Political participation is of fundamental importance to democracy, which is why the growing popularity of new forms of political participation, described by Russell J. Dalton in “The Good Citizen”, attracts attention. This essay examines Dalton’s findings and, after explaining their origins within the human empowerment concept, connects them to the concept of social capital, finding that Dalton’s new forms of political participation are not only a form of social capital, but also inherently civic, if not taken to an extreme. The implications of a decrease in voter turnout are also assessed, concluding in a need for either a renewal of voting participation or a new political system that does not set its base on voting.
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This essay attempts to provide an evaluation of the chapter “Bowling Alone or Protesting with a Group” of Russell J. Dalton’s book “The Good Citizen” (2008) by critically analysing the role of new methods of political participation as a form of social capital and discussing their implications for western democracies. This chapter was chosen due to the importance political participation has for democracy. Furthermore, in this chapter Dalton fails to draw the connection to social capital, an insightful step that offers a new view especially on new forms of political participation. The essay is structured as follows: A brief summary of Dalton’s chapter is presented, containing the points that are relevant for this essay. Thereafter, the origins of the new forms of political participation are investigated. Next, the concept of social capital is described in order to explain its relationship to the new political participation methods. The following section deals with the ways in which these new methods affect democracy and the people. Finally, a conclusion is drawn, summarizing the main points of the essay and offering some predictions about the future.
2. Summary of “Bowling Alone or Protesting with a Group”
In chapter 4: “How a Younger Generation Is Reshaping American Politics” of his book “The Good Citizen”, 2008, Russell J. Dalton objects to the contemporary analysis that political participation is declining among younger cohorts in America and argues for a process of transformation, rather than a decline, of the ways in which political participation is happening.
Dalton realizes the importance of the fact that “a considerable body of contemporary research argues that political participation is declining among the public” (Dalton, 2008, p.54) and decides to engage in follow-up research on this topic, discovering two significant trends: First, he investigates people’s perceived possibilities to influence the government, finding that Americans increasingly feel they have more ways to influence the government, with direct contact and protests being the ones that have increased the most. Secondly, he analyzes the use of different methods of political participation over time, finding that participation in elections and voting has decreased, but most other activities have increased or held fairly constant. It is to note that he found protest activities in particular to have increased.
At this point in his paper, Dalton categorizes the analyzed methods of political participation in two groups: the old, conventional methods that are decreasing, and the new, alternative methods that are increasing. The former consists mainly of voting, while the latter encompasses a variety of direct, issue-oriented influences on the government, e.g. demonstrating, protesting, or contacting an official. Furthermore, he describes the use of old methods as based on norms of duty, which evoke the feeling in citizens of having to do something for their country. In contrast, the new methods are based on more participatory norms, adapted by engaged citizens who are highly motivated and want to participate in political action.
The key point in Dalton’s paper is the transition from old to new methods, the neglect of voting and the increasing use of alternative methods of political participation.
Of particular importance is Dalton’s analysis of these findings. He provides possible explanations for this transition, namely social modernization and generational changes. First, he highlights the importance of social status as a predictor of political activity, arguing that “better education, upper status occupations, and higher income provide the resources of time and money that facilitate political action.” (Dalton, 2008, p. 67) Then he points out that expanding political skills and resources make people realize the limits of voting as a means of political influence, making them inclined to use more individualized, direct and policy focused methods.
Dalton’s concluding statement is that social changes reshape political action and that voter turnout on its own provides a poor indicator of the overall political involvement.
3. The Rise of New Forms of Political Participation in Western Democracies
This section tries to go beyond Dalton’s explanation of the background development that caused the rise and popularity of demonstrations, protests, and other forms of new political participation. However, also this attempt will not exceed a rough and general outline, since the emergence of new political methods is only the peak of an enormous iceberg of trends and changes observed in the western world.
Dalton writes in his paper that the popularity of new methods of political participation is nurtured by participatory norms and the willingness to have an influence, something that comes along with engaged citizenship. He also describes that this engagement results from expanding political skill and resources. Now, going even further in the causal chain, the question is “Why do people engage themselves politically?”
This question can be answered with the so-called human empowerment concept, introduced by Christian Welzel and Ronald Inglehart in 2008. This concept describes how people are empowered and willing to take responsibilities and actions in their lives, including political engagement, if they are influenced in a certain way by three main domains:
The Socio-Economic Domain equips people with skills, resources, and connectivity that together increase their action capacities. This means that people have the ability to exercise the freedom of shaping their lives. This is what Dalton meant when he referred to expanding political skill and resources.
The Socio-Cultural Domain equips people with a mindset of open, liberal, and democratic values, which increases their emancipative values. This means that people have the ambitions to exercise freedom, in our case the will to influence politics.
The Legal-Institutional Domain provides people with personal, social, and political rights which increase their democratic rights. This means that people are entitled to exercise freedoms, in our case that they are allowed to demonstrate or contact officials.
If those three domains provide the required setting, people are successfully 1) able, 2) willing, and 3) allowed to take an active part in their lives. Such people will be, because of their values, rights, and skills, engaged in political matters.
Going one step further, it can be explained how the different features the domains provide people with come into place. The concept “school of democracy”, introduced by Christian Welzel on the 18.02.10 in his Mass Beliefs and Democracy course, for example describes how people gain democratic skills by joining associations in which they learn to organize, discuss, tolerate, and so on. The concept of post-materialism (Inglehart, 1977), on the other hand, explains how a democratic, liberal, and open mindset is shaped. To go into further detail, however, would go beyond the scope of this essay.
