Political Science Now

Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award

Ben W. Ansell and David J. Samuels are this years recipients for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award. This award is given annually for the best book on government, politics, or international affairs. The award is sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation at Princeton University.

This book challenges a central piece of conventional wisdom in political science – that economic inequality hurts the prospects for democracy.  Greater inequality is supposed to increase demands for redistribution among the majority of citizens, which makes elites less willing to expand the franchise or otherwise relinquish power.  The fundamental conflict is between haves and have-nots.  In contrast, Ansell and Samuels maintain that “regime change does not emerge from autocratic elites’ fear that the poor would expropriate their wealth under democracy.  It instead results when politically disenfranchised yet rising economy groups seek to rein in the power of autocratic elites to expropriate their income and assets” (p. 7; italics in original).  Their argument has roots in John Locke and Enlightenment liberalism, and it has affinities with the work of Barrington Moore, Jr.  Nonetheless, the authors combine theory and empirical evidence in original ways with wide-ranging implications.

Inequality and Democratization is a terrific example of multi-methods research.  In chapters 2 and 3, the authors use historical case studies to illustrate problems with the conventional wisdom.  In the 19th century, for example, the United Kingdom democratized while China did not, even though inequality in the UK was much higher.  Other cases, such as Chile, Peru, and Imperial Germany, reveal that inequality of land ownership may have been more significant for democratization than inequality of income.  Chapter 4 presents a formal model linking inequality to regime change.  Unlike previous studies, the authors assume that the economy has two sectors (agriculture and industry), not one, and that elites may be divided (rising vs. established) rather than unified.  Inequality may exist within each sector of the economy and between the sectors.  Their model predicts that the likelihood of any transition to democracy varies depending on different forms of inequality; it decreases, for instance, when land inequality is high.  The remaining chapters of the book provide statistical tests of this model, based on evidence from many countries over long periods of time.  The authors provide a series of direct and indirect tests, using different model specifications, to demonstrate the robustness of their argument.  The overall effect of combining these distinct methods is quite impressive.

The committee read a number of outstanding books this year, from all major sub-fields of the discipline.  The authors asked big questions and marshalled substantial evidence to provide an answer.  In the end, we favored arguments that had the potential to “travel” widely, beyond a specific place, time, or part of government.  If the book could shed light on issues that mattered beyond the academy, so much the better.  Inequality and Democratization passed both of these tests with flying colors, and we congratulate Ben Ansell and David Samuels for their tremendous accomplishment.

Award Committee:
Chris Howard, College of William & Mary
Christina Schneider, University of California, San Diego
Simone Chambers, University of Toronto

Recipients: Ben W. Ansell and David J. Samuels
Title: Inequality and Democratization: An Elite-Competition Approach, Cambridge University Press