The concept of political efficacy varies in definition depending on the context in which it is being discussed. For the purpose of socialization, political efficacy can be considered a norm, a psychological disposition, a feeling, or a form of behavior (Easton 1967, 25-26). More importantly, political efficacy is how much an individual perceives that their political participation is a direct or indirect cause of social change. However, Mason suggests that the American people continue to disengage from one another on both civic and community based-levels. (Mason, 103). If true, such trend can pose a threat to political efficacy as American politics grow more polarized and individuals eventually become politically apathetic. The question then is “how does political efficacy enhance political participation?”
In the realm of political research, children are not often included as subjects to data collection because they aren’t active political members. On the other hand, many adults find the topic of politics to be quite inappropriate for conversation in the presence of young minds. Child interest in politics compared to other activities is relatively low (Easton, 27); however, research shows that children develop a wide range of political attitudes and feelings starting as early as third grade (Easton, 31). A study in which 12,000 elementary school students aged 7-13 were asked to agree or disagree with certain statements regarding their thoughts toward their parent’s role in politics hinted to where that child was in the preparatory stage of political socialization. Some of the statements were “Voting is the only way that people like my mother and father can have any say about how the government runs things”, “Sometimes I can’t understand what goes on in the government”, “I don’t think people in the government care much what people like my family think” (Easton, 29).
IQ scores, social class and sex were considered when examining the classroom environments of these children as they can be strong variables that reflect adulthood lack of efficacy in women and minorities. The regularity at which children see people in society engage in politics can increase or decrease their political efficacy. Children who tag along with their parents to polling sites and protests are more likely to acquire higher levels of political efficacy that translate into political participation in later life. Children with middle-class parents display a higher level of efficacy than those with working class