Social capital depicts aspects that hold society together. Putnam (2000) asserts that key indicators of social capital have not been moving in the right direction: reducing trust in government; declining voter turnout; reduced participation in political meetings; and others. These indicators are part of a general decline in civic community in the US that extends into non-political. As a result, fewer people subscribe to clubs, entertain less at home, and are more isolated from one another generally (Putnam, 2000).
This paper discusses the major causes of decline in civic engagement and voting turnout; why religious based organizations are able to utilize grassroots networks effectively than progressive organizations; explain the impact that development of new technologies has had on political behavior in the USA; and how changes in where we obtain information about politics affected political behavior.
Major Causes of the Decline in Social Participation and Voter Turn out over Later Half of 20th Century
American democracy has undergone drastic transformation from its roots in 19th century. Participation in civic society makes a difference to political participation. This supports Putnam (2000) recent assertion that civic participation in the United States are declining. He argues that organizations nature in their members’ habits of cooperation, solidarity, and public sportiness. Civic engagement determines the face of democracy in the US according to Putnam.
This civic engagement is in a steady decline. For instance, church attendance, membership in bowling leagues and PTA, informal socializing and visiting, and others have reduced considerably. Social capital has declined considerably over the later half of the 20th century.
There are a number of causes of decline in civic participation and voter turnout, these include: escalating costs involved in joining a network; effects of television viewership; entry of women in the workforce; absence of civic engagement; and others. This paper explains escalating costs involved in joining a network and the effects of television viewership as causes of decline of social capital and voter turnout (Wattenberg, 2009).
Escalating costs of Joining A Networks
Putnam attributed the rise in costs of joining grassroots networks as a cause of decline of social capital (Putnam, 2000). Other significant causes identified include pressures related to money, time and suburbanization.
These factors increase opportunity costs of networking. American citizens work for longer hours to earn extra income. In addition, they travel long distances and hardly get enough time for leisure enjoyment (Heywood, 2008).
This depicts that, efforts employed to develop or maintain social capital has a higher opportunity cost to American citizens. The cost of enlisting a network directly captures this opportunity cost. Vividly, Putnam highlights these aspects in his description of change in American society over many years (Putnam, 2000).
The Impact of Television
According to Putnam (2000), a steady decline in voter turnout among Americans has been witnessed over the second half of 20th century. Between 1960 and 1996, there was a decline in percentage of eligible American citizens voting for President. 1996 was the first year since the 1920’s that turnout fell below 50 percent and turnout in that year for non-southern states were the lowest since 1824 (Putnam, 2000).
First, this decline is prominent as many legal constraints to voter registration were removed during the same period, and education and income were increasing. Secondly, the pattern has interest both in mainframe press and among social researchers (Smith, 2004).
Some have argued that declining turnout causes havoc to democratic process efficiency. Others depict voter turnout as one section of a wider pattern toward decline in social capital. Thirdly, the pace and amount of television consumption are in consonant with ranging implications on personal behavior (Putnam, 2000).
There are a number of mechanisms television might affect civic engagement in elections. One mechanism works through substitution among media. If television influenced individuals to substitute other media such as newspapers and radio that cover politics more, and if information about an election is positively relates to voting, growth of television viewership would reduce voter turnout (Putnam, 2000). Television and voting could be associated through other channels other than media substitution.
They influence changes in formal and informal ties in individuals to their local communities referred to as social capital. According to Putnam (2000), recoding such changes indicates measures by which community ties declined over the second half of the twentieth century (Smith, 2009).
Television has profoundly changed Americans social life. According to Putnam, barely 10 % of American households owned television sets by 1950; 90 % did by the end of the decade. Today, Americans watch three to four hours on average of television each day. The more they watch, the less they get involved in civic associations.
In sum, Putnam (2000) singles the growth of television viewership as main cause of social capital. The theory of social capital peaked up in 1950. At that time he estimated that only 10% of the population had television in their households.
This estimate had gone up to 90% by 1959 changing the lifestyle of average Americans (Putnam, 2000). This change strongly goes hand in hand with decline in social capital. Television made American viewers to be more cynical over benevolence of other individuals around them in society.
In addition, television provides a more isolated form of entertainment. This is an important factor that contributes to decline of bridging social capital in the US and other Western countries. In his texts, Putnam requests society to reflect on effects of technology in the lives of people.
Why Religious Based Organizations are able to Use Grassroots Networks effectively than Progressive Organizations
Evangelical Christian networks form an important pivot of emerging social power movement. These movements encompass the influence of moral majority and similar grassroots networks compared to progressive organizations.
