In a democracy, every vote is supposed to be equal. If about half the country supports one side and half the country supports another, you may expect major institutions to either be equally divided, or to try to stay politically neutral.
This is not what we find. If it takes a position on the hot button social issues around which our politics revolve, almost every major institution in America that is not explicitly conservative leans left. In a country where Republicans get around half the votes or something close to that in every election, why should this be the case? . . .
While all votes count equally on Election Day, at all other times some citizens matter a lot more than others. For example, let’s say I vote Republican every two years, but otherwise go on with my life and rarely ever think about politics. You, on the other hand, not only vote Democrat, but give money to campaigns, write your Congressman when major legislation comes up, wear pink hats, and march in the streets or write emails to institutions when you’re outraged about something.
Through the lens of ordinal utility, in which people simply rank what they want to happen, we are about equal. I prefer Republicans to Democrats, while you have the opposite preference. But when we think in terms of cardinal utility – in layman’s terms, how bad people want something to happen – it’s no contest. You are going to be much more influential than me. Most people are relatively indifferent to politics and see it as a small part of their lives, yet a small percentage of the population takes it very seriously and makes it part of its identity. Those people will tend to punch above their weight in influence, and institutions will be more responsive to them.
Elections are a measure of ordinal preferences. As long as you care enough to vote, it doesn’t matter how much you care about the election outcome, as everyone’s voice is the same. But for everything else – who speaks up in a board meeting about whether a corporation should take a political position, who protests against a company taking a position one side or the other finds offensive, etc. – cardinal utility maters a lot. Only a small minority of the public ever bothers to try to influence a corporation, school, or non-profit to reflect certain values, whether from the inside or out.
In an evenly divided country, if one side simply cares more, it’s going to exert a disproportionate influence on all institutions, and be more likely to see its preferences enacted in the time between elections when most people aren’t paying much attention. . . . Democracy does not reflect the will of the citizenry, it reflects the will of an activist class, which is not representative of the general population.