In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam suggests that we act politically because of a shared trust and sense of community. Other political scientists (such as Benedict Anderson) believe that cultural cleavages are what drive us to act. Still others (Lipset, Almond, Verba) think that a shared tradition and shared cultural norms are what drive our political activity. These culturalist schools of political science all have merits and all can explain some past forms of political motivations.
Putnam’s idea of shared trust (“social capital”) and sense of community can explain a lot and is closely related to those who believe in a shared tradition and cultural norms as motivational factors.
For example, Putnam’s social capital in his neighborhood, as he discusses in his 2007 article “E Pluribus Unum,” is built by his neighbors’ close ties. They have barbecues, cocktail parties, etc. on a regular basis; Putnam himself, he admits, regularly skips these events. The social capital built by these parties and cookouts benefits him regardless; his house is kept safer because his neighbors have a close sense of community. If the neighbors did not share at least some of the same tradition (e.g., religion, professional status, economic status), would this social capital be built up so well? Would Putnam’s neighborhood still have cocktail parties and barbecues if they did not share in the American cultural norm of getting together with one’s neighbors?
Another example of social capital, in a far more negative sense, is given to us by the terrorist organization Al Qaeda. This group of determined Islamic fundamentalists, hellbent on waging jihad on America and the West, are held together by social capital and would not be able to accomplish any of their goals if they did not band together.
Again, however, a shared sense of values and cultural norms are strongly present — a certain bastardization of Islam, a shared idea of an ideal world and the shared belief in certain Islamic prophecy are present and allow this group to come together and commit their dastardly deeds.
Between these two groups — Putnam’s peaceful neighborhood across the River Charles and the destructive fundamentalists an ocean away — we see the third culturalist school appear; cultural cleavages and how they can motivate people to act. What else drives Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist groups but major cultural cleavages and visions of society? As Osama bin Laden himself put it:
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque from their grip and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.
How much more fundamental can cultural values get than religious? It is his very own religious beliefs that pit Bin Laden and his gang of madmen against America and the Western world and that very cultural cleavage that causes his violence. Thus, we see that all three culturalist schools are at work here: a shared tradition of cultural norms leads to social capital that causes an exclusive group to make their cultural cleavage salient. All of these reasons can be traced back through history, as well; the Middle East as a Muslim region, and the radicalization of Islam in the 1930s, as Austin Cline discusses here:
Many devout Muslims are aghast at the idea that their faith is being used to justify terrorism, yet they must understand that bin Laden and the people like him are not simply strange aberrations: they are, instead, a natural extension of extremist theology which has been in development since at least the 1930s, and in some cases well before that.
Institutionalists think about this sort of history and how it affects our current politics. Does the category of people we belong to have effects on our choices? According to Tilly and Gamson, the answer is maybe. Tilly puts forth the idea that if the benefits available to one’s group outweighs the costs to a person, then an individual will participate. Gamson goes further and suggests that the collective goals of political actors (interest groups, etc.) instead of personal preferences are what are relevant to political action. Burns, Schlozman and Verba put forth the idea that a group of disadvantaged people need an elite or wealthy sponsor to push them to action. Doug McAdams says that changes in society opens doors to social change. For example, 9/11 opened the door for George Bush to enact laws like the USA PATRIOT Act and to expand the power of the executive and that opened the door for activists to protest not only the president, but the strength that the president has been acquiring for many years. In other words, if the circumstances are right, and people see a benefit to themselves that will outweigh the costs of their participation, then people will mobilize.
History, however, can often tell another story. People often do not participate, because they look back and see the benefits of free riding on social movements, or simply see no way to accomplish what they want. Many, many workers today see the push for health-care reform and a single-payer system that would benefit them but do not participate. Indeed, while 83 percent of Americans (according to the EBRI) support a public option, we rarely see anyone going out and actively participating in a protest for health-care reform, or even sending a letter to their representative. Email costs almost nothing and still almost no one seems to send their representative or senator a note letting them know that they want a public option.
This free riding is a big problem in the health-care debate, as there aren’t really exclusive benefits for those who participate, and the cost (in time) to get involved with the debate — to get educated about what’s happening, to find ways to participate and then to actually start fighting for what you want — is great. So what is driving people to fight for it?
Perhaps it’s something personal — someone who went bankrupt due to the lack of affordable health care in America.
Perhaps it’s something statistical — people see that 45,000 people a year die from a lack of insurance.
Perhaps it’s cultural — people believe that they should help their fellow man, and that it is a social norm to watch out for your neighbor.
Perhaps it’s institutional — Americans help one another out and keep watch over each other (or, on the opposite side of the debate, rely on rugged individualism!).
I certainly don’t have an answer as to exactly why people participate, perhaps because there are so many different possible causes. Who is to say why I participate except me? That being the case, who am I to say why anyone else participates in the system?