Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 12, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE BOTTOM THIRD....Over at TPMCafe, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels is talking about his new book, Unequal Democracy. Here's one of the results of his research:

Insofar as elected officials are responsive to the policy views of their constituents, only the views of affluent and middle-class people really matter. The preferences of millions of low-income citizens (in the bottom third of the income distribution) have no discernible effect on senators' roll call votes, whether we consider the whole range of issues that come before Congress or specific salient roll call votes focusing on the federal budget, the minimum wage, civil rights, and abortion. Aristotle wrote that "where the possession of political power is due to the possession of economic power or wealth ... that is oligarchy, and when the unpropertied class have power, that is democracy." By that standard, America is, at best, a very unequal democracy.


Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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Not to knock Mr. Bartels, but isn't this the most obvious thesis ever written?

Shouldn't a thesis tell us something new?

Again, trying not to be snarky, but uh .. yeah? And? Isn't this one of the chief fronts on which the right and left wage their ideological wars?

Posted by: BombIranForChrist on May 12, 2008 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

Three, not two, Americas.

Very rich, rich and poor.

Posted by: electronic janitor on May 12, 2008 at 2:57 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: ropty on May 12, 2008 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with Bomb. But Bartels shouldn't get into too deep a funk, he could always be nominated for an Ignobel Prize.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 12, 2008 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

Our senators are practicing the golden rule. He who has the gold rules.

Posted by: Ron Byers on May 12, 2008 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

there you go again with class warfare rhetoric while the islamofacists perch under your three year old's bed.

Posted by: gregor on May 12, 2008 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

Not to pile on, but I also would file this under "N" for "No shit, Sherlock."

On the other hand, some things perhaps need to be constantly restated in the hopes that they'll sink in.

Posted by: thersites on May 12, 2008 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

Bartels' findings may not surprise us, but they are still important: he's demonstrated, in a systematic and rigorous way, that economic inequality cripples democracy. No one can dismiss his work as a leftist rant.

Posted by: Tony Greco on May 12, 2008 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

This is obvious, but still it is extremely necessary to study it. First, understand and quantify the phenomenon. Then study the mechanisms that enable it (What exactly is it tht makes Harry Reid blind to poor people?)(is it simply donations? Is it donations plus more email and mail from the middle and upper classes? Is it social isolation?) and study the effects on the commomwealth (maybe, as a conservative might argue, it's a good thing. Or, as Bill Gates, Sr and I would argue, not).

Then decide what to do to change (or perpetuate).

But you gotta start by doing the research.

Posted by: Dollared on May 12, 2008 at 3:12 PM | PERMALINK

To tap into electronic janitor's post above, I agree that there are 3 America's, but not "Very rich", "Rich" and "Poor". The 3 are "Very Rich", "Middle Class" and "Poor". The reality is that those in the bottom 95% of income earnings are struggling, to different degrees, of making ends meet.

The 95th percentile represents a little less than $200,000 annual HH income. In many communities, that is a comfortable but far from luxurious living standard. That, in my view, is a damning indictment of how much wealth has flowed to the wealthiest of Americans.

Posted by: MeLoseBrain? on May 12, 2008 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

maybe if the bottom 3rd voted at the same rate as the upper 3rd, they would have as more power.
all elected officials answer to the voters. if you don't vote you don't count.

Posted by: Tang on May 12, 2008 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

Politics does what the founders wanted it to do, alternate between rich influence and poor influence.

The poor are not ignored, the poor are not educated in this principle of alternation and they get confused about when it is their turn. Because they are not educated, the poor rely on the middle class to represent their interests.

Posted by: Matt on May 12, 2008 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

Politicians respond to voters. The poor don't vote in the numbers that wealthier people do.

Also, politicians respond to their revenue base, sort of like a company does, and the poor don't supply nearly the revenue that the other two thirds of the population does.

This equal democracy so many are longing for does not, and cannot exist without people of equal capabilities. It is a fool's dream.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on May 12, 2008 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

This refers specifically to senators' votes. I wonder if the same holds true of representatives? I bet not, and this reflects somewhat the intent of the framers of the constitution.

