Brown University

Looking beyond Laws: Lessons from Activists in Pawtucket by Micah Rosen @ Brown University

It is easy to think of democracy in terms of laws and policies. If everyone is allowed to participate in a democracy, then even if they do not, how could democracy be threatened? But as my experience at a recent activist meeting in Rhode Island reflects, the picture is far more complicated. Social and economic inequalities adversely affect the quality of a democracy. They do so by limiting equal participation in the democratic process as well as many citizens’ equal freedom of expression and association.

Hoping to understand how people navigate the local democratic process, I sat in on an activist meeting in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The organizers there were pushing for progressive reforms to the state’s utility policies. Whereas their long-term goal was to make major changes to the state’s energy policy, their more modest goal was to reinstate a former law—the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP)—ensuring energy security to low-income Rhode Islanders.

So began their planning. On a large sheet of white paper, the organizers sketched their methods of navigating the democratic process, right next to their legislative goals. They had a section for opposition groups, too. They listed some unions, some politicians, and some donors they knew would be trouble. Next to that were some methods of organizing and some other challenges they needed to overcome. Implied from their discussions, though, was a whole other set of challenges much harder to overcome: class, race, gender, language, and quite a few more.

Robert Dahl argued that democracy requires more than just electoral competition. Democracy requires that all citizens be able to signify their preferences to the government, and that they have their preferences weighted equally by politicians. It requires a continuing responsiveness to the opinions of the citizens. And these citizens must be able to effectively and freely express their preferences and opinions, with no voice held arbitrarily above another. Given this understanding of democracy, we can better see how economic and social divisions threaten the strength of a democracy. As demonstrated by the PIPP campaign, divisions by race, socioeconomic status, language, and more threaten the equality of freedoms of expression and association, often spilling over to electoral participation too.

An attendee to the meeting asked why PIPP was so difficult to pass. One pointed out that legislators—the few of which who even cared about the issue—would often get their information from special interests with a strong anti-consumer tint. Another noted that legislators, often wealthier than their affected constituents, simply don’t know much about the issue. These lawmakers, and even the governor, said one organizer, would often cede the issue to politicians and groups which tended to be on one side of the issue. All this was strange given how many people they talked to that supported the law. In short, though there were plenty of people who do or would support PIPP, they weren’t being heard. That, or they were not raising their voice. What is stopping them? Who or what is to blame here?

We cannot point to malicious or corrupt legislators, weak campaign finance laws, or other anti-democratic laws and practices. Even if these factors went away, legislators would be no less susceptible to the singular influence of special interests. This is because the majority of people on the other side—low-income consumers—are far harder to organize and mobilize due to their economic and social circumstance.

Lobbyists are well positioned to actively engage with politicians. They have the time, resources, and incentives to do so. But for the few who are most harmed by the absence of PIPP, the situation is different. They have jobs and obligations to worry about. Their time is more limited. They haven’t gained the trust of legislators, who would prefer a known “expert” with a well-though-out packet of statistics. They have fewer resources to organize, collect evidence, convince legislators, and mobilize support. Taking an active stance on a political issue might even threaten their job security, as a number of organizers had testified. Some are prevented by a language barrier, not only from accessing the government, but also from communicating with civil groups, who are often pressed for multi-lingual organizers. These are issues that the organizers had to juggle. Their strategy sheet got bigger and bigger.

The meeting pointed to issues that go far beyond Rhode Island. National studies show that your income affects not only whether you participate in the political system, but also whether your participation makes a difference. Schlozman et al. demonstrate this in an analysis of over 35,000 interest organizations in the US over 25 years. They conclude that socioeconomic status has a strong influence on the ability of citizens to organize, to engage in political discussion, to express their opinions, and to be received by legislators. Not only is there a disparity in involvement, but also among those who are involved, legislators frequently side with more affluent organizers, who they often trust more.

These same divisions often spill over to electoral competition, a central feature of democracy. In America as in other democracies, there are many people who do not vote. But a closer looks reveals some consistencies to who does or does not vote. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that people with a family income less than $20,000 a year voted at 47% in 2012. Those who earned more than $100,000 a year voted at 80%. Controlling for a number of factors, the bureau found that moving from an income of $25,000 a year to $75,000 more than doubled one’s odds of voting in 2008. Evidence suggests that, especially for poorer African American and Hispanic voters, practical problems rather than apathy are leading causes of non-participation. Socioeconomic divides like those in Rhode Island grip many aspects of democracy, some as essential as casting a ballot.

Socioeconomic barriers to free expression, association, and participation present a tricky threat to democracy. One major challenge lies in how we overcome them. Combatting inequality is a lifelong effort, but there are steps we can take today. Civic education, both formal and informal, is one possible solution. The Pawtucket organizers circulated “know your rights” pamphlets in order to educate citizens about existing laws, solutions, and ways to get involved. They used their own funding to take the pressure off of other citizens. They show that activist groups in general can do an excellent job of mobilizing disadvantaged citizens and providing resources to those in need. But effective solutions need the cooperation of legislators too. They themselves could make a more concerted effort to reach beyond special interests, for example through more frequent town halls and through accommodating work schedules.

In any case, the experiences of Rhode Island organizers give us a lot to think about. Sure, there are serious institutional obstacles to democracy—campaign finance rules, voting rights, anti-free speech practices, you name it. But unless we recognize the role of social and economic disparities in a democracy, we will wonder why legislation does not always reflect the preferences of the majority.


Image: “Twin Peaks at Night.” August 19, 2009. Daily Travel Photos. CC: Non-Commercial Reuse.


  1. William Tillman

    April 14, 2019 at 8:24 pm

    I think the argument made in this post is very compelling and well written. With regards to some possible solutions to the economic and racial obstacles that American democracy faces, one question I would like to pose to the author is this: with the continual rising wealth gap in America, do you think the problem of economic and social inequalities affecting our democracy is getting worse?

  2. Anthony Yao

    April 21, 2019 at 8:53 pm

    I really like reading your blog, it was interesting, informative and well organized. Democracy in my opinion this summary has three words: negotiation, compromise and concessions. What is it’s words to respect in the United States? I do not believe, democracy exists with people who have money, a perfect economic situation, from the moment you bring something to the state … but the lower social classes are abandon and marginalize by society.

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