Published: May 27, 2021

Voice and Inequality 

By: Carew Boulding


The first large-scale study of political participation in eighteen Latin American democracies, focusing on the political participation of the region's poorest citizens.

Political regimes in Latin America have a long history of excluding poor people from politics. Today, the region's democracies survive in contexts that are still marked by deep poverty and some of the world's most severe socioeconomic inequalities. Keeping socioeconomic inequality from spilling over into political inequality is one of the core challenges facing these young democracies. In Voice and Inequality, Carew Boulding and Claudio Holzner offer the first large-scale empirical analysis of political participation in Latin America. They find that in recent years, most (but not all) countries in the region have achieved near equality of participation across wealth groups, and in some cases poor people participate more than wealthier individuals. How can this be, given the long history of excluding poor people from the political arena in Latin America?

Boulding and Holzner argue that key institutions of democracy, namely civil society, political parties, and competitive elections, have an enormous impact on whether or not poor people turn out to vote, protest, and contact government officials. Far from being politically inert, under certain conditions the poorest citizens can act and speak for themselves with an intensity that far exceeds their modest socioeconomic resources. When voluntary organizations thrive in poor communities and when political parties focus their mobilization efforts on poor individuals, they respond with high levels of political activism. Poor people's activism also benefits from strong parties, robust electoral competition and well-functioning democratic institutions. Where electoral competition is robust and where the power of incumbents is constrained, the authors find higher levels of participation by poor individuals and more political equality. Precisely because the individual resource constraints that poor people face are daunting obstacles to political activism, Voice and Inequality focuses on the features of democratic politics that create opportunities for participation that have the strongest impact on poor people's political behavior. Ultimately, Voice and Inequality provides important insights about how the elusive goal of political equality can be achieved even in contexts of elevated poverty and inequality.

Voice and Inequality