Even among Americans who vote on a regular basis and are politically active in other ways, a majority doubts that what average citizens want or do really matters when it comes to who gets elected or what public policies get adopted. Ever more middle-class, working-class and low-income Americans have come to believe that they have no real political voice with elected officials and no actual influence over what government does or how it does it.
I wish I could dish up statistics, studies and stories to document how, contrary to popular perceptions, present-day American democracy approximates the ideal of government of the people, by the people and for the people. But the troubling truth is that today’s average citizens are correct when they doubt their own political efficacy.
The latest and best evidence on this sad subject is in the superb book The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy (2012), by the political scientists Kay Lehman Schlozman of Boston College, Sidney Verba of Harvard University and Henry Brady of the University of California, Berkeley.
As Schlozman and her colleagues stress, the fact that “political participation in America is stratified by social class” is old news. Research dating back to the 1950s reveals as much.
But as economic inequalities have become more pronounced, class-based gaps in individual political participation have persisted, while class-based gaps in organized interest activity seem to have widened. Citizens with incomes in the top fifth, for instance, are twice as likely to vote and eight times as likely to make campaign contributions as citizens with incomes in the bottom quintile.
As reported in The Unheavenly Chorus, interest groups in Washington, D.C., that represent for-profit corporations outnumber those representing labor unions by nearly 50 to 1. About 72 percent of all expenditures on lobbying originate with organizations that represent business.
With respect to lobbying expenditures, political action committee money, congressional testimony, amicus briefs and other measures of influence, political activity “on their own behalf by recipients of means-tested benefits barely exists.... The interests of unskilled workers receive none at all.” And for all the talk about the rise of “public interest” lobbies and gender, race and ideological “identity groups,” they too represent “a very small share of organized interest activity.”
Schlozman and her co-authors throw cold water on the notion that participatory equality is being boosted by the Internet and social media. In 2011, trade and other business associations averaged about 1.6 billion mentions on Twitter per week compared with around 66.5 million for public interest groups and only 1.2 million for unions. The “interactive forms of online political participation” may yet reduce political inequalities, but that remains to be seen.
When it comes to political input, the report concludes, Americans are unequal both at the finish line and at the starting line. The authors advocate campaign finance reforms, lifting restrictions on voting, toughening restrictions on lobbying and liberalizing “rules governing public protests and rallies.” But they duly acknowledge that their well-meaning proposals are all pretty much political moonshots.
The scores of millions of working people struggling to pay their monthly mortgages, formerly middle-class folks now feeding families with food stamps, de-unionized workers, the unemployed, welfare-dependent individuals and former prisoners begging for jobs are living “the broken promise of American democracy.” These Americans are patriotic. They have civic spirit. But they are down on a government that does not hear or heed them, and they are disinclined to play a political game that they seem bound to lose anyway.
So, what is to be done? I wish I knew, but I suspect that the “erosion in union membership” (from about 21 percent in 1981 to 12 percent in 2010) is an even more important piece of the political inequality puzzle than Schlozman and her co-authors suggest it is. Without a rebirth of the American labor movement, our nation’s interwoven economic and political inequalities will only become more sizable—and more sinful.