Posted by: Tim on May 12, 2008 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

When the middle third loses political and economic influence and becomes like the bottome third, Rwanda happens.

Posted by: Brojo on May 12, 2008 at 4:51 PM | PERMALINK

thersites! I read the post and my first thought was "Well,No Shit Sherlock". Missed it by that much!

Posted by: R.L. on May 12, 2008 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

R.L. Nyaah! Beat ya.

But seriously, on reflection Tony Greco and Dollared, above, are quite right that the more this stuff gets quantified andconfirmed by research, the better case we can make. But who will listen?

Unknown at 5:01...
Who was on the board of Wal-Mart?
Don't mistake the actual policies that Obama advocates with the admittedly idiotic rhetoric of some of his supporters.

Posted by: on May 12, 2008 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

thersites at 5:14. 'scuse me.

Posted by: thersites on May 12, 2008 at 5:25 PM | PERMALINK

This is a depressing insight, and something that, as wannabe believer in all the usual middlebrow propaganda about the wonders of democracy, I would still prefer not to accept. It's like growing immune to the intoxications of Christmas, and suspecting that True Love is good for nothing but endless heartache. (Go ahead, laugh. That I am only now beginning to mutter such trite things at the advanced age of 45 means I richly deserve it.) However, based on my experience of writing to politicians for the last 10 years about underclass issues -- 0% response rate -- maybe it's time to ditch the dreams of Canada and switch to dreams of Jeffersonian jihad.

I must add, however, that another group that I've had a nearly 0% failure rate in writing to has been the brotherhood of so-called liberal journalists. Worse, the one publication that has ever even pretended to be interested in what I have to say, the Real Change homeless paper here in Seattle, threw me in jail for a day 4-1/2 years ago because I refused to stop referring to my economic condition under American economic authoritarianism as "niggerdom". It was thus with special enjoyment -- and bitterness -- that I read Michael Kinsley's recent Time article on the cats and dogs relationship between editors and writers. For Kinsley and his digital baby Slate.com have likewise spurned my letters.

Maybe if you're so all fired up about the rights of the poor, Drum, you could start by answering the letter I sent you and your fellow Iraq War enthusiast Paul Glastris last summer.


Brett Landgraf, The Pink Nigger

Posted by: on May 12, 2008 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK

Unequal indeed. Bartels is correct but more troubling in this so-called democracy of ours is the fact that we have a ruling oligarchy!!

Don't be alarmed,'twas ever thus-- from the 55 rich founding fathers who were intent on minority rule, on. Don't beleive me? Read Madison's Federalist numero diez.

One party of the rich in this country: two branches: dems and repubs.

Dems need to reclaim status as the party of the working class!

How: Get rid of the Wall Streeters that run the party i.e. DLC, Rubin, Schumer, et. al.

Run a populist/working class program

Class war--the rich use it all the time for their advantage. Wise up folks, follow their lead!

Wake up, reclaim Democratic party for Main Street.

And win the working class vote --80% of the electorate.

Let the Republicans have the rest.

Posted by: Dr Wu, I'm just an ordinary guy on May 12, 2008 at 5:57 PM | PERMALINK

There was a recent post by Kevin where he linked to someone who postulated that the working class is getting screwed over so badly because of the loss of unions. Politicians in the past used to pay attention to unions a lot more than they do today. Unions used to have enough power to influence politics and they served in many ways as spokesmen for the working class and often worked hard to get policies that were more favorable for workers.

Turning this around may be as simple as changing laws making it easier to organize and to encourage spread of unionization to service industries. When the union organizations garner enough power and influence, then the politicians will start paying attention again. Now, what you have a is a crawling grass fire that's burned through the bottom two quintiles and is slowly headed into the midst of the middle class.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on May 12, 2008 at 6:18 PM | PERMALINK

Oh look, speaking of the lower class, after what, oh only a week or so, Bush finally getting around to saying that the world should condemn the Myanmar Junta.

