Participation — Why Bother?

Participate? Why? You’ve got enough people in your movement that I shouldn’t have to participate. I don’t need to join your group, you guys will do the work for m–

A free glossy magazine? Group potlucks? A tote bag with a logo on it? Why didn’t you say so?! I’m in!

The above is just one illustration of how leaders of informal political processes mobilize people; by offering selective benefits (as Mancur Olsen and many others suggest), a group can gain members, money, and thus power. Because public goods are, by definition, public and usable by all, they have the opportunity to fall victim to the tragedy of the commons–overuse by selfish (or perhaps rational-thinking?) individuals.

Indeed, Olsen and many others wonder why Joe the UPS Delivery Man Who Never Comes On Time and Jane the Part-Time Working Mother Who Is Completing Her Master’s Degree At Night School bother to participate in informal processes at all — why fight for something that other people can fight for for you?

Selective benefits are one of the methods to mobilize people, as proposed by Olsen and illustrated above. Jamil Zaki, in the article linked to, describes the solution to the tragedy of the commons as altruism — simple good nature. Even Zaki, though, admits that there are ulterior motives for many altruistic people — fighting for a public good can, for example, improve one’s reputation in society. Olsen discusses this idea as well, referring to it as a sort of negative reinforcement of social pressure. Zaki gives Olsen’s theory even more weight, citing a study that says people tend to act altruistically more in public than in private. A study at Duke University (PPT) also supports this idea.

What other methods are used to mobilize people? Political parties rely on familial socialization to bring in new recruits, along with appealing to peoples’ ideological preferences. Interest groups offer a wide range of selective benefits — material benefits (like the glossy magazine and tote bag), solidary benefits (a group potluck and new friends!), and expressive-purposive benefits (oh boy, I’m saving the environment/helping the poor/forcing the government to allow every last person I meet to carry a concealed tactical nuclear device!) Community organizers offer the opportunity for a group to make their voices heard and to use their collective resources to fight for an issue of local importance. Social movements give potential participants the opportunity to participate as much or as little as they wish to, and to respond to new developments while still making their voices heard. Terrorism — that last, desperate resort — offers the chance to show a fanatical devotion to one’s cause. Clearly, the common thread running through all of these forms of mobilization is some form of selective benefit–the exact form of the benefit varies wildly, but in almost all cases the participants are getting some form of benefit.

Modern technology (such as Ted Steven’s network of tubes that connect all computers) has forced many important changes onto the landscape of mobilization, and in many cases seems to have made it easier; from President Obama’s incredible online fundraising machine and campaign social network (offering clear solidary benefits), to Iran’s Twitter-based organization and communication during the recent elections that led the State Department to ask Twitter to avoid interrupting their service, communication is far more instant and the movement of data has been made far easier. This faster, easier way to communicate with groups of people makes organization and mobilization a far easier task. (Interestingly, this article suggests that no particular technological tool was instrumental to Iran’s revolution.)

Classical methods of connecting citizens with government are through the various models discussed above — political parties, interest groups, community organizing, etc. Political parties do this in perhaps the most clear way, getting people from their party elected and using party affiliation on official ballot tickets. Parties deal with problems of ambition, as well as broadly representing their constituents’ preferences. Interest groups and organized interests represent narrower interests to government, either through professional staffs of lobbyists and experts, or through mobilizing and organizing their grassroots members. Community organizations help people represent themselves to government, and social movements do the same.

However, with new technology available, it seems as though linkages between citizens and government will become far easier as well; the Internet and the instant communication it offers are already being put to use, in programs such as Peer-to-Patent and

As the government opens up to collaboration with citizens and our political system begins to move away from established models of connecting citizens to government, it seems as though many of our classical ideas of mobilization could become obsolete — who needs an organized interest when you can go on and help draft legislation yourself? I can easily write a law saying that, for example, every third Monday of each month everyone I see must give me ten dollars. On the other hand, interest groups may continue to be needed to draft legislation, as it seems clear that many of our citizens would not have the education or skills to do this themselves. They will, however be able to give their opinions directly to the government (though that could be just as frightening). This new form of connection between citizens and government is already starting to arise, and could become a primary method of interaction in the near future.

It seems to me that in the future, we will continue to see our traditional forms of mobilization working with new technology, instead of being supplanted by them. Community organizing will still be needed to help groups of disaffected people across the country mobilize themselves, although in the future they may be able to plan their events via discussion board or blog, rather than on the phone or at meetings. Interest groups and political parties are already raising funds via the Internet. At the present moment, it seems that the methods we already have for connecting citizens with government will evolve with, rather than be supplanted by new technology.

One comment

  1. It may perhaps be interesting to note in this regard that the distance between voters and their representatives in the Netherlands is even smaller. Lots of parliamentarians and even a few government ministers Twitter or have their own Facebook page which many actually maintain themselves. They keep followers up-to-date on what they’re doing (in fact our Foreign Secretary has a website that shows his whereabouts 24 hrs. a day) and they answer questions from constituents in the fastest, easiest way possible.

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