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date: 17 February 2020

Overview of Political Behavior: Political Behavior and Citizen Politics

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the debates on political behaviour that are most visible in scholarly literature. These debates can be found throughout this book. The debates on mass belief systems and communication are first examined, followed by modernization and democratization of political culture. Political participation and the importance of public opinion are also considered.

Keywords: political behaviour, mass belief systems, communication, modernization, democratization, political culture, political participation, public opinion

The behavioral revolution transformed research on American politics and then European politics in the 1960s and early 1970s. In the last two decades, this methodology has broadened to the field of comparative politics as the expansion of empirical research and the behavioral approach now have a near global reach. While a generation or two ago there was little systematic evidence on political processes outside the advanced industrial democracies, our knowledge base has expanded rapidly to provide an unprecedented storehouse of knowledge about the human condition. The (p. 322) world has changed when public opinion surveys in China (and other developing nations) are possibly more common than surveys of the American public in the early years of the behavioral revolution.

The behavioral revolution—or empirical research as a methodology—involves a range of political phenomena. Studies of political development have generated an impressive array of information about social and political conditions in the world. Policy studies are systematically expanding through the collection of comparable cross-national databases. These advances are seen in the chapters on institutions, legislative behavior, and other contributions to this volume.

This chapter summarizes our growing understanding of how contemporary publics think about politics, develop their basic political values, and participate in the political process. An expanding collection of public opinion data is one of the major accomplishments in comparative political behavior over the past several decades (see Kittilson 2007; Heath, Fisher, and Smith 2005). The Civic Culture (Almond and Verba 1963) was a dramatic step forward in comparative research by studying the publics in five nations. Today, institutionalized or semi-institutionalized cross-national surveys are repeated regularly, some with a near-global scope. The European Commission sponsors the Eurobarometer surveys in the member states of the European Union. A New Europe Barometer, Latinobarometer, Afrobarometer, East Asia Barometer, and AsiaBarometer survey citizens in these regions. Separate research consortiums regularly conduct the European Values Study (EVS), the International Social Survey Program (ISSP), the European Social Survey (ESS), and the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES). The largest number of nations is included in the World Values Surveys (WVS), which launched a fifth wave in 2005–7. In short, over the past few decades comparative political behavior has become a very “data-rich” field of research.

In addition, behavioral research has expanded during a period of tremendous political change in the world. Political behavior in advanced industrial democracies has shifted in fundamental ways during the latter half of the twentieth century. Social and political modernization is dramatically transforming much of the developing world. The third wave of democratization has reformed the political systems and the citizenry in the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

These new developments provide distinctive opportunities to test old theories, expand the boundaries of knowledge, and develop new theories. We normally observe political systems in a state of equilibrium, when stability and incremental change dominate our findings. Now we can examine questions of political change and adaptation that often go to the heart of theoretical interests, but which we could seldom observe directly in earlier times.

This chapter reviews some of the major research debates and empirical findings in the study of citizen political behavior in broad cross-national terms, drawing upon the compilation in the Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior (Dalton and Klingemann 2007).

(p. 323) 1 The Nature of Mass Belief Systems

One of the enduring research debates in political behavior involves basic questions about the public’s political abilities—their level of knowledge, understanding, and interest in political matters. For voters to make meaningful decisions, they must understand the options the polity faces. Citizens must have a sufficient knowledge of the workings of the political system if they intend to influence and control the actions of their representatives. Almond and Verba (1963), for example, considered cognition important in defining a political culture, and Dahl (1989, 307–8) stressed the quality of the political debate as a precondition to arrive at what he has called “enlightened understanding.”

Debates about the political abilities of the public remain one of the major controversies in political behavior research. The early empirical surveys found that the public’s political sophistication fell short of the theoretical ideal even in the established democracies (Campbell et al. 1960; Converse 1964; Butler and Stokes 1969). For most citizens, political interest and involvement barely seemed to extend beyond casting an occasional vote in national elections. Furthermore, people apparently brought very little understanding to their political participation. It was not clear that voting decisions were based on rational evaluations of candidates, parties, and their issue positions.

This image of the uninformed and unsophisticated voter reshaped the view of the citizenry and democratic politics (Campbell et al. 1960; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996). Some experts argued that if the bulk of the public is unsophisticated, it is better for democracy that people remain politically uninvolved. And if this was beneficial to democracy, other scholars were anxious to argue the pitfalls of too excessive political mobilization and the benefits of political order in less developed nations (Zakaria 2006).

This debate has continued until the present (Lewis-Beck et al. 2008; Kuklinski and Peyton 2007; Converse 2007; Friedman 2006; Kinder 2006; Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002). Some research claims that political information and engagement remain limited even in Western democracies (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Wattenberg 2006; Putnam 2000; Hardin 2006). If knowledge were limited in established democracies with affluent and educated publics, then the potential for active citizenship in developing nations would appear even more limited.

