Discontent with democracy - How income inequality affects the satisfaction with democratic realities

Seminar Paper, 2011

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical Considerations
2.1 The Purpose of Democracy
2.2 Demands towards Democracy
2.3 Hypotheses

3 Analysis
3.1 Research Design
3.2 Results

4 Discussion

5 Concluding statements


Index of Tables

Table 1: Satisfaction with Democracy and Gini-Coefficient in 21 EU-States

Table 2: ANOVA Satisfaction across Countries

Table 3: Income Inequality and Satisfaction in 21 EU-States

Index of Figures

Figure 1: The Effect of Income Inequality on Satisfaction with Democracy

1 Introduction

There can be little doubt that democracy has told a tremendous story of success in the last decades and has become state of the art in governing a state (Stoker 2006: 26). After the defeat of socialism and the end of the Soviet Union the triumph of democracy was regarded as complete by many (e.g. Fukuyama 1989). In fact the majority of states can be classifies as democracies based on minimum criteria in 2010 (Freedom House 2010). Democracy is said to have achieved status as universal value (Sen 1999a) and opinion surveys support the notion that democracy has obtained acceptance as a superior value in vast regions of the world (Stoker 2006: 28).

Nevertheless a growing disenchantment with and alienation from democratic practice has been diagnosed (Hay 2007: 11-38). Not only has a decline in formal political participation like electoral turnout been observed. Participation in informal politics seems to be in a transition too, experiencing a shift from long term commitments to short term activities (Stoker 2006: 99f.). Whereas some perceive the change as just a transformation of political participation, others deem it to be a threatening erosion of support for democracy.

Various accounts to the phenomenon of growing dissatisfaction have been given. In his seminal defence of democracy titled ‘Why politics matters’ Gerry Stoker plays down economic factors for growing discontent with democracy in economically successful countries by stating that dissatisfaction “appears to be unconnected in any clear way with their relative economic performance” (Stoker 2006: 51). While this seems plausible for highly developed economies, an aggregate view on economic development might miss economic causes for discontent that rest on interpersonal comparisons of welfare among the members of a society. By asking “How sustainable is the love of a procedure such as democracy unless it helps you achieve something?” (Stoker 2006: 24) Stoker thus might point to one of the core reasons for the problem without considering it further. It seems reasonable to suppose that personal failure in economic terms is tracked back to the political system and can lead to disappointment and alienation. A system that makes winners and losers is less likely to be embraced by the latter (Andersen et al. 2005: 3). Indeed, previous empirical research suggests that income inequality is detrimental to the satisfaction with democracy1. This negative effect should be especially strong when the reduction of income differences is perceived as the responsibility of the government, i.e. when the expectations towards democracy regarding income distribution are disappointed.

In order to facilitate the main statement of this paper it will first be argued that inequality of income is a cause for dissatisfaction with democratic politics in European developed economies. Then, and mainly, it is argued that the negative effect of income inequality on satisfaction with democracy is the larger the more the citizens want governments to take measures to reduce income differences. The aim of this paper is to extend the sparse empirically grounded literature by shedding more light on the causal link between income inequality and dissatisfaction with democracy. Political scientists in the past have usually just assumed that citizens negatively respond to income inequality without examining cause and effect in detail (Andersen/ Singer 2008: 573). In particular, it shall be analyzed whether dissatisfaction is caused by a failure of democracy to live up to the expectations people have regarding social justice. Is dissatisfaction really a cognizant reaction to income inequality?

The analysis proceeds in three steps. In the second part two testable hypotheses concerning the effect of income inequality on the satisfaction with democracy are being derived from theoretical considerations based on the purpose of democracy, the role of political and economic equality, and expectations towards democracy that follow from them. In the third part the hypotheses are being tested based on data from the European Social Survey 2008. In the last step the findings of the analysis and their implications for democratic polities and dissatisfaction research are being discussed.

2 Theoretical Considerations

“[…] nations are less disposed to make revolutions in proportion as personal property is augmented and distributed among them, and as the number of those possessing it is increased” (de Tocqueville 1862: 312).

