Democracies are based on political equality. All individuals have equal weight in electing representatives. Parallel to the process of bringing individuals into the political arena of equal footing, we find growing economic inequalities. A small number of ultra-rich enjoy a highly disproportionate share of wealth and incomes. Not only that, their share in the total income of the country has been increasing. Those at the bottom of society have very little to depend upon. Their incomes have been declining. Sometimes, they find it difficult to meet their basic needs of life, such as food, clothing, housing, education and health. Democracy is the rule of the majority. The poor are in majority. So, democracy must be the rule of the poor. How can this not be the case?
- Voters voting by habit, not by analysis.
Many people vote the same way their parents voted. Other vote exactly the opposite way. Neither involves analysis of their objective economic interest.
- A middle class believing to be rich, a lower middle class believing to be middle class.
In many countries, voters tend to vote in the interest of the class they aspire to be, not in the interest of the class they actually are. Part of that is self-deception about inequality and the own position. That is visible in tax policy, for instance, where the middle class votes against taxes on the upper class.
- An upper class better able to work the political system than the poor.
In some countries, attempts to simplify the access to the political system (e.g. through direct democracy or participatory budgeting) have backfired when it comes to the poor. These mechanisms remain complicated enough that it takes some familiarity with the political system to get anything done. Knowing how to organize a grassroots movement, how to write minutes of a meeting, how to collect signatures for a ballot initiative.
So instead of better welfare in poor parts of town, there are better playgrounds in rich parts of town.
I would like to complement:
Democracy is the rule of the majority.
This is an oversimplification. Although democracy includes majority votes in parliaments or referendums, it is not simply rule of the majority. Majoritarianism can result in ochlocracy or mob rule, but democracy includes institutions such as separation of powers, courts, parliaments (representative democracy), and essential freedoms such as freedom of opinion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press.
Such institutions are rarely controlled by people from a poor background. Although the internet has enabled many more people to reach an audience, mass media remain important in opinion forming. Most media are under control of people who are not poor. The majority of U.S. lawmakers are millionaires. Judges aren't poor, certainly not the ones reaching supreme/constitutional/high court level. Rich people have access to different networks than poor people and may thus have a shorter line to politicians. In some countries, rich people regularly bribe politicians, something poor people can't do.
Occasionally, poor people do reach the top, but the reality is that there are far more lawyers and economists in politics than nannies, cleaners, taxi drivers, or agricultural workers. This may be one of the contributing factors to the relatively lower electoral turnout among poor people (compared to rich people), further enhancing the "rich bias" in representative democracy.
Let's look at some possible ways that poor people might be convinced to vote for parties and policies that don't benefit them, but benefit rich people.
- Convince poor people they are one day going to be rich. Promise them that they are in a "land of promise" where with sufficient hard work they will eventually become rich, and when they do they won't want the taxman taking their hard-earned wealth to improve the lives of the poor, even if those programs would help them now. Make sure you ignore any evidence that points out how unlikely it is that a poor person is actually going to become very rich.
- Convince poor people that letting the rich keep their money is actually better for them than spending it to improve the lives of the poor. For example, convince people that the rich (or corporations) will spend that money on creating jobs, or raising the wages of workers, despite the evidence that doesn't happen. Then the rich can keep spending their money on mega-yachts or space programs, and corporations can keep giving their rich CEOs huge salaries, instead of creating more jobs or raising wages for employees.
- Convice people that poverty is a stigma and rich people are better. Send the message that poor people are by definition incompetent and rich people are better at deciding what people need, more honest, and more competent. Carried to extremes this can lead to a Presidential candidate who outright says "the main reason I would be a good President is that I am rich". This is easier to convince people of it you can persuade them that you became rich by your own efforts, even if it's clear that your wealth is largely due to family connections and inheritance - for example "I made all my money myself, starting out with just a small million dollar loan from my father"
- Have rich people control the media. This helps with lots of other persuasion. A key point here is to make sure there is no publicly-owned media.
