Equal political voice and democratically responsive government are widely cherished American ideals. Indeed, the United States is vigorously promoting democracy abroad. Yet, what is happening to democracy at home? Our country’s ideals of equal citizenship and responsive government may be under growing threat in an era of persistent and rising inequalities. Disparities of income, wealth, and access to opportunity are growing more sharply in the United States than in many other nations, and gaps between races and ethnic groups persist. Progress toward realizing American ideals of democracy may have stalled, and in some arenas reversed.
Citizens with lower or moderate incomes speak with a whisper that is lost on the ears of inattentive government officials, while the advantaged roar with a clarity and consistency that policy-makers readily hear and routinely follow.
Contemporary Political Parties Exacerbate Inequalities
Most interest groups are the tool of the few who want to press for particular benefits and breaks. Political parties, on the other hand, are the vehicle for reaching the broad public and mobilizing them into politics. Indeed, the United States invented political parties in the 19th century in order to mobilize ordinary citizens, and succeeded in ushering a far higher proportion of eligible voters to the polls than go today.
The problem today is that this mechanism for a broad and inclusive democracy—political parties—caters to some of the same narrow segments of American society that also disproportionately deploy interest groups on their behalf. Advantage begets additional advantage.
Both of the major political parties intensify the skewed participation in U.S. politics by targeting many of their resources on recruiting those who are already the most privileged and involved. Democrats and Republicans alike have become highly dependent on campaign contributors and activists, and have gotten used to competing for just over half of a shrinking universe of voters. What is more, political parties ignore parts of the electorate that have not turned out at high rates in past elections.
Political voice is also unequal because Americans who are very active in politics often have more intense or extreme views than average citizens who participate less or only sporadically. Extreme partisans and fringe activists have become more prominent in U.S. politics in recent times and may have significant consequences for American governance. The intense and unrelenting expression of “extreme voices” (combined with the proliferation of interest groups speaking for very specialized constituencies) makes it harder for government to work out broad compromises or to respond to average citizens who have more ambiguous or middle-of-the-road opinions about a range of important matters, ranging from abortion to tax cuts.
Generations of reformers have understood a simple truth: What government officials hear influences what they do. What citizens do — or don’t do — in politics affects what happens in the halls of government. Because government officials today hear more clearly and more often from privileged and highly active citizens, policy-makers are unlikely to respond readily to the concerns of the majority. The skew in political participation toward the advantaged generates policies tilted toward maintaining the status quo and continuing to reward the organized and already well-off.