Protesters erected a barricade on a street in Santiago, Chile’s capital, last week.Tomas Munita for The New York Times
It’s an era of global backlash. Anti-establishment populism, mass protest movements, smash-the-system elected strongmen.
More and more, we find ourselves asking what role the global rise in inequality is playing in all this.
Is it a primary driver of the trend? The primary driver? Or just one of many factors, alongside things like social polarization, anti-immigration sentiment, distrust of institutions, technological change and the breakdown of traditional political parties?
Certainly protesters and populists cite inequality when we ask their motivations. But is that driven by anger over straight-up income gaps, or more complex sentiments?
Feelings of betrayal by governing elites can sometimes be expressed as a perceived increase in inequality. So can feelings of us-versus-them competition among social groups. So can feelings of relative status decline: As minority groups fare better, members of the majority racial or social class can feel as if they’re losing out.
Even if the backlash is principally economic, “inequality” is sometimes used as a shorthand for related but distinct phenomena, like predatory capitalism or perceived collusion among political and financial elites.
Inequality is tied up in all of these trends. But the relationships between these different social forces are messy. Untangling them is crucial to understanding our era of public backlash, why it’s happening and where it’s leading.
Just think back to all those debates in 2016 over whether President Trump owed his support to anti-immigrant racial animus or to white working-class economic backlash. Subsequent research suggested that the answer was a complicated mix of both, but there’s still a lot to be learned about how those forces intermingle.
Chile’s world-shaking uprising is another fascinating case in point, suggesting that inequality’s role may be both bigger and more complicated than widely understood.
Protesters are focusing on inequality, which is indeed severe, alienating and deeply damaging for many Chileans. Chile’s income inequality is the worst among the world’s “developed” (wealthy and democratic) economies. But it’s middle-of-the-road for Latin America, and has been improving steadily since Chile transitioned to democracy in 1990. Incomes are also rising in Chile and poverty is declining.
Gabriel Negretto, a political scientist, offered this insight on Twitter (please accept our apology for Max’s terrible translation of Mr. Negretto’s Spanish): “Social discontent in Chile does not arise from inequality itself, but from a long coexistence of growth and inequality. This makes, as Hirschman (1973) said, initial tolerance of inequality disappear over time and becomes a rage against the system.”
At the same time, Chile’s party system has become out-of-sync with public opinion. As Chileans have shifted left, their party politics remain fixed on a longstanding centrist consensus, giving voters no outlet for expressing their will.
That’s pretty similar to what happened in Europe, where increasingly right-wing publics felt their demands were being stymied by centrist party establishments. In both places, the feeling of an unresponsive party system has been expressed as a belief that corrupt elites have sold out the people — which aligns with perceptions of inequality.
Of course, none of that disproves that inequality is playing a big role in places like Chile. It just suggests that its role is more complicated than it might initially appear.
To be clear, we’re not suggesting that inequality’s importance or centrality is overstated. To the contrary, we’ve often found that inequality plays a big role in trends that might appear to be unrelated. In 2017, we found economic inequality silently driving much of Mexico’s crisis of insecurity and violence. Earlier this fall, we reported on indications that inequality is helping to drive Hong Kong’s uprising.
We see these as not just discrete episodes related to inequality but as part of one big global story about inequality’s role in the world. And it’s something we’re planning to look into more.
Thankfully, we’re not alone — social scientists and psychologists are increasingly investigating inequality’s effects on society and politics.
And they’re turning up all sorts of interesting things; in a recent newsletter, we mentioned a new study finding that upticks in inequality lead more people to desire a strong-fisted leader.
If you’re one of those researchers, please get in touch! We’ve got a stack of data sets and research papers on our desk, but we could always use more: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even if you don’t happen to hold a Ph.D., we’d still love to hear any ideas, thoughts or suggestions that you’d like to share with us. Watch this space for more.