In contrast, a revisionist approach argues that contemporary publics have greater political sophistication than early research presumed, because either early measurement was flawed or sophistication has increased because of social modernization. Levels of political interest and cognitive mobilization are increasing over time in many established democracies, creating more informed and aware publics (Dalton 2007). Scholars also argue that the political context matters, and thus the interest and sophistication of mass publics partially reflect elite discourse. This contextual explanation is further supported by crossnational studies indicating that (p. 324) sophistication varies sharply across nations, with the relatively nonideological American system displaying one of the least ideological publics (Klingemann 1979; Stacy and Segura 1997).

In short, one school of research argues the glass is half empty, and going down; the opposite school argues the glass is half full, and going up. This political science prestidigitation—to have both things happen at once—is often based on analyses of the same public opinion surveys. The resolution of this question has fundamental implications for how we think about political behavior and the citizens’ role in the democratic process. For instance, if one believes that the instruments of democracy should be expanded, this makes assumptions about the citizenry’s ability to make informed political choices.

Other public opinion research suggests a different way of thinking about this question. Rather than asking if voters meet the ideal expectations of democratic theorists, which has often been the implicit standard, we should recognize that people regularly make political choices and ask how these choices are actually made. Bowler and Donovan (1998, 30 f.) aptly put it this way: “Voters, to use an analogy, may know very little about the workings of the internal combustion engine, but they do know how to drive. And while we might say that early voting studies focused on voter ignorance of the engine, the newer studies pay more attention to the ability to drive.” Thus, many studies (such as Mutz, this volume; Sniderman and Levendusky 2007) ask the pragmatic question of how people make life decisions—including whom to vote for in the next election. Research on information cues argues that what citizens need to reach a meaningful political choice is less than once theorized. Quite naturally, citizens economize their investment in the information they need to make meaningful decisions and most of them optimize this investment in ways that keep democracies working (Lau and Redlawsk 2006; Lupia and McCubbins 1998; Popkin 1991). People in Western democracies now live in an information-rich environment which provides lots of cues on how people like oneself should vote or act on political issues. In short, citizens often use information shortcuts, cues, emotions, heuristics, and other methods to reach reasonable choices. Reasonable choices, when structured by institutions and cumulated across the electorate, lead to reasonable democratic outcomes (Surowiecki 2004). Admittedly cues and heuristics have limitations and are not the ideal way of making political choices, but they can be a sufficient method to make reasonable choices.

Furthermore, as public opinion studies have spread to developing nations and new democracies, they uncover higher levels of interest and awareness than was originally expected by the early political culture research (e.g. Bratton, Mattes, and Gyimah-Boadi 2004; Chu et al. 2008). In the modern world, more citizens are politically aware and interested in the affairs of government because those affairs affect their daily lives.

This continuing debate is a source of vitality in political behavior research, because it focuses attention on the question of what democracy expects of its citizens and whether they meet these expectations. The lofty ideals of classic democratic theory presumed a rational decision-making process by a fully informed electorate. Even (p. 325) given more positive judgements about the political sophistication of contemporary electorates, most voters (and even some political scientists) still fall short of the standards of classic democratic theory. However, we now understand that this maximalist definition of the prerequisites for informed decision-making is overly demanding. Instead, we should look at how citizens manage the complexities of politics and make reasonable decisions given their political interests and positions. Empirical research is emphasizing a satisficing approach to decision-making in which models ask: What are the pragmatic ways that individuals actually make their political choices.

2 Modernization and Democratization

One of the most powerful social science concepts to emerge in political behavior research—and one central to the study of citizen attitudes and behavior—is the concept of political culture. Almond and Verba’s (1963) seminal study, The Civic Culture, contended that the institutions and patterns of action in a political system are closely linked to the political culture of the nation. The culture, in turn, is shaped by the historical, economic, and social conditions of a nation. Cultural studies are especially important in the study of democratization, as analysts try to identify the cultural requisites of democracy (Almond and Verba 1963; Pye and Verba 1965; Fuchs 2007).

Despite the heuristic and interpretative power of the concept of political culture, there are recurring questions about the precision and predictive power of the concept (Laitin 1995). Kaase (1983), for instance, said that measuring political culture is like “trying to nail jello to the wall.” That is, the concept lacked precision and often became a subjective, stereotypic description of a nation rather than an empirically measurable concept. Some analysts saw political culture in virtually every feature of political life; others viewed it merely as a residual category that explained what remained unexplainable by other means. Even more problematic was the uneven evidence of culture’s causal effect.

The 1990s witnessed a renaissance of political culture research and emphasized the link between modernization and political behavior. Inglehart demonstrated the congruence between broad political attitudes and democratic stability for twentytwo nations in the 1981 World Values Survey (Inglehart 1990). Putnam’s (1993) study of regional governments in Italy provided even more impressive testimony in support of cultural theory. Putnam demonstrated that the cultural traditions of a region—roughly contrasting the cooperative political style of the North to the more hierarchic tradition of the South—were a potent predictor of the performance of contemporary governments. These studies generated counter-findings, and a new (p. 326) research debate emerged (e.g. Inglehart 1997; Reisinger 1995; Jackman and Miller 1996).

