The Myth of the Disengaged American

By Russell J. Dalton

This article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Public Opinion Pros and has been posted here with the permission of the publisher. It is the second in a series of planned Public Opinion Pros articles that make use of the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES).

Politicians, pundits and political scientists have decried the supposed erosion of political engagement among Americans. According to “A Nation of Spectators,” a bipartisan report by senators Bill Bennett and Sam Nunn on the state of American politics, “Too many of us lack confidence in our capacity to make basic moral and civic judgments, to join with our neighbors to do the work of community, to make a difference. Never have we had so many opportunities for participation, yet rarely have we felt so powerless.“

Several recent academic studies have tracked the downward trend in voting turnout in national elections, and attributed it to spreading apathy or distrust among the American public. The most prominent voice has been that of Robert Putnam, claiming that we are “Bowling Alone,” disconnected from our neighbors, our communities, and our political system.

New survey data just released from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems challenges this “myth of the disengaged American.” The CSES project asked a common survey questionnaire in more than two dozen democracies over the 2001-04 time period. All the surveys were conducted immediately after a national election to ensure equivalency in measuring participation in an electoral setting. Thus, we have a unique collection of data with which to address the question of whether Americans are disengaged when compared to other democratic publics.

Stereotypic images of Americans’ disengagement are largely based on turnout statistics for national elections. We do not present these data from the CSES nations, because this pattern is already well-known and well-documented in the literature. Even in the highly partisan and polarized environment of the 2004 U.S. presidential elections, with turnout rising about 5 percent over previous elections, barely half of Americans turned out to vote. The United States and Switzerland compete for the lowest rung on the turnout ladder for advanced industrial democracies, and nearly all of the new democracies in the CSES project had higher levels of turnout.

The turnout statistics are the fuel for negative images of American participation in comparative perspective, but these comparisons are only part of the story. First, numerous studies have demonstrated that the unusual nature of American registration rules and elections generates much of this participation gap. For instance, it is generally estimated that if the United States adopted a European-style registration system, turnout would increase by at least 10 percent. Similarly, the “winner-take-all” system of American elections produces lower turnout than the proportional representation systems used in most other democracies.

Second, simple turnout statistics overlook the “amount of electing” that occurs in the United States. The typical European voter may cast four or five votes in a four-year period, so voting is a rare activity that concentrates participation on a handful of votes. But many Americans face a dozen or more separate elections with a long list of ballot choices in a four-year period. Americans vote on an unmatched array of local, state, and federal offices, government bond proposals, and referendums or initiatives. The long ballots common to U.S. elections are unknown in Europe. They also make voting in America a more challenging task for the citizen confronted with so many choices.

When the content of U.S. elections is considered, a typical American probably casts three or four times more votes than citizens in other established democracies—even allowing for lower turnout levels in the United States. For example, between 1999 and 2004 a resident of Oxford, England, could have made a single ballot choice in four elections; a resident of Irvine, California, could have cast about forty choices in 2004 alone.

In short, turnout in national elections is low in the United States, but a simple count of the number voting in one election underestimates the actual engagement of Americans in elections.

Furthermore, there is more to democracy than elections.

Too often, discussions of participation end with the act of voting, but campaigns themselves involve the citizenry in other and richer ways. Involvement in the campaign is a more demanding activity than pulling a lever or filling out a ballot paper, and more directly involves citizens in the deliberative process of democracy. In its postelection survey, the CSES asked respondents about their participation in two different types of campaign activity:

Which, if any, did you do during the most recent election…? to other people to persuade them to vote for a particular party or candidate?

…show your support for a particular party or candidate by, for example, attending a meeting, putting up a poster, or in some other way?

Despite the imagery generated by low turnout levels in the U.S. elections, participation in campaigns was more common among American respondents than those in any of the other twenty-three nations included in the CSES project (Figure 1). Forty-four percent of Americans said they tried to persuade others how to vote in 2004, and 30 percent said they demonstrated their party support in some active way.

Admittedly, other data from the American National Election Study indicate that the highly polarized and highly partisan nature of the election stimulated U.S. campaign activity slightly in 2004. But other nations in this set saw equally or more dramatic elections: the 2002 Spanish elections following the Madrid terrorist attacks; the 2002 contest in France between Chirac and LePen; the Lula election in Brazil. Activity in American campaigns reflects not the drama of a particular election, but rather the broad, grassroots, participatory nature of American elections in general. The host of candidates who run in local, state, and national elections assemble their own armies of volunteers, instead of relying on a cadre of formal party members, as in most parliamentary systems. In 2000, with its lower turnout, 34 percent of Americans said they tried to persuade others how to vote, which would still rank the United States second in this crossnational set. Even in Australia and Belgium, where voting is compulsory, fewer citizens are actively engaged in the campaign.

