Only One Percent of Americans Are Really Politically Active

National Journal
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May 9, 2014, 2:04 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a series on the May 2014 All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll.

Forty-one per­cent of Amer­ic­ans do not par­ti­cip­ate very of­ten in any of 10 bed­rock activ­it­ies of Amer­ic­an civic and polit­ic­al life, ac­cord­ing to the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or sur­vey.

At the oth­er end of the spec­trum, just 1 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans en­gage very of­ten in eight or more of the activ­it­ies—from at­tend­ing town hall meet­ings to vo­lun­teer­ing in the com­munity to giv­ing money to a cause or polit­ic­al can­did­ate. Those Amer­ic­ans with high­er in­comes or with col­lege de­grees are much more likely than those with low in­comes or without col­lege de­grees to re­port en­gage­ment in at least one of the civic activ­it­ies. 

In­di­vidu­ally, many of these 10 activ­it­ies are pop­u­lar. For ex­ample, 65 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans say that they vo­lun­teer in their com­munity very of­ten or some­what of­ten. But in com­bin­a­tion, such activ­it­ies are un­com­mon. Just 12 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans en­gaged in more than three activ­it­ies “very of­ten,” an in­dic­a­tion that for most Amer­ic­ans, civic and polit­ic­al en­gage­ment, oth­er than vot­ing in elec­tions, is oc­ca­sion­al and nar­row in scope.  These find­ings add tex­ture to one of the sur­vey’s clearest find­ings, which is that 72 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans say that the ma­jor so­cial changes in this coun­try have come from av­er­age Amer­ic­ans push­ing gov­ern­ment to change, rather than gov­ern­ment tak­ing the lead. The catch is that even mod­er­ately en­gaged Amer­ic­ans are not av­er­age. At the mo­ment, at least, they are rare.

In­di­vidu­ally, many of these 10 means of en­gage­ment are pop­u­lar. For ex­ample, 65 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans say that they vo­lun­teer in their com­munity very of­ten or some­what of­ten. But very few seem to have the time or in­clin­a­tion for broad civic par­ti­cip­a­tion. Just 12 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans en­gaged in more than three activ­it­ies “very of­ten,” an in­dic­a­tion that for most Amer­ic­ans, civic and polit­ic­al en­gage­ment—oth­er than vot­ing in elec­tions—is oc­ca­sion­al and nar­row in scope. 

That find­ing of­fers tex­ture to two of the sur­vey’s clearest res­ults. First, a full 70 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve that the coun­try needs “ma­jor changes.” Second, three-quar­ters say that the ma­jor so­cial changes in this coun­try have come from av­er­age Amer­ic­ans push­ing gov­ern­ment, rather than gov­ern­ment tak­ing the lead.

But there’s a catch: The av­er­age Amer­ic­an is not very en­gaged in the usu­al ways act­iv­ism is meas­ured. Even those who are mod­er­ately en­gaged are—at least for the mo­ment—rare.

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