In this Democracy Paper, Regina Kreide traces the different ways in which social inequality can, and is, undermining democratic politics. Kreide breaks down inequality into three dimensions—growing economic cleavages, deepening political segregation, and cultural invisibility. These trends combine to diminish many citizens’ faith in the future and open the door to populist appeals. The author argues that reversing democratic decline and ultimately inequality itself will take more thoroughgoing collective action beyond piecemeal reforms.
wealth and income distribution
Over the next months, Items will publish essays based on research presented at a spring workshop on the theme “Democratic Participation: A Broken Promise?” cosponsored by the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program’s Participation group and the German-based Democratic Anxieties. Here, Larry Bartels, cochair of the AOD Participation group, draws on recent work on the extent to which established democracies are disproportionately responsive to the preferences of their wealthiest citizens. While this is not news for observers of the United States, Bartels finds very similar patterns across what are often assumed to be the more egalitarian democracies of Europe.
Rachel Sherman provides a unique contribution to our What is Inequality? theme by focusing on the very top of the income bracket. Based on research among New Yorkers in the “1 percent,” Sherman uncovers the ways they understand and legitimize their wealth, in part through distinguishing their situation from other people of means who may not be “deserving.” Being legitimately “entitled” to affluence, according to the affluent, is based on a set of personal qualities with little reference to broader structural dimensions of inequality.
Sarah Bruch’s contribution to Items’ "What is Inequality?" theme makes a strong case that scholars need to include a relational perspective in interrogating the roots of inequality. Drawing from her research on how differences in access to quality education shape socioeconomic and political inequalities, Bruch argues that attending to distributional outcomes alone is insufficient in explaining, and ultimately addressing, the ways in which social structural relationships produce inequality and how different forms of inequality reinforce each other.
In the latest essay on "What is Inequality?," Simon Reid-Henry begins by asking, “Where is inequality?” In doing so, he argues that separating out analysis of “within-country” inequality and inequality between nations obscures how they shape and reinforce each other. Reid-Henry suggests that the framing deep poverty as a problem of “international development,” rather than of one of global inequality, limits our analyses and finding prospective solutions.
Tianna Paschel’s contribution to the "Reading Racial Conflict" series takes an international perspective. Her essay examines the roots and persistence of racial inequalities globally through the legacies of colonialism and impact of transnational capitalism. Paschel engages these questions of global justice through the lens of Walter Rodney and his extraordinarily influential book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Paschel argues for the continued relevance of this classic work to understanding today’s global economy and its winners and losers.
J. Phillip Thompson’s contribution to the "Reading Racial Conflict" series reflects on the concept of the two proletariats developed by W. E. B. Du Bois in his Black Reconstruction. Du Bois’s notion of a working class bifurcated along racial lines, Thompson argues, is critical for understandings of American capitalism and democracy. Thompson sees movements for racial justice as central to addressing inequalities, no less so than those directly claiming to represent the working class, which have historically tended to exclude black workers.
Pranab Bardhan’s contribution to the “What Is Inequality?” series focuses on the arguments and evidence for whether and how inequality shapes various dimensions of socioeconomic performance. Bardhan finds that, in many areas, there is not a trade-off between inequality and efficiency—indeed, the first may undermine the second. Evidence for the impact of inequality on phenomena that shape economic performance, such as the presence of sociopolitical conflict, is more mixed. Bardhan concludes with a discussion of which inequality matters—that of opportunity or outcome?
Maximilian Kasy’s contribution to the “What is Inequality?” series adopts a perspective of “normative individualism,” which considers overall social welfare through the lens of individual welfare and acknowledges that policy changes inevitably create winners and losers in terms of inequality. Drawing from his open online textbook on inequality, Kasy encourages attention to welfare weights that reveal “how much social welfare changes when we change individual welfare,” particularly as different individuals affect the aggregate differently, and argues that egalitarian outcomes emerge when greater weight is given to the poor in the policymaking that shapes wealth distribution.
The current focus on inequality, argues Danielle Allen, makes it more imperative than ever to better understand the concept of “equality.” Allen’s essay focuses especially on political equality, which requires attention in its own right and in relation to other dimensions of (in)equality. Through a critical engagement with John Rawls’s work, she argues that public autonomy (“positive liberties”) is central to imagining and realizing political equality.