Inequalities of political voice

Kay Lehman Schlozman, Benjamin I Page, Sidney Verba, Morris P. Fiorina

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

42 Scopus citations


The exercise of political voice goes to the heart of democracy. By their political participation citizens seek to control who will hold public office and to influence what policymakers do when they govern. In voting and other political participation, citizens communicate information about their preferences and needs and generate pressure on public officials to respond. Although politicians in America have many ways to learn what is on the minds of citizens by parsing the polls, reading the newspaper, listening to talk radio, or watching the evening news, the messages conveyed through citizen participation are essential to democratic governance. Beyond being instrumental in permitting activists to communicate their politically relevant concerns, participation itself is a value, conferring on the individual the dignity that comes with being a full member of the political community. American citizens who wish to have an impact on politics have a variety of options for exercising political voice. They can communicate their concerns and opinions to policymakers to affect public policy directly, or they can seek to affect policy indirectly by influencing electoral outcomes. They can act on their own or work with others in informal efforts, formal organizations, political parties, or social movements. They can donate their time or their money. They can use conventional techniques or protest tactics. They can work locally or nationally. They can even have political input when, for reasons entirely outside politics, they become affiliated with a politically active organization or institution. Students of civic involvement in America are unanimous in characterizing political input through political participation as being extremely unequal. The exercise of political voice is related most fundamentally to social class. Those who enjoy high levels of income, occupational status, and especially education are much more likely to take part politically than are those who are less well endowed with these resources. Paralleling class differences in political participation are disparities on the basis of both gender and race or ethnicity. What is much less clear is whether these inequalities have been exacerbated in recent decades. The last quarter century has seen a substantial increase in economic inequalities. Since the stagflation of the late 1970s gave way to relatively sustained periods of expansion, the fruits of economic growth have accrued disproportionately to those at the top of the economic hierarchy. There is, however, difference of opinion as to whether political inequalities have correspondingly become more pronounced. That is, the consensus about the extent of class-based inequalities in political voice does not extend to whether those political inequalities have grown in tandem with economic inequalities. In this chapter we explore these matters with respect to the level of inequality of political voice and recent changes, if any, in the stratification of political voice. Our argument unfolds as follows. We begin by placing our concerns in the framework of public opinion by reviewing briefly what surveys can tell us about American attitudes toward inequality. We then proceed to examine inequalities of political voice paying attention to the representativeness of citizen communications in terms of both who takes part and what they say. In sequence we treat the expression of political voice through individual participation, organized interests, political parties, and social movements. In each case we investigate both the extent of political inequality and the way that the extent of political inequality has changed in recent years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationInequality and American Democracy
Subtitle of host publicationWhat We Know and What We Need to Learn
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages69
ISBN (Print)087154413X, 9780871544148
StatePublished - Dec 1 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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