Discussion paper

DP11209 Social Mobility and Stability of Democracy: Re-evaluating De Tocqueville

An infl‡uential thesis often associated with De Tocqueville views social mobility as a bulwark of democracy:
when members of a social group expect to join the ranks of other social groups in the near future, they should
have less reason to exclude these other groups from the political process. In this paper, we investigate this
hypothesis using a dynamic model of political economy. As well as formalizing this argument, our model
demonstrates its limits, elucidating a robust theoretical force making democracy less stable in societies with
high social mobility: when the median voter expects to move up (respectively down), she would prefer to give
less voice to poorer (respectively richer) social groups. Our theoretical analysis shows that in the presence
of social mobility, the political preferences of an individual depend on the potentially confl‡icting preferences
of her “future selves,” and that the evolution of institutions is determined through the implicit interaction
between occupants of the same social niche at different points in time. When social mobility is endogenized,
our model identifi…es new political economic forces limiting the amount of mobility in society — because the
middle class will lose out from mobility at the bottom and because a peripheral coalition between the rich
and the poor may oppose mobility at the top.


Sonin, K, D Acemoglu and G Egorov (2016), ‘DP11209 Social Mobility and Stability of Democracy: Re-evaluating De Tocqueville‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 11209. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp11209