The Meaning of Political Voice

What does political voice mean?

Political voice is commonly understood as an important part of democracy.

Academics and the public use the term political voice. While academics use the term often, it is more important to know how the public uses and understands the term. After all, there is more of the public than there are academics.

As part of the ongoing POLINQ project, I examined dozens of sources in magazines and newspapers to get a holistic picture of the meaning of political voice.

Here is the complete meaning of political voice

Political voice is a part of democracy, a say in the political sphere (e.g. individuals, groups, and whole populations are “finding their political voice,” explicitly in terms of vote franchise or elections, or as a seat in or near the decision-makers not necessarily party or elections-related, as demonstrations and other activism; political discussion; building social movements and lobbying), or as connected to existing social movements, organizations, or political leaders (a kind of representation), or as something expressed by politicians and other political figures, something expressed by political organizations, or as a literal, physical voice.

That’s a lot!

Political Voice Painting Created by DALL-E AI politicalinequality.org
“Painting of Political Voice” by Dall-E

Here is how I got to this definition. Let’s look at it, part by part.

Here are the elements of political voice as they appear in popular magazines and newspapers, and the US Congressional Record.

Below you will find the element of political voice, and examples of how magazines and newspapers across the United States have expressed that element.

Political voice as…

… a part of democracy

“Democracy, which insists that everyone should have a political voice, cannot manifest itself in the absence of trust, which is now stingily meted out as though it’s a scarce and precious resource.”

Astra Taylor. (June 1, 2019). Reclaiming the Future. The New Republic

.… a say in the political sphere.

— Individuals, groups, and whole populations are “finding their political voice” (unspecified)

“It is time for a bolder approach that embraces change. Opportunities to support such fundamental reforms in such strategically important states are rare, and they give the United States a chance to endear itself to growing populations that are increasingly finding their political voice.”

JUDD DEVERMONT “Africa’s Democratic Moment?; The Five Leaders Who Could Transform the Region”. Foreign Affairs. July/August 2019July/August 2019.

“Not surprisingly, there seems to be an increasing body of American liberals out there who foretell the end of a “liberal Iraq” because religious Shia now have a political voice.”

Reuel Marc Gerecht. (February 14, 2005 – February 21, 2005). Birth of a Democracy; From the February 14 / February 21, 2005 issue: Soon the whole Middle East will see Iraq’s national assembly at work.. The Weekly Standard.

“Economic liberalization is indeed breeding a middle class with a new set of demands, including protection of private assets, access to unfiltered information, and a greater political voice. So far, however, the middle class has not organized in any meaningful way to push for wholesale political change. Instead, that change is occurring primarily in response to the negative effects of China’s market transition.”

Elizabeth Economy. (May 2004 – June 2004). Don’t Break the Engagement. Foreign Affairs.

“That agreement remained in effect for half a century–until the civil rights movement, when Southern blacks, who understandably didn’t look kindly on Confederate heroes and flags, gained a political voice.”

jason zengerle. (August 2, 2004). Lost Cause. The New Republic.

“The process in standing up the Anbar Salvation Council, a group of local tribes and former insurgents opposed to al Qaeda’s harsh brand of Taliban-like sharia law, has been ongoing since the summer of 2006….Part of the success of the Anbar Salvation Council is that it provides the Sunnis in Anbar with a political voice as well as security against al Qaeda. The Anbar Salvation Council’s political component is the Anbar Awakening. Seven new tribes have just joined the political party.”

Bill Roggio. (April 30, 2007 Monday). The Roggio Report; Anbar Awakening Spreads, Petraeus Connects Iran to Attacks in Iraq.. The Daily Standard.

“Having no political voice, the civil rights bill fails, and the civil courts fail to do them justice.”

Congressional Globe, February 22, 1867 p. 1709

… demonstrations and other activism

“Organized by a new rightist group, the Young Americans for Freedom, the event was greeted as evidence that the “silent generation” might be shaking off its apathy and finding a political voice. (The Times published a front-page report on the “spectacular” rally, and followed up with a four-part series on campus activism.)”

SAM TANENHAUS. (October 24, 2016). The Right Idea. The New Yorker.

… political discussion

“I, too, felt optimistic watching the men and women in that first group discussion. They seemed eager to debate the candidates’ relative merits and clearly relished their newfound political voice.”

