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Alternative Forms of Political Participation: Role & Types

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  • 0:06 Political Participation
  • 1:32 Legal Participation
  • 3:58 Illegal Participation
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Americans participate in government by voting, but they also participate in many other ways. This lesson discusses the role alternative forms of political participation play in our political involvement.

Political Participation

Do you remember Occupy Wall Street? In September of 2011, approximately 500 people camped out in New York City's financial district. The campers were protesting income inequality and several other social issues. The protest spawned demonstrations throughout the U.S. The campers on Wall Street stayed approximately two months.

You might not think of camping on Wall Street as a form of political participation, but it is! Political participation includes any activity that shapes, affects or involves the political field. For example, political participation includes voting, attending a rally, signing a petition or sending a letter to a representative.

When you think about political participation in this way, it's easy to see that most U.S. citizens have some level of political participation. Of course, some people are very highly involved, and some have a low level of involvement. Besides the varying levels of participation, there are generally three different types of political participation. Let's take a look at the different types of political participation.

Legal Participation

When you think of political participation, you likely think of conventional participation. This type includes traditional or expected political participation, such as voting. Think of this as mainstream, everyday political participation. Conventional participation plays the largest role in Americans' political involvement. Other examples include donating to a campaign, volunteering for a campaign and even serving in public office. Of course, this type of participation is perfectly legal and even viewed as admirable.

Next, there is unconventional participation. This type includes activities that are sometimes considered to be inappropriate but are not illegal. Examples of unconventional political participation include boycotts, demonstrations and protests. Occupy Wall Street is, for the most part, an example of unconventional participation.

Notice that unconventional activities are often designed to work as an alternative to conventional activities when conventional methods aren't working to achieve the desired goal. Think of conventional methods as 'Plan A' and unconventional methods as 'Plan B.' For this reason, unconventional participation plays a smaller role in Americans' political involvement. Many people have never participated in an unconventional political activity.

The civil rights protests of the 1960s are a prime example. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down state-sanctioned segregation in 1954. However, in many Southern states, African Americans were still banned from certain classrooms, bathrooms, water fountains, theaters, trains, buses, lunch counters, juries and the like. The demonstrations were mostly designed to make states and local governments follow legislation that was already in place, while also inspiring private businesses to abandon discriminatory practices.

Illegal Participation

Lastly, let's look at illegal participation. This type of political participation includes activities that are specifically prohibited by law. If conventional participation is 'Plan A' and unconventional participation is 'Plan B,' then illegal participation is 'Plan C.' It's a last resort, and of course, it's highly discouraged. Examples of illegal participation include sabotage, vandalism, wiretapping, forgery and any act of terrorism.

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