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

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

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


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

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

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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