Don’t hate..Participate.

I apologize I have two really awesome figures along with this tidbit that I’m having trouble converting…

Political Participation

The active nature of a citizenry is considered one of the more significant components that make up a functioning democracy.  It is because of this political scientists have studied not only the level of participation among citizens, but equally important, when and to what extent these citizens participate if indeed they are actively engaged.  Political participation varies both at the national and local level, and can be measured in a variety of ways.  These distinct forms of participation are not chosen randomly; rather they reflect ways in which citizens view their roles in society.  Conversely, these ideological views on a citizen’s role in society directly affect participation levels and types.  Due to differences in one’s application of the role of a citizen, mobilization efforts to foster political participation must often be specific to communities and neighborhoods.  However, the fundamental components behind political participation and civic engagement are rooted in the cognitive and behavioral abilities of the individual citizen themselves.

The mere participation of American citizens in the democratic process (regardless of type or frequency) is largely determined by social and psychological variables/inequalities found among groups of people.  Before getting into these variables, it is important to first describe the two dimensions of citizenry found commonly held by citizens inAmerica.  In “Citizenship Norms and Political Participation inAmerica: The Good News Is…the Bad News Is Wrong”, a study is conducted by building upon the 1984 General Social Survey research and the European “Citizenship, Involvement and Democracy” (CID) project (Dalton, 2006).  Russell Dalton and the Center for the Democracy and Civil Society (CDACS) at Georgetown University created the “Citizenship, Involvement and Democracy” survey, replicating the battery of citizenship questions from earlier research.  In 2005 they conducted in-person interviews using 1001 respondents focusing on determining which of the citizen’s duties were seen as important and which were not.  The survey asked:

“To be a good citizen, how important is it for a person to be . . . [list items]. 0 is extremely unimportant and 10 is extremely important.”

 Their results were consistent with the findings of the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS) and identified two broad dimensions of citizenship found in America.  Citizen Duty is the first dimension of citizenship found in America and is based around the norms of social order (Dalton, 2006).  This dimension of citizenship involves being duty-based; in other words, the role of the citizen is to fulfill their duty to their country by acts such as reporting a crime, obeying laws, serving the military, voting (etc.).  The second dimension, Engaged Citizenship, includes citizens which believe in political autonomy, activity within civil society groups, solidarity, volunteering and other general political activities (Dalton, 2006).  Also engaged citizens are more likely to hold different priorities in terms of policy and views concerning the role of government compared to duty-based citizens (Dalton, 2006).  Engaged citizens are less inclined to vote and focus more on other aspects of political participation.

Although more research and empirical evidence is needed in order to apply the findings of the survey nation-wide, it does provide a unique way of looking at the idea of citizen involvement from the eye’s of the citizen.  The inclusion of the CID survey and Russell’s analysis in my discussion of political participation is due mainly in part because of two key ideas.  First, development of the two dimensions of citizen norms is helpful when looking at the motivations behind citizen involvement and also the type of participation each respective set of ideals calls for.  Secondly, it provides interesting analysis comparing the social distribution of these norms; specifically in the areas of age and education.  The survey found that older Americans held more duty-based norms of citizenship while greater support is shown for norms of civic engagement among younger citizens.  Interestingly enough, throughout the age groups (ranging from 18-70+), wherever there is a decrease in duty-based norms held, it is actually counterbalanced by an increase in the amount of engaged-citizen norms held.  This balance of norms held throughout the age groups presents the idea that a decrease in political participation through the means of voting, is made up by political participation through other means.

The educational inequalities found in the study amongst the two groups holding different citizenship norms were eye-opening to say the least.  The study found a slight negative correlation between education levels and the adoption of duty-based citizenship as shown here:              Figure 2: Education Differences in Citizenship Norms

This means that an increase in education levels actually lead to the abandonment of duty-based norms of citizenry and the adoption of a more engaged-citizen approach to political participation.  Due to the perceived norms that the educational system would try and perpetuate (i.e. voting), seeing education levels higher among those adopting engaged-citizen norms provides legitimacy to the dimension (of norms).  Lastly, this information presents the idea that rising levels of education coupled with generational change have impacted citizens in a way were they are adopting more engaged-citizen norms.  A couple of important political implications rise as a result of this data.  A possible shift in the priorities of citizens when it comes to their roles in society and the direct correlation between increasing levels of education and the rise of engaged-citizen norms; both of which may in effect cause more dissenting opinions of government and more engaging forms of political participation as illustrated here:




Figure 3: Trends in American Political Participation

             The CID study provides an example of how the mobilization of citizens is conditional upon certain norms creating a fixed ideology of citizen engagement and political participation.

Russell’s analysis of the CID study illustrates how the mobilization of citizens is contingent upon individual-level characteristics, such as education.  Other variables both social and psychological can account for whether or not a group of citizens will mobilize for a particular problem.  One of the biggest social factors affecting the participation of individuals in the political process continues to be ones specific socio-economic standingThis is the root of most social barriers to political participation.  The knowledge level of the individual is very important to political scientists because it can directly capture information levels.  Although definitive measure of political knowledge has not been agreed upon, what we do know is that the average level of political knowledge is low and the variance is high (Kuklilnski, 2000).  The socio-economic standing of an individual can, to an extent, be a good indicator of their knowledge levels.  People that have a higher socio-economic standing have more time and resources available to them to be able to participate in the political process (Mondak, 2001).  It is just that simple.

Psychological variables that prevent people from mobilizing and participating in the political process are also present.  Attitudes and beliefs among the citizenry have been found to have high levels of misinformation (Kuklinski, 2000).  The ability of citizens to access information regarding their attitudes (rather than strict, credible information) when called upon also acts as a psychological variable that may prevent citizens from mobilizing.  Attitudes, from a social psychological definition, are “a psychological tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favor or disfavor (Kuklinski, 2000).  Attitudes according to Converse, should be fixed, stable and meaningful (Kuklinski, 2000).

Providing a more realistic view, John Zaller provides the argument that people do not actually posses a single fixed attitude stored in memory about any given phenomena (Zaller, 1992).  Instead he provides the view of varied considerations.  This view holds that any given phenomena may induce different thoughts and responses that are floating around in our head.  The claim refutes the argument from Converse that people’s attitudes are completely random, however it states that response stability should not be expected as this theory of varied considerations does not claim the citizen holds a stable ideology capable of reflecting consistently held attitudes either (Zaller, 1992).

Varied considerations and the idea that the most easily accessible evaluative response is the most important (and that citizens by accessing the evaluation strengthen their attitude whether it is wrong or right) are indeed psychological limitations that citizens face which, at times, makes them difficult to mobilize.  Varied considerations although not completely random, still hold that the considerations a citizen brings to bear on a judgment will inevitably hinge on priming (what is at the top of your head), which may be random thoughts evoked by cues in the item viewed or effects of framing from multiple sources (Zaller, 1992).  Independent of citizens’ motivations, limitations to our cognitive capacity provides another psychological variable which may prevent the mobilization of citizens.

Individual-level characteristics including socio-economic standing continue to act as a variable preventing political participation.  Due to a lack of time and resources, “The Citizens Objective” as described by Dennis Chong, is to make well-rounded political decisions while minimizing both time and effort (Chong, 1993).  This idea, also known as “Bounded Rationality” illustrates the social constraints placed on individual citizens who cannot expend the proper time and effort when making political decisions.

Framing, how something is depicted, is often correlated with the idea of “Spin”.  As seen in the Chong study of liberties, framing effects operate on the receiver of the message, causing them to recall various considerations.  Chong in his article “How People Think, Reason, and Feel About Rights and Liberties”, he stated, “People are clearly susceptible to framing effects…so it is likely that the public can be persuaded to interpret an issue in different ways, with potentially significant implications for how they choose sides (Chong, 1993).  This is extremely important when discussing political participation.  The argument provided by Kahneman and Tversky in “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice” provides that preferences on political issues should remain the same regardless of how the story or issue is told (packaged) (K&T, 1974).

Framing however, according to Kahneman and Tversky’s research, has left us with the “susceptibility of preferences to variations of framing (K&T, 1974)”.  The political implications of being susceptible to framing include misinformation held by citizens, the fact that political decisions made may reflect packaging and are not guided by substantive matters and also it leaves the citizenry open to attempted manipulation by those whose interest would be better served having a less informed citizenry (Lecture, Feb 10).

The cognitive and behavioral abilities of the individual citizen and their individual-level characteristics make up the conditions for an effective or ineffective mobilization effort.  Factors affecting mobilization efforts range from an opposition to governmental ideals, to a lack of resources, time and effort, and even include low education levels.  The personality of an individual also serves as a condition to political participation.  According to professor Mondak’s article “Personality and Civic Engagement: An Integrative Framework for the Study of Trait Effects on Political Behavior”, Biological factors affect personality traits which are affected by environmental factors.  All of these factors which are individual-level characteristics work to create the contingent effects of personality which in turn become illustrated through ones political behavior (Mondak, 2010).  Mobilizing Americans to participate in politics can be very difficult because of numerous social and psychological limitations.

Through the adaptation of engaged-citizen norms, the promotion of more direct action concerning local and community issues and the increasing levels of education, the limitations of the individual citizen will be (or should I say could be) eased.  Mobilizing citizens and fostering political participation may come with reforms embedded in the framework of engaged citizenship, not civic duty.  Individual-level characteristics including cognitive ability, personality, socio-economic status, education and the adoption of separate citizen norms, largely affect the mobilization and political participation of citizens.

Works Cited

Chong, Dennis. 1993. “How People Think, Reason and Feel about Rights and Liberties.” American Journal of Political Science 37: 867-99.

Dalton, Russell J. “Citizenship Norms and Political Participation in America: The Good News Is … the Bad News Is Wrong.” Occasional Paper Series (2006).GeorgetownUniversity, Oct. 2006. Web. <;.

Kuklinski, James H., Paul J. Quirk, Jennifer Jerit, David Schwieder, and Robert F. Rich.2000. “Misinformation and the Currency of Democratic Citizenship.” Journal of Politics 62:790-816.

Mondak, Jeffery J., and Belinda CreelDavis.  2001. “Asked and Answered: Knowledge

Levels When We Will Not Take ‘Don’t Know’ for an Answer.” Political Behavior  23:199-


Mondak, Jeffery J., Damarys Canache, Matthew V. Hibbing, Mitchell A. Seligson and Mary R. Anderson. 2010. “Personality and Civic Engagement: An Integrative Framework for the Study of Trait Effects on Political Behavior.” American Political Science Review 104(1).