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!

Interview with Constantin Manuel Bosancianu on Party–Voter Ideological Congruence and Socioeconomic Biases in Representation

Constantin Manuel Bosancianu, of WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Germany, presented the paper, “Party–Voter Ideological Congruence and Socio-Economic Biases in Representation: OECD over the Past 5 Decades” at the Politics and Inequality conference held in Warsaw, Poland in December 2018.

Constantin Manuel Bosancianu is a postdoctoral researcher in the “Institutions and Political Inequality” unit at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). He focuses on the intersection of political economy and electoral behavior: how to measure political inequalities between citizens of both developed and developing countries, and what the linkages between political and economic inequalities are. Dr. Bosancianu received his PhD in 2007 from the Central European University, Budapest, with a dissertation on how the dynamics of party ideological shifts, economic inequality, and individual political participation unfold over time. He is interested in statistics, data visualization, and the history of Leftist parties. In the past, Dr. Bosancianu taught or assisted with teaching methods courses at the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) Winter and Summer Methods Schools, University of Heidelberg or University of Gießen, with a focus on regression analysis, R, Bayesian analysis, and multilevel modelling.

We asked Constantin Manuel Bosancianu for an extended abstract of his Politics and Inequality conference paper and, via email, some questions about his research. We are thankful for his positive and detailed response.

Extended Abstract

Disparities in political representation between socio-economic groups, if perpetuated over time, can lead to growing disenchantment with the political process, dropout from political life, and even the appearance of new political movements that challenge representative institutions (Taggart, 2002). Starting with the early investigations of Gilens (2005, 2009, 2012) for the US context, a series of analyses have found disparities in political representation across a larger number of consolidated democracies (Elsässer, Hense, & Schäfer, 2018; Giger, Rosset, & Bernauer, 2012; Peters & Ensink, 2015; Rosset, Giger, & Bernauer, 2013; Rosset, 2013). Despite the consistent results, we continue to have very limited knowledge about the causes and mechanisms for these disparities.

This analysis probes into this issue. By relying on an original data set of merged voter studies in 30 OECD countries, going as far back in time as the 1960s and 70s, I compute a measure of ideological congruence between voters and political parties. Called the Earth Mover’s Distance (Lupu, Selios, & Warner, 2017), it is based on citizens’ self-placement on a standard Left-Right axis, as well as their placement of parties on the same scale (Powell Jr., 2009). By relying on voters’ perceptions of parties rather than legislator self-placements (Lupu & Warner, 2018), my data overcomes the potential flaw of different understandings of “Left” and “Right” between people and political elites. This measure of congruence is then used to ascertain: (1) if representation gaps between voters at the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum are found in my sample, and (2) whether the gaps in representation are associated with a demand-side characteristic (disparities in political participation between the same socio-economic groups) or a supply-side factor (party ideological changes over time).

Preliminary findings do little to dispel the mystery surrounding the causes of unequal representation for poorer citizens, though they conclusively establish that such a gap exists. They furthermore establish that overall quality of representation is associated with disparities in participation: contexts where turnout between income groups is more unequal have worse overall representation of income groups. However, even when relying on a measure of participation disparities generated from individual-level data, no clear association exists between disparities in political voice and gaps in representation between income groups. Neither do party-system dynamics appear to explain the disparity in ideological convergence between income groups. Though inconclusive, the findings confirm those of Lupu and Warner (2018) and will hopefully spur the focus on additional mechanisms to explain the relative disadvantage in representation that poorer citizens are faced with.

Interview with Constantin Manuel Bosancianu

The research you presented at the Politics and Inequality conference was on party–voter congruence. How did you get interested in this topic? And is this topic connected to other research that you are doing?

The interest in political representation, for which party-voter ideological congruence is one proxy, came about through my focus on understanding how to measure the facets of political inequality between individuals and groups. For the past few years I have been interested in disparities in political voice between individuals and groups—aspects such as turnout, non-electoral participation, or political efficacy. These are shaped by individual resource endowments, which naturally generate inequalities in voice. This is only part of the story, though. Another part is how disparities in voice and political influence are shaped by systemic features pertaining to, say, the electoral system or party system configurations. Some of Orit Kedar’s work is an excellent example of this, as is that of Karen L. Jusko. My own attempts refer to another feature of the system: the distribution of parties along a Left–Right ideological dimension.

Continue reading “Interview with Constantin Manuel Bosancianu on Party–Voter Ideological Congruence and Socioeconomic Biases in Representation”