Logo without tagline Miller center demcap logo

Authoritarianism and Inequality: Does Extreme Inequality Cause Anti-Democratic Parties to Form?

The capital building

"I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice!"

- Donald J. Trump, Then-2016 Presidential Candidate

In the midst of a close general election contest, candidate Donald Trump spent a large part of his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination appealing to economically displaced voters, explicitly highlighting how policymakers were neglecting their needs by catering to “big business, elite media and major donors” who wanted to “keep our rigged system in place.” During the same campaign, candidate Trump also repeatedly called for the imprisonment of his political opponent, proposed libel reform to rein in his media critics, and condoned (if not encouraged) violent behavior in support of his candidacy. Many pundits and academics were shocked with Trump’s upset win in November’s general election, but some posited a potential explanation for his electoral success: income inequality. Professor Nat O’Connor notes that in 2014, 37% of national wealth was concentrated in the hands of the top 1% of income earners, a degree of inequality unseen since before World War II. An inequality-based reading of Trump’s win suggests that Trump succeeded because he convinced economically disaffected voters, especially those from communities adversely affected by the decline of textiles, that he could reverse this trend and usher in an era of shared prosperity for all Americans. Evidently, these appeals were effective.

Trump’s win highlights a significant problem for democracies. Democracies empower citizens to make their own choices about how they are governed. They provide people with a mechanism through which they can “hold decision-makers to account,” and foster open participatory institutions that safeguard human rights and other fundamental freedoms. However, that freedom of choice means voters can elect politicians with illiberal and anti-democratic attitudes. Countries as varied as Brazil and Hungary have elevated autocrats to office through open elections, which presents a huge threat to democracy and political freedom more generally. If inequality is driving this embrace of anti-democratic sentiments, then how should elected governments respond to ensure democratic norms and institutions are protected? 

In this case study you will evaluate data from the DemCap Analytics (DCA) tool to determine whether inequality is associated with increased support for anti-democratic political parties. Why might income inequality bolster anti-democratic parties’ political fortunes? Do other factors explain the rise of illiberal politicians better? And lastly, how can supporters of democracy make authoritarian ideas and politicians unappealing? As the world grapples with authoritarian electoral success, conversations like the ones you are about to have with your classmates are critical to preserving democracy for future generations.

Democratic Decline

Since the mid-2000’s democratic backsliding, the “state-led debilitation or elimination of political institutions sustaining democracy,” has gripped many burgeoning democracies, particularly in the global South and the former Soviet Union. Though there is no universal path to democratic backsliding, the anti-democratic leaders of many of these countries came to power in legitimate elections and were transparent about their intentions to weaken democratic institutions. For example, Donald Trump never hid the fact that he wanted to weaponize the justice system to punish his political opponents; it was baked into voters’ evaluations of his candidacy before the election. 

But why might voters sign off on openly anti-democratic politicians? Oftentimes it’s because politicians indict democracy in a larger social problem, and use a widely-held sense of frustration about that social problem to justify dismantling democratic institutions and norms. For example, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan weaponized dissatisfaction with secularism in Turkish politics as a launchpad for more general attacks on liberal democracy. If a politician could effectively associate income inequality with liberal democracy in voters’ minds, then they might be able to build support anti-democratic reforms.

Perspectives on Inequality and Support for Democracy

There is some support in the literature for income inequality’s effect on voter support for anti-democratic parties. Kim Kellerman (2021) suggests that politics is prohibitively difficult for the economically disadvantaged to participate in given the time commitment required to understand policy issues, so public policy is biased towards the interests of a high-income and politically active minority. She conducts an experiment that shows how populist parties can mobilize these disengaged voters into political participation by promising economic reforms that disproportionately benefit the poor. Though these experiments are conducted in a controlled environment, they suggest that when politicians weaponize class and  distrust of elites or political institutions that they can find electoral success among poor voters who seldom turned out before. Similarly, Andres Rodriguez-Pose and colleagues (2023) analyze small region-level GDP changes and interpersonal inequality in Europe, and find that economic strife effectively far-right populist parties’ vote share across the continent. Many European far-right parties, like Germany’s AfD or France’s National Rally, explicitly want to weaken democratic and pluralist institutions, so if the far-right is finding electoral support among voters in impoverished regions then that provides strong evidence that class and inequality are related to support for anti-democratic parties.

Other scholars argue that inequality poorly explains the rise of anti-democratic parties, and that cultural issues and opposition to immigration are the primary reason for their rise in popularity. Contrary to Professor O’Connor’s perspective, Ashley Jardina (2019) argues that white identity and a sense of shared grievance about perceived racial status loss motivated support for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, while economic anxiety was a non-significant predictor of Trump support. Trump supporters worried that an open inclusive democracy would ultimately cause white Americans losing their relative advantages to other groups in the long run. In other words, the splits that predict support for Trump are social and cultural rather than economic. Additionally, while Stoezer and colleagues (2021) find that inequality is associated with support for far-right parties, both variables are highly correlated with distrust of elites and conservative immigration attitudes, which makes it difficult to discern what drives electoral support for anti-democrats.

