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Can Cultural Change Explain the Decline in Voter Turnout?

April 11th, 2008

voter-turnout-decline.jpgThis rather lengthy, well-researched article by Sarah Tenney analyzes some possible explanations for the overall decline in voter turnout in the United States over the past 40-50 years. For those of you who do not want to read through the whole article, you can check out my related news report from last year on an interesting case of voter apathy where literally no one showed up for a city council election and city officials had to address the problem of what to do when there are zero total votes.


In Controversies in Voting Behavior, Richard G. Niemi and Herbert F. Weisberg point out that election turnout in the United States has dropped steadily and significantly from a high point in 1960, when 65.4 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, to 1996, when the absolute level of turnout dropped to below half of the eligible electorate.

Researchers have found this result something of a paradox, given that major events since 1960 should have resulted in increased, rather than decreased, voter turnout. For example, the overall level of education in the United States has increased over the past half century, and higher levels of education have been associated with higher levels of political participation. Similarly, legal restrictions on voting, such as early registration requirements, have been reduced or removed, and the age requirement for voting has decreased. These developments, combined, should have led to increases in the rate of voter turnout. Yet fewer people are going to the polls each election year.

This puzzle has inspired many researchers to study a variety of individual factors that may account for the observed declines in voter participation. It has also inspired debate about the extent to which decreased voter turnout should be seen as a cause for concern.

Based on research findings on demographics and voting participation, many political leaders and scholars believe that any increase in turnout would come primarily from those who are less educated, have low incomes, and are predominately associated with minority groups. However, other researchers, such as Robert Putnam, argue that this is not the case; rather, the group of nonvoters is largely composed of younger and more residentially mobile citizens. Until we have a better understanding of why the rate of voter turnout has declined, it will not be possible to draw firm conclusions about the extent to which it should be seen as a cause for concern.

The quest to solve this puzzle has given rise to intensive research on voting participation in the United States, covering a range of topics, including demographics factors; institutional and legal factors; societal factors, such as negative campaigning; and individual factors related to attitudes and beliefs.

In this latter respect, many researchers have focused on individual factors related to turnout, such as trust in the government and feelings of political efficacy. However, to date, we do not have a complete examination of a broad range of cultural indicators in a single study.

This paper attempts to set forth a range of indicators that could be used to determine whether widespread cultural changes among the U.S. electorate may help explain the decline in voter turnout over the period 1960-1996. As this paper relies on aggregate data taken from the 1996 National Election Study (NES) survey, it cannot capture the important effects of generational replacement highlighted in the work of Robert Putnam. However, it can point to some areas for further study.

In The Civic Culture, Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba studied political attitudes in five nations, including the United States. In 1963, Almond and Verba observed: “If there is a political revolution going on throughout the world, it is what might be called the participation explosion. In all the new nations of the world the belief that the ordinary man is politically relevant—that he ought to be an involved participant in the political system—is widespread.” They set forth a theory that democracy requires a societal political culture that is consistent with its working principles—the decision making functions of political elites, their norms and attitudes, the norms and attitudes of the ordinary citizen, and his or her relationships with government and other citizens.

Against this background, Almond and Verba defined the civic culture as “. . . neither traditional nor modern but partaking of both: a pluralistic culture based on communication and persuasion, a culture of consensus and diversity, a culture that permitted change but moderated it.” They went on to note that scholars of democracy going back to Aristotle have stressed the need for active citizen participation, as well as high levels of education and information holding among the electorate.

In The Civic Culture, Almond and Verba assessed the political culture of five nations—Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Mexico, and the United States—by interviewing a cross-section of 1000 nationals within each country. These interviews focused primarily on respondents’

  1. knowledge of the political system,
  2. feelings about political structures and leaders,
  3. opinions about policy implementation, and
  4. their role as members of the political system.

As the interviews for this study were conducted in the United States in 1960, at the peak of voter turnout, Almond and Verba’s findings can serve as a baseline in investigating whether any widespread cultural changes associated with voter turnout have occurred in the U.S. electorate since that time.

Another important work on national culture is Culture’s Consequences by Geert Hofstede, Professor Emeritus at Masstricht University. This book, an international best seller, explores differences in thinking and social action across more than 50 countries. Hofstede argues that individuals carry mental programs that develop in the family in early childhood and are reinforced in schools and organizations. These individual mental programs include certain components of national culture expressed in terms of values. Thus, culture is defined as “collective programming of the mind: it manifests itself not only in values, but in more superficial ways: in symbols, heroes, and rituals.”

