Drowning out the margins: political citizenry and socio-economic status

Shifting patterns of political participation could be amplifying the inequalities that hurt democracy.

Equality of political voice remains a crucial challenge for democracy, argues Russell J. Dalton in his new book, The Participation Gap: Social Status and Political Inequality. Dalton lays out parallel trends which present a dilemma for democracy: expanding non-electoral participation and declining voter turnout, both underlined by the influence of socio-economic status.

Dalton reveals that social status has a strong relationship with the level and type of political participation afforded to social groups, where socio-economic barriers may limit participation. 
Evidence from the International Social Survey Program describes a citizenry that is more politically engaged than before, even as voting turnout has fallen. And institutional reform and technological innovation have prompted a surge in opportunities for participation; more citizens are involved in direct and contentious political activities, such as petitions, protests, political consumerism, and internet activism. However, these new forms of political activity require more skills and resources – which are not evenly distributed amongst socio-economic groups. 

High status groups are more likely to have access to money, information, and time to get involved. Low voting turnouts tend to be concentrated in marginalized communities, who are further excluded by barriers to non-electoral participation. Changing patterns of civil society activity and traditional membership groups have also influenced the relationship between social inequality and political participation. Mapping these patterns across established democracies, The Participation Gap describes a network of relationships between social inequality, political participation, and good governance. It explores the contextual factors and political implications for unequal participation – and explores how to close the gap of inequlity.  

Russell J. Dalton is Research Professor of Political Science in the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of California, Irvine. He is a recipient of the Developing Scholar AwardFlorida State University, Fulbright Research Fellowship, Scholar-in-Residence at the Barbra Streisand Center, German Marshall Fund Research Fellowship, the POSCO Fellowship at the East West Center, and the UCI Emeriti Award for Faculty Mentorship.

Photo: Tim Green/Flickr/cc

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