Since the surprising results of the US presidential election, a lot of websites and blogs have asked how ordinary citizens should react. What is the best way to allocate your participation, if you want to have an actual impact? One of my favourite examples was here, but other examples were here, here, and here. So – what does political science say is the best way to get involved?
These articles recognize that getting results isn’t just a question of how many hours you put in. It’s also about what you do with those hours. Political scientists have developed some robust theories about what types of participation can effectively influence policy, and which types are less effective. Organizing is not an exact science, and every person and every situation is different. But here are some general ideas, based off my interpretation of the research:
- If you’re interested in contacting legislators, bear in mind that this is a transaction. You are asking for something from them, and they hope for something in return – your vote, or your resources. So, target friendly legislators, and mention that you are an active and participatory citizen. Consider offering them your time, or technical expertise, or whatever resources you have.
- Though alternative perspectives are important, research suggests that this transaction model is the best explanation of lobbying patterns.
- Targeting friendly legislators is generally more effective. A really useful guide to how to do this effectively was created by the National League for Nursing.
- Research has found that politicians are more likely to grant you enhanced access if you mention that you are a political donor.
- If you’re interested in building a coalition or recruiting others, use personalized messages and social identity. Activism does have instrumental effects that motivate participation, but most research focuses on how it is a life-choice that people need to feel good about.
- This is similar to later advice in the fourth bullet-point, about electoral campaigns. But alongside that evidence, consider this perspective on the social identity effects of rallies against police brutality. Or, this research that personal frames have also been found to be most useful when it comes to human rights advocacy.
- A good review of the literature on this is found here.
- If you’re interested in reducing prejudice, then bear in mind two things: First, that one-off efforts are generally much less effective than sustained efforts. Second, that techniques that focus on empathy, or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, are generally more effective.
- This overview of the literature is thorough and helpful, and also contains a few bullet-points at the beginning that can be useful for anyone.
- If you’re interested in laying the groundwork for the next set of elections in 2018/2020, then bear in mind that electoral politics is just the tip of the iceberg. Consumption choices, personal relationships, other direct actions, and interest groups, can all be effective.
- Whatever issue you’re most interested in, there are organizations working on it. Volunteering for them can be extremely powerful both in the short-term and the long-term. There are some more detailed guides here and here.
- Becoming a ‘political consumer’ is sometimes seen as an inadequate substitute for other forms of activism. But some argue that it can become habit-forming and lead to more engagement. It’s also important to bear in mind that ‘buycotting’ sends a clearer message than ‘boycotting’.
- But electoral politics are of course still vital. When it comes to helping on a campaign there are many things to consider, but one general principle is to use personalized messages. Don’t rely on generic arguments, rely on personalized arguments. ‘Get Out The Vote’ research has repeatedly found, using large-scale field experiments, that personal interactions are better than impersonal appeals when it comes to mobilizing people to go to the polls.
- It’s also important to bear in mind that – again, whatever issue you’re interested in – you are by no means limited to the two major parties. Getting involved with a smaller party can be powerful too. Research has found that mainstream parties change their positions in response to niche parties. An interesting discussion is found here.
Hopefully some of this is useful to those deciding how to get involved. I have tried to focus on social science evidence and draw reliable conclusions. But since summarizing an entire literature in one bullet-point involves removing some details, I’ve also tried to include links to allow people to judge the research for themselves.
I’ve also not addressed a couple of things. First, revolutionary options are not discussed here since they’re a very different animal. I’ve also not addressed the question of ‘is it better for me to get involved in prejudice reduction, or to contact a legislator, or to volunteer for an interest group?’. That is a vital question, and it motivates a lot of my own research, but for now hopefully it’s enough to provide useful starting points for each different form of participation.
Feel free to leave comments recommending other studies that talk about the question of ‘what works and what doesn’t work’ when it comes to participation.