Debating Democracy and Inequality

November 24 2011 by Stefan Bauschard

Tags: democracy, democineq,

Resolved: In the United States, current income disparities threaten democratic ideals.

[Evidence packet, Update]


The December Public Forum resolution asks the question of whether or not the current income disparities in the US threaten democratic ideals.

I suspect that every team that wins the coin toss will chose the Pro.  This is true for a number of reasons.

First, it is not possible to contest the question of whether or not there are current income disparities because the resolution states it as a fact.   And, moreover, there simply is economic inequality in America – 80% of households get less than ½ the income, the top 5% of households make all purchases, the top  1% have more combined wealth than the bottom 90%.  Based on the wording of the resolution, and simple fact, there is no point in the negative contesting this.

Second, the verb in the resolution is simply “threaten.”   “Threaten” simply means to portend, to give warning of, or to be possible.   The Pro doesn’t even have to win that inequality ACTUALLY undermines democracy, only that it threatens it – that it is possible that the inequality undermines democracy.

Third, I even overstated what I just said!  The Pro does not need to win that inequality threatens to undermine democracy itself, only that it threatens our democratic ideals – an ideal is a “standard of perfection or excellence” (

So, to win on the Pro all that you need to win is that existing inequality could potentially undermine a perfect or excellent conception of democracy.  This is quite simple.


Before we go any further, however, it is important to understand what a democracy is.  Once we understand that, we can begin to unpack how economic inequality threatens those ideals.

According to Cabanaugh (2003) (evidence in packet), “Democracy” is “defined as majority rule” and “necessarily rests political sovereignty with the majority.  

Of course, for the majority to have political sovereignty, they must be able to influence and have control over the government. 

This influence and control is exercised in a number of ways –

(a) Voting in elections

(b) Lobbying

(c)  Speaking in public/having one’s voice heard

(d) Assessing a transparent government

(e) Equal treatment by the government

And, though not directly relevant to the resolution, arguably democracy perpetuates inequality because it gives the impression that the voices and interests of the poor are protected in the democratic process.   Since they probably are not, it really just serves to rationalize inequality.

The Pro

If you look at each of the ways the influence and control is exercised, it is easy to understand that inequality is a threat to democratic ideals. 

(a) Voting – the poor often do not vote because they aren’t educated enough to understand the political process, they live in places far from voting booths and lack transportation, and they are often ignored by political parties

(b) Lobbying – Wealthy Americans have the resource to for lobby groups to protect their interests and gain access to Congress
(c) Speaking – the poor lack the resources to take their case to the airwaves, to form advocacy groups, to develop connections.

(d) Equal treatment – Since the poor are effectively excluded from the political process, they do not end up being treated equally

There is evidence to support each of these arguments in the packet.

There are a couple of Con arguments that I have heard people make that aren’t very good but are worth addressing.

Capitalism/free markets promote democracy.   While capitalism and free markets may promote democracy, there is no evidence that inequality that is produced by capitalism and the free market promote democracy.  You can argue for capitalism and free markets without arguing for inequality, especially at the current levels in the U.S..    Moreover, we have evidence in this update that directly answers the claim that capitalism promotes democracy.

Occupy movements.   The argument has been made that inequality doesn’t threaten democracy because the Occupy movements prove that the poor and disenfranchised will protest.  This is an interesting argument, but it really isn’t responsive.

First, other than speaking, it doesn’t support any of the democratic mechanisms that have been discussed above.   And speaking without effective lobbying, equal treatment, and voting is pretty much useless.  These type of protests are something that is permitted by democracy, but it really isn’t democracy in action – it’s simply convulsive mass politics of the dispossessed.

Second, these protests have not been institutionalized in a way that will facilitate broader democratic engagement or promote change.   The number of interest groups representing the poor has actually declined.

Remember, too, that the Pro only needs to prove that economic inequality threatens the ideals of democracy – voting, lobbying, speaking, and equal treatment.


Despite the very strong arguments and the fact that a preponderance of evidence favors the Pro, I don’t think that going Con is impossible.  Basically, I think there are two basic arguments that the Con can take.

First, inequality doesn’t inherently threaten democracy.  The simple existence of inequality does not threaten democracy and government action can ameliorate any threats to democracy that inequality presents by developing a progressive tax code that redistributes wealth, by protecting the poor in the political process, by providing financial support for candidates with limited means, and by passing laws that limit the power of political interest groups.

Second, the Con can argue that the US government is a representative democracy and that the US democracy was designed so that elite members of society would be elected to protect the interests of all.   As just discussed, these representatives can act in the interests of the poor and also move to protect the personal liberty and individual rights of everyone.

So, generally on the Con, I think that the debaters should re-position the debate away from what is actually occurring in American politics to how American politics ought to be practiced, even in a world of inequality.   In that world, there is no inherent threat to democracy from inequality.

Of course, the Con can also make the Capitalism/free market promotes democracy arguments that were just discussed, I just don’t think that they are very good arguments.

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