Saylor.org's Comparative Politics/How Do We Measure Political Participation?

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Public Participation[edit]

During the 1960s and 1970s, political scientists explored the factors necessary both to create and maintain sustainable democratic regimes more closely. Scholars overwhelmingly agreed on the importance of public participation. This research finding is not surprising. Democratic governments are based on the premise that all citizens have the right to participate in the electoral process and to choose the leaders of their government. Public participation, however, means more than just voting. Broadly defined, it is the active engagement by the general public in the policymaking process at all levels of the government (local, state, and national). Public participation can take such forms as town-council meetings, public hearings, and ballot initiatives. The process of active engagement creates the sense of popular ownership that is necessary to sustain democracy.

Promoting active engagement is a concern that is still present in both mature democracies and states in transition (i.e. states in the process of democratization). In mature democracies, such as the US, scholars are concerned with maintaining public engagement in an environment where such activities are declining. On the other hand, specialists on states in transition focus on the creation of safe public participation. Achieving this goal in both types of states requires an incredible amount of dedication by the regime, which has the responsibility to make participation accessible and secure for its citizens. In most cases, this involves both the presence of democratic institutions and a culture that supports these political structures.

What Does Public Participation Look Like?[edit]

There is no “correct” answer to this question. Public participation is manifest in diverse ways based on the broader political, social, and economic conditions in the state. For example, at a local level, citizens tend to organize advisory committees. The purpose of these organizations is to allow for the public discussion of policies that have the potential to affect adversely the lives of the attendees. Citizens that are not adequately informed of the risks facing them can attend committee meetings to learn more. The provision of information by the advisory committee members is time consuming as it may involve extensive research and the creation of materials to distribute to the broader public. For those who are knowledgeable about the implications of a particular law, the meetings give them the opportunity to express their displeasure and to recommend alternatives. In addition to spreading awareness of their causes, the members of these councils must also serve as a liaison between the citizens’ group and government representatives. This also requires time and dedication.

Thus, the transaction costs (or the price of political interactions) are quite high. The strain placed on community organizers, in this instance, may serve as a deterrent for future local mobilization. Success is more likely if council members effectively divide the labor and transaction costs of the organization. A second form of participation is the holding of public hearings. The purpose of advisory meetings is to disseminate information and gauge the viewpoints of local citizens. At public hearings, particular emphasis is placed on debates between and among government representatives and the populace regarding the pros and cons of potential laws. The cost of providing information is less of an issue here. At public hearings, a major obstacle has to do with the characteristics of those in attendance.

More often than not, the attendees (both organizers and the general public) tend to be those who strongly oppose the law or government proposal. As a result, the preferences communicated to the state are sometimes just the opinions of a select few. Public hearings are often heated spectacles characterized by harsh exchanges that do not result in any agreed upon policy prescriptions. In many ways, this can serve as a deterrent for citizens who may want to attend but refrain from doing so because they believe that their voice does not matter. This deterrent factor reinforces the higher attendance of opponents in relation to proponents. The result of these dynamics is not inherently bad. For example, those who were in opposition to the informal status quo policies of racism dominated public hearings on the New York police department’s policies of racial profiling. In this instance, the “opponents” actually represented the preferences of most of the minority communities adversely affected by the behavior of law enforcement officials. There was an incredible amount of debate and no policy resolutions. However, the repeated public spectacles applied pressure on the state to monitor the behavior of its police officers more closely. The problem is far from resolved, but the statistical data indicate that there has been a noticeable dip in this manifestation of racial profiling.

Ballot initiatives are another opportunity for citizens to actively engage in the policymaking process. Ballot initiatives invite the public to present a petition (consisting of a stipulated number of signatures) in which they express their desire to place a particular law on the ballot for reconsideration in the upcoming election. Once it is time to vote, citizens can decide independently whether to repeal or renew the law. A positive aspect of this process is that it allows citizens to engage in direct democracy. In other words, individuals do not have to surrender their decision-making power to representatives or senators to see that a policy is modified. This helps to ensure that representatives have no ability to act against the wishes of his or her constituency. The problem here is that while popular participation is encouraged, once the votes are placed, it is hard to reverse these policies. This problem is worsened by the fact that initiatives often fail to introduce voters to the nuance surrounding a particular political dilemma, leading to an over simplified presentation of the problem. Given these issues and the fact the legislative process is completely circumvented, many citizens are disconcerted by ballot initiatives. In response to some of these criticisms, several states (such as Massachusetts, Ohio, and Mississippi) have indirect ballot initiatives, which involve the legislature selecting what laws can be placed on the ballot to be reconsidered by the people. Here, the role of the legislature is not completely removed from the policymaking process, and public participation is still possible.

Each of these means of public participation has their benefits and their drawbacks. For example, advisory committees provide information but at great cost for the organizers. Public hearings often raise awareness of a cause and create a dialogue between the citizens and the state. However, as we illustrated above, the attendees often spend more time arguing than devising policy prescriptions. Finally, ballot initiatives allow for direct democracy. Though, the complete circumvention of a popularly elected body based on the signatures of a small portion of the population is quite disturbing to some citizens. In the case of California, there are often so many initiatives on the ballot that it is impossible to keep track of all them. As a result, people cast their votes on issues about which they have very limited knowledge.

