The Big Tilt

Recent debate about American society has focused attention on declining civic participation and the consequent fraying of the social fabric. Are declining bowling league memberships evidence of the erosion of civil society? Or are bowling leagues just being replaced by youth soccer leagues? Lost in the discussion is the fact that what matters is not only the amount of civic activity but its distribution, not just how many people take part but who they are.

In discussions of declining civic engagement, one widely noted trend is a decline in electoral turnout: From a recent high of 63 percent in the 1960 election, voting in presidential elections diminished gradually, until in 1996 it dipped to its lowest level since 1924-49 percent. What is less frequently mentioned, however, is that the falloff in turnout has been uneven across educational groups. Between 1968 and 1992, turnout rates among those who never finished high school declined by about a third; among college graduates turnout rates held steady. The result is an electorate that is not only smaller in relative size but also less representative of all eligible voters.



Citizen participation is at the heart of democracy. Through their activity, citizens in a democracy seek to control who will hold public office and to influence what the government does. Political participation provides the mechanism by which citizens can communicate information about their interests, preferences, and needs—and generate pressure to respond. In a meaningful democracy, the people's voice must be clear and loud—clear so that policymakers understand citizen concerns and loud so that they have an incentive to pay attention to what is said. And since democracy implies equal consideration of the interests of each citizen, participation must also be equal.

In our recent book, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism and American Politics, we investigated the neglected issue of inequality in participation and its meaning for contemporary American democracy. This inquiry was based on the Citizen Participation Study, a two-stage study that began with a representative sample of more than 15,000 Americans. We then conducted longer, in-person interviews with 2,517 of the original group. The data from these sources provide the evidence for the conclusions discussed here.

It is well known that the United States lags behind other democracies in voter turnout. What is less frequently acknowledged, however, is that when it comes to other forms of political activity—for example, campaigning, becoming active in the local community, or contacting government officials—Americans are as active as or substantially more active than citizens elsewhere. Compared to other democracies, however, participation in America is very unequally distributed, hewing closely to the fault lines of social class. The bias in participation toward the well educated and the well heeled is evident around the world, but it has been particularly pronounced in the United States.

There is disagreement about the extent to which, if at all, nonvoting forms of political activity have decreased. But one form of participation that seems to have increased is contributing to political campaigns. Data separated by two decades (a 1967 study of participation conducted by one of us, Verba, and Norman Nie; and a 1987 replication by the General Social Survey) show that the proportion of Americans contributing to campaigns has nearly doubled over the past 20 years, rising from 13 percent to 23 percent of the population. The enhanced role of paid professionals (as opposed to amateur volunteers) in managing campaigns and the development of sophisticated telephone and mass-mail techniques of raising money have combined to diminish the significance of citizens as volunteers and to augment their role as writers of checks. As campaigns have become more professionalized and technology dependent, the demand for volunteers has not kept pace with the demand for funds. Data from the Citizen Participation Study show that more than two-thirds of all those who donate time or money to political campaigns limit their involvement to check writing. In short, while it is difficult to give time to a campaign without also being expected to give money, the opposite is not true.

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The increasing role of contributions as a form of political activity, which goes hand in hand with rapidly rising campaign costs, has profound implications for political equality. When money replaces time as the principal form of political currency, the playing field is no longer level. The number of people who can be effective players is diminished. The range of issues articulated is narrowed.

As resources for politics, time and money have obvious differences. Time is more evenly distributed than is money; the best endowed of us has only 24 hours in a day. Unlike money, time cannot be banked for later use. The gap in dollars between the richest and poorest is far wider than the gap in hours between the busiest and most leisured.

Who enjoys the luxury of excess money or time to devote, if desired, to political participation? In case it was not apparent before Hemingway's famous observation, the rich have more money. Moreover, in comparison with other developed democracies, income and wealth are distributed relatively unequally in the United States, a trend that has become more pronounced over the past decade and a half. Our data demonstrate, however, that free time is not related to income or other measures of socioeconomic status. Instead, what determines how much free time is available are such life circumstances as having a job, a spouse who works, or children, especially preschool children.

