A seat for everyone at the table

Concerns about economic inequality have become more and more prominent over the past few years.  Occupy Wall Street drew attention to it.  Economists have dissected it.  Politicians ranging from Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersInterim DNC chair to impose 'tough standards' after email leaks Meet the rising Dem star positioned to help Clinton on gun control Sunday shows preview: Convention cleanup, Russian intrigue MORE (I-vt.) to Paul RyanPaul RyanKoch officials skeptical of Trump's alleged meeting invite Trump draws backlash for comments on slain soldier's father Muslim DNC speaker challenges GOP leaders to call Trump out MORE (R-Wis.) have proposed remedies for it. 

What is missing from the discussion, however, is the recognition that political inequality and economic inequality are inextricably and reciprocally linked. The voices heard in American politics are skewed substantially in the direction of the affluent and well-educated, creating a vicious circle in which economic inequality begets political inequality which, in turn, furthers economic inequality.

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How can politics solve the problem of economic inequality when so many Americans who do not command high salaries or higher education are left out of the political conversation?

It is well known that a flood of money has been flowing into national politics. From 2000 to 2012, the amount of known campaign money spent in national elections doubled, from $3.08 billion to $6.29 billion.  Over the same period, spending on lobbying Congress and federal agencies also doubled, from $1.57 billion to $3.31 billion. But, from the point of view of democratic equality—as embodied in the principle of one person, one vote—what is striking is not just the amount of money but where it comes from. 

According to our research, more than half of all organizations active in Washington in 2011 represented business interests, and they accounted for more than three quarters of registered spending on lobbying. In contrast, organizations representing the less privileged, very broadly defined, accounted for just 2 percent of all organizations and 2 percent of registered lobbying spending. 

Thousands of organizations represent people in terms of what they do for a living, but the overwhelming majority represent people whose work requires high levels of education or skills.  Of course, labor unions provide political representation to workers who are not professionals or managers and who command lower pay.  However, today less than 6 percent of private sector workers are members of unions, and unless they are members of unions, there are no organizations at all representing unskilled workers. 

Thus, thoracic surgeons, investment managers, and art museum directors have organizations to represent them -- as do realtors, home inspectors, and travel agents.  Mechanics at Boeing, clerks at Costco, and letter carriers for the USPS are represented by unions, but bellhops, telemarketers, bartenders, and laundry workers have no organization to call their own.  Similarly, there are no organizations that bring together the unemployed, those whose mortgages have been foreclosed, or parents with children in Head Start.

The story is the same with respect to campaign contributions.  According to the Sunlight Foundation, the top .01 percent of the income distribution (about 31,000 people—a group that does not fill the football stadium at either one of our universities) gave about 28 percent of the disclosed money in the 2012 elections.  In 2015, the New York Times reported that 158 families provided nearly half of the early money for the 2016 Presidential race.  

With politics that are so hospitable to the conversion of market resources into political resources, business groups and people with deep pockets and college diplomas have a megaphone while people with modest incomes and educations speak in a whisper. 

Can we disrupt this vicious circle?  Political arrangements in other democracies serve to level the political playing field: mandatory voting; strict limits in campaign contributions; public financing of elections; free air time for political ads during national campaigns; and governing structures that ensure that all who are concerned, even those with limited resources, are brought into policy discussions. 

But none of these is likely to be implemented in the near future.  For one thing, the Americans are averse to coercive government.  Besides, the current judicial interpretation of the First Amendment defines money as a form of speech, and a poisonous political environment puts a priority on fiscal restraint and renders DOA any reform proposal that potentially confers partisan advantage. 

Nevertheless, promising experiments are being undertaken on the state and local levels—for example, matching of small donations in statewide elections and efforts to facilitate voter registration for high school seniors as they graduate. 

Periodic eras of political reform have punctuated American history. We need to monitor the results of these experiments and to continue to be creative about additional ones.  When the political window opens again, we must be prepared with proposals for politically feasible, effective proposals to help all citizens make their voices heard.

A common saying in Washington, D.C., notes that “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” We need a seat for everyone at the table—and a much healthier menu.  

Schlozman is J. Joseph Moakley professor of Political Science at Boston College. Brady is dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California Berkeley.

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