Sanders line in the sand: Can democracy fix inequality?

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If Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersAT&T-Time Warner merger: Rigged by cozy regulatory relationships? Juan Williams: When WikiLeaks leaked my cell number Trump: Podesta a 'nasty guy' MORE’ (I-Vt.) campaign for president is democracy’s answer to economic inequality, this suggests democracy is a built-in check to inequality.

But is it really?

When inequality rises, the majority is aggrieved, and demographics alone dictate that people get redress through elections. This has been the script so far. Income inequality in the United States has steadily risen since the 1980s, and Sanders made inequality his central campaign theme is rising because he speaks credibly “to a yearning that is real for many American people.” His campaign tagline “enough is enough” proclaims as much.

People are drawing a line in the sand because inequality has reached unacceptable levels, and it is time for a correction. The broader question is whether democracy is in fact an effective fix. Developing nations considering democratic reforms, striving to reduce income inequality find this question timely.

Perhaps the biggest limitation of democracy as a social firebreak is its slow response time. Societies must wait for inequality to flare up before they address it, and once inequality is entrenched, any attempt at redistribution –including electoral battles—will likely meet fierce resistance from the privileged. It’s much safer to nip inequality in the bud by focusing away from demographics of the electorate to demographics of families.

Tomorrow’s income inequalities are already sown, but they can be tamped down by leveling the playing field among children. Babies do not vote and therefore --the occasional kiss on campaign trails notwithstanding-- they cannot broker their demographics into public voice and influence.

Yet they are the future of inequality.

As Churchill once offered, the answer depends on the alternative. Democracies are certainly more effective in channeling popular discontent than autocratic regimes. Political action is certainly less passive than hopeful reliance on free market correction. The record shows many instances where popular demand for equality were decisive in national elections and subsequent policies.

Yet democracy is no sure fix: Even in strong democracies, an aggrieved majority does not neatly translate into a majority at the polls. Citizens are poor at gauging inequality. Even if voters do sense a rise in inequality, they must still unite behind a common concern. Even if they unite, their voices are too often distorted or drowned by the louder voices from well-funded lobbies.

The proactive strategy is thus to rein in the forces that reproduce generational inequality. These forces fall into three categories: economic inequality across families; cultural differences in how much families invest in children; and family demographics, notably differences in the size and structure of families.

Interestingly, the demographics of families usually reinforce economic differences, with poor families often having higher rates of fertility and single parenthood. The result is to amplify inequality among children, with predictable consequences on later inequality when these children grow up.

Democratic elections may sound the occasional alarm against rising inequality, but they do not offer a long-term fix. Election demographics are not aligned with the demographics of inequality. Children are the bellwether of future inequality but their voices are underrepresented in elections: children do not vote, and families with more children usually have lower rates of political participation.

If elections are to fix inequality, the nation needs candidates who do not just kiss babies but fully embrace their cause.  

Eloundou-Enyegue is professor of Development Sociology at Cornell University. He studies global population and inequality, issues of socio-economic  development, education and social stratification, and solidarity networks, with an  emphasis on African countries. He is a Public Voices fellow.