Political Participation in the United States: Influences & Voter Turnout

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  • 0:01 Political Participation
  • 1:11 Inlfuences on Participation
  • 3:14 Nonparticipation
  • 4:19 Voter Turnout
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Despite an increase in the number of eligible voters, political participation in the United States seems to be on the decline. This lesson discusses influences on political participation and voter turnout.

Political Participation

Did you vote in the 2012 presidential election? Despite popular issues, record-breaking campaign spending and nail-biter election results, voter turnout was down from the last two presidential elections. Even with the eight million person increase in the number of eligible voters, turnout among eligible voters decreased from around 62% to about 57%. Why is that?

Let's examine political participation. Political participation includes voting and any other activity that shapes, affects or involves the political field. For example, political participation includes attending a rally, signing a petition or sending a letter to a representative.

Most U.S. citizens feel that some level of political participation is expected and admirable. If most people feel that way, then how come just over half of them do it?

Influences on Participation

Let's look at the major influences on political participation in the U.S. Many people participate based on idealism. By idealism, we mean the pursuit of a higher goal or idea. Some people participate because they believe strongly in a particular idea, and they believe their participation will eventually lead to its fruition. For example, the civil rights activists of the 1960s participated in rallies, protests, sit-ins and other political activities with the goal of ending oppression, segregation and race-inspired violence.

Especially in the U.S. and other democracies, many people participate in politics because they feel a sense of civic responsibility. Recognizing that participation is a privilege, many feel a social obligation to participate. Note that there's no legal obligation to participate. You can't be arrested or fined for nonparticipation. It's just a sense that you've been given a right that others don't have and that you should exercise that right. Interestingly, however, people in the U.S. seem to feel this responsibility far less than those in other democracies, such as Scandinavia and New Zealand, as our political participation lags far behind.

Next, people often report participating due to self-interest. In other words, the participation benefits that particular person in some way. For example, a person affected by student loan debt might write a letter in support of new legislation geared toward student loan forgiveness. After being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, Michael J. Fox lobbied Congress for more funding for medical research of the disease.


Now let's take a moment to look at some of the major influences on nonparticipation. In some countries, the people simply aren't invited to participate in most aspects of politics. This is true with authoritarian regimes, like those in China and Cuba. In other countries, like our democratic U.S., large portions of the population don't participate in politics even though they are encouraged to do so.

This nonparticipation is usually due to one or more of these attitudes:

  • Contentment, which means the person is satisfied with the status quo and might participate in the future if he or she is unhappy about a particular issue
  • Apathy, which means the person either doesn't know much about the issues or doesn't care enough about the issues to make the effort to vote
  • Alienation, which means the person feels that his or her vote doesn't matter or opinion doesn't count

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