Nice to see he's on toppa the situation.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 12, 2008 at 6:21 PM | PERMALINK

There appears to be some wheel-reinvention here (along with a dollop of "if they knew what was good for them they'd vote the way we want them to"), but one thing Bartels seems to miss is the evolution of modern campaign politics.

Getting elected used to be more art than science. The skilled and experienced political pro had a feel for what would sell (and what wouldn't) in his constituency, but couldn't always be precisely sure. This sometimes produced caution, and sometimes produced electoral turnover when legislators guessed wrong. At any rate, the situation has changed. Even large constituencies today can be analyzed in very fine detail; a legislator with a competent campaign team can know with a high degree of certainty who will vote, what they will care about, and what are the red lines to avoid. If you're an "ordinary citizen" with concerns not widely shared, it is more likely now that you will be ignored.

Modern campaign operations have also grasped how important it is to win low-turnout elections: mid-terms, special elections and elections for local offices, and (especially) party primaries. Most people in most states don't vote in most elections; the people who do have disproportionate influence. Old people are more likely to vote, and government policies end up reflecting this. Poor people are less likely to vote, and government policy ends up reflecting this as well.

A final thing that has changed, in elections for federal office at any rate, has had an impact that must be much harder to quantify. Many fewer Congressmen and Senators expect to return to their constituencies and resume their earlier careers than used to be the case. Lower electoral turnover is one reason for this, but the opportunities for legislators (and even members of their staffs) to move into lucrative positions in the rent-seeking private sector are considerably greater now than they were even a couple of decades ago. Certain Congressmen and Senators (to a lesser extent, because more Senators are wealthy to begin with) must be strongly motivated to work in Congress with their own financial futures in mind -- and this will mean that they will tend to favor monied interests.

Posted by: Zathras on May 12, 2008 at 6:23 PM | PERMALINK

Also, politicians respond to their revenue base, sort of like a company does, and the poor don't supply nearly the revenue that the other two thirds of the population does.

Well, this is to some extent a peculiarity of your peculiar system, where politicians must pay through the nose for access to the public air waves... Zathras also makes important points.

Posted by: snicker-snack on May 12, 2008 at 7:01 PM | PERMALINK

Elections are the bluntest of influences within a modern democracy. Far more important is the deliberative process. With the decline of unions, the philanthropically-inclined become the remaining advocates for the bottom third.

This is not a healthy development.

I wonder whether proportional representation might make a difference. If nothing else, I'd rather have ~5 ideologies to choose from than 2.

Posted by: Measure for Measure on May 12, 2008 at 7:24 PM | PERMALINK

What's funny about this post, the link, and the comments above is that there's one issue where the screwing of those on the low end is most obvious, and it's not mentioned in this post, the link, and the comments above. And, until he apparently got tired of being discredited even further, it's one that Kevin Drum used to promote. Hint: it's the topic that I've written thousands of posts on.

Let me know when Kevin Drum decides to deal with this issue in an intellectually honest, non-corrupt fashion.

[Note: WM and/or KD have a habit of deleting or editing comments without notice, so this comment may disappear or be different from what I posted.]

Posted by: The annoying LonewackoDotCom on May 12, 2008 at 11:22 PM | PERMALINK

I think the Red Guard and Pol Pot had it right. The educated classes are the very worst of the bourgoisie, wielding influence far beyond their numbers. Everyone with any higher education should be shipped off to re-education camps where they will be forced to renounce their classism and to acknowledge the leadership of the working class. Power to the people!

Posted by: DBL on May 13, 2008 at 9:49 AM | PERMALINK


Posted by: mhr on May 13, 2008 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

I think the Red Guard and Pol Pot had it right.

Figures. That's apparently where your right meets their left. I prefer the other side of the circle.

I know that when you hear the word 'freedom' a lot of you authoritarian righties hear this as 'freedom to coerce' not the 'freedom from coercion' the rest of us hear.

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