220 American Government and Politics
Spring, 2000

Kenneth Janda, Instructor

Week 4:The Political Nature of the Masses
Lecture 3: Participation and Elections

April 19

(first, more on mass media)

The mass media have diverse impacts on democratic government.

  •  The mass media contribute to majoritarian democracy in the U.S. in two ways:
    • By being critical of politicians and search for weaknesses in their public statements, reporters improve the accuracy of communication from government to citizen. 
    • By polling citizens' reactions to political events and governmental actions, the mass media improve communication from citizens to government. 
    • The mass media are less important to the pluralist model of democracy, although interest groups are increasingly using the media to general public support for their special interests. 
  • The mass media have played an important role in advancing equality, especially racial equality, in the U.S.
  •  Although the mass media are willing to mobilize government action to infringe on personal freedom for equality's sake, they resist attempts to infringe on freedom of the press to promote public order. 
    • Compared with the public, journalists are far more likely to regard freedom of the press as sacrosanct.
    • On the topic of press freedom, the media operate as an interest group in pluralist democracy. 
    • The media's interest in reporting whatever they wish whenever they wish erodes government's efforts to maintain order. 
      • The sensationalist coverage of terrorist activities tends to encourage the activities. 
      • Sensationalist coverage of brutal crimes tends to produce "copycat" crimes. 
      • Publicity given to deaths from adulterated substances tends to prompt further adulterations. 
  • The liberal messages of the mass media 
    • Favor freedom over order
    • Favor equality over freedom 

The newer "elite" and "targeted" media contribute more to pluralist democracy and perhaps undermine democratic government 

  • Definition of elite and targeted media 
    • Internet communications
    • Facsimile transmissions
    • Radio talk shows
      • Christian or ethnic radio 
      • Ideologically oriented, mostly right-wing 
      • National Public Radio, mostly liberal 
    • Cable television--the 500 channel revolution 
      • Christian or ethnic 
      • Ideologically oriented, mostly right-wing 
      • Public Broadcasting Service, News Hour 
  • Political consequences of these new manifestations of electronic technology 
    • Allow special interests to organize
      • National Rifle Association
      • Greenpeace
      • Economic groups
      • Good government groups 
    • Even allow anti-system groups to organize 
      • Anti-government militia movements
      • Anti-black, anti-jewish hate groups 
  • The rise of the new electronic technology poses a genuine problem for democratic government
    •  How much of this technology really serves majoritarian interests? 
    • How much serves very narrow special interests? 

Political participation and elections 

Are Americans politically apathetic--what is the evidence for and against?

  • Turnout in U.S. Elections
    • Presidential-- less than 49% in 1996
    • About 35 % in 1998 
  • These turnout figures do not compare favorably with turnout across the world, so people contend that Americans are "politically apathetic" 
  • In truth, U.S. citizens tend to participate as much or more than citizens in other western nations. 
    • Consider the Graphs of Conventional Political Participation in five nations on pages 214 and 215. 
    • The only form of political participation that Americans do less than others is vote. 
    • That says more about our electoral system than about the civic spirit of U.S. citizens.

Political participation comes in several forms.

  •  According to the democratic ideal "government ought to be run by the people." 
    • In the model of direct democracy citizens participate directly in government affairs. 
    • Indirect democracy relies on ELECTIONS -- formal procedures for voting to make group decisions -- as the formal mechanism for citizen participation. 
  • UNCONVENTIONAL PARTICIPATION is relatively uncommon behavior that threatens or defies government channels. 
    • Americans generally disapprove of unconventional political action involving destruction of property and physical violence. 
    • Unconventional participation has been successful in influencing government decisions. 
      • Notable successes include: 
        • Discouraging President Johnson from seeking re-election. 
        • Heightening concern over the Vietnam War. 
        • Lowering the voting age to 18. 
      • The civil rights movement relied on DIRECT ACTION -- assembling crowds to confront business and local government -- to demand equal treatment for blacks. 
        • Unconventional participation pressured Congress to pass civil rights laws against racial discrimination. 
        • Black protest in the South has been in part responsible for increased welfare support. 
    • There are three typical characteristics of people participating in direct political action.
      • Distrust of the political system. 
      • Strong sense of political efficacy. 
      • A highly developed sense of group consciousness. 
    • Studies suggest that Americans are more likely to participate in unconventional politics than citizens from other democratic countries.
  • CONVENTIONAL PARTICIPATION is relatively routine, non-threatening behavior that uses the channels of representative government. 
    • SUPPORTIVE BEHAVIORS are purely ceremonial acts expressing allegiance to government and country. 
    • INFLUENCING BEHAVIOR seeks to modify government policy. 
      • Citizens may derive particular benefits from government. 
        • More resourceful citizens are able to use the court system to press their rights. 
        • Individuals with higher economic status are more likely to contact public officials to ask for special services. 
        • Citizens demand more of local then national government. 
      • Citizens engage in two kinds of activities which influence the selection of government personnel and policies. 
        • LOW INITIATIVE acts such as voting do not require much effort by the individual.
        • HIGH INITIATIVE acts require active participation by individuals to obtain benefits for a group. 
    • Compared to citizens of other countries, Americans are less likely to vote in elections but more likely to use other forms of conventional participation.