the media environment.

The authors argue that longstanding institutional, political, and cultural patterns in American politics interacted with technological change since the 1970s to create a propaganda feedback loop in American conservative media. This dynamic has marginalized center-right media and politicians, radicalized the right wing ecosystem, and rendered it susceptible to propaganda efforts, foreign and domestic. For readers outside the United States, the book offers a new perspective and methods for diagnosing the sources of, and potential solutions for, the perceived global crisis of democratic politics.


The Propaganda Model Today: Filtering Perception and Awareness

December 3, 2019 Leave a comment


Joan Pedro-Carañana et al. (eds.)


While the individual elements of the propaganda system (or filters) identified by the Propaganda Model (PM) – ownership, advertising, sources, flak and anti-communism – have previously been the focus of much scholarly attention, their systematisation in a model, empirical corroboration and historicisation have made the PM a useful tool for media analysis across cultural and geographical boundaries.

Despite the wealth of scholarly research Herman and Chomsky’s work has set into motion over the past decades, the PM has been subjected to marginalisation, poorly informed critiques and misrepresentations. Interestingly, while the PM enables researchers to form discerning predictions as regards corporate media performance, Herman and Chomsky had further predicted that the PM itself would meet with such marginalisation and contempt.

In current theoretical and empirical studies of mass media performance, uses of the PM continue, nonetheless, to yield important insights into the workings of political and economic power in society, due in large measure to the model’s considerable explanatory power.


Inequality, Democracy and Development under Neoliberalism and Beyond

September 25, 2015 Leave a comment

This book is the collection of articles by young researchers from Latin America, Africa and Asia who were laureates of the South-South Institute held in Bangkok, Thailand in November 2014. The primary objective of the South-South Institute is to offer advanced research training opportunities to the younger scholars on the diverse problems and challenges faced by the countries of the South, and the theoretical and methodological perspectives that might be appropriate for gaining a full understanding of the specific situation of the countries and peoples located outside the core of the international system such as it is presently structured.

The main premise of this effort is the glaring inadequacy of much of the theories and methodologies developed in the North, as crystallised in the mainstream social sciences, to provide the required instruments for a sound understanding of the problems confronting the countries of the South. The Institute mobilises young scholars from across the three continents, involving them in discussion, critiques and adaptations of existing theories and the generation of alternative approaches.

Authors : Sofiane Bouhdiba, Nicholas Kilimani, Sarah Helen Chiumbu, Lyn Ossome, Bonn Juego, Poorna Balaji, Sharmistha Sinha, Roshan Kishore, Zhun Xu, Wei Zhang, Bryan Joseph Ortiz, Emilianus, Yakob ese Tolo, Vanger, Emmanuel Terngu, Ogbonnaya, Ufiem Maurice, Meysis Carmenati, Chilenye Nwapi,

To download the book click here >>