Social Capital and Civil Culture: The Roots of Public Participation[edit]

In the early 1960s, comparativists, Almond and Verba, argued that the presence of democratic institutions was not enough to promote regime stability or encourage public participation. The idea of democracy is part institutional and part cultural. Democratic culture is influenced by knowledge about the system, a positive evaluation of the value of system, and feelings of emotional support for the system. When all three criteria are fulfilled, a society is said to have a “Civic Culture,” which means that members of the populace see the value of influencing the policymaking process through public participation and are generally happy with the legislative output of the state. The synergy between institutions and culture stabilizes the regime.

According to political scientist, Robert Putnam, “social capital” as opposed to democratic culture serves as the foundation to public participation. In the mid-1990s, Putnam argued that public participation in the US had been undermined due to a lack of “social capital.” “Social capital” refers to the norms that promote cooperation and trust in society. Such trust is created by participation in social organizations such as sports clubs or reading groups. According to Putnam, increases in “social capital” lead individuals to trust and cooperate with one another in the political sphere by participating in civil society organizations. Public participation allows citizens to see the benefits of collaborating with the state. The public participation by the citizenry does not go unrewarded. In response to positive political engagement, the state will modify its own policymaking so that it better meets the needs of the voting public. Putnam argues that social capital instills the importance of political participation, which is rewarded by government responsiveness.

According to Putnam, the very first step of the process is withering away in American society. Putnam has long argued that Americans no longer join sports organizations, fraternal groups, or reading clubs to the same extent as they did in the past. “Social capital” is declining rapidly, weakening the robust civil society that is necessary to bridge the gap between the social and the political. As a result, public participation will decline. The state will respond to these changing dynamics by alienating itself from the populace. Such conditions threaten the stability and sustainability of democracy. We should not expect to see the rise of autocracy in America, but we should expect to see the quality of our democracy diminish. Critics of Putnam point out that there are other ways for individuals and groups to establish cooperation through civil society. For example, non-governmental organizations and religious groups are also viable sources for the type of social cohesion that Putnam argues is at the foundation of democratic stability. Consequently, either the “social capital” deficit is not as bad as Putnam portrays it or, perhaps, it does not exist at all.

Obstacles to Public Participation[edit]

While culture and “social capital” are important, these conditions are only able to flourish when the state has created an environment where public engagement feels accessible and safe. There are a number of obstacles that, if overcome by the state, could encourage the active public participation of citizens. Below are some of the most significant obstacles as well as plausible solutions. The obstacles are as follows: lack of information, lack of communication with the public, and state neglect of “at-risk” groups.

Lack of Information[edit]

In democracies, citizens are encouraged to participate openly in the political process. Often, people will refrain from participating in important political processes, because they do not know enough about a candidate or a social issue. As noted above, citizen groups try to address this issue independently through the creation of advisory boards. While useful, the consistent dissemination of reliable information comes at a high cost to the organizers of such organizations. This is not to suggest that they should stop. What is needed is for the state to lend its support to the efforts of grassroots movements. Insufficient information can create apathy among voting populations, not because individuals do not want to care, but because they are unaware of the existence and severity of certain social problems. Public participation is often motivated by an impetus to change some aspect of the political system that a person finds undesirable. Thus, the mere provision of information can serve as a catalyst in facilitating public participation.

Lack of Communication[edit]

Public policy creation, including formation, negotiation, and implementation, is a long and complicated process that involves a plethora of lawmakers and bureaucratic agencies. In its attempt to achieve a desired goal, governments have a tendency to focus more on the outcome than the process. If public participation is the goal, then states will have to make the legislative process more inclusive. Indeed, all groups must feel like they have a voice. As mentioned above, public hearings are helpful in this respect. States can also use public surveys as a way of gauging the popularity of a given policy.

State Neglect of “At-Risk” Groups[edit]

The purpose of the state is to produce policies that are reflective of the needs of sectors of its population. As the state fulfills this duty, it is inevitable that government action is going to adversely affect one group or another. What is not inevitable is a lack of government recognition of the hardship placed on certain groups. For example, President Clinton aggressively pursued a policy of free trade in the 1990s. However, he and other presidents have consistently created a “safety bubble” around industries that would be destroyed by foreign competition, such as agriculture. The state distributes subsidies to farmers to supplement their income. The agricultural lobby is quite robust in the US. As a result, public participation by members of this sector plays an important role in getting the state to continue to pass protectionist policies. Not all groups, however, have the organizational strength and financial might of the corn lobby. Therefore, the state must be even more careful in weighing the pros of cons of all policies and, where possible, providing a safety bubble for social, ethnic, gender-based, and occupational groups. It is important for people to feel that their state is responsive so that their public participation has a purpose.

These types of obstacles are present even in mature democracies. Though, within the context of a mature democracy, remedying these issues is considerably easier than it would be for a state in transition. Mature democracies have already successfully created a space for public participation. It is just a matter of encouraging civilians to fill and to use this space.

