Economic Inequality and Political Representation
I assume that a key characteristic of a democracy is
the continued responsiveness of the government to
the preferences of its citizens, considered as political
—Robert Dahl, 19711
ONE OF THE most basic principles of democracy is the notion that every citizen"s preferences should count equally in the realm of politics and government. But there are a variety of good reasons to suspect that policy makers in real political systems do not consider citizens as political equals. Wealthier and better-educated citizens are more likely than the poor and less-educated to have clearly formulated and well-informed preferences, and significantly more likely to turn out to vote, to have direct contact with public officials, and to contribute money and energy to political campaigns.
Given the salience of these disparities, and the importance attached to political equality in American political culture, one might suppose that political scientists have been hard at work documenting the ways in which resource inequalities shape political representation and public policy. Alas, that supposition would be quite mistaken. According to the American Political Science Associations recent Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, “we know little about the connections between changing economic inequality and changes in political behavior, governing institutions, and public policy.”2
One aspect of political inequality that has been unusually well-documented is the disparity between rich and poor citizens in political participation.3 The extent to which scholarly attention has focused on disparities in participation probably reflects, in part, the simple fact that those disparities are relatively easy to measure. As Sidney Verba and Gary Orren put it, “Political equality cannot be gauged in the same way as economic inequality. There is no metric such as money, no statistic such as the Gini index, and no body of data comparing countries. There are, however, relevant data on political participation.”4
1 Dahl (1971), 1.
2 Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy (2004), 661–662.
3 Prominent examples include Verba, Nie, and Kim (1978), Wolfinger and Rosenstone (1980),
and Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995). For a recent overview, see Schlozman et al. (2005).
4 Verba and Orren (1985), 15.