4. Social Capital and its Connection to the New Forms of Political Participation
The concept of social capital has many facets and characteristics, a fact that explains why no concrete and clear cut definition exists. Loury (1977; 1987) defines social capital as “social relationships which come into existence when individuals attempt to make best use of their individual resources”. Coleman (1990, p. 302) defines it by its function, stating that there is a “variety of different entities, having two characteristics in common: They all consist of some aspect of social structure and they all facilitate certain action of individuals who are within this structure.” For the purpose of this essay, it will be sufficient to simplify Coleman’s definition, describing social capital as every human interaction that facilitates mutual action.
How does this connect to the new forms of political participation? Social capital can be created on many different levels. The lowest level is the teamwork of two people, the highest level a globally coordinated action among all humans (e.g. saving the environment). Somewhere in between is the societal level, where people in a state try to mutually coordinate their actions in ways that are productive for the collective they are part of. It is salient that this includes politics, which is why political participation, conventional or alternative, can be seen as social capital.
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But do new forms of political participation always facilitate mutual action? A social movement in form of a demonstration is social capital, because its members mutually perform an action, but if the action itself results in political decisions not being made, it also inhibits mutual action on a higher level, namely that of the whole society, at least in the short run.
This situation highlights two important questions:
Is a human interaction to be classified as social capital if it facilitates mutual action on one but inhibits mutual action on another level of grouping?
Does the outcome of a mutual action matter for classifying it as social capital?
The answer to question 1) is yes, simply because an action A will almost always inhibit the realization of a hypothetical action B, even actions that are commonly agreed upon as being social capital. If the members of a study group are repairing a car together instead of working on a summary that another study group needs for their presentation, leaving this study group unable to present, then the car repair is still social capital. This also answers the second question. The quality of the outcome of a mutual action does not matter for defining the action as social capital. A demonstration, being a social movement is social capital, regardless of the possible effects this demonstration has and even terrorism, with all its harm for democracy, must then be considered as a form of social capital.
This conclusion is also in line with the following argument put forward by Christian Welzel, Ronald Inglehart and Franziska Deutsch in their 2005 article “Social capital, Voluntary Associations and Collective Action”, in which they deal with new forms of political participation under the term elite-challenging action. “Given that most theories see the central importance of social capital in its functions to produce collective action, there is no conceptual justification to exclude elite-challenging action from the study of social capital.” (Welzel, Inglehart & Deutsch 2005, p.124)
This of course implies that there are various forms of social capital, some of which benefit democracy, others that harm it. Focusing on this, Welzel, Inglehart and Deutsch introduce a distinction between “civic” and “uncivic” forms of social capital, labeling forms like corruption as “uncivic, because they solely benefit the ingroup” (Welzel, Inglehart & Deutsch 2005, p.125).
5. Effects of New Forms of Political Participation on Democracy
Building on these insights, the point of interest now is whether or not the new types of political participation – elite challenging actions – are civic.
As has been observed above, new types of political participation, like demonstrations and protests, have the tendency to inhibit decisions that are contrary to the interests of certain groups in society, which leads to a refinement and gain in the quality of the final political decision in respect to society as a whole. The term “watchdog” was introduced by Christian Welzel during his Mass Beliefs and Democracy course at Jacobs University in 2010 to describe this effect. However, this way of increasing quality necessarily slows down the political decision making process, an effect which could be blocking the whole system if taken to an extreme. If everybody only protests, no decision will ever be taken and upcoming problems in society cannot be solved. Conclusively it can be said that there is a trade-off between pragmatism and quality, where either extreme harms democracy. New forms of political participation are therefore civic, which is what Welzel, Inglehart and Deutsch conclude in their paper, as long as not taken to an extreme.
Another consideration that has to be taken into account comes with the transition of popularity in use of old and new methods of political participation. It is implicit in transition that the old political participation method of voting is given up in favor of the new methods. However, voting and elite challenging actions cannot be perceived as equally important, because, in a democratic system, voting is the only means of legitimizing a party to govern the society. The entire democratic system builds on the idea that people’s interests are represented by the means of voting for the party they prefer to see in office. These parties may decide upon policies that parts of the population dislike, which is why they may choose to demonstrate against them, but with an unapproved party in office, interests of the public will not be represented at all. There might even be an undemocratic party in power then, which denies the right to demonstrate, therefore erasing one of the three domains of the human empowerment concept. Understanding this, one can come to two main conclusions:
Voting has to be established on a broad base again by all means.
A new system of democracy is needed.
An argument for the first option would be that it seems to be the best available option, since no viable alternative is at hand. An argument for the second option would be that the observed and possibly irreversible transition trend Dalton describes in his paper does not leave a choice. Perhaps a new system would be more appropriate for the modern, engaged and empowered citizen. It is not the aim of this essay to come up with a viable alternative to democracy, but perhaps this line of thought will be taken on by further research and suggestions will be read about in the future.
This essay explained the formation of the “new” methods of political participation described by Russell J. Dalton with the Human Empowerment Concept by Welzel and Inglehart. The connection to the concept of social capital was drawn by identifying political participation as a form of human interaction that facilitates mutual action on the societal level. It was also found that the definition of social capital does not refer to the type of mutual action resulting from human interaction. Finally, possible effects of the new methods of political participation for democracy were discussed, observing that an overuse, especially a sole use of elite challenging actions would harm or even destroy the democratic system. Taking the positive associations of engaged citizenship into account while observing the transition Dalton described, a suggestion in terms of the need for a new system were made.
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