Democratization and Civil Society in Transitional Countries[edit]

For democratizing countries, encouraging public participation is even harder, because the foundation of social trust and cooperation are either non-existent or very weak. This is particularly the case when states attempt to democratize in the aftermath of civil conflict. Civil conflict is domestic warfare in which the state and rebel factions use violent means to achieve political ends. The subsequent fissures among societal groups and between the state and the populace create a distinct set of obstacles that make the development of social capital difficult. Mature democracies already have a space in which public participation can take place; countries that are going through the difficult process of democratization must create this space.

Democratization involves a series of institutional reforms, which allow for the peaceful transfer of power from one leader to the next through competitive elections. In order for a state to be truly democratic, all eligible members of the voting public must be permitted to participate in the electoral process. Democratization also involves additional institutional reforms to protect the civil rights and liberties (freedom of speech, religion, the press) of the citizenry. This process of large scale political change tends to happen in fits and starts. Progress is never linear and mistakes are often made. In some cases, institutions actually are “successfully” created, but upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the oppressive tendencies of the regime are still present. This was the case in Zimbabwe in 1999. The state executive, Robert Mugabe, agreed to support a constitutional conference that was supposed to usher in a new era of political freedom. To an outside observer, all the elements needed to encourage public participation were in place. There were public opinion polls to gauge the preferences of the population and town hall meetings to disseminate information about the reform process. Once the constitution was completed, Mugabe even allowed for its approval to be determined through a referendum vote by the electorate. Recall that all of these pieces were part of the policy prescription for encouraging public participation in mature democracies. Once, the constitution was submitted to the public for approval, it was rejected, unsurprisingly. Later, reports emerged of government corruption and repression. These surface level “democratic” reforms are often used by political leaders to placate critics abroad. International lending organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund require some form of political reform before any funds are transferred to the state. Thus, the constitutional conference was nothing more than a public act to ensure that Zimbabwe would continue to receive financial support. This is a trend that we currently observe in states throughout Africa, Latin America, and South East Asia. Political leaders begin “reforms” only to show later that their intentions were disingenuous. While countries are able to continue to receive international economic support, their citizens are betrayed once again by state officials. When autocratic states put forth a genuine effort towards democratization, citizens are hesitant to accept the validity of state actions. Repeated breaches of trust strip the regime of any legitimacy it may once have had. For states that attempt to create a space for public participation, the establishment of regime legitimacy is important. Legitimacy is the population’s recognition that the state has the authority and right to rule over that population. Legitimacy is not based in the coercive capabilities of the state, rather it is earned. Almond and Verba would argue that a “civic culture” in which citizens have knowledge about the system, a positive evaluation of the value of system, and feelings of emotional support for the system increases legitimacy. Likewise, legitimacy reinforces the “civic culture.” If the right of the state to rule is rejected, then public participation has no value. This does not mean that acquiring legitimacy is impossible; it means that it is hard earned.

While the freedom of civil society organizations is constrained during the process of democratization, this does not mean that these groups have no role to play. In some cases, civil society groups are able to weather the storm of government repression and even civil war. Civil society organizations are groups that are independent of the government and seek to influence the policymaking process. When civil society organizations are able to remain intact despite war and repression, these groups often have more legitimacy than the state. In post-conflict Guatemala and South Africa, civil society organizations were the ones willing and able to push for genuine reforms on the part of the state while simultaneously encouraging people to engage in public participation. These same organizations are also important in facilitating a process of healing and reconciliation among members of the population. Progress in this process can be thwarted if war begins again or if state actors refuse to continue to cooperate. When this happens, it makes reinitiating democratization even harder.

For democratizing states, the repetition of cooperative interactions between the state and the populace are necessary to establish trust and eventually legitimacy. In South Africa, civil society organizations helped to facilitate this process. In 1996, a draft constitution was completed by members of the South African regime, the African National Congress (the group that had waged war against the state), and representatives from the civilian population. Members of the South African state had to work even harder to overcome many of the obstacles to public participation. In South Africa, delegations of state representatives initiated large efforts to educate the public about the new constitution. These efforts included newspaper articles, television commercials, large billboards, and public speeches. The spread of information helped everyone to feel included in the process. This gesture, on the part of the government, communicated that it had nothing to hide and that it wanted the public at large to feel safe filling the new space created for public participation. Once the legitimacy of the state is deeply entrenched, there are no violent challenges to the state, and a culture of liberalism, democratic consolidation has taken place.

The study of the role and importance of public participation emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Promoting active engagement is a concern for leaders in both mature and young democracies. The presence of political legitimacy and a robust civil society in mature democracies and its virtual absence in weak democracies means that the task of encouraging political participation is harder for democratizing states. Countries such as the US must focus on maintaining and increasing participation by working on ways to make people feel engaged in the political process. Countries such as South Africa (in the 1990s) must work to ensure that the space for political participation continues to be protected. This requires more intense efforts to establish the legitimacy of the state and to encourage the proliferation of civil society organizations.