Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos.

Recent Articles

How Unions Boost Democratic Participation

Union members are not only more likely to vote for progressive policies, they're more likely to vote.

(Photo: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)
Labor organizer Helen Marot once observed, “The labor unions are group efforts in the direction of democracy.” What she meant is that more than simply vehicles for the economic interests of workers (which they certainly are), labor unions also foster civic participation for workers. And nowhere is this clearer than in voter turnout, which has suffered in recent years along with union membership. Indeed, new data from the Census Bureau and a new analysis of American National Election Studies data support the case that unions’ declining influence has also deeply harmed democracy. In 2014, voter turnout was abysmal, even for a midterm. Census data suggest that only 41.9 percent of the citizen population over 18 turned out to vote. However, as I note in my new Demos report Why Voting Matters , there are dispiriting gaps in turnout across class, race, and age. To examine how unions might affect policy, I performed a new analysis of both Census Bureau and American National...

The Feds Are Finally Moving to Regulate Payday Lending

The new rules are good, but could be better. 

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
This article originally appeared at . Today, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a blueprint for new regulations pertaining to payday loans and car title loans. The regulations will not include an interest rate cap, the holy grail for advocates, because industry allies watered-down the provisions (I discuss the fight over payday lending in my recent Atlantic article). These regulations are still important. The proposed regulations include two major options and payday lenders would choose which to follow. Both are aimed at preventing borrowers from falling into “debt traps,” where they constantly roll over their loan. • The first are “prevention requirements.” In these, lenders would determine before lending the ability of an individual to repay the loan without re-borrowing or defaulting (and verify would a third party). Borrowers taking three loans in succession would have to wait over a 60-day “cooling off period.” A...

One Big Reason for Voter Turnout Decline and Income Inequality: Smaller Unions

The decline of labor unions has shifted the balance of power not only in the country at large, but within the Democratic Party. Hello Wall Street; bye-bye voters...

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
Two of the most commonly cited reasons for the lack of more liberal policymaking in the United States are the decline in unions and the rising class bias in voter turnout . In the 2014 midterm congressional elections, the Democrats’ rout was largely attributed to a failure of their coalition to turn out at the polls. What is rarely examined, however, is the relationship between a decline in voter turnout and the dwindling number of union members. And as that turnout has declined, the control of the financial class over the entire political system—Republican and Democrat—has taken hold. Over the last several decades, union membership in the United States has declined precipitously , from 24 percent of all wage and salary workers in 1973 to 11.1 percent today . At the same time, our economy has increasingly begun to favor the wealthiest members of society. The labor share of income has reached the lowest level it’s been since 1929, and that diminished income is...

How Walmart and Home Depot Are Buying Huge Political Influence

Walmart and Home Depot are ranked among the top 100 political donors overall for the period since 1989, putting their fingerprints on tax and labor law.

"Walmart Home Office sign" by Walmart Corporate - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
This report was originally published by Demos . The notion that all citizens have a voice in our country’s governance is at the center of the American ideal of democracy. Yet the role of corporate and private money in our political system means that the voices of the majority are often drowned out by those with the most money. Campaign and committee donations help wealthy interests determine who runs for office and who wins elections. This effect, combined with millions of dollars in lobbying, allows the biggest spenders to shape the country’s political agenda and gives them disproportionate influence over the policymaking process. As a result, the minority population of affluent Americans see their priorities reflected in our legislative objectives, even when the majority of the country disagrees with their preferences. 1 This problematic political spending entrenches economic inequality and political power in a system where legitimacy hinges on equality and self-...

How to Reduce the Voting Gap

This post originally appeared at Over the last three decades, research suggests, the class bias of the voting public has increased dramatically. In the 2012 election, there was a 33 point gap between the turnout rate of the highest bracket ($150,000 or more) and the lowest bracket ($10,000 or less). My article explores the implications of this gap, but it’s also important to know the causes. Registration: The first part of the problem is registration. One study finds , “state voter registration laws pose a substantial barrier” to the mobilization of low-income voters. We can see this in the Census data from the 2012 election (below). Among eligible voters in the highest bracket 87.1 percent were registered in 2012, compared with only 63.2 percent of those in the lowest bracket. This registration gap certainly plays a role in turnout inequality, and unnecessary burdens don’t help. Worse, many states are currently purging their voter rolls , which...