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Political Participation

Political Participation

Nature and frequency of participation

Explaining participation

Participation and democracy


In this article the term “political participation” will refer to those voluntary activities by which members of a society share in the selection of rulers and, directly or indirectly, in the formation of public policy. The term “apathy” will refer to a state of withdrawal from, or indifference to, such activities. These activities typically include voting, seeking information, discussing and proselytizing, attending meetings, contributing financially, and communicating with representatives. The more “active” forms of participation include formal enrollment in a party, canvassing and registering voters, speech writing and speechmaking, working in campaigns, and competing for public and party office. We shall exclude from this discussion such involuntary activities as paying taxes, serving in the armed forces, and performing jury duty.

Why do social scientists study political participation? To begin with, participation is an ingredent of every polity, large or small. Whether the society is an oligarchy or a democracy, someone must make political decisions and appoint, uphold, and remove leaders. Those who fail to participate, whether out of neglect or exclusion, are likely to enjoy less power than other men. Although not all who participate possess effective power, those who do not participate cannot exercise or share power.

As these observations imply, the right to participate is an essential element of democratic government, inseparable from such other attributes of democracy as consent, accountability, majority rule, equality, and popular sovereignty. Indeed, the growth of democratic government is in part measured by the extension of the suffrage and the correlative rights to hold office and to associate for political purposes. Whereas traditional monarchies restrict power and participation largely to the nobility and their agents, democracies have in principle transformed these prerogatives into rights enjoyed by everyone.

This expansion of participation was partly stimulated by the desire to give meaning and force to the principles of consent, accountability, and political opposition. Participation is the principal means by which consent is granted or withdrawn in a democracy and rulers are made accountable to the ruled. Since men can be equal and free only if they share in the determination of their own affairs, participation has been viewed as a means for realizing these democratic objectives as well. [SeeDemocracy.]

From Aristotle to John Dewey, political philosophers have extolled popular participation as a source of vitality and creative energy, as a defense against tyranny, and as a means of enacting the collective wisdom. By involving the many in the affairs of the state, participation should promote stability and order; and by giving everyone the opportunity to express his own interests, it should secure the greatest good for the greatest number. The community should gain, furthermore, by drawing upon the talents and skills of the largest possible number of people. Some philosophers have claimed, in addition, that participation benefits the participants as well as the larger community. It ennobles men by giving them a sense of their own dignity and value, alerts both rulers and ruled to their duties and responsibilities, and broadens political understanding.

Ought participation, however, to be open to all, or restricted to those who know how to use it wisely? On this question, political philosophers and statesmen have often disagreed. Some have maintained that men are not equally worthy of being consulted about their opinions. Some have held that men should be excluded because of caste, race, religion, poverty, or other presumed marks of irresponsibility and moral deficiency. Some have argued that men who lack property or education have no “stake in society,” are likely to be swayed by demagogues, and will use the opportunity to participate merely to register their envy and recalcitrance.

Arguments like these lay behind the exclusion of slaves and aliens from Athenian democratic processes; of commoners and Jews and other nonCatholics from participation in medieval principalities; and of Catholics from governments formed in the wake of the Reformation. Even the American constitution, as originally framed, implicitly sanctioned prohibitions against voting or holding office for reasons of race, property, religion, or sex. At the present time, the suffrage in some parts of the United States is, in law or in fact, denied to aliens, illiterates, paupers, criminals, Indians, and Negroes. Nevertheless, as democratic institutions have advanced, the trend has been for such barriers to be dropped.

Despite their historical association, widespread participation is not peculiar to democracy. Even greater emphasis is placed upon participation by the modern mass dictatorships, both communist and fascist. Their desire to involve every citizen in political affairs is evident not only in their efforts to achieve unanimous voting in elections but also in their organizaton of the masses into an elaborate network of youth groups, mass parties, trade unions, people’s councils, cooperatives, recreational and cultural societies, study circles, conferences, rallies, parades, demonstrations, and staged mass demonstrations.

Whether these efforts represent participation in the sense in which we have been using that term is open to question. Much of this activity is involuntary, and none of it is designed to allow the masses to wield influence over policy or the selection of rulers. On the contrary, it is manipulated by the self-appointed political elite so as to exploit the democratic mystique, make the masses accessible to the regime’s propaganda, harness their energies in the building of the state, and lend the regime an appearance of legitimacy. Thus, the attempt to involve the people in the achievement of the state’s programs is calculated to strengthen the dictatorship rather than to bring it under popular control. [SeeDictatorship.]

Nature and frequency of participation

Despite its importance to democracy, the right to participate is not exercised by all who possess it. The number of nonparticipants varies with time, place, and circumstance, and also with the type of participation.

More people discuss politics than vote, and many more vote than join parties or work in campaigns. Approximately three-fourths of the Americans surveyed during recent national elections reported that they had discussed the campaign with other people. The number of eligible Americans who have actually voted in presidential elections since World War Ii has ranged from 51.5 per cent in 1948 to 63.8 per cent in 1960 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1965, p. 384). Turnout in off-year elections to the House of Representatives during the same period has ranged from 37.6 per cent in 1946 to 48.9 per cent in 1962 (U.S. President’s Commission … 1963, p. 66). Approximately one-fourth of the electorate professes to have proselytized others on behalf of one of the parties or candidates (Michigan … 1960, p. 91). Some 15 per cent say they have worn a campaign button or displayed a sticker (Milbrath 1965a, p. 19), and almost the same number claim to have written or wired their congressmen or senators on some occasion (Public Opinion: 1935–1946 1951, p. 703). An even smaller number (roughly 10 per cent) claim to have contributed campaign funds (Alexander 1966, p. 69), while 7 per cent assert that they have attended political meetings, rallies, or dinners (Michigan … 1960, p. 91). From 3 to 5 per cent maintain that they participated actively in recent national campaigns (Lane 1959, p. 53), while only 2 or 3 per cent claim membership in political clubs or organizations (Michigan … 1960, p. 91). The number who run for political office or hold influential posts in the parties is, of course, even smaller—only a fraction of 1 per cent.

