Current Issue

Volume 93, Number 5

November 2018

Addressing Inequality in the Age of Citizens United

Bertrall L. Ross II

The United States has reached a point of economic inequality that has not been seen since the 1920s. According to the median voter theorem of redistribution, democracy is supposed to act as a check on growing economic inequality. The intuition behind this theorem is simple: If a majority of the population sees their incomes stagnate while a wealthy minority gets richer, the majority will demand redistributive policies, and representatives will respond by addressing inequality. But in the United States, very little redistribution has accompanied rising economic inequality.

Why has democracy failed to check economic inequality in the United States? Political scientists and legal scholars have pointed to political inequality as the culprit. Political scientists have shown that elected representatives are much more responsive to the wealthy than any other income group. Legal scholars have argued in favor of equalizing campaign finance and regulating lobbying as ways to reduce political inequality. Empirical studies, however, have raised doubts about the effectiveness of any reform efforts aimed at those areas, and constitutional law disfavors solutions aimed at diminishing the political voice of the wealthy.

In this Article, I argue that reducing the income class imbalance of the electorate— i.e. the tendency of wealthier voters to vote at higher rates than less affluent ones— will be a more constitutionally viable and effective means of ameliorating political inequality. I base this argument on the median voter theorem, which suggests that elected officials decide whether or not to adopt redistributive policies based on whether they believe the median voter desires such policies. Because the poor vote less and have less access to their elected representatives, representatives perceive the electorate to be better off than the population as a whole actually is, diminishing the pressure to redistribute in contexts of rising economic inequality.

The ideal solution to this form of political inequality is to induce the participation of the poor and enhance their engagement with elected officials through campaign mobilization. Mobilizing the poor would not only increase the proportion of the poor in the electorate, but more importantly, would change how representatives perceive the electorate and its demands for redistribution. Achieving these goals will require looking to new legal strategies aimed at incentivizing mobilization. I examine three legal strategies that could increase the incentives for political campaigns to mobilize the poor: campaign finance vouchers, earmarking campaign contributions, and a mobilization-matching fund. I conclude by suggesting a path to advancing these strategies in the current political climate.