Political Scientist at Penn Spotlights the ‘Shadow of Unfairness’ in Democracy

“Life’s not fair” applies to some people more than others, according to Jeffrey Green, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. 

In his new book, The Shadow of Unfairness: A Plebeian Theory of Liberal Democracy, Green says a person’s socioeconomic status on average determines future opportunities, from education to career advancement. 

Using an interdisciplinary approach, Green mixes philosophy, history, social science and literature to probe the meaning of democracy in contemporary societies permanently tainted by socioeconomic inequality, turning to plebeians of ancient Rome as his muse. 

“While the plebeians understood themselves as second-class citizens, they also recognized that part of the meaning of democracy is to identify and regulate the most advantaged, something not commonly done in contemporary liberal democracies but which has an untapped progressive potential,” Green says. 

He is a political theorist with wide interests in democracy, ancient and modern political philosophy and contemporary social theory. 

He says the shadow of unfairness refers to “the circumstance that even the most progressive, well-ordered, liberal-democratic regime will not be able to embrace a civic life that is truly free and equal in the fullest sense.” 

While Green says it is practically impossible to escape the shadow of unfairness, he says his definition of the term is limited in its scope. 

“The ‘shadow of unfairness’ does not refer to gross forms of injustice, corruption, the arbitrary infringement of civil liberties, an authoritarian overreach of executive power or an exploitative maldistribution of resources,” Green says, “though it is possible that a better understanding of the shadow of unfairness would reduce tolerance for these and other solvable problems.” 

The book, he says, is guided by intellectual honesty and progressive purpose, two mutually reinforcing goals that are progressive by nature and provide a sober assessment of the reality behind the veil of liberal democracy. 

Green’s work on democracy is making an impact around the world. 

His earlier research, including a 2010 book, The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship, caught the attention of the Dutch Ministry of the Interior, which brought together government officials, academics and journalists in June to discuss how the book might contribute efforts to revitalize democracy in the Netherlands. 

Green says it’s a milestone for his work. 

It “is a sign that democratic theory today has a potential audience outside the classroom,” Green says. 

The Shadow of Unfairness was published by the Oxford University Press

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