SARAH E. MENDELSON (January 2015 – February 2015). Generation Putin; What to Expect From Russia’s Future Leaders. Foreign Affairs.

— Building social movements and lobbying

“Soon armed citizens acquired a political voice: in 1977, at the N.R.A.’s annual meeting, conservative activists led by Harlon Carter, a former chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, wrested control from leaders who had been focussed on rifle-training and recreation rather than on politics, and created the modern gun-rights movement. In 1987, the refashioned N.R.A. successfully lobbied lawmakers in Florida to relax the rules that required concealed-carry applicants to demonstrate “good cause” for a permit, such as a job transporting large quantities of cash.”

EVAN OSNOS. (June 27, 2016). MAKING A KILLING. The New Yorker.

“He said the about 200 persons have attended several recent organizational meetings and many have volunteered to begin voter registration drives in their areas. “We are now going to hammer out a platform and then get some of out people in power,” Brown said. “We have never had a political voice in the county, not even during the desegregation era of the 1960s.”

By Vernon C. Thompson, Washington Post Staff Writer. (March 5, 1977, Saturday, Final Edition). Blacks Form Power Base; County’s Blacks Form Coalition. The Washington Post.
(I believe this is chronicled in Black Power in the Suburbs: The Myth or Reality of African American Suburban Political Incorporation by Valerie C. Johnson, SUNY Press, 2002)

… explicitly in terms of vote franchise or elections

“Although Kurds compose roughly 20 percent of the population, they have lacked a political voice: The HDP has never won enough votes a 10 percent threshold to secure seats in parliament.”

Joseph Loconte. (June 22, 2015 Monday). Turkey, Islamism, and the West; A setback for Erdogan.. The Weekly Standard.

“Public attention to the welfare of poor children, the historian Linda Gordon has argued, coincides with eras in which women have had a strong political voice. It was therefore high when women were most actively fighting for the right to vote (from 1870 to 1920) and during the women’s-liberation movement (from 1961 to 1975).”

JILL LEPORE. (February 1, 2016). BABY DOE. The New Yorker.

… connected to existing social movements, organizations, or political leaders (a kind of representation)

“The opposing camp includes skeptics of comprehensive executive power such as myself. It finds its political voice in Tea Party advocates of the old-time Constitution and in members of Congress opposed to the president today including Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and backbench institutionalists Mike Lee and Ben Sasse.”

Christopher DeMuth Sr.. (June 27, 2016 Monday). Our Voracious Executive Branch. The Weekly Standard.

“By the time of the Depression, as hardpressed consumers became even more price-conscious, small retailers found their political voice in an anti-chain-store movement first in certain states, and then nationally, spearheaded by the populist Texas congressman Wright Patman.”

Jay Weiser. (April 29, 2013 Monday). The Big Store; The mythology of small business meets a retailing giant.. The Weekly Standard.

“Even though unions remain the loudest political voice for workers’ interests, resentment has replaced solidarity, which helps explain why the bailout of General Motors was almost as unpopular as the bailouts of Wall Street banks.”

James Surowiecki. (January 17, 2011). State Of The Unions. The New Yorker.

… something expressed by politicians and other political figures

“Rory Stewart, the former Conservative cabinet minister – who was almost a lone political voice calling for a lockdown in early March – blamed the prime minister for failing to ask the right questions.”

Rob Merrick. (June 11, 2020 Thursday). Coronavirus: Minister says UK has world’s second-highest death toll because ‘we are a global travel hub’; Many argue the UK had advantages as an island, able to easily close its borders -yet it allowed in travellers from hotspots. The Independent (United Kingdom).

… something expressed by political organizations

“Mr CORWIN….What did that mean ? You shall never have another slave State in the Union. You shall never establish slavery in another Territory of thie United States. The political voice of the Democratic party of Ohio had spoken in that language in 1848. In 1852, the embodiment of it in the gubernatorial office of that State proclaimed the sentiments that I have read.”

Appendix to The Congressional Globe (US), pp. 147 – 148, House of Representatives January 24, 1860

… a literal, physical voice

“The scar down his face from an operation for melanoma in 2000 is less pronounced than it once was. And he continues to have the best political voice–husky and commanding, without being condescending–since Ronald Reagan.”

john b. judis. (October 16, 2006). Neo-McCain. The New Republic.

“Kris Aquino, youngest daughter of the Philippine President, singing yesterday in Lubao at a political rally for the Senatorial elections that are to be held May 11.”

