Americans are increasingly focused on economic inequality, and especially the growing and dangerous gulf between the 1% and everyone else. But of course, no element of our social ecosystem is separate and distinct from the other elements, and the financial gap between wealthy and working class citizens is closely connected to other kinds of inequality.
Children from poor families attend poorly performing schools. The streets and sidewalks and parks in poor neighborhoods are rarely as well maintained as those in wealthier precincts. The prevalence of “food deserts” in poor neighborhoods—the lack of markets selling healthy foods at reasonable prices—has been the subject of numerous articles. These and other tangible manifestations of unequal access to social goods (health care, for example) are relatively obvious.
But there is a less-often recognized kind of inequality: disproportionate access to the public square and the marketplace of ideas. This lack of access to contending perspectives, abetted by the steady erosion of what sociologists call voice, doesn’t just disadvantage the poor. It hurts us all, by depriving us of perspectives we need to hear and understand.
It is certainly true that many Americans, not just the poor, have historically opted out of democratic deliberations. But they had voice–and influence–through a multitude of civic organizations.
As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote
Political scientists after World War II hypothesized that even though the voices of individual Americans counted for little, most people belonged to a variety of interest groups and membership organizations – clubs, associations, political parties, unions – to which politicians were responsive.
“Interest-group pluralism,” as it was called, thereby channeled the views of individual citizens, and made American democracy function.
What’s more, the political power of big corporations and Wall Street was offset by the power of labor unions, farm cooperatives, retailers, and smaller banks. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith approvingly dubbed it “countervailing power.” These alternative power centers ensured that America’s vast middle and working classes received a significant share of the gains from economic growth.
Beginning in 1980, those organizations—a vibrant part of civil society—began to wither. Robert Putnum famously documented the decline in Bowling Alone.
The decline of unions has been especially consequential. As Reich notes, however, other former centers of countervailing power – retailers, farm cooperatives, and local and regional banks – also lost ground to national discount chains, big agribusiness, and Wall Street. Many of these changes were an intentional result of public policies—everything from Right to Work laws to slackened banking regulations. Others reflected economic and technological shifts.
Meanwhile, political parties stopped representing the views of most constituents. As the costs of campaigns escalated, parties morphed from state and local membership organizations into national fund-raising machines.
Although Reich does not include it in his list, we might add the effects of so-called “privatization”—especially the practice of government contracting with nonprofit organizations to deliver public services. Nonprofit scholars have long expressed concern that the growing dependence of human services nonprofits on government dollars has operated to “hollow out” their essential character as mediating institutions.
Reich concludes that the only way to turn this situation around is through greatly increased political activism. I agree.
The open question is whether average Americans have the time, the energy, or the will to reassert their right to be heard, and to insist on retaking their rightful place at the civic table.