Is Political Equality Possible?


The readings this week cover topics related to group representation, interest groups, and political equality. Bartels findings reflect economic inequality in American democracy by demonstrating that U.S. senators in the 1980s and 1990s paid much higher attention to the concerns of constituents in the upper third of income earners (254). This was true for Democrats and Republicans regardless of differences between high and low-income constituents' turnout, political knowledge, or contact with elected officials (280). Bartels also found that while the concerns of the upper third received about 50% more weight than the middle third, that the views of constituents in the bottom third of income earners received no weight in their senators' voting decisions (254).

These findings are stark and should be disturbing. Verba addresses that while the idea of political equality raises certain challenges (e.g. difficulty of government to coordinate and address all of the public's needs, inability of uninformed/apathetic citizens to effectively contribute to political process), equality is intrinsically valued in our society (667). Political equality creates a sense of self in individuals and also a sense of community. It enables equal protection of interests and creates legitimacy for the political process.

Cigler and Loomis and Strolovitch focus on interest groups. Cigler and Loomis express that interest groups are a natural part of democracies - that people tend to band together to protect their common interests (2). The problem they raise with interest group politics is a tendency to over-represent specific issues, potentially creating barriers for elected officials to represent collective concerns and find solutions for complex policy issues (28). Strolovitch joins the discussion on the impact of interest groups by arguing that, "organizations are substantially less active when it comes to issues affecting disadvantaged subgroups than they are when it comes to issues affecting more advantaged subgroups" (894).

These readings have made me wonder what the answer is to the issue of creating an equal political environment. If legislators pay little to no attention to the views of lower-income citizens and political interest groups obscure issues important for the common good and at the same time fail to represent disadvantaged groups, what methods are there to empower underrepresented citizens? Is political equality possible?


Verba's asserts that reducing political inequality requires reducing inequalities in income, education and employment. His specific analysis of the importance of education showed that education is a major factor in the inequality of political participation and representation. So political equality requires a long term fix of ensuring that socioeconomic conditions of the disadvantaged are improved in order to level the playing field. However, in the short term, maybe the "median voter" has a role to play to ensure that issues that are specific to the disadvantaged are brought to the forefront. Why is it that we as citizens only mobilize around issues that affect us? Certainly the liberal college graduate, who may be better off than the most marginalized, has the education to understands the plights of the disadvantaged as well as the resources to act on behalf of it. It's clear that there are there are several barriers that prevent the more marginalized from being empowered, so why can't the more politically represented groups play a role in bringing these issues to the forefront? In my view, its not only failure on the part of interest groups or elected officials, but of the wider citizenry when we only act on those issue affects us and disregard or downplay those that don't.

Verba is right about reducing political inequality by reducing inequalities in income, education and employment. It's no doubt that education plays a primary role in changing people's lives.Innovation and the maturation of society is dependent on the level of education of its citizens and one's job relies on the amount of education one has received and has achieved in subjects.
The problem current political leaders are facing now is knowing the solution but not knowing how to achieve balance between long-term fix and short-term needs. Given the choices of investing in education with return in at least 18 years and buying house as speculation, most people would choose the latter. It's hard to set a solid and fixed long-term political agenda when polarized political party and weak congress are making decisions for people. So the real question is how can interest groups convince the party and congress to focus on the long-term issues like education policy, which would help underrepresented groups' voices get heard.

You know I love you, Laura, but I think you go too far when you suggest “legislators pay little to no attention to the views of lower-income citizens.” As interesting as Bartels’ findings are, I think it’s worth noting that he was looking only at US Senators. Think about this in terms of Minnesota: on the whole, Minnesota is very white and fairly affluent (relative to other states), while individual congressional districts have larger populations of poor (eg CD 7 or 8) and/or minorities (eg CD 4 or 5). It makes sense that a politician whose constituency is the entire state would be less responsive to poor and/or minority groups, because they compose a relatively small percentage of his or her constituency. Conversely, Congressmen/women with larger concentrations of poor or minority constituents will be more responsive to them. Case in point: regardless of his/her opinion of Keith Ellison, I don’t think anyone would suggest that he isn’t sensitive to the needs of his poor and/or minority constituents. For me, Bartels’ chapter was more an argument against the Senate (let’s get rid of it!) than an indictment of all legislators.

