Inequality of political opportunity: Measures and Explanations

The idea that all citizens should have the same opportunities to influence political decisions forms a cornerstone of liberal democratic thinking. The purpose of the present project is therefore to study the distribution of political participation in advanced democracies in general – and in Sweden in particular – from the standpoint of equality of opportunity. That is, we will adopt the analytical and methodological tools from the equality of opportunity literature in economics to measure the total extent to which the observed variation in political participation among citizens is due to various circumstantial characteristics beyond individual control, such as an individual’s sex, family background, or ethnicity. An important advantage of shifting the focus from the explanatory effect of individual background variables, such as sex and ethnicity, to the total impact of a broad set of circumstance factors is that this will put us in a much better position to assess the overall state of democracy in a country.

The second part of the project will aim more at explanation. It will involve investigating various contextual and institutional conditions that may exacerbate or ameliorate inequality of political opportunity in a society. How important is the political context for realizing political equality? How have fundamental societal changes – such as improved educational opportunities, growing economic inequality, widespread changes in family structure, and increased immigration – affected inequality of political opportunity in Sweden and other countries?

In the project we will utilize two main data sources. First, we will employ detailed data from Swedish population registers to study the degree of equality of opportunity in voting and political candidacy during the last century. Second, we will complement the analyses of Swedish administrative data with information from various survey sources to extend the analyses to a broader set of political participatory acts and countries.

Principal Investigator Karl-Oskar Lindgren:

- Complete equality of political opportunity is probably an unattainable ideal, but the degree of political inequality in a society can nevertheless tell us much about the quality of that society’s democracy. Our project can therefore contribute new and valuable knowledge about a central aspect of modern democracy – knowledge that should prove helpful for designing policies aimed at improving the democratic system in Sweden and elsewhere. 

Principal investigator: Karl-Oskar Lindgren

Period: 2023–2026

Funding: SEK 5 656 000 from the Swedish Research Council

Last modified: 2023-01-23