These progressive organizations have lost their salience within evangelical fold in utilizing grassroots networks. The rise and power of evangelical Christians are profound in their desire to shape their respective spheres of influence.
Progressive organizations considered the influence of the moral majority and similar grassroots networks, but have lost their salience within the evangelical movements. Evangelical Christians utilize grassroots networks effectively than progressive organizations as they shape their respective spheres of influence.
Most strategic evangelicals use to reach grassroots networks today occur in settings other than the political convention hall or the courthouse. Instead, today’s leading evangelicals prefer to influence the public square from Hollywood studios and corporate boardrooms, among other sites (Wald, 2008).
Unlike most progressive organizations, evangelicals’ mandate promotes moral agenda for society remains constant. The structures through which leaders in evangelical movement effect change in the grassroots are different from those of progressive organizations utilize in mobilizing the people in the grassroots.
Evangelical leaders have deep connections with the White House, corporate world, Wall Street, Hollywood and Ivy League Universities compared to progressive organizations. Therefore, they have greater opportunity to exert their influence through policy and cultural initiatives compared to progressive organizations (Wald, 2008).
In terms of leading evangelical strategies, organizing principle is one of legitimacy and acceptability. Informants hope for other cultural elites to perceive their religious sentiments as logical and acceptable, if not desirable. They deplore the perception that evangelicalism is intolerant or fanatical.
Given their educational and professional credentials, many informants articulate a sophisticated, cosmopolitan approach to their faith and with the institutional base of several organizations they have founded and supported since 1976, this approach to evangelicalism is shifting the social orientation of the movement (Wald, 2008).
Impact that Development of New Technologies has had on Political Behavior in the US
Technologies are critical in current political affairs in terms of reaching out to the masses with campaign messages. The urge to reach many people is very vital in elections, specifically national elections.
In the US, presidential elections has to build local, regional and national bases and develop messages for each base to target all segments of the population. This is practically done through traditional media, such as; newspapers, radio, television, phone, and fax until recently.
The emergence of new technologies such as the internet, media convergence, and use of web 2.0 technologies such as social networks and blogs have reorganized how campaigns are conducted in the US. In particular, the internet took a prominent role in shifting power in the 2008 Presidential campaign (Wattenberg, 2009).
The 2008 Presidential campaign realized the full potential of web technologies which had become more dynamic. President Barack Obama’s campaign strategy relied heavily on these technologies to reach American voting segments. Web 2.0 spaces were characterized by mass collaboration and a blend of different content and media.
Social networks such as Facebook and MySpace enabled people to share all kinds of campaign content, including You Tube and Twitter. Millions of young eligible voters who were users of Web 2.0 sites made new friends and shared their messages with the rest of the internet community in a virtual instant (Wattenberg, 2009).
The campaign strategy enabled President Obama to engage many of these people of voting age. The internet provided a user oriented dynamic environment which offered users a chance to be active participants rather than passive receivers of campaign information. These aspects defined Obama campaign’s success. The ‘Yes You Can Campaign’ enabled the campaign team to raise funds from individuals.
Adoption of the Web 2.0 tools by Obama campaign tem completely transformed the manner politicians organize their support bases, advertize to voters, respond to critics, and communicate to constituents. These technologies enabled ordinary voters to be part of the campaign movement through; community groups, blogs, and mobile applications (Wattenberg, 2009 ).
How Changes in where we Obtain Information about Politics affects Political behavior
The emergence of new technologies over other media types brings both financial opportunities and political apprehensions. The internet, for instance, provides people access to affordable or even free information and wider dissemination of information about politics (Putnam, 2000). This may in turn raise political participation in a scale better compared to traditional media such as newspapers, radio and television.
This is because the internet and its related technologies enable media users to choose and customize information to which they are exposed to. It also limits their interactions to people who share same ideologies; forms a feedback loop that encourages the views of people and makes them more extreme. Interest in politics is an important driver to political participation, partisanship and to some extent political views.
This means that in addition to direct effects online news consumers might have on political participation and polarization, there may be indirect effects in action; consumers of online news might influence people’s interest in politics. In turn, this affects political participation and polarization.
Heywood, A. (2008). Essentials of UK Politics. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Putnam, R. D. (2000), Bowling alone :The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster, New York.
Smith, A. (2009), Internet’s broader role in campaign 2008, Technical report, Pew Research Center. Retrieved on May 29, 2011 http://www.pewinternet.org
Wald, K., & Calhoun-Brown, A. (2008). Religion and Politics in the US. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Wattenberg, M. (2009). Is Voting for Young People?. New York: Longhorn Publishers.