Economic Inequality and Political Engagement



Economic Inequality and Democratic Political Engagement
American Journal of Political Science
Page numbers: 


The author seeks to examine the relationship between income inequality and political participation using standardised data from a diverse set of middle and upper-income countries. The analysis shows that 'higher levels of income inequality depress political interest, the frequency of political discussion, and participation in elections among all but the most affluent citizens'.

Solt wished to test the relative strengths of the three dominant theories on how income inequality affects the engagement of citizens in the political process. The three theories are:

  1. Relative Power Theory: higher levels of income inequality have an overall negative effect on political engagement, particularly among the less affluent.
  2. Conflict Theory: higher levels of inequality generate an overall increase in engagement, the opposite to Relative Power Theory.
  3. Resource Theory: higher levels of inequality cause an increase in political engagement for the more affluent, and a decrease for the less affluent.

His findings unequivocally supported only the Relative Power Theory. All three variables of political engagement studied – general interest in politics, having discussions about politics, and voting – were all negatively impacted by an increase in economic inequality, particularly for the three lowest income quintiles. The measured negative impact was so strong that it was equal to or larger than the positive effect that would be expected from the implementation of a compulsory voting law.

Solt concludes that 'greater economic inequality increasingly stacks the deck of democracy in favor of the richest citizens' and that 'most everyone else is more likely to conclude that politics is simply not a game worth playing'.


Thumbnail image: Occupy protest in Minnesota. Fibonacci Blue/Flickr


Frederick Solt

Formerly Southern Illinois University
Currently University of Iowa

Published Date
January 18, 2008