Discussion Questions - Inequality

  • Strolovich examines whether or not interest groups represent disadvantaged groups. What additional ways can you think of (or do the other authors this week suggest) to potentially increase representation of these groups or improve political equality in general?
  • Does your response to Verba's question "Would the Dream of Political Equality Turn out to be a Nightmare?" differ from the author's?


In respect to the first question, one common method is creating a state agency/council that is charged on advocating for marginalized groups. In Minnesota, for instance, there are numerous councils claiming to represent marginalized and disadvantaged subgroups such as African-Americans, Asian and pacific islanders, and youth. While this approach is not perfect because issues of intersectionality still exist, it does help bolster attention given to these groups because they are given public visibility by statute and they have a constant funding stream by law (although the steam may fluctuate depending on the happenings of a legislative session). In addition, this approach does provide a means for increased focus on disadvantaged subgroups because councils do not necessarily need to appease a wide array of funders or even a group of major donors who give financial resources with strings attached. In general, a dual approach, with government councils/agencies partnering with third-party organizations (i.e. nonprofits), will probably yield the best results for marginalized groups in the long-run.

Verba's in-depth look into the pros and cons of political equality (mostly in the sense of equal voice in political matters) was engaging and I agree with him for the most part. Spelling out the cons of political equality, especially in an academic piece, is no easy task. Because the article's scope was around the current state of affairs instead of how we can change the system so these populations can develop a stronger political voice made reading some of his statements in support of political inequality difficult. I may be considered idealistic but I am a firm believer in access and accommodations for full participation in all activities. I understand that the current system would potentially become "overloaded", but relevant stakeholders should always be engaged and these activities should be approached with an understanding that the political system has been built with the values and perspectives by people of white, western European heritage. The populations who are not as active politically and are not as strongly represented have a unique view of some of the programs and issues that more directly impact them. I don't feel that the political system will become "overloaded" anytime soon, if representatives and certain interest groups figure out a way to better engage these populations and ensure their continued participation.

A number of the readings this week discussed the relationship of money to political influence. So how do we increase the representation of disadvantaged groups? Two ways to increase the representation of those with less money is to decrease the influence of those with a lot of money. This could be done by placing a cap on political spending thereby leveling the playing field, or by improving political spending disclosure requirements. If it is clear who money is coming from, it is easier to see what issue(s) they are trying to have influence over. Making that transparent potentially decreases the influence of those dollars. I do not think these are ideal or even politically feasible at this time but still worth considering.

I think you are absolutely right Matthew. It is almost considered a market failure in my opinion, and I think state and local governments in particular address it as such. For instance, both Minneapolis and Saint Paul are (finally) getting involved the both the achievement gap and employment gap. Saint Paul in particular created a commission to work with City leaders, the Chamber of Commerce, and education outlets to address this very specialized issue. This reflects one of Verba's conclusions in how to increase public opinion of marginalized groups, direct government intervention.
Ultimately I share a similar viewpoint with Verba (I think that was the actual article referenced here). I think the most important reason for public participation is the legitimacy argument, as policy must be both responsive to an issue and be accepted to be effectively implemented.

I think that if, as the way society exists today, everyone had equal voice and every politician had to consider every request, the system would cease to function. That being said, if we as a society worked on the most influential factor in political participation, education, there could be a steady increase in participation as effective education took hold. Bartel points to the nightmare of people with a poor understanding of the public good, causation in policy, and cannot see beyond their own needs make for poor democratic participants. Increasing the understanding (broadening the education base) of public affairs would have to be the cause of increased political participation, it cannot be artificially enforced without a negative impact on policy outcomes.

Based on the readings of Verba (2003), it makes you wonder what political equality means? Is it only equality on representation? Or does it involve equality on access to the political arena? The problem resides in that equality is usually confounded with political participation. Then a clear action would be to increase the channels of participation. But does more means better? Bartels (2008) and Cigler and Loomis (2007) suggest that it may not mean better representation, neither more political equality. Additional ways, hence, should improve the quality of representation to guaranty equality on access. Information and socializing advantages, achievements, risks and challenges for the represented groups are ways in which representation can potentially be increased. This would also address Bartels’ question. More political channels do not necessarily involves better representation.

Verba pointed out that political equality has less to do with how many participants but more to do with the representativeness of those who participate. Strolovich then pointed out the antidote of eliminating political inequality is to improve our education and employment systems. However, this requires political reconciliation and wider public support in the long run. Informative through new media and socializing advantages can be an effective additional way to improve the quality of representation.The new media such as facebook and twitter can be effective tool to both educating the public and be the feedback system for underrepresented groups.

I found the Strolovich reading especially interesting and thought about my own community back home and issues relating to getting voices heard and greater political participation. I watched my parents and other immigrant families be overwhelmed by the political system. Verba defines two types of citizens with inequality of voices as those who “cannot participate because they lack the resources to do so and those who choose not to participate because they lack the interest or inclination.” My parents fall into the first category, not because they don’t have resources but it is hard to follow politics because of language barriers and understanding the complexity of it. So to answer the first question, one way to close the gap would be to efficiently relay information about the political system and the policies to the disadvantaged groups, especially those who are not educated. This could be done though media, community organizations, and educators using understandable references and terminologies.

I think the most troubling thing about the lack of representation for disadvantaged groups is that it does not provide the legislator/representative with the proper idea of its constituency. Of course they know the percentages and how the district stacks up, but to not have a large portion of your constituency able to participate/be heard, it may be easier to 'forget' who you represent and focus solely on the groups talking to you.

I do agree with commenters above that this does represent somewhat of a market failure and it is up to the government, in part, to make the situation better. It seems to me that campaign finance reform is needed more than ever, with Congresspeople spending OVER HALF of their time fundraising, even immediately after elections, instead of being available to groups and creating policy. I also hope that a group representing marginalized groups can win more grassroots support and simultaneously lobby on their behalf but also educate and reach out to marginalized populations and help them participate (though that would require the drive and big benefactors).

With regards to the discussion question as to ways of increasing representation of marginalized groups, (this may seem extreme, but other countries are already doing this)- the “this” is implementation of women quotas for electoral candidates. As of 2006, 40 countries have introduced gender quotas for their electoral candidates. Further still, major political parties in more than 50 countries voluntarily set gender quotas. It could be that these countries are set up in such a way where this would be easier done than here in the U.S. It would seem that a proportional representation system would more readily conform to gender quotas. The countries have done this through constitutional amendments and/or national law. I would suggest taking it further than gender. Considering the issues of the very marginalized intersectional subgroups, why not take the gender quota to intersectional identities quotas? Perhaps have a quota for atheist LGBTQ candidates of color. Just a few months ago, I was very pleased when a historic number of women were ushered in to office this past election. I was even more please when I learned the first Asian-American Buddhist woman was elected to senator in Hawaii, and an openly gay Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin as well.

More info on gender quotas:



I think that Verba introduces an interesting approach for increasing political equality at the end of his piece. The Civic Volunteerism model with its emphasis on "resources, motivation, and recruitment" (p.673) appears to identify some of the key factors underlying what the author would call inequality of "political voice." I do agree that government intervention is necessary to address the barriers that limit and obscure an array of political voices, however, I'm not sure that I would go so far as the author suggests as to instate compulsory voting, since I think that opting out is still an important freedom in our political system and, as we discussed in a previous class session, not likely to be a politically viable option.

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