Income Inequality and Democratic Support

Sang Kyung Lee, George Washington University

This paper investigates the consequences of income inequality for public support for democracy. In recent years, rising economic inequality – reaching unprecedentedly high levels of income disparity and wealth concentration in many countries – and dismantling democratic institutions and norms triggered an explosion of academic research and debates. Recent studies point to the damaging effect of income inequality on democracy, broadly suggesting that growing income disparity tends to weaken public confidence in democracy and inspire ant-democratic sentiment and practices. Surprisingly, however, evidence remains quite scant due to a lack of systemic cross-national research over a sufficiently long period of time. On one hand, prior study tells very little on temporal dynamics of income inequality and public support for democracy. Does growing economic inequality actually have a damaging impact on public confidence in democracy? If so, how severe is the impact? Is it instantaneous to the extent that, as some scholars argue, economic inequality appears to hold a referendum on democracy? On the other hand, we still remain poorly informed of cross-national variation in the association between economic inequality and public opinion on democracy. Especially, are there any social mechanisms that further strengthen or weaken the association, leading to some dramatic divergences in public confidence in democracy among countries with high income disparity? By compiling a harmonized dataset of income inequality and public support for democracy in 34 European countries that covers a span of 23 years (1997-2020), my study seeks to address these issues by (a) testing both short-run and long-run effects of economic inequality on public support for democracy and (b) exploring potential social mechanisms that lead to cross-national variations. This study, to the author’s best knowledge, is the first to test the causal associations between economic inequality and democratic support with rigorous time-series analytic techniques.

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 Presented in Session 215. Political Economy, Ecology, and the Crises of Democracy