Moreover, the democratization wave of the 1990s focused attention on the connection between modernization and political culture. To what extent did political transformation in Central and Eastern Europe arise from gradual changes in the political culture? More important politically, to what extent can the prospects for democracy be judged by their public’s support for democratic politics? Public opinion surveys of the Russian public initially found surprisingly high levels of support for basic democratic principles in the former Soviet Union (Miller, Reisinger, and Hesli 1993; Gibson, Duch, and Tedin 1992; Zimmerman 2002). Researchers in other Central and Eastern European nations examined the role of political culture in prompting the transitions and the consolidation of democracy (Rose, Haerpfer, and Mishler 1998; Rohrschneider 1999; Klingemann, Fuchs, and Zielonka 2006). Rather than the apathy or hostility that greeted democracy after transitions from right-wing authoritarian states, the cultural legacy of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe appears to be very different.

An equally rich series of studies is emerging for Asia, Africa, Latin America, and other developing regions. Despite the potential effects of conservative Confucian traditions and the government’s hesitant support for democracy in many nations, the cultural foundations of democracy also are well developed in many Asian societies (Dalton and Shin 2006; Chu et al. 2008). Perhaps the most exciting evidence comes from studies of the People’s Republic of China. Even in this hostile environment, there is surprising support for an array of democratic principles (Tang 2005). Similarly, the Afrobarometers provide the first systematic comparisons of public opinion on this continent, and the nature of political behavior in these developing nations (Bratton, Mattes, and Gyimah-Boadi 2004). New projects examine the political culture across Latin America (Booth and Seligson 2008; Lagos 1997). The breadth of support for democracy visible across a range of international survey projects—even in less than hospitable environments—is a surprising finding from this new wave of research (Shin 2007), and suggests that the aspiration for freedom, equality, and democratic rights is a common human value. One might question whether these opinions are sufficiently ingrained to constitute an enduring political culture in many developing nations, but even abstract endorsements of democratic norms are a positive sign about the prospects for democratic reform (van Beek 2005).

This research has also stimulated new debates on the broad course of human development. On the one hand, new versions of the social modernization thesis suggest a common pattern of social and political change as nations develop economically. This is most clearly seen in the analyses by Inglehart and Welzel (2005). On the other hand, others claim that historical experiences and national traditions produce different patterns of cultural development and distinct cultural regions—which may produce new sources of regional conflict (Huntington 1996). While this debate is ongoing, its very existence illustrates how the broadening of systematic opinion research to developing nations has renewed old debates about the courses and consequences of political culture.

(p. 327) As questions about political culture have grown in relevance for the democratizing nations, important cultural changes have also emerged within the advanced industrial democracies. Inglehart’s (1977; 1990) thesis of postmaterial value change maintains that the socioeconomic forces transforming Western industrial societies are creating a new phase of human development. As affluent democracies have addressed many of the traditional “material” social goals, such as economic well-being and security, other political values are increasing attention toward new “postmaterial” goals of self-expression, personal freedom, social equality, self-fulfillment, and improving the quality of life. Inglehart’s postmaterial thesis has gained considerable attention because of its potentially broad relevance to the politics of advanced industrial societies, although this thesis has also generated much scholarly debate (van Deth and Scarborough 1995).

Other studies examine whether a key element of a democratic political culture is changing in advanced industrial democracies: citizen orientations toward government. Almond and Verba (1963) maintained that democracy was based on a supportive public that endorsed a democratic system even in times of tumult. In the United States and many West European democracies, however, citizens are now less trustful of politicians, political parties, and democratic institutions (Dalton 2004; Pharr and Putnam 2000; Norris 1999; Nye, Zelikow, and King 1997). When coupled with evidence of changing orientations toward partisan politics and changing patterns of political participation (see below), this suggests that the ideals of a democratic political culture are changing among Western publics.

In summary, the study of modernization and democratization illustrates two major themes. First, research has made great progress in developing the empirical evidence that describes the political values for most nations in the world. Where once scientific empirical evidence of citizen orientations was quite thin and primarily limited to the large Western democracies, we now have rich evidence of how citizens think and act across nearly the entire globe. The growing empirical evidence has also reinforced the importance of key theoretical concepts that were developed during the early behavioral revolution. For example, Eckstein’s (1966) concept of cultural congruence has provided a valuable framework for examining the interaction between citizen values and political processes. We now have a much richer and sounder theoretical and empirical knowledge about what are the significant attributes of a political culture.

Second, as the empirical evidence has grown, it is also apparent that we are living through a period of substantial political change—in both the advanced industrial democracies and the developing nations. This pattern presents several challenges for researchers. Normally, political institutions and the basic principles of a regime are constant; thus it is difficult to study the interaction between institutional and cultural change. However, the recent shifts in regime form in many nations create new opportunities to study the relationship between culture and institutional choices—and how congruence is established. Changing political norms enable us to study political culture as a dynamic process. Attempts to test theories of cultural change or theories on the nonpolitical origins of political culture are fertile research fields during this unusual period of political change.

