Democratic Theory in American Politics Essay

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Democracy and Economic Inequality in America

The fundamental aim of democracy in political governance is to ensure elected officials represent the interests of their constituents in the legislature. This means that the votes taken by members of Congress should reflect the policy preferences of their constituents. In reality, however, there is often disconnect between what legislators vote for and what their constituents prefer. In his book Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, Bartels argues that the increasing economic inequality in the US is evidence that legislators do not in reality represent the interests of their interests -- they represent the interests of more powerful groups or entities as opposed to the average citizen. With reference to matters of economic inequality, this paper discuses the discrepancy between the choices of legislators and the policy preferences of their constituents.

Who actually governs in the American political system remains a contentious question in political discourses, particularly due to inequality in the distribution of wealth, resources, knowledge, and social status. Contrary to the assertions of democratic theory, policy making on key issues is in reality governed by alliances that comprise elected and unelected individuals and groups (Bartels 1). These individuals and groups have immense power and resources at their disposal, which they use to influence policies and the actions of elected officials. In other words, elected leaders vote to fulfill the interests of certain individuals and groups, not necessarily the average citizen.

Disconnect between the wishes of the electorate and the policies that legislators actually push or vote for has been observed in the US. America has become enormously richer in the last five decades or so, but significantly more unequal at the same time. Economic statistics indicate that the income of the top 1% more than doubled (from 10.2% to 21.8%) between 1950 and 2005 (Bartels 1). The top 0.1% made even greater wealth, with their income tripling during the same period. In essence, resources have increasingly become concentrated in the hands of the affluent.

Remarkable changes in the political arena have also been witnessed during the same period, creating further advantages for the wealthy. As Bartels explains, the cost of political campaigns has increased dramatically since the 1950s, making it quite difficult for individuals without resources to finance their election or reelection bids (p. 2). These individuals turn to wealthy people, corporations, as well as business and professional organizations to finance their political campaigns. Indeed, lobbying activities on the part of firms, business organizations, and professional associations have increased rapidly in the last few decades, actually even overtaking the growth of public interest groups and other mechanisms of organized representation such as labor unions.

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The implication is that elected officials ultimately listen to the voice of their funders and sponsors, not necessarily their constituents. This is to say that increased economic inequality has reinforced enduring disparities in political representation and influence in modern America.

Does this mean that economic inequality and democracy do not go together in reality? In other words, can democracy really be achieved in the presence of substantial economic inequality? Bartels' evidence shows that elected leaders are "utterly unresponsive to the policy preferences of millions of low-income citizens, leaving their political interests to be served or ignored as the ideological whims of incumbent elites may dictate" (p. 2). At its core, democracy is about continuous responsiveness of elected officials to the preferences of their constituents. It is about representing all citizens equally. A closer look, however, reveals that America is far from being a true democracy.

Economic inequality without a doubt profoundly affects democracy. However, as Bartels explains in his book, democratic politics also shape economics immensely (Bartels 2). Whereas socioeconomic factors such as globalization, technological advancement, and demographic shifts have powerfully influenced inequality over the years, politics substantially strengthen or prevent the inequality depending on what political motives elected officials aim to achieve. Citing the association between public policies and economic equality in the US since the 1950s, Bartels establishes that partisan politics and the political ideologies of elected officials have substantially affected the economic fortunes of the ordinary American citizen. This evidence leads Bartels to conclude that economic inequality is in large part a political outcome.

Theoretically, the views or preferences of the public in a democracy constrain the actions, choices, and ideological convictions of elected officials. This is, however, different in practice given that legislators command immense political leeway (Bartels 3). The frequent instances of Republican and Democratic legislators from the same state consistently portraying diverse policy choices provide ideal examples of how elected officials do not actually act in the interest of the general public. Why would two legislators from the state have divergent policy objectives given that they represent the same constituents? The only logical reason is that each legislator is inherently pushed or swayed by the interests of certain individuals or groups. The same phenomenon is also observed when there is change of administration at the national level. When Republicans replace Democrats in the White House, and vice versa, obvious shifts in public policy objectives are often observed, a further indication that elected officials do not really represent the ordinary citizen in public policy….....

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Work Cited

Bartels, Larry M. Unequal democracy: the political economy of the new gilded age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

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