(March 16, 1987, Monday, Late City Final Edition). A Political Voice. The New York Times.

See also the Political Voice Institute.

Conclusion: The Meaning of Political Voice

Everyday people use the term “political voice” in modern democracies in many different ways. It ranges from social movements to a literal speaking voice in which politics is the subject, and from voting to proximity to decision-makers in the halls of power.

Citizens hold dear the idea of political voice. We can hope that people will use it for the betterment of democracy.

Register to vote to express your political voice!

Table of Contents

  1. What does political voice mean?
    1. Here is the complete meaning of political voice
    2. Here is how I got to this definition. Let’s look at it, part by part.
      1. Political voice as…
      2. … a part of democracy
      3. …. a say in the political sphere.
      4. … a seat in or near the decision-makers (not necessarily party or elections-related)
      5. … demonstrations and other activism
      6. … political discussion
      7. … explicitly in terms of vote franchise or elections
      8. … connected to existing social movements, organizations, or political leaders (a kind of representation)
      9. … something expressed by politicians and other political figures
      10. … something expressed by political organizations
      11. … a literal, physical voice
    3. Conclusion: The Meaning of Political Voice
    4. Register to vote to express your political voice!

Notes on Winters and Page’s “Oligarchy in the U.S.?”

 In this post, I summarize the article “Oligarchy in the U.S.,” by Winters and Page (2009).

Winters and Page: Oligarchy in the USA

Winters and Page (Hereafter, WP) argue that all modern democracies, regardless of level of democracy, can be oligarchies.   Oligarchy and democracy can, and do, “coexist comfortably” (731).  WP ask whether the U.S. is an oligarchy.

WP want to “advance the research agenda” of the APSA Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, and goad political scientists to “treat power… more seriously” (732).

Defining Oligarchy


Citing Aristotle, WP argue that wealth is the primary power resource.  WP define oligarchy as a “type of political system” in which “the wealthiest citizens deploy unique and concentrated power resources to defend their unique minority interests” (731).  WP argue that oligarchy is a form of extreme political and economic inequality: “Oligarchy refers broadly to extreme political inequalities that necessarily accompany extreme material inequalities” (732).  Oligarchs, due to their wealth, are a powerful minority that dominates policy in modern democracy. 

Why wealth? 

Wealth is “a material form of power that is distinct from all other power resources, and which can be readily deployed for political purposes” (732).  (Material, as opposed to other types of) wealth is an individual power resource for three main reasons: (1) It is concentrated in the hands of the few; (2) it is easily used as a means of political influence; and (3) it implies a set of political interests: specifically, the desire to protect the wealth they have and get more of it.  The core political interest is in property and income defense.  Concentrated wealth is both power and a motivation to use power.  WP acknowledge other sources of political power: position within government, full political citizenship, position within organizations, personal capacity to mobilize people, and access to the means of violence.  In their view, wealth is the most consistent major political power source.

WP acknowledge that oligarchs do not control all political life: just the major ones concerning property and income.  Oligarchs do not have to exhibit “explicit coordination or cohesion” (731).  Their common interest in wealth protection is enough to bind them and coordinate their actions.  This common interest also insulates the oligarchal system from radical changes resulting from circulation of elites. 

How do oligarchs use wealth? 

Wealth is a gateway to purchasing the means of control and furthering their political interests.  They command large organizations.  They hire “armies” of skilled professionals.  They are “denizens of foundations, think tanks, politically connected law firms, consultancies, and lobbying organizations” (732). Oligarchs do not have to have extensive engagement in political participation to be oligarchs.  They argue that oligarchs do not have to hold formal government positions to wield power: rather, “indirect influence is sufficient” (731). 

Masses do not rebel against this state of affairs because of a stable “oligarch-mass” settlement.  In exchange for extreme inequality, masses receive universal suffrage.  The masses are divided in terms of their interests.  Oligarchs operate within a — limited — pluralistic environment. 

WP argue that oligarchy became a muddled concept in the hands of the classic elite theorists of Mosca, Pareto and Michels, who included resources other than wealth in their lists of what constitutes power resources for oligarchs.
  

How Winters and Page Measure Individual Political Power?