(p. 328) Finally, the democratization process and changing democratic expectations in the West raise other questions. There is not just one “civic culture” that is congruent with the working of a democratic system. Experience suggests that there are various democratic cultures, as well as ways to define culture, that require mapping and further study. Just as the institutionalists have drawn our attention to the variations in the structure of the democratic politics and the implications of these differences (Rhodes, Binder, and Rockman 2006), we need to develop a comparable understanding of how citizen norms can create and sustain alternative democratic forms (Fuchs and Klingemann 2002).

3 Electoral Behavior

One of the central roles of citizens in democracies and other political systems is to make decisions about political matters. In democracies, this involves decisions about which parties or candidates to support in an election, as well as decisions about which issue positions to hold, how to participate in politics, and so forth. In other political systems, the choices are different, but the task of making a choice remains. In an autocratic system, the choice might be between making an openly affirmative statement to a government declaration, remaining silent about it, or subtly even criticizing it. In any case, citizens make choices when political issues are brought to their attention, whether in an autocratic or a democratic system.

In democratic systems electoral choices are at the center of the political process. Thus, the study of electoral choice has quite naturally been a core theme in political behavior research, and past research has produced dramatic advances in our knowledge about how voters reach their decisions. Early electoral research presumed that many voters were ill prepared to deal with the complexities of politics; thus voters relied on shortcuts—such as group cues or affective partisan loyalties—to simplify political decision-making and guide their individual behavior (Campbell et al. 1960; Lipset and Rokkan 1967; Lewis-Beck et al. 2008). This approach also stressed the underlying stability of party competition because people supposedly based their political decisions on enduring social cleavages, and stable party–voter alignments were a focus of research.

During the 1980s, this model of stable cleavage-based or partisanship-based voting first came under challenge. Within a decade the dominant question changed from explaining the persistence of electoral politics to explaining electoral change (Dalton, Flanagan, and Beck 1984). Decreases in class and religious divisions were a first prominent indicator that electoral politics was changing. Franklin, Mackie, and Valen (1992) found that a set of social characteristics (including social class, education, income, religiosity, region, and gender) had a decreasing impact on partisan preferences in Western democracies over time. A general erosion of class voting occurred in most (p. 329) established democracies (Nieuwbeerta 1995; Knutsen 2006). Franklin concluded with the new “conventional wisdom” of comparative electoral research: “One thing that has by now become quite apparent is that almost all of the countries we have studied show a decline … in the ability of social cleavages to structure individual voting choice” (Franklin, Mackie, and Valen 1992, 385).

One of the major findings from the last generation of electoral research holds that social position no longer determines political positions as it did when social alignments were solidly frozen (cf. Evans 1999; Manza and Brooks 1999). In many Western democracies, the declining influence of group cleavages on electoral choice is paralleled by a weakening of affective party attachment that was the basis of the Michigan model of electoral choice. In nearly all the advanced industrial democracies for which long-term survey data are now available, partisan ties have weakened over the past generation (Dalton and Wattenberg 2000). Similarly, there has been a decrease in party-line voting and an increase in partisan volatility, split-ticket voting, and other phenomena showing that fewer citizens are voting according to a party or group-determined line (Thomassen 2005).

The decline of long-term predispositions based on social position or partisanship should shift the basis of electoral behavior research to factors such as candidate image and issue opinions. Thus, recent research focuses on candidate-centered voting choice (Poguntke and Webb 2005; Wattenberg 1991; Aarts, Blais, and Schmitt 2005). Furthermore, there are signs of a growing personalization of political campaigns in Western democracies: Photo opportunities, personalized interviews, walkabouts, and televised candidate debates are becoming standard electoral fare.

Electoral change also increases the potential for issue voting (Franklin, Mackie, and Valen 1992; Evans and Norris 1999; Dalton 2008). There appears to be a consensus that issue voting has become more important, but there is less consensus on a theoretical framework for understanding the role of issues in contemporary political behavior. A large part of the literature continues to work within the social-psychological approach, examining how specific issues affect party choice in specific elections, or how issue beliefs are formed. Other scholars focus on the systemic level, examining how aggregate electoral outcomes can be predicted by the issue stances of the parties (Budge and Farlie 1983; Adams, Merrill, and Grofman 2005). In a sense, this part of the research literature reminds us of the story of the blind men and the elephant: Several different research groups are making progress in explaining their part of the pachyderm, but there is not a holistic vision of the role of issues for contemporary electoral choice.

For advanced industrial democracies, the increase in candidate and issue voting has an uncertain impact on the democratic electoral process. It is unclear whether these changes will improve or weaken the “quality” of the democracy and the representation of the public’s political interests. Public opinion is becoming more fluid and less predictable. This uncertainty forces parties and candidates to be more sensitive to public opinion, at least the opinions of those who vote. Motivated issue voters are more likely to have their voices heard, even if they are not accepted. Furthermore, the ability of politicians to have unmediated communications with voters can (p. 330) strengthen the link between politicians and the people. To some extent, the individualization of electoral choice revives earlier images of the informed voter classic democratic theory emphasized. Models of rational voter choice have thus gained in credibility.

