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Verba, Schlozman, Brady, and Nie: Citizen activity

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Verba, Schlozman, Brady, and Nie. 1993. Citizen activity: Who participates? What do they say?. APSR: 303-318.

Main Point

Wolfinger and Rosenstone (1980) showed that voters have the same attitudes as non-voters, despite demographic differences. In a similar vein, this study shows that activists have the same attitudes as non-activists, despite demographic differences. These demographic differences matter, however. Self-interested politicians consider not only what activists tell them, but who is telling it to them: "stories about basic human needs sound different to policymakers when told by those who are in need" (p 312). Thus, "because [disadvantaged groups] are less active, they actually send fewer messages about basic human needs than do more advantaged respondents," despite their similar attitudes (p 313).

Who Participates?

See Fig 1 (p 306). It divides respondents into four categories:

  1. SES (socioeconomic status): Wealthier, better educated citizens participate more.
  2. Ideology: Self-identifying liberals/conservatives and Republicans/Democrats participate more.
  3. Financial hardship: Those experiencing no financial hardship participate more.
  4. Government benefits: Those receiving means-tested benefits (discretionary benefits, e.g. food stamps, medicaid, housing subsidies) participate more than those receiving non-means-tested benefits (entitlements, e.g. Veterans' benefits, student loans, medicare, social security).

[Race: The "race consciousness" variable from the 1972 Verba and Nie study has disappeared by now; apparently, the authors no longer see it as a factor.]

Fig 2 (p 307) and Fig 3 (p 308) demonstrate that these different factors have different effects on the various modes of participation. They have particularly strong effects on (1) who contributes to campaigns, (2) who servers on boards, (3) who works on campaigns, (3) who becomes a community activist, and so on.

How Much Do They Say?

Until now, the study looked at how many people engaged in various activities. In Table 1 (p 309), the authors consider not only the number of activists, but the amount of activity. When you look at Table 1, keep these two terms straight:

  • Activists: Number of campaign volunteers, number of campaign donors, etc.
  • Activity: Number of volunteer hours, total dollar amount of contributions, etc.

When you consider "activity" separately from "activists," you find that the disparities get even bigger. Advantaged groups become even more active relative to disadvantaged groups. Moreover, the advantaged groups are able to convey more explicit messages than other groups (Fig 4, p 310).

What Do They Say?

According to Table 2 (p 312), advantaged groups mention different issues as the subject of their political activity than disadvantaged groups do. Thus, although activists and non-activists have similar aggregate attitudes, activists are talking less about the "basic human needs" issues that the disadvantaged care most about. Not only that, but those activists who do talk about these issues are probably less persuasive: "stories about basic human needs sound different to policymakers when told by those who are in need" (312).