What We Are Anxious about When We Say We Are Anxious about Inequalities of Influence

From the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street to clashes over campaign finance and voter identification laws, concerns about who has too much or too little influence are at the centre of many of the most salient developments and debates in contemporary American politics. Indeed, questions about whether and in what ways inequalities in influence compromise what Ira Katznelson characterizes as the ability of “the core institutions of representative democracies” to “address the great questions of our time” have long been central to the study of American politics in general and to scholarship about the politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality in particular. Drawing selectively from that scholarship, I outline five broad, interrelated, and nonexhaustive clusters of anxieties that, I argue, should be acknowledged and addressed in contemplating inequalities of influence in American representative democracy, particularly as they affect marginalized groups.

Anxiety 1. Democracy provides a relatively low bar and ambiguous metrics through which to assess equality of influence.

As scholars of politics have long observed, on its own, democracy is essentially a framework that suggests a set of procedures through which collective decisions can be made among relatively equal participants (Christiano 2006). By itself, therefore, democracy provides a fairly low bar and an ambiguous set of metrics through which to assess other normative goals (such as justice) and substantive goods (such as policy outcomes) that we might hope democratic fairness will facilitate and produce. In this case, because democracy on its own does not dictate that influence should be equal, it also tells us little about the metrics or benchmarks that we should use to determine whether and under what conditions unequal influence is problematic. Moreover, the metrics and benchmarks that it does provide might, in fact, distort as much as they illuminate about inequalities of influence.

To take a somewhat rudimentary example: Before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, women lacked federally protected voting rights and could not vote in many American states. There was consequently little doubt that American women had almost no democratic political influence. There was, however, a great deal of debate and disagreement about whether this lack of influence was at odds with the basic tenets of democracy.

Women now can and do vote, they can and do run for office, and more women now serve in Congress than at any other point in American history. However, fewer women than men believe that they are qualified for public office, women who win their races typically are “better” candidates than their victorious male counterparts (Lawless and Pearson 2008; Lawless 2012; Lawless and Fox 2010), and women remain vastly underrepresented in elected office. Most germane here, debates and disagreements continue about whether gender-based—and other—inequalities in political influence are problematic or inconsistent with democratic values.

In other words, by the formal metrics of democracy, women now have some political influence as voters and elected representatives in American politics, but these metrics give us little guidance regarding how much influence women should have. These metrics also do not help us to determine whether or not we should be distressed about women’s continued underrepresentation in elected office or about whether we should be concerned that democratic processes and institutions might reinforce the influence of troubling gendered norms and inequalities about who is “qualified” to run for public office. Making these evaluations about whether inequalities of influence are cause for alarm entails normative judgments about, for example, the relative importance of gender equality and of combatting sex discrimination versus other goods and values.

Anxiety 2. The formal institutions of representative democracy are at an impasse when it comes to equalizing influence

Although there is little consensus about the foregoing issues, the United States has nonetheless taken measures to address certain kinds of inequalities in political influence. The 1965 Voting Rights Act attempted to prohibit racial discrimination in voting, for example, and laid the foundation for the creation of majority-minority districts. The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) attempted to decrease the influence of so-called “soft money” (or unregulated donations to political parties) in federal elections.

As important and effective as they have been, each of these measures has been the object of ongoing challenges and recent setbacks (Ansolabehere and Snyder 2000; Franz 2008). The power of BCRA to regulate what many argue is the disproportionate influence of corporate money in elections was undermined in 2010, when the Supreme Court overturned key portions of the law in its decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder undermined a key power of the Voting Rights Act when it held that the formula that determines which jurisdictions must obtain Section 5 preclearance is unconstitutional.