- Make money an important factor in elections. In particular remove any finance restrictions so that rich people are free to buy as much advertising as they like and convince people of things by repeating it often, even if such things are untrue. This also makes it harder for poor people to actually run, and easier for rich people. Having no restrictions around truth in advertising really helps here too.
- Have a bogeyman. For example another country who once used "improving the lot of the poor" as their excuse to take power, but took it to extremes and ended up actually oppressing the poor and making things worse. Keep pointing to that bogeyman and saying "you don't want to end up like them". Ignore any place that succeeded in improving the lot of the poor in a more moderate and less oppressive way. If that bogeyman doesn't work then target "immigrants" or "foreigners".
- Spread misinformation about other places that have actually put programs in place to help the poor, painting them as unpleasant places to live even though the people who live there like them a lot.
- Spread misinformation about any organization aiming to improve the conditions of the poor, for example by raising minimum wage, improving safety, improving working conditions. Keep talking about how any improvements in working conditions will destroy the economy, despite previous improvements not having done that.
There are also some serious and more general points, which are related to "how do you avoid democracy turning into the tyranny of the majority", where (for example) whites oppress blacks, native-born oppress immigrants, or the poor oppress the rich just because there are more of them. The answers to these involve the fact that democracy is more than just "majority rules" but has to involve fair treatment of all people, even if they are in the minority. This has to be an accepted value for a democratic society to function. Additionally there is a certain amount of common sense involved - a poor person does not have to be very savvy to realize that if you confiscated all the wealth of the rich they would leave, and the country would definitely be left worse off.
It is indeed the case that the majority of wealth (both globally and within most countries) is controlled by a very small minority of the population. Thus, only the wealthy have the disposable surplus resources to expect to be able to influence election outcomes. (Worse, except for unions, the masses are disorganised e.g. compared to large business, and thus unable to coordinate their self-advocacy efforts for maximum effect.)
In a typical representative-democracy, politician’s careers depend on campaign funding donations (used to purchase advertising to sway votes). Large businesses commonly donate a hundred thousand dollars to a potential governing party, in the expectation that thereby influencing governing policy will profit them in hundreds of millions (via tax exemptions/loopholes, grants/bailouts/compensation, tenders, monopolies, etc, depending on the industry).
Hence, we have working class people who are persuaded of trickle-down economics (the idea that policies giving favouritism to the already-successful will be best for everyone) and meritocracy (the idea that everyone is deserving of their individual financial outcome).
I would ask the reverse question: Why would one expect people who lack either the opportunity, ability, or interest to turn the economy to their advantage (i.e., poor people), to be able to turn a political system to their advantage? Why would we expect political power and economic power to be uncorrelated?
(The other answers are excellent; I'm just trying to give the most general answer possible.)
Just a few points to add to the other excellent answers.
I think it's safe to say that all currently existing democracies are representative democracies. In such democracies the rule of the people is achieved by the people choosing their representatives and those representatives then enacting legislation that fulfills the wishes of the people who voted them in. There are some exceptions to this process, such as national referendums, but those are very limited. Unfortunately the process can be perverted in a number of ways:
As others have pointed out, people can be manipulated into voting against their best interests by use of misinformation and sometimes bribery or intimidation.
In many democracies people often have limited influence over choosing which candidates are put forward in the elections. The only choice is to vote for one of the available candidates or to not vote at all. If a voter feels like none of the available candidates represent them, their only option is to start their own political party which will at best be an very difficult undertaking.
Once elected, the representatives can then legislate based on things other than the wishes and interests of the people who elected them. Often their legislating is driven by influence from the rich - bribes for example.
The people in charge of counting the votes in an election (typically the current ruling party) can simply falsify the results of the vote.
Everyone belongs to multiple groups. Many of these overlapping groups represent the majority of the country - the urban-dwellers might outnumber the rural populace, or vice versa. Any one of these groups, if they united behind a single overriding goal, could use their democratic power to rule over the others.