Because the wealthy are more likely than the poor to be active in politics, the increased emphasis on making contributions as a form of political activity is fraught with potential consequences for participatory equality. Compare the top tenth in income (those with family incomes above $75,000) with the bottom fifth (who made $15,000 or less). The latter are about three-fifths as likely to vote, only half as likely to go to a protest or to get in touch with a government official, only one-third as likely to engage in informal activity within the community—and only one-tenth as likely to make a campaign donation. Considering only those who were active as campaign volunteers, those in the lowest income group actually gave more time—an average of four hours a week more—than did those in the highest income category. Among those who gave money to campaigns, however, the situation is, not unexpectedly, very different. Contributors at the top of the income ladder gave, on average, nearly 14 times as much as those at the bottom.

We can push this line of reasoning one step further by using units of participatory input rather than individuals as our metric. "Who Participates and How?" shows how participation is apportioned among income groups. The pie chart in the upper left of the figure indicates the distribution of various family income groupings within the population as of 1990. The other charts show the proportion of activity emanating from various income categories: votes cast; the number of hours worked in campaigns; the number of dollars contributed to candidates, parties, and campaign organizations; the number of contacts with public officials; and the number of protests attended.


Who Participates and How?

Who Participates and How?
Source: Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995)

The chart to the right shows the distribution of votes in the 1988 presidential election from various income groups. Because each individual may vote only once in the presidential election, the distribution of individuals and the distribution of activity are the same. In the other charts, individuals are weighted by the amount of activity they donate. The activist population presents a very different income perspective than the population as a whole. Those at the top of the income hierarchy produce more than their proportionate share of votes, campaign hours, contacts, protests, and campaign dollars. The 3 percent of the sample with family incomes over $125,000 are responsible for 4 percent of the votes, 5 percent of the protests, 6 percent of the contacts, 8 percent of the hours devoted to campaigning, and fully 35 percent of the money contributed. Indeed, when it comes to campaign dollars, the top two income groups—who form less than 10 percent of the population—donate more than half of the money. At the other end of the income scale are the 19 percent of the sample with family incomes under $15,000. They are responsible for only 14 percent of the votes, 13 percent of the hours volunteered in campaigns, and 12 percent each of the contacts and protests. And when it comes to making electoral contributions, they are barely visible, donating only 2 percent of the campaign dollars.

In short, when dollars substitute for hours as the essential unit of political input, participation becomes more unequal. Growing income inequality in the United States will only exacerbate the situation.



Why should we care that some people are much more active than others and, therefore, that government officials hear much more from some quarters than from others? Because if those who do not take part in politics are distinctive in their opinions or in their needs for governmental action, then the democratic principle of equal responsiveness to all may be compromised. The Citizen Participation Study shows clearly that those who are especially active in politics do not necessarily represent the views or the priorities of those who are more quiescent. And when those who are disadvantaged by virtue of low levels of education or income do participate, they express distinctive concerns, needs, and opinions.

In our survey we asked all respondents who indicated that they, or any family member in the household, received a particular government benefit whether they had been active in relation to that benefit: Had they taken that program into account in deciding how to vote? Had they given a campaign contribution based on concern about the program? Had they contacted an official to complain about it? Did they belong to an organization concerned about that program?

Recipients of non-means-tested benefits (for example, veterans' benefits, Social Security, or Medicare) are more likely than recipients of benefits targeted at the poor (such as welfare assistance, food stamps, or Medicaid) to have taken part in each of these activities. The differences are especially striking when it comes to membership in an organization associated with benefits for veterans or the elderly—presumably reflecting the role played by veterans' organizations and the American Association of Retired Persons. Thirty-five percent of the recipients of veterans' benefits and 24 percent of the recipients of Social Security, in contrast to 2 percent of welfare recipients and none of the food stamp recipients, belong to an organization concerned about the program. Clearly, the government hears more from some of its beneficiaries than from others—and the ones it hears from are the more advantaged.

