Engagement in a Democracy

WHY GET INVOLVED?

Are fewer people today active in politics than in the past? Political scientist Robert Putnam has argued that civic engagement is declining; although many Americans may report belonging to groups, these groups are usually large, impersonal ones with thousands of members. People who join groups such as Amnesty International or Greenpeace may share certain values and ideals with other members of the group, but they do not actually interact with these other members. These organizations are different from the types of groups Americans used to belong to, like church groups or bowling leagues. Although people are still interested in volunteering and working for the public good, they are more interested in either working individually or joining large organizations where they have little opportunity to interact with others. Putnam considers a number of explanations for this decline in small group membership, including increased participation by women in the workforce, a decrease in the number of marriages and an increase in divorces, and the effect of technological developments, such as the internet, that separate people by allowing them to feel connected to others without having to spend time in their presence.Robert D. Putnam. 2001. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 75.

Putnam argues that a decline in social capital—“the collective value of all ‘social networks’ [those whom people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other”—accompanies this decline in membership in small, interactive groups.———. 1995. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6: 66–67, 69; “About Social Capital,” https://www.hks.harvard.edu/programs/saguaro/about-social-capital (May 2, 2016). Included in social capital are such things as networks of individuals, a sense that one is part of an entity larger than oneself, concern for the collective good and a willingness to help others, and the ability to trust others and to work with them to find solutions to problems. This, in turn, has hurt people’s willingness and ability to engage in representative government. If Putnam is correct, this trend is unfortunate, because becoming active in government and community organizations is important for many reasons.

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To learn more about political engagement in the United States, read “The Current State of Civic Engagement in America” by the Pew Research Center.

Civic engagement can increase the power of ordinary people to influence government actions. Even those without money or connections to important people can influence the policies that affect their lives and change the direction taken by government. U.S. history is filled with examples of people actively challenging the power of elites, gaining rights for themselves, and protecting their interests. For example, slavery was once legal in the United States and large sectors of the U.S. economy were dependent on this forced labor. Slavery was outlawed and blacks were granted citizenship because of the actions of abolitionists. Although some abolitionists were wealthy white men, most were ordinary people, including men and women of both races. White women and blacks were able to actively assist in the campaign to end slavery despite the fact that, with few exceptions, they were unable to vote. Similarly, the right to vote once belonged solely to white men until the Fifteenth Amendment gave the vote to African American men. The Nineteenth Amendment extended the vote to include women, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made exercising the right to vote a reality for African American men and women in the South. None of this would have happened, however, without the efforts of people who marched in protest, participated in boycotts, delivered speeches, wrote letters to politicians, and sometimes risked arrest in order to be heard (Figure). The tactics used to influence the government and effect change by abolitionists and members of the women’s rights and African American civil rights movements are still used by many activists today.

A print from 1870 that shows several scenes of African Americans participating in everyday activities. Under the scenes is the text “The Fifteenth Amendment”.
The print above, published in 1870, celebrates the extension of the right to vote to African American men. The various scenes show legal rights black slaves did not have.

The rights gained by these activists and others have dramatically improved the quality of life for many in the United States. Civil rights legislation did not focus solely on the right to vote or to hold public office; it also integrated schools and public accommodations, prohibited discrimination in housing and employment, and increased access to higher education. Activists for women’s rights fought for, and won, greater reproductive freedom for women, better wages, and access to credit. Only a few decades ago, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder, and intercourse between consenting adults of the same sex was illegal in many states. Although legal discrimination against gays and lesbians still remains, consensual intercourse between homosexual adults is no longer illegal anywhere in the United States, and same-sex couples have the right to legally marry.

Activism can improve people’s lives in less dramatic ways as well. Working to make cities clean up vacant lots, destroy or rehabilitate abandoned buildings, build more parks and playgrounds, pass ordinances requiring people to curb their dogs, and ban late-night noise greatly affects people’s quality of life. The actions of individual Americans can make their own lives better and improve their neighbors’ lives as well.

Representative democracy cannot work effectively without the participation of informed citizens, however. Engaged citizens familiarize themselves with the most important issues confronting the country and with the plans different candidates have for dealing with those issues. Then they vote for the candidates they believe will be best suited to the job, and they may join others to raise funds or campaign for those they support. They inform their representatives how they feel about important issues. Through these efforts and others, engaged citizens let their representatives know what they want and thus influence policy. Only then can government actions accurately reflect the interests and concerns of the majority. Even people who believe the elite rule government should recognize that it is easier for them to do so if ordinary people make no effort to participate in public life.

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