Time series from the American National Election Studies and other national election study series generally show a downward trend in campaign activity over the past several decades. This reflects a pattern of partisan dealignment in contemporary democracies that is decreasing electoral participation. But even with this dealignment trend, Americans are more engaged in elections than most other democratic electorates.

The essence of grassroots democracy is represented in participation that occurs outside of election campaigns. Citizens contact their political leaders to express their political interests or needs. Groups attempt to deal with social or community problems, ranging from issues concerning schools or roads to protecting the local environment. From the PTA to local neighborhood committees, this is democracy in action. The existence of such autonomous groups and independent action defines the characteristics of the civil society that theorists from Jefferson to the present have considered a foundation of the democratic process. Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, saw such group activity as a distinctive feature of American democracy in the 1800s:

The political activity that pervades the United States must be seen to be understood. No sooner do you set foot upon American ground than you are stunned by a kind of tumult… here the people of one quarter of a town are meeting to decide upon the building of a church; there the election of a representative is going on; a little farther, the delegates of a district are hastening to the town in order to consult upon some local improvements; in another place, the laborers of a village quit their plows to deliberate upon a project of a road or a public school… To take a hand in the regulation of society and to discuss it is (the) biggest concern and, so to speak, the only pleasure an American knows.

These are exactly the types of political activity that current critics such as Putnam see as lacking in the American public, which is described as disengaged and disconnected from the political process.

The CSES project measured these nonelectoral forms of engagement with another battery of participation questions:

Over the past five years or so, have you done any of the following things to express your views about something the government should or should not be doing…?

…contacted a politician or government official either in person, or in writing, or some other way?

…worked together with people who shared the same concern?

Even today, Americans are distinctive for their high levels of nonelectoral participation (see Figure 2). In 2004, more than a quarter said they had contacted a political figure, and more than a third had worked with others on a political issue.

In other established democracies—such as Sweden, Finland, France, and Germany—participation levels were barely half those of Americans. The participatory patterns of Americans stand out even more clearly in comparison to the new democracies at the bottom of the rankings. Not only are American participation levels relatively high, but other public opinion surveys suggest they represent a general increase in nonelectoral engagement over time. The participatory culture that de Tocqueville observed still appears alive and well in the contemporary American public.

A final question from the CSES project asked about participation in a protest or demonstration over the previous five years. Figure 3 indicates relatively low levels of protest activity among the U.S. public. Protest is part of the repertoire of action for contemporary publics, especially in many European nations where other surveys indicate that such activity has grown over the past three decades.

Even in this case, however, American participation has increased when compared with levels reported by comparably worded questions asked in the late 1960s and again in the late 1980s. Americans today are as likely to say they have attended a protest or demonstration as they were in 1967, when the Vietnam War was raging, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and U.S. politics was in tumult. Rather than disengagement, Americans are still engaged, according to this measure.

Why have past analyses—excluding Tocqueville’s—missed the continuing participatory nature of Americans? We suspect that part of the reason is the changing nature of participation in the United States. Those factors that are easiest to count—turnout in national elections and formal membership in large national associations—are showing decreased activity levels.

Instead, involvement is shifting toward areas where activity is citizen-initiated, directly linked to government, and more policy-oriented—such as direct contacting of political leaders or working with citizen groups. Better-educated and more sophisticated citizens want to be more politically engaged, but not in traditional forms of partisan and electoral activity, where elites structure the choices and the opportunities for action. The self-mobilized individual favors referendums over elections, and group activity over campaign work. Similarly, participation in citizen lobbies, single-issue groups, and citizen-action movements is increasing in nearly all advanced industrial democracies, and the American public is leading in these patterns.

In short, the contemporary patterns in political activity represent changes in the style of political action, not just changes in the level of participation. In the new style of citizen politics, people try to take more control over political activity into their own hands. These changes in participation make greater demands on the participants, and, at the same time, increase public pressure on political elites. Citizen participation is becoming more closely linked to citizen influence.

De Tocqueville would be pleased.

Russell J. Dalton is professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine.

Additional reading

Bennett, William, and Sam Nunn. 1997. A nation of spectators. Washington, DC: National Commission on Civic Renewal.

Dalton, Russell. 2005. Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Macedo, Stephen and Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh, eds. 2005. Democracy at risk: Toward a political science of citizenship. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

Putnam, Robert. 2000. Bowling alone: The collapse and renewal of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1966. Democracy in America. New York: Knopf.

Verba, Sidney, Kay Schlozman, and Henry Brady. 1995. Voice and equality: Civic voluntarism in American politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Martin Wattenberg. 2002. Where have all the voters gone? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

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