Political Participation: Forms and Effectiveness


By Ethan HollanderWabash College

Participation is one of the main characteristics of democracy. Participation is the way that most of us try to affect the decision-making process most of the time. Political participation takes many forms. People participate in all kinds of ways: They might donate time or money to a political campaign, or they march and show up at demonstrations.

Image of two hands casting their ballots
In democracies, most of our political participation takes the form of voting. (Image: Alexandru Nika/Shutterstock)


The type of participation most of us engage in most of the time is voting. That can mean voting on a public policy directly or voting for representatives who then vote on our behalf. The question of who votes—who counts as “the people”—is a really important one, and it differs a lot from place to place.

For example, the United States is, by most accounts, one of the world’s oldest democracies. But when the United States was founded, neither women, Native Americans nor African Americans could vote. In fact, most African Americans were still enslaved.

Image of three women cating ballots
In the United States, women were given the right to vote in 1920. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

American Democracy

So, when did American democracy begin? When was the franchise wide enough that we’d consider the United States a true democracy? 

Was it in 1870 when African American men got the right to vote? Was it in 1920 when women got the right to vote? Or was it in the 1960s when African American voting rights were enforced nationwide and finally became more than just words on paper? Switzerland is also considered one of the world’s oldest democracies, and yet women there didn’t get the right to vote until 1971! 

That same year—amid the Vietnam War—the United States ratified the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, making the voting age 18 nationwide. (Before that, many of the American soldiers fighting in Vietnam were too young to vote!).

Definition of “People”

The question of who we mean to include when we say “the people” is constantly evolving. And the debates continue today, especially when we talk about voter suppression and the voting rights of convicted felons.

Of course, participation isn’t just about who votes for our leaders but also about our leaders themselves—who can serve and why we choose representatives in the first place. Part of the reason we rely on representatives is obvious: In a country of millions, it’s simply not possible for all of us to gather in a public square and vote directly. 

Full-time representatives are also better at what they do because they specialize in it. In theory, they have the time and resources to study the issues, making them an integral part of a modern division of labor. On the other hand, there are disadvantages to having a professional class of full-time politicians.

Politicians’ Salary

If politicking is a full-time job, we have to pay the politicians—and that brings up the delicate question of who decides how much they get paid. As you might imagine, citizens tend to get a little suspicious when representatives vote on their own salaries. But, generally speaking, paying politicians is considered a good idea.

If politics wasn’t a paid position, only rich people could do it. So, paying our politicians a fair salary is usually considered to be progressive; it’s something that opens up the opportunity to be a representative to more people than could otherwise afford to do it.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its AlternativesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Problems with Indirect Democracy 

A bigger potential problem with indirect democracy is that if we send our representatives far away to represent us, it’s hard to keep track of what they’re doing. Sure, they come back around election time and tell us what they’ve been up to. But it’s still hard to know how sincerely they advocated for our interests versus their own.

The problem gets worse because most of us only participate in the political process at election time, whereas lobbyists and special interests participate all the time. Granted, “we the people” are the ones who create the special interest groups. Still, to the extent that they talk to our representatives more than we do, indirect democracy is even more indirect than it looks.

Direct Democracy in the Future?

Problems like this have led to calls that we adopt elements of direct democracy, even in our modern-day republics. A number of US states now have referendums and citizen-led initiatives. And we’re seeing more and more countries do the same. A referendum is a political question that’s put directly to the public for a vote.

A hand making a demarcation for United Kingdom and Europe on a map
An example of a referendum is when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. (Image: Ivan Marc/Shutterstock)

Sometimes, putting a question to the public in a referendum is a clever way for politicians to avoid taking a stand on a divisive issue. In the United States, you often see them for hot-button issues like marijuana legalization or tax hikes. And in other places, we see them used for issues of national sovereignty. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in the Brexit referendum of 2016. And in 1995, the Canadian province of Quebec voted against independence by a tiny margin, with just over 50% of Quebec voters voting to stay.

Problems of Direct Democracy

As tempting as referenda are for politicians who want to avoid controversy, they do end up taking power out of the hands of politicians and putting it into the hands of the general public, which may or may not have a nuanced understanding of the issue. Many politicians have initiated referenda, only to fear that they created a monster when the vote doesn’t go the way they hoped.

But some people advocate an even more radical idea: Using tools like the Internet and smartphones, we could bring back direct democracy, at least in a way. Technology just might make it possible for all of us to weigh in on public policy. And some people say that this would be a real victory for democracy. But there are critics of this idea, too. Direct democracy would give ordinary citizens more say—but it wouldn’t necessarily make them more informed.

Common Questions about Political Participation

Q: What are some examples of political participation?

Political participation can occur in many forms. Some people might protest and demonstrate, while others might opt to vote. Others might donate their time and money to a political campaign.

Q: Why is it a good idea to have professionally paid politicians?

First of all, they’ll be specialized in their own field because they have the time and resources to study. Secondly, by paying politicians, we can ensure that it’s not only rich people that can get into politics. Of course, some political participation might be lost when people are suspicious of politicians voting on their own salaries.

Q: What is a referendum?

A referendum is a political question that’s put directly to the public for a vote. This way political participation of the people can directly influence an important issue.

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