At the same time, there is a potential dark side to these new patterns in electoral politics. The rise of single-issue politics handicaps a society’s ability to deal with political issues that transcend specific interests and require trade-offs with other interests. In addition, elites who only cater to attentive publics can leave the electorally inactive without a voice. Too great an interest in a single issue, or too much emphasis on recent performance, can produce a narrow definition of rationality that is as harmful to democracy as “frozen” social cleavages. In addition, direct unmediated contact between politicians and citizens opens the potential for demagoguery and political extremism. Both extreme right-wing and left-wing political movements probably benefit from this new political environment, at least in the short term. At the same time as the electorate is less stable on the basis of established party alignments, it is also more susceptible to potential media manipulation.

In summary, comparative electoral studies have made major advances in our understanding of political behavior. This has in no way settled old debates. It has invigorated them. But they take place on a firmer base of evidence. This is another area in which research began with limited empirical evidence—national election studies were still quite rare in the 1960s and comparable cross-national analyses were exceedingly rare. Today, this literature on electoral behavior represents one of the largest fields of political behavior research. Moreover, as the empirical evidence has accumulated, it has become more apparent that the nature of electoral behavior is changing in advanced industrial democracies. The current research challenge is to define the nature of the new electoral order that is emerging.

3.1 Electoral Choice in Emerging Democracies

There is an apparent similarity between the portrait of voting choice we have just described and the situation in emerging democracies around the globe. Emerging party systems are unlikely to rest on stable group-based cleavages, especially when the democratic transition has occurred quite rapidly, as in Central and Eastern Europe. Thus, studies of these new democracies typically emphasize the high level of electoral volatility and fluidity in the party systems (Berglund, Hellén, and Aarebrot 1998; Mainwaring 1999; Mainwaring and Zoco 2007). Similarly, new electorates are unlikely to have long-term party attachments that might guide their behavior. Thus, with the exception of important sociocultural cleavages, such as ethnicity, electoral choice in many new democracies may involve the same short-term factors—candidate images and issue positions—that are emphasized in the electoral politics of advanced industrial democracies (e.g. Colton 2000; Rose, White, and McAllister 1997; Barnes and Simon 1998; Tucker 2005; Fuchs, Roller, and Zagórski 2006; Dalton, Shin, and Chu 2008). (p. 331) In addition, research is often preoccupied with the impact of economic voting in these systems as voters judge the new systems based on their performance (Tworzecki 2003; Tucker 2002).

These new democratic systems face the task of developing a relatively stable and institutionalized basis of party competition. This is largely a problem of the nature of elite politics, but also the lack of strong social bases for political parties. Without more structure, it is difficult for citizens to learn about the policy choices available to them, and translate this into meaningful electoral choices. Without more structure, it is difficult to ensure accountability in the democratic process. This situation presents the unique opportunity to study this process to examine how new party attachments take root, the relationships between social groups and parties form, party images develop, and citizens learn the process of representative democracy. However, the creation of party systems in the world of global television, greater knowledge about electoral politics (from the elite and public levels), and fundamentally different electorates are unlikely to follow the pattern of earlier democratization periods.

These questions require a dynamic perspective on the processes of electoral change. There has already been an impressive effort to develop the empirical research base in these new democracies (East Asian Barometer, Afrobarometer, Latinobarometer, and Comparative Study of Electoral Systems)—a development that took decades in most of the Western democracies. This research should lead to a new understanding of the positive and negative aspects of electoral development in these new democracies, and thus the prospects for further change.

4 Political Participation

Democratic or not, all polities expect some public involvement in the political process, if only to obey political orders. Democracy, however, expects more active involvement than a nondemocratic order because democracy is designed to aggregate public preferences into binding collective decisions. Necessarily this requires an active citizenry, because it is through interest articulation, information, and deliberation that public preferences can be identified, shaped, and transformed into collective decisions that are considered legitimate. Autocratic regimes also engage the public in the political process, although this is primarily to indoctrinate the public to conform to decisions that elites have made. But even the control capacities of autocratic regimes are limited so that they have somehow to address what the citizenry wants and needs.

Empirical research has measured the levels of participation across nations and highlighted distinctions between different modes of political action. Verba and his colleagues (Verba, Nie, and Kim 1978; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995) (p. 332) demonstrated that different forms of action vary in their political implications, and in the factors that stimulate individuals to act. This framework was extended to include the growth of unconventional political action that occurred since the 1960s (Barnes et al. 1979). This framework of participation modes is the common foundation of participation research.

Having identified the modes of action, researchers sought to explain patterns of participation. This was once an area intensely debated by rationalist and socialpsychological theories of political behavior. The rationalist approach framed decisions to participate in simple cost–benefit terms, best represented in Olson’s (1965) Logic of Collective Action. The charm of parsimony made this an attractive theoretical approach, but this parsimony created over-simplifications, false research paradoxes, and actually limited our understanding of citizen action. More productive is the behavioral model that stresses the influence of personal resources, attitudes, and institutional structures in explaining patterns of action (e.g. Verba, Nie, and Kim 1978; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995).

