Democracy, Inequality and Voice

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.


  1. “Nations Fail” when they don’t allow all citizens to participate economically and politically.

  2. Sheila; I posted my comment, waited for it to appear, the screen went blank and “done” was posted at the bottom of the blank page.

  3. Money has to be taken out of the process…..somehow. Joe Biden gave an impassioned speech recently and closed with the importance of getting money OUT. We now have about 7 well paid lobbyist for EACH elected member of Congress. That is sick. No good can come from such a system.

  4. The McMega-Media Pundits all tell us a viable political Political Campaign must fueled by Campaign Donations. The electability of a candidate is contingent on the amount of money they collect we are told by the pundits. It is very obvious the 1% have far more disposable income to donate than the person living off a minimum wage. Both have only one vote, but the 1% can amplify their “voice” with Campaign Contributions. We also have the PACs and Super PACs added into the mix.

    The lobbyists and the PACs can hire Professionals to carry the water for them. They may even write the Legislation. Citizen John or Mary Doe cannot afford to hire lobbyists and may not be able to afford to take a day off of work to offer their opinions before the Legislators. This situation is not a change in the American Republic. We had the 1% of the old South making sure Slavery was legal.

    Our Elected Officials are immune through various activities from representing their voting constituents. Just drive through Indianapolis, streets, roads and sidewalks are falling apart. Funding for Parks and Public Transportation are starved for funds. The owners of the Pacers or Colts never stand in line for tax dollars, they are escorted to the front of the line, by their Elected Puppets.

  5. Oops; I neglected to add to my above comment that my comment was not posted.

  6. I came across this article and thought it fit in rather well with today’s subject ( :
    “For decades, Americans and their government upheld a powerful set of ideals that combined a commitment to economic security with a faith in economic opportunity,” Hacker writes. “Today that message is starkly different: You are on your own.”

    All of which brings us back to the question of why there is so little rebellion against entrenched social and economic injustice.
    The answer is that those bearing the most severe costs of inequality are irrelevant to the agenda-setters in both parties. They are political orphans in the new order. They may have a voice in urban politics, but on the national scene they no longer fit into the schema of the left or the right. They are pushed to the periphery except for a brief moment on Election Day when one party wants their votes counted, and the other doesn’t.

  7. Today’s blog ties into yesterday’s; we cannot possibly protect our Democracy, banish Inequality or have a viable Voice without knowing the truth and having facts. We cannot do this without a return to truthful, reliable journalism in it’s many forms today…and social media is a part of journalism in our lives…along with numerous research outlets for information. Politics and politicians are under the control of the wealthy; the preferences of the people is of no interest or use to the 1% and their cronies in Congress. Congress, hand-in-hand with the 1% and the media merely provide, “…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” with no room for people’s preferences. Our grievances fall on deaf ears. All of this brings us back to the two comments often made by many of commenters on this blog; follow the money and VOTE.

  8. Voice. Those of us old enough to have actually experienced significant past remember that the lack of voice is older than even we are among the poor but has evolved over our times for the middle class. People who struggle yet achieve and raise kids and shop and attend to their productive skills.

    It would be easy to shrug that away as mere cost of “progress” but in truth it is conspiracy. The voice of the middle class was taken, not merely lost in the shuffle.

    I would ask that you consider a tiny group of people. Lee Atwater, Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Rush Limbaugh, Grover Norquist, Sheldon Adelson, the Kochs, Dick Cheney. About the same size as the Fasist team that destroyed Europe in our lifetimes.

    They conspired to neutralize the entire core of America as a simple expedient towards wealth.

    Of course like all conspiracies that core built over time armies of the gullible who heard but didn’t think. At least they didn’t think until it was too late. How many troops honored the Nazi idea of racial superiority until the cost registered on the battlefield?

    I’m absolutely sure that every one of us mature folks had as youngsters the same thought. How could the Germans and Italians and Japanese been so thoroughly and seemingly easily fooled?

    Now we know.

  9. Thank you for this important message. Gluttony for greed and power (voice) ultimately bring down economies and empires. At the rate we’re going, that gluttony will burn the planet to a crisp as well. Will we ever learn, and soon enough?

  10. There are those who still believe it can be fixed at the polls. If they were effective, we never would have come to this point.

    Never in history, throughout the annuls of mankind, has one ruler surrendered his power out of the goodness of heart. Only bleeding hearts bring about change. France, Italy, Haiti, America….when blood starts to flow the rich open their ears. Blood at home that is.

    The only political stab at a settlement of terms was Chamberlain and how did that work out for us?

  11. Drawing on numerous in-depth surveys of members of the public as well as the largest database of interest organizations ever created–representing more than thirty-five thousand organizations over a twenty-five-year period–this book conclusively demonstrates that American democracy is marred by deeply ingrained and persistent class-based political inequality. The well educated and affluent are active in many ways to make their voices heard, while the less advantaged are not.

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