How can cities fight political inequality and push toward an equal voice for all their residents? The everyday grind of politics elevates some voices and leaves others behind, but there often aren’t ways to trace who is being ignored. So I developed a set of tools to measure, critique, and ultimately change exclusion patterns in city politics.
Talking with neighbors in West Oakland and the insightful students of the Bay Area Urban Debate League back in the day revealed a potential trap: when asked where they would go with a problem in their city, most people said they would go to a city council meeting – but every expert I talked to said that those meetings were the last place an everyday person should go to have their voice heard.
It wasn’t hard to find people who had attempted to engage their council and left feeling disappointed, shot down, or ignored – and I had a hunch that this experience was widely shared. So I put together a research project to trace patterns in political exclusion in the city councils of Oakland and Berkeley – who gets listened to and who goes ignored – and developed a toolkit for anyone who wants to trace exclusion patterns in their own cities.
The context: National political inequality
From all the think pieces debating the role of the working class in the 2016 presidential elections, it would be easy to get the idea that low-income people are highly engaged and empowered in American politics. On average this is far from true. Class-based political inequality is still real, with census data showing that the voting gap is big as ever:
Starting into the research, my hunch was that everyday political institutions like city councils contribute to this political inequality by giving less attention, affirmation, and applause to non-elites. In diverse liberal cities like these, it’s hard to find open prejudice by race or gender by a public official, so they are perfect places to study implicit bias – and the first step in fighting implicit bias is bringing invisible patterns to light.
The councils: The everyday grind of exclusion
To get a feel for who left these city councils feeling ignored and disempowered, I watched six city council meetings in each city, observing a total of 544 people. I paid close attention to two ways that people could feel recognized and affirmed: direct recognition from city council members (in the form of eye contact) and applause from the audience.
Many people didn’t get either one. Only 17% of people in Berkeley and 45% in Oakland received full attention from more than half the council. Councilmembers regularly got up while people were speaking, talked with aides, and shuffled their papers. The chart of attention by councilmember isn’t pretty – I sat on this graph for quite a few years to avoid putting too many sitting councilmembers on blast:
Getting negative feedback – or more often, no feedback – from city council members had a clearly visible effect on the people who spoke at the meeting. You could see it in the facial expressions and body posture: sighs, slumped shoulders, and furrowed brows were common as speakers left the podium. A speaker in Berkeley articulated the consequences for those who fail to resonate: “once people know either you can’t listen, or don’t listen, they simply won’t show up”. A moment in Oakland shows the stakes:
Speaker: They don’t care about the community. They see it burning down, they see… but they don’t care about-
Councilmember: (interrupting) We’re going to continue now. We sat and listened to you, it is now time for you to let us have our meeting.
The councils: Patterns of exclusion
In these liberal cities, politicians rise to power based on their promises to include all the people – clearly that was not true. So who exactly was getting ignored?
Here’s where the tools of sociology can come in handy. Figuring out how factors intersect to drive an outcome like attention that is binary – either you get the attention from your representatives or you don’t – is a classic problem for logit, or logistic regression.
The results show a clear class-based bias in council attention, and they also show that big mobilizations matter. In general, if you don’t look and sound like an elite – and you don’t have a big movement at your back – you are very likely to be ignored.
But the story gets deeper. In both cities councils were more likely to pay attention to elites, but with important differences depending on what kind of elites. Here’s what it looks like when we track the odds of getting attention or applause based on whether you frame yourself as a traditional elite v. someone representing government, business, or a social movement:
Essentially, the logistic regression is trying to predict when a speaker will get attention or applause based on who that speaker is. If the odds ratios for using emotional rhetoric are greater than 1 – especially if the 95% confidence interval is to the right of that dashed line – then I’d suggest that you use emotional rhetoric if you want attention.
So what does this tell us about patterns of class bias and exclusion in the two cities? The pattern in red shows that if the speaker is showing themselves as elite – whether showing the traditional cultural capital popularized by Pierre Bourdieu or specifically flexing their connections to business or government – this boosts their chances of getting attention from the councils.
The audience can act as a counterbalance: for instance, in both cities they applauded more often for movements and less often for businessy speakers, especially in Oakland where the size of the audience was by far the most powerful predictor of attention and applause. But if the speaker can’t flex the rhetorical tools of the elite and they don’t have a strong audience or movement at their back, they are likely to leave feeling discouraged, disempowered and less likely to engage again.
Every institution is going to have a pattern of exclusion, and often this pattern will reinforce inequality by mirroring exclusions in the larger society. Any institution that values equality should put in the effort to study their exclusion pattern, bring it aboveground, and put a plan in place to reverse it.