Even these figures are probably inflated, for more people tend to report political activity than actually engage in it. The figures cited may also vary, depending upon the time of polling (e.g., whether during or between campaigns) and the type of election: more people vote in national than in local elections, in presidential than in off-year elections, in partisan elections than in primaries, and in elections involving candidates than in referenda involving issues.

Political interest and awareness are related variables that are even more difficult to assess than participation, because their manifestations are less overt. Roughly one-third to one-half of the respondents surveyed during the 1956 election had no opinion or information on 16 well-known political issues (ibid., p. 174). Approximately one-third of the adult public expressed little or no interest in the 1948 and 1952 elections, while another third were only “moderately” or “somewhat” interested (Berelson et al. 1954; Campbell et al. 1954). Even fewer have the interest or capacity to arrive at a coherent set of opinions (Converse 1964).

The attentive public, thus, is distinctly a minority. As Bryce observed ([1921] 1931, vol. 2, pp. 157 ff.), only a small group gives constant attention to politics, a slightly larger group is interested but comparatively passive, while the mass of men are largely indifferent. A contemporary writer, Milbrath (1965a, pp. 16–22), employing a similar classification, stratified the electorate into “gladiators” (the small number of party actives and officeholders), “spectators” (who seek information and vote), and “apathetics” (who participate only passively, if at all). Although all such classifications are arbitrary, they point up the tendency for various forms of political involvement and indifference to cluster: people who engage in one of the more “active” forms of participation (say, canvassing) are inclined to be active in other ways as well (say, the collection of money); whereas people who habitually fail to vote will usually avoid such other minimal activities as reading the political news. Milbrath suggests that the various forms of political involvement fall into a hierarchy or continuum according to the cost in time and effort that each demands. But other variables, such as political articulateness, saliency, and interest— which can only partially be reckoned into the “costs”—also affect the frequency of the various forms of participation.

These patterns of political activity are also subject to considerable variation. Many people vote habitually, but others vote only intermittently. Although reliable figures are not available, there is considerable fluctuation from one election to another among those who participate actively, as candidates, issues, and political conditions change. A party that is out of power or that has little hope of winning elections is particularly vulnerable to such shifts. Turnover seems to be especially rapid at the lower party levels, among political amateurs and volunteers, who have neither office nor emoluments to sustain them.

Variations are also to be found in the rates and patterns of participation from one era to another and from one nation to another. In the United States, participation appears to have declined sharply at the end of the nineteenth century. Although turnout for presidential elections in the decades following the Civil War had averaged more than 75 per cent, the rate fell steadily during the early years of the present century to an average of 51.7 per cent in the 1920s, rose again in the 1930s, and in the 1960s averaged slightly above 60 per cent (Burnham 1965; U.S. Bureau of the Census 1965). Even within the United States, regional variations in participation are great in any given year: in 1960, for example, the turnout ranged from 30.4 per cent in Georgia to 80.7 per cent in Idaho (U.S. President’s Commission … 1963, p. 67).

Equally striking are the differences in the rates of political activity from one country to another. Despite the greater incidence of education, urbanization, affluence, and mass communication, turnout in the United States has generally been lower than in other modern democracies. Turnout in Italy and Belgium in the years since World War ii has approximated 90 per cent; in Denmark, West Germany, and Great Britain, 80–85 per cent; and in Canada, Norway, Finland, and Japan, 70–80 per cent. The few cross-national studies conducted so far indicate, however, that despite the low turnout, other indexes of participation—political interest and awareness, expressed party affiliation, sense of political competence, etc.—tend to be higher in the United States than in many other countries, such as France and Italy (U.S. President’s Commission … 1963; Almond & Verba 1963; Lipset 1960).

These findings suggest that the interrelations among the several forms of participation found in the United States are not universal. No one has yet discovered any overarching principle to explain the varying ways in which these phenomena are ordered in different countries. Some of this variation is surely due to the familiar determinants of participation (education, access to information, etc.). But important weight must also be given to factors peculiar to individual countries—traditions, history, access to the governing institutions, the particular forms of political competition, or, as in Italy, special inducements to vote. The systematic investigation and weighting of these factors in various countries remains one of the urgent research tasks.

So far we have treated participation as though it were a unidimensional variable. This may be a questionable assumption, however, for although all instances of nonvoting are overtly the same, they may spring from different motivations and may represent quite different acts. Thus, in general, two classes of apathetic individuals can be distinguished: those who fail to participate out of political indifference, exclusion, or incapacity; and those who consciously choose not to participate. Although no precise information is available as to their frequency, the first is plainly the larger of the two classes. It includes the habitual nonvoters who have little knowledge of issues or candidates and are mystified by political events. Rarely are they able to connect what happens “out there” with the events of their own lives. Apathy of this type abounds among the uneducated, the inarticulate, the parochial, the isolated, and those who occupy roles in which political passivity is perceived as the norm, e.g., women in political systems heavily dominated by men (Bell et al. 1961; Lipset 1960). As these findings signify, political participation is not “natural,” but must be learned; and for learning to occur, one must have capacity, motivation, and opportunity. In some strata of the society, all three preconditions are missing.

The second class of apathetics, though small, is far more diverse. It includes those who disdain politics because it seems to them self-serving and corrupt. Some adopt this view as a projection of their own hostility or dissatisfaction with their own lives; others, out of misplaced idealism and the inevitable disappointment with human imperfection; some, out of a generalized cynicism toward mankind and all his arrangements; and some, merely because they are prey to prevailing stereotypes. Still others are disenchanted either because the system serves them badly or because politics does not seem to them sufficiently “meaningful.” Some— the “realists”—have concluded that their chances of influencing the gigantic and remote political system are too slight to warrant the investment of time and energy. Others believe that the system offers no genuine alternatives and that all efforts to change the outcomes are idle and self-deluding (Almond & Verba 1963; Campbell in Rokkan 1962a; Erbe 1964; Rosenberg 1954). Still others, while aware of politics and convinced of its importance, simply find the entire subject dull.

