The question of equality holds an important place in discussions of democracy, yet in Europe it seems to have been buried for at least thirty years. While the idea of greater equality in socioeconomic conditions was central to protest movements and many left-wing parties in the 1960s through to the early 1980s, the debate has subsided since. Perhaps it is on the rise again, for good reasons.
Since 1993, the decline of equality is most marked in socioeconomic conditions, but it is also quite perceptible in health and education compared to the late 1980s, with a noticeable dip in the last five years. For health and educational equality, the average level in Europe is sloping toward a situation where at least 10 percent of citizens have such poor healthcare access and 10 percent of children get such low-quality education that it even undermines their eventual ability to exercise basic rights as adult citizens. Even though Europe has better indicators than the rest of the world, its declining equality is naturally a serious threat to its democracy.
In terms of socioeconomic equality, the situation worsened much earlier and the degradation has gone much further. People are feeling high levels of inequality, which undermines the ability of poorer populations to participate meaningfully in political life. A feeling that only wealthy people have a very strong hold on political power is very much present in current day Europe, which then leads to the rise of nationalist movements and populist leaders in many European countries.
Participation in democratic processes is a very serious issue because it includes, but is not limited to: making informed voting decisions, expressing an opinion, engaging in a public demonstration, running for office, serving in positions of political power, putting issues on the agenda, and otherwise influencing policymaking. Equality in participation lends vital legitimacy to a democratic system. For example, individuals and groups with higher levels of education are more likely to comprehend and engage in political debates, which is necessary to make informed choices, to stand for office, to be active in political parties, and so on.
Likewise, lack of high-quality basic education impairs an individual’s abilities to be a political equal. Moreover, regarding legitimacy in particular, equality minimizes the resentments and frustrations of some groups in society, thereby leading to greater overall acceptance of the system in place. As noted by the sociologist Seymour Lipset, if some groups are effectively prohibited from political and governing processes, the legitimacy of the system is likely to remain in question.
The importance of reasonable levels of equality for democracy to function has been emphasized by liberal theorists for centuries. European societies developed, even if gradually so, toward greater equality, giving average people hope and sense that democracy was progressing, and greater political efficacy and fair shares of economic growth. Yet, contemporary empirical work demonstrates, and political leaders across established democracies seem to have forgotten, the lesson that democracy’s appeal and legitimacy requires equality in education, healthcare, and how much political power is determined by socioeconomic position.
The goal for the future should be relatively simple: someone who wants to participate in politics should be able to do so, or, in other words, they should have the capabilities to participate in ways that are necessary to influence governing outcomes. And this is an issue to which both scholars and politicians need to pay more attention, if democracy in Europe is to be saved for future generations.
‘Are Increasing Inequalities Threatening Democracy in Europe?’ – Study by Staffan I. Lindberg – Carnegie Europe.