When we probed what political activists actually say, we learned that those at the top and bottom of the social hierarchy talk about different subjects when they take part in politics. The disadvantaged (the roughly one-sixth of the public having no education beyond high school and 1990 family incomes below $20,000) are more than twice as likely—and those in families receiving means-tested benefits are more than 4 times as likely—to discuss concerns about basic human needs such as poverty, jobs, housing, and health. In contrast, the activity of the advantaged (a somewhat smaller group, having at least some college education and 1990 family incomes above $50,000) is more likely to have been inspired by economic issues such as taxes, government spending, or the budget, or by social issues such as abortion or pornography. The disadvantaged are much less active than the advantaged; they send an average of less than one-quarter the number of political messages each. Hence public officials hear much less about issues of basic human need that concern the disadvantaged than they hear about the concerns of the somewhat smaller group of advantaged respondents.

Moreover, the activity of the disadvantaged is much more likely to be animated by problems that affect them personally. Even affluent citizens may require government assistance with respect to basic human needs: They may have health problems or a handicapped child in school; if elderly, they receive Medicare and Social Security. Still, a much larger proportion of the messages from the disadvantaged about basic human needs involve communications about problems specific to themselves or their families: a question about eligibility for Social Security, a complaint about the conditions in a housing project, or a request by a respondent with disabilities for special transportation, to cite some actual examples. Of those who communicated to public officials about issues of basic human needs, 71 percent of the disadvantaged, but only 29 percent of the advantaged, were discussing something with an immediate impact upon themselves or their families. Stories about basic human needs sound different to policymakers when told by the needy themselves. Our data suggest, however, that public officials do not often hear directly from the needy.

What about when activists discuss these matters as policy issues rather than as problems in personal life? Americans disagree profoundly about the appropriate governmental role in addressing problems of basic human need. To the extent that disadvantaged participants made identifiable policy statements in conjunction with their activity, none of them suggested reducing public attention to issues of basic human need. In contrast, advantaged activists expressed much more mixed policy views about these issues in connection with their activity: Some want expansion, some want cuts. What is the result of all this? Despite the fact that the disadvantaged care more about basic needs and speak about them when they express their views, the advantaged are so much more active than the disadvantaged that public officials actually receive more messages from the advantaged suggesting a curtailment of government social programs than messages from the disadvantaged urging an expansion of them.

Our results place into perspective some of the controversies surrounding the unprecedented sums of money collected in connection with the 1996 election. According to the New York Times, Democratic fundraiser John Huang "appealed to the aspirations of a group eager to have a political voice equal to its accomplishments in American society, and he focused his efforts on those he knew best: the prosperous Chinese-Americans living in the suburbs of Los Angeles and New York." The Asian Americans who gained political voice though his efforts were not Laotian or Cambodian refugees crammed into urban tenements. Nor were they even middle-class Asian Americans concerned that their children face discrimination in entrance to competitive colleges. Rather, the newly articulate voices came from the kinds of well-heeled business interests traditionally well represented in American politics. As a route to political influence, this path contrasts sharply with the one taken by older immigrant groups, epitomized by the Irish, who worked within parties that welcomed them and capitalized on their sheer numbers at the polls.

To be sure, public officials act for many reasons, only one of which is their assessment of what the public wants and needs. And policymakers have other ways besides citizen participation of learning about public views. Nonetheless, what public officials hear influences what they do. Democracy rests on the notion that the needs and preferences of no individual should rank higher than those of any other. This principle undergirds the concept of one person, one vote as well as its corollary, equality of political voice. Thus any system that denies equal participatory rights violates a fundamental principle of democracy.



What can be done to diminish the participation gap that separates the advantaged and the disadvantaged? The usual prescription is "Organize!" What is traditionally meant by the call for organization is advocacy, joint activity on behalf of the shared concerns and interests of the underrepresented, a strategy with a long history of producing results in American politics.

Organizations—even organizations that are utterly apolitical—operate in many ways beyond advocacy to foster political participation. Organization members are exposed to political cues and messages. In addition, organizations can act as the locus of attempts at political recruitment; organization members make social contacts and thus become part of networks through which requests for participation are mediated. And they encourage the development of skills that can be transferred to political activity; while organizing the PTA Book Fair or chairing a large charity benefit are activities that are not in and of themselves political, individuals learn those communication and organizational skills that can make them more effective participants.

