Political Participation

Political participation in the United States has changed drastically since the country declared independence from Great Britain in 1776. Imagine how different life would be today if the only people who were allowed to vote were white, land-owning men! In a country as diverse as the United States political participation gives everyone the chance to petition the government for programs and services that help them achieve the American Dream. 

Political Participation Political Participation

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Table of contents

    This article discusses the changes in political participation throughout United States history as well as the available forms of political participation. Additionally, you will learn about the impact of social media on political participation, namely how it has affected elections and social movements.

    Definition of Political Participation

    Political participation refers to the many different ways citizens can express their opinions about the world and influence how their country is governed. Through political participation, citizens can influence how elected representatives create and implement political, economic, and social policies.

    Political Participation in the United States

    After the American Revolution, only white men who owned property could vote. In the 1800s, men outside of this ownership class supported the expansion of suffrage. Before the 1820s, the United States political system lacked organized political parties or choices for voters. When the two-party system reemerged, interest in suffrage was reinvigorated. The biggest source of contention was the idea that men believed they should not have to own land to be able to vote. In response to the men's campaign for suffrage, many states removed the requirement of owning land and instead implemented a poll tax which led to complete white male suffrage.

    In the 1840s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott also started a women's suffrage movement. They proposed the Declaration of Independence be modified to read: "all men and women are created equal." While their movement was unsuccessful, it became a source of inspiration for future suffragettes.

    When the Civil War came to an end in 1865, the political power of the South made the Radical Republican-controlled Congress wary. They sought to limit the South's political power through the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments:

    • 13th Amendment: Abolished slavery in the U.S.
    • 14th Amendment: Deemed anyone born in the United States an American citizen and granted citizenship rights
    • 15th Amendment: Extended voting rights to African American men.

    In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizen Act to grant Native Americans the right to vote. However, because their right to vote was not strictly enforced, Native Americans would have to wait forty more years to gain suffrage in all states.

    In the 1920s, white women also won the right to vote through the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Women's suffrage gained support in the country in response to women stepping up and working industry jobs during World War II. After the war, women constantly campaigned, marched, and protested for suffrage. They even gained the support of President Woodrow Wilson with their persistence. Black women were also granted the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment but, like their male counterparts, they faced challenges in voting for years. After women won the right to vote, more women became involved in politics and government.

    Political Participation in the US Women's suffrage movement poster StudySmarterPoster advocating for women's right to vote, Hilda Dallas, Wikimedia Commons.

    Challenges Faced at the Polls

    Despite gaining suffrage in 1870, African American men faced various challenges in trying to exercise their right to vote. In addition to poll taxes, black voters faced:

    • Literacy tests;
    • Threats of violence;
    • Lynching; and
    • Exclusion from voting through White Primaries.

    Voting Rights Act

    During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the federal government made strides to more effectively protect all citizens' right to vote. With the passage of the 24th Amendment on January 23, 1964, poll taxes were abolished. A year later, the government passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect the right to vote for black and other minority voters. The Voting Rights Act prohibited states from practicing discriminatory voting practices such as requiring that a person pass a literacy test before voting. The Act also required states that previously practiced race-based discriminatory voting practices to get approval on their election rules from the federal government. Unfortunately, this provision of the Voting Rights Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.

    Political Participation in the US President Johnson abolishes the poll tax StudySmarterPresident Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Constitutional Amendment abolishing the poll tax in 1964, Cecil W. Stoughton, Wikimedia Commons.

    Voting Requirements Today

    The passage of the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18, a requirement that persists to this day. In addition to an age requirement, most if not all states require a voter to be a resident of the state they are voting in and require the voter to be a United States citizen.

    Importance of Political Participation

    Political participation is important for many reasons. Voicing an opinion through participation in the political process helps the government better understand what citizens want. Through political participation, people can make sure the government is adequately fulfilling its duties. Political participation is a way for an ordinary person to have an impact on their community.

    Forms of Political Participation

    Conventional forms of political participation include voting, donating money to candidates or causes, working for campaigns, and running for office. Individuals can also write letters to officials and sign petitions. These forms of political participation use established government institutions to inform representatives of public opinion.

    Unconventional forms of political participation include strikes, protests, and civil disobedience. The most well-known examples of unconventional political participation occurred during the Civil Rights Movement. Since the government refused to listen to the demands of the black population, they resorted to alternative methods such as demonstrations, sit-ins, and the refusal to obey certain laws.

    Examples of Political Participation

    The most prominent example of political participation is voting. In the United States, citizens vote for a representative they believe will advocate for their needs in local, state, or federal political spheres. However, there are many different ways people can participate in the political process.