In this work, Hofstede uses 116,000 questionnaires provided to employees of IBM in 72 countries and 20 languages as well as surveys conducted at business schools unrelated to IBM. The findings of these surveys have been correlated and verified by about 200 other cross-national surveys—not related to IBM—conducted on values.

Based on this research, Hofstede has identified five major dimensions of national culture: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism versus collectivism, masculinity versus femininity, and long-term versus short-term orientation.

This paper will use 1996 NES survey data and these five dimensions of national culture to examine whether a cultural change that could explain the decline in voter turnout has occurred in the United States since 1960.

Power Distance Index

The first dimension of national culture identified by Hofstede is the power distance index (PDI), which is measured in terms of individual attitudes about human inequality and the relationships between the citizen and national authorities. Differences in human equality can be seen in a variety of ways, such as in differences in decision making power, wealth, or prestige. While some societies view the concept of inequality as abhorrent, others consider inequality in these areas not only as inevitable, but also as a useful part of the human social condition. For example, inequality of power can commonly be seen in the roles of parent and child, teacher and student, or boss and subordinate. Societies with a greater tolerance for inequality have higher PDI scores.

By dividing countries represented in his study according to regime type, or those with and without balanced power in government, Hofstede found that political systems were significantly correlated with the PDI scores of the societies they govern. Political systems with electoral systems and representative regimes were found primarily in countries with low PDI scores.

In a similar study across 20 industrial countries, Ronald Inglehart found correlations between the extent to which members of the public claim to discuss politics frequently and economic development. The measure of frequency of political discussions is also strongly correlated with national PDI scores.

As illustrated in Table 1 below, a comparison between Almond and Verba’s findings with respect to the frequency of political discussion in the United States in 1960 and the NES survey data on this topic in 1996 shows that the number of respondents who claim to have regular discussions on politics has declined by 14 percent.

Table 1: Comparison of 1960 and 1996 responses:
Frequency of Talking Politics with Other People

Percent who report they 1960 1996
Never talk politics 24 16
Sometimes talk politics 76 62
Other and don’t know 0 22
Total 100 100

The 1996 data on voter turnout in Table 2 shows that the frequency of political discussion seems to be associated with voting. Simply put, those who discuss politics more frequently are more likely to vote.

Table 2: Talking Politics and Voting

Percent of those who Voted Did not vote
Never talk politics 74 26
Sometimes talk politics 81 19
Frequently talk politics 91 1




To the extent that talking about politics reflects an individual’s overall level of interest in politics, this finding could be seen to support the conclusion by Henry E. Brady, Sidney Verba, and Kay Lehman Schlozman that voter turnout is driven by political interest, rather than education. Thus, this factor may help explain the dichotomy between rising education levels and declining turnout in the U.S. electorate.

Almond and Verba did not include a measure of tolerance for inequality in The Civic Culture. However, the comparison of respondent’s answers to 1996 NES survey questions on this topic and voter turnout shown in Tables 3 and 4 suggests that this factor may not be directly related to political participation.

Table 3: Equality—Big problem is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance

Percent who Overall % Voted Did not vote
Agree 41 71 29
Disagree 35 83 17
Other and don’t know 16 78 22

Table 4: Equality—We would be better off if we worried less about equality

Percent who Overall % Voted Did not vote
Agree 53 76 24
Disagree 32 79 21
Other and don’t know 15 75 25





Uncertainty Avoidance Index

The concept of uncertainty avoidance relates to the way in which individuals deal with the inherent uncertainties of life. Hofstede notes that a great deal of study has been devoted to this at the individual level; however, very few researchers have examined this as a component of national culture. Yet, like individuals, societies have shown different levels of tolerance for uncertainty and have adopted different ways for coping with it. The main methods used to minimize uncertainty fall into the realm of technology, in its most basic and inclusive sense; law, including all formal and informal rules that guide social behavior; and religion. Ways of coping with uncertainty are taught and reinforced within families, schools, and business organizations as well as within governmental systems.

Attitudes associated with high uncertainty avoidance index (UAI) scores include intolerance for ambiguity, rigidity, dogmatism, intolerance for differing opinions, superstition, ethnocentrism, and dependence on authority. Individuals with high UAI scores tend to have less ambition, to avoid competition, to be resistant to change, and to have a pessimistic outlook about the motives of those in authority. Citizens with higher UAI scores also feel less able to participate in political decisions.

