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Considerable research has been conducted on the relationship between socioeconomic inequality and political engagement. However, there is little consensus on the exact nature of the relationship, and considerable variation in the relationship exists even among countries with similar levels of inequality. This lack of clarity in the literature exists because the impact of inequality on engagement is not constant, but changes depending on the strategic choices of political leaders. Populist leaders, who tend to explicitly connect political and socioeconomic exclusion, can activate latent grievances around inequality. Using data from the Latin American Public Opinion Project, we show that inequality leads to disengagement among the poor in most contexts but increases engagement under populist rule. In other words, a primarily structural relationship is mediated by political variables. Even though the severity of inequality is outside the control of any political actor, leaders’ reaction to inequality can dramatically alter its impact on mass political behavior.

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This document was originally published in Latin American Research Review by Latin American Studies Association. Copyright restrictions may apply. doi: 10.1353/lar.2016.0046