Political Participation in American Democracy
Democracy is defined as a system of government in which the people rule either directly or through elected officials. Democracy is participation, an opportunity to protect our rights, the voice of the people, coexistence, accountability, respect, justice, equality, and expression. Democracy can be interpreted in many ways, but most people agree on one thing- democracy means freedom. For a democracy to work everyone must actively participate. There are several ways to participate including being informed, starting/being involved in political discussion, protesting, signing petitions, and most importantly, in my opinion, voting. “The idea of an election is much more interesting to me than the election itself…The act of voting is in itself the defining moment.” Jeff Melvoin, Northern Exposure, Democracy in America, 1992.
To me, democracy means having a voice. If I exercise my right to vote, then I am heard, even if most Americans don’t feel the same way. I also think that it means freedom, without democracy we could lose our freedom. These freedoms that the Constitution grants me will be upheld as long as American people keep their democracy. We may not agree on all the same issues but as long as we agree on our core value of democracy, we keep our freedom. We are given the right to elect Officials that share our values and it’s essential that we participate on every level. We must make our voices heard in the local, state and national elections. Abraham Lincoln said, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
There are a couple ways that voters are mobilized into voting. The textbook defines voter mobilization as “a party’s efforts to inform potential voters about issues and candidates and to persuade them to vote” (Chapter 14, page 471). These efforts might include sending mail or email, paying for advertisements, making phone call, etc. Mass media can also influence Americans to participate in government. For example, if you constantly hear and read about politics and the importance of voting you might feel obligated to participate. On the flip side the continuous flurry of advertisements can irritate voters, making them dread the process.
There are two main groups/organizations that facilitate political participation. The first is an interest group. An interest group is an organization formed around a shared interest. An interest group’s goal is to protect their interest through political action. According to the textbook, “There are potentially as many interest groups in America as there are interest, which is to say the possibilities are unlimited” (Chapter 14, page 433). That means there is an interest group for everyone. Everyone has something they feel like they need to protect, and with the help of an interest group they can. Interest groups use lobbying to make sure their interest is represented in government. You often hear about special interest groups surrounding a hot issue in the news.
The second group/organization that facilitates political participation is political parties. Political parties are defined in the textbook as “a group of citizens united by ideology and seeking control of government to promote their ideas and policies” (Chapter 12, page 395). Parties provide a political linkage between voters and elected officials, which can allow voters to hold officials accountable. This linkage makes voters feel like they have more control over the government. There is still a need for political parties, as they keep each other in check. Both the Democratic and Republican parties still believe in the value of the Constitution, regardless of who is in power.
There are several factors that determine which citizens are likely to participate in political life. The textbook states, “From survey data, we know quite a lot about who votes and who doesn’t in America in terms of their age, gender, income, education, and racial and ethnic make-up” (Chapter 14, page 469). If voters have a negative attitude toward politics, they are less likely to vote and vice versa. As stated before mobilization is a key role in active participation. The media is also a factor in voter turnout. Negative advertising is often used, which make voters feel obligated to vote for the other candidate and not the “bad guy.” According to the textbook, selective perception is “the phenomenon of filtering incoming information through personal values and interest” (Chapter 15, page 526). Selective perception happens often- on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, when choosing news sources, etc. Political socialization also affects voter turnout. Political socialization is how people acquire opinions about politics. Political socialization is caused by factors such as family, social groups, education, political environment, party affiliation, and religion. Some people might not vote because of rational ignorance. The textbook defines rational ignorance as “the state of being uninformed about politics because of the cost in time and energy” (Chapter 11, page 385). Voting might seem like a waste of time and energy to someone, if they think that their vote doesn’t really affect the outcome.
In closing, I would like to leave a quote to think about. Louis L’Amour said “To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers. One who does not vote has no right to complain.” This quote speaks loudly in my opinion. Americans seem to complain about things that are within their control, but don’t chose to change anything. We all tend to treat politics almost like entertainment. We only watch when it seems interesting- when it gets to the “good part.” I personally feel that American democracy could be exemplary if everyone would do their part.
Barbour, Christine, and Gerald C. Wright. Keeping the Republic: Power and Citizenship in American Politics the Essentials. 8th ed., CQ Press, 2017.