THE BLOG
08/25/2014 06:07 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2014

Ferguson, Missouri

To understand what happened in Ferguson, nothing is more important than appreciating the extent of the political alienation that exists in that suburban community. With a population of 21,205, Ferguson is 65 percent African-American. Its voter participation rate was a shocking 12.3 percent in 2014, and was even lower in 2012 and 2013.

This political disaffection is not an aberration. In her book, Trust in Black America, Shayla C. Nunnally reports that survey data shows that "Blacks are more likely than any other racial group to report trusting local government 'hardly ever.'" Dubious about the intentions and efficacy of government, especially at the municipal level, there is a logic to individuals choosing not to vote. The downside of that logic however is obvious. In the absence of the exercise of Black electoral power, Ferguson's mayor, five of six members of its City Council and almost all members of its police force are White.

Obviously increased political engagement by the Black population is required to correct the racial imbalance of power that exists in Ferguson. The political under-representation of the city's Black population provided the context for Michael Brown's killing. Hence the call by the Rev. Al Sharpton and others for people in the city to register to vote. But that call will be a hard sell. A vicious circle is at work in Ferguson. Already existing deep distrust was further intensified by Brown's death.

Nunnally writes that trust is "the glue that makes democracy work." 2 In that perspective, trust -- the belief that the political system will effectively address the population's needs -- has to increase before there will be a turn-around in Black voter participation in Ferguson. A vibrant democracy in that city awaits its majority population coming to believe that candidates they can trust -- who represent their views -- are able to run for office.

In our private-money driven political system that is not likely to happen. It is hard to envision the residents of Ferguson providing the funding that would allow such a candidate to run a winning campaign. Ferguson is a low income community. Almost half (46.5 percent) of households report annual earnings of $34,999 or less. Its median household income of $37,517 is 20 percent lower than the median for the state of Missouri as a whole. These are not people who can afford to finance winning political campaigns, even if they desired to do so. Without funding from an extensive network of local residents, successful races for office will either have to be paid for by office-seekers who use their own personal wealth or by donations from high income individuals. Neither situation is likely to create the trust that an upsurge in voting requires.

There are no easily available data to test the hypothesis that the residents of Ferguson are unable to provide the funding that would be necessary to create political trust. But indirect evidence in support of this pessimistic assessment is provided by the career of William L. Clay Jr., a Democrat whose First Congressional District includes Ferguson. Clay was first elected in 2000, succeeding his father who served in the House for 32 years. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), Representative Clay has collected about $4.5 million in campaign contributions over those years. What is of interest in the present context is that the CRP tabulates the sources of those funds by zip codes, and lists the top twenty sources of Clay's funding. Ferguson is absent from the list. Fourteen of the top 20 zip codes are in St. Louis. Only five are in the same county as Ferguson and one is in Miami Beach, Florida. Of course, running for local office in Ferguson is much less expensive than is mounting an electoral campaign for the House of Representatives. Nevertheless Representative Clay's fund-raising experience does suggest that political money is hard to come by in Ferguson.

More generally, Ferguson illustrates the way that a political system dependent on private financing marginalizes the poor. Low income people cannot provide the resources necessary for electoral success. As a result they are deprived of influence. This then means that they come up short in the resources and policies that flow from political decision-making. Political alienation grows, reinforcing their political marginalization.

When all of this is put in the larger national context of income stagnation for most households, while the incomes of the super rich have increased exponentially, it becomes clear why there has been no effective national political push back to growing income polarization. The circular causation that deprives the residents of Ferguson of influence in municipal politics occurs at the state and federal level as well. The people who are hard pressed economically vote less and contribute much less to political campaigns than those who are prospering. The unfair pattern of policy-making that follows is entirely predictable.

Thus it is that on a micro-level Ferguson demonstrates what is needed nationally to turn the country in a more egalitarian direction. We need a public campaign financing system that breaks into the vicious cycle of alienation that is eviscerating democracy.