Robert Kuttner writes: On any given day in Washington, D.C., the city’s hotels teem with civic activity. Trade associations, lobbies, corporations seeking government contracts, lawyers looking to influence agency rules—all form a beehive of action. At last count, there were 12,200 registered lobbyists in Washington, according to opensecrets.org, and that doesn’t include the many thousands of corporate attorneys who are technically not lobbyists. Of the top-spending trade associations or issue organizations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce leads the list with a budget of more than $46 million. Only one quasi-liberal group, the AARP, is even in the top 20. This is the vision of Alexis de Tocqueville made flesh, with one notable difference: Nearly everyone in this associational paradise speaks for the top 1 percent or 2 percent of the income distribution.
Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, famously identified “the art of association” as an essential complement to American constitutional democracy. The franchise was only the beginning of an effective republic. Political associations, to Tocqueville, were “great free schools” of democracy. They breathed civic life into formally democratic institutions of government. To engage with public issues, people did so more effectively in groups, not as isolated individuals. “Americans of all ages, all stations of life … are forever forming associations,” he wrote admiringly.
But something has changed dramatically since Tocqueville wrote those words in 1840. “All stations of life” no longer applies. Civic and political association and the organized exercise of influence have increased for the elite and have all but collapsed for the bottom half, even for the bottom three-quarters.
Thus, while inequalities of campaign finance have gotten most of the attention and indignation of reformers, participatory inequality is just as important. Perhaps it is even more important, since the most promising antidote to the narrow, concentrated power of wealth is the broad power of organized people. When non-rich people are disorganized, disconnected from practical politics, or overwhelmed by the networking power of elites, money rules.