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The Occupy movement has sought to point out that our political process is delivering policies that serve mainly the interests of the wealthiest one percent. This raises a simple question: if democracy is supposed to give equal voice to everyone, why are we consistently ending up with policies that serve the interests of the very rich?
One answer is that American politics are not egalitarian; the very rich have embedded themselves in the capillaries of legislative power and exercise undue influence in our polity. But unequal influence can be ameliorated with institutional and ideological changes that compel our representatives to pay more attention to the median voter than to the richest one percent.
Who is this median voter? Economically, he or she is the voter in the exact middle—both richer than half of voters and poorer than the other half of voters. If there was political equality with majority rule, democratic theorists say, the median voter would have a decisive voice. Take, for example, tax policy. In America, the median income is far below the mean or average income—the wealthiest are so wealthy that they skew the average upward. This might lead one to expect that there would be strong popular support among the larger group of lower- and median-income voters to raise taxes on the rich. But if there is such support, those voters’ voices are either weak or ignored. Why should this be so? Here I will explore three sources of political inequality in America along with their remedies.
First, our electoral institutions disfavor the median voter and majoritarian rule. Those living in urban centers, where support for remedying economic inequality is strongest, are vastly underrepresented by the current method of calculating legislative representation. Consider that each California Senator represents some 19 million residents, while each Senator from Wyoming represents about 280,000. This discrepancy gives Wyoming residents 67 times the power of Californians to influence outcomes in the Senate.
The chances for remedying other forms of inequality without enhancing political equality are slim.
While changing the Senate’s composition may not be politically feasible, there are alternatives for political action. I propose a constitutional amendment that gives the presidency to the winner of a majority of votes, which would thereby empower the median voter. This proposal would eliminate the Electoral College—that archaic institution that gives each state voting power equivalent to the sum of its senators and representatives—which thereby bestows more power on Wyoming voters than California voters. With majority rule, this inequity would be remedied.
This proposal would also draw presidential candidates to pay increased attention to more populous states and urban centers. Because states like California and New York are barely contested, candidates spend little time courting voters there despite the states’ large populations. With majority rule, the return on campaign investment in large urban districts would be higher than in today’s system. Moreover, candidates would be more likely to promise policies that could win support from the median voter. Granted, securing passage of a constitutional amendment to eliminate the Electoral College is a Sisyphean task; however, any movement supporting it would draw worthwhile attention to the pillars upholding the unequal status quo.
Disenfranchisement is a second reason that our policies favor the rich. Vast numbers of our workers at the subsistence level are taxed in America but not represented. I am not referring to the complexities of registration which deter many voters, usually poorer Americans. Nor am I referring here to felons who are disproportionately from households below the median income. Rather, I am referring to our hard-working immigrants who lack political voice.
Throughout Europe, immigrants have the right to vote at the sub-national level. If immigrants in America had the same right, local and state-level candidates would need to court immigrant interests, and be more open to policies that favored them, such as minimum-wage increases. Since success at the national level typically requires that aspiring politicians first win at the local or state level, granting immigrants local and state voting rights—as a complement to the legalization of the undocumented at the national level—would increase the relative number of progressive officials seeking national office. Approving local and state voting rights for immigrants would also make inhumane immigration acts such as the one recently passed in Alabama and elsewhere far less likely.
Third, the undue influence of the rich rests on the effectiveness of propaganda declaring that their interests coincide with those of less well-to-do Americans. Despite evidence to the contrary, many believe that inheritance taxes for the super-rich are “death taxes” that hurt farmers and small businesses. Similarly, it is now commonly held that government workers are inefficient, that unions hold back economic progress, that tax revenues are wasted, and that all forms of regulation undermine the perfect efficiency of markets. With the strong support of right-wing billionaires, conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation have succeeded in moving the center of political debate towards the far right. The popular misconceptions they feed must be challenged.
There is no sure link between political equality and the elimination of economic, racial, gender, health, and judicial inequality. But the chances for remedying other forms of inequality without enhancing political equality seem slim indeed.
David D. Laitin, Watkins Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, is coauthor, with Claire Adida and Marie-Anne Valfort, of the forthcoming Why Muslim Integration Fails: An Inquiry in Christian-Heritage Societies.
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