Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Evaluations, Referents of Support, and Political Action in New Democracies

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Evaluations, Referents of Support, and Political Action in New Democracies

Article excerpt

How does the way in which people evaluate authorities and the regime affect their propensity to act politically? Moreover, how does political and democratic dissatisfaction translate into protest behavior? These questions are fundamental to a cultural perspective on political participation. Those who develop positive evaluative judgments and feelings are likely to be politically involved. On the contrary, those who develop negative evaluative and affective attitudes, or those who possess none at all, toward the political process and the regime are likely to be apathetic or alienated. (1)

Underlying this relationship between attitudes and political behavior is the individual's sense of political efficacy, which involves two interdependent dimensions. Internal efficacy refers to individuals' self-perceptions of their capabilities to understand politics and be competent enough to participate in political acts. It is shaped, in turn, by people's assessments of whether or not action can make a difference in policy outcomes (Miller, Miller, and Schnieder 1980; Campbell et al. 1960). In this sense, the strength of an individual's perception of political confidence is intrinsically related to his/her evaluations of the openness and responsiveness of the political order--that is, his/her beliefs about political institutions rather than perceptions about one's own abilities--or external efficacy.

The stronger a citizen's sense of the system's attentiveness to their needs, therefore, and the stronger the satisfaction with their role within the political input structure, the more likely they will show support by participating within the system. Likewise, the stronger a citizen's perception of governmental unresponsiveness, and the stronger their sense that governmental policy is outside their sphere of influence, then it is less likely they will attempt to affect any political outcome.

Dahl (1961), in his influential study of New Haven's politics, provides one of the first accounts of the dynamics between political action and efficacy. By illustrating the reaction of neighbors to a redevelopment project, Dahl claims that when citizens' primary goals are affected--despite generally accepting the status quo because the costs of disagreement in a highly competitive party system and fragmented society are too high--they do participate: "The proposal to erect the metal houses seemed to nearby residents to constitute a clear threat to the neighborhood ... Their primary concerns were adversely affected by men whose actions they could not hope to influence--except perhaps through politics. And so these essentially apolitical people turned briefly to political action to avert the danger they thought confronted them" (Dahl 1961:193).

The institutional approach, however, argues that cross-national variations on institutions provide a more parsimonious and powerful explanation of political participation in industrial democracies (Jackman and Miller 1996; Geddes 1994). Distinctive to this perspective are the propositions that institutions--political, social, and economic--structure the distribution of incentives for individual action and that individuals optimize in view of those constraints. Simply put, institutional change alters the opportunities available to political actors and thereby modifies the behavior of those actors. In contrast to the cultural argument, "this perspective directs the attention to the opportunity structures within which key political figures make strategic choices and thus restores political considerations to a central analytic role" (Jackman and Miller 1996:655).

However, designing "democratic" institutions will not automatically establish democracy if citizens' first-hand experience persuades them that these institutions are economically ineffective (Inglehart 2002). Indeed, pro-democratic orientations weakened in most new democracies after regime change (Catterberg 2002). …

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