Economic Inequality Drives Electoral Winners and
Losers’ Satisfaction with Democracy
Sung Min Han and Eric C.C. Chang
Few would dispute that citizens’ support for democracy is crucial for democratic stability and consolidation, especially when populism and extremism threaten to undermine democratic ideals and values in these days. Without citizens’ strong endorsement, democracies can face legitimacy crises and may even experience democratic reversal or breakdown.
What factors can influence citizens’ attitudes toward democracy, then? Anderson and his co-authors have significantly advanced our understanding of citizens’ attitudes when they identified electoral winner-loser status to be one of most important determinants for democratic satisfaction (Anderson & Guillory, 1997; Anderson et al., 2005). How to relieve the losers’ agony regarding democracy has consequently become a major concern. According to Anderson and his co-authors, proper design of electoral systems is the key to earning the consent of electoral losers. Specifically, they suggest that proportional representation systems comfort electoral losers because they offer future coalition governments to the losing parties, allowing them to influence policy outcomes. However, Anderson et. al’ s findings have been under heavy scrutiny lately, as several recent studies have failed to find corroborating evidence for the mediating effect of electoral systems (Blais & Gélineau, 2007; Curini et al., 2012; Howell & Justwan, 2013; Singh, 2014).
In our recent work published in Electoral Studies, Economic Inequality, Winner-Loser Gap, and Satisfaction with Democracy, we argue that much of the debate over the mediating effects of electoral systems stems from overlooking the role of income inequality. We suggest that a state’s level of income inequality is the real driver behind electoral winners and losers’ satisfaction with democracy. Specifically, the socio-economically disadvantaged classes are more likely to intensify their demand for redistribution when income inequality is high. This heightened redistributive pressure induces the wealthy to be more aware of potential wealth transfer after losing an election. Under these circumstances, when either economic group (i.e., the poor or the rich) loses the election, that group’s dissatisfaction with democratic practices will be even more pronounced. The electoral winners, on the other hand, are more content with democratic practices due to their expectation of future distributive outcomes. When income parity is low, however, “the have-nots” may not express much dissatisfaction with democracy even if their parties lose, while “the haves” may be less concerned about future redistribution from electoral loss. In short, under economic parity, the winner-loser gap in satisfaction with democracy should be small. Taken together, the gap in satisfaction with democracy between electoral winners and losers widens as income inequality increases. Continue reading “Economic Inequality Drives Electoral Winners and Losers’ Satisfaction with Democracy”