“Arepublic if you can keep it,” that was the famous admonition Benjamin Franklin offered a curious onlooker as to the type of regime the constitutional convention had wrought. Elected representatives are called-upon in republics to perform the day-to-day tasks of governance, but the assumption has always been that citizens also have a vital role to play in democratic decision-making—providing necessary feedback in public and private forums, as well as offering counter-recommendations and candidates if they determine that the national agenda is off-course. In other words, republics require citizens, not subjects, who are willing to sacrifice time, talent, and treasure when it comes to the governance of their local, state, and national communities.
So, just how politically “engaged” is the typical American citizen? And what are some of the factors that have a positive impact, or conversely a negative, or neutral impact, on various examples of political participation?
To provide such a necessary baseline for understanding civic engagement, ISI surveyed a random sample of 2,508 Americans, asking them whether they had participated at least once in their lifetime in a host of electoral activities. We also collected other vital information on each respondent by posing a variety of civic literacy, demographic, opinion, and behavioral questions that could then be analyzed in conjunction with our civic engagement results.
For this report, we focus exclusively on an American's involvement in the electoral arena, not only the most basic duties of registering and casting a vote (what we term “passive” civic engagement); but also seven more sophisticated demonstrations of political involvement (labeled “active” civic engagement). For example, it is not surprising to learn that many more Americans have registered (92.2%) and cast a vote (87.6%) in their lifetime—passive engagement—than they have contacted a public official (56.3%) or worked on a campaign (24.2%)—active engagement (See the Appendix for a useful comparison between ISI's lifetime survey results and comparable yearly results from a 2008 Pew Charitable Trust survey on civic engagement). ISI's survey also revealed that 6.5% of the sample reported successfully winning elective office. Moving to matters of correlation, ISI next employed multivariate regression analysis to determine the possible impact that various personal characteristics and behaviors might have on both passive and active civic engagement. For example, many believe that one of the primary purposes of a college education is to groom undergraduates for a lifetime commitment to political participation. But how does college actually measure up to other aspects of a person's background, in particular greater civic knowledge, in terms of encouraging responsible citizenship?
The table at right begins the process of answering that question by comparing and contrasting the statistical influence that a wide variety of factors, not just college and civic knowledge, exert on a person's level of civic engagement. In this case a comparison is made between the impact a variable might have on merely voting, versus a variable's impact on those seven aspects of active civic engagement, taken as a whole. In essence, by consolidating all seven active forms of electoral activity into a single measure,* ISI then examined how thirty-eight separate aspects of a person's background might influence their likelihood to participate more robustly in the political process. It is one thing for factors to encourage Americans to vote; it is quite another for those same factors to inspire citizens to dedicate more of their efforts to influencing the political arena.
In terms of noticeable patterns, there is a direct connection between knowing more about American history, reading and discussing current trends in that area, and then converting that interest into tangible political participation. Conversely, spending too much time playing video games, surfing the internet, and reading novels discourages various aspects of passive and active civic engagement. Of course, there are some results that are not surprising, for example the fact that as you rise in both age and income, you have a greater likelihood to participate more aggressively in the political process. Greater formal schooling, on the other hand, seems to have a mixed influence: high school and college degrees positively influence voting, but exert zero influence on active civic engagement. Finally, there were a couple of factors that seemed to work at cross purposes. Being a college teacher actually made you less likely to vote, but more likely to participate in those seven more active forms of political engagement. As for religion, simply affiliating with Judaism or Christianity made a person less likely to engage actively in politics, but frequently attending services reversed that pattern and led to more active forms of participation. These specific patterns will be explored in more detail in the following major findings of this report.
In terms of noticeable trends, there is a direct connection between knowing more about American history, reading and discussing current trends in that area, and then converting that interest into tangible political participation.
*The seven electoral activities combined to form a single measure of active civic engagement included: 1) tried to influence how others vote; 2) attended political meetings; 3) worked on a political campaign; 4) gave money to help a political campaign; 5) contacted a public official; 6) signed a petition about a political issue; and 7) published a letter to the editor.