Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Anti-Politics in Action? Measurement Dilemmas in the Study of Unconventional Political Participation

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Anti-Politics in Action? Measurement Dilemmas in the Study of Unconventional Political Participation

Article excerpt

Introduction

There has been much talk, and increasing levels of con- cern, on the subject of disaffection in democracies (Dalton 2008; Torcal 2003). Especially across Western industri- alized nations, citizens appear to express high levels of disengagement from formal political institutions. In par- ticular, many scholars have documented low levels of sat- isfaction with and trust in governments, politicians, and political parties .In the United Kingdom, for example, only two in every ten people have trusted politicians to tell the truth since the 1970s (Hay and Stoker 2009). This has been accompanied by a loss of partisanship in politi- cal parties (Whiteley 2009), reduced party campaigning (Scarrow 2007) and declining electoral turnouts (Blais 2007). Electoral turnout for U.K. general elections was as high as 83.9 percent in 1950 but had dwindled to 59.4 percent by 2001 (Stoker 2011, 33).

Yet does this mean that people have come to dislike politics and have consequently withdrawn from it in every shape and form? At least by some accounts, the outlook is not entirely bleak. Scholars have argued that the decline in formal political participation has been accompanied by the rise of single-issue politics, expressed through increased levels of participation in citizen groups and social movements (see, for example, Dalton 2008 and Norris 2002). As Norris states with reference to what she calls a "democratic phoenix," "the obituary for civic activism is premature" (Norris 2002, 3). Although some of the evidence purporting a rise in protest is questionable because the number of people engaged in protest is not necessarily growing year-on-year (Stoker et al. 2011, 54-6), it is certainly the case that those who engage in protest and express dissatisfaction with democracy con- tinue to have strong support for democratic principles (Curtice and Jowell 1997). Thus, the foundations of democracy as a system appear to hold firm.

Dalton's (1999, 69) work pre-dates but concurs with Norris' (2002) idea that there is a "democratic phoenix." He states that "there is at least indirect evidence that per- ceptions of the appropriate role for citizens now empha- sise a more participatory style and greater willingness to challenge authority." Expressing what might be called a form of "anti-politics," perhaps more accurately termed "anti-formal-politics," citizens are now considered to more commonly focus their attention on a smaller num- ber of issues that matter to them instead of engaging with a broader ideology or party political platform (Dalton 1996, 37). This leads to a form of "viral," "anarchic," and "citizen-led" politics (Hay and Stoker 2009), which sets off a negative spiral, arguably making it increasingly more difficult for governments and political parties to satisfy the electorate as time passes. Part of the appeal of protest may be that it allows individuals to pick and choose the issues in which they engage. Individuals may, thus, find it preferable to having to select a particular party manifesto, as there may be elements within party platforms toward which they are unfavorable. Protest, unlike many aspects of engagement in formal politics, allows individuals and groups to choose and frame not only the issues that matter to them but also the timing and the location of their political participation.

This article has three main aims centered on under- standing the relationship between protest and anti-politics and how this might be best measured. Its primary purpose is to shed fresh light on the extent to which those who engage in protest are a-partisan and disinterested in, dis- trustful of, and disconnected from formal politics. If pro- test-operationalized in various ways-is associated with being disaffected with and disconnected from for- mal politics, then we might be able to corroborate claims that suggest that protest is a reaction to anti-politics. Some might think that these questions have already been adequately addressed in the extant literature. …

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