Of the disparities among ordinary people in whatever is scarce and valued in a society—economic wherewithal, social respect, public influence, health, freedom—political equality is relevant most especially in democracies. In contrast to authoritarian systems, democracies are based on the expectation that the people are sovereign and that public officials are to be equally accessible and accountable to all. In spite of the egalitarian commitment embodied in the principle of one person, one vote, political equality among ordinary people is not the same thing as equal political power, even in democracies. Those who, by dint of election or appointment, are entrusted with the responsibility for governing—from the prime minister to the city council member—inevitably wield greater political power than others. Instead of equal power, therefore, political equality among citizens would seem to require that they enjoy equal political rights, equal political voice, and equal political responsiveness.
There is no possibility of political equality without certain rights. The rights intrinsic to what T. H. Marshall calls “civil citizenship” and “political citizenship” provide an essential foundation for political equality (Marshall 1964, chapter IV). Included within civil citizenship are due process of law, with the concomitant right to assert and defend oneself on terms of equality in the courts, and the right to think, speak, and worship freely. Under the umbrella of political citizenship is the right to share in political power, either by acting as a political decision maker or by influencing the choice of such decision makers by voting and otherwise taking part in the processes by which they are chosen. Such rights are not universally shared even in what can be considered to be functioning democracies. Historically, women were everywhere denied the rights necessary for political equality, as were other groups in particular places—for example, African Americans in the American South during the Jim Crow era or native blacks in South Africa during apartheid. Although there are variations across countries, all contemporary democracies abridge the political rights of children and resident aliens. Some add felons and the mentally incompetent to the list.
A second requirement for the achievement of political equality is equality of political voice. Political voice refers to the sum total of political inputs that citizens in a democracy use to control who will hold political office and to influence what public officials do. Through their political voice, citizens raise political issues, communicate information about their political interests and concerns, and generate pressure on policymakers to respond to what they hear. Equal political voice requires not that all individuals are equally active, but that aggregate participatory input is representative across all politically relevant groups and categories.
Although the particular mix will vary from polity to polity, citizens in a democracy have a variety of options for the exercise of political voice. They can seek indirect influence through the electoral system by voting or engaging in other efforts to support favored political parties or candidates, or they can seek direct influence through the messages they send to office holders about their politically relevant preferences and needs. They can act individually or collectively. They can undertake mainstream activities, such as joining organizations or contacting public officials, or challenging ones, such as attending protests or demonstrations.
Achieving equality in political voice is much more difficult than achieving equality of political rights. Individual citizens differ in their capacity and desire to take part in politics, and political activities differ in the extent to which the demanded inputs—time, money, or skills—are conducive to broad and representative participation, on the one hand, or to participation by narrower and less representative publics, on the other. In all systems, political voice is skewed, at least to some degree, in the direction of those with high levels of income, occupational status, and especially education. What this implies is that public officials hear an unrepresentative set of messages: They receive disproportionate information about the interests and opinions of, and feel more constrained to respond to, the affluent and well-educated. The extent to which unequal political voice is structured by occupation, education, and income implies, moreover, that disadvantaged groups defined along axes other than social class are also underrepresented politically. In most democracies, the political voice of women is muted, as is, in many polities, the political voice of racial, ethnic, or linguistic minorities. In many cases—for example, African Americans and Latinos in the United States—the inequality in political voice can be explained entirely in terms of socio-economic disadvantage without reference to a group-specific experience or identity. Nevertheless, whether the explanation for the inequality of political voice derives from socio-economic disparities or another aspect of collective experience, the bottom line is that policymakers hear less about the preferences, concerns, and needs of some individuals and some groups.
Although inequalities of political voice are biased in favor of the privileged in all democracies, many factors shape the extent of that socio-economic structuring. For one thing, the rules that govern politics can exacerbate or ameliorate inequalities of political voice. For example, where registration is difficult and electoral turnout is voluntary, as in the United States, the electorate tends to be less representative of the citizenry as a whole than in polities where registration is less demanding or, as in Belgium and Australia, turnout is compulsory. The rules governing campaign finance are also relevant. Free-for-all methods of financing campaigns and a major presence of corporate campaign contributions predispose a polity to inequalities of political voice. In addition, the nature of the institutions that link citizens to policymakers can have an impact on inequalities of political voice. High levels of membership in voluntary associations and the presence of both strong labor unions and a labor or social democratic party, as in the Nordic countries, tend to mute inequalities of political voice. Furthermore, government policies—ranging from free and compulsory education to progressive taxation to the provision of a social safety net—can reduce the socio-economic inequalities among individuals that are associated with inequalities of political voice.
Political equality requires not just that citizens speak but that public officials listen. The most complex aspect of political equality, equality of political responsiveness is nearly impossible to measure and highly contested theoretically. Social scientists of a Marxian inclination, along with those who, like Charles E. Lindblom, posit the “privileged position of business,” conclude that formidable political resources and control of employment give the corporate sector—corporations and trade and other business associations—the upper hand in any public controversy (Lindblom 1977, chapter 13). That said, there are substantial obstacles to making a systematic empirical assessment of policymakers’ responsiveness to various competing forces. Especially since political influence is often exercised behind the scenes or used to shape the political agenda rather than the content of decisions, in any particular policy controversy it is difficult to discern who is exercising power and to whom decision makers are responding. Besides, in aggregating across issues, it is difficult to specify a universe of political controversies to serve as a baseline.
Furthermore, democratic theorists raise concerns about the universal desirability of equal responsiveness. Equal responsiveness in every political conflict would constitute a form of majoritarian democracy that would grant no space for the exercise of independent judgment by political leaders, who may command special information, experience, or insight. Furthermore, it would entail no deference to intensity of preference. That is, an indifferent majority would inevitably prevail over a minority that cares a lot. If such a political configuration were present over and over, that minority would never achieve its proportionate share of political influence. Moreover, if not coupled with equal voice, a pattern of equal responsiveness would give advantage to the noisy over the silent and produce a circumstance far from political equality.
SEE ALSO Civil Rights; Civil Society; Compulsory Voting; Crony Capitalism; Democracy; Due Process; Exit, Voice, and Loyalty; Gender Gap; Human Rights; Inequality, Gender; Inequality, Income; Inequality, Racial; Inequality, Wealth; Lindblom, Charles; Majoritarianism; Majority Rule; Poverty; Power; Power Elite; Public Rights; Rule of Law; Schattschneider, E. E.; Social Status; Social Structure; Tyranny of the Majority; Voting Schemes; Welfare State
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Lindblom, Charles E. 1977. Politics and Markets: The World’s Political Economic Systems. New York: Basic Books.
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Norris, Pippa. 2002. Democratic Phoenix: Reinventing Political Activism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Verba, Sidney, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady. 1995. Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kay Lehman Schlozman