Is Rising Inequality Slowly Poisoning Our Democracy?

Those who benefit from political power owe it to the nation, and to the furtherance of our democracy, to recognize and address the larger issue of inequality.

April 22, 2015

Cross-posted on Zocalo Public Square. This piece is one of a series of essays examining how the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots affects democracy in America.

The United States as a nation boasts about the virtues of equality and the ability of all Americans to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” But in the reality of the 21st century, this concept is little more than a catchphrase. The United States is a nation divided by wealth and income, where it is difficult, if not impossible, for individuals with decreasing economic power to connect with the inner workings of this country.

We see examples of the power that money buys everywhere. Most notably, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling reminded us that when it comes to free speech within the electoral system, one’s voice gets much louder when it’s amplified by dollar signs.

Larger, equally complicated issues like race (particularly if one is African-American or Latino) and gender are inextricably linked to the subject of wealth and power in the United States, and a multitude of research has been devoted to the various intersections of race, gender, and wealth disparity. This does not bode well for the future of America, where the racially diverse population of the country is projected to become the majority over the next several decades.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz recently discussed the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots in his book, The Great Divide, and concluded that the consequences for this nation will be devastating as the divide widens.

Stiglitz warns that we must treat inequality as an urgent political and moral issue. As numerous candidates begin vying for votes ahead of the 2016 presidential election, one can only hope that this issue will be more than a talking point. Those who benefit from political power owe it to the nation, and to the furtherance of our democracy, to recognize and address the larger issue of inequality.