The democratic deficit laid bare

“The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent,” wrote E.E. Schattschneider in a 1960 critique of the “pluralist” political science orthodoxy of the day. Pluralism viewed American politics and policy as the product of a free-wheeling competition among interest groups seeking to influence the government. In Cold War America, this theory also served the ideological pretense holding that no “power elite” or “ruling class” rigged the game of American democracy in its favor.

The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy, by Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba and Henry E. Brady, takes its inspiration and title from Schattschneider. But where Schattschneider observed that “American politics is [not] a meaningless stalemate about which no one can do anything,” Schlozman, Verba and Brady—writing in the era of Occupy Wall Street—aren’t so sure.

Schlozman, Verba and Brady are not political radicals. They are three of the most published and respected mainstream political scientists who have studied American government, public opinion, and citizen participation since the 1960s. Yet their multifaceted study demonstrates over and over the impact of social class and inequality on government policy, and on the system of political representation itself. In fact, they explicitly tie increased economic inequality and the decline of labor unions over the last several decades to the political system’s democratic deficit.

The Unheavenly Chorus addresses individual political participation and the nature, composition, and activities of interest groups in the American system. Using survey data, data on campaign contributions, and their own analysis of Washington-based lobbying groups over three decades, they systematically answer one question after another.

Do successive generations of Americans gain greater access to American political institutions? No, the authors show, political inequality is transmitted and reinforced across generations. Do organized interest groups help ordinary Americans get their voices heard? With the exception of (shrinking) labor unions, the authors conclude, the interest system provides almost no real means for ordinary Americans to have their voices heard in Washington. Can the Internet act as a “leveler,” helping ordinary citizens to organize against moneyed interests? No, again. The authors show how business interests and trade associations vastly outmaneuver ordinary people, even in the realms of Facebook and Twitter.

Their research even calls into question the notion of what we think an “interest group” is. The vast majority of lobbying organizations in Washington aren’t membership groups like the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association, but institutions like corporations, state governments, universities, and hospitals. This reality reinforces the domination of business interests, they write, whose activity may vary, but “in no case is it outweighed by the activity of either organizations representing the less privileged or public interest groups.”

After hundreds of pages that reinforce the class-skewed nature of American democracy, the authors feel compelled to answer, in the name of one of book’s chapters, “What, if Anything, Is To Be Done?” Here, they consider a number of reforms (improved political education, campaign finance reform, universal voter registration, and the like) while noting that addressing “inequalities of income and education is not a matter of mere institutional tinkering but would constitute a political and social revolution requiring a level of patience and a commitment of resources that have not been characteristic of American policy.” Later, they comment, “the changes that would have the greatest impact are the least likely to happen.” They’re left hoping that some combination of smaller-scale reforms will, at least, take the edge off the most extreme inequalities in the system.

One final point: for a nearly 700-page work of social science, The Unheavenly Chorus is fairly accessible and readable. Its chapter summaries are very useful for those who don’t have the time to wade through every page. It presents most of its statistics in easy-to-understand graphics like pie charts and line graphs. And any political science tome whose preface riffs on The Onion is worth a look.

Issue #90

july 2013

Will the revolution be tweeted?

Mass struggles in an age of social media
Issue contents

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  • The democratic deficit laid bare

    Lance Selfa reviews The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy by Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba and Henry E. Brady
  • Consolidating the narco-economy

    Gabriel Chaves reviews Cocaine Death Squads and the War on Terror: US Imperialism and Class Struggle in Colombia by Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle
  • Struggle in the fields

    Alexander Schmaus reviews Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the Fields of California by Bruce Neuburger
  • Ireland's uneven development

    Shaun Harkin reviews Ireland’s Economic History: Crisis and Uneven Development in the North and South by Gerard McCann; Ireland in the World Order: A History of Uneven Development by Maurice Coakley and Towards A Second Republic: Irish Politics After the Celtic Tiger by Peadar Kirby and Mary P. Murphy
  • Uncovering Black Marxist feminism

    Keegan O'Brien reviews Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism by Erik S. McDuffie and Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones by Carole Boyce Davies
  • The struggle of farm workers

    Avery Wear reviews From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement by Matt Garcia
  • Redistribute the wealth

    Danny Katch reviews Billionaires’ Ball: Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality by Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks