Political (under)representation of the disadvantaged


Cigler and Loomis (1991) outline the origins of (interest) group formation and the scope and impact these groups have on public policy formulation. Additionally, they also demonstrate that there are a variety of factors that have resulted in the proliferation of interest groups, including reduced impact of party politics. Bartels (2008) analyses the relationship between political representation and socioeconomic status of constituents as well as access to other factors such as electoral turnout, political information and contact with public officials. More specifically, Bartels analysed the voting pattern of the Senate during the 1980s and early 1990s on specific legislation related to minimum wage, civil rights, government spending and abortion and concludes that senators were more responsive to wealthy constituents than to the constituents of other socioeconomic group. His assertion runs parallel to that of Dumhoff's (1998) claim that elite circles are closely intertwined and therefore have enabled more mechanisms for the upper social class' interest to be represented in political institutions.
Additionally, Strolovitch (2006), through an analysis of policy advocacy of key national organizations, demonstrates that organizations are less active with regard to issues that affect disadvantaged subgroups than they are when it comes issues that effect advantaged subgroups or majority groups. By exemplifying through advocacy surrounding violence against women, affirmative action, and welfare reform, she demonstrates that organizations inflate the impact of issues that affect advantaged subgroups as if they affect a majority and downplay the issues that affect disadvantaged groups as too narrow.
Strolovitch's (2006) analysis echoes Burnsteins' (2003) assertion that more salient issues receive more attention, however her research demonstrates that, there is still a double standard that biases against intersectionally disadvantaged groups. Verba (2003) also highlights that disadvantaged groups are less likely to be politically represented because of socioeconomic conditions.
Given what we can infer from the above research, if interest groups and elected officials are not responsive to the more disadvantaged citizens, what are some mechanisms to enhance the attention that is given to issues specific to the more marginalized communities? Furthermore, given what we know about political and campaign financing, are there reforms that can be undertaken to enhance inclusive participation? Or as Verba (2003) asserts, can this only be achieved if the playing field is levelled in the long term by "reducing socioeconomic inequalities in income, education and access to better jobs"? (pg 674)


I think one possible way to strengthen the political voice of marginalized people is to get them elected. While it is not guaranteed that elected officials will act on behalf of the groups they represent, it does increase the chances that they will be sympathetic. (Also, I have seen research that female elected officials are more likely to initiate legislation that serves women’s interests.) This may also spur interest in the political process among others in the disadvantaged group. Of course, the difficult part is getting them elected. However, I recently heard about a leadership initiative at Nexus Community Partners (a foundation in St. Paul) in which they will find and give training to people from underrepresented groups and then place them on boards (city, county, nonprofit, etc), all while emphasizing a social justice model. While a small step, it has the potential for large ripple effects. It’s about adding substantive diversity to governing entities so that the empowered individuals are not just concerned with their own advancement, but rather see themselves as representing others like them who are not at that table.

One of the concerns I have is what defines marginalized communities. Is it underrepresentation? Is it a geographic localization? Is scarce information on what constitute and defines their community? In this sense, mechanisms that enhance exposure of these communities to the “relevant” policy arenas would already improve saliency. Secondly, socioeconomic inequalities probably are not the only determinants, or even the main ones, on political participation. High correlation does not necessarily imply causality. This is one of the critiques to Verba’s readings. Maybe, political participation could improve access to better jobs, and the other way around, in some sort of virtuous cycle. I think, however, that Verba makes a very good distinction on what participation and equality means. In page 664, Verba (2003) suggests that “[equality] depends less on how many participate than on the representativeness of those who participate”. Then, mechanisms should address better participation rather than more participation.

While I too agree that a possible way to strengthen the political voice of marginalized people is getting them elected, I think that task is still large and daunting. The 2012 elections showed progress towards electing governing bodies that are more representative of our diverse country. However, this is largely with respect to race, gender, and sexual orientation. Although, the groups these candidates belong to have been traditionally marginalized, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are electing representatives from the lower socioeconomic class. Governing officials may get elected on a populist platform, but when it comes down to it they need to finance their campaigns and thus appeal to their contributors.

Good points all around. I’d add to this discussion the importance of education and economic development. In America today, children with high IQs but poor parents are less likely to graduate college than those with low IQs but rich parents (see figure 2N here: http://jaredbernsteinblog.com/more-mobility-pictures-and-words/). We also have one of the lowest social mobility rates in the Western world: http://jaredbernsteinblog.com/inequality-and-mobility-revisited/

I'd argue that the roots of a lot of the disillusion with the political process run very deep, to a general lack of hope for advancement. I think improving access to education and jobs that pay a living wage would go a long way toward increasing the participation of socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals. Though, admittedly, this is a very long-term solution.

I think Verba is correct in his assertion that solving the problem of political inequality will require a long-term solution. Sadly, there is no quick fix to this long-standing problem. While getting disadvantaged and marginalized people elected to public office a nice thought, frankly, it seems like a long shot proposition. Getting elected requires time, money, and connections – all things that traditionally marginalized populations lack. Education, it seems, is where the long-term solution rests. From early childhood on up, marginalized and disadvantaged children need access to high quality affordable education. How does this happen? Verba discusses how the Democratic party used to do a much better job of mobilizing marginalized populations and turning the increased activity into votes. With that in mind, grassroots activists need to continue educating marginalized voters on the issues, and consequently getting them to the polls. When that happens, hopefully, policy initiatives will start to favor measures to improve the existing education gap.

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