Department of Comparative Politics

Research project

The Politics of Inequality. How Representative Democracy Functions in Europe



This project deals with some of the most pressing issues facing democracies today: political inequality and the lack of representation. It investigates the state of representative democracy by studying citizen-state relations. More specifically, the project focuses on representation (do citizens get what they want?) and political equality (do people get what they want equally?). Political equality is a fundamental condition for the existence of democracy, and representation structures the way democracies function. Research conducted within the project will further our understanding of how representative democracy works, will precisely diagnose its problems, and will identify ways of improving it.

It is particularly relevant to investigate this now: over the past years many European democracies have seen their participation, and political trust rates decline. International commitments have put governments under increased pressure to trade-off those commitments and public preferences. Moreover, the recent economic crisis has highlighted, and worsened, economic and gender inequalities. The project team explicitly studies whether these inequalities have translated in political inequalities, and will explain why this is so and how this dire situation can be addressed.

To deal with these issues, three approaches are used. First, the project examines representation and equality in Norway, a country that still has high levels of trust and which was less hit by the economic crisis than other European countries. This is achieved through surveys of Norwegian representatives (at all levels of government) and citizens. We investigate 1) the extent to which the preferences of parliamentarians and citizens align, 2) the extent to which this congruence results in public policies, 3) what inequalities exist in this relationship, and what causes them, and 4) how representatives perceive their role as representative. Second, temporal data from European countries are pooled together to 1) match people’s preferences to public policies (responsiveness), 2) identify whether responsiveness is different for men/women, and the rich/poor, and 3) to identify the structural causes of (unequal) responsiveness (e.g. veto points, electoral and party systems). Third, the team will uncover the sources of legitimacy within the democratic process, and find ways of improving it. This approach advances the collection of data on people’s preferences and ideas on what democracy should look like, and to what extent they deem the representative process legitimate. Moreover, in order to disentangle which aspects of representation promote the popular legitimacy of decisions, survey experiments are included. 

The project The Politics of Inequality. How Representative Democracy (Mal-) Functions in Europe, is funded by the Bergen Research Foundationand University of Bergen.