stiglitz321_ROBYN BECKAFP via Getty Images_USinequality Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Inequality and Democracy

With the right political reforms, democracies can become more inclusive, more responsive to citizens, and less responsive to the corporations and rich individuals who currently hold the purse strings. But salvaging democratic politics also will require far-reaching economic reforms.

NEW YORK – There has been much handwringing about the retreat of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism in recent years – and for good reason. From Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former US President Donald Trump, we have a growing list of authoritarians and would-be autocrats who channel a curious form of right-wing populism. Though they promise to protect ordinary citizens and preserve longstanding national values, they pursue policies that protect the powerful and trash longstanding norms – and leave the rest of us trying to explain their appeal.

While there are many explanations, one that stands out is the growth of inequality, a problem stemming from modern neoliberal capitalism, which can also be linked in many ways to the erosion of democracy. Economic inequality inevitably leads to political inequality, albeit to varying degrees across countries. In a country like the United States, which has virtually no constraints on campaign contributions, “one person, one vote” has morphed into “one dollar, one vote.”

This political inequality is self-reinforcing, leading to policies that further entrench economic inequality. Tax policies favor the rich, the education system favors the already privileged, and inadequately designed and enforced antitrust regulation tends to give corporations free rein to amass and exploit market power. Moreover, since the media is dominated by private companies owned by plutocrats like Rupert Murdoch, much of the mainstream discourse tends to entrench the same trends. News consumers thus have long been told that taxing the rich harms economic growth, that inheritance taxes are levies on death, and so forth.