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Political Voice in the New American Gilded Age

The co-authors of a recently published book, Unequal and Unrepresented: Political Inequality and the People’s Voice in the New Gilded Age, discuss how increased electoral spending exacerbates political inequalities. The book — drawing from three decades of research on politically active individuals and organizations — offers evidence of a concentrated advantage in electoral politics conferred upon the wealthy and considers how these disparities endanger American democracy.

  • Kay Lehman Schlozman
  • Henry E. Brady
  • Sidney Verba
August 10, 2018

We do not know how the 2018 midterm elections will turn out, but we do know that campaign spending will be higher than it was four years ago, when it was higher than four years before that. The growth of electoral spending — representing a New American Gilded Age — is worrisome, but even more concerning is the extent to which campaign contributions represent a small, and skewed, group of Americans.

Through the free expression of political voice, citizens communicate information about their experiences, needs, and preferences and hold public officials accountable for their conduct in office. Americans take part in many ways — among them voting, demonstrating, letter-writing, joining organizations, and funding political campaigns and causes. But not everyone is active. Disparities in political voice have long been a feature of the American political landscape. Such disparities are not simply random but reflect underlying patterns of advantage based on income and education. When some people have a megaphone while others speak in a whisper, the democratic principle of equal consideration of the interests of all may be jeopardized.

Any form of political expression in which money is the principal input is especially unequal. With regard to campaign giving, very few Americans donate, of which only a small subset contribute the bulk. In the last three election cycles, roughly one-tenth of American adults made campaign contributions, but only a tiny group — just over one-third (.38) of a percent so far in 2018 — donates more than $200. Such “major” donors are responsible for a substantial share (68.8 percent in 2018) of contributions to candidates, parties, or PACs. What is more, the rarefied group of the 50 most generous individual donors in the 2018 electoral cycle is composed mostly of entrepreneurs, investment and hedge fund managers, heirs to substantial fortunes, and those with private foundations. Not surprisingly, it does not include a single teacher, crane operator, or hotel chambermaid.

Organized interest politics, in which advocacy is undertaken by well-compensated professionals in such fields as public relations or law, is another arena in which cash is the principal resource for political voice. At least until recently when it seems to have leveled off, organized interest activity has been a growth industry. The set of organizations active in Washington politics tilts sharply in the direction of the advantaged, with strong representation of business and minimal representation of the economic interests of the less well-off. The modal organization is a corporation. In 2011, organizations representing business accounted for 52 percent of organizations active in Washington politics and 77 percent of lobbying spending, while unions accounted for only 1 percent of each. Organizations representing broad public interests such as wildlife protection or highway safety, organizations representing the economic interests of ordinary people and the economically disadvantaged, as well as organizations representing people in terms of such shared identities as age or race constitute only a small share of organized interest representation in Washington.

For several reasons, the United States allows more freedom to use market resources to influence political outcomes than do other rich democracies. In an era of increasing economic inequality, disparities in the exercise of political voice have become more pronounced.   One reason is a series of procedural changes: federal court decisions striking down campaign finance regulations and affording greater First Amendment protection to political contributions as a form of speech, and state-level actions imposing stricter voter ID requirements and relaxing protections under the Voting Rights Act.

Less widely recognized is the impact of the changing mix of forms of expression of political voice. In the twenty-first century, modes of political expression based on cash have increased much more quickly than other forms of political participation such as working on local issues or getting in touch with public officials. The simultaneous explosion in campaign giving and the growth in activity in pressure politics shift the relative weight of forms of political input in favor of those who have financial resources to amplify their voices in politics. The result is to exacerbate political inequalities in the New Gilded Age.

Kay Lehman Schlozman, Henry E. Brady, and Sidney Verba are political scientists at Boston College, University of California-Berkeley, and Harvard University, respectively, and co-authors of the recently published Unequal and Unrepresented: Political Inequality and the People’s Voice in the New Gilded Age.

Purchasing Power: The Conversation

This post is part of the special series designed to provide well-informed commentary, fresh questions, and new answers about the facts of money in politics. Dive in to 'Purchasing Power: The Conversation’ here. 

The views expressed by blog contributors are the authors’ own and not necessarily the views of the Brennan Center.