why do the disadvantaged not participate?

In last week’s election, 51% of the voters said they were college graduates. Among adult Americans (by my calculation), 34% have associates’ degrees or higher and 29% have a bachelor’s or more. If a college degree is a mark of middle-class status, then the 2014 electorate was far more middle class–and less working class–than the population as a whole.

Many explanations can be given, and they are cumulative. Voting is harder for people who have less pertinent information ready at hand: for instance, those who do not already read political news. They may also face higher burdens in taking time off work or getting to the polls. Their confidence in their own opinions may be lower. They may see themselves and their concerns less reflected in politics. They hear fewer plausible messages about how the political system will address their needs. They are certainly less likely to be contacted and encouraged to participate–not only in the election of the moment, but in all forms of politics.

We can address these problems. Gaps are smaller in some other countries and used to be smaller in the US when turnout was higher here. In India, the lowest castes have higher turnout than the Brahmins.

But it is also striking how old and persistent are the patterns of unequal participation. In Beyond Adversary Democracy (1980), Jane Mansbridge found unequal levels of voice and influence in both a current Vermont town meeting and a radical commune, the two settings she studied. For comparison, she looked back at the earliest town meetings of colonial America. For instance, Dedham, MA (founded 1636) expected and required that everyone attend its meetings. The stakes were high, as the town set taxes and owned much common property of essential value to the residents. It was more like a commune than a modern municipality. But Mansbridge remarks (p. 131):

Even though no more than fifty-eight men were eligible to come to the Dedham town meeting and to make decisions for the town, even though the decisions to which they addressed themselves were vital to their existence, even though every inhabitant was required to live within one mile of the meeting place, even though each absence from the meeting brought a fine, and even though a town crier personally visited the house of each latecomer half an hour after the meeting had begun, only 74 percent of those eligible actually showed up at the typical town meeting between 1636 and 1644.

I don’t think we have evidence about how the participants differed from the nonparticipants in Dedham; but in nearby Sudbury, when a “crucial meeting” was held to decide whether common land would be apportioned equally or given in larger amounts to the wealthier landowners, the poor stayed home even though by attending they could have changed the outcome in their favor (p. 133).

Opportunities for political participation, such as votes, should be made convenient and actively encouraged. The recently enacted barriers, such as restrictive photo ID laws, may worsen inequality and also send a discouraging message. On the other hand, we have seen dramatic efforts to encourage participation, such as vote-by-mail, Motor Voter, and early voting. Those have done little good. And 17th century Dedham shows that even rules and processes highly favorable to participation are not sufficient.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for effective bottom-up political movements that drive agendas favorable to working people. The ideology of consensus and common interest in colonial Massachusetts may have discouraged participation by suggesting that there was no place for interest-based criticism and advocacy. If every good Christian agreed, then the town gentry might as well make all the decisions. In a somewhat parallel situation today, working class Americans lack a vital social movement that can make a real pitch for their votes.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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