Justice Louis Brandeis is supposed to have said, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Whether or not Brandeis uttered these exact words, it is reasonable to fear that democratic participation is fruitless and frustrating whenever a small number of people control major employment and production decisions through direct ownership and influence government by literally paying for the decisions they like (though campaign finance contributions) and implicitly threatening to move their investments if they dislike policies.
In 2007, the wealthiest one percent of American households held 34.6 percent of the nation’s wealth. The assets of that top percentile consisted mainly of investments that gave them power over other people. Almost 90 percent of their assets took the form of non-home real estate (mainly business facilities and rental properties), business equity, stocks, and other securities—in other words, stakes in firms that employed their fellow citizens and made things. In contrast, typical families (those between the 20th and 80th percentiles) had sunk two thirds of their modest wealth in their own homes and were deeply in debt.
One could conclude that it is naïve to expect ordinary (not to mention poor) Americans to participate in the demanding ways that I advocate: attending meetings, forming groups, and influencing the government. If their participation threatens the economic interests of the rich, one would expect them to fail. It would appear that economic reform must precede political engagement.
A different version of the argument focuses not on the top one percent and their control of the “commanding heights” of the economic and political battlefields, but rather on the bottom 20 percent, who ostensibly cannot participate because they have more pressing and immediate needs than civic engagement. According to Abraham Maslow’s theory of a “hierarchy of needs,” people will not participate in politics until they have sufficient safety, welfare, and love. “When millions lack health insurance, live at or below the poverty level, face racism is their lives, it is no wonder there is disengagement.” [quoting David A. Shultz, “The Phenomenology of Democracy: Putnam, Pluralism, and Voluntary Associations,” Scott L. McLean, David Andrew Schultz, Manfred B. Steger (eds.), Social Capital: Critical Perspectives on Community and “Bowling Alone” (New York: New York University Press, 2002), p. 92.]
The difficulties that this analysis presents are severe. First, it is not clear how we can attain higher levels of economic equality unless lower-income people do engage politically, using their votes and other forms of influence to change policies in their own favor. Strategies that rely on some kind of political “vanguard” to look out for their interests have usually been disastrous, not only in the notorious case of state communism, but also in many machine-dominated American cities, where ostensibly progressive leaders who claim to represent the poor have become corrupt.
Even if our political system does pass redistributive legislation, the resulting spending will benefit lower-income people only to the degree that it funds programs that genuinely serve their needs. Programs are most effective and sensitive (and popular) when citizens engage with them, holding agencies accountable and contributing their own talents and energies. Thus, until there is more and better public participation in institutions, it is not clear that governments can promote equality. I would personally favor expanding certain tools of financial redistribution, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicare. But such programs do not address inequality that emerges from gaps in literacy, nutrition, mental health, residential segregation, and neighborhood-level violence and crime. To address those causes of inequality, one needs effective programs, and such programs rely on active citizens as well as tax dollars.
Finally, it is difficult to use the open-ended, deliberative style of political engagement that I advocate if one is convinced than an essential goal is to reduce the share of wealth controlled by the top one percent of Americans. Many citizens do not share that goal. The General Social Survey regularly asks people to place their opinions on a scale between two statements: (1) “the government in Washington ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor, perhaps by raising the taxes of wealthy families or by giving income assistance to the poor” and (2) “the government should not concern itself with reducing this income difference between the rich and the poor.” The mean answer is always slightly closer to the latter than the former, and between 10 and 20 percent of the sample consistently place themselves at the anti-redistributionist extreme of the spectrum. This is not evidence that Americans are overwhelmingly against modest amounts of additional redistribution. It is evidence that their opinions vary. The issue can be discussed, but to assume that more redistribution is needed is no way to invite all kinds of people to participate.
The dilemma that I have introduced here is real, but it can be overstated. The poorest 20 percent of Americans—not to mention the middle 50 percent—have considerable potential power in politics and the marketplace. They do not own very many securities, but they do make important discretionary decisions about where to live and work and which consumer goods to buy. They also have a lot of potential votes. They do not actually vote or join political organizations and movements at nearly the same rate as wealthier Americans, but that disparity isn’t inevitable.
Consider India, the world’s largest democracy, where “scheduled castes” are groups (including the traditional “Untouchables” or Dalit caste) that are recognized as subject to historic deprivation and discrimination. More than one third of scheduled caste members live below the Indian poverty rate, which is about eight US dollars per person per month. Nevertheless, in the national elections of 1996, voter turnout among the scheduled castes was 89.2 percent, and turnout among the upper castes was about three points lower than theirs. In the same year, the United States held a presidential election in which 58 percent of all adult citizens voted—31 points lower than the scheduled caste members in India. Even Americans who held college degrees (a privileged minority) voted at rates far below the scheduled castes.
Sometimes this kind of comparison is offered to chastise Americans. Why can’t we vote like Indians? Indeed, why do Americans choose to vote at lower rates than in all other democracies except (sometimes) Switzerland? I happen to think the voting is an ethical obligation, like many other forms of civic and political participation. But personal virtue does not explain enormous differences in participation by social class, by nation, and within the United States over time. (Almost three quarters of American men voted in 1900, even though most African American men were still blocked from voting.) Nor can moral exhortation raise the turnout rate or encourage other forms of civic and political participation. Structural factors, such as the competitiveness of elections, the issues that are open to debate, the functioning of parties, interest groups, and the mass media, and the prevailing political culture, affect the rate of participation.
We need to analyze the structural reasons for declining engagement in the United States and suggest reforms. In the present context, the point of invoking India is simply this: economics does not determine political participation. People who experience absolute deprivation and profound relative disadvantage sometimes vote at rates far above privileged Americans.
Voting is by no means the only form of civic engagement, but similar conclusions can be drawn regarding democratic participation in general. The proportion of people who say they take “local community action on issues like poverty, employment, housing, [and] racial equality” is higher in some poor countries, such as Bangladesh and Tanzania, than it is in rich countries such as Germany, Singapore, and the United States. The correlation between economic development and grassroots political participation is weak but negative at the global level. In a study of highly demanding and effective forms of grassroots political action, Gaventa and Barrett find successful examples no less common in poor countries, war-torn countries, and dictatorships than in peaceful and developed democracies. In the United States, voting and volunteering are strongly correlated with social class: wealthy people are the most likely to participate. But attending community meetings and working on local problems are different: rates of participation are almost the same for low-income people as for rich people.
Overall, I think we can conclude that economic disadvantage is not an insuperable barrier to participation. In fact, economic need can spur engagement and make it more common in poor and even undemocratic contexts than it is in affluent communities. Some of our most impressive and innovative civic movements have originated with our poorest and most oppressed people, starting with slaves in the 1800s. That does not mean that democratic participation is equitable in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, nor that our major institutions allow equal participation. It does mean that we can begin by reforming our political institutions, confident that all Americans are capable of participating in a reform movement if we organize it well.