Kay Lehman Schlozman, Henry E. Brady & Sidney Verba on Unequal and Unrepresented

UnequalThe Declaration of Independence proclaims equality as a foundational American value. However, Unequal and Unrepresented finds that political voice in America is not only unequal but also unrepresentative. Those who are well educated and affluent carry megaphones. The less privileged speak in a whisper. Relying on three decades of research and an enormous wealth of information about politically individuals and organizations, Kay Schlozman, Henry Brady, and Sidney Verba offer a concise synthesis and update of their groundbreaking work on political participation. Citing real-life examples and examining inequalities from multiple perspectives, Unequal and Unrepresented shows how disparities in political voice endanger American democracy today.  

Unpack the title for me. What do you mean that “political voice” is “unequal and unrepresentative?”

People and organizations express political voice to influence government action. They do this by voting, the most common participatory act; by engaging in activities that require an investment of their time, for example, getting in touch with a public official or volunteering in an electoral campaign; and by providing money to affect politics such as making contributions to electoral campaigns or political organizations.

Most people’s participation is limited to voting, but some people amplify their voices by devoting a great deal of time, energy, and money to politics. Unequal political voice is not, on the face of it, a problem for American democracy. But unequal voice that is also unrepresentative poses a threat to democracy. Those with louder voices—who are likely to be well-educated and well-heeled—get heard while those who can only speak in a whisper are ignored. Describing his calls to potential donors, Representative Chris Murphy of Connecticut put it this way: “I know that when I’ve been raising money, I’m not hearing from a representative sample…. I talked a lot more about carried interest [a tax provision giving favorable treatment to the earnings of partners at private equity firms and hedge funds] in that call room than I did at the supermarket.” This social class tilt, which characterizes every form of political voice except perhaps protest, is especially pronounced for any activity that involves making financial contributions.

What does the skewing of political voice in the direction those with high levels of income and education mean for what public officials hear? 

What decision-makers hear from political activists is not representative of the opinions, concerns, and needs of the population as a whole. Political activists are more conservative on economic issues and sometimes more liberal on social issues. Activists with high levels of education and income are much less likely than the disadvantaged to report that their activity is animated by a matter of basic human need such as hunger, housing, or health care.

Those who are politically active also have different life circumstances. They are, on average, less likely to be in need of health care, to have to cut-back in spending in order to make ends meet, or to use government benefit programs. In addition, those who benefit from such non-means-tested programs as Social Security or Medicare are much more likely to undertake political action—for example to make a voting decision or to contact a public official—in association with that program than are beneficiaries of such means-tested programs as food stamps (SNAP) or Medicaid, who are by definition economically needy. In short, political activists communicate a skewed set of messages about what citizens care about, want, and need.

Don’t all those organizations that get involved in politics overcome the class stratification in political voice? Doesn’t every possible interest have an organization to advocate on its behalf in Washington?

If only. On the contrary, many interests with a stake in public policy are not represented by organizations. For example, thousands of membership associations active in Washington politics represent people in terms of their occupations. Yet, unless they are union members, those who make their living as office receptionists, Wal-Mart associates, parking lot attendants, bellhops, telemarketers, laundry workers, van drivers, and bartenders have no occupational associations at all to represent their interests in Washington. In fact, other than unions, not a single occupational organization represents the shared concerns of those whose work is unskilled. Moreover, there are no organizations that bring together recipients of means-tested government benefits such as Medicaid or SNAP acting on their own behalf. Similarly, those caring for aging relatives at home, workers required to sign non-compete clauses, holders of sub-prime mortgages, and parents seeking high-quality child care have no organization dedicated to their concerns.

In contrast, affluent interests, especially business, are very well represented. In fact, a majority, 52 percent, of the organizations active in Washington represent business in one way or another. These business organizations account for more than three-quarters, 77 percent, of the spending on lobbying, and unions representing workers spend only about 1 percent.

Has it always been this way or has the New Gilded Age ushered in a new era of plutocracy with greatly enhanced inequalities of political voice?

Both. On one hand, for at least a half century, nearly all forms of political voice have tilted in the direction of the well-educated and affluent. On the other, modes of political advocacy that depend upon money—both for lobbying and for campaign contributions—have taken on increased importance in the past generation, which means that the voices of the affluent have become relatively louder during the New Gilded Age. This development is fortified by economic trends. Economic growth during this period has benefited an extremely narrow slice of households at the very top of the economic ladder, producing a small group that is in a position to invest vast resources in politics. In this way, economic and political inequality reinforce one another. More economic inequality means more political inequality which, in turn, means more economic inequality.