For the past several years, the most intense debate has focused on whether the level of political participation is systematically changing in Western democracies. As supporting evidence, the long-standing “paradox of participation” has noted that turnout in the United States has decreased since the 1960s, even though educational levels and the affluence of the nation have dramatically increased (Brody 1978; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993).

Putnam (2000) provocatively argued that declining turnout is part of a broader trend that has us “bowling alone.” Putnam claimed that social engagement is dropping in advanced industrial societies because of societal changes, such as changing labor patterns among women, rising television usage, urban sprawl, and the decline of traditional social institutions. These trends have supposedly led to a decline in social capital—the skills and values that facilitate democratic participation—and thereby to declines in the citizenry’s participation in politics.

The study of social capital and the changes in the patterns of participation in contemporary democracies has been one of the most fertile areas of research for the past decade. On the one side is clear cross-national evidence of declining turnout in advanced industrial democracies (Blais 2000; Wattenberg 2002; Franklin 2004). Other measures of partisan activity, such as party membership, also show clear downward trends in most nations (Scarrow 2000). This might be part of a more general downturn in civic engagement because church attendance, union membership, and the engagement in several types of traditional voluntary associations are declining.

On the other side is a growing body of evidence that new forms of civic and political action—such as contacting, direct action, contentious politics, self-help groups, local initiatives, donations—are counterbalancing the decline in electoral participation and other traditional forms of civic engagement (Zukin et al. 2006; Pattie, Seyd, and Whiteley 2004; Cain, Dalton, and Scarrow 2003). In addition, social group membership and the formation of social capital seem to be increasing in (p. 333) many advanced industrial democracies, making the USA an atypical case (Stolle and Howard 2007; Putnam 2002). Moreover, modernization processes are changing the ways in which people interact and engage in the public sphere, transforming the character of social capital instead of eliminating it altogether: Loyalist forms of eliteguided engagement go down but spontaneous forms of self-driven engagement go up (Norris 2002; Van Deth, Montero, and Westholm 2006).

This controversy touches the vitality of the democratic process. Decreasing involvement in traditional social groups (such as unions and religious groups) and declining social capital from these group affiliations are generally seen in established democracies, but this might not indicate a general erosion of civic engagement and social capital. It might simply reflect a transformation of the ways in which citizens relate to each other and their communities (Skocpol 2003). The Internet and social networking sites are connecting individuals in new ways, and new forms of face-to-face groups are also developing. If one includes new forms of interaction and engagement, participation levels and the various methods of political action are generally expanding in most advanced industrial societies—even while participation in the traditional form of party membership and electoral politics is decreasing. New forms of engagement expand political participation beyond the boundaries of what it was conventionally viewed to be. These tendencies reflect a great flexibility of democracies, allowing forms of participation to adapt to changing societal conditions. The new style of citizen participation places more control over political activity in the hands of the citizenry as well as increasing public pressure on political elites.

However, the expanding repertoire of action also may raise potential problems. For example, some forms of participation can increase inequalities in involvement, which would bias the democratic process in ways that conflict with the ideal of “one (wo)man one vote” (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995; Cain, Dalton, and Scarrow 2003; Parry, Moyser, and Day 1992). New forms of direct action are even more dependent on the skills and resources represented by social status, and thus may increase the participation gap between lower-status groups and higher-status individuals. These new forms of action also create new challenges for aggregating diverse political demands into coherent government policy. Ironically, overall increases in political involvement may mask a growing socialstatus bias in citizen participation and influence, which runs counter to democratic ideals.

The challenge for established democracies is to expand further the opportunities for citizens to participate and meaningfully influence the decisions affecting their lives. To meet this challenge means ensuring an equality of political rights and opportunities that will be even more difficult to guarantee with a wider variety of activities. However, a socially biased use of expanded political opportunities should not blame the opportunities but should blame the policies that fail to alleviate the social bias, such as unequal access to education and other social benefits that influence the citizens’ resources to participate.

(p. 334) 4.1 Participation in Emerging Democracies

The patterns of political participation are obviously different in emerging democracies and nondemocratic nations. In new democracies the challenge is to engage the citizenry in meaningful participation after years of ritualized action or prohibitions. In some cases this yields a mirror-image of old democracies: In old democracies citizens are moving from conventional to unconventional politics, in new democracies citizens often toppled autocratic regimes by revolutionary upheavals and now have to learn the routines of conventional participation.

Election turnout was often fairly high in the immediate post-transition elections in Eastern Europe, but has subsequently declined in most nations. Similarly, party activity has atrophied as democratic institutions have developed (Barnes and Simon 1998; van Biezen 2003). And while there was a popular lore claiming that a robust underground civil society prompted the democratization trend in Eastern Europe, post-transition research finds that social engagement is now limited (Howard 2003). Many East Europeans protested during the democratic transitions of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but these forms of action diminished after the transition in a kind of “post-honeymoon” effect (Inglehart and Catterberg 2003). Consequently, Eastern Europe still faces the challenge of integrating citizens into democratic politics and nurturing an understanding of the democratic process.

