Why Do Some People Participate in Democracy, While Others Don’t?
Democracy depends on the participation of its citizens. But many people don’t participate in their democracies. What drives, and what discourages, political participation, here in the United States and around the world? In the latest from Talking Policy, a podcast of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC), host Lindsay Morgan interviews Cesi Cruz, a political scientist at UCLA, and Christopher Ojeda, a political scientist at UC Merced, on the role social media plays in elections, the effect depression has on political participation, and the big and small proposals that could strengthen U.S. democracy. This interview was recorded on September 21, 2022. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Research has shown that democracies are facing a significant backlash in many places, and authoritarian states are becoming more powerful. Cesi, you are part of an initiative at the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation called The Future of Democracy. Can you give us a little bit of context about what is happening to democracy globally?
Cesi Cruz: Democratic backsliding is [linked to] the idea of retrenchment; the rise of anti-democratic sentiment around the world is a response in part to a perception that democratic institutions are not working. That’s at the heart of a lot of these types of things. But it comes in different flavors, like the rise of populism, the popularity of politicians considered to be outsiders, and this idea of getting things done by working outside of democratic institutions. That’s why you see things like strongman and extrajudicial ways of governing. What causes those trends and what the implications are is a big centerpiece of the Future of Democracy project.
One of the things that is most striking and relevant to the issue of political participation is the fundamental changes to the way that elections and campaigns are being run. Technology, social media, the way that social networks are right now, have really changed the way that information about elections and politicians is disseminated to voters. The fact that we have things like Tik Tok and different flavors and styles of social media has really changed the way that campaigns are run and the way that voters and candidates interact with each other, the messaging of campaigns, what kinds of messages there are, and which ones are going to be heard versus others.
If you only have 20 or 30 seconds you’re not going to get as much policy into discussions. You’re going to get a lot more emotional and negative campaigning.
We know that political participation is incredibly important to democracy. Americans, typically behind our peers in electoral participation, voted in record numbers in the 2020 presidential election, but we still lag behind a lot of countries. Why don’t people participate, specifically by voting? Christopher, you’ve done a lot of research looking at the determinants of political participation in the United States. What are some of the things that you’ve found?
Christopher Ojeda: In the very polarized context of the 2016 and 2020 elections that dominated American life, it’s hard to imagine that some people just wouldn’t participate, but a lot of people don’t. We can think about participation in two ways. The first is to ask why people participate. What motivates them to get involved in politics? Another way to think about it is, why don’t some people participate? And here, we tend to think of four reasons. First, some people just don’t want to. They lack the motivation. Some of this might be [linked to] the idea that voting won’t change the outcome of an election.
But for other people, it may be that they don’t think politics is relevant to their lives. For example, someone who’s poor might think: I was poor when there was a Republican in office, I was poor when there was a Democrat in office, so it doesn’t really matter whether I go out and vote for one party or the other because it won’t change my life. As Cesi mentioned, a lot of elections have moved on to social media, and it has led to bite-size campaigning, leading to a lot more negativity and fear mongering. I think that can turn people off from the process as well.
Some people don’t participate because they can’t. They may lack the resources that are required for participation. You can’t donate money if you don’t have it. You can’t volunteer for a campaign or attend a town hall meeting if you don’t have the time because you’re working multiple jobs. People with more resources, more time, more money, more mental bandwidth, and more civic skills are more participative.
The third reason is that some people were never asked to participate. A huge source of engagement in politics is recruitment. People find themselves at a political meeting, or at a protest, or at the polling place because a family member or friend asked them to join.
You’re not going to show up to the party if you haven’t been invited.
And the fourth reason is that some people don’t participate because they’re not allowed to. Children, for example, don’t vote because the law says you have to be 18 in order to do so. Throughout American history, different groups have been disenfranchised, like people who don’t own property, Black Americans, women, or felons. Today, the franchise is nearly universal, excluding children. But just because most adults have the right to vote doesn’t mean that states make it easy to do so. And in recent years, a lot of political scientists have started talking about what states can do to make voting more accessible. This can be things like how many polling stations there are, whether there’s same-day registration, whether you can vote by mail or vote early, what’s required to get a ballot counted, and whether you need an ID to vote. These little things really add up and make it difficult for regular people to participate.