For example, if the voters are 51% female, the women could all vote for the 'Free Money for Women' party, and that party would be guaranteed to win.
But this kind of thing rarely happens because people have multiple potential loyalties, to their religion, to their education status, to their ethnic group, and to various philosophical goals.
If the poor all believed in a single cause above all others - like 'a tax on the rich to pay for universal basic income' - they could certainly push it through. But the poor are not a hive mind with a united goal, and their voting choices will be swayed by their individual opinions on all the issues of the day, and their personal views of the candidates.
A disunited group cannot wield real power.
Other answers have some good (and some BS propaganda) points. But none of them points out that the question itself is based on a flawed premise.
Frame challenge: you are making an unwarranted assumption that a democracy isn't already a rule of the poor, because you are assuming/presuming to know what "the poor" want/need.
That is an assumption NOT based in fact, but in your own ideological (or otherwise) biases.
History (and psychology), on the other hand, teaches us that many times, what most people - poor as well - want, is "panem et circenses" - they want to be entertained at a basic level while maintaining a minimally acceptable safe standard of living.
In other words, they don't mind the inequality as much (or at least, not enough to vote differently) as long as their basic Maslow's hierarchy needs are met well enough.
The reasons for this vary:
some are pure human laziness (why bother if you're "OK enough"). Heck, look at voter participation rates across many countries.
some are actually advanced reasoning ("OK, so we vote in Ms. Revolutionary. Given how most socialist revolutions last 100 years ended in the end - with far lower absolute standard of living for EVERYONE especially lower classes - perhaps that will end up hurting me more than keeping the current system around would").
some are evolutionary. Monkeys who tended to make waves - in absence of cataclysmic events where change was important - were on average less fit to their environment compared to those that "stayed put". There is a reason status quo is what it is, very often - and that is, that it works (or in evolutionary terms, is an stable equilibrium).
some are just pure lack of rationality as explained by other answers. People often tend to hold same ideological views as their parents/teachers/tribe, because that's an evolutionary adaptation from a world where being cast out of your in-group was a death sentence. The specifics or validity of those views matter VERY little.
The poor are not a unified voting block. Just because they're all poor, doesn't mean they all care about wealth inequality above everything else. There are many other issues, such as those concerning race, gender, sexuality, geographic origin, things that impact a certain profession or industry and various issues of the day (for example net neutrality). Many of "the poor" think solving one of the issues is more important than solving wealth inequality. So even if most poor people agree that less wealth inequality would be better, they're not going to agree that wealth inequality is the most important thing right now.
You could just as easily say, most voters in the US are women, so how come USA is not the rule of women? It's not, because women are not all robots that always vote for whatever helps women the most.
In order for the poor to vote in a unified manner the way you imagine, someone would have to organize them. This would take a lot of skill, effort and money. The poor don't have much money, they rarely have the skill because that's usually obtained through expensive education and working at elite jobs and they don't have as much time for politics because they are too busy working to pay the bills. The wealthy have these things, but they have little reason to upend a status quo where they enjoy a comfortable existence.
But arguably, the worst of it is that nobody wants to be poor. So whenever you get the occasional poor person who is successful at organizing their fellow poor, that success gives them the opportunity to become wealthy and stop caring about the poor. So organization among the poor is self-defeating, which puts wealth inequality at a disadvantage against most other issues.
In the US, there are a number of obstacles that disproportionately affect low income demographics making it less likely their candidate of choice would be elected, and therefore it is less likely that their interests are particularly represented in legislature.
- Some political positions require substantial time commitments, but receive little or no compensation. New Mexico state legislators are paid $0/year, New Hampshire pays $100/year 1. A poor person would not be able to represent their own demographic on this salary alone.
And there are various "friction" to voting that disproportionately affects low income demographics making it less likely their preferred candidate will be elected. For example,
Wishful thinking, deception and limited choices of candidates
Political candidates try to make people believe that voting for them is in those people's best interest, even when it's not, by:
- Convincing people that certain things (which other candidates may support) would be bad for those people, even when this isn't true
- Convincing people that certain things would be good for those people, even when this isn't true
- Making promises they have no intention of keeping
People may keep voting for the same party despite the above because:
- Whomever's running for president keeps changing, so they don't assume the same will be true for some new candidate.
