POLAR: Polarization and its discontents: does rising economic inequality undermine the foundations of liberal societies?

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Principal Investigator: Markus Gangl
Team: Simon BienstmanCarlotta Giustozzi, Svenja Hense
Funding: European Research Council (ERC)
Duration: 4/2020–3/2025


The project examines the relationship between rising economic inequality and some of the foundational elements of liberal societies. Specifically, the project will provide new empirical evidence on the negative “Spirit Level” relationships between inequality and social mobility, support for democracy, and social cohesion in affluent Western countries. The challenge addressed by the project is foremost empirical: for each of these dimensions, there are straightforward theoretical arguments to link rising inequality with declining societal openness. In each case, there also is widely-known empirical evidence to support a negative relationship in bivariate cross-sectional cross-country data. In each case, however, the best available research that uses longitudinal data to identify the impact of inequality from within-country changes over time more often than not fails to confirm Spirit Level-type negative relationships. To possibly reconcile the discrepancies and to adjudicate the substantive question with new data, the project will combine survey microdata across more than 30 countries and over an observation window that ideally extends back to the 1970s in order to gain leverage for an encompassing and stringently longitudinal empirical analysis. Based on this database, the project will provide detailed analyses of inequality trends, a disaggregated description of trends in social mobility, social cohesion and support for democratic governance, and a differentiated causal analysis of the role of economic inequality for some of the fundamental dimensions of liberal Western societies. An important goal of the research will be to establish where and when negative effects of rising inequality are occurring, and to possibly identify societal and institutional sources of resilience from our analyses.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 833196).

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