Expecting organization of the disadvantaged to be the magic remedy that will overcome class-based participatory imbalances is misguided, however, because the cure contains the seeds of the malady. A great deal has been written recently, including in these pages, about the decline in organizational affiliation [see Robert Putnam, "The Strange Disappearance of Civic America," TAP, Winter 1996]. However, the controversy over the decline in civic involvement has neglected consideration of inequality in civic involvement. Data collected in 1967 indicate that those on the highest rung of the income ladder were 3 times as likely to be active members of organizations as those at the bottom. In 1990 the ratio was exactly the same. In short, the participatory benefits of organizational activity are being reaped by those who are already politically involved.

Interestingly, religious institutions might play the compensatory role often ascribed to organizations. Americans are more likely than citizens in other countries to be affiliated with a religious institution, to attend services, and to take part in educational, charitable, or social activities in conjunction with their churches. [See Andrew Greeley,"The Other Civic America."] Churches function much like organizations in cultivating political engagement, acting as sites for political recruitment, and fostering the development of civic skills. And since they do so on a relatively egalitarian basis, religious activity has the potential to act as a corrective factor for participation, partially offsetting the impact of socioeconomic advantage.

Since churches and unions function similarly in fostering political activity, we might argue that the strength of religious institutions would counterbalance the traditional weakness of labor unions (which now represent a lower proportion of workers than at any time since just before the New Deal). For example, a blue-collar worker is more likely to practice civic skills in church than in a union—not because American unions are particularly deficient as skill builders, but because so few American blue-collar workers are union members and so many are church members. In short, if the less advantaged are not developing skills on the job (as the well educated do) or in unions (as blue-collar workers elsewhere might), they may be doing so in church. Hence, because churches pinch-hit for unions in encouraging participation, we might conclude that the weakness of American unions does not compromise the democratic representation of the less well off.

However, churches and unions are institutions with political concerns of their own. They are not interchangeable when it comes to reducing participatory inequality. It has long been a part of the union mission to represent the less advantaged in the halls of government. Although religious institutions do sometimes take on this function—the Catholic Church, for example, often acts as an advocate for the poor—the economic needs of the less well off rarely top their lists of political priorities. Over the years churches in America have embraced many issues ranging from temperance to civil rights. But the center of gravity of the religious agenda in politics today is a conservative concern with social issues, with a particular focus on advocacy of pro-life views on abortion. Thus there is no reason to expect American religious institutions to act as a substitute for unions or other organizations in bringing to the attention of public officials the economic needs and preferences of the disadvantaged.

In the preface to Voice and Equality, written shortly after the 1994 elections, we thanked both President Clinton and House Speaker Gingrich for behaving in ways so consistent with our analysis. As we write this essay in the immediate aftermath of the 1996 election, we have no reason to diminish our gratitude to the parties and the candidates who took part. The unstated assumption during the campaign seemed to be that if policymakers were to threaten the interests of groups ranging from senior citizens to tobacco manufacturers to veterans, there would an outcry in return. However, certain groups could be ignored with impunity. The needs and desires of inactive publics with an obvious stake in government policy—welfare recipients are the most obvious example—were simply not part of the campaign discourse.

Political conflict in America has traditionally been less deeply imbued with the rhetoric of class than in other democracies. In recent years, however, references to class seem to have become less common in our political vocabulary than at any time since before the New Deal. Various developments over the past couple of decades might account for that silence: the success of the Republican Party in defining itself as the party of the common folk; the focus by the Democratic Party on the needs of the middle class rather than the poor as the object of government attention; the erosion of the membership and power of labor unions; the emphasis upon multiculturalism; the declining appeal of Marxist social analysis as an intellectual tool; and changing occupational structures and the concomitant reduction in manufacturing employment. Nevertheless, when it comes to political participation, class matters profoundly for American politics. As long as inequalities in education and income persist, as long as Americans have unequal opportunities to develop and practice civic skills, and as long as citizens increasingly donate money rather than time to politics, the voices heard through the medium of citizen participation will be loud, clear, and far from equal.

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