- They don't follow which policies get passed too closely, nor understand the intricacies of those policies, so they may mostly rely on information from biased sources who will convince them that continuing to vote for their party is in their best interest.
- They believe that voting for any of the other choices would lead to a worse outcome (especially given all of the above).
- There is often a significant amount of tribalism: switching political party may be thought of as some sort of betrayal.
- There's far too little critical thinking in modern society, so people may just ignore or explain away any facts that contradict their belief that their party is the best.
There's probably also a lot to criticise about the electoral college of the US and about a 2-party system: something that's inevitable given how the US election system is designed, and boils all politics about every topic down to essentially just a single choice of "left" or "right". But I'll leave that to be addressed elsewhere in more detail.
Bureaucracy and imperfect elections
In the US, for example, there's the president and the senate and the house, and they need to agree to get a lot of things done.
Even if the majority of people are unhappy with how things currently work, simply electing another president doesn't really fix the problem.
I don't think this is so much of a problem in the US, but in other countries simply getting some random person on a ballot could also be a significant problem. Although in the US you'll probably have a hard time running a successful campaign, i.e. making most people aware that you're running, what you stand for, and that it might be best for them to vote for you, without quite a bit of money. And rich people are typically also better educated than poor people, and therefore better able to understand what goes into running a country (or at least better able to convince enough people that they'd be able to run a country well).
So to a large degree you have poor people voting for rich people, which isn't the best indication of democratic principles at work. But it may also be hard to fix that and there may not be too many better alternatives available (although reducing the benefit of money in an election and improving education in general could certainly help).
Emancipative or democratic values. Unfortunately, poor people have less of them.
If you give decision-making power in a democratic context to people that have anti-democratic values, they will make anti-democratic decisions.
This may sound counterintuitive, but again and again, in places where there is less wealth, education, and connectivity, you see this pattern. People will consistently say "we want democracy", and when pressed to define what democracy is, will reveal wildly incorrect views. For example, they will say that religious leaders should take decisions, or that the military should do so. This fact arises from the vast dataset of the World Values Survey, and is explained in Christian Welzel's work, especially Freedom Rising.
Welzel suggests that a way to make sense of this counterintuitive reality is to understand the utility of freedom. How will valuing freedom (being able to choose your own religious views or your own career) help if you're deprived of the most basic resources needed to sustain life? How will valuing freedom help if your context makes life much easier for those who follow local doctrine? Consider that deviating from local doctrine can not only mean socially unpleasant interactions, but deprivation from basic resources or even violence.
But there is a mechanism of change.
Given the right existential conditions, young people will be ready to value freedom more. Interestingly, existential conditions, such as access to safe water or enough food, are becoming less and less the reason that people adopt emancipative values. More and more, connectivity, mainly through the internet but also through living in cosmopolitan cities, has more importance. Regardless of what drives the change, people find themselves valuing freedom more.
Given enough people who value freedom, they will mobilize politically to sustain freedom through institutions.
Part of this process can also be seen on Welzel's Ted Talk.
Elites restricting access to power is part of the story.
Of course, access to power by the wealthy and the ensuing restriction of political power for the poor is also part of the story. Welzel's view is compatible with that of, for example, Acemoglu and Robinson in Why Nations Fail.
They show that, broadly, there are two types of institutions:
"extractive — aimed at excluding the majority of society from the process of political decision-making and income distribution, and inclusive — aimed at including the widest possible strata of society in economic and political life".
Interestingly, the mechanism of change from extractive to inclusive institutions is chaotic and basically about groups fighting for access to power. Whoever wins this fight largely gets to forge the institutions. However, Welzel goes beyond this chaotic fight to explain the way that existential conditions and connectivity eventually (through the causality already explained) lead to citizen mobilizations that cause political change. In other words, Welzel's stance does have a clear sense of direction towards more democracy, given the right conditions (which apparently are not changing anytime soon).