Nor are the forces that lead to withdrawal in all respects “negative.” In certain subgroups of the society, apathy is positively reinforced. Among those who have attempted to set up their communities outside the prevailing culture—for example, certain “bohemian” subcultures—conventional political activities are frequently regarded as foolish and unbecoming, while political indifference. is esteemed. The same holds, though less consciously and articulately, for certain deprived minorities, who perceive participation as useless, dangerous, or as an affectation. For them, the “affirmative” act is to express one’s contempt by withdrawing. [SeeAlienation; Radicalism.]

Explaining participation

Social scientists aim to develop general theories of human behavior that will account for as many relevant facts as possible with the smallest number of assumptions and explanatory variables. So far no general theory of participation even approaches this ideal. Participation appears to be a complex phenomenon that depends on a great many variables of different relative weights. This does not necessarily mean that no conceptual model can be employed to explain it. For one can at least group the relevant independent variables into those influences which are essentially internal (psychological and cognitive) and those which derive from the individual’s external environment, social and political. Any model employing these broad categories is bound to be oversimplified. One may nevertheless reason that (a) individuals are embedded in a matrix of social forces (status, education, religion, etc.) that orients them toward or away from political participation; (b) in addition, characteristic differences in drives and capacities will cause individuals to vary in their readiness to respond to political stimuli; and (c) the degree to which these social and psychological predispositions find expression as political activity depends partly on the nature of the political environment itself—including the political structure and institutions, the party system, and the pattern of political values and beliefs. The three sets of variables are closely linked and intermingled. A change in any of them can, therefore, increase or decrease participation, and an analysis based on only one of them is bound to be misleading and incomplete.

The social environment

The elements that compose the social environment include education, occupation, income, age, race, religion, sex, mobility, and residence. Research in the United States and elsewhere shows that most of these variables correlate to some degree with participation. In general, participation tends to be higher among the better-educated, members of the higher occupational and income groups, the middle-aged, the dominant ethnic and religious groups, men (as opposed to women), settled residents, urban dwellers, and members of voluntary associations.

It should be emphasized, however, that the correlations between participation and some of these variables are low and unstable and that they may vary from one cultural-political context to another. Thus, education and socioeconomic status and participation correlate strongly in the United States but weakly in Norway. Urban-rural differences in participation occur in some elections but riot in others. City dwellers, with their increased exposure to mass media, higher education, and greater predisposition to form voluntary associations, characteristically participate more than those who live in rural communities in the United States; yetsome farm states, such as Idaho, Utah, and South Dakota, have significantly higher turnouts than some industrial states, such as California, New York, and New Jersey. Likewise, in some countries that have long traditions of communal leadership or cooperative forms of agricultural organization, participation is greater in rural than in urban areas—e.g., Japan, France, Arab villages in Israel, and parts of Scandinavia (Lipset 1960; Milbrath 1965a). Church attendance correlates positively with political participation in the United States, scarcely at all in Great Britain, and negatively in Germany and Italy. Some ethnic minorities in the United States (e.g., Negroes) have very low turnout rates, while others (e.g., Jews) have among the very highest.

These deviations suggest several observations about the relation of the social environment to participation. First, the variables in this category are so broad as to be fairly limited in their explanatory power. Often they represent configurations of more exact and dynamic variables, but the configurations are not always identical. Political apathy of Negroes in the United States reflects in large measure not just their position as a minority but also their status as a deprived minority—poor, uneducated, rural, parochial, etc.; this, in turn, has gradually led to the widespread acceptance by both whites and Negroes of the Negro’s role as that of nonparticipant. At the other end, the greater participation of high-status groups in most societies is due partly to their superior education and partly to their enhanced opportunities to acquire firsthand knowledge of and to influence politics by greater access to political leaders and to the sources of political decision making.

Since the relevant variables are subject to interaction effects, the same demographic factors may have dramatically different consequences in different political-cultural contexts. Social class differences, for example, may signify powerful inequalities in one culture and trivial differences in another. The disparity in the correlations between occupational level and participation in Norway and the United States, for instance, results partly from the greater political and ideological organization of the Norwegian working class than the American working class (Campbell & Valen 1961). The inverse relationship between correlations for church attendance and voting turnout for the United States and Italy reflects primarily the differences in education and economic status of churchgoers in the two countries.

Despite these qualifications, categoric variables are not only heuristically useful but sometimes can actually influence participation. Thus, education offers high and reliable correlations with participation, partly because it helps to develop a sense of civic duty, political competence, interest, and responsibility, as well as personality characteristics of self-confidence, dominance, and articulateness. Furthermore, the schools themselves serve as settings in which the skills of participation are acquired: one learns to join organizations, fulfill duties, participate in meetings, discuss broad social questions, and organize to achieve group goals. Finally, the more educated are better able to transmit their political interest and knowledge to their children and, hence, to perpetuate the relationship between education and participation.

In the example of education we thus see at work three of the most powerful influences affecting participation: articulateness, sensitivity to one’s self-interest, and effective socialization by the political culture. While these influences bear even on differences in voting frequency, they are especially significant in differentiating the politically active from ordinary citizens. These same factors also help to explain the findings on participation yielded by research on other categoric variables. The higher turnout among, say, Congregationalists than Baptists is a function, in part, of their greater articulateness. The greater activity and ideological solidarity of higher-status occupations can be traced in part to their superior capacity for perceiving the relation of their own interests to governmental decisions. The higher frequency of voting among the middle-aged compared with young adults reflects the need for time and experience in order for politicization to take effect; and the same principle applies to the greater turnout and activity of settled residents as against transients. The greater political activity in the cities, compared with rural areas, testifies to a higher level of articulateness there. The greater political activity of members of voluntary associations reflects in some measure the effects of all three influences: articulateness, awareness of self-interest, and greater exposure to the agencies of socialization.

Through such variables as these, and through other general constructs of a more dynamic nature (e.g., power, influence, motives, pressures, drives), we may eventually succeed in developing models that refine demographic variables into their appropriate units, equivalent over time and across cultures. When these components are isolated and appropriately weighted, predictions about participation under varying conditions should become much more accurate. [See Socialization, article onPolitical socialization.]

