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American Democracy's Broken Promise

Not all political voices are equal, says Moakley Professor Schlozman

Kay Lehman Schlozman: "Democracy is suppose to be a level playing field where we are all equal, but we have to ask if that's really the case." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Nov. 1, 2012

A presidential election is often trumpeted as a showcase for American democracy, an occasion to affirm the United States as a nation where all people, and their concerns and preferences, are given equal consideration in the political system.

But American democracy is failing to live up to its promise, according to Moakley Professor of Political Science Kay Lehman Schlozman.

Schlozman and her longtime collaborators Sidney Verba and Henry E. Brady are the authors of the recently published The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy. The trio has been engaged in a groundbreaking, extensive and detailed study of how citizens from a range of social, economic and ethnic backgrounds participate in the political process, results of which they presented in their 1995 book Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics.

The Unheavenly Chorus extends the authors’ earlier work — and the metaphor of the “voice” as a symbol of civic participation. “The title for the book was inspired by a quote from E.E. Schattschneider, a mid-20th century political scientist,” explained Schlozman. “He wrote, ‘The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.’”

Bringing together evidence about individuals and organized interests active in Washington, Schlozman, Verba and Brady show the extent and resilience of class-based political inequality in America. From many perspectives, their analysis demonstrates the power and durability of advantage that accrues to the affluent and well-educated with respect to political voice: persistent through time; handed down across generations; perpetuated by multiple processes, including the way that recruitment to political activity exaggerates the existing biases in political voice; and reproduced through political participation on the Internet.

“People who know about recent growth in economic inequality assume that large class-based gaps in political voice are a new phenomenon,” Schlozman noted, “but they have been a feature of American politics at least since the early 1950s, which is as long as we have had surveys to measure them.  

“There have been ups and downs in participatory inequality, but far more important than any small changes in the level of socioeconomic inequality in political activity is the continuing participatory advantage enjoyed by the well-educated and affluent. That said, the increasing emphasis on campaign money may be ushering in an era of enhanced dominance in electoral politics of the well-heeled.  

“We turned over every rock looking for a way out of the dilemma, but we kept finding the same thing over and over.  We were optimistic about technological change.  The Internet and social media have opened up new possibilities for communicating with large numbers of people and mobilizing them to become active in politics.  Requests for political activity are now less likely to arrive by phone than digitally.  

“Still, in spite of the promise of the Internet to democratize political participation, the pattern of class stratification characteristic of those who undertake political activities offline is no less pronounced among those who take part online.”

The authors also found that the high levels of education and income overrepresented among political activists are reinforced by the thousands of organizations active in politics in Washington. Only about one-eighth of these organizations are voluntary associations with individuals as members; most are institutions, which can include corporations, universities and museums, and are heavily tilted in the direction of business, said Schlozman.

“So it is all the more difficult for ordinary people to make their voices heard.”

In addition, a series of judicial decisions during the past five years, most of them by the Supreme Court, “has led to a situation where it’s easier for market inequalities to be replicated in politics,” Schlozman said.

“Although the level of corruption in American politics is fairly low by world standards, no other democracy finances elections like we do.  The rules allow for a great deal of unregulated use of money in politics.

“Democracy is supposed to be a level playing field where we are all equal, but we have to ask if that’s really the case.”

Schlozman notes that the research and writing of The Unheavenly Chorus was aided considerably by undergraduate students, 27 of them from Boston College.

“The collaborative spirit of the book was an important part of the enterprise,” she said. “These students were in the trenches, and they helped trouble shoot as we collected data.  And, in the end, I think the experience had a part in producing several future political scientists.”