Friday, November 2, 2012

Inequality and Interest

Posted by Assistant Professor Fred Solt

Earlier this week, media attention briefly alighted on four-year-old Abigael Evans, whose tearful frustration with her inability to escape "Bronco Bamma," Mitt Romney, and the whole 2012 election was recorded and posted to YouTube by her oversharenting mother.  On the news and across the interwebs, the overwhelming reaction was complete sympathy: the San Francisco Chronicle's headline, for example, was "`Bronco Bamma' Girl Expresses What We All Feel Deep Down About the Elections," and Time magazine declared, “We Are All Abigael Evans.”  National Public Radio, according to Abigael's mother the immediate catalyst of the meltdown in the supermarket parking lot, posted a public apology to the girl, writing that “the campaign has gone on long enough for us, too.”  Politics in the United States, apparently, just aren’t all that interesting to many Americans—even those who are paid to cover the presidential election seem to just want it to go away.

Wait, this is the blog for the IR major.  Why am I writing about U.S. politics, especially when so many of us find the topic so tiresome?  Because as it turns out, taking an international vantage point—or, more specifically, a cross-national one—can tell us a lot about why politics in a country are the way they are.  After all, the citizens of many other countries find their own politics to be much more engaging than Americans do.

In some research I started publishing a few years ago (see here for the first installment), I found evidence that several factors contribute to the relatively low interest in politics found in the United States.  Drawing on surveys of the citizens of many wealthy democratic countries collected in the World Values Survey, I was able to discern how various differences between people and countries shape levels of political interest.  The most proportional electoral systems make people an average of nearly 10 percentage points more likely to express higher levels of interest in politics than U.S.-style single-member districts—proportional representation allows many parties, advocating a broad range of different views, to make it into the legislature.  Further, citizens of countries with streamlined, single-chamber legislatures are similarly about 10 points more likely to say they are more interested in politics than people in places with bicameral legislatures like the U.S. House and Senate.  (On the other hand, presidentialism apparently works in favor of interesting politics in the United States: it tends to increase interest in politics by about 8 percentage points over parliamentary systems.)

I focus, though, on another explanation for why so many people in the United States find politics boring, even annoying.   It is suggested by a media infatuation that lasted scarcely longer as a topic of coverage than young Ms. Evans is sure to: the high levels of economic inequality in this country.  In the wake of the financial crisis, when rich bankers were quickly bailed out and ordinary Americans were largely left to struggle on their own, journalists reported on the Occupy movement’s argument that the immense economic resources of “the 1%” were drowning out the voices of everyone else.  If politicians speak only to the concerns of the richest, the implication is that it should be no surprise that others are less interested in what they have to say.

The evidence supports this view, as shown below.  This figure depicts the probabilities of expressing different levels of political interest (in each column) for people of different incomes (in each row) over the range of income inequality observed in the world’s advanced democracies (represented by the Gini index, a common measure of inequality), once a laundry list of individual attributes and country-level characteristics are taken into account.  (The dashed lines around the solid ones represent the uncertainty in these estimates.)

As seen in the top row, for the richest individuals, inequality has little effect on political interest: the lines are practically flat for every category of interest.  But the other rows show that the probability of being “not at all interested” and “not very interested” increase as inequality increases (and the probability of being “somewhat interested” or “very interested” decrease as inequality increases)—and that these effects grow larger and larger as we move down the income scale.  For people with incomes in the bottom fifth for their country, living with inequality similar to that found in the United States decreases the probability of expressing higher levels of interest in politics by as much as about 13 percentage points, on average, compared to people in countries with less inequality.  More inequality does seem to lead to politics that are less interesting to many people.  And without comparing the United States to other countries, we’d never know.

Just one more reason to major in International Relations: it helps you to learn not just about politics in other countries, but also to better understand politics in your own!

During next semester, Spring 2013, Professor Solt will be leading a Political Science seminar 030:149 (POLI:3450:002)  (“Problems in Comparative Politics”) on the politics of inequality.

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