Psychological variables

Participation survives by virtue of its capacity to provide rewards for those who engage in it. Political observers throughout the ages have variously attributed man’s political activity to his need for power, competition, achievement, affiliation, aggression, money, prestige, status, recognition, approval, manipulation, sympathy, responsibility—in short, to virtually every need that impels human behavior. Unfortunately, systematic data on the relative frequency and influence of any of these motives are extremely sparse. Nor do we know whether political participation gratifies certain needs that are not satisfied by other kinds of endeavor, or whether the motives that induce active or psychologically costly forms of participation (such as managing a campaign) differ from those which prompt simpler, less arduous activities like voting.

In addition to the active versus passive distinction, one may classify participation in terms of its goals: i.e., instrumental as opposed to consummatory or expressive (Davies 1963; Milbrath 1965b). Instrumental political activities are primarily oriented toward concrete goals, such as party victory, the passage of a bill, or the enhancement of one’s own status, influence, or income. Consummatory or expressive activities are aimed at more immediate satisfaction or release of feeling: thus, voting may be a consummatory rather than an instrumental act for those who care less about the outcome than about the positive feeling they get from casting their ballots; like parading or saluting the flag, it may become a ritualistic form of rewarding behavior. For other people who are mainly concerned with achieving certain goals, the same act of voting would be instrumental. Most behaviors embody both instrumental and consummatory purposes to some degree.

In general, psychological variables may be thought of as those stemming from individual personality traits (whether primarily constitutionalgenetic or primarily learned) and from cognitive structures, which in this case represent certain characteristic ways of conceptualizing the self and the surrounding sociopolitical world. [SeePersonality, Political.]

Available evidence suggests that a number of the more basic or genotypic personality traits—rigidity, guilt neurasthenia, intolerance of ambiguity, manic-depressive tendencies, manifest anxiety—do not correlate highly with political participation. The weakness of these relationships is particularly evident at the more passive end of the participation continuum. Thus, voters scarcely differ from nonvoters on the traits mentioned above. However, apathetic individuals tend to be slightly more aggressive and paranoid than voters. In general, the more active participants exhibit less hostility than the general population, except in the case of activists who belong to extreme or messianic movements. Participants in such movements, which aim at quick and drastic refashioning of the world, are frequently motivated by rage and paranoia and find that participation gives them a legitimized context for discharging their aggression (Almond 1954).

Although basic personality dimensions such as guilt and rigidity do not adequately distinguish participants from nonparticipants, they do differentiate somewhat the less active from the more active, the inactives exhibiting these traits in greater measure. The correlations are not high, but one would not expect them to be. Participation is so complex a phenomenon that the connection between any particular activity (e.g., voting) and any source trait (e.g., rigidity) is bound to be extremely tenuous. Then, too, for many people—especially the more passive participants—the psychological investment in politics is so slight that one would be surprised to discover that deep-seated motives were attached to a given activity. Furthermore, the “distance” between a basic personality trait and a specific manifestation of political activity is too great and the route between them too circuitous for the one to be directly engaged by the other. Nevertheless, correlations do turn up between certain personality traits and participation that appear to be due mainly to the impairment of social functioning induced by personality disturbances. An individual who scores high on measures of paranoia, inflexibility, guilt, hostility, and so on will ipso facto function less effectively in many social contexts. He will be less able to perform tasks that require accurate appraisals of reality and may find threatening such political activities as organizing, deciding, bargaining, interacting, cooperating, debating, and proselytizing.

Similarly, research has shown (Gough et al. 1951; Milbrath 1965a) that personality traits which are particularly influenced by social learning—such as dominance, social responsibility, and self-confidence—are positively associated with political participation. It is not so much that these signs of ego strength are sufficient to inspire political participation, but that individuals who lack them are more likely to avoid active involvement.

Although the correlations between psychological traits and participation are modest, their direction largely refutes much of the folklore about political practitioners as highly ambitious, exhibitionistic, “folksy,” narcissistic, driven, enthusiastic, materialistic, authoritarian, and power-hungry. Research in the United States (very little has been conducted on the subject elsewhere) indicates that politicians and other active participants do not possess these traits in greater measure than do nonparticipants or members of other professions (Hennessy 1959; McClosky & Schaar 1965). American data on social responsibility, authoritarianism, and related measures suggest that participants are more likely than nonparticipants to show social conscience and concern and affirmative attitudes toward mankind.

Participants are also distinguished from nonparticipants by such cognitive variables as belief in one’s own adequacy and in the amenability of the social order to change. Even the elementary forms of participation, such as voting, may present some people with threatening questions about their ability to understand and affect external institutions that strike them as bewildering or remote. An individual’s sense of his own personal competence tends to color his judgment of his political effectiveness, which in turn strengthens his motivation to participate. Confronted with the challenge of trying to change political and social conditions, lower-status groups and the psychologically handicapped are prone to feel bewildered and helpless; they are, in general, more susceptible to feelings of alienation, anomie, and pessimism—both personal and political (McClosky & Schaar 1965). In their view, the social-political system is hostile and inaccessible. They find few of the personal rewards received by the politically active (approval of friends, being “on the inside,” the “excitement” of politics, and so on). Accordingly, they not only vote less frequently but also are less interested and personally involved in politics, have fewer and less. coherent opinions, and are less concerned with issues and with the outcome of elections (Michigan … 1960; Eulau & Schneider 1956).

While the relations between the cognitive states of low self-esteem and feelings of pessimism and alienation from society are strongly correlated with political apathy, one cannot be certain which way the causal arrow is pointing: i.e., alienation may lead to nonparticipation; nonparticipation may encourage alienation; or both may be correlates of a more basic variable, such as ignorance, which breeds fear, mistrust, and avoidance of situations that might turn out to be threatening. Similarly, the relationship of participation to actual or imagined efficacy can be demonstrated, but here, too, the influence patterns are somewhat circular: one who participates has a greater incentive to learn how the system works and how to function effectively within it; a sense of efficacy, in turn, may predispose one toward further participation. [SeePolitical efficacy.]

