With the surprise election of Donald Trump in the United States, and Kevin O’Leary’s fresh lead in Canada’s Conservative Party leadership race, there’s no better time to talk about economic inequality and its impact on our democracy.
The bombastic Trump pledged to “drain the swamp.” Instead, he’s refilled it with the same hyper-rich class and special interests who’ve long enjoyed undue influence on decision-making.
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North of the border, former reality TV star Kevin O’Leary has expressed fondness for fellow rich folk. He’s promised tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy while celebrating rising economic inequality. We need the 1%, he says, so poor and middle class people have something to work towards.
While some may say Trump and O’Leary are what’s wrong with politics, they’re just symptoms of a larger problem.
The growing gap between society’s haves and have-nots has brought with it a similar gap in political power.
“Inequality results in the erosion of democracy, the ability of ordinary citizens to have influence over what the government does,” says Dr. Frederick Solt, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa.
Solt created the Standardized World Income Inequality Database, which helps researchers compare data on economic inequality in countries around the world. In 2008, he published a study in the American Journal of Political Science. Seeking an answer to declining voter turnout, the study compared data on inequality and political participation in five democracies, including Canada, from 1984 to 2000.
He concluded that growing inequality discourages political engagement among those with lower relative income. Poorer citizens, the study found, are less likely to be interested in politics, less likely to engage in conversations about politics, and less likely to vote.
It seems counter-intuitive. One would assume that the group with the most to gain from government programs would most want to make their voices heard. But there’s more at work. In our democracy, whether we like or not, economic resources give people a leg up when it comes to influencing politics.
“As wealthy people get wealthier, and spend more money to advocate the issues and positions they care about, they drown out the speech of others,” says Dr. Solt. “Issues they don’t care about and positions they disagree with are less and less likely to get a hearing.”
Whether through political contributions, ability to bankroll their own campaigns, or hiring experts to make their case, economic power amplifies your voice in the democratic arena.
That’s a problem.
“With income inequality depressing ordinary citizens’ confidence in their ability to influence the government and so their participation, the electorate becomes more and more disproportionately affluent,” he says. “This leads to government policy that fail to address growing inequality, and the cycle spins around again.”
For those living in poverty, that vicious cycle can feed into feelings of powerlessness.
“I was one such person,” says Lillian Gallant, an anti-poverty advocate working with Voices Against Poverty in Windsor and Essex County since 2005.
Gallant has lived experienced with poverty, which she shares through interviews, panels and speaking engagements throughout the community. She’s dedicated to addressing systemic barriers which marginalize those living in poverty.
Civic knowledge, like knowing which level of government does what, is a big hurdle to overcome when people look to engage in politics.
“Many people need to know how to access elected official, to understand their role, and how that elected individual can or cannot assist them with their concerns,” she says
With income often influencing one’s ability to attain higher education, it’s another venue where the rich have better access to the tools of political influence. Add a lack of knowledge to the struggle of making ends meet, engaging politically can seem all the more daunting.
“Many times when you are living under the constant stress of poverty you are unable to speak or think clearly,” Gallant says.
And yet, regardless of the clear evidence that income inequality has eroded our democracy and citizens’ ability to participate on equal terms, there will always be the narrative of individual responsibility. If you just work hard enough, like Kevin O’Leary says, you’ll become one of the 1%.
“There is a tendency for power holders to perpetuate that idea,” says Dr. Reza Nakhaie, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Windsor. “These people are better educated, have more skills, more property, more wealth and hold more political offices. They are invested in the idea that if you work hard you’ll succeed, if you don’t work hard it’s your own damn problem.”
Dr. Nakhaie’s research looks at social inequality in Canadian society, with particular focus on how access to different forms of capital affect political behaviour.
Not only does inequality mean society may miss out on the full potential of individuals, there’s also lots at stake for our democracy, he explains.
“Inequality questions the legitimacy of the system. If poor people believe they are unable to benefit from the resources which are available to everybody else, it will encourage hostility, suspicion, and distrust,” he says, pointing to the growth of mass protests in the United States.
With so much at stake, what can be done?
Dr. Nakhaie says we must address the root causes of inequality. More progressive taxation is a moderate solution, he explains, but there are more radical proposals out there.
With the rise of automation and reduction in the amount of work available, perhaps it’s time we make employment a guaranteed right, he says. Or, given the role intergenerational money plays in reproducing inequality, we should target inheritances and property ownership, which give many a leg up before they’re even born.
There’s also potential for our institutions to break the cycle of unequal access and influence. At all levels, cut campaign donations and reduce barriers to run for politics. They must also consider the extra stresses those living in poverty face when they look to engage politically, which ties into access to resources like transportation, time, and child care.
Whether those changes will come from within is another question. There are many, like Lillian Gallant, who are pushing to make a difference.
“We need to work together and insist on creating spaces for marginalized individuals to be a part of the decision-making process, to become part of the political system and work internally to bring about change,” she says. “I know that the existing systems now are oppressive and marginalized people suffer the most... Over the years we have made a few small gains, and suffered huge losses, but I have hope.”
Regardless of how, something must be done. While many Canadians believe the struggle for democracy ended long ago, it’s clear the fight is not over.