At the Harvard Inequality Seminar, Harvard Prof. Sid Verba and BC Prof. Kay Schlozman presented some of their then-unpublished recent work-in-progress on whether the Internet is helping to reduce the class gaps in civic participation that Verba wrote about in 1959 in Civic Culture and Verba, Schlozman and Henry Brady wrote about in 1995 in Voice and Equality. [They have now published their findings in “The Internet and Civic Engagement” (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 9/1/09).]
Their primary conclusions were that the Internet is NOT doing much to level political participation from a class perspective but may be doing more to level participation across age groups. Over the past generation, lower socio-economic groups and younger Americans participate civicly at lower rates than older and higher status Americans.
Although they didn’t know the socio-economic status of the 13 million e-mail addresses that Obama gathered in the 2008 campaign, they surmised, based on their research that it was likely to be disproportionately those of higher SES levels.
They also were able to dissagregate the class gap in civic participation among the lower SES fifth. They compared rates of *online participation* (participation in one or more of five categories like giving money to political causes, sending e-letter to editor, signing an e-petition, contacting your representative by e-mail, etc.) among those who “connected” (i.e., they had Internet at home or sent e-mails periodically) against those who weren’t. The digital divide (much lower rates of being “connected” among the lower SES fifth) explained maybe half of the class gap in political participation, but a clear gap in political participation remained, even in comparing the rates of political participation of connected lower class Americans against upper class Americans. Verba pointed out that this is probably a function of lower SES groups, either: a) not wanting to participate; or b) not being able to (not having the money or time or skills); or c) not being asked as much by other groups to participate. The last factor creates a vicious spiral; people target higher SES groups to politically participate since they participate more and it seems rational to focus attention where it will produce the biggest payoff, but this in turn makes lower SES groups participate less and therefore means that other groups avoid them more in the future in targeting.
The one potential bright spot for Verba and Schlozman was social networking groups (Twitter, Facebook and the like). Participation in these groups was much higher among younger Americans than older Americans. While social networking sites have the potential to be used for political purposes, they didn’t see evidence that these sites were commonly being used for such purposes, and in fact, their data (drawn from an August 2008 national survey of 2,000 Americans), continued to show a persistent effect of older Americans participating more politically (both on-line and off-line). But Verba and Schlozman, while acknowledging that more of the “political” uses of applications like Facebook currently seems to be fannish, think that these social networking groups may in the future help to reduce the age-based civic gap if they are used for more expressly political purposes.
One of their interesting findings was a graph that compared levels of class inequality in 1959 (from Civic Culture) to 1995 (from Voice and Equality) to their current findings. Interestingly, the class gradient has remained fairly constant. Those in the lowest SES (socio-economic status) fifth participated civicly at rates of 25-35% in all three studies, and those at the top SES fifth participated civicly at rates of 80% in all three studies (spanning 50 years of U.S. history).
Their findings were somewhat controversial among the crowd listening to these comments. Some felt that they limited participation too much toward traditional forms of participation (writing a letter to the editor, giving money to a political candidate, etc.) and shortchanged new forms of political participation, like writing a blog post or commenting on one, joining a Facebook cause, etc. [Verba and Schlozman did that so they could compare on-line and off-line participation, and didn’t have an off-line counterpart of blog posting.] Others felt that they couldn’t make inferences about the consequences of the Internet, since they didn’t know the counterfactual (how much would Americans of various social classes participated offline if the web wasn’t around).
Verba and Schlozman have also not teased out whether the patterns with regard to the Internet for youth are a cohort phenomenon (where this group will stay equally involved as they age) or a lifecycle phenomenon, where it is something about being a 18-25 year-old and this group will become less civicly involved as they age. When they showed a slide comparing civic engagement by age (in 1959 v. 1995 v. 2008) it shows that there is now a much flatter pattern of civic engagement by age. Whether that says something about the Internet or the attractiveness of Barack Obama to youth participation is anyone’s guess. In addition, since the methodology Verba and Schlozman used did not survey cell phones (disproportionately used by young people), it is possible (if the young cellphone users differ from the landline users) that they underestimated youth civic participation through various social media.