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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.