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Essays Importance Political Participation

1Matthews, Donald R., The Social Background of Political Decision-Makers (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1954).

2Lane, Robert E., Political Life (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1959).

3Milbrath, Lester W., Political Participation (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965).

4 Personal communication from Lester W. Milbrath (October 15, 1974). Also see Milbrath, Lester W., “Individuals and the Polity: Patterns of Linkages,” in Back, Kurt, ed., Social Psychology (New York: John Wiley, forthcoming).

5 By “one kind of activity” is meant a single mode which is participated in with considerable frequency. In their classification scheme, Verba and Nie allow “communalists” and “campaigners” to vote as well. “Voting specialists” only vote, and “parochial participants” only engage in particularized contacting. “Inactives” engage in none of the four modes of activity, and “complete activists” engage in all activities but particularized contacting. The latter come closest to the “gladiator” concept and the idea of cumulative participation, but they make up only 9 percent of the sample (p. 396). Percentages of people in each “participator category” are taken from Appendix F, pages 394–397, of the Verba-Nie book. See Table 4–8 on page 78 of the Verba-Nie book for a summary of the activity profiles of these six “participator categories.”

6 Analysis tests using political issues would tell which kinds of issues attract such people as “communalists” and “campaigners.” Verba and Nie assume that nonconflictual community or public good issues attract communalists while conflictual, partisan, and ideological issues attract campaigners, but this assumption is never empirically tested. If the data do not show such patterns, much of what Verba and Nie say about the distinct characters of communalists and campaigners would have to be retracted.

There is another aspect of this problem which is also interesting to explore. Some of these nonconflictual issues aimed at contributing to the public good may change over time into more conflictual and partisan issues in which sides are taken. If this happens, do the communalists withdraw from what now appears to be a conflictual situation or do they continue to cling to the issue as it is newly formed and hence fight for its support in an arena joined by campaigners? Empirical tests on this score would show to what extent communalists and campaigners withdraw from or join an issue as it changes its political character. Since many issues change from public support to conflictual bases over time, this example is probably not as isolated or trivial as it might first appear.

7 The wording of the participation questions is found on pages 351–355 of the Verba-Nie book. The marginals for these questions are also listed there as well as on page 31.

8 “Interest-group” and “protest” behavior are probably also peripheral activities to most Americans. Even though protests often take the form of mass demonstrations, probably very few people, in percentage terms, ever engage in such behavior.

9 Of course, psychological variables should also be studied in a non-electoral context, such as the Verba-Nie study provides. One imagines that feelings of political trust, attitudes toward the issues and the “state of the times,” and group loyalties, for example, play a part in influencing political participation in non-election settings. The important point made here is that psychological variables probably have a greater explanatory role when studied in election settings. The salience of politics among people is simply higher with an approaching election, and people are usually more aware of their political attitudes and feelings at this time and more likely to be affected by them.

10 The reader may recall that Verba and Nie study the political beliefs of people. What they mean by “political beliefs” seems quite different from the Michigan concept of “election issues.” Political beliefs seem to be more general and long-term postures toward politics, such as ideologies or attitude structures, while the Michigan concept refers to short-term stimuli unique to a given election. Verba and Nie include in their study of political beliefs general questions on social welfare, economic inequality, and civil rights (p. 225), which have not, in general, been the specific issues of importance to people in the elections of the last decade. The Michigan studies, on the other hand, let the people define what the important issues are in any campaign, the issues which can motivate people to participate who might not otherwise do so. These issues can and do change from election to election, as do candidates and their personality appeal and feelings about the “state of the times.” When these factors emerge and gain salience, people respond by participating in elections, protest demonstrations, interest-group organizations, and communal activities.

11 For a list of these organizations, see pages 178–179 in the Verba-Nie book.

12 The community characteristics “boundedness” and “isolation” are related, although a community which is “bounded” does not have to be “isolated,” but the converse most usually is true.

13 Verba and Nie also realize this problem in their book (see chapter 13), but they phrase the question somewhat differently from the treatment here.

14Stokes, Donald E., “Parties and the Nationalization of Electoral Forces,” in The American Party Systems, ed. Chambers, William Nisbet and Burnham, Walter Dean (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 182–202.

15 At times this reviewer has trouble viewing communal activity as political participation. Political participation, as Verba and Nie define it, is activity aimed at influencing the government (p. 2). Certainly some people view communal activity in this way, but others contribute to the community good without ever thinking to (or having to) influence governmental officials in the process. Residents of small communities, in particular, would often seem to be preoccupied with “friends-and-neighbors” communal activities which are not associated in any way with politics. Feelings of “duty to community” and “community spirit” may motivate many to participate in communal affairs who never engage in any political activity to influence the government.

16 This statement should not be confused with the earlier discussion of issues as causes of participation. Issues can be causes without necessarily having consequences. In other words, issues can cause people to participate, but these issue preferences may not be communicated clearly to elites or, if so, may not influence their decision making (in essence, a two-step hurdle in the influence process). Of course, issues with widespread salience and intensity—such as the Vietnam War—can and will have effects on elite decision making.

17 For the most part, Verba and Nie do not answer this question directly. What has been attempted here is to use those pieces of information which seem relevant in the Verba-Nie book to reach a tentative answer. Quite possibly, a few computer runs on the Verba-Nie data file would be the best way to clear up at least part of this problem.

18 In one place, the authors also give partial data on the activity levels of all communities under 50,000 in population when they classify them for their analysis of consequences (footnote I, pp. 312–313). The percentage range between the “very low” and “very high” participating communities is between 12 and 13 per cent for all activities except voting, with the two types of moderately active communities falling somewhere within this range. These figures do not appear to depict widely contrasting participatory situations among communities. These communities do vary somewhat in their demographic characteristics although it is assumed that most of these communities are rural areas, villages, and isolated towns or cities. A few small suburbs would also fall within this group and a much fewer number of larger suburbs. (See page 234 of the Verba-Nie book for a list of the types of communities which have lessthan and more than 50,000 inhabitants.)

19 “These comparisons between communities are done using both “corrected” and “uncorrected” participation rates. Actually, Verba and Nie most emphasize the “corrected” rates which control for the socioeconomic backgrounds of people living in the community. The reason for this emphasis, when studying consequences, is to see if the political characteristics of the community have effects on elites above and beyond the socioeconomic backgrounds of its citizens.

20 One is particularly reminded of the early Columbia University studies of voting behavior. See Lazarsfeld, Paul, Berelson, Bernard, and Gaudet, Hazel, The People's Choice, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948) and Berelson, Bernard, Lazarsfeld, Paul, and McPhee, William, Voting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954). For another study on this interesting phenomenon of local political homogeneity, see Miller, Warren E., “One-Party Politics and the Voter,” American Political Science Review, 50 (September 1956), 707–725.

21 These relationships are described here using linear concepts. Actually, both relationships are somewhat curvilinear, although they approximate linear relationships quite well.

22 See Philip Converse's remarks on the inside jacket cover of the Verba-Nie book.

The American Political Science Review

Description:The American Political Science Review (APSR) is the longest running publication of the American Political Science Association (APSA). APSR, first published in November 1906 and appearing quarterly, is the preeminent political science journal in the United States and internationally. APSR features research from all fields of political science and contains an extensive book review section of the discipline. In its earlier days, APSR also covered the personal and personnel items of the profession as had its predecessor, the Proceedings of the APSA.

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