In addition to these setbacks, the U.S. has also thus far declined to implement the sorts of quota systems in parties or governing bodies that have worked to augment the electoral and legislative influence of underrepresented groups in many countries (Dahlerup 2006; Htun 2004; Krook 2006).1 Such measures are worth considering, however, as political scientists have documented the many ways in which the rules and normal functioning of the formal institutions of representative democracy reflect and often exacerbate inequalities of influence. For example:

  • The two-party dominance of national politics that is encouraged and reinforced by the American electoral system leads to the “capture” of marginalized groups such as women, people of colour, low-income people, and LGBT people by whichever party is even slightly more hospitable to them, minimizing their influence within both (Frymer 1999; Sanbonmatsu 2002; Sherrill 1996; Smith 2007; Swers 2002; Thomas 1994).
  • Members of many marginalized groups are not concentrated in particular geographically-based congressional districts, making it difficult for them to elect representatives to Congress (Canon 1999; Rehfeld 2005; Warren 2004). African Americans and Latinos are more likely than other communities of colour and more likely than women of all races and ethnicities to live in residentially distinct areas that enable the creation of the majority-minority districts that were allowed, and under some circumstances mandated, by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). However, because few majority white districts elect people of color to Congress, they nonetheless remain underrepresented in Congress (Canon 1999; Gay 2001; Highton 2004). Groups such as Asian Americans rarely constitute a majority in congressional districts, and they have never successfully invoked Section 2 of the VRA (Chen and Lee 2012). Women constitute a narrow majority of many districts but are less likely to run for office than are similarly situated men (Lawless and Fox 2010). As a consequence, although their numbers are growing, groups such as women, people of colour, and LGBT people continue to make up only a small percentage of elected representatives. Wide gaps persist between their proportions of the U.S. population and their levels of influence in national politics.
  • Running for Congress is increasingly expensive, making it difficult for low-income and middle-class candidates to pursue elected office at the national level. Reflecting the growing economic disparities in the general population, the average net worth of members of Congress increased about 16 percent during the recent recession, from $2.27 million in 2008 to $2.63 million in 2010 (Beckel 2011).

In this context, the anxiety that the formal institutions of representative democracy have reached an impasse when it comes to equalizing influence is not irrational.

Anxiety 3. Inequalities of influence create mutually reinforcing and cumulative inequalities in public policy that lead, in turn, to disparities in government responsiveness to the policy preferences and priorities of groups such as women, people of colour, and low-income people

A growing body of scholarship suggests that the inequalities and underrepresentation that I have discussed thus far are related to vast disparities in government responsiveness to the policy preferences and priorities of women, people of colour, and low-income people. Rather than mitigate inequalities in the market, this lack of responsiveness in state institutions leads to policies that widen disparities.

Although descriptive representation is not a silver bullet, it does make a big difference to have women and people of colour in Congress and state legislatures. Research on women and people of colour in Congress and state legislatures demonstrates, for example, that female elected representatives sponsor more social welfare and women’s rights bills than their male counterparts (Bratton 2005; Bratton and Haynie 1999; Childs and Krook 2008; Swers 2002; Thomas 1991; 1994) and that legislators of colour are more likely than white legislators to sponsor and support civil rights and social welfare legislation (Canon 1999; Casellas 2010; Lublin 1997; Minta 2011; Tate 2003; Whitby 1997). But while recent research finds that “the presence of even a small number of openly gay legislators is associated significantly with the future passage of enhanced gay rights” (Reynolds 2013), a longstanding body of work shows that civil rights, women’s rights, and social welfare legislation is more likely to be introduced and to pass when women reach a critical mass in legislatures (Bratton 2005; Dodson and Carroll 1991). The persistence of small numbers of female members of Congress and members of Congress of colour therefore limits their impact on formulating or passing legislation that would benefit women and people of colour (Box-Steffensmeier et al. 2004; Enns and Wlezien 2011; Griffin and Newman 2008; Guinier 1994; Swers 2002).

The preferences of low-income people are likewise chronically underrepresented within legislatures and are all but excluded from policy outcomes. In his study of the alignment between constituent opinion and Senators’ voting on key policies, for instance, Larry Bartels found that the influence of constituents in the 75th percentile of the income distribution was nearly three times as large as the influence of constituents in the 25th income percentile (Bartels 2002; 2008). Martin Gilens has shown further that policy changes supported by those with incomes in the top 10 percent are substantially more likely to pass, while the preferences of those in the bottom 10 percent almost never make it into law (Gilens 2005; 2012). The cumulative effects of such disparities in representation, responsiveness, and influence are the widening inequalities of what Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (2010) call “winner-take-all politics”—policies that have not only increased income inequality but that have led also to stagnant social mobility, growing levels of consumer debt, increasing numbers of uninsured, and declining pensions, health benefits, purchasing power, and returns to education.

