Is citizen participation actually good for democracy?


Russell J Dalton over at the LSE:

While participation opportunities have broadly expanded, the skills and resources to utilise these new entryways are unevenly spread throughout the public. I describe a sizeable socio-economic status (SES) participation gap across all types of political action. A person’s education and other social status traits are very strong predictors of who participates.

The expanding repertoire of political action widens this participation gap. Participation research often focuses on voting turnout, but this is where the social status gap is generally smallest. Labour unions, citizen groups, and political parties can mobilise lower status voters on election day. However, as citizens become more active in non-electoral forms of participation, skills and resources are even more important in facilitating these activities. To write a letter, work with a community group, post a political blog or boycott environmentally damaging products requires more than just showing up on election day to mark a ballot and leave. So the expanding repertoire of political activity widens the SES participation gap.

The participation gap is also widening over time. Evidence from several nations shows that the decline in voting turnout is concentrated among lower-status citizens, while the better off continue to vote at roughly the same levels as the past. Given the centrality of elections in selecting the officials who govern, this widening participation gap in turnout implies unequal representation with all the implications that this signifies.

For non-electoral participation, the increase in activity has come disproportionately from better-educated and higher income citizens who possess politically valuable skills and resources. Protest activities often display the widest social status participation gap. And while there is a one-person/one-vote limit on voting that moderates inequality, no such ceiling exists for writing emails, working with public interest groups, protesting, and other non-voting forms of action. The sum result is a widening in the SES participation gap in overall terms.

More here.