The People's Voice

Political scientist Schlozman says some political activists are more effective than others

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

As the 1996 election year gains momentum, voters' actions - or lack of them - will again draw scrutiny as the definitive symbol of American political participation. But an extensive study co-authored by Prof. Kay Schlozman (Political Science) takes a wider and deeper view of Americans' involvement in politics.

The study, results from which have been published in the book Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics , examines how citizens participate in the political process. Interviewing people from a range of social, economic and ethnic backgrounds, Schlozman and her colleagues - Sidney Verba of Harvard University and Henry Brady of the University of California at Berkeley - found that some citizens are able to get their message across, while others are not. This disparity may result from a number of factors, such as socioeconomic status or unequal access to vital resources, but ultimately it influences whose voices carry further.

Prof. Kay Schlozman (Political Science)-"A fundamental question in any democracy is, from whom - and what - does the government hear?" (Photo by Mark Morelli)

"A fundamental question in any democracy is, from whom - and what - does the government hear?" Schlozman said. "The voices that speak loudly relay a particular set of messages about the needs and preferences of the public, messages that differ from those that would be sent by citizens who do not take part. Not everyone is equally active and activists are not drawn randomly from across the population, which has consequences for what is communicated to the government."

Schlozman and her colleagues surveyed a random national sample of 15,000 people, of whom 2,500 were subsequently interviewed at length about political, civic and religious activities, political knowledge and other related subjects. Using these data, the authors created what they term a "Civic Voluntarism Model" to demonstrate and explain the factors which foster participation: resources such as time, money and civic skills; psychological engagement with politics; and access to networks through which people are recruited for political life.

Schlozman points out that the study used a broad definition of political participation. Besides voting, working in campaigns and making financial contributions, the authors construed participation to include activities like contacting public officials, attending protests, getting involved in local issues and joining or supporting organizations that take stands in politics.

Drawing upon this array of information, Schlozman said, it is possible to understand the many factors that facilitate political participation. For example, people with higher levels of education and prestigious jobs tend to have more opportunities to develop organizational and communications skills like networking that are "transportable" to politics. But those who volunteer in non-political activities often develop some of these skills through other means, Schlozman said, such as serving on the local church's budget committee, or organizing a fund-raising event for a charity.

Although these opportunities are not necessarily universal, churches in particular apportion opportunities for the development of civic skills relatively democratically. The socio-economic distinctions that apply so strongly to political activity are, therefore, less relevant.

Illustrating the point, Schlozman and her colleagues found that African-Americans and Latinos tend to be less politically active than whites, but not simply as a result of their race or ethnicity. Members of these groups are less likely to be well-endowed with the factors that foster participation, like high levels of education or family incomes, or skills exercised on the job and in organizations, according to Schlozman.

Church activity can provide compensatory opportunities for skill development. African-Americans, who by and large attend Protestant churches, which are congregationally-based, get more opportunities to learn civil skills through their religious activity than do Latinos, who are more likely to attend hierarchically-based Catholic churches.

The study began nearly a decade ago and was conducted against an international backdrop that included the Persian Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. While these events didn't have a significant influence on the findings, the study did try to look at long-term issues in America.

"We did build in consideration of various issues with a somewhat longer shelf-life in American political controversy, such as social welfare and abortion," she said. "We were able to probe how these issues themselves stimulate participation and how that affects what the government hears on these contentious subjects."

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