HGov: Political Participation


Political participation is involvement in activities designed to influence public policy and leadership. A main issue of democratic government is the question of who participates in politics and how fully they participate. Popular participation in democratic elections is the essence of democracy. But in most elections, a majority of the American electorate stays away from the polls. Only in presidential elections does a majority usually turn out and usually a bare majority at that. When it comes to participation in ore demanding ways, far fewer people get involved.

The international difference is not hard to explain. In many ways the United States makes voting more costly than it is in other countries. Voting is the most widespread form of active political participation among Americans. Yet voter turnout is significantly lower in the United States than in other democratic nations. The requirement that Americans must personally register in order to establish their eligibility to vote is one reason for lower turnout among Americans. Other democracies place the burden of registration on government officials rather than on individual citizens. The fact that the United States holds frequent elections also discourages some citizens from voting regularly. Finally, the major American political parties, unlike many of those in Europe, do not clearly represent the interests of opposing economic classes. Therefore, the policy stakes in American elections are lower. Some Americans do not vote because they think that policy will not change greatly regardless of which party holds power.

Prospective voting is one way in which the people can exert influence on policy through their participation. It is the most demanding approach to voting; voters must develop their own policy preferences and then educate themselves about the candidates’ positions. Most voters are not well enough informed about the issues to respond in this way. Retrospective voting demands less from voters: they need only decide whether the government has been performing well in terms of the goals and values they hold. The evidence suggests that the electorate is, in fact, reasonably sensitive to past governmental performance, particularly in relation to economic prosperity.

1) Read Chapter 7 pp.213-227



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