These psychological variables, and especially the degree to which political participation is felt to be rewarding or nonrewarding, are powerfully mediated by the individual’s reference groups. Many of the values and habits of participation are instilled by the family and sustained by peers and other primary groups (Almond & Verba 1963; McClosky & Dahlgren 1959). Any such group for which politics is highly salient will reward its members for participation or punish them for nonparticipation by granting or withholding approval and affection. Intermediate groups as well as primary groups may help prepare their members for citizenship by alerting them to their own interests, developing their social skills, and instructing them in the techniques of public activity. Membership in trade unions, service clubs, and other voluntary associations has repeatedly been found to correlate significantly with political participation.

The influences exerted on a given individual by his various reference groups may be aggregative or may cancel each other out, depending on how consonant the groups are. Conflict or cross pressure among one’s membership groups may dilute the reinforcement pattern or cause the individual so much pain that he refuses to vote or avoids participating in other ways. Cross pressures, of course, may also result from holding conflicting beliefs, from attempting to serve conflicting interests, or from harboring opinions that are manifestly discrepant with reality. [SeeCross pressure.]

The political environment

Much is asserted but little is reliably known about the political correlates of participation. Political apathy is alleged to be affected by the size, remoteness, and complexity of modern political systems and, more specifically, in the United States by the frequency of elections, the number of offices to be filled, the length of the ballot, and the necessity for observing and making decisions about four levels (municipal, county, state, federal) and three branches (executive, legislative, judicial) of government. Widespread participation is presumably further discouraged when the major parties are large, loosely knit brokerage agencies which lack enrolled memberships, effective discipline, or vital centers for adopting party policy. In the light of these conditions, many observers have suggested that largescale political participation may be an unrealistic goal. A few studies have indicated that such institutional barriers as complicated election codes and nonpartisan forms of the ballot somewhat reduce turnout (Michigan … 1960; Tingsten 1937). On the other hand, participation is highest among the very individuals who are most articulate and most capable of perceiving the ambiguities and complexities in the system. Would the inactives be less apathetic if government were simpler and more comprehensible? We cannot tell. One difficulty in resolving this question is that those who have little initial interest in politics often rationalize their inactivity by seizing upon any potential obstacle, while the highly motivated have relatively little difficulty in surmounting the informal barriers to participation thrown up by the system (Michigan… 1960; Almond & Verba 1963).

Obstacles to participation may also take more narrow and prescriptive forms: cumbersome registration procedures, literacy tests, poll taxes, residence requirements, inadequate provision for absentee voting, inaccessibility of polling places, and so on. Residence requirements alone may disenfranchise as much as 5 to 10 per cent of the eligible electorate (U.S. President’s Commission … 1963, chapter 1). Except for a few restrictions designed to disqualify specific groups (e.g., literacy tests and poll taxes in the South), these obstacles chiefly impede those who are least motivated to vote in any case.

In the United States, only a modest effort is made by government or the parties to register and instruct potential voters. While voting is widely encouraged, mere exhortation appears to have little effect, except perhaps on professed attitudes toward voting. Thus many more people—nonvoters as well as voters—believe that everyone ought to vote or participate than actually do so. Conversely, the citizens. of some nations with typically higher turnouts than the United States nevertheless admit to a weaker sense of civic duty (Almond & Verba 1963). Like feelings of political efficacy, professed belief in civic duty is significantly influenced by education, status, and general articulateness, as well as by the cultural norms.

The situational factors that predispose people toward political activity are no better understood than are the legal and institutional barriers to participation. For example, the commonly held belief that great national or international crises awaken the impulse to participate has not been systematically tested. Scholars favoring this hypothesis can point to the increase in election turnout during the last years of the Weimar Republic, the early days of the New Deal, and similar isolated examples; but one can find as many instances that support a contrary interpretation: Turnout did not increase during the depression of 1932 or the recession of 1958. In wartime, voting tends to decline rather than to rise—partly, however, because many young voters are away from home. Thus, turnout increased slightly in 1940 over 1936, but dropped in 1944. In 1948—a time of momentous decisions and cold war tensions—the proportion of eligible voters who cast their ballots fell to 51.3 per cent, the smallest percentage for any presidential election since 1924. The relative unpopularity of the candidates seems to have had far greater weight than the urgency of international events. In 1956, a comparatively placid year, the presidential vote represented 60.1 per cent of those eligible—a relatively high proportion for the United States. It may even be that unusually grave or ambiguous problems tend to paralyze rather than to activate voters. Such anecdotal data, unfortunately, do not tell us much. What is needed is a series of cross-cultural investigations in which the meaning of such terms as “crisis” and “important” are operationally defined a priori, rather than rationalized in post hoc interpretations by either the respondents or the investigators.

In addition to the general variables touched on, the party system, the nature of the campaign, and issues and ideology are three areas that shape participation in modern societies.

The party system. Of all political influences on participation, the party is probably the most potent. Its role is partly expressive and partly instrumental. The party resembles the nation or the church both in its symbolic force and in its capacity for arousing affection, devotion, and sacrifice on the part of its loyal members. The vast majority of the party faithful would no more think of switching parties than of changing their nationality or religion. The party inspires in its members feelings of belonging and, equally, of opposition to those in other parties. While membership in cognate social groups may strengthen party influence on participation, the party is a powerful reference group in its own right. Indeed, it may help to solidify attachments to other social groups. This mystique keeps large numbers of people persistently active even though they have only a slim chance of affecting the outcome of important public events.

The parties also perform a number of instrumental functions. Despite their many derelictions, the American parties contact and register voters, select candidates, organize the campaign, and tell supporters what to believe on issues and how to vote. Accordingly, people who affiliate with a party vote more often than those who do not; and those who are strongly attached are more active in discussions, listen to more speeches, and respond more positively to their party’s views than do those who are weakly attached. Again, these are correlates, and one cannot always be certain whether party affiliation causes participation or the reverse. Furthermore, even these correlations are far from perfect. Many voters have only a marginal preference for one party over the other, while many nonvoters report strong party loyalties (Michigan … 1960, p. 97). In France and some other European countries, party affiliation is less common than in the United States, but electoral turnout is higher (Converse & Dupeux 1962).

Many students of politics believe that participation in the United States would be greater if the competition between parties were more intense— that is, if they were more equally matched in the number of their adherents or more sharply divided in ideology. There is some empirical support for the belief that owing to greater incentives, turnout increases as the number of supporters of the competing parties becomes more equal (Milbrath 1965b). But closeness of competition appears to exercise most of its effect on those with strong party identifications (Michigan … 1960, p. 99).

