Unequal Democracies is a five-year research program, directed by Jonas Pontusson and funded by the European Research Council (Advanced Grant 741538).  Started in September, 2017, the Unequal Democracies Project explores how rising income and wealth inequality affects the way that political processes in liberal democracies work.


General themes

Our core premise is that two distinct streams of recent research must be brought together in order to address this overarching question of how income and wealth inequality affects democratic politics. One of these research streams focuses on how inequality affects the policy preferences of different citizens; the other research stream addresses the effects of inequality on the responsiveness of parties and governments to the policy preferences of different citizens.

An extensive body of scholarship documents a pronounced income bias in government responsiveness in the United States. It is hardly a coincidence that income (before and after taxes and transfers) is distributed more unequally in the US than in any other advanced capitalist society. Our working hypothesis is that this pattern is not an exclusively US phenomenon: the income bias in government responsiveness becomes more pronounced in other democracies as they, too, become more unequal. A number of recent studies already point in this direction, but cross-national measures of income bias in government responsiveness have yet to be developed.  Our research program seeks to tackle this challenge by relating the policy preferences of citizens to the policy preferences of government officials and actual policy decisions. Equally important, we wish to assess to what extent the income bias in government responsiveness has changed over time.

Comparing levels of income bias in policy responsiveness across countries and over time should allow us to understand better the causal mechanisms behind this phenomenon. Income bias might be attributed to inequality in electoral turnout and other forms of political participation. It may also be due to the fact that elected representatives tend to be individuals with relatively high levels of education, occupational status, and income (“descriptive misrepresentation”) or to the influence that wealthy individuals exert over policy through political donations and control of media. In the European context, finally, income bias may be related to the transfer of political decision-making to the supranational level. In exploring mechanisms that give rise to income bias, our research program considers representation of specific categories of citizens.  Unequal democracies may not be biased against all low-income citizens but against specific categories of citizens (low-skill workers, women, minorities, immigrants) who are over-represented in the lower half of the income distribution.

The US literature tells us that the preferences of more affluent citizens tend to prevail when they are opposed to the preferences of average and low-income citizens. To the extent that income bias increases with income inequality, this could simply be a result of more polarized preferences (rather than an increase in income bias per se). Thus it becomes necessary to take into account how rising inequality affects the policy preferences of different citizens. Relative to existing literature on this topic, the Unequal Democracies Project focuses on concrete policies, as distinct from broad political orientations captured by survey questions about “support for redistribution.” Exploring how responses to rising low-end inequality (attitudes towards the poor) differ from responses to rising high-end inequality (attitudes towards the rich), our approach to preference formation also seeks to take categorical inequalities into account.  Some manifestations of rising inequality may be more apparent to citizens than others and different forms of inequality may be perceived as more or less legitimate. It seems likely that the resource advantages that affluent citizens and corporate interests enjoy in unequal democracies influence not only the attitudes and behavior of political decision-makers, but also the attitudes and behavior of citizens. We address these questions through original survey research, including survey experiments, as well as analyses of existing survey data.

Our research program pays particular attention to the changing role of trade unions in liberal democracies.  As commonly recognized in existing literature, citizens who belong to unions are more likely to participate in politics than their fellow citizens and the effect of union membership on participation is particularly pronounced for citizens with low levels of education and low incomes. Some existing studies also suggest that union members are better informed about changes in the income distribution and more likely to respond to rising inequality by demanding compensatory redistribution. Finally, there can be little doubt that trade unions, as collective actors, have historically served as a counter-weight to the political influence of affluent citizens and corporate interests. For any and all of these reasons, the OECD-wide decline of unionization, particularly unionization of low-income workers, would appear to be an important factor behind the rise of income inequality and income bias in democratic representation.

Overall, then, we seek to contribute to the debates among social scientists by (1) taking into account how inequality shapes citizens’ preferences as well as the responsiveness of political elites,  (2) assessing the relative importance of different mechanisms underlying unequal responsiveness and (3) paying special attention to the collective organization of low-income citizens.   In light of the current travails of liberal democracies, the societal relevance of these questions should be evident.  Recent debates about the rise of “populism” in liberal democracies have focused on the importance of economic grievances relative to cultural values as motivations for voters’ support for populist parties.  Our working hypothesis is that grievances about unequal political representation of different citizens, or categories of citizens, are crucially important for understanding the discontent that fuels support for populist parties.  In policy terms, compensatory redistribution of income might be seen as a means to restore the legitimacy of free trade and free movement of labor and capital, but it is not by accident that governments have failed to move in this direction.   We need to engage with changes in the way that democracy works and to consider, based on empirical research, concrete reforms to reverse inegalitarian trends in the political domain.