How to Measure Extreme Inequality?

The most common measure of income inequality is the GINI index. Essentially, this summary statistic measures how much a country’s economy deviates from “perfect equitability.” Imagine a function where income percentile is the x-axis and cumulative percentage of national wealth is the y-axis. In a perfectly equal economy, the slope of this function would be 1, such that people in the xth percentile of wealth and below would cumulatively control x% of a country’s wealth. Such an economy doesn’t actually exist, but it gives us a theoretical baseline to compare real countries against. 

Using the same axes one can plot a country’s actual wealth distribution, which will result in a concave-up curve starting at (0,0) and ending at (1,1). The GINI coefficient is calculated by subtracting the area covered under a country’s actual wealth curve (also known as its Lorenz curve) from the area covered under the line of perfect equality and then multiplying that figure by two so that it ranges from 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (complete inequality). The formula, in which p is the line of perfect equality and L(p) is a country’s actual wealth distribution, is listed below. (note: While the standard GINI coefficient solely includes income, variations can include government transfer payments and after-tax income.) We will use the GINI index in the assignment questions to measure economic inequality.


  1. Do you think that economic inequality can increase support for anti-democratic parties? What about the arguments provided earlier in the assignment did you find most convincing/unconvincing?
  2. Below is a table of five countries. Assign each member of your group one of the countries, and then fill in the GINI Index and Anti-Democratic Party Vote Share columns for your country. Do you notice any trends? Does it confirm or refute a relationship between inequality and anti-democratic party support?
  3. Consider Jardina’s argument that cultural issues had a stronger impact than economic insecurity in predicting votes for Donald Trump. Do you think this is correct? If so, do you think the general principle (i.e. that cultural issues are more predictive than economics for predicting anti-democratic party support) generalizes to other countries?
  4. What can democracies do to blunt the growth of anti-democratic parties?


[1] “Full Text: Donald Trump 2016 RNC Draft Speech Transcript.” POLITICO. Accessed February 11, 2024. https://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/full-transcript-donald-trump-nomination-acceptance-speech-at-rnc-225974.

[1] Liasson, Mara. “Donald Trump: Strong Leader or Dangerous Authoritarian?” NPR, December 12, 2016. https://www.npr.org/2016/12/12/505205197/is-donald-trump-a-threat-to-democracy. ; Berenson, Tessa. “Donald Trump 2016 Campaign Violence.” Violence on the Campaign Trail, 2016. https://time.com/2016-violence/#:~:text=There%20was%20no%20actual%20fighting,sucker%20punched%20him%20in%20Tucson.

[1] O’Connor, Nat. “Three connections between rising economic inequality and the rise of populism.” Irish Studies in International Affairs 28, no. 1 (2017): 29-43.

[1] “Democracy.” United Nations. Accessed February 27, 2024. https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/democracy#:~:text=Democracy%20provides%20an%20environment%20that,people%20are%20free%20from%20discrimination.

[1] Garcia, Giovanna. FAR-RIGHT FEVER: EXAMINING THE ELECTORAL RISE AND POLITICAL PERSISTENCE OF BRAZIL AND HUNGARY’S POPULIST RADICAL RIGHT, April 2021. https://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/islandora/object/fsu:176041/datastream/PDF/view.

[1] Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz, “Freedom in the World 2022: The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule,” Freedom House, February 2022, 2, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2022-02/FIW_2022_PDF_Booklet_Digital_Final_Web.pdf.; Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding”. Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (January 2016): 5-19.

[1] 1. Thomas Carothers and Benjamin Press, Understanding and responding to global democratic backsliding – …, https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/10/20/understanding-and-responding-to-global-democratic-backsliding-pub-88173.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Rodríguez-Pose, Andrés, Javier Terrero-Dávila, and Neil Lee. “Left-behind vs. unequal places: interpersonal inequality, economic decline, and the rise of populism in the US and Europe.” Journal of Economic Geography (2023).

[1] Jardina, Ashley. White identity politics. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

[1] Stoetzer, Lukas F., Johannes Giesecke, and Heike Klüver. “How does income inequality affect the support for populist parties?.” Journal of European Public Policy 30, no. 1 (2023): 1-20.

[1] Kennickell, Arthur B. “Ponds and Streams: Wealth and Income in the US, 1989 to 2007.” (2009).

[1] Farris, Frank A. “The Gini index and measures of inequality.” The American Mathematical Monthly 117, no. 10 (2010): 851-864.

[1] “Introduction to Inequality.” IMF, July 5, 2020. https://www.imf.org/en/Topics/Inequality/introduction-to-inequality.