More debatable is the claim that greater ideological cleavage between parties increases participation. The argument rests principally on the assumption that those who see the parties as diverging are more likely to find the election important and will therefore be more strongly motivated to work and vote for their party. Support for the hypothesis can be gleaned from several sets of findings: turnout in regular elections is almost invariably greater than turnout in primaries; voters in some countries with typically heavier turnouts than the United States (e.g., Norway) see their parties as more divergent ideologically than do Americans (Campbell & Valen 1961); and within the United States, active party workers are more likely than ordinary citizens to regard the parties as differing sharply on issues (McClosky 1964). But another set of observations can be adduced to support the opposite view: Many voters support their party without reference to the stand it takes on issues (McClosky et al. 1960), and only a minority accurately perceive the degree of intellectual cleavage that already exists between the major American parties. In some countries with high turnout, such as France and Italy, voters do not see the parties as very divergent ideologically. Nor has participation declined in countries that are alleged to have experienced “depoliticization,” or a so-called “end of ideology” (Himmelstrand in Rokkan 1962a; Lipset 1960), even though they may have undergone a reduction in the amount of political controversy and agitation among intellectuals. It is also possible that when party positions become polarized, some people will shrink from having to choose between extreme and unpalatable alternatives. [See Parties, Political.]

The campaign. The effort made by the parties to involve the electorate in the political contest is concentrated in the campaign itself. Something has been learned about the effects of campaigns on polarizing party attachments, reinforcing candidate preferences, and switching votes (Berelson et al. 1954). But little is reliably known about the effects of different kinds of campaign techniques on participation. One can assume that even the most listless campaign will succeed in arousing some people who might not otherwise think of attending a political meeting, listening to a political speech, or carrying a banner. Such findings as we do have suggest that the campaign chiefly reaches the faithful, crystallizing partisanship and reinforcing the intention of committed party adherents to vote and to persuade others to vote (ibid.). When the campaign ends, most of the participants revert to their relatively passive roles.

Which campaign techniques are most effective in stimulating citizen participation? All forms of persuasion and publicity probably have some effect, however minuscule. The most dramatic results, however, appear to be achieved through face-to-face communication with potential voters. This contact can be made formally, through designated party canvassers, or informally, through politically interested friends and opinion leaders (Lazarsfeld et al. 1944; Cutright & Rossi 1958; Katz & Lazarsfeld 1955). The relative effectiveness of these communicators depends on their ability to command the attention of the people they seek to contact, to represent themselves as trustworthy sources of information, to enforce moral or psychological pressures, and to convey campaign messages in meaningful language (Cohen 1964).

The effect of the campaign on participation depends not only on campaign techniques but also on the popularity or charisma of the candidates. Intuitive or anecdotal data suggest that candidates with strong personal appeal can significantly increase the interest of typical nonparticipants and quicken the fervor and activity of party regulars. But in the few elections on which we have data, most voters were unable to discriminate clearly the personality attributes of the candidates (Pool 1959; Davies 1954).

Issues and ideology. A sizable body of research has shown that participation is associated with political awareness, that is, actual knowledge of political affairs. (Awareness, of course, is in turn highly correlated with interest.) As we have seen, the number of citizens who can be described as “aware” in any sophisticated sense is extremely small. As many as half or three-fourths of the electorate are unable to define terms common to ordinary political discourse—e.g., “monopoly,” “plurality,” “left,” “right,” “balanced budget” (see Key 1961). Many cannot identify the reference groups that speak for their interests, cannot classify themselves accurately as liberal or conservative, and cannot describe the differences between their party and that of the opposition. Striking as these findings are for the United States, they are even clearer for other countries where education and dissemination of public information are less widespread.

Awareness affects both the amount and the quality of participation. If the unaware participate at all, they tend to do so in a random, inconsistent way that may actually work against their own stated aims. Data indicate that the politically aware are usually better able to relate their social values to their political opinions; to achieve stable, internally consistent belief systems; and to comprehend and act upon the constitutional “rules of the game” (McClosky 1964; Prothro & Grigg 1960; Stouffer 1955).

Issues also play a role in participation. Although voters may lack knowledge of the array of issues being contested in a given election, some are strongly motivated by a single issue or class of issues that are for them particularly salient. For some purposes, then, the electorate can be thought of as constituting “issue publics”—e.g., Negroes (civil rights), the elderly (Medicare), trade unionists (the closed shop), young men of draft age (the war in Vietnam), and so on. The activity generated within such publics by the surfacing of the appropriate issue may be critical both for the outcome of the election and for the adoption of government policies. But self-testimony about the important issues can be deceptive: Although some people may actually be moved to vote by the issues they name as decisive—e.g., the Korean conflict in 1952— (Campbell et al. 1954), others may be motivated largely by their preference for a candidate and, when asked, merely name the issues stressed by him.

Evidence suggests that the party actives are more likely than ordinary voters to be aware of and motivated by issues. In the United States the active members of the two parties differ sharply on a wide range of issues, while their respective followers tend to agree on all but a few issues (McClosky et al. 1960). These disagreements in the issue outlook of party elites furnish motive force, help to define the parties’ images, and determine whom the parties recruit and activate.

In principle, any issue can be a powerful stimulus to participation; in practice, some issues are so narrow, technical, or esoteric that they have little chance of capturing the interest of a large public. “Position” issues (the so-called bread-and-butter issues) are generally thought to have a better chance of interesting would-be voters than “style,” or symbolic, issues (Berelson et al. 1954). Such position issues as social security, minimum wages, and Medicare are presumably easier to understand, even for the uneducated, and promise more tangible rewards. Style issues, such as civil liberties and many foreign policy questions, are presumably more complex and abstract and, hence, less compelling. Obviously there are important exceptions to these generalizations: for example, civil rights is for most Americans a style rather than a position issue, but during the 1960s it has probably inspired more activity than any other domestic issue.

