Why Do People Participate in Politics?

Study by:
Joanne M. Miller - University of Minnesota 
At the heart of democratic theory and practice is the notion that citizens participate in the political process. As such, the question of why people choose to participate in politics is of fundamental importance in a democracy, and there is a long tradition of trying to answer it in political science. The most prominent models of political participation focus on the ability to participate, showing that people higher in socioeconomic status are most likely to become active in the political process, because they have the time, money, and/or civic skills necessary for participation.
In my research, I argue that the dominant models of political participation underemphasize the motivation dimension of participation, and therefore miss a critical factor by ignoring the psychology of participation. In other words, we know a lot about who participates, but much less about why people participate.
I have conducted survey experiments, field experiments, and nationally representative surveys to delve into the psychological motivations of participation.
In one set of survey and field experiments, I draw on prospect theory to show that people who feel threatened are more likely to engage in the political process (through contributing money to an interest group working to avert the threat) than those who feel they have something to gain from participating (in other words, those who see an opportunity to change a policy in a direction that they favor).
In another set of studies (involving a nationally representative survey and a survey experiment using a nationally representative sample), I show that motives related to American identity, partisan identity, self-interest, values, social aspects (wanting to spend time with friends or make new friends) all have a significant impact on participation (above and beyond traditionally-examined SES variables), and that participation depends in part on whether people think that the activity will be effective at satisfying the motive. For example, I find that people for whom the social motive is personally important express more willingness to engage in social activities, such as participating in a protest or volunteering for a candidate, than people for whom the motive is not important. In general, my research shows that motivation matters – that even people who have all the money in the world will not necessarily become politically active unless they are motivated to do so – and that people pick and choose the particular political activities in which to become engaged depending on their perceived effectiveness at satisfying the motive that gave rise to the desire to participate in the first place.
A chapter on this project appears in the volume New Directions in American Politics.
This research has been supported by the National Science Foundation and a University of Minnesota Grant-in-Aid.