Hofstede’s findings on UAI scores for more than 50 countries are strongly correlated with the results of the 1981-82 European Values Survey on confidence in the civil service across all 25 countries. A strong negative correlation (r = -96) also exists between Hofstede’s data on UAI scores and Almond and Verba’s findings in The Civic Culture. One of the main focuses of The Civic Culture was the extent to which respondents in Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Mexico, and the United States believed they could participate in political decisions. They found “subjective competence” to be the highest in Great Britain and the United States in 1960.

Tables 5 and 6 below show that the percentage of U.S. citizens who feel they can influence the government has declined by 14 percent since 1960 and these feelings of political competence may have an impact on voting.

Table 5: Comparison of 1960 and 1996 responses
Levels of subjective civil competence

Percent who report they 1960 1996
Can influence government 75 61
Cannot influence government 25 25
Other and don’t know 0 14
Total 100 100

Table 6: Levels of subjective civil competence

Percent who report they Voted Did not vote
Can influence government 79 21
Cannot influence government 69 31
Other and don’t know 75 25



This finding is consistent with the conclusion drawn by Paul R. Abramson and John H. Aldrich in The Decline of Electoral Participation in America about the relationship between feelings of external political efficacy and voter turnout. In this article, Abramson and Aldrich conducted an analysis of eight SRC-CPS presidential election surveys and six SRC-CPS congressional election surveys over the period 1952-1980 to examine the impact of party identification and political efficacy on voter turnout. Their study shows that—without controlling for education—about half of the decline in turnout over the period 1952-1980 can be attributed to the erosion in feelings of external political efficacy.

Another measure of UAI is trust in government. While Table 7 below shows that there has been a significant change in the U.S. electorate’s trust in government to do what is right, Table 8 suggests that this may not have a direct effect on voter turnout.

Table 7: Comparison of 1960 and 1996 responses
How much of the time respondent believes government does what is right

Percent who say 1960 1996
National government improves conditions 76 32
National government sometimes improves conditions 19 67
Better off without national government 3 1
National government makes no difference 1 0
Other and don’t know 1 0

Table 8: How much of the time respondent believes government does what is right

Percent who say Voted Did not vote
National government improves conditions 76 24
National government sometimes improves conditions 77 23
Better off without national government 75 25



A final indicator of UAI is the extent to which individuals engage in civic activities, in particular volunteer work. Tables 9 and 10 below show that the percentage of respondents who undertake volunteer work has also declined since 1966, and that this indicator of UAI has an impact on voter turnout.

Table 9: Comparison of 1960 and 1996 responses
respondents who undertake volunteer work

Percent who 1960 1996
Undertake volunteer work 57 42
Do not undertake volunteer work 43 58
Total 100 100

Table 10: Respondents who undertake volunteer work

Percent who Voted Did not vote
Undertake volunteer work 86 14
Do not undertake volunteer work 70 30




Individualism versus Collectivism

Individualism versus collectivism (IDV) refers to the extent to which individuals are expected by society to look after themselves or remain integrated into groups, usually around the family. Hofstede explains: “It is reflected in the way people live together—for example, in nuclear families, extended families, or tribes—and it has many implications for values and behavior. In some cultures, individualism is seen as a blessing and a source of well being; in others, it is seen as alienating.”

In terms of political systems, Hofstede found a strong correlation between IDV scores, national wealth, and geographic latitude. Based on Hofstede’s research, the United States has the highest IDV score of all the countries examined.

Unfortunately, Almond and Verba did not include measures of IDV in The Civic Culture. The only question included in the 1996 NES survey on this cultural indicator, as shown in Tables 11 and 12 below, does not suggest a relationship between IDV and voter turnout.

Table 11: Is it more important to be cooperative or self-reliant

Percent who feel it is important Result
To be cooperative 50
To be self-reliant 38
Other and don’t know 12
Total 100

Table 12: Is it more important to be cooperative or self-reliant

Percent who feel it is important Voted Did not vote
To be cooperative 76 24
To be self-reliant 78 22
Total 100 100





Masculinity versus Femininity

The masculinity versus femininity index (MAS) refers to the distribution of emotional roles between the genders: it compares “tough” masculine societies with “tender” feminine cultures. In explaining the role of MAS in political systems, Hofstede says: “Politicians translate the values dominant in their countries into political priorities. The latter are most clearly visible in the spending of national government budgets. The mas/fem dimension affects priorities in the following areas: (1) solidarity with the weak in one’s society versus reward for the strong; (2) international relations, including levels of aid to poor countries and the resolution of conflicts; and (3) protection of the environment versus economic growth.”