There are severe limitations on the degree to which issues of any type can stimulate interest and participation among large segments of the population. The distance between the individual’s behavior and the eventual reward (i.e., effective government action on the issue) is typically very great, and the reinforcement pattern sporadic and uncertain. The wonder, then, is not that people do not participate, but that they do.

Political factors, thus, may cause participation rates to vary, but one must keep in mind that the over-all rate of participation for a given country in a given era tends to remain fairly stable and that changes in the rates of participation from one election to another are usually small. This suggests that the broad social and psychological predispositions earlier discussed set severe limitations on the play of political and situational elements.

Participation and democracy

What do the findings on participation mean for the theory and practice of democracy? According to the textbook model of democracy, an alert, informed, and wise citizenry rationally assesses the men who offer themselves for election, chooses the best, and removes or reappoints them after carefully weighing their performance. As we have seen, the portrait bears little resemblance to reality. How should this picture be revised in the light of the findings on participation? Does the evidence render traditional notions of democracy untenable, requiring a reformulation of its basic assumptions and claims? These questions have stirred considerable controversy (Dahl 1966; Walker 1966).

Much of the argument has centered on what the widespread failure to participate means for democratic government. While some observers have felt that universal participation is neither possible nor especially desirable, none has proposed restricting the practice of universal suffrage. The issue, rather, is the assessment of the consequences of political inactivity among certain sections of the electorate and the amount of participation that reasonably can or should be expected of citizens in a democracy. The answers to these questions, many believe, will shape the nature and quality of the democracy a society enjoys.

The arguments of those who are not severely troubled about the dangers of political apathy may be summarized as follows:

(1) Little is gained, and something may be lost, by encouraging the involvement of men and women who are politically uninformed and uninterested. Such people are likely to misperceive their own and society’s best interests. They are likely to have the poorest understanding of the requirements of a democratic system (civil liberties, tolerance of nonconformity, etc.) and are most susceptible to misleading propaganda and the appeals of popular but inappropriate leaders. Encouraging them to participate may actually cause harm to democratic government.

(2) To insist that all must participate because all are affected by politics is to substitute piety for judgment. Little is gained merely by increasing the number of voters. Political activity may be addressed to undesirable as well as to desirable ends. A vote may be used to elect a Hitler as well as a Roosevelt or a Churchill. In a democracy, moreover, a citizen has the right to disdain politics if he chooses. Better apathy than heedless participation.

(3) Since even under optimal conditions the great mass of the electorate can never possess the awareness that complex political judgments now demand, the business of politics might better be turned over to those active minorities who, by virtue of their interest, knowledge, and judgment, have shown that they are capable of governing in a democracy. As a safeguard in this kind of government-by-minority, the would-be rulers must, of course, be drawn from all segments of the society, must compete among themselves for office, and must account to the voters for their actions.

(4) Widespread political activity, while desirable in some respects, also carries disadvantages. A “too active” electorate may impede those who rule from making the decisions they are best qualified to make. A highly politicized electorate may lead to excessive controversy, fragmentation, and instability. The existence of a large number of “indifferents” among the electorate lends flexibility to the system by permitting power to shift from one administration (or party) to another without generating unusual tension or anger; the decisions of the new officeholders are thus more easily accepted and accommodated. Any sudden upswing of political interest and activity is likely to herald a condition of disturbance or crisis in the system and the emergence of new and profound cleavages.

While some observers remain fairly sanguine about the incidence of nonparticipation, others are deeply troubled (Walker 1966; Lane 1959). Typical of their arguments are the following:

(1) Those who fail to participate are not properly represented. Government is thereby deprived of its broadest possible assessment and of the benefit of whatever these nonparticipants have learned from their experience. In a democracy, participation is power. Rulers can therefore afford to ignore the needs and interests of nonparticipants. By neglecting to avail themselves of the reinforcements contingent upon participation, the apathetic are further discouraged from bothering to formulate political opinions and demands. Ignorance thus accumulates, and the general level of political vitality and vigilance declines. In practice, it will typically be the poor and the socially deprived who are most likely to be unrepresented—those who most need to be represented.

(2) Widespread apathy increases the chances that government will be dominated by men who are unresponsive, self-aggrandizing, and unscrupulous; participation, on the other hand, reminds those who govern that they must attend to their duties and serve the electorate. Whenever apathy prevails, it becomes more difficult to organize and maintain a political opposition—an essential ingredient of the defense against tyranny and the abuse of political power.

(3) Even if the opinions of the nonparticipants are presently ill-informed, there is no better way to improve the quality of their judgment than by the experience of participation. In the course of participating, one is impelled to acquire the knowledge needed for sound judgment, to become aware of one’s best interests, to learn how the system works and what principles and beliefs it values. Voters looking for guidance are prompted to seek out information, to discuss politics with others, and so on. Therefore, participation not only stimulates political learning but also heightens responsibility, deepens awareness, and increases one’s sense of political effectiveness.

(4) Apathy is a symptom as well as a cause of weakness in the system. It signifies a failure to involve all members of the society in their own governance, a failure to inspire interest and loyalty. Such failures may be dangerous to democracy, for whenever a large number of people exist outside the normal channels of politics and are unable to share in the decisions that shape their lives, the political atmosphere becomes potentially explosive.

The cogency of some of the foregoing arguments on both sides of the issue indicates that the relationship of participation to democracy cannot be understood simplistically. To claim that more participation is always preferable is to blind oneself to the possible disadvantages of enlarging participation under certain circumstances. To contend, on the other side, that any increase in participation will invariably serve to enshrine mediocrity and to debase the quality of political life is to ignore the powerful considerations for giving everyone who wants it a role in the collective decision process. Most of the disputants, fortunately, would be unwilling to press their arguments to these extremes. Nothing is to be gained by converting participation into either a fetish or a taboo. It seems plain enough that in itself it is neither good nor bad, but that it takes its character from the social and political contexts in which it occurs, as well as from the motivations of the participants.

Both participation and apathy, then, are complex phenomena which resist easy characterization and analysis, not only for the reasons just given but also because many of their correlates are still unknown. Although much has been learned in a relatively short time, the relationship between participation and its social, psychological, and political correlates is far from being understood in a systematic way. The explorations that need to be undertaken might be much more useful if both participation and its correlates were broken down into their principal components, so that the influence process—whatever the direction of its flow— might be understood more dynamically. Once identified, these components need to be systematically explored in different social contexts and across cultures to determine their relative explanatory power under varying combinations of forces.

