All forms of political participation matter, but voting is among the most concrete ways that citizens influence public policy -- and the wealthier are far more likely to vote. According to the Census Bureau, 81.6 percent of Americans making over $150,000 reported that they voted in the 2008 presidential election. In contrast, roughly half of citizens making under $30,000 reported voting.
Demos published a new report on this and related issue -- "Stacked Deck: How the Dominance of Politics by the Affluent & Business Undermines Economic Mobility in America" -- and included a striking chart, breaking down voting participation by income.
The chart shows the breakdown in 2008 -- a presidential election in which turnout was fairly high -- but it's worth noting that the participation rates are not only down across the board in midterm cycles, it also further exaggerates the gap. The Demos report added, "The gap in voter turnout in 2010 was slightly larger, with affluent citizens voting at rates as high as 35 percentage points more than low-income citizens."
Ezra Klein added, "The Doom Loop of Oligarchy isn't just driven by super-rich Americans spending huge sums to influence politics. It's also driven by working-class Americans disengaging from the political process, which leaves politicians more desperate for the votes and the contributions of the affluent."
It's important to appreciate the consequences of this dynamic.
When we see congressional Republicans, for example, fighting tooth and nail to protect tax breaks for millionaires while rejecting unemployment aid, food stamps, and health care access to low-income families, it's tempting to think this would be electoral suicide. After all, there aren't that many millionaires in the United States, but there are a whole lot of folks struggling to get by.
Putting aside questions of morality and propriety, championing the interests of the wealthy while making life deliberately tougher for working families seems would appear to be a giant political risk since the latter so heavily outnumber the former.
But elected officials are, well, elected. To stay in office, they need votes. It's not surprising, then, that they so often prioritize the concerns of those most likely to participate in the political process (and keep them in office).
Let's look at this another way: imagine what American politics would be like if that chart were reversed. In reality, most Americans who make under $30,000 don't vote and most Americans who make more than $30,000 do vote. But consider what public policy might look like if the slope moved in the other direction and lower-income voters dominated, while the rich generally didn't bother to show up on Election Day.
What do you suppose the odds are that Congress would pass a minimum-wage increase? How many lawmakers do you suppose would vote for extended unemployment benefits?
Of course, this dynamic is all the more disheartening when one realizes that the so-called "Republican war on voting" has made participating that much more difficult on low-income voters, many of whom find it more difficult to register and don't have cars, drivers' licenses, and/or time to jump through procedural hoops that American voters haven't had to deal with in generations.
Still, those at the lower end of income scale have political capital, but it's going unused.