What is the role of social media in voting and democratic participation more broadly? Does it motivates participation, or empowers participation, or does it have the opposite effect?
Cesi Cruz: Social media is great for helping coordinate action around a lot of different things. It’s hard to say how much of [that positive effect is offset] by the negative things that Christopher referred to like disillusionment. You see so much negativity [on social media]. It has these dual effects in the sense that it helps with coordination and communication, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the content or the quality of that coordination and participation. Imagine that you’re mobilizing something like voter registration and voting rights. But the very same tool can also be used to mobilize the people who stand near the polls to scare and intimidate voters.
Some forms of messaging are just easier to do on social media. For example, recent research we’ve done in the Philippines on emotional content and campaigns found that negative campaigning and negative emotions are really compatible with social media. Emotion has really worked to help change people’s minds, but so do things like policy information. The problem with the policy information is it doesn’t fit nicely into a 30-second soundbite. So there’s this idea that there are some shifts where [social media is] value neutral. Coordination and collaboration can be good but they can also be bad. Some emotional messaging goes over better in social media than policy. It’s very hard to imagine a situation where less information and less policy might be better for voters, rather than worse. How does that affect the information ecosystem people face and the choices they make? It’s very contextual, except for those cases where it’s very clearly promoting one form of campaigning over another.
Christopher Ojeda: Social media really is a double-edged sword. It reduces the transaction cost of participating in politics and allows you to get access to more information about how to participate. That can be a good thing for groups that have historically been underrepresented or excluded from the process. It makes it easier for them to work together to make their voice heard. On the other hand, it can be a problem. I’m stealing this argument from Daniel Allen, who’s a professor at Harvard, that it makes it easier for people with more extreme views to find one another than they have in the past, allowing them to organize and dominate the process. When you mix that with the widespread misinformation that exists on social media, it can undercut that initial benefit of lowering transaction costs and making it easy for people to participate. Is social media a good thing for democracy? Is it a bad thing? Maybe it’s a little bit of both.
Cesi Cruz: One thing I wonder from your work is can it crowd out participation? If I just feel better because I liked something, or I retweeted something, do I then give myself a pass? Maybe it can have negative effects on motivation in those types of ways?
Christopher Ojeda: That’s an interesting idea. Do we substitute liking for legitimate forms of participation, and do we think we’ve done our civic duty if we have retweeted or liked some political message? That is a really interesting idea. One of the other problems with social media is, when candidates use it to campaign, they [often] try to evoke emotions that are mobilizing, like anger or fear. But the cumulative effect of being exposed to fear and anger and anxiety over and over again, can actually be depressing, and can actually lead you to withdraw because you just think it never ends and there’s just nothing you can do about it. When we focus on just discreet messaging on social media, we get this idea that it can be mobilizing, but if we look at the totality, it actually leaves people feeling kind of hopeless.
Thinking about the groups that face the most severe barriers to participation here in the United States, it’s intuitive to assume that it would be the poorest and the least educated. We also hear a lot about young people not participating. Which groups face the biggest barriers in the U.S.? How is what we experience here similar or different from what you’ve researched in the Philippines, Cesi?
Cesi Cruz: I always thought of the Philippines and other newer or less consolidated democracies as being very separate from the United States, or the issues being so fundamentally different. But I have to say, just in the past few years, a lot of it, like misinformation, the fake news phenomenon, and populism, looks similar. The Philippines even has its own version of Trump. We’re starting to see the types of challenges that before we would only expect to see in consolidating democracies in the United States as well. I don’t know whether we’re just looking harder and that’s why we see it, or not. We’ll have to defer to experts on U.S. politics, but the last few years have been the most I’ve ever heard discussions of things like voter suppression, intimidating voters, misinformation, and use of social media for more negative campaigning. Before, so much of U.S. politics was just about policies and partisanship. The whole tone of U.S. politics has changed considerably.
But the other, and the one that worries me the most, is that the way we think about barriers in the United States used to be mostly informal. Now, we’re seeing things that look a lot like formal barriers. Right now, the barriers are more structural and institutional, or almost outright attempts to try to reduce the number of polling places in certain areas because of demographic characteristics. If you looked at the data without any kind of partisan viewpoint on it, and you saw that, to vote in one area of a state there was a four hour wait in line, and to vote in another area, you wait in line for 30 minutes—it’s pretty hard to say that that’s equal. The [most] worrying trends I see are not anything intrinsic about voters themselves, it’s the things that look more like structural and institutional ways of limiting who gets to vote and making it harder for certain groups of people to vote in this country that worries me most.