Herbert McClosky

[See alsoAccess to politics; Elections; Representation, especially the article onrepresentational behavior; Voting. Directly related are the entriesDemocracy; Elites; Interest groups; Majority rule; Oligarchy; Parties, political; Political clubs; Political efficacy; Political financing; Totalitarianism. Other relevant material may be found in Political behavior; Political socialogy; Public opinion; Social movements; Socialization, article onpolitical socialization; Voluntary associations, article onsociological aspects.]


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Participation, Political

Participation, Political




Sidney Verba and Norman Nie define political participation as, those activities by private citizens that are more or less directly aimed at influencing the selection of government personnel and/or the actions they take (1972, p. 2). This definition is broad in that it takes into account many activities beyond voting in elections, including being active in organizations, working on campaigns, contacting officials, attending political meetings, and being a member of a political organization (Verba and Nie 1972, p. 31). Other scholars adopt broader definitions. For example, Lester Milbrath (1965) incorporates passive behavior (i.e., taking part in ceremonial activities), some psychological orientations (i.e., becoming informed about politics), and protests and demonstrations. Scholars of nondemocratic systems include legal and nonlegal participation and mobilized participation, as well as activities more appropriate to these contexts, such as complaining through bureaucratic channels (Friedgut 1979; Huntington and Nelson 1976; Shi 1997).

Milbrath (1965) was the first to argue that political participation follows a hierarchical structure in that individuals who engage in activities at the top level also engage in activities at lower levels. The bottom rung includes those who do not engage in any type of activity. The spectator level consists of activities such as voting, exposure to political stimuli, and talking to others about politics. The transitional level includes attending meetings, donating money, or contacting an official. And the gladiator engages in activities such as running for office, soliciting funds, and working on a campaign.

Another way to look at the various types of participatory actions is with respect to the level of input required from citizens, the type of information the act conveys to leaders, and how much pressure they place on policymakers to pay attention (Verba and Nie 1972; Verba et al. 1995). Working on a campaign and directly contacting officials requires a great deal of initiative, while activities like voting do not entail as much time or energy. Direct contact sends a clear message to leaders about a citizens preferences, whereas voting only conveys an ambiguous message. Finally, activities vary with respect to the pressure they put on leaders, with voting exerting a high degree of pressure since electoral support is necessary for reelection.


A prominent finding in the early literature, especially in the United States, was that socioeconomic factors, such as income and education, have the strongest effects on increasing the likelihood of turnout (Campbell et al. 1960). With respect to a broader range of participatory activities, those higher in socioeconomic status (SES) are also more likely to engage in the more difficult and time-consuming participatory activities (Milbrath 1965; Verba and Nie 1972), including nonconventional forms of participation such as demonstrations (Barnes et al. 1979). However, Verba, Nie, and Jae-On Kim (1978) find that the relationship between SES and voting is not as strong across all countries, which they attribute to differences in institutions and social cleavages. Furthermore, in authoritarian regimes, individuals higher in SES are actually more likely to abstain from political participation, since abstention can be a form of protest (Shi 1997).

One of the problems with the SES explanation is that it does not explain why those lower in SES do participate in politics. Verba, Kay Schlozman, and Henry Brady (1995) provide answers to this puzzle in their civic volunteerism model. They argue that participation is a function of three factorsresources, psychological engagement, and recruitmentwith resources being further divided into time, money, and civic skills. Civic skills are the communications and organizational abilities that allow citizens to use time and money effectively in political life (Verba et al. 1995, p. 304) and that can be obtained on the job, in nonpolitical organizations, and in church. It is especially in this latter domain that individuals lower in SES obtain civic skills. The authors find that civic skills play the biggest role in time-based participatory activities, such as contacting officials, while they are not as important for other participatory activities, such as voting, in which SES and psychological engagement play a more important role.

Steven Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen (1993) propose mobilization as another factor that can help resolve the puzzle of why those low in SES may be inclined to participate. They argue (and find) that direct contact by political elites, such as direct mail or door-todoor canvassing, has a positive influence on the likelihood of turnout, and that this effect is more pronounced among those least likely to vote, since mobilization offsets the costs of participation. Rosenstone and Hansen also find positive effects of mobilization with respect to working on a campaign, donating money, and trying to persuade others to vote a certain way. Many scholars have subsequently demonstrated that direct contact increases the likelihood of turnout among minority groups (Leighley 2001) and is more effective than other types of mobilization, such as mailings and phone banks (Gerber and Green 2000).


Normatively, political participation has a long tradition of being considered important to the concepts of legitimacy and authority in democratic political systems. Whether one assumes an authorization view of representation, in which a leader is accountable to those who selected or appointed him or her, or an accountability view, in which the representative is bound to a free public, the standards for achieving both in a democracy are free and fair elections (Pitkin 1967). Thus, a political system is considered legitimate only given the participation of citizens in the voting booth. One problem with this conceptualization is that it tends to consider democracies as the only political system that provides legitimate representation (Rehfeld 2006). Participation is still relevant to the legitimacy of nondemocratic regimes, since citizen support is often necessary for the proper functioning of the system (e.g., Davis 1976; Friedgut 1979; Shi 1997).

Empirically, participation is important for the quality of representation in democratic systems: democratic responsiveness depends on citizen participation, and equal responsiveness depends on equal participation (Verba 1996, p. 2). Thus, inequality with respect to who participates can lead to biases in representation (Lijphart 1997). For example, scholars find that counties with higher turnout rates receive more appropriations from Congress (Martin 2003), and states with higher levels of upper-class representation have lower levels of welfare spending (Hill and Leighley 1992). Finally, Senator roll-call votes are responsive to the ideology of voters in a state, but not to nonvoters (Griffin and Newman 2005).

SEE ALSO Autocracy; Citizenship; Democracy; Electoral Systems; First-past-the-post; Parliament, United Kingdom; Parties, Political; Pluralism


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Jennifer Merolla

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"Participation, Political." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

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