At the individual level, the MAS scale can be applied to attitudes toward the poor, opinions on the best way to handle immigration, views about environmental protection or other social issues, and levels of interpersonal trust.

In The Civic Culture, Almond and Verba found that although the propensity to trust others is fairly stable over time, it is not fixed. Rather, it is a cultural phenomenon that is shaped by the historical experiences of given societies, and therefore subject to change. In 1963, Almond and Verba found that the publics of Great Britain and the United States had higher levels of interpersonal trust than those of Germany, Italy, or Mexico.

The comparison between masculine versus feminine indicators in the United States between 1960 and 1996 illustrated in Tables 13 through 16 below indicates that, while the U.S. electorate may have become more caring about the less advantaged, it has become less trusting. Both of these indicators seem to have an impact on voter turnout.

Table 13: Comparison of 1960 and 1996 responses
One should help those less fortunate

Percent who felt 1960 1996
Generosity is important 59 90

Table 14: One should help those less fortunate

Percent who felt Voted Did not vote
Generosity is important 77 23

Table 15: Comparison of 1960 and 1996 responses
Most people can be trusted

People who agree that 1960 1996
Most people can be trusted 55 51

Table 16: Most people can be trusted

People who agree that Voted Did not vote
Most people can be trusted 86 14

Owing to its dependence on aggregate NES data, the findings presented in Table 15 above on interpersonal trust may mask the extent of cultural change in the U.S. population. These data do not fully take into account generational replacement.

In The Disappearance of Social Capital in America, Robert Putnam examines several individual-level factors related to civic engagement and their relationship to voter turnout. The variables he considered included reading newspapers, social trust, and group memberships. Putnam found that all three of these variables are correlated with voting participation and that all three have been on a continuous declining trend over the period since 1930. To help explain this trend, Putnam focused on generational replacement, lining up respondents to NES surveys according to their dates of birth beginning in 1870. He found that those raised during the turn of the century through the 1920s had relatively high levels of civic engagement and social trust. However, beginning in the 1930s, a downward trend in joining groups, social trust, newspaper reading, and voting began to emerge, and this trend continued through the 1960s. While Putnam examines a variety of societal factors—including mobility and suburbanization, the break up of the family, and the changing role of women—that may have contributed to this change in attitudes among the U.S. electorate, his most important finding is that the intergenerational differences are significant. Putnam explains: “Compare, for example, the generation born in the early 1920s with the generation of their grandchildren born in the 1960s. . . . The grandparents are more than twice as likely to trust other people (50-60 percent for the grandparents compared with 25 percent for the grandchildren). They vote at nearly double the rate of the most recent cohorts (roughly 75 percent compared with 40-45 percent) and they read newspapers almost three times as often . . . And bear in mind that we have found no evidence that the youngest generation will come to match their grandparent’s higher levels of civic engagement as they grow older.”

Putnam’s findings on intergenerational replacement call for further research on the attitudes and values held by different segments of the U.S. population according to age.

Long-term Versus Short-Term Orientation

The final dimension of national cultural studied by Hofstede is long- versus short-term orientation. This dimension was found in the responses to student surveys in 23 countries and to the Chinese Value Survey. It refers to the extent to which a society programs its members to accept delayed gratification of their material, social, and emotional needs. Based on Hofstede’s findings, the United States and Great Britain rank 28 and 29, respectively, out of 30 countries for which this dimension was measured; although the states of East Africa have been found to have even more of a short-term orientation than these two countries. This dimension is measured at the individual level in terms of regard for savings, thrift, and tradition.

Almond and Verba did not include a measure of long- versus short-term orientation in The Civic Culture. Indeed, this dimension was not included in the original IBM cross cultural surveys. Rather, it was added based on values suggested by Chinese scholars after the publication of the first edition of Culture’s Consequences. As Hofstede explains, the Chinese Values Survey introduced in the second edition of this book was “composed from the values inventory suggested by Eastern minds, which only partly covered the themes judged important in the West. In fact, the long- versus short-term orientation dimension appears to be based on items reminiscent of the teachings of Confucius on both of its poles.”

