Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences


Political Science

First Advisor

Dr. Tiffany D. Barnes


In this dissertation, I investigate two key questions: 1) What are the specific conditions under which economic inequality undermines democratic legitimacy; and 2) How does inequality map onto individuals’ perceptions of fairness and subsequently affect satisfaction with democracy and trust in political institutions? I first argue that individuals’ perceptions of distributive unfairness are key factors whereby economic inequality undermines democratic legitimacy. Inequality - and subsequent perceptions that the economic distribution is unfair - undermine political support by signaling that the democratic process is not functioning properly and by challenging people’s normative expectations about what democracy should do in practice.

I next draw from a diverse literature on social and political psychology, as well as governance quality, to derive new hypotheses about how people form their fairness judgments and use them to evaluate democracy. Right-leaning and upper-class individuals should be less upset with inequality in the first place, but even when these individuals perceive distributive unfairness, they should be less likely to express political dissatisfaction as a result. Additionally, the context in which individuals form their fairness perceptions should condition the relationship between fairness judgments and political support. In a context of good governance, individuals should be less likely to perceive inequality as unfair, and subsequently less likely to express political dissatisfaction for any perceived distributive unfairness in society. Governance quality provides alternative evidence that democracy is in fact functioning properly and should allay citizens’ concerns about inequality and distributive unfairness, at least when it comes to evaluating democratic legitimacy.

To test my theory and hypotheses, I take a mixed-methods approach that combines large-N analysis of public opinion data and original survey experiments. To contextualize my quantitative results, I draw on motivating examples from original open-ended surveys, newspapers, and elite interviews. In the first empirical chapter, I conduct a multilevel analysis of data from 18 Latin American and show that perceptions of distributive unfairness are negatively correlated with trust in government and satisfaction with democracy, yet good governance significantly mitigates this negative relationship. In the second empirical chapter, I use original survey experiments in Argentina, Mexico, and the US to show that perceptions of distributive unfairness are key causal factors linking inequality to political dissatisfaction. In the third empirical chapter, I use a second set of survey experiments to investigate how governance quality moderates the relationship between inequality and political support. When individuals are presented with information about declining corruption, they are less likely to perceive their country’s income distribution as unfair, and less likely to link inequality to political dissatisfaction.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Funding Information

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant SES-1747436.