Is America a democracy?

Political scientist Robert Dahl said in 1971 that “a key characteristic of a democracy is the continued responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.” The part I italicized emphasizes the key point, that a democracy involves more than enabling all citizens to vote freely in fair elections. While that is a minimal requirement, democracy also requires that political influence be distributed equally.

Is this true of America now? It could be argued that it has never been true, that the wealthy have always had more influence than the poor. But like all beliefs, it is not enough that it seem obviously true, we need to be able to support it empirically. It is only then that we can measure if the degree of inequality of political influence is increasing over time.

A long study titled Economic Inequality and Political Representation published in 2005 by Larry M. Bartels, then a professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University and currently at Vanderbilt University, examined this question.

The study looks at the responsiveness of a US senator (measured in terms of how they vote on legislation) to the opinions of their constituents on various issues, using the usual method of multiple regression analysis. Usually it is assumed that all constituents are the same, their opinions count equally, and their characteristics do not matter, which would be the case in a true democracy. Bartels relaxed that assumption to see how senatorial responsiveness varies with respect to the opinions of the rich (over $40,000 income per year), middle-class ($20,000-40,000) and poor (less than $20,000) constituents. Since this breaks down into 29.1%, 40.2%, and 30.7% of the population respectively, this is far closer to reality than what we currently hear in the media where ‘middle class’ can encompass incomes as ridiculously high as $250,000 or even more. (Note that this is in 2005 so the income ranges would be a little different now.)

[S]enators seem to have been quite responsive to the ideological views of their middle- and high-income constituents – though, strikingly, not to the views of their low-income constituents. Whether we consider the three Congresses separately or together, the data are quite consistent in suggesting that the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution had no discernible impact on the voting behavior of their senators.

In contrast, middle-income constituents enjoyed a good deal of apparent responsiveness… The apparent responsiveness of senators to the views of high-income constituents was even greater, despite their somewhat smaller numbers.

These results imply that responsiveness to the views of middle- and high-income constituents account for significant variation in senators’ voting behavior – but that the views of low-income constituents were utterly irrelevant.

When Bartels looks at votes on specific issues, the discrepancies become even more striking.

The results for the vote on raising the minimum wage reflect the political plight of poor constituents in especially poignant form. Those results suggest that senators attached no weight at all to the views of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution – the constituents whose economic interests were obviously most directly at stake – even as they voted to approve a minimum wage increase. The views of middle-income constituents seem to have been only slightly more influential. On this issue, even more than the others considered in Table 2, senators’ voting decisions were largely driven by the ideological predilections of their affluent constituents and by their own partisan inclinations.

On abortion, the results are slightly more egalitarian but “the political irrelevance of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution is just as striking for abortion votes as for economic issues… and the estimated responsiveness gaps … provide strong, consistent evidence of affluent advantage.”

The paper goes into great detail in analyzing the data but its conclusions are quite clear: Money talks.

My analysis suggests that senators are vastly more responsive to the views of affluent constituents than to constituents of modest means. The magnitude of this difference varies from issue to issue, and some of the separate estimates fail to satisfy conventional standards of “statistical significance.” Nevertheless, the consistency of the difference across a variety of political contexts, issues, opinion measures, and model specifications is impressive, and the magnitude of the disparities in responsiveness to rich and poor constituents implied by my results is even more impressive.

As always, one has to realize that what is measured are correlations, and that teasing out causal relationships is not easy.

Whether senators behave the way they do because their constituents have the opinions they do is impossible to gauge using the research design employed here. It is certainly plausible to imagine that senators consciously and intentionally strive to represent the views of (especially) affluent constituents. However, it might also be the case, as Jacobs and Page (2005) have suggested in the context of national foreign policy-making, that public opinion seems to be influential only because it happens to be correlated with the opinion of influential elites, organized interest groups, or the policy-makers themselves.

The correlation between public opinion and elite opinion, in turn, might reflect conscious efforts by elites, interest groups, or policy-makers to shape public opinion in support of their views, or it might reflect the patterns of political recruitment and advancement that put some kinds of people rather than others in positions of influence in the first place. In the present context, it seems unlikely that affluent constituents are sufficiently sensitive to the policy views of their senators, specifically, for the problem to be one of reverse causation. On the other hand, the fact that senators are themselves affluent, and in many cases extremely wealthy, hardly seems irrelevant to understanding the strong empirical connection between their voting behavior and the preferences of their affluent constituents.

Some commonly accepted notions about the factors that drive political influence works are not supported by his analysis.

There is clearly a great deal more work to be done investigating the mechanisms by which economic inequality gets reproduced in the political realm. The simple assumption that the rich are more influential than the poor because they are more likely to vote receives no support in my analysis. The idea that they are more influential because they are better informed about politics and government fares equally poorly. The notion that they are more influential because they are more likely to contact government officials receives some modest support, but is clearly far from being the whole story. The even simpler assumption that the rich are more influential than the poor because they provide the contributions that fuel contemporary campaigning and lobbying activities receives somewhat stronger support; but that support is quite indirect, and the role of money in shaping public policy clearly deserves much more careful empirical examination (Hall and Wayman 1990; Ansolabehere, de Figueiredo, and Snyder 2003).