2.1 The Purpose of Democracy

The growing dissatisfaction with democracy despite its overwhelming acceptance as superior mode of governing raises the question whether democracy does what it is supposed to do. The discontent with the way democracy actually works might be explained then as the result of its failure to live up to its promises. Under this assumption it is a good starting point for an analysis to first establish the very purpose of democracy.

There are several approaches in explaining the purpose of democracy and justifying it. It is common to distinguish between arguments that declare democracy intrinsically valuable and arguments that point at the actual outcomes generated by democracy (Christiano 1996: 15f.). Those lines of argumentation are therefore referred to as intrinsic and instrumentalist.

The first value the intrinsic argumentation draws on is liberty. In enabling self- government of the people, a democratic state is argued to be best suited to establish general freedom among the people (Dahl 2000: 50ff.). One objection could now be that a life without a state at all would provide the people with more freedom than the most libertarian state ever could. Such a world is hard to imagine though. Without laws people would find themselves most probably in an anarchic world, which Thomas Hobbes once depicted as a “Warre of every one against every one” (Hobbes 1651: 62). Therefore it is commonly accepted that freedom has to be restricted in order to facilitate society. Only when these restrictions are self-imposed individuals can live in a world in which their freedom is the greatest possible. Insofar as the state is deemed a necessity and liberty is regarded as intrinsically valuable and desirable, democracy is too (Christiano 1996: 15). The second pivotal value is political equality which democracy is argued to be best suited to facilitate. As it is not self-evident that everybody should be equal, the status of equality as value needs some elaboration. Equality is a moral principle and therefore contestable (Dahl 2000: 63ff.). Thomas Christiano’s justification of the principle of political equality2 rests on the assumption that a society has to decide about ‘collective properties of the society’. As individual interests are highly interconnected, decisions about collective properties bear potential of conflict. The question is who should make decisions and why a choice over collective properties should require an equal distribution of political power. The belief that collective properties should be subject to just solutions requires that each individual’s interest is given equal consideration. To propose that every individual shall have the same well-being is implausible in light of the impossibility to determine everybody’s ever changing interests. The argument for political equality is then that it is a means to give each individual the opportunity to discover and pursue its own interests and that it is therefore intrinsically just (Griffin 2003: 120). The principle of political equality states that everyone should have an equal say in decisions that affect his interests. People thus should have equal political resources3 in order to influence the outcome of the collective decision, may it be votes or other means. Insofar as political equality is regarded as intrinsically valuable, democracy is too as it is a means to that end. But, as will be shown later on, giving everyone in the political body an equal say in collective decisions is no sufficient condition for the realization of political equality.

Instrumentalist justifications of democracy state that democracy generates better decisions] and better outcomes than any other feasible alternative and is therefore preferable. As every citizen is involved in the decision-making, democracy is able to make the best decisions from a moral point of view and provides more rights and freedom than any alternative. Furthermore, the inclusion of many voices reliably generates superior laws and policies compared to other forms of decision-making. Through its affinity to market economy democracy is argued to be best suited to ensure economic prosperity and the well-being of the people (Dahl 2000: 58f.)4. Amartya Sen (1999b: 152) notes that “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government”. Indeed have democracies been most successful in economic terms. Another argument put forward is the observation that democracies do not wage wars against each other and thus serve the promotion of peace (Odinius 2008: 4). The weakness of instrumental justifications is that democracy can fall victim to the proof that non-democratic regimes perform better. But while this chapter is not to make a case against the instrumental argumentation for democracy, it is rather to point at some similarities between intrinsic and instrumental justifications in terms of equality.

Firstly, to speak about equality in intrinsic terms means to speak about political equality only. In democratic reality political equality however is closely connected to social and economic equality. What is the point of political equality when a lack of education makes a citizen unable to understand how decision-making takes place, how views can be expressed or renders him unable to make himself clear about his wishes in the first place? How can formal equality be put to use when a prohibitive lack of financial resources prevents political activities? Such a citizen does not have the same opportunities as a wealthy and well educated citizen that knows how to express preferences, how to organize it effectively and hence enjoys more weight in the process of deliberation. Quite obviously political equality is rendered asymmetrical and undermined by social and economic inequalities (Solt 2008: 57, Gilens 2005). A system that is characterized by such inequalities would be regarded as not living up to democratic ideals by many (Christiano 1996: 4). As Robert Dahl puts it:

“Because of inequalities in political resources, some citizens gain significantly more influence than others over the government’s policies, decisions, and actions. […] Consequently, citizens are not political equals” (Dahl 2000: 178).