WP argue that there are many possible political power measures, and they encourage empirical investigation into them.  Their measure of political power is based on indices of income and wealth.  They note (endnote 21) that income and wealth does not necessarily have a 1:1 relationship with political power, such that twice the wealth equals twice the political power.  They argue that such relationships are open for empirical investigation.  Yet, in Table 1, this is exactly how they calculate “individual power index.” 

“The Individual Power Index for each income fractile is a ratio, calculated as the average income for that fractile divided by the average income of the bottom 90%” (735, Table 1).

Individuals in the top 1/100 of 1% with an average income of over 25 million dollars have 882.8 times as much “individual power” as an individual in the bottom 90%.  Due to this form of calculation, the bottom 90% will always have an individual power index score of 1.

WP also measure individual power based on the wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans and distributions based on estate tax and data from the Survey of Consumer Finances.

They do not have a threshold at which a certain level of political power (based on income or wealth) is oligarchy: “Any fixed quantitative criterion used to identify oligarchs is bound to be arbitrary… we would argue strongly against any mechanical rule” (737).  Yet, they argue that in the U.S., “a definitional boundary that identifies the top tenth of 1 percent of the wealthiest households as potential oligarchs seems fairly plausible” (738).
  

What Oligarchs Control


Oligarchs do not control all policy.  Rather, they control key policies that offer the best wealth protection.
Policy types that oligarchs exert over-influence are:

  1. International economic policy (important for a globalizing world)
  2. Monetary policy (important during economic crisis)
  3. Tax policy (which influences government spending and other government budgetary matters)
  4. Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies.

How Oligarchs Control

  1. Lobbying (which has got more professional and more expensive)
  2. Elections (campaign contributions influence who gets elected to office)
  3. Opinion shaping (media and more subtle ways that they do not specify)
  4. Constitutional rules (including the appointment of judges)

  

Critiques of Winters and Page


This is an interesting a provocative article.  I especially appreciate their attempt to measure political power.  I have some criticisms of their approach.

They do not consistently distinguish between “power” resources and “political” resources.  They refer mostly to political power, but their vocabulary is not precisely deployed.

Though they reference Aristotle in their claim that wealth is the primary power resource in democracies for oligarchs, they do not explicitly reference the deep roots their ideas have in Marxism and neo-Marxism.  Their thesis of why the masses accept this arrangement is very close to the Marxian theory of state compromise/class compromise.  In exchange for their larger monetary and political control, the ruling class grants concessions to the proletariat, including limited political influence and limited economic redistribution. 

Further, WP argue that masses are “persuaded” as a result of this settlement.  In Marxian terms, the settlement leads to false consciousness (they do not use the term “consciousness”).  Lacking wealth as a motivator for political action, masses are divided over their different interests.  This implies that wealth is the only thing in modern democracy that can successfully bind a group together and motivate each individual to act as if they have a common interest with their fellow group members. 

In their discussion of how wealth is used, they do not separate ownership from control over organizations.  For example, WP states that “the wealthy often control large organizations, such as business corporations, that can act for them” (732).  CEOs and boards of directors are the ones that usually control these organizations; while they are wealthy, it is not their material wealth that is used; rather, it is their position within a heavily resourced organization.  This fact undermines their argument that wealth is the key political force. 

A similar problem is with oligarchs relationship to think tanks, lobbying firms, and the like.  While funded by the wealthy, even the non-wealthy can be influential actors within these organizations.  These problems in their conceptualization are especially problematic because they operationalize political power solely on income and wealth indices.

While WP say that oligarchs do not control all political activities, their last form of control, “Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies” is vague enough to imply a much larger range of control than WP admit.  “Over-all” is far too imprecise to be operationalized.

What happens to WP ‘s theory when placed in a communist regime?  There, position within the state is more of a political power resource than wealth.  Clearly, the “wealth is most important” argument does not work there.  They do not discuss communist societies (which is understandable, if they concentrate only on putative democracies).

WP do not engage directly with the problem that oligarch influence is not directly observed.  They should do more to acknowledge that, in all such similar theories, influence is inferred, not explicitly seen.  This invisible hand argument has been troublesome for all elite theories.  Further, while they cite Domhoff and Mills (but not Parenti, surprisingly), they do not engage directly with their very similar theories.  Domhoff’s “upper class as ruling class” elite theory is substantively similar to WP’s oligarchy.

References

Winters, Jeffrey A. and Benjamin I. Page.  2009.  “Oligarchy in the United States?”  Perspectives on Politics 7(4): 731 – 751.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2022