Inequality and Polarization on the Rise, “Democracy and its Discontents” Panelists Say

The second day of the “Democracy and its Discontents” conference at Central European University (CEU) on October 10 in Budapest brought scholars together to discuss the linkages between democracy and inequality, and to draw conclusions following two intense days of presentation and discussion. Hosted in cooperation with Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), the conference was part of CEU’s Frontiers of Democracy Initiative, a two-year series of events of open debate on the key questions facing democracies today.

“In both Europe and the U.S., socially disadvantaged individuals participate far less in democracy, as is well-known. The extent of this inequality is different across capitalist democracies,” said Kristin Makszin, visiting professor in the Department of International Relations at CEU, citing research conducted with Carsten Schneider, head of CEU’s Department of Political Science. Slovenia, Denmark and Ireland show a small gap, while the U.S., Poland and Hungary show a large one, she said.

The reason for this gap is the welfare state, Makszin said. Countries with well developed welfare systems, if paired with greater level of resources and networks of engagement in organizations such as labor unions, have higher rates of participation across socioeconomic groups, i.e. lower rates of inequality.

Nolan McCarty speaking at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - CEU, Gabor Ancsin (Kepszerkesztoseg)
Nolan McCarty speaking at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - CEU, Gabor Ancsin (Kepszerkesztoseg)

In the U.S., inequality has a causal impact on polarization, according to Nolan McCarty, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. But polarization is not a new phenomenon - it has been increasing steadily over 140 years, and can’t be correlated with any single event, he said. This is happening evenly in the House, Senate, and state legislatures.

“The highest level of inequality in over 100 years and the highest level of polarization are simultaneous,” he said.

The next speaker addressed the inequality problem as one of inadequate and uneven access to education. According to Ellen von den Driesch, research fellow at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB), one alarming sign is that tertiary degrees are less and less accompanied by competences, i.e. practical skills.

Inequality is not as simple a concept as it may seem, and we must take that into account when examining polarization, according to Ben Ansell, professor of Comparative Democratic Institutions at Nuffield College, University of Oxford.

“Rich people are not always in cahoots with each other,” Ansell said. “They are often in conflict.”

Ben Ansell speaking at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - CEU, Gabor Ancsin (Kepszerkesztoseg)
Ben Ansell speaking at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - CEU, Gabor Ancsin (Kepszerkesztoseg)

People’s political tendencies differ according to the source of their wealth - assets or income, he said. If you look at assets, rather than income, the most unequal country in Europe is Sweden, while the most equal country is Italy, he said. And this has an impact on political preferences. People with high incomes and low assets are more liberal, whereas those with low income and high assets are more conservative.

Francis Fukuyama of Stanford’s CDDRL raised the issue of the appeal of populism in Europe and the Tea Party in the U.S.. He summarized the panel’s thoughts this way:

“If you think about inequality and its political effects, the most dangerous part of the income distribution is not the fifth quintile, it’s more the fourth and third - people that think they are middle class, and are fearful of losing that status. In both the left wing and right wing in Europe, that’s where the constituencies come from.”

The final panel concluded that we are experiencing a definite democratic recession. CDDRL Director Larry Diamond noted that this recession is uneven, with demand for democracy “shockingly resilient” in Africa, but a significant decline in support for democracy among youth in well-established democracies.

“It’s not just the numbers it is more intangible factors - the declining prestige of democracy, the declining image of democratic performance in the U.S.,” Diamond said. “China and Russia are enthusiastically making hay out of this, promoting their greater capacity for decisionmaking.”

Illiberal democracy is definitely on the rise, according to Diane Stone, professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, who also raised the question of measurement of democracy, and the influence of political culture, citing the example of Australia, where voting is mandatory. The latter may be considered quite illiberal.

“How many illiberal components can a democracy contain and still be thought of as a democracy?” she said.

CEU President and Rector John Shattuck, also a professor at CEU’s Department of Legal Studies, drew four conclusions from the conference:

First, the conference took steps toward a comparative perspective between the U.S. and Europe, as well as exploring differences in Central and Eastern Europe versus Western Europe. In the case of checks and balances, the U.S. has too many, Hungary has too few. It also introduced many topics that invite further investigation, such as the need for mobilization of civil society described by Saskia Sassen, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, who gave the keynote address Oct. 9, and Diane Stone, as well as the problem of coercion in this mobilization, as described by Isabela Mares.

“The larger inquiry in question is whether we are in a recession or a downturn trend,” Shattuck said. “We’ve come to no conclusive determination, but this will take us to the next inquiry, which is alternative models of governance, neo-authoritarian ones in particular.”

There is some cause for optimism because the demand for democracy seems to be growing, Shattuck said. “It may not be demand for liberal democracy, but demand for change, for influence on one’s own life.”

The next events in CEU’s Frontiers of Democracy, all to be held at CEU in Budapest, include:

November 18, 2015: Bosnia and Herzegovina: 20 Years After Dayton

December 7, 2015: Inside the Struggle: The U. S. Civil Rights Movement, and the Central European Roma Rights Crisis [Note: this event is for the CEU community and invited guests only: it will be livestreamed at

February 18-20, 2016: Illiberal Governance

June 23-24, 2016: Making Democracy Work