Writing in 2005, Bartels suggested a disturbing possibility.

In the meantime, despite the significant limitations of my data and the crudeness of my analysis, the sheer magnitude of the disparities in representation documented here must be troubling to anyone who accepts Dahl’s (1971, 1) stipulation that “a key characteristic of a democracy is the continued responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.” These disparities are especially troubling because they suggest the potential for a debilitating feedback cycle linking the economic and political realms: increasing economic inequality may produce increasing inequality in political responsiveness, which in turn produces public policies increasingly detrimental to the interests of poor citizens, which in turn produces even greater economic inequality, and so on. If that is the case, shifts in the income distribution triggered by exogenous technological forces may in time become augmented, entrenched, and immutable. Obviously, much additional research is warranted to explore the impact of unequal representation on the contours of actual public policy and on the subsequent political capacities of affluent and disadvantaged citizens.

In a broader sense, what to make of these findings is a problem for democratic theorists and for democratic citizens. Perhaps, as Dahl (1989, 324) has suggested, “In an advanced democratic country the economic order would be understood as instrumental not merely to the production and distribution of goods and services but to a much larger range of values, including democratic values.” However that may be, the economic order of the contemporary United States poses a clear and profound obstacle to realizing the democratic value of political equality.

The ‘debilitating feedback cycle’ that Bartels warned about that in 2005 has become all too real in the last decade. It may have been bad then but it is much worse now. We are currently experiencing an escalating feedback loop in which the oligarchy is exerting increasingly greater political influence to gain even greater wealth. By Dahl’s measure, democracy in America is on currently on life support.


  1. kevinalexander says

    The simplest explanation for the findings is that the politicians help those who they most personally identify with, something anyone would do. There’s also the natural animal human instinct to disregard if not actively despise anyone worse off than you.
    It’s why I favour a Lotto Democracy. It’s the only way to get a truly representative government.

  2. says

    Every state, territory, commonwealth and possession is a democratic republic. That is to say, a system of governance bound by charter and law operated directly by the people.

    At the federal level, we are a non-democratic republic of states. That is to say, a system of governance bound by charter and law run by the states rather than the people. Remember: representation in Congress is by state, not by equal districts. Originally, senators were appointed by state legislatures to represent state interests rather than popular sentiment. It is the states who elect the President and Vice President, not the national popular vote, with larger states having more votes than smaller states.

  3. Corvus illustris says

    As always, one has to realize that what is measured are correlations, and that teasing out causal relationships is not easy.

    Consider the high cost of campaigning (and the high cost of anti-campaigning, e.g., in order to remove a popular incumbent at the primary-election stage). I submit that senators’ votes correlate well with their upper-socioeconomic-level constituents’ preferences because the senators legislate to benefit the interests of their rich contributors, rendering state (and indeed national) boundaries irrelevant, and that this–rather than the voting behavior of the upper classes in the states that the senators putatively represent–is the causality that explains the correlation.

  4. sundoga says

    The United States is, and has always been, a representative republic, and despite often using “democracy” as a catchcry, has never been all that democratic. I don’t see that as having significantly changed – either towards or away from the democratic ideal.

  5. MNb says

    “political influence be distributed equally.”
    If this is a demand then I’m afraid no political system ever can be called a democracy. So your conclusion is questionable. Still it always has been clear to me that the distribution of political influence in the US has a bigger deviation (in statistical terms) then in The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. In these countries it is very normal that 80% of the electorate actually votes, for instance. I understand that participation and political influence are not the same quantities, but they are connected.
    Possibly a different angle is more useful: good old check and balances. It looks obvious to me that the political elites in aforementioned European countries are under firmer control than in the USA. A few weeks ago I also mentioned that the political elites in these countries are less homogeneous. Angela Merkel is colleague-physicist of yours; Dutch opposition leader in parliament Emil Roemer is blue collar. I assume you won’t find any of those types in the Senate?!
    Here is the key problem, I think. In the USA someone aspiring a political career needs a lot of money to finance it. Not so in Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. Where is your equivalent of these guys?

  6. says

    Most elected officials are just the political equivalents of a guy who speeds up and races off ahead when they see an ambulance coming up behind them, and then gets stuck at the next intersection and blocks traffic. No emergency is so urgent that they should be inconvenienced, and then they end up causing a mess for everyone else.

  7. Corvus illustris says

    Angela Merkel is colleague-physicist of yours …

    Merkel’s bio in the German-language Wikipedia–which includes the titles of both her Diplomarbeit and her doctoral (Dr. rer. nat.) thesis–clearly marks her as a physical chemist rather than a physicist, so it seems a bit unfair to make her into a colleague of Mano’s :). Your point about the composition of the US Congress is well taken, though. There are a few MDs (including the representative from my district, who makes us look like the Neander valley), but most are lawyers and/or independently well-to-do.

  8. Corvus illustris says

    Oops–I thought I had submitted this (@8 if I fail again) as a remark appended to MNb@6.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *