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Political Participation: Reasons for its Decline

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Response in recent class on why political participation is in decline:

In a democracy, the government draw its sense of legitimacy from popular sovereignty, the idea of acting in accordance with the general will. However, if the citizens stop participating in the political system, for example not voting, then that system begins to lose legitimacy since it is hard for it to claim that it has a political mandate of the majority of the people. The United States is currently heading in this direction. A recent international survey cited in “Money, Participation, and Votes” by Jeff Manza et al, showed that “turnout in U.S. national elections ranks an extraordinary 138th among 170 countries that hold elections.” (2005, p. 208) National election results show that voting participation among the voting age population is slightly over half on Presidential election years and just slightly over one-third during mid term elections. This coupled with job approval ratings for the President below 50% and for Congress below 25% (www.realclearpolitics.com) and a grim picture for America’s political system starts to emerge. Also, there appears to be a trend in the increase of citizens who self-report being unaffiliated, independent, or supporting third-parties, none of which have noticeable, let alone proportional to their support, representation in the government. One of the questions Jeff Manza, Clem Brooks, and Michael Sauder try and answer is what is causing this decrease in political participation.

Manza et al, broke the sources of political participation, or lack there of, into two categories: individual sources based primarily on “social cleavage” and institutional sources, effects that are inherent to political system itself. “Social cleavages” are divisions in society “stemming from race/ethnicity, class, gender, religion, language, or national identity” that “give rise to groups of people with shared interests or statuses.” (Manza et al, 2005, p. 205-206) However, the studies in this area are full of statistical uncertainties and often contradict each other leading the authors to “conclude that there is at best only modest evidence for an increase in social cleavage impacts on turnout.” (p. 213) Instead it appears more likely that the American citizens’ “lack of interest in politics, low levels of political efficacy, or apparent apathy toward election outcomes may reflect substantive views of the party system or the character of elite political conflicts.” (p. 210)

What are the flaws inherent to the American political system that causes such political apathy. The likely culprits are increased centralization, single-member districts, two party system, amount of representation, and perceived illegitimacy of the current role of government. As government has become more centralized and most important decisions that impact citizens’ lives being made at higher levels, the individual’s influence drastically decreases. His voice is now 1/230 million as opposed to 1/10-100 thousand at the local level. This sense of having the impact of a grain of sand on a beach could lead to the economic calculation that political participation is not worth one’s time or effort. Another source of disillusionment with the political system is the single-member district, which inevitably leads to a two party system. The lack of variety in candidates or parties could lead many individuals to believe there is no one that represents their views even running for office. Also, since 1920 Congress has frozen the number of representatives at 435, in spite of the fact that the population has increased dramatically. As each member now represents hundreds of thousands people, their constituents feel as though they are lost at sea when it comes to influencing their representatives. Finally, many individuals believe that the government is not acting in a beneficial role in society and refuse to provide legitimacy for the very institution they oppose by participating in it.

Manza, J., Brooks, C.,& Sauder, M. (2005). Money, Participation, and Votes: Social Cleavages and Electoral Politics. In T.A. Janoski, A.M. Hicks, & M.A. Schwartz (Eds.), Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization (33-53). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
President Obama Job Approval. Retrieved March 23, 2011 from http://www.realclearpolitics.com/
Congressional Job Approval. Retrieved March 23, 2011 from http://www.realclearpolitics.com/

In a democracy, the government draw its sense of legitimacy from popular sovereignty, the idea of acting in accordance with the general will. However, if the citizens stop participating in the political system, for example not voting, then that system begins to lose legitimacy since it is hard for it to claim that it has a political mandate of the majority of the people. The United States is currently heading in this direction. A recent international survey cited in “Money, Participation, and Votes” by Jeff Manza et al, showed that “turnout in U.S. national elections ranks an extraordinary 138th among 170 countries that hold elections.” (2005, p. 208) National election results show that voting participation among the voting age population is slightly over half on Presidential election years and just slightly over one-third during mid term elections. This coupled with job approval ratings for the President below 50% and for Congress below 25% (www.realclearpolitics.com) and a grim picture for America’s political system starts to emerge. Also, there appears to be a trend in the increase of citizens who self-report being unaffiliated, independent, or supporting third-parties, none of which have noticeable, let alone proportional to their support, representation in the government. One of the questions Jeff Manza, Clem Brooks, and Michael Sauder try and answer is what is causing this decrease in political participation.

Manza et al, broke the sources of political participation, or lack there of, into two categories: individual sources based primarily on “social cleavage” and institutional sources, effects that are inherent to political system itself. “Social cleavages” are divisions in society “stemming from race/ethnicity, class, gender, religion, language, or national identity” that “give rise to groups of people with shared interests or statuses.” (Manza et al, 2005, p. 205-206# However, the studies in this area are full of statistical uncertainties and often contradict each other leading the authors to “conclude that there is at best only modest evidence for an increase in social cleavage impacts on turnout.” #p. 213# Instead it appears more likely that the American citizens’ “lack of interest in politics, low levels of political efficacy, or apparent apathy toward election outcomes may reflect substantive views of the party system or the character of elite political conflicts.” #p. 210#

What are the flaws inherent to the American political system that causes such political apathy. The likely culprits are increased centralization, single-member districts, two party system, amount of representation, and perceived illegitimacy of the current role of government. As government has become more centralized and most important decisions that impact citizens’ lives being made at higher levels, the individual’s influence drastically decreases. His voice is now 1/230 million as opposed to 1/10-100 thousand at the local level. This sense of having the impact of a grain of sand on a beach could lead to the economic calculation that political participation is not worth one’s time or effort. Another source of disillusionment with the political system is the single-member district, which inevitably leads to a two party system. The lack of variety in candidates or parties could lead many individuals to believe there is no one that represents their views even running for office. Also, since 1920 Congress has frozen the number of representatives at 435, in spite of the fact that the population has increased dramatically. As each member now represents hundreds of thousands people, their constituents feel as though they are lost at sea when it comes to influencing their representatives. Finally, many individuals believe that the government is not acting in a beneficial role in society and refuse to provide legitimacy for the very institution they oppose by participating in it.

Manza, J., Brooks, C.,& Sauder, M. #2005#. Money, Participation, and Votes: Social Cleavages and Electoral Politics. In T.A. Janoski, A.M. Hicks, & M.A. Schwartz #Eds.#, Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization #33-53#. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
President Obama Job Approval. Retrieved March 23, 2011 from http://www.realclearpolitics.com/
Congressional Job Approval. Retrieved March 23, 2011 from http://www.realclearpolitics.com/

Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Mar 26, 2011