From the Gap to the Chasm: Gender and Participation among Non-Hispanic Whites and Mexican Americans

By Kam, Cindy D.; Zechmeister, Elizabeth J. et al. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2008 | Go to article overview

From the Gap to the Chasm: Gender and Participation among Non-Hispanic Whites and Mexican Americans


Kam, Cindy D., Zechmeister, Elizabeth J., Wilking, Jennifer R., Political Research Quarterly


This article focuses on gender and ethnic inequalities in political participation across non-Hispanic whites and Mexican Americans. Using a mainstream model of participation, the authors find that differences in the levels of resources, motivations, and opportunities effectively account for gender gaps within the two populations. However, this mainstream model leaves largely unexplained the chasm in participation across non-Hispanic whites and Mexican Americans. The authors incorporate socialization experiences specific to Mexican Americans to identify the roots of participatory inequality across these groups. Differences in linguistic, educational, and general assimilation account for participatory differences across Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic whites. Equalizing these factors closes the chasm in participation.

Keywords: participation; immigrants; socialization; Mexican Americans; gender

Individuals communicate their needs and interests to government through political participation. The democratic norm of equality demands that government pay equal heed to all constituents, not simply the most strident. Yet disparities in participation exist across socioeconomic strata, as well as along gender and ethnic lines. A systematic underrepresentation of individuals from specific groups can quickly translate into biases in policy demands and policy outputs and, ultimately, into biases in democratic representation.

Disparities in participation exist, and even greater disparities are easily imaginable, given recent demographic changes in the United States. The United States is in the midst of the largest wave of immigration in this country's history; since the 1970s, the United States has experienced a steady upward trend in immigration, driven largely by immigrants of Mexican descent.1 Currently, Latinos comprise more than 14 percent of the total U.S. population, and Mexican Americans are the largest Latino subgroup.2 Given their sheer and growing numbers, Mexican Americans have the potential to be an important political force in U.S. politics. However, this potential has been largely unrealized. Extant scholarship suggests that Latinos generally participate in political life at lower rates than their non-Latino counterparts, in both the electoral and nonelectoral arenas (see, e.g., Barreto, Segura, and Woods 2004; de la Garza, Menchaca, and DeSipio 1994; Shaw, de la Garza, and Lee 2000; Hero and Campbell 1996; DeSipio 2006). Mexican Americans (along with Puerto Ricans) participate at the lowest rates (Wrinkle et al. 1996; Diaz 1996).

Even greater discrepancies in participation appear when ethnicity and gender intersect. Although women and men appear to turn out at equal rates, on average and across various other political acts, women tend to participate in politics to a slightly lesser extent than men (e.g., Burns, Schlozman, and Verba 2001).3 Where gender and race and gender and ethnicity intersect, these gaps in participation widen. For example, Burns, Schlozman, and Verba (2001) found that political participation among non-Hispanic white men is 2.6 times greater than that among Latinas. Two disparities create a participatory chasm: the first between men and women within the Hispanic population and the second between the non-Hispanic white and Hispanic populations.

Our article takes as its starting point this troublesome disparity in participation. We examine the extent to which resources, motivations, and opportunities help explain the participatory inequalities that exist at the intersection of gender and ethnicity. We further examine how socialization processes may attenuate gaps in participation. Using a unique data set, Learning Democracy in Mexico and the United States, 2000 (Camp 2000), we focus on the determinants of participation across and among non-Hispanic whites and Mexican Americans.

We begin by identifying the extent to which a mainstream model of political participation helps explain the ethnic divide in participation. …

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