English title: Citizenship and Participation

Author(s): Marc Hooghe -

Language: English

Type: Book chapter

Year: 2014

Abstract

A defining characteristic of democratic political systems is that citizens have the opportunity to freely voice their policy preferences and to participate in the policy-making process. Mass political participation is traditionally considered a crucial element of a well-functioning democracy (Almond and Verba 1963; Pateman 1970). Benjamin Barber (1984) is among the contemporary authors who have most strongly defended the importance of participation. According to Barber, “strong democracy” should be based on the assumption that citizens can participate in numerous ways in political decision-making and that in practice they will also do this in a routine manner, thus reviving the republican ideal of citizens who are actively involved in the politics of their society. Typically, citizens have different means at their disposal to participate. By far the most widespread act of political participation is voting in elections. In systems of representative democracy, citizens use their vote to select the political personnel who will be responsible for day-to-day political decisions. Empirical research, however, shows strong differences with regard to voter turnout, both between individuals with specific background characteristics and between political systems. Citizens also have numerous other ways to express their preferences, like taking part in demonstrations, joining political action groups, or other forms of protest behavior. Although these acts are performed less frequently, they allow citizens to voice their preferences in a very clear and sometimes highly effective manner. While there is a strong consensus about the importance of political participation, other questions remain open and are hotly debated in the political science literature. There is obviously a clear normative preference for “high” levels of participation, but there is no agreement on how high this level should be, nor of the precise impact of varying participation levels on the functioning of democratic politics. Elevated levels of political participation might equally indicate satisfaction or the occurrence of widespread discontent about the political regime. Conflicting demands from public opinion might also imply that political decision-making becomes more difficult as politicians are confronted with an overload of demands from society. Nor will all authors will agree that taking part in elections is the first and foremost form of political participation. During elections, citizens only have a limited set of options to voice their preferences, while in non-electoral forms of politics the options on timing, scope, and intensity can be much wider. We also know that in many democracies, the frequency of election-related participation has been declining, while non-electoral forms of participation are on the rise. We do not know, however, whether this implies that citizens are better able to prevail in the decision making process. While there are some well-known examples of how demonstrations and strikes have toppled regimes that looked quite solid, we also know that most demonstrations do not have all that much effect on policy. Continuous mass demonstrations clearly played a role in the downfall of Arab autocracies in 2011, but a vast majority of all demonstrations are not even picked up by the radar of mass media, let alone by political decision makers. An additional question is whether it makes sense to continue to broaden the definition of political participation. In the 1950s, the focus of empirical research was on electoral forms of participation, but in more recent work, non-institutionalized forms of participation have increasingly received attention. Political consumerism—that is, the buying or boycotting of products for political reasons—is now also routinely included in definitions and operationalizations of political participation. But scholars disagree whether various acts of what has been called life-style politics also should be included in the standard definition of political participation. While these activities might have a clear political relevance, it is less clear whether they are actually meant to influence political decision-making. In this chapter, we first conceptualize and define political participation and question how this concept fits within a normative democratic concept. Second, we investigate electoral participation, with a focus on determinants of voter turnout. Third, we highlight the role of non-electoral forms of participation. We close with observations on how inequalities in participation repertoires and levels might have an effect on the democratic role of political participation.

From page no: 58

To page no: 75

Anthology: Comparing democracies 4: Elections and voting in a changing world

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