Defining democracy: David Samuels

October 17, 2012

People, Profiles

David Samuels

In a few short weeks, Americans will exercise their right to vote and elect the next president. But for democracies around the world, citizens don’t know what it means to appoint a leader, as their public officials are selected by the powers that be. In recent decades, however, newer democracies have begun to adopt the U.S. model of rule — and more countries are choosing to elect a chief of state.

With a focus on the relationship between presidents and their political parties, Distinguished McKnight Professor David Samuels studies how democracy is organized by institutions of government and where democracy comes from.

Politics abroad

Samuels wasn’t inspired to pursue the study of democracy until he experienced widespread political unrest in Brazil. Shortly after completing his undergraduate work and abandoning plans to pursue a law degree, he traveled to Latin America. The Spanish-speaking graduate quickly picked up Portuguese and began working with a leftist political party in the midst of a tumultuous political climate.

“Brazil had just elected its first president after so many years of dictatorship and they were trying to impeach him,” explains Samuels. “As the system neared collapse, I was participating in protests against this president.”

Twenty years later, members of that same party have become elected officials — and Samuels has found his niche in the examination of politics.

Checks & balances

Scholars have long believed that countries which are more equal in distribution of wealth are more likely to sustain a democracy. This theory rests on the notion that equality prevents the privileged elite from marginalizing the masses. But Samuels’ research indicates that it’s actually inequality that drives democracy.

According to the Gini coefficient, a measure of statistical dispersion, poorer countries wherein people have a near-equal share of nothing are statistically equal. In societies like the United States, which sustain distinct socioeconomic classes, the distribution of wealth is disparate.

While the former may be more equal, the latter is more likely to embrace democracy. For example, as wealth disparities have grown in the U.S., democracy has remained.

“When there’s equality, the poor don’t demand the property of the rich. But when the middle class grows, their primary goal is to protect their newfound gains from the rich,” says Samuels. “A rising middle class is concerned with protecting their life, liberty and property.”

While leaders struggle to balance power and resources in times of scarcity, researchers like Samuels have new opportunities to test their hypotheses.

“I use the scientific method, but humans are not atoms, they’re not molecules. I think about individuals and how those individuals interact. That will never be an exact science.”

What’s next?

When asked about the changing landscape of political science research, Samuels makes the following predictions:

Shrinking support: Competition for research funding is greater than ever. For researchers like Samuels, whose work demands travel, lack of funding could hinder the discipline in a major way.

Growth of quantitative methods: In the study of politics, Samuels urges researchers to carefully select the measures they employ to analyze any problem. Using bad data, applying irrelevant measures, or over/underestimating the correlation between phenomena will yield weak conclusions.

Photo by Richard Anderson
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  1. ICYMI: our top 10 stories in 2012 | Research @ the U of M - January 1, 2013

    [...] democracy: David Samuels http://researchumn.com/2012/10/17/defining-democracy-david-samuels/Harnessing the power of proteins: Mark Distefano [...]

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