The Wealthy Have a Bigger Role in Politics. They Don’t Need to.

Posted June 15, 2004 at 2:32pm

The American Political Science Association rarely takes positions on the institutional issues of governance and politics that are studied by its academic membership. In fact, the last time the APSA injected itself into a broader governance controversy was over 50 years ago, when it issued a report titled “Towards a More Responsible Two-Party System.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Well, the APSA has just spoken again, with a report from a task force of eminents called “American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality.” After evaluating a massive body of research, the panel concluded that economic and political inequalities are persistent and rising, and that they threaten our ideals of equal citizenship and responsive government.

One of the more vivid passages summarizes the report’s thrust: “Citizens with lower or moderate incomes speak with a whisper that is lost on the ears of inattentive government officials, while the advantaged roar with a clarity and consistency that policy-makers readily hear and routinely follow.” The wealthier vote more frequently, and they dominate the ranks of political givers and political volunteers.

Now, one reaction to these conclusions might be, “Duh.” Of course the well-heeled are more active and involved; it has always been thus, and it is not just because of the undue influence of money in politics (nor can the discrepancy be erased by campaign finance reform.) It is a simple fact that money, prestige, celebrity all matter in every society, and all give greater access to power and powerful decision-makers, no matter what rules run the show.

Having said that, and having made appropriate reference to naïveté and political bias in the task force, they have a very good point. While the world will always tilt political processes to favor the rich and powerful, and while the affluent and educated will always be more able to participate in politics, we “small-d democrats” have a moral obligation to open up avenues of opportunity for political involvement. Many may choose not to do so — that is their right — but it should not be due to impediments placed in their way.

Yet the APSA task force’s data makes it clear that we are not doing a good job on this front — and that the problems of inequality are getting worse, not better.

The picture is not all bad. The McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act has helped open things up, by countering the unholy relationship between huge givers and powerful politicians that involved the sale of access for money, and by expanding sharply the base of donors giving money to campaigns. In the meantime, the Internet has become an important tool to link people across the country with common political interests, and to expand again the base of small donors.

But these are not panaceas. Much of the expanded base of donors gives money in the $2,000 category, thanks to the doubling of hard money contributions in BCRA. This is not unhealthy in and of itself — no member of Congress or president is going to be bought for $2,000 — but it does cry out for a parallel drive to expand the base of $50 and $100 donors, which are increasing but not as rapidly.

The way to do this is by restoring a federal tax credit for small contributions. Ideally, it would be a 100 percent tax credit for contributions of $100 or less. The experience of states with comparable tax credits, such as Minnesota, is that this policy can encourage candidates to devote more of their time and resources to raising large sums from many small donors, thus providing a serious impetus for the average person to give.

This is one reform with broad bipartisan support. Republicans such as Tom Petri (Wis.) in the House and Democrats such as Byron Dorgan (N.D.) in the Senate favor it. Even Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has viewed the idea favorably.

Congress should do even more to open up opportunities for political participation by all. If the Internet is going to be an increasing avenue of choice for political involvement, we have an obligation to make sure that every citizen in America has access to it. Proposals for universal access thus become critical components in broadening the base of political participation.

We also need to return to election reform. Even when the Help America Vote Act kicks in fully, it will not be enough. Working people still have a hard time getting to the polls. If you have to be at work early — and could lose your job or have your pay docked if you’re late — facing a long line when the polls open is a major deterrent. If you have day-care problems, or if you don’t get home until late in the day, facing long lines at 7 p.m. becomes just as daunting as a roadblock.

We do not make voting easy. It should be easier than it is — and early voting, either through voting-by-mail or excuse-free absentee balloting, is not the answer. Allowing lots of voters to cast ballots away from the zone of privacy in the voting booth, and to do so weeks before before critical late events in the campaign, risks disaster for our democracy.

What we should do is lay out the resources to make Election Day a major civic event, and to make it easy for all to vote. One answer: a 24-hour vote period, from noon Saturday to noon Sunday, excluding no one for Sabbath problems. This would be difficult and expensive. But if Wal-Mart can stay open 24/7/365, why can’t the United States afford to keep Poll-Mart open 24/1 once every 730 days?

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.