Date of Award


Honors Thesis Number



Political Science


An engaged and active citizenry is integral to the American democracy. Normally when political participation is discussed, a heavy emphasis is placed on voting in national elections. While this is an important element of politics, it is but one ingredient. It is important to view participation also at the community level, for localities comprise the fabric of America. The late philosopher and educator, John Dewey, believed that democracy not only began at home, but that its home was in the neighborly community (Putnam, 2000). This exemplifies the American political system in that there exist numerous forms of participation that have long shaped political life and contrast with other democracies. Furthermore, Americans have a rich tradition as joiners, as Tocqueville's classic observations attest (Putnam, 2000). Among these differing forms are volunteering, campaigning, sharing opinions with others, contacting representatives, and being politically active within the community. Not only is it important to understand the different modes of participation, but also who participates as well as the instruments involved in shaping participation. There are numerous influences upon participation such as the media, conflict, problem perceptions, political socialization, a focus on national politics and figureheads, and the rules ofpolitical engagement. Participation holds various meanings for different groups; some utilize this to their advantage while others are washed over by the wave of scarce resources. Political participation largely remains a puzzle. Amidst the abstract models and theories, we do not fully understand why some people participate while others do not. To some extent, these models each hold one piece of truth among gaps of mystery. Although there has been a consistent ebb and flow of participation throughout American history, we are facing the lowest and longest trend of participation today. As a result of decreased participation, it is charged that our democracy is faltering. Although this has been a consistent worry during various periods of American history, today's predicament is somewhat different; historically, the system of inputs and rewards was not set up for all Americans to participate (Parenti, 2002). Current education levels have never been higher and institutional barriers never been lower. As we strive to understand and explain political participation, we must synonymously ponder the meaning of democracy. There may exist valid arguments that our democracy is facing a perilous time (Elshtain, 1995). Americans are finding less in common with each other today as we become either overwhelmingly disenfranchised from politics or increasingly polarized. Participation lends our political system legitimacy, offering form and substance to the meaning of the rules we abide by. Ultimately we must ask ourselves whether or not this makes a difference.