There are two phenomena that make it so that 'democracy is not the rule of the poor'. The first is that poor people tend to have anti-democratic values. As shocking as it is, World Value Surveys consistently show this is the case.
This is not to say that poor people are responsible for their own misery: external conditions largely determine whether people will value true democracy. Additionally, these external conditions have historically not been the target of democracy-expanding institutions, largely because of elites making anti-democratic decisions.
Democracy is the rule of the majority. The poor are in majority. So, democracy must be the rule of the poor. How can this not be the case?
TL;DR: Majority doesn't mean union of majority. So, you cannot assume all poor people to be politically alike.
There are a few things to consider first.
Being a politician is not easy. When my dad was in high school, 60% of the marks seemed like a lot. We thought 85% meant a lot. My nephew thinks 95% means a lot. My son would say 99% is a lot. The point is, people are improving in their discipline. Same with politicians. They are improving. They speak of things people like. So, poor people are divided. I like Mr. Trump. You like Mr. Oldman. Your equally poor brother likes Mr. Commie.
With the ever increasing use of mathematical and statistical tools, and computer software that implements them, it is becoming easier to say what people want them to say. This is coupled with psychology. And yes, art of presentation. You are more likely to vote for a person who wears your traditional costume, or tweets in your language, rather than one who doesn't do so. Essentially, you know when to say what, and when to do what.
Often, freebies are distributed. A rather undemocratic method in some regions or countries, that hinders the decision of many poor people who struggle to buy a bottle of whiskey or rum during winters.
There is also the method of threat. You as a politician go to every village and say "I know this village is the only one that won't vote for me. Should I lose, I know where to come." Poor people being innocent people and having very little to lose votes for you.
Being a corporate friendly government means more donations to your party. Sometimes they take part in government schemes like public-private partnerships which help the government. That's a good part.
N.B: This answer is not universal. It applies to a few countries/states.
Democracies promote workers groups which fight for better rights for the masses, and that's what happened with universal suffrage (vote for all citizens) in the 1900ds of Europe, to the point where sorrowful poverty isn't a major issue in mature democracies... Poverty in 1800'ds Europe (France, Uk, Germany) meant eating only wet oats most days, no meat. The UK had 180 death penalties for petty crimes like killing a rabbit or robbing $8 equivalent, where laws were decided by the elite parliamentarians.
Modern democracies promote centrist views of the general population,. and compromise of the right and the left on poverty issues, so extreme left and right wight politicians are disfavoured.
Democracy at it's least corrupt does have a major worker's representation, and proper address of low-wages, working conditions, living conditions of the poor.
Unfortunately, most democracies still contain a considerable amount of media and elite manipulation, inefficient policy decisions, demagogue parties which pretend to be interested in ordinary people, owned by trade elites in league with the news corporations.
I question the premise “the poor are in the majority”, i.e. the majority of people are poor“.
Certainly “the majority of people are not ultrarich“. That is almost the definition of ultra rich,
But “the majority of people are not poor”, eg “the majority of people are above the poverty line” is and/or has been true in many countries many times, including now in the long-lived western democracies.
For many definitions of poverty line. Not just the government’s definition. Certainly the majority of people in the USA and other long-lived western democracies can afford food and shelter. In the USA less so healthcare and retirement, but nevertheless still true.
It depends on your definition of basic necessities. This may be changing, ie the fraction of the population who cannot afford basic necessities may be increasing.
When the majority of the population is not poor, or does not consider themselves poor, often goes along with poverty hostile policies. Sometimes because the majority of non-poor consider the poor undeserving. Sometimes because a sufficient fraction of the non-poor consider themselves at risk of becoming poor, and have given up on policies that might help the poorest-poor, so prefer policies that favor these not-quite-poor rather than the poorest poor. Key being perception of whether policies to help these non-majority poor are effective.