Christopher Ojeda: One of the challenges is that political parties have come to see it as being in their interest to either expand or restrict who gets to vote or who doesn’t get to vote as a viable pathway to winning elections, as opposed to putting out ideas, letting voters weigh competing policy platforms, and make a decision about what they think is best.
Instead of competing in that marketplace of ideas, parties have decided that it’s easier to try and restrict access to the ballot so that you get the right set of voters showing up. And that is really troubling from a democratic standpoint.
I’ve done a lot of research on how depression shapes political engagement. One thing I found with my co-author, Claudia Landwehr, is that people with depression are much less likely to participate in activities that are more physically demanding. Going to a protest, attending a meeting, or voting often requires a person to leave their home, which can be challenging for people with depression. Activities that they can do from home, like signing a petition or contacting an elected official, are a lot easier. This suggests that if we can expand the ways that people can participate in a less physically demanding way, we might be able to bring more people into the fold of politics. For example, voting by mail allows someone to vote from home without having to go to a polling place. This might help people with depression, as well as people in rural areas who have to drive really far, or people in urban areas who might have to wait in a really long line.
The challenge remains that some parties, the Republican Party in the United States in particular, don’t want to support vote by mail because they want to restrict the scope of voting. They know that the kind of voter who is more likely to support them is one who will actually go to the poll and that voting by mail might bring in voters who won’t support them.
Vote-buying, where a candidate provides cash gifts in exchange for political support is another way of making sure that you get the votes that you want. You [Cesi] have looked at this extensively in the Philippines. How prevalent is that kind of manipulation in democracies, and how does it affect the democratic process overall?
Cesi Cruz: One thing we always talk about in the United States is turnout. How do we get people out to vote? In countries that have vote buying, turnout is 80 to 90 percent because you get money to go vote. Vote buying is one of those interesting things that sounds really bad and awful. In a lot of ways, it is—it’s illegal and undemocratic. But I remember talking to some villagers in the Philippines, and what they told me was this is the only time we’re going to get anything out of these politicians, so that’s why we’re doing this. To me, that made a lot of sense. If you’re in a context where your politicians can’t make promises, and don’t keep them anyway, then how is it that you make sure you’re getting what you want? It’s not very uncommon that it becomes the way that campaigning is done because there’s no other way for politicians to deliver.
There was a big effort to try to end vote-buying in the Philippines. But I’m not so sure that the result is going to be political parties that function nicely. What if the result is more electoral violence? If you’re thinking about taking out one of the pieces of something that isn’t working, you have to think very hard about what is going to replace it. That’s what’s hard about ending these illegal practices in many countries. They may not have the infrastructure, a policy-based type of campaigning, or even ideological differences about policy the same way that we would expect. Everything’s going to fall along ethnic lines, religious lines, or some other cleavage of society that might be even worse than the idea of politics as a contest for stuff that goes to your supporters. It’s a little more nuanced and tricky to get rid of because of all these different features.
One thing I thought that was really interesting, and applicable to the United States from these contexts, is that even very small changes to make elections more fair and democratic can lead to downstream changes in attitudes about democracy. For example, in the Philippines, just reducing wait times to vote had a big effect on people perceiving elections as more fair, perceiving their votes as being counted, and even things like perceiving their votes as secret. Why would those things be related? Creating access and making those processes function well has payoffs just the number of people who can vote on election day. It has the potential to fundamentally change the way people feel about their democracy and government. Voting is one of our first entry points to how we engage with our government.
One lesson that might apply to other countries is that even the small investments in making the process easier can lead to broader feelings about democracy being good that aren’t necessarily partisan linked. Maybe there is a partisan advantage and disadvantage to people’s ability to vote. Making it easier for people to vote also makes them feel more confident in their democracy and democratic institutions.
If you were advising decision makers here in the United States about how to strengthen democracy, what woud you tell them are some of the most important things they should focus on to make participation in the US more equitable?
