Can Political Inequalities be Educated Away?

The forthcoming article ”Can Political Inequalities Be Educated Away? Evidence from a Large-Scale Reform” by Karl-Oskar Lindgren, Sven Oskarsson, and Christopher T. Dawes is summarized here:Can Political Inequalities Be Educated Away? Evidence from a Large-Scale Reform

Equal access to public office for all individuals is on the UN’s list of basic human rights. Yet, a brief look at the composition of the legislatures around the world shows that this formal right does not necessarily translate into equal political representation for all segments of society. On the contrary, research on legislative recruitment consistently finds that opportunities to hold political office are highly unevenly distributed in all societies.

Whether the social bias of elected assemblies constitutes a problem is an issue that has been debated since the inception of representative government. All sides agree that no one should be entitled to public office by accident of birth. Consequently, the fact that an individual’s chances of having a career in politics, at least partly, depends on the status of his or her parents has been a source of concern for observers across the political spectrum.

Over the years, many suggestions have been made on how to reduce the importance of family background in political recruitment. One much discussed solution is that of improved educational opportunities for the masses. Thomas Jefferson was an early proponent of this view in arguing for increased educational attainment as a way to replace what he referred to as an artificial aristocracy based on wealth and fortune with a natural aristocracy based on talent and virtue. Since Jeffersonian times, the idea that equality of educational opportunity is a necessary condition for political equality has gained considerable currency in liberal democratic thought. Yet critics of this view argue that this is a vain hope, as privileged social groups will invest in higher education in order to maintain their relative advantage.

In our study we examine the veracity of these positions. More precisely, we analyze how a large comprehensive school reform launched in Sweden in the 1950s, which lengthened compulsory schooling and postponed tracking, affected the likelihood of individuals with different family background to run for public office. The data used in the analysis pertain to the entire Swedish population born between 1943 and 1955 and contains complete records of all individuals that ran for public office in each of the six general elections held between 1991 and 2010.

Overall, we find strong support for the view that educational expansion can further political equality. According to our analysis, increased education reduced the effect of family background on the likelihood of seeking public office by as much as 40 percent. These findings thus support the idea embraced by democratic thinkers from Jefferson and onward that an expansion of mass education can help mitigate the political underrepresentation of individuals from lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

About the Authors: Karl-Oskar Lindgren is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government at Uppsala University (Sweden), Sven Oskarsson is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government at Uppsala University (Sweden), and Christopher T. Dawes is Assistant Professor in the Wilf Famly Department of Politics at New York University. Their article ”Can Political Inequalities Be Educated Away? Evidence from a Large-Scale Reform” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science and is currently available for Early View.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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