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16 February 2022

Political Equality: What is it and why does it matter?

Our focus in this paper is on ‘equal consideration’ as an ideal for political equality in democratic settings.

Political inequality is a distinctive type of inequality and cannot be reduced to the factors that routinely go into thinking about economic inequalities or inequalities of power. Its currency is performative, not distributive, and is fundamentally about the nature and quality of social relations; politics is intrinsically process-oriented, comprising various ‘political transactions’ across citizens, representatives and interest groups, among others. Thus, to understand political equality, we need to appreciate how individuals relate to one another through the democratic process.

We argue that there are two core dimensions that can usefully be studied to bring these ideas to life empirically: patterns of political participation and political representation. Studying these reinforces the idea that, even in advanced democracies, politics is an elite activity concentrated among the educated and those with material and ideological resources. We then unpack when this is damaging to achieving equal consideration, and we discuss a range of reforms throughout history that have been proposed to promote political equality through this lens.

‘[…] no society can genuinely humanize its institutions save as it becomes a community of equals.’ (Harold Laski, 1928, p. 31)