Most of us have heard the old adage “politics is war without the guns.” It’s shorthand for a basic premise of democratic theory: when people have an opportunity to express their preferences and argue for their point of view in a fair fight, they are less likely to shoot each other and far more likely to abide by the results, albeit grudgingly, if they lose the fight.
There’s a substantial amount of history supporting that thesis. What we sometimes forget, however, is that the fight must be fair. Not only that, participants must view it as fair. At the end of a public debate, if the combatants have been able to express their positions, articulate their concerns–if they’ve had what sociologists sometimes refer to as voice–they generally can live with adverse results.
Lawyers often see this same psychology; clients who would be well-advised to settle a case often insist on having their “day in court,” even when that decision entails considerable risk, because they want the opportunity to make their case in a public forum.
Humans want to be heard. We want our points of view acknowledged. When we feel our arguments have been dismissed without proper consideration–when we feel “dissed”– we get belligerent.
One of the reasons that inequality is so corrosive to democratic systems is that people without money are almost always people without voice. A healthy democratic system doesn’t require a population where everyone has comparable resources, but it does require a population where everyone who wants to participate–who wants to be heard–has sufficient resources to do so.
Anyone who has been part of a legislative body–as an elected official, a paid lobbyist or a citizen activist–will confirm that the voices of poor people are rarely if ever heard in the corridors of power. When policymakers move to cut food stamps or drug test welfare recipients, they rarely hear testimony from people who will actually be affected by those actions. They hear disproportionately from business and taxpayer groups. With the exception of social welfare nonprofits (most of which have their own resource issues), no one is there to lobby for the poorest American citizens.
And the poor sure aren’t contributing to political campaigns.
When poor people have virtually no voice, even in the decisions that most directly affect them, that hurts democracies in two ways.
When legislators make decisions based on partial information, even the best-intentioned among them will opt for policies that have by definition been inadequately vetted. They will pass laws with unintended (and often unfortunate) consequences.
Worse, the people who had no voice–the people who are affected by rules they had no part in creating and no opportunity to debate–tend to be the people with the most legitimate grievances and the fewest outlets for expressing those grievances. When a society includes a large number of people who have effectively been disenfranchised–people who, thanks to their poverty, have little to lose– history tells us they will eventually take to the streets.
That’s not only bad for democracy and rational policymaking–it’s bad for business. Civil unrest is certainly not in the best interests of the privileged and well-to-do, who would be better served by sharing some reasonable measure of their power and wealth.
There’s another old adage that comes to mind: pigs get fed. Hogs get slaughtered.