So the question is restricted to “when the poor are a majority of the active electorate, why do they not always rule?”
Others have answered this in detail, discussing the influence of the rich, political participation by the poor, etc
Let me just emphasize that the “poor voting population” is not monolithic. If a fraction of the poor population allies itself with a fraction of the non-poor population, and those two fractions are sufficient in political power whether by directly voting or other influence, they may elect democratic governments leaving the rest of the poor behind.
I contend that most of the long lived Western democracies in North America, western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, continue to have non-poor majorities
Arguably India is an example of a democracy where the majority are poor.
I think it is the case actually.
Let's use Julius Evola's framework to analyze this:
Traditional societies had a caste system, divine-right-rule, and patriarchal forms of government/spirituality. Over time as the separation of church and state widened, rule of a given land degenerated into military dictatorship, then nationalism, then democracy, and finally socialism/communism.
The concentration of power has moved into the hands of the people and the people who "need" the state are not the wealthy, self sufficient people, but the lower caste.
Even when the non-poor do participate in democracy, it is often an attempt to placate and calm down the hysterical masses, who are always screaming for more. More benefits, more rights, more protection, more infrastructure, more healthcare, etc.
As long as the plebs have a say, the squeaky wheel tends to get the oil.
Type of voting system
Very few countries have mandatory voting (like Australia). So the outcome of an election is not necessarily the will of the majority of people eligible to vote, it is the will of the majority of people who actually voted. And that's assuming the votes are counted in such a way as to make as many voters happy as possible. In first past the post (highest primary vote wins) with three candidates, let's say 60% of the voters like two of the candidates roughly equally and really dislike the third candidate. The votes get split like this:
- 31%: Candidate 1 ("good")
- 29%: Candidate 2 ("good")
- 40%: Candidate 3 ("bad")
The "bad" candidate wins a plurality and wins the election despite 60% of the population not wanting them.
Now let's rerun the election with preferential voting (single transferable voting). I'm assuming that all voters are naïve and sincere, so they're not engaging in tactical voting. 90% of voters for candidate 2 have candidate 1 as their second choice.
- 31%: Candidate 1 ("good")
- 29%: Candidate 2 ("good")
- 40%: Candidate 3 ("bad")
Candidate 2 has the fewest votes and is eliminated from running. 90% of 29% (26%) goes to candidate 1, 10% of 29% (3%) goes to candidate 3
- 57%: Candidate 1 ("good")
- 0%: Candidate 2 ("good")
- 43%: Candidate 3 ("bad")
This time candidate 1 wins the election, and in theory more voters are happy.
It's the politicians who set the election rules, and they're not incentivised to change the rules that got them into power, unless they believe they'll lose the next election with the current rules. Can you imagine candidate 1 changing the way voting works to a single transferable vote knowing it will almost certainly cost them the next election? Or candidate 2 changing the system to first past the post? It would be political suicide for the winner in either system.
It usually takes money to win an election. Candidates with a low income background might be more motivated to pass laws to help other people in low income situations, but they're less likely to get elected.
There has been a lot of reporting in the US in recent years about disenfranchising voters. Since politicians are less likely to have come from a low income background, they are more likely to try to disenfranchise voters with a low income background.
The interaction of power from money, political inertia, and voter apathy (where voting is optional) combines to make it less likely that politicians will come from from a low income background, or be motivated to help those from a low income background above the more well off. There are other factors as well. This list is not exhaustive.
Milton Friedman had a perspective on this:
The bulk of public programs are designed primarily to benefit the middle classes, but are financed by taxes paid primarily by the upper and lower classes.
The conditions that may cause people to be poor are the same conditions that prevent them from organizing effectively as a cohesive political bloc. Conditions include illness, addiction, poor organization skills and all consuming commitments such as being a single mother.
This effect is shown in a Californian study
80.2 percent of those making more than $150,000 voted, while only 46.9 percent of those making less than $10,000 voted.