The challenges of citizen participation are, of course, even greater in nondemocratic nations. The advance of survey research has provided some unique insights into participation patterns in these nations. Shi’s study of political participation in Beijing (1997), for example, found much more extensive public involvement than expected. Furthermore, political participation can occur in alternative forms in political systems where citizen input is not tolerated and encouraged through institutionalized channels (also see Jennings 1997). Similarly, Bratton, Mattes, and Gyimah-Boadi (2004) find a surprisingly large range of political activity across a set of African nations. If this occurs in these two settings, then we might expect citizens to be somewhat engaged even in transitional political systems.

The desire to participate in the decisions affecting one’s life is common across the globe, but political institutions can shape whether these desires are expressed and how (Inglehart and Welzel 2005). Possessing the skills and resources to be politically active is an equally important factor. Research is now identifying how these two forces combine to shape the patterns of citizen action.

5 Does Public Opinion Matter

Another field of political behavior examines the impact of public opinion on policymakers and governments—which is the ultimate question in the study of public (p. 335) opinion within a democracy. To what extent do the views of policy-makers and the outputs of government policy reflect the preferences that the public itself prefers (Uslaner and Zittel, this volume)?

The indirect effect of public opinion in a democracy, mediated through representative institutions, has created questions about the congruence of mass–elite outcomes, and the factors that affect this intermediation process. However, this process has had a difficult research history despite the theoretical and political importance of the topic.

The first empirical study of representation was the famous Miller–Stokes study of representation in America (Miller and Stokes 1963). This model and research approach were soon expanded to a host of other advanced industrial democracies (Barnes 1977; Converse and Pierce 1986; Thomassen 1994). This research examined one of the most important questions in research on democracy, but the findings were limited. The theoretical model developed in the United States did not seem to fit other democracies. In addition, it is difficult to assemble the resources required to conduct parallel studies of the citizenry. Thus, in the fifty years since the original Miller–Stokes study, their full research project has not been replicated in the United States.

Other studies in the United States have examined elements of the representation process; for instance, comparing the congruence between mass and elite opinions in the aggregate or the dynamics of mass opinion change (Erikson, McKuen, and Stimson 2002; Stimson 2004). Cross-national studies in Europe similarly indicate that the parties have not lost their capacity to represent their voters when judged in broad left–right terms (Schmitt and Thomassen 1999; Katz and Wessels 1999). This is an important measure of the working of the democratic process.

Researchers have also examined the congruence between public policy preferences and the outcomes of government (Page and Shapiro 1992). Gradually, this research has spread to other Western democracies, often adopted to national institutions or the structure of representation (Wlezien 2004; Wlezien and Soroka 2007). One important branch of this approach compares programmatic profiles of political parties and political preferences of their followers (Klingemann et al. 1994; Budge et al. 2001; Klingemann et al. 2006). In fact, based on a study comparing citizen spending preferences and government spending across different policy domains in the United States, Britain, and Canada, Stuart Soroka and Christopher Wlezien (2008) come to a simple but important conclusion: “democracy works.”

As the number of these representation studies increases, research is now examining how institutional structures—such as the nature of electoral systems or the characteristics of the party systems—affect the representation of citizen preferences (Miller et al. 1999; Wessels 2007). The congruence between citizens and their government varies with the structure of institutions, increasing representation in some settings and accountability in others (Powell 2000).

The study of political representation is an area with great theoretical and empirical potential to understand the functioning of the democratic process through the mass– elite relationship. But it also remains one of the most challenging areas to study and compare across nations. Gradually research is yielding a better understanding of how (p. 336) the democratic process actually functions, which yields a positive view of the vitality of the process.

6 Changing Publics: A Conclusion

We have recently experienced what are arguably the most significant political events of the last half-century: the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the global democratization wave of the 1990s. As advanced industrial societies are evolving into a new form of democratic politics, we are witnessing the initial development of democracy in a new set of nations. The democratization waves in Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa touch at the very core of many of our most basic questions about the nature of citizen politics and the working of the political process.

Normally we study democratic systems that are roughly at equilibrium and speculate on how this equilibrium was created (or how it changes in minor ways). Moreover, during the earlier waves of democratic transition the tools of empirical social science were not available to study political behavior directly. The current democratization wave thus provides a virtually unique opportunity to address questions on identity formation, the creation of political cultures (and possibly how cultural inheritances are changed), the establishment of an initial calculus of voting, and the dynamic processes linking political norms and behavior. These questions represent some of the fundamental research issues of our time. The answers will not only explain what has occurred during this democratization wave, but may aid us in better understanding the basic principles of how citizens function within the political process. There has never been a richer opportunity to study the choices of citizens across regime forms and between old and new democracies. The conditions to arrive at a theory of how citizens come to political choices depending on different political settings, and how these choices affect the settings, have never been better than they are today.

In each of the areas discussed in this chapter, research can be described in two terms. First, our empirical knowledge has expanded almost exponentially over the past generation. Until quite recently, a single national survey provided the basis for discussing the characteristics of citizen behavior; and such evidence was frequently limited to the larger advanced industrial democracies. Indeed, there were large parts of the world where our understanding of the citizenry, their attitudes, and behavior were based solely on the insights of political observers—which can be as fallible as the observer. Contemporary comparative research is now more likely to draw on crossnational and cross-temporal comparisons. Research has developed the foundations for the scientific study of the topic.

