Fellows Induction Event: Can Democracy Survive Growing Inequality?

L-R: 2020 Fellows Katherine Cramer, Eric Foner, Helen Milner, Mario Luis Small, Bruce Western

Watch a video of the January 14 Fellows Induction Event here.

On January 14, the AAPSS welcomed five eminent scholars as Fellows of the Academy with a virtual discussion moderated by AAPSS Board member David Leonhardt of The New York Times on the topic “Can Democracy Survive Growing Inequality?” The conversation took stock of the current state of racial and socioeconomic inequality in the United States and around the world, and suggested public policy opportunities for the Biden administration. The new Fellows spent a few minutes each using their areas of research to address the topic, then answered questions from Leonhardt as well as the virtual audience.

Eric Foner, the Academy’s 2020 W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow and the DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, noted that equality was important to the country’s founding generation, yet “equality” has many meanings. Thus equality has been a source of debate–shaped by the existence of slavery–throughout American history: How should one define equality, who is entitled to it, what kinds of social arrangements are necessary to promote it, and how can exclusions from equality be justified? Foner pointed out that the Civil War and Reconstruction was the moment when the country made its first effort to sever the principle of equality from the tyranny of race, and the effects of that effort, and its failures, are felt to this day.

Helen Milner is the B.C. Forbes Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and the AAPSS 2020 Robert Dahl Fellow. She spoke about economic inequality, i.e., the distribution of income and assets in societies, and she noted that inequality has been rising to perilously high levels in the United States since 1980, leading to a lack of trust in institutions and in democracy as well as polarization. This is a global phenomenon, and Milner warned that reversing it will be difficult–in fact, in the past, inequality has been adjusted only in periods of extreme violence, such as pandemics, wars, or revolutions.

The AAPSS 2020 Thorsten Sellin Fellow, Bruce Western, is the Bryce Professor of Sociology and Social Justice at Columbia University. He pointed out that inequality in the US was addressed at last with the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, through which voting rights could finally be said to be extended to all. In reaction to this, however, “law and order” was elevated to the national stage, stricter criminal penalties were established, and incarceration rates rose steadily in the decades that followed, taking a heavy toll on Black Americans. Mass incarceration, Western observed, reduces employment and earnings, breaks up families, undermines child welfare, and leads to political marginalization, as those who have had a criminal sentence are generally unable to vote. Thus he sees political activism from communities of color as the path to reducing mass incarceration and the inequalities that follow.

Katherine Cramer, Professor of Political Science and the Natalie C. Holton Chair of Letters & Science at University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the Academy’s 2020 Margaret Mead Fellow. Many in our society, feeling the stresses of extreme inequality, complain–rightly–that they aren’t receiving their fair share of resources, power, or respect, and, she said, “it becomes easy for our leaders to encourage us to see each other as the problem . . . distracting us from the real causes of inequality.” She views resistance to the politics of hate as a key to easing inequality and strengthening democracy.

The AAPSS 2020 James S. Coleman Fellow, Mario Luis Small, is the Grafstein Family Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. He identified misinformation as a critical problem in democracy. Following from that, it is important for scientific and journalistic researchers to understand the appropriate uses of quantitative and, especially, qualitative data. Qualitative data is mishandled, he stated, if it isn’t provided when needed, if the wrong qualitative data is used, or if it is provided but misrepresented. In a democracy under high inequality, then, qualitative literacy is an essential skill for social scientists, journalists, and the public.

With the addition of this 2020 cohort, there are now 139 Fellows of the Academy. Most are university-based scholars responsible for research that has changed our understanding of human behavior and the world in which we live; others are public servants who have used research and evidence in institutions of government to improve the common good. Kenneth Prewitt, Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University and President of the AAPSS, closed the event by noting that these distinguished new Fellows who drew upon their individual research to illuminate a larger issue as a group “will be our instructors . . . for how we go forward.”