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Political Scientist Susan Stokes ’81 Discusses Political Polarization and Global Erosion of Democracy

Harvard's Knafel Building, which houses the Center for Government and International Studies, is located on Cambridge St.
Harvard's Knafel Building, which houses the Center for Government and International Studies, is located on Cambridge St. By Julian J. Giordano
By Tiffani A. Mezitis and Nathanael Tjandra, Contributing Writers

American political scientist and award-winning author Susan C. Stokes ’81 discussed the correlation between income inequality and democratic erosion at the Center for Government and International Studies on Tuesday afternoon.

The discussion was moderated by Harvard Professor of Government and Director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Steve R. Levitsky.

Stokes, who teaches at the University of Chicago and helms its Chicago Center of Democracy, criticized politicians’ use of polarizing narratives in order to win over supporters amid high income inequality. She said these narratives have been pushed by both “right-wing ethno-nationalists” and “left-wing populists who exacerbated polarization and trampled on democratic institutions.”

“Partisan polarization induces voters to be willing to give up democratic institutions, if that’s the price that they have to pay to keep the hated other side out of power,” Stokes said. “Inequality has encouraged politics of grievance and encourages ambitious leaders to push a polarizing ‘us versus them’ discourse and actions that reduce accountability to electorates.”

Based on a statistical model by linguistics scholar Adam Jaworski, at the onset of the Trump administration, “the probability of American democracy failing” was “indistinguishable from zero,” Stokes said. Today, however, the United States has steeply increased to a roughly 15 percent likelihood of “erosion,” according to Stokes.

Stokes said the reason behind the increase in democratic decline in the U.S. can be attributed in part to its inequality in comparison to other wealthy countries.

Stokes said coups led by militaries against elected leaders are distinct from instances in which elected leaders attack their own democratic institutions. According to Stokes, while data shows that coups by the military peaked in the 1970s, erosion of democracy by elected leaders is mainly a 21st century phenomenon.

Although previous data analysis models have lacked “systematic evidence” comparing countries with democratic erosion, Stokes said the new model she presents demonstrates income inequality as “the key risk factor” in democratic erosion across countries. This risk is greater for countries that are “unequal and wealthy,” Stokes said.

Stokes said there are flaws in overly positive attitudes toward neoliberalism, arguing “the promise of a rising tide” of neoliberalism will not “lift all boats.”

“Heightened income inequality increases the danger of erosion, and speaks volumes about the political perils of economic inequality,” she said.

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