Christopher Ojeda: The mistrust that a lot of people have in the political process is very harmful to democracy. For example, in the United States, there’s this idea among a lot of conservatives that President Biden won the election unfairly, that it was stolen. That idea really undermines democracy, and rebuilding people’s trust in the process is important. It is not an easy task to do, especially with the spread of misinformation on social media. But rebuilding trust is crucial and thinking about ways we can reduce the spread of misinformation is one of the ways we do that.
There are some really big proposals [out there] that I think are particularly interesting, but they face substantial barriers to implementation, like increasing the number of representatives we have in each congressional district. Right now we have single-member districts: each district elects one representative to go to the House of Representatives. [If we] elected multiple members from each district, it would make it possible for more parties to be competitive. When you have more parties competing with one another, people can find a party that fits them and that brings them into the process. Right now, a lot of people feel like they’re not 100 percent Democrat and not 100 percent Republican because they don’t like a lot of aspects of each of them. But those are the only choices they have so they’re picking between the lesser of two evils or just voting for something they don’t feel that passionate about. Allowing for more parties would energize people about democracy.
Rank choice voting would be a great option. We’re seeing that explored in different localities throughout the United States. We just saw an election in Alaska use rank choice voting. The great thing about it is that, if you vote for the losing candidate, your voice is still heard. Because you rank all the candidates in the order in which you prefer them. If your preferred candidate isn’t going to win, your preferences about the other candidates still count towards the final outcome. Maybe the way we end up with rank choice voting is by it diffusing across localities and states as opposed to it being imposed top-down. Alaska does it, Maine does it, and then these other places start adopting it because they see it’s working in these different localities.
Cesi, I’m curious what you make of the power of our social networks to push us towards productive participation, beyond social media? And what are some of the most important things that the U.S. should do to strengthen political participation, especially among the most marginalized and vulnerable?
Cesi Cruz: I like thinking about that distinction between in-person networks versus the ones that are online. Networks look a little bit different for different groups. Access to networks varies. In many countries, women’s access to networks is different than men’s. A lot of times, it’s your underlying network that determines whether you’re invited to the party or not. It’s your underlying network that determines whether you see the important announcement or whether somebody suggests that you should run for office. And what we find is that for marginalized groups, like women and members of minority communities, the social nudge is often really powerful. For example, in the Philippines and in Cambodia, we did experiments trying to find different ways of getting women to run for office. The most effective thing was simple. It was just saying: Hey, ten of your friends think you’d be great to run for a village council.
Even if you’re doing social nudges for everybody, they disproportionately help those who are marginalized in traditional networks. It can have an effect that is actually equalizing. Civic education is important but the downside is it can end up widening the gap between the marginalized and non-marginalized, because civic education happens in schools, and not everyone goes to school. We need to constantly ask ourselves: is the thing that we’re doing actually widening the participation gap? One piece of advice I would give is to look at not just interventions themselves to improve participation, but also the delivery mechanism so that it’s targeting the communities that need it.
I think for the United States, the saddest thing is big disparities among groups on basic things like voting access or waiting times to vote. There’s no reason why there should be significant differences based on the color of your skin for waiting time to vote. We may be a developed democracy, but we’re not done with the work that needs to be done to make sure that when we say that we’re a democracy, we really are one.
I think we need to look beyond the interventions that we’re used to doing and think harder about closing gaps rather than just increasing the numbers. I find that when you focus too much on increasing total numbers, we don’t ask ourselves enough about whether we’re just widening gaps that were there before.
Christopher Ojeda: I find it really heartening, actually, because, whereas I was talking about large-scale institutional changes that are pie in the sky in some ways, Cesi is talking about smaller social nudges that can have an impact. I think it’s really useful to think about potential changes from both directions. The other thing I’m hearing Cesi talk a lot about is forms of participation that are not voting. The biggest inequities in participation occur in the activities that are the most resource intensive, like donating money to a party or candidate who’s running for office, attending a political meeting, volunteering for a campaign—not voting. Voting is the most visible form of participation and we all follow the results of the election, whether we voted or not. These other things are less visible. We don’t always see that there is a really large gap. Bringing equity to these other forms of participation can be challenging, but is really important. And, I love that example you gave of nudging women to run for office just by telling them you have friends who think you can do this. That transforms the way they see themselves as a political actor in a democracy, and that’s great.