Poverty as a threat to democracy

Democracy takes many forms – some are Western liberal democracies, others are Asian authoritarian democracies. What all of these democratic forms have in common, however, is an element of collective decision-making wherein all citizens can equally participate[1]. Some believe that democratic ideals of civil liberty and equality are inherently valuable, while others believe that democracies produce benefits like good political decisions and increased civic participation. While democracies mechanisms and outcomes seem to engage the whole population, a group seems to be left out of these mechanisms and benefits, namely those in poverty. While there is no uniform dollar value to poverty universally, in general, those in poverty lack the economic resources to achieve a minimum standard of living[2]. It can be due to the fact that individuals lack the economic ability to work, or that the economy has oversupply of labor such that some people cannot find work, or that in cases whether individuals can and do work, they remain insufficiently paid for a multitude of reasons. I argue today that poverty is a threat to democracy in two ways – first, it destroys the equality necessary for democratic participation, second, it incapacitates the poor from meaningfully participating in collective decision-making.

First, poverty destroys the equality necessary for democratic participation in three ways – one, it makes the poor more likely to give up their vote in exchange for respite from poverty; two, it allows the wealthy – due to the income inequality – to buy excessive influence; three, poor people are unable to access institutions to remedy inequality.

One, poverty makes the poor more likely to give up their vote in exchange for respite from poverty. When one is poor, one is constantly seeking to alleviate the poverty one is embedded in. This social hunger presents an opportunity for opportunistic parties to strike a deal of acquisition of poor people’s political freedoms. They offer monetary respite or an uplifting in standard of living in exchange for a vote. Poor people are highly likely to strike this deal because the alternative of living below the poverty line is too inhumane to be a viable alternative. As such, politicians can buy votes of the poor.

This happens in multiple ways – it could be the more corrupt and literal buying of votes where poor people are approached and offered money in exchange for their promise to vote for certain politicians. This is clearly illegal and frowned upon. However, it could also be the more insidious and figurative “buying” of votes where politicians make short-term materialistic promises to poor in exchange for their vote. While this seems reasonable and common in political campaigns, the greater fear is that the politicians dangle these short-term benefits in exchange for permission to make decisions that may be more detrimental to society in the long run. Furthermore, the reverse could also work, where politicians threaten the withholding of benefits should citizens not vote for them. An economically well-adjusted population might find this annoying but a poor population would find this damaging and ultimately be held hostage by such threats because they have no viable alternative of privately paying for services.

For example, unsurprisingly, a multilevel regression showed that in Africa, especially in competitive elections, the poor were the main target of vote buying.[3] Furthermore, research in Indonesia also showed that the poor were more likely to be susceptible to offers of vote buying.[4]

Two, poverty allows the wealthy to buy excessive influence. Perhaps here, one may say that it is not poverty per se but wealth that disrupts democracy. While that is true, perhaps in a country with a greater middle class, the effects of the wealthy could still be mitigated, because while the wealthy could spend more, there were more people in the middle class. However, with rampant poverty, the poor, who have zero additional dollars to spend, could never counter the influence wielded by the dollars of the wealthy.

How, then, do the wealthy buy influence in politics? Clearly, campaigns precede voting, and the success and reach of a campaign greatly influences whether a candidate emerges victorious at the ballet box. Yet, big and successful campaigns are not free – they cost money. Politicians’ first priority is therefore to raise funds in the millions to run for office. This presents an opportunity whereby a deal can be struck between donors and politicians – if you adopt my causes, I will donate to you. Politicians may choose to target a small group of high margin donors – as per Joe Biden, who runs fundraisers which costs up to $10,000 USD to attend[5] – or a big group of low margin donors – as per Andrew Yang, who averages $40 USD per donor[6].

Furthermore, politicians do not only directly buy influence with politicians, they even buy influence with the average votes by for instance, taking over sources of knowledge like media agencies. This ownership allows them to limit, shape, and manufacture discourse such that it moves in the intended direction. For instance, most of America’s news agencies are owned by just fifteen billionaires, an immense concentration of the power of knowledge creation in the hands of very few.[7]

Three, poor people are unable to access institutions to remedy inequality. Since we have established that the poor are more likely solicited for vote buying, both literal and figurative, what do they do when they disagree with such actions and want to seek recourse? In the case of literal vote buying, which is illegal in most democracies, police reportage or calling this to the attention of the Attorney General is a likely solution. In the case of figurative vote buying, the poor need to call politicians out and should politicians threaten to withhold services for social classes, geographies, or ethnic identities who do not vote for them, the poor need to challenge these threats and policies in court.

One thing is certain, the poor need to take additional time, effort, and money to seek recourse for their plight. Yet, these things are exactly what the poor lack. Thus, they might face significant difficulties in trying to seek redress to situations of inequality.

