Virtual Citizenship, Part IV: Russell Dalton, Discussion


Julie Thompson Klein:
Citizen activism is going on all over the place organized through the internet.
RD: Katrina efforts were impressive, but even more is the transition of spring break to service projects.  Groups of students are institutionalizing the experience and find other ways to go on breaks to do various things.  Among the new norms of citizenship are helping others at home and abroad.  Young people are criticized for being only about themselves, but they are clearly engaged in something broader.

Suzanne Alteri:  How do you combat the disillusionment with government that most young people have?  Why is there so little scholarly literature about the solution and not just the problem.
RD: My recent book on Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices follows changes over time.  Back in the ’60’s when conditions were more restrictive, people tended to trust their politicians.  Now when conditions are more expansive, trust is much lower.  This may be because people now expect more of their government.  This may be a positive thing.  The same thing, furthermore, is happening across the industrialized world.  It may be part of the general modernization process.
What to do about it?  There has been a lot of research focused on young people and voting.  This generally breaks into two categories:

  • How do you change the institutions? we could certainly make voting easier for students.  They now must register differently when they go off to school?  We could put voting on Veteran’s Day, a day off and one that celebrates Veterans.  So far politicians have resisted not only because of the inertia of institutional change.  If I’ve won, then I do not want to expand it to include people who did not vote before.
  • How do you change campaigns.  Same old campaigns of the past do not work for the present.  Duty is embedded in the current campaigns.  Vote because otherwise you cannot complain about the government; otherwise the government may be even worse.

If both of those things are done, youth participation may increase, but this is almost universal across democracies.  Parties and elections just aren’t the only game in town anymore.

Geoff Nathan, Wayne State University:  Is part of the problem the increasing duration of campaigns, that these happen all the time.

Wendy Chun, Brown University:  Could you discuss more about citizenship and the relationship to corporations.  Buycotting seems to suggest that people start to think about their economic and not their political behavior:
RD: Some have said that if you boycott or buycott a product, that is not political but rather economic.  But this really is not the best way to think about.  I think the boundaries between social and political and economic activism that it is hard to draw a line, and we can see many examples of actions that begin in one realm and move into others.

Sharon Lean, Department of Political Science:  How would various changes in the electoral system help to change political engagement.  Venezuela is currently contemplating lowering the voting age t0 16; Michigan is experiencing problems over the utility of its primary.
RD: There is an ongoing notion that if we fix the institutions, things will work better, but if we look at the 20 core OECD nations, turnout has declined in 18.  Political party identification is declining in 19.  Those include presidential, parliamentary, first-past-the-post, strong governments, weak governments.  Every country has a story that tends to be idiosyncratic to the conditions of the country, but either this is an amazing coincidence of stories in 20 countries, or there is something systematic going on.  The electorate of the 1950’s in the US (or Sweden) is much different than today.  There was little access to 1/2 hour of nightly news.  Few people read quality papers.  Two-thirds had high-school education or less.  We could improve the system, but virtually every country is struggling with the same problem, and there is no simple fix.  Nobody has turned the corner to figure out ways to engage them.  It resembles the difference between the old and new economies: you cannot turn back the clock.  It does not mean that elections are unimportant, but that emerging values do not mesh well with voting as an activity.

Andrew Dyjach:  Could you talk about those countries where electoral decline has not happened.  What about the outlier cases?
RD:  That is a good political science question, but the answer is not as insightful as we might hope.  In many of these countries, we have data series that are shorter or of lower quality.    Big declines in the US occurred between the mid-60’s and late-70’s and if we started measuring in the 80’s, as they did in many countries, we wouldn’t have caught it.  some say that 18 is a bad minimum age for voting because that is exactly when students are moving, leaving high school and so on, but in Japan they did not change the age (it is still 20) and they see the same decline.

Michael Sansibaw: What does the research show about engagement at various levels: local and state as well as federal.
RD: A lot of the disenchantment that Americans (or Swedes or others) feel about national government is not felt as strongly at the local governments.  People have greater trust in those organizations that are closer to home.  One of the questions that we asked was a question about engagement in one’s local community–the epitome of what Tocqueville cited regarding the strength of American democracy.  There is a presumption that local involvement has declined, but in fact more people are connecting to their local community than ever before.  The difference is that we are engaged in in ways that we did not think of as engagement before.  We might not be as involved in the PTA but being active in soccer clubs, neighborhood associations, crimewatches, raising money for schools, cleanups has actually increased.  That is very compatible with old and new styles of citizenship, but even more with the new style.  If you are going to go help out after Katrina, you need to be involved in your community. 

Bobby:   Your research suggests a new style of citizenship but it seems like you’ve spun that into something we should be content with and that politicians should adapt new styles but it seems like you’re brushing off the real problem. 
RD: My frame of reference is the literature that American democracy is bad, but I want to suggest that the situation is more complex and perhaps better than it might seem.  Some say the glass is half empty and getting emptier; I think it is half full and could get fuller.  How to full it up:  the evidence suggests that the way to fix it is to understand that the marketplace has adapt and to understand why people vote.  You vote because that’s how you get what you want out of the political system.  That is probably healthier than voting "because it is my duty."  But that would mean that politicians have to stop acting like old-style politicians (I’m going to answer in a way that you don’t know what my answer is). 

Rob Warren, Wayne State University:  There are various proposals for mandatory national services.  This has been done in Europe for many years.  Is that something that is feasible.
RD: If it is proposed it should suggest that it starts with people on their 50th birthday and then see if it flies.  Part of these proposals are based on the notion that young people are lazy (Hillary Clinton suggested that some young people think work is a four letter word) which the statistics do not support.  If it is to make them like their grandparents, it is not going to work.  And they are not less concerned about their communities.  A lot of the things that such a policy would potentially solve are already underway in a decentralized way.  My initial research was on Germany, which has such a program, but there are problems with imposing this kind of service.  Might it not be better for us to help young people do it because they want to.  Older politicians misdiagnose the problem and therefore misapply a solution.

Break for lunch

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