Why We Participate
by Jan Leighley
October 20, 2020
This interview with Jan Leighley, professor of government at American University in Washington, DC, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Jan | I'm a professor of government at American University in Washington, DC. My research focuses on voter turnout and political participation. I've always been puzzled about why people engage in politics. I have enjoyed many years of trying to sort out why people spend their time and money on political activities.
frank | I feel like that's such a refreshing affirmative version of the thing that I hear most, which is why people don't participate in politics. It seems much smarter to ask the opposite question.
The origin of that question really comes from being a working-class kid. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I ended up going from a bachelor's degree to Ph.D. I would be in these Ph.D. seminars with people from more educated and more politically engaged families than my own, and I was sitting there thinking, well, that's nice that we're studying who people vote for, but why do they vote at all? Why do people take time out to do that? My parents had always taken me on election day to the polls, so it wasn't that I was apolitical, I just didn't quite understand what other people were thinking.
Do you feel like you have clarity now in the reasons why people choose to participate?
At the most general level? Yes, I do. Much of the coverage on political participation focuses on demographics like age, gender, income, or what part of the country you live in. All of that is pretty easily measured — these questions can be asked in surveys, and you go on to report your findings.
I think what continues to be ignored in the conversation is the fact that people participate when they feel connected to politics and politicians.
There are patterns across demographic groups that show that more highly educated or higher-income people are more likely to vote than people with less education and less income, but that is mutable. We see that pattern in a fairly consistent manner, but I understand that to be because politics is more likely to connect to people with higher education and high-income. We don't talk about the politics of issues or how candidates run campaigns enough when we are trying to understand who participates and why they do.
How do you think campaigns think about the people they’re communicating to? You can't speak to everybody at once, so you isolate and target — I assume you’d target likely voters. What happens to the group of people who are not incentivized to vote? What do you see as a link between campaigning and broad participation?
I think there is a very strong connection between campaigning and broader participation.
Candidates and campaigns have limited amounts of money and limited amounts of time. Their job is to get one more vote than their opponent.
As a campaign, you are primarily concerned with making sure that those who support show up. Early mobilization effort is focused on likely voters — people who have voted before or say that they plan to vote. At the end of the campaign, they calculate how many more votes they need, and in which states and in which districts. Only then does the campaign shift and turn their attention to people who haven't voted before. It is not the job of the campaign to increase turnout or to mobilize people who haven't voted before.
Whose job is it?
Well no one, formally. Not in our system.
Historically, political parties have played some role in get-out-the-vote efforts — implementing mailing campaigns, emailing campaigns, or social media campaigns to increase voter turnout.
But, over the last few elections, much of the focus on nonvoters comes from social groups, religious organizations, and voluntary associations — identity groups. They make different substantive claims. Some argue that democracy is better off when you vote and some argue that you need to vote in order to ensure representation.
Do you think democracy is better off with more participation?
It is assumed that higher turnout is better for democracy, based on the idea that individuals are only most realized if they are socially and politically engaged in a community. And for some on the belief that, from the community perspective, we are all better off if each individual is treated equally and that all interests are reflected in our collective decisions.
Often, when people speak about high turnout, there is this underlying assumption that individuals have to have a certain level of knowledge of politics to be able to accurately assess their interests. Without that baseline knowledge, as assumption goes, the outcome of the collective decision will be wrong. That argument has been used historically as a power play to disenfranchise people and as a way to ensure that only certain types of people turn out at the polls.
Who is to say who best assesses our self-interest? Who is to say how much knowledge is required before you can cast an informed vote? What does it mean to be informed — what information is necessary?
Who says that I, as a citizen, have to choose my candidate based on the same criteria that you choose your candidate? I worry here that the distinction between "level of information" and "accurate or truthful information" is lost. Those are two very different things. The reality is each citizen has a vote. And so I think choosing to cast your vote in an election or not cast a vote has implications for the political system you live in, the kind of community around you, and the kind of life you are leading.
Anecdotally it feels like people are hyper-engaged in this election cycle — and it feels emotionally driven. Does your research show levels of higher engagement?
It is indeed a hostile election, as many elections are in this age. In partisan races, we have such a high level of dislike for other partisans, and for individuals who don't believe or live as we do. That has been a big change in our politics.
There is suggestive evidence, through the lines and the number of ballots that have been cast in early voting that we are going to have a record-high turnout.
There are people waiting in line for two or three hours to vote — that is just not normal, something else is going on.
These are crude indicators of enthusiasm and because of COVID, it may be the case that we are seeing record numbers of early voting because people want to avoid election day.
Right, and if we do see a higher turnout — is that a positive thing, or is that the outcome of the tension between two parties and two candidates in a hostile election?
I think there are two things happening. One, we are in the middle of an incredible pandemic that has lasted longer and been perhaps more serious than what many people expected. It has had real-life consequences for people, this is an example of people being connected to politics. It's a very clear case where different political leaders have taken different positions on how best to address the pandemic. Democrats and Republicans, for the most part, are not saying the same thing.
Often, I hear from my students that they don’t vote because there is no difference between either party. There is a sense that neither party is addressing the things they deem important, and neither party is affecting their daily lives. We saw this in 2016 — people didn't like Hillary, and people didn't like Trump, so people stayed home.
The last nine months have shown us how the actions of the government can affect whether we can eat at restaurants, whether our family members have been ill, whether we know someone who has died, and whether we lost a job or not. All of those factors are relevant to our thinking about politics.
I think that's a different way in which COVID has affected citizen's enthusiasm — they see a connection between politics and their lives. I think that helps to account for the higher levels.
The other factor is that there is a very distinct difference between Biden and Trump in terms of personality, policy preferences, goals and ambitions, and their sense of what reality is. Citizens see that one of these persons is going to be president of the United States. If you feel like you have a real choice and that it might make a difference, you'll be more likely to vote on election day.