Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Membership Has Its Privileges: How Voluntary Groups Exacerbate the Participatory Bias

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Membership Has Its Privileges: How Voluntary Groups Exacerbate the Participatory Bias

Article excerpt

It is well established that individuals who belong to voluntary associations are more likely to participate in democratic politics. This article examines the possibility that the participation-promoting aspects of America's nonpolitical voluntary organizations are not experienced equally by all members. Not only are privileged Americans more likely to join nonpolitical voluntary organizations, but they are more likely to benefit from their membership after the point of joining. The participation-promoting benefits of membership accrue disproportionately to white, male, wealthy, and well-educated members, thus reinforcing participatory stratification. Evidence suggests that stratification results from both member and leader choices and behaviors.

Keywords: public opinion; political participation; civic engagement

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

Ever since Tocqueville's nineteenth-century visit to theUnited States, voluntary organizations have been hailed for promoting democratic stability. They foster support for democratic norms, promote cooperation and problem solving, and teach skills applicable to democratic politics. By using parliamentary procedure, electing officers, and engaging in fund-raising, members become familiar with the essential elements of political participation. They are thus more likely to engage in actual political activities, such as voting, campaigning, and attending public meetings and political events.

If group members are more likely to vote, contact government officials, and campaign, democracy seems well served. But what if organizations are inegalitarian in their promotion of participation? If only certain members realize the participation-promoting properties of group activity, voluntary groups may actually reinforce existing biases in political participation-biases known to favor Americans of privilege (Campbell, Gurin, and Miller 1954; Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee 1954; Milbrath 1965; Verba and Nie 1972; Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995).

This article scrutinizes the link between voluntary group activity and political participation and finds that all members are not created equal when it comes to realizing the participation-promoting effects of nonpolitical voluntary groups. Although some have suggested that the benefits of membership are not enjoyed equally by all members (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995; Burns, Schlozman, and Verba 2001), the extent of distortion has not been made clear. Nor has sufficient theoretical attention been paid to causes of distortion in the experiences of voluntary group members.

Two sets of theories are advanced in this article to explain the phenomenon. A set of member-based theories asserts thatmembers themselves behave inways that create disparities in the enjoyment of the group's participation- promoting properties.A set of leader-based theories draws on rational choice theory, particularly the theory of "rational prospecting" (Brady, Schlozman, and Verba 1999), to explain the manner in which political elites seek people to vote, campaign, and give money to political causes. I also consider the possibility that such channeling is a product of discrimination.

A brief review of the literature focuses on studies that address the ways in which voluntary groups may promote exclusion. Drawing on this literature,memberand leader-based theories are advanced to explain disparities in the enjoyment of the participation-promoting aspects of voluntary groups. These are documented in terms of race, gender, education, and income. Specific hypotheses are offered and tested to explain the distortions using data from the 1990 American Citizen Participation Study (CPS; Verba et al. 1995). A final section discusses implications of the results, which clearly suggest that membership has its privileges for some, but not all, members of America's nonpolitical voluntary groups. …

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