The Third Face of Social Capital: How Membership in Voluntary Associations Improves Policy Accountability

Article excerpt

This article examines whether political accountability-the heart of a functioning democracy-is enhanced by citizen participation in voluntary associations. The authors contend that involvement in associations offers an easy avenue for acquiring political information, thereby aiding citizens in evaluating the president on the basis of the policies produced by the president. General Social Survey data from ten years, paired with presidential policy liberalism scores, are used to test the key hypothesis. The authors find support for the idea that membership in voluntary associations facilitates a more sophisticated policy accountability among citizens.

Keywords: social capital; accountability; presidential approval

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Citizens in a democracy must be able to hold their governments accountable. Individually it is a tall task for citizens, who do not normally pay close attention to politics, to gather accurate information about existing social conditions and policy programs and make political judgments in accord with this information. For citizens to hold leaders accountable for material conditions (e.g., Fiorina 1981; Key 1966) or public policies, they must be aware of those conditions or policies. The demands on citizens to perform this duty are far from simple. Indeed, one of the central claims of The American Voter (Campbell et al. 1960, especially chap. 8) is that most citizens fall woefully short of being able to hold leaders accountable for government policies.

Citizens, however, need not navigate the political environment alone. While citizens are habitually inattentive to politics, the civically involved may inadvertently use voluntary associations as a source of information for evaluating government. We examine the influence of voluntary associations on policy accountability, in particular. By policy accountability, we mean the capacity of citizens to hold government accountable for the policy programs government undertakes. Policy accountability serves as a more direct and more sophisticated accountability mechanism than many scholars (or politicians) presume citizens engage in.

Much has been made of the need for high levels of social capital and an active civil society in a functioning democracy. Social capital refers to the norms, obligations, and information that develop within a network of citizens, allowing them to pursue common goals more effectively (Coleman 1988). The majority of studies examining social capital have focused on the relationship between groups and interpersonal trust as a source and a resource of social capital to foster collective action via norms and obligations (e.g., Putnam 1995). We examine the role of voluntary associations as purveyors of incidental political information about government action and public policythe third face of social capital-which citizens can use to form assessments of the president.

Social relationships reduce the cost, in terms of time and energy, of gathering information (Coleman 1988). Rather than scouring all information sources to keep abreast of events, individuals can glean information as a result of social interactions within voluntary associations. Indeed, scholars have long recognized the role of politically attentive citizens in transmitting political information to the rest of us (Downs 1957; Huckfeldt and Sprague 1995; Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). Voluntary associations provide a forum for such information transmission. Our study finds that voluntary associations generally enhance the use of policy information, thereby improving the ability of citizens to hold governments accountable and increasing the incentive of government leaders to be responsive to citizen preferences. Thus, the information relayed within voluntary associations may provide a mechanism for increasing government responsiveness.

Social Capital and Governance

Putnam's (1993) work on Italian regional governments demonstrated a strong relationship between the existence of social capital and the responsiveness of government. …