    Citizens can contact public officials to give their opinion about a pressing political or social issue. They can also relay their preferences to officials in public forums like town halls or during debates. If individuals want to take matters into their own hands, they can even run for office themselves.

    Voters can take part in organizations to influence politics. These organizations can support certain institutions, officials, or policies as well as attempt to change unfavorable aspects. People can also participate in campaigns for causes important to them or for candidates whose agenda aligns with their ideals.

    Individuals can sign petitions, donate money to specific causes or representatives, or attend events to raise awareness for a cause.

    At the very least, understanding the political process and having discussions with family and friends can increase levels of political participation. Through these activities, people can form their own political opinions and understand other people's points of view.

    Social Media Impact on Political Participation

    Today, people have access to various forms of media that can influence their opinions on current events. In the United States, the vast majority get their information from television, radio, newspaper, and online forms of media. In 2008, the internet became a powerful tool for politics after presidential candidate Barack Obama successfully implemented the use of Facebook in his campaign. Since then the use of social media has changed electoral campaigns drastically.

    Political Participation in the US Social Media impacts participation StudySmarterSocial Media has impacted political participation in the United States, Automotive Social, CC-BY-2.0, Wikimedia Commons.

    Positive Impact of Social Media

    The widespread use of social media has been shown to increase political participation through exposure to political information. It has also allowed voters to interact with candidates and political leaders. Individuals no longer have to appear at a public forum to interact with government officials.

    Government officials and candidates have found it easier to reach their target audience through social media platforms. Just like businesses can use targeted advertisements on social media, politicians can use the same system to promote their ideas.

    Social media has also made it easier for people to mobilize around certain causes and issues affecting their community. Organizations can easily share petitions, raise funds, and coordinate protests and demonstrations through social media.

    Negative Impact of Social Media

    Through social media, misinformation and disinformation can be spread more easily. Because of the constant stream of articles, photos, and videos, it can be hard to identify which sources are credible.

    The use of social media also promotes a confirmation bias. People often follow accounts on social media with similar viewpoints to their own. This can make people more stubborn about their views and less understanding of the beliefs of others.

    Confirmation bias is the habit only accepting information that confirms an individual's currently held beliefs or ideas.

    Social Media Impact on Social Movements

    For social movements, social media has helped stimulate the recruitment, mobilization, and communication processes. Social media can reach millions of people nationwide and even internationally. When those involved in social movements post images and videos from protest marches, individuals who see them are more likely to get involved in the cause.

    • The Black Lives Matter movement has used social media to bring racism, inequality, and discrimination faced by black people to the forefront of American minds. This awareness has led to discussions about policy changes.
    • The March for Our Lives movement was borne from social media after the Parkland shooting in 2018. Students who survived the shooting became more influential in advocating for gun control. Students were involved in organizing marches and supporting other students.

    Political Participation in the US Black Lives Matter protest StudySmarterBlack Lives Matter protest June 1, 2020, Kurtkaiser, Wikimedia Commons.

    Political Participation in the US March for Our Lives protest StudySmarterMarch for Our Lives protest in Seattle, WA on March 24, 2018, David J. Lee, CC-BY-SA-2.0, Wikimedia Commons.

    Political Participation - Key takeaways

    • Political participation refers to the different ways citizens can exert their influence on the policies created by elected representatives.
    • Voting, donating money, participating in campaigns, and running for office are forms of conventional political participation.
    • Strikes, boycotts, protests, and other acts of civil disobedience are forms of unconventional political participation.
    • Social media has positively impacted recent elections by helping candidates and social movements easily disseminate information to their followers.
    • Social media has negatively impacted recent elections by spreading fake news and facilitating the incitement of insurrection.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Political Participation

    What are political participation examples?

    Conventional:  Voting, donating money to candidates or causes, writing letters, signing petitions, working for campaigns, running for office.  Unconventional:  Strikes, protests, and civil disobedience.

    Why is public participation important for our Democracy?

    Through political participation, people can make sure the government is adequately fulfilling its duties. Political participation is a way for an ordinary person to have an impact on their community.

    How has political participation increased in the U.S.?

    Over time, more Americans have gained political power through the right to vote.

    What is the most common form political participation in the US?

    The most common form of political participation in the U.S. is voting in elections for candidates or causes.

    How does social media influence political participation?

    The widespread use of social media has been shown to increase political participation through exposure to political information.  For social movements, social media has helped stimulate the recruitment, mobilization, and communication processes.

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