When people think about threats to democracy they think about attacks on the media, freedom of expression, human rights, free and fair elections. They think about the core democratic institutions and how to protect them. And they are right. Human rights, the rule of law and the integrity and fairness of elections come increasingly under pressure in democracies across the globe fuelled by dissatisfaction with the political system and right-wing populist rhetoric.
But: What is often missing in the analysis is the role of social and economic insecurities people face that drive their dissatisfaction. Democratic dissatisfaction is very much an economic story as well. People do have worries about their opportunities and suffer from real hardship. We think it is thus paramount if we care to protect democratic institutions we need to look at economic conditions of what makes people dissatisfied. Asking the economic question is what our work in Inequality & Democracy is about.
Democracy is about the promise to let everyone have an equal say. Elections are the main means to find out what people have to say. In theory, this would result in elected officials who truly represent their voters and their interests. If everyone (can) participate we arrive at legitimate governance and functioning democracies that deliver what they promise.
But what if fewer and fewer people vote? And why do more people no longer vote even though they can? Some say it is because politicians no longer represent them and their interests. Are they right? Who governs us anyway? Are they like us?
In Unequal Democracies we unpack these questions in a data-driven approach. In our first two studies we looked at the voter turnout trends and the representation in parliaments across four socio-economic parameters: gender, age, social class and level of education.
We specifically use democracies in the plural to illustrate how different the challenges for each democracy are and how important it is to acknowledge these differences in analysis rejecting hasty generalisations that the state of democracy as such is the same everywhere.
The first two contributions for Unequal Democracies are Who does (not) vote? about the social inequality in voter turnout across the OSCE region since 1970 and Who does (not) have a seat in parliament? about the representation gap in five European national parliaments.
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Unequal Democracies is a cooperation project with Lea Elsässer and Armin Schäfer from Johannes-Gutenberg University of Mainz. They are both experts on the relationship between social and political equality.
In Who does (not) vote? we look at voter turnout trends in 29 OSCE countries over time. We harmonized existing data sources since 1970 and made them comparable across gender, age, social class and level of education.
This is a secondary data study that harmonizes data from the following databases:
National: American National Election Study, British Election Study, Swiss Election Study, Dutch Parliamentary Election Study, General Population Survey of the Social Sciences.
Cross-national: Comparative Study of Electoral Systems, European Social Survey.
Note that the turnout numbers in the surveys tend to be higher than the respective official turnout. This discrepancy stems from Overreporting a well-known effect in empirical democracy research due to the tendency of some respondents who did not vote to not admit they violated a socially desirable behaviour. We control for this in the analysis, so the realtive voting propensities between the social groups hold. For comparison, we included both official and reported voter turnout in the visualisations.
Voter turnout has declined in every country analysed. However, this decline happens unequally. It is primarily the young, members of lower social classes and people with a low level of education that increasingly stay at home across all countries. This shows that it is the disenfranchised that democracy no longer reaches. Note that we did not even look at the vast groups of people in society that can not vote because of a lack of citizenship. The decline is especially pronounced in Anglo-Saxon and Eastern European countries, followed by Southern and Central European countries with the highest turnout and thus lowest voter differences in Scandinavia.
Find out more by exploring the timelines below!
Voter turnout is especially low among the young (under 30). The participation disparity between social classes among the young is especially high. The educated are highly politicised and engaging while the disenfranchised are especially detached from participating in their democracies.
The highest voting differences are seen between social classes. While highly educated members of the upper service class almost always vote, turnout among lower social classes has been lower and further decreased significantly over time. Our results corroborate the "law of dispersion" that a decline in turnout always happens socially unequally. It is the working class and people with low education who stay at home, while upper classes continue to vote. All those differences further increase the younger people are. Low turnout thus reinforces the disenfranchisement of economically vulnerable groups.
Explore the full data set in the slideshow below
In Who does (not) have a seat in parliament? we look at how representative the current parliaments of United Kingdom, France, Spain, Poland and Turkey are across four socio-economic parameters gender, age, social class and levels of education.
This is a primary data study where information on representatives were single-handedly collected by the project team and verified. For classifying the social classes, we use Daniel Oesch’s class scheme system based on 4 main classes: working class, small business owners, lower-grade service class, and upper service class. Those four main social classes can be further differentiated into 16 classes in total based on to different work logics within social classes.
Underrepresentation of women is much higher in Poland, Turkey and United Kingdom compared to France and Spain. The only age groups where women are in the majority are aming the under-30s in the United Kingdom and Spain; they are in the minority in all other age groups in all five countries. .
Only 1-2% of MPs in all five countries are under 30 years old. In all countries, most MPs are between 46-60. Spain has significantly fewer MPs who are over 60 than the other four countries.
Diploma democracy refers to the overwehlming majoirity of MPs having a university degree and the disappearance of reprsentatives with manual work. This increasing disproportion of highly educated MPs accompaynied leads to an increasing homogeniety widening the representation gap. The dominance of "career politicans" among the upper service class MPs at the expense of other technical expertise and perspectives narrows the diversity in parliaments even further.
All three lower social classes - small business owners, the lower-grade service and working class - are in significant minority in all parliaments even if combined. This misrepresentation is especially stark for the working class who constitute a much higher share of the (working) populations in these countries.. Working class MPs amount to only 2% in the UK, 1% in Turkey, 4,5% in Spain and France and 7% in Poland. Note that in Poland, France and United Kingdom the majority of working-class MPs belong to the centre or radical right while in Turkey and Spain most working-class MPs are from the left.
Explore the full data set in the slideshow below