As such, the lack of an alternative making the poor a target for both literal and figurative vote-buying, the lack of an ability to counter the political influence of the wealthy, and the lack of ability to seek redress when inequality occurs.

Second, even if there is equality and the poor have a right to participate, they might be unable to. Poverty incapacitates the poor from meaningfully participating in collective decision-making in two ways – one, poverty causes the poor to lose faith in public institutions like democracy and opt-out due to pessimism, two, even if the poor want to participate, they lack the ability to inform themselves sufficiently.

One, poverty causes the poor to lose faith in public institutions like democracy and opt-out due to pessimism. The poor face many problems in society – the inability to acquire appropriate education, the inability to seek work, the inability to secure welfare. The fact that they remain in poverty shows that social institutions have failed them. As such, they naturally lose faith in such institutions and write them off, the democratic institution inclusive. Having written them off, especially in places without compulsory participation such as compulsory voting, they are not likely to participate in the democratic process. This disengagement is a vicious cycle – as one stops participating, one becomes more disengaged, it is then unlikely and difficult to re-enter and participate in the democratic process. The comfort of civic isolation creates inertia of non-participation.

This is evidenced in America, for instance, where there is an increment in extreme poverty. Voter turnout was 60% in the 2016 US presidential elections, leaving 2 in 5 people not voting. Midterms have poorer turnouts. Testimonies of those who did not vote demonstrated a strong lack of faith that their vote mattered at all. For instance, Megan Davis, 31 year-old massage therapist, has never voted, and stated that she felt like her “voice doesn’t matter” and “people who suck are still in office”. Wealthy people vote more frequently, while nonvoters are more likely to be poor, young, or a minority. There is a definite effect of the loss of faith and non-participation because these non-voters are not blank slates without political views. In fact, they skew heavily toward socially liberal policies like income redistribution, housing bailouts, and larger welfare systems. Thus, their non-participation has meant that the democratic process is only partially reflective of the people’s will and not fully able to represent the needs of the poor.[8]

Two, even if the poor wanted to participate, they lacked the ability to inform themselves sufficiently. Being politically well-informed requires education to understand complex political issues, time to keep abreast of the latest developments, and resources that provide reasoned facts and analysis. Clearly, this is a tall order for the poor, who may lack higher education due to generational poverty, lack time to keep up politically due to long working hours, and lack resources because frequently these are paid resources. They may then be prompted to make choices based on sensationalized information, sound bites, and fear. As such, even if the poor participate, their decisions may not necessarily reflect their own interest. In fact, it is a common phenomenon wherein the poor frequently vote against their own interest. For example, during Brexit, Cornwall actually voted to leave despite the fact that it was an impoverished area receiving copious subsidies from the EU, which it would lose when it left the EU. Another example is Trump, who garnered a good amount of votes from the working class and minorities even though he proposed economic policies that may harm them, such as tax breaks for the rich. These could be explained by a poor understanding of policies encapsulated beyond sound bites, and fear manifesting as xenophobia and racism.

As such, a psychological pessimism in democracy and the lack of ability, time, and resources to make informed decisions hinders the poor’s capability to meaningfully participate in democracy in a way that sufficiently reflected their interest.

This problem of poverty and democracy seems grave because while democracy is seen to be a self-correcting mode of governance wherein poor political decisions would be autocorrected through the ballot box, poverty has appeared to escape this mechanism. Poverty hijacks democracy and rigs it for the wealthy and against the poor. Perhaps then, there needs to be internal awareness from top down to create education, social, and economic reforms such that poverty is alleviated, and the remaining poor are given means through which to politically engage (for instance, by giving them a universal basic income so that they can free up some spare time from work to understand more about politics). Just like how in authoritarian regimes, the creation of democracy typically involves a non-democratic revolt, so too in an unequal state, the creation of democracy calls for top down, government-initiated action. Even then, the form in which democracy takes may deeply affect whether and how the voice of the poor get heard.

[1] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democracy/#DemDef

[2] https://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/poverty.asp#:~:targetText=Poverty%20is%20a%20state%20or,needs%20can’t%20be%20met.

[3] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259992513_Poverty_and_vote_buying_Survey-based_evidence_from_Africa

[4] https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-13-6779-3_3

[5] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/10/4/20898742/warren-sanders-biden-third-quarter-fundraising

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/03/us/politics/democratic-candidates-fundraising.html

[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/katevinton/2016/06/01/these-15-billionaires-own-americas-news-media-companies/#53ce3a67660a

[8] https://www.npr.org/2018/09/10/645223716/on-the-sidelines-of-democracy-exploring-why-so-many-americans-dont-vote

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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