Poor Version of Democracy
By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, June 11, 2004; Page A25
While the United States wages war to expand democracy around the world, how is our own democracy doing? Not very well, says a group of distinguished scholars.
"[T]he voices of American citizens are raised and heard unequally," declares a task force of the American Political Science Association. "The privileged participate more than others and are increasingly well organized to press their demands on government. Public officials, in turn, are much more responsive to the privileged than to average citizens and the least affluent."
Disparities in political participation, the report says, "ensure that ordinary Americans speak in a whisper while the most advantaged roar."
All citizens, especially politicians, should study the report of the association's Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, which was released this week. The political scientists proclaim what many of us know instinctively: A government that ought to be helping ordinary citizens rise up tends to help those who are already up. But the report puts facts behind our instincts and shows how unfairness breeds more unfairness.
Since the early 1970s, the report says, we have seen "a massive mobilization into politics of advantaged groups that had not previously been active in Washington." With the decline in union membership, "the already privileged are better organized through occupational associations than the less privileged."
If the golden rule means that those who have the gold make the rules, that principle is alive and well in our campaigns. The task force, chaired by Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota, notes that while "[o]nly 12 percent of American households had incomes over $100,000 in 2000," 95 percent of the donors who made "substantial contributions" to political activity were in those wealthy households.
The Internet has been used this year to democratize the political money chase. But it is no cure-all. One of its effects, the report says, may be to "activate the active" and "widen the disparities between participants and the politically disengaged by making it easier for the already engaged to gain political information, to make political connections, and contribute money."
Wonder why it's so hard to pass universal health insurance or other programs to help the disadvantaged? "Americans who take part in politics are much less likely than many of their fellow citizens to have faced the need to work extra hours to get by," the report says. "The privileged are unlikely to have delayed medical treatment for economic reasons or cut back on spending for food or the education of children."
Even when the poor are spoken for, they are unlikely to do the speaking themselves. "The less advantaged are so absent from discussions in Washington," the report finds, "that government officials are likely to hear about their concerns, if at all, from more privileged advocates who try to speak for the disadvantaged."
And moderates, take note: "Americans who are very active in politics often have more intense or extreme views than average citizens who participate less or only sporadically."
The rise of the extremes combined with "the proliferation of interest groups speaking for very specialized constituencies" makes it "harder for government to work out broad compromises" and respond "to average citizens who have more ambiguous or middle-of-the-road opinions."
The report argues, rightly, that "[w]hat government does not do is just as important as what it does." In the not-so-distant past, government created programs to benefit broad groups of citizens -- Social Security, Medicare, the GI Bill, student loan programs and Pell Grant scholarships.
There have been few comparable innovations recently, and some of the traditional programs have been cut back. "The educational and training benefits for America's all-volunteer military are modest compared with those in the original G.I. Bill and, consequently, have made less impact in boosting the schooling of veterans to the level of non-veterans," the task force writes. So we praise and praise those who serve their country, but do little for them.
"Moreover," the task force says, "rising tuition, the declining value of individual Pell Grants, and state budget cuts have made higher education less affordable to non-veterans at a time when its economic value has risen and its contribution to counteracting the bias in political participation is invaluable." The political system reinforces the inequalities of political participation by cutting off the less privileged from the tools that encourage participation.
The report concludes with a call for "a vigorous campaign to expand participation and make our government responsive to the many, rather than just the privileged few."
"A government for the many, not the few" is a good political slogan. It's also the democratic ideal and an excellent idea.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company