As shown in Table 17 below, the only question related to long-term versus short-term orientation included in the 1996 NES survey suggests that this dimension may not be directly related to voter turnout in the United States.

Table 17: More emphasis should be placed on tradition

Percent who Overall % Voted Did not vote
Agree 85 77 23
Disagree 7 77 23
Other and don’t know 8 74 26





Conclusion

Based on the findings of this paper alone, it is not possible to draw firm conclusions about whether widespread cultural changes in the U.S. electorate can account for the decline in voter turnout. However, these findings do suggest a need for further study on the effects of intergenerational replacement in the U.S. electorate. Putnam’s findings on differences between age groups on interpersonal trust and civic engagement suggest that it may be useful to examine whether there are generational differences along other cultural indicators related to voter turnout. In particular, it might be useful to examine generational differences in levels of interest in politics, feelings of subjective political competence, interpersonal trust, and participation in charitable organizations.




Works Cited

Niemi, Richard G. and Weisberg, Herbert F. Controversies in Voting Behavior. 2001. CQ Press, Washington, D.C.

Putnam, Robert D. “Turning in, Turning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America” in Controversies in Voting Behavior. 2001. CQ Press, Washington, D.C. chapter 3.

Leighly, Jan E., and Arnold Vedlitz. 1999. “Race, Ethnicity, and Political Participation: Competing Models and Contrasting Explanations.” Journal of Politics 61:1092-114.

Highton, Benjamin and Raymond E. Wolfinger, 1998. “Estimating the Effects of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.” Political Behavior 20:79-104; and Karp, Jeffrey A., and Susan Banducci. 2000. “Going Postal: How all-Mail Elections Influence Turnout.” Political Behavior 22:223-238.

Goldstein, Ken, and Paul Freedman. 2002. “Campaign Advertising and Voter Turnout: New Evidence for a Stimulation Effect.” Journal of Politics 64: 721-740 and Kahn, Kim Fridkin, and Patrick J. Kenney 1999. “Do Negative Campaigns Mobilize or Suppress Turnout? Clarifying the Relationship between Negativity and Participation. American Political Science Review. 93:877-889.

Citrin, Jack. 1974. Comment: The Political Relevance of Trust in Government.” The American Political Science Review: 68: 973-988.

Abramson, Paul R. and John J. Aldrich. 1982. The Decline of Electoral Participation in America. The American Political Science Review 76:502-521.

Putnam, Robert D. “Turning in, Turning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America” in Controversies in Voting Behavior. 2001. CQ Press, Washington, D.C. chapter 3.

Almond, Gabriel A. and Verba, Sidney. The Civic Culture. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 1963.

Hofstede, Geert. Culture’s Consequences 2d edition. Sage Publications, London, U.K. 2001. This book has provoked a great deal of controversy. While some researchers, such as B. McSweeney (see “Hofstede’s Model of National Cultural Research” in Human Relations 55:19-117 2002) have criticized Hofstede’s methodology, the cultural differences measured by Hofstede’s indexes in Culture’s Consequences have been validated by about 200 other comparative studies—including Almond and Verba’s The Civic Culture—not related to IBM. (See Appendix 6 of Culture’s Consequences, pps. 503-520).

Inglehart, Ronald. Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.1990.

Brady, Henry E., Sidney Verba, and Kay Lehman Schlozman. 1995. Beyond SES: A Resource Model of Political Participation. The American Political Science Review 89: 271-294.

Hofstede, Geert. Culture’s Consequences. page 146.

Abramson, Paul R. and John H. Aldrich. 1982. The Decline in Electoral Participation in America. The American Political Science Review 76: 502-521.

Hofstede, Geert. Culture’s Consequences, page 209.

Hofstede, Geert. Culture’s Consequences, page 317.

Putnam, Robert. “The Disappearance of Social Capital in America” in Controversies in Voting Behavior, CQ Press, Washington, D.C. 2001 (Chapter 3).



One Response to “Can Cultural Change Explain the Decline in Voter Turnout?”

  1. comment number 1 by: Dave from Welcome Back Rosenthal

    If you notice the biggest dip is Reagan right on through Bush. The county has FINALLY gotten a nice case of Republican Fatigue. So I think you’ll see this next presidential election make a giant upswing in that chart.

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