Thus the moral foundation of democracy is seriously violated by economic inequality. Secondly, social and economic equality can be conceived of as a desirable outcome of democracy from an instrumental point of view. As instrumentalists usually point to economic prosperity as a desirable outcome that democracy is best suited to deliver it is not clear why poverty should be accepted. Despite the huge wealth that western democracies have accumulated there are still citizens that have less economic resources than they need to make what is seen as a worthy standard of living. This can be regarded as unjust and inacceptable from an instrumental standpoint, as it can be taken as a given that democratic regimes are able to minimize relative poverty while simultaneously being very prosperous (Ringen 2007: 58). Indeed, experiments show that people value equality intrinsically (Carlsson/ Daruvala/ Johannson-Stenman 2005). While an equal distribution of income is not necessarily a just distribution it can be assumed that generally a more equal distribution is intrinsically more desirable for people than a less equal. What people

How Income Inequality affects the Satisfaction with Democratic Realities consider as a just distribution of income can be called ‘social justice’. Finally, economists argue and actually observe that economic inequality is detrimental to economic growth and therefore harmful to a desirable outcome. The basic mechanism here is that in case of credit market failure a big inequality of incomes prevents investments in human capital. Furthermore, income inequality triggers civil unrest, thereby hurting property rights and thus investments (Burda/ Wyplosz 2005: 453).

The main aim of this part was to show that equality is one of the core principles and purposes of democracy. While political equality is a necessary condition for democracy, its meaning is diminished when it is not substantiated by a certain degree of social and economic equality. Total social and economic equality cannot be achieved and it is all but clear that it should (Ringen 2007: 50ff.). Still it is crucial for the justification of democracy that citizens perceive economic resources to be distributed in a fair way. A broad notion of social justice could be that goods should be distributed in a way that is reconcilable with the society’s moral conception. More specifically a minimum requirement could be that everybody should participate adequately in the economic prosperity of the society and nobody may be worse off while others improve (Martin 1998: 150f.). Citizens can be expected to demand the establishment of social justice from a democratic political system.

2.2 Demands towards Democracy

In his 1965 work ‘A systems analysis of political life’ David Easton laid out a notion of demands that citizens have towards the political system they live in and developed a concept of support that is partly conditional on the fulfillment of those demands. Easton’s thoughts will serve as starting point for considerations about what constitutes people’s support for and satisfaction with a political system.

According to Easton citizens´ demands serve as input to a political system. The concept of demands is defined as “an expression of opinion that an authoritative allocation with regard to a particular subject matter should or should not be made by those responsible for doing so” (Easton 1965: 38). In light of the considerations made in the previous part social justice can be conceived of as a demand that citizens put forward to the political system. Furthermore, Easton thinks of demands as source of stress for the political system when those demands are not converted into outputs.


1 See Andersen/ Singer (2008), and Schäfer (2010). Uslaner/ Brown (2005) and Solt (2008) examine the effect of income inequality on political participation.

2 Here, only political equality will be treated based on Christiano (1996: 59-71). For an argument for equality as a general principle see Christiano (2008): 12-45.

3 For a definition see Dahl (2000): 177.

4 For a concise, yet controversial discussion see (Burda/ Wyplosz 2005: 452).

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Discontent with democracy - How income inequality affects the satisfaction with democratic realities
University of Aarhus  (Institut for Statskundskab)
Dissatisfaction with Democratic Politics and the Challenge of Populism
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ISBN (Book)
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Einkommensungleichheit, soziale Ungleichheit, ESS 2008, Demokratiezufriedenheit, income differences, satisfaction with democracy
Quote paper
Malte Turski (Author), 2011, Discontent with democracy - How income inequality affects the satisfaction with democratic realities, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/167922


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