Income Inequality Lowers Support for Democracy

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A large gap between rich and poor could be corrosive for a democratic political system.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

On his current European tour, President Barack Obama has been making the affirmative case for democracy — a pretty magnanimous gesture given that his own party was just voted out of office. But under what conditions do citizens of a nation lose faith in this form of government, and perhaps become tempted to try something else?

Timely new research provides a clear answer: high levels of income inequality.

“Income inequality drives the gap in satisfaction with democracy between electoral winners and losers,” write Michigan State University political scientists Sung Min Han and Eric C.C. Chang.

They argue in the journal Electoral Studies that, when there is a large disparity between rich and poor, winning becomes more important in the eyes of partisans on both sides, and losers become more discontent with the political system.

The researchers used data from the Comparative Studies of Electoral Systems project, a collaborative program in which scholars in many nations ask voters identical questions in post-election surveys. Han and Chang looked specifically at one question: “On the whole, are you very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not very satisfied, or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works in (your country)?”

They also examined whether the respondent supported the winning party or candidate in the most recent presidential or parliamentary election. Income inequality was measured using the Standardized World Income Equality Database.

Finally, the researchers took into account other variables that could affect support for democracy, including how long the country has been operating under such a system, the nation’s level of corruption, and the respondents’ age and education levels.

“Economic parity produces a similar level of democratic satisfaction between electoral winners and losers,” they report. “But as income inequality grows … electoral winners are more satisfied, while electoral losers are more discontent with the way democracy works.”

“Our findings suggest that rising income inequality pits political winners and losers against each other,” Chang said in announcing the study. “And this conflict over economic interests can undermine citizens’ satisfaction with democracy, and lead to instability.”

So if, as a society, we needed another reason to be concerned about income inequality, here it is. The health of our democracy may depend on narrowing that gap.