Intuitively I have to agree with Laura that on average the lower your income the less you will be heard politically. The research presented by Bartel may only paint an empirical picture of the Senate but we've read that many of the senators have come out of the House. The Senate does not exist in a vacuum and although the other branches may be, on average, slightly more responsive to the needs of the underprivileged, the economically downtrodden have a much smaller voice than those with a greater economic foot print.

I must disagree with Naadha, I think that the liberal segment of society is pushing and has pushed for interests on behalf of those unable or unwilling to represent themselves. This I believe is the core of the Democratic Party's liberal agenda starting in the Great Depression. FDR was a limousine liberal but pushed for legislation that benefitted everyone from the recently unemployed to the long term disadvantaged (i.e. the elderly). I would also argue that the civil rights legislation of the 1960's is a prime example of a group of progressive's looking out for another class of people who were traditionally politically invisible although leaders such as MLK and Malcolm X eventually brought the issue to its climax (however HHH made civil rights an issue over a decade before the light shined on these great men).

Back to Laura's question, I guess the possibility of political equality depends largely on your definition of that. Statistically speaking, its not possible because no matter how fair a policy maker is, the amount of political participation will still bank somewhat on the agency of individuals in society, and not everyone speaks up, (captain obvious has arrived). Like Naadha and Xiaoyun, I agree with Verba that socioeconomic resources, such as education, are key to long term change in the quality of participation by disadvantaged groups. This leaps over the question of knowledge distribution though. In other words, is education speaking to the political processes, or informing about issues in a way that policy makers / elites may want to frame them? In the short term, agency itself needs to be activated more by mediatting institutions that are not just issue focused, but citizen focused as well. Almost everyone has a motive to be more politically engaged- the question is, can institutions (civil society and otherwise) change the culture of participation, where the citizen (especially those in disadvantaged groups) are more than simply a consumer of government policy?

Referring to Laura's original question, is political equality possible, I would say "yes," it's possible; however, it is a difficult endeavor and as others have mentioned, will require the participation and personal accountability of all citizens, not just policymakers, and including those from disadvantaged groups. The methods for achieving equal participation will depend, in part, on government officials implementing policies which make resources and lines of communication open and accessible to underrepresented populations. Mainly, one method for achieving greater equality is through the diverse makeup of government officials; rather, the more diverse our government, the more likely multiple and varying interests will be represented. Our country has experienced movements putting us on the right path (e.g. increased participation of women, racial and sexual minorities in government), but we still have a long ways to go for our government to accurately reflect and represent the interests of our citizens, which is ultimately, government's major responsibility.

It's tough to say that political equality is not possible but I think it is easy to conclude that since the gap between rich and poor has never been higher in our country's modern era, equality becomes a lot tougher. With a stronger and fuller middle class, and the rich with a smaller portion of the pie, it is much easier for the country to be represented and balanced, especially through traditional participation measures (ie voting). Now, though, it is so easy to distort what the country actually wants with money and also much easier (with the rich's increased power) to make the process closed off to all besides the most rich and powerful players.

It seems that TRUE political equality may not be the attainable goal, but the ideal for which we should strive, giving our best effort towards increasing equality without compromising the rights of the rich and powerful and changing our democracy so much it does not resemble what the founders intended.

Like Chris, I also recognize political leaders of the past who have advocated for the more marginalized and disadvantaged groups. However, I do side with Naadha in that I think more attention and advocacy can be given to the very marginalized communities today. For example, the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program is set to expire this March, however, I don’t think there is nearly enough honest discussion on this welfare program.

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