Current activities

A team consisting of nine researchers—two professors, five postdocs and three PhD students—has been assembled since the start of Unequal Democracies.  Three additional PhD students, working on independent projects that speak to our overall concerns, participate regularly in the activities of the research team.

Our research activities are organized into two main working groups and two smaller groups.  One working group (Giger, Lascombes, Pontusson and Rosset) has designed a survey to be fielded in fourteen countries in June 2019.   Co-funded by a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation, with Professor Nathalie Giger as PI, the survey explores perceptions of unequal political representation as well as perceptions of income inequality, norms about fairness, and preferences for different kinds of redistributive policies.  Members of this working group are engaged in a number of research projects in the field of comparative public opinion and political behavior.

The second working group (Käppner, Joosten, Poltier and Pontusson) focuses on the question of unequal political representation.  To explore this question comparatively, the group has assembled a new dataset based on existing cross-national surveys that allow us to measure policy preferences by income across more than 50 countries and also, for some countries, to explore variation in government responsiveness since the early 1970s.  The two PhD students attached to this working group have begun to design PhD projects that will combine cross-national quantitative analyses with more qualitative analyses of policy-making in select countries.   In a related vein, one of the other postdocs working for Unequal Democracies (Rennwald) has designed a research project that will use data from the International Social Survey Program to explore how perceptions of one’s own political influence vary by income and occupation and how such perceptions have changed over time.

The two smaller working groups—or projects—straddle the distinction between the preferences and behavior of citizens, on the one hand, and government responsiveness to citizens, on the other hand.  Carried out by the PI and one postdoc (Wüest), the first of these “transversal” projects addresses the origins as well as the consequences of the fact members of parliament typically come from more prestigious occupational backgrounds than the citizens they are supposed to represent (“descriptive misrepresentation”).   A prior grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation funded a survey experiment about voter preferences for different parliamentary candidates was fielded in 2017.  We have designed and obtained ethics approval for a second survey experiment that will be fielded in the UK and the US in May-June 2019.

Focusing on trade unions, the second transversal project addresses the effects of union membership on the policy preferences and political behavior of individual citizens as well as the role of unions as collective actors who affect government responsiveness to different categories of citizens. The researchers engaged in this project (Mosimann, Pontusson and Rennwald) have designed the module on union membership for the 14-country survey to be fielded in June 2019, and are planning a workshop on the “working-class politics in the 21st century” for the Joint Sessions of the European Consortium on Political Research in 2020.

Two of the stand-alone PhD projects affiliated with Unequal Democracies explore the politics of immigration.  One of these projects (Kayran) analyzes how labor-market insecurities associated with immigration affects policy preferences and voting behavior and the other (Nadler) seeks to assess the extent to which the policy preferences of immigrants differ from those of “natives” across Western Europe and the conditions under which political parties and governments are attentive to the distinctive concerns of immigrants.  The third stand-alone PhD project (Alvarado) investigates the relationship between sources of government revenue and public attitudes in Latin America as well as advanced democracies.

The entire team meets on a regular basis to coordinate research tasks and to discuss substantive and methodological questions that cut across the projects identified above.   We run a regular seminar series in which team members as well as scholars from other universities present their work.   So far, we have organized workshops on “trade unions and the politics of inequality (April 2018) and “new perspectives on inequality and individual policy preferences” (November 2018).  A third workshop, on “unequal responsiveness in comparative perspective” will be held at the University of Geneva in June, 2019.


Looking ahead

Two new themes will be added to the overall research program in the near future.   First, our discussions and empirical analyses to date have followed existing literature in political science by focusing policy of different income groups and unequal political representation conceived in terms of “income bias.”  Going forward, we want to pay more attention to the representation of the policy preferences of socio-economic groups defined by occupation and sector of employment. The second theme to be added concerns the political consequences of unequal representation.  Most obviously, we want to explore the extent to objective measures of unequal representation and perceptions of unequal representation are associated with each other and with political disengagement or right-wing populism.