Anxiety 4. Inequalities are complex and multi-faceted and marginalized groups are not homogenous

Disadvantage in the U.S. is defined by what scholars have come to call intersectional marginalization—the term coined by critical race legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) to describe the idea that no one particular form of inequality or marginalization is the primary source of oppression and that disadvantage is often constituted by more than one axis within what Patricia Hill Collins (1990) has called the “matrix of domination.” For example, low-income women, disadvantaged both economically and by gender, are an intersectionally disadvantaged subgroup of women and of low-income people.

From an intersectional perspective, inequalities based in axes of marginalization such as race, gender, class, sexuality, and disability are simultaneous and mutually constitutive, and they create compounded, exponential, and cumulative inequalities that are different from and greater than the sum of their parts. As a consequence, specific forms of disadvantage and privilege cannot be understood or addressed in isolation, nor can they be subsumed under one or the other.

Thinking about inequalities as intersectionally constituted has many implications for concerns about inequalities of influence and for anxieties of democracy more generally, two of which I will highlight here. First, thinking intersectionally suggests that even if we could achieve proportional descriptive representation of marginalized groups in legislatures, doing so would be no panacea because salient groupings such as those based on race, ethnicity, class, and gender do not by themselves capture political interests and preferences (Cohen 1999; Crenshaw 1989; Dovi 2002; Gay 2001, 2002; Mansbridge 2003; Phillips 1995, 1998; Pitkin 1967; Strolovitch 2007). The geographically based electoral system in the U.S. is therefore ill-equipped to transmit the multifaceted needs and preferences of groups whose identities and interests are intersectionally constituted.

Intersectional marginalization has implications for other metrics of democratic influence as well. To return to the example that I introduced above: though universal suffrage was once controversial, most Americans have come to take for granted that democracy requires that women, African Americans, and those without property must be permitted to vote. There is much less consensus, however, about whether democracy requires that people in prison or on parole must be permitted to vote.2 As I observed above, women now can and do vote at high rates and run for office more often than in the past. But due primarily to the war on drugs, women and people of colour are incarcerated at higher rates than they ever have been. As a consequence, increasing proportions of women and people of colour are also disenfranchised. And because women of colour, poor women, and gender nonconforming women are incarcerated at disproportionate rates, a nonintersectional assessment that women and people of colour have more political influence now than in the past ignores vast and growing disparities within in this influence.

Anxiety 5. Extrainstitutional efforts to equalize influence, exacerbate inequalities, and undermine democratic institutions and accountability

The limited influence of members of marginalized groups through voting and legislatures has led scholars to contemplate the role of social movements and advocacy organizations as what I have called “compensatory representatives”—i.e., civil society actors and entities that try to offset the paucity of legislative representation, influence, and policy responsiveness by giving voice to the interests of marginalized populations in ways that transcend the geographic boundaries of congressional districts (Strolovitch 2007; see also Cohen and Rogers 1992; Rehfeld 2006; Warren 2004; Young 1992). Although there were few organizations representing women, people of colour, and low-income people before the 1960s, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were over 700 such organizations at the national level (Strolovitch 2007). These include more than 40 African American organizations, more than 150 economic justice organizations, and well over 100 women’s organizations.

There is some evidence that protests (Gillion 2013) and interest groups (Berry 1999; Gilens 2012; Strolovitch 2007) can offset biases in representation, but the extent to which they level the playing field is unclear. First, the growth in the number of social and economic justice organizations has been vastly outpaced by increased numbers of business and professional organizations (Berry 1989; Danielian and Page 1994; Schlozman and Tierney 1986; Schlozman et al. 2012; Walker 1991), and organizations that represent marginalized groups continue to constitute only a modest proportion of the larger interest group universe. Data that Kay Lehman Schlozman and her coauthors collected about nearly twelve thousand organizations with representatives in Washington show that over a third of these organizations represent corporations, while labor unions account for 1 percent, social welfare organizations for 0.8 percent, and groups speaking for women, people of colour, and LGBT people together account for 3.8 percent—proportions that are almost equivalent to those that Schlozman found in her earlier 1986 study with John Tierney (Schlozman and Tierney 1986; Schlozman et al. 2012, 321).