Second, it is ironic that our expanding empirical evidence has occurred during a time when many basic features of citizen attitudes and behaviors are changing (p. 337) in ways that may limit the value of past theories and models. In part, these trends reflect the tremendous social and political changes that have occurred in the world during the past half-century. Modernization has transformed living conditions in most nations, altered the skills and values of contemporary publics, and offered new technological advances that change the relationship between citizens and elites. Perhaps, this is the most interesting object worthy of study. For never before in history has the interaction between elites and people been shifted so much to the side of the people.

The global wave of democratization in the 1990s has dramatically increased the role of the citizenry in many of the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. This latter development makes our task as scholars of the citizen more relevant than ever before, but also more difficult. Even as our research skills and empirical evidence have expanded, the phenomena we study have been evolving—something that physicists and chemists do not have to deal with. These changes produce uncertainty about what new styles of political decision-making, or what new forms of political participation are developing. In addition, the nature of citizen politics is becoming more complex—or through our research we are now realizing that greater complexity exists. This produces a real irony: Even though we have greater scientific knowledge, our ability to predict and explain political behavior may actually be decreasing in some areas. For instance, we know much more about electoral behavior than we did in the 1950s, but simple sociodemographic models that were successful in predicting electoral behavior in the 1960s are much less potent in explaining contemporary voting behavior. So we have gained greater certainty about the uncertainty of voter decisions (Wren and McElwain, this volume).

Finally, we see broad outlines of what we think are some of the most productive areas for future research. Several aspects of research design offer exciting potential for the future. For instance, most studies use random surveys of individuals. This design focuses our attention on individuals as autonomous political actors and theories emphasizing the individualization of politics. However, people exist in a social, economic, and political context that can shape their political behavior. For example, limited political knowledge can be overcome by asking spouses, friends, or neighbors (Gunther, Ramón Montero, and Puhle 2006). Even more important, characteristics of the political context can alter the processes shaping citizen attitudes and behavior, such as exposure to supportive or dissonant information (Huckfeldt et al. 2004; Mutz 2006). Equally exciting are new research opportunities to study how the institutional structure of a polity interacts with citizen behavior (e.g. Anderson et al. 2005; Klingemann 2009). Thus, studying this complex of social and political interactions should yield new insights into how political behavior is shaped.

Another innovation is the introduction of experiments and quasi-experiments to our research tools. For example, Sniderman’s (Sniderman and Piazza 1993; Sniderman et al. 2000) experiments in studying racial attitudes and prejudice illustrate how experiments and creative questionnaire design can provide unobtrusive measures (p. 338) of sensitive topics. Such experiments also provide leverage to study causality by manipulating choices presented to survey respondents, and analyze how opinions change. This innovation has tremendous potential that should be utilized more in future research.

An even more dramatic sign of the development of political behavior research is the increasing complexity of research designs. Once, a single national sample was the basis of extensive research because such evidence was still rare. However, as our knowledge has increased and our theories have become more complex, this calls for more complex research designs. Election studies, for instance, need to study individuals in context, including multiple and converging data collections: social context, media content, party actions, and other elements of the total process. Doing more of what we did in the past—more questions, more surveys, larger sample sizes—is not likely to generate the theoretical or empirical insights necessary to move the research field forward. Complex theories and complex processes require more complex research designs.

We also believe that research will engage a new set of theoretical issues as the field moves forward. It is more difficult to outline briefly the forefront for research, because theoretical questions are more diverse than the methodological innovations we have just outlined. However, several areas of potential enquiry stand out for their potential. While most research has focused on single nations, and typically Western democracies, the global expansion of research means that issues of social modernization and cross-national development are likely to be especially fruitful areas of study. This is a case where we have been theory rich and information poor—and now these theories will be tested, and undoubtedly new models developed in their place. Similarly, past theorizing has focused on explaining systems and behavior in equilibrium. Theories of political change seem an especially fruitful area for enquiry given the dynamic nature of contemporary politics.

Finally, one should not forget that because of the sheer number of countries for which survey data are available, we are for the first time able to study some of the basic assumptions underlying all research into mass belief systems: That variation in these belief systems has a true impact on a society’s level of democracy and the outputs of government. Aggregate-level analysis of the correlates of democracy was usually left to political economists who could more easily correlate socioeconomic indicators to levels of democracy. But we can now test their models against political culture, examining whether socioeconomic factors or features of political culture have a stronger impact on democracy. As recent studies show (Inglehart and Welzel 2005), features of political culture have as strong an impact on levels of democracy as socioeconomic factors.

Our goal has been to introduce the readers to the research literature and the research questions that remain. We came away from this task with tremendous respect for what has been achieved since the onset of modern comparative research. At the same time, answering one question generates new questions, and cross-national research on political behavior is just entering its age of discovery.


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(*) We want to thank the authors in the Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior for their contributions to that volume, and we draw upon many of their findings and conclusions in this chapter.