Don’t social movements help to overcome inequalities by mobilizing into politics those who are less affluent and well educated?

Social movements grab attention because they are not simply politics as usual but instead bring into politics new issues and newly activated activists. Some movements—for example, the labor movement at the end of the nineteenth century and Black Lives Matter much more recently—do bring less advantaged publics into politics. But the United States also has a long tradition of mobilizations of middle-class adherents, including the abolition, temperance, environmental, and Tea Party movements.

What is not ordinarily recognized is an ordinary, and much more common, process by which friends and relatives, fellow church members, and co-workers ask one another to get involved in politics. Because those who make requests for political activity seek out prospects who are likely to accede to the request to participate and to participate effectively—by, for example, making a large campaign donation or writing a compelling e-mail—when they take part, activity undertaken in response to a request is actually more unequal than is activity undertaken spontaneously.

What about the possibilities for political participation on the Internet or through social media?  Don’t these new technologies ameliorate inequalities of political voice?

When the Internet was in its infancy, optimistic assessments predicted that Internet-based political activity would be free of the educational and income stratification so typical of traditional offline participation. Contrary to those expectations, the bias in the direction of the affluent and well-educated of participatory acts performed online—for example, signing a petition, contacting a senator, or making a campaign contribution to a candidate for governor—reproduces the pattern for their offline counterparts. Social class stratification is also typical of political involvement through social media. These new technologies do, however, make political voice more representative in one way: young adults in their late teens and twenties, traditionally a relatively politically quiescent group, are not underrepresented when to comes to political participation on the Internet or political involvement through social media.

In the past, periods of democratic discontent—the Progressive Era, for example—have spawned democratizing reforms like party primaries and the direct election of Senators. Are there reforms that hold promise for overcoming inequalities of political voice?

Reforms in two areas, voting and campaign finance, could ameliorate inequalities of political voice. A number of states have implemented procedural changes that make it easier to vote in the hopes of raising turnout and, in turn, making the electorate more representative of the adult population. Unfortunately, democratizing the electorate is not easy. Many reforms designed to raise turnout fail to do so. Even reforms that boost turnout do not necessarily make the electorate more representative. Instead, the additional voters drawn to the polls replicate the characteristics of the core electorate. Besides, many states are moving in the opposite direction—passing voter ID legislation that erects barriers to the vote. Although the impact of voter ID laws is not yet clear, it is quite possible that their effect will be to produce electorates that are less representative with respect to both class and race.

As for campaign finance, beginning about a decade ago, a series of federal court decisions struck down several campaign finance provisions and afforded greater First Amendment protection to political contributions as a form of speech. In the aftermath, the electoral system has been swamped with cash from extremely wealthy individuals. As a consequence, the campaign finance environment seems to be changing dramatically in ways that, if anything, further tilt the playing field. In short, when it comes to procedural reform, it seems that anything that would make much difference in reducing inequalities of political voice is currently either politically infeasible or constitutionally proscribed; and anything that is currently both politically possible and constitutionally acceptable would not make much difference.

One final question, is there anything in the recent news that illustrates the patterns you found?

The 2017 tax reform bill confirms our analysis of unequal political voice. The details of the bill reveal both an overall bias in the direction of the affluent and the impact of lobbying by well-organized, but often narrow, interests. While reduction in the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent is permanent, many of the provisions that benefit middle-income taxpayers are temporary. Among those receiving favorable tax treatment are heirs to large estates, craft brewers, real estate developers, owners of golf courses, and parents planning to send children to private elementary and high school. The tax bill had surprisingly little public support. Why were Republicans in Congress so impatient to pass a bill that  was not especially popular with the taxpaying public?  Representative Chris Collins (R-NY) had an answer that resonates with the conclusions of our inquiry. He told reporters, “My donors are basically saying ‘get it done or don’t ever call me again.’”

Kay Lehman Schlozman is the J. Joseph Moakley Endowed Professor of Political Science at Boston College. Henry E. Brady is dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy and the Class of 1941 Monroe Deutsch Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Sidney Verba is the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor Emeritus and research professor of government at Harvard University.