Organizations that advocate for marginalized groups also remain greatly outmatched in terms of financial assets, organizational resources, and political tools. Data from broad surveys of interest groups conducted in 1986 (Schlozman and Tierney) and 1998 (Kollman) show that three quarters of organizations in the broader interest group universe employed a legal staff and 54 percent had Political Action Committees. Less than a third of the organizations in my 2000 study employed a legal staff, only a quarter employed lobbyists, and only a fifth had PACs (Strolovitch 2007). This latter disparity has likely been exacerbated by the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the case Citizens United v. FEC, which overturned key portions of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that had attempted to limit the influence of “soft money” (unregulated donations to political parties) in electoral politics. Organizations that serve disadvantaged groups also do not make as much use of the influencing resources that they do have at their disposal. Jeffrey Berry and Henry Arons (2003), for example, show that service providers granted 501c(3) nonprofit status so fear losing this status that they lobby far less than is legally permitted, thereby forgoing opportunities to influence policy in ways that might benefit the disadvantaged groups they serve.

In addition to being outnumbered and outmatched by organizations representing dominant groups, advocacy organizations that represent women, people of colour, and low-income people have also been criticized for focusing on the needs of more advantaged members of the marginalized constituencies on whose behalf they speak (Berry 1999; Skocpol 2003; Strolovitch 2007). As I show in Affirmative Advocacy (Strolovitch 2007), social and economic justice organizations are significantly less active on issues affecting intersectionally disadvantaged subsets of their constituents than they are when it comes to issues that affect relatively advantaged members. I find, for example, that women’s and African American groups were far more active on affirmative action in higher education than they were on the welfare reform legislation that passed in 1996, which had major implications for low-income women and people of colour. And lest this finding be construed as evidence that “social issues” force out economic ones, the data also show the mirror-image phenomenon among economic justice organizations, as antipoverty groups gave short shrift to the issue of public funding for reproductive health services, an issue that has a disproportionate impact on their female constituents.

Scholars and activists have also raised concerns that delegating representation to nonelected entities is itself troubling: are we weakening collective control over legislation (Walker 1991), building a neoliberal, nonprofit industrial complex (INCITE 2009), and, to borrow Theda Skocpol’s term, diminishing democracy through the very means that many had hoped to buttress it (Skocpol 2003)? Such anxieties might be particularly warranted during the “states of exception” justified at times of war and economic crisis during which legislative capacity is so often “evacuated.” My own recent research suggests, for example, that the limited abilities of advocacy groups to equalize influence are aggravated by “hard times” and that “crisis politics” exacerbate intersectional marginalization even as they might open policy windows to address some issues affecting marginalized groups (Strolovitch forthcoming).

Conclusion: What Are We Talking about When We Talk about Inequality of Influence?

Taken together, the foregoing thoughts about conundra and anxieties surrounding inequalities in influence invite questions about the premises of representative democracy and some of the methods and frameworks through which we assess it. For example, they suggest that we might begin by revisiting longstanding questions about the relationship between representative democracy as a set of procedures and institutions on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the normative goals and substantive goods we hope it will facilitate and produce. The five clusters of anxieties I have outlined also raise further questions about whether and to what extent democratic institutions and practices alleviate, or whether they create, reproduce, or exploit injustices in other realms. As such, they also suggest that we might look outside formal institutions and processes of representative democracy—to advocacy groups and social movements—for some possible avenues of research, as well as for ways to combat inequalities in political influence and policy outcomes. For example, recent research about the impact of the civil rights movement (Gillion 2013) or the components of the “affirmative advocacy” framework that I distilled from the practices of organizations that engage in intersectional advocacy (Strolovitch 2007) might offer sources for optimism and places to start thinking about ways in which representative democracy might be fortified to alleviate inequalities of influence.


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  1. The Democratic Party does have racial and gender quotas for delegates to it national conventions, however.
  2. A 2004 study found, for example, that only 31 percent of respondents believed that people currently in prison should be allowed to vote and that 60 percent thought that voting rights should be restored to people who had completed their prison sentences and were on parole (Manza, Brooks, and Uggen 2004). Moreover, regardless of what people say about these issues when they are asked in surveys, the fact that only two states (Maine and Vermont) allow people in prison to vote and that people with felony convictions in twelve states can permanently lose their right to vote is rarely raised within mainstream American political discourse as an indication that the U.S. is undemocratic.
About the Author
Dara Strolovitch is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies and affiliated faculty at Princeton University.