TLDR: Voting is bogus.
Sean McElwee and Al Jazeera deserve credit for at least drawing attention, with somewhat scientific support, to the intimate relationship between socioeconomic and political inequality. However, McElwee’s conclusion is not supported by his own evidence, or by historical example. He writes,
What’s the solution to rising inequality of responsiveness? More democracy, for one. [. . . .] Voter turnout, of course, will not entirely solve the problem of differential representation, but it can begin to alleviate it. [. . . .] So while voting will partially alleviate political inequality, we also need campaign-finance reforms such as public financing and more robust disclosure rules.
In support of his conclusion, McElwee cites several studies, not all of which agree with him. He omits, for example, any discussion of government’s unresponsiveness in favor of focusing on differential responsiveness to the interests of the different socioeconomic classes. In contrast, Larry Bartels writes in one cited study, “Unresponsiveness and biased responsiveness both contribute significantly to the social welfare deficit, producing estimated average reductions of about 40% and 30%.” In other words, Bartels finds that unresponsiveness weighs even more heavily than “biased” responsiveness. This evidence complicates McElwee’s analysis, which doesn’t address the question of unresponsiveness. If the government is even partially unresponsive, then McElwee’s solution to differential responsiveness–“More democracy,” e.g. vote more–may not be a solution at all, even with the proviso that voting only “partially” addresses political inequality. In fact, according to Bartels’ findings, government may simply implicitly side with the wealthiest elites.
Pablo Torija Jiménez, another of McElwee’s sources, likewise identifies a clear break with so-called “responsive” political representation since the seventies. Perhaps the most significant change since that time, at least with regards to McElwee’s analysis, is the dramatic decline of Western social movements and the disappearance of a plausible revolutionary alternative to capitalism. In the past, such movements successfully pressured governments not by simply asking for change (as we see in today’s generally toothless Western mass movements), but by making it impossible for government and capitalism to conduct day-to-day operations unless those demands were met. By employing mass marches, occupations, strikes, boycotts, and a variety of other disruptive strategies and tactics, these movements were able to force government to institute some reforms with regards to labor, voting rights for women and people of color, segregation, Apartheid, etc. In most cases, reformist demands were backed by militant forces, so that various world governments were generally forced into situations in which they sided with the more moderate of available choices. This happened repeatedly in postcolonial countries undergoing revolutions for independence, which Franz Fanon analyzes in detail with regards to Algeria. (It is worth emphasizing that his predictions about Algeria, namely that siding with a native bourgeoisie would only lead to a deformed continuation of the status quo, were correct.)
It is popular in the U.S. to whitewash the events that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which marks a definitive before-and-after period in U.S. politics. Even the official discourses in the U.S. embrace the legacy of MLK, while generally eschewing or suppressing the roles that more militant forces played in bringing about change. One cannot simply point to liberal Civil Rights activists and ignore the inevitability of open revolt if the government didn’t do something to show that it was serious about systematic change–to show, in McElwee’s terminology, that it could be “responsive” to the popular demands of its citizenry. Black liberation movements were not going away without some kind of significant concession; in fact, they did not go away voluntarily, hence the widespread assassination by state and white supremacist forces of black leaders, as well as the infamous COINTEL program that was deployed in order to systematically sabotage organizations like the Black Panthers.
Going all the way back to the origins of modern democracy, we can see the same sorts of reforms and political shifts taking place again and again. Rocked by revolutions in the nineteenth century, the absolute monarchies of Europe either transitioned to constitutional monarchies or to some other form of representative democracy. The U.S. was likewise forced by civil war to abandon the institution of slavery, even as the genocide against Native Americans ran its course. Meanwhile, the struggles for the 10-hour and 8-hour workdays, as well as those for the protection of child workers, were waged not solely by liberal reformist forces, but most especially by revolutionary anarchists and socialists whose very existence was illegal for over a century. Apartheid in South Africa likewise ended because of militant opposition, although to hear liberals praising Neslon Mandela one could easily get the impression that the whole affair was simply a polite discussion that resolved itself with ink and paper, and not with sweat and blood. In a similar vein, we seldom hear about the suffragettes being savagely beaten by police and mobs from the opposition, or about their window smashing campaigns, while campaigning for women’s right to vote.
McElwee and his sources fail to historically contextualize the reasons for political shifts and so-called government “responsiveness” to the electorate. Rather than providing more context, McElwee’s argument takes the value of un-supplemented voter participation for granted, and implies that it is the electorate itself that is responsible for government’s lack of responsiveness. Incredibly, McElwee even assumes the political neutrality of elected representatives (one can simply shift them around the political spectrum by voting) without undertaking a study of their socioeconomic backgrounds and class loyalties. The result is a political framework whose only legitimate action is voting, which only serves to reinforce the status quo. There is much else that is wrong with McElwee’s argument, as well as those of his sources, but it suffices to simply point out that, historically, major reforms in public policy occur because of massive social movements driven by militant forces. Malcom X’s famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech sums up the entire dynamic quite well:
That’s why, in 1964, it’s time now for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for; what we’re supposed to get when we cast a ballot; and that if we don’t cast a ballot, it’s going to end up in a situation where we’re going to have to cast a bullet. It’s either a ballot or a bullet.
In today’s environment, it remains to be seen what will get us out of our current predicaments, but acknowledging the futility of electoral politics sounds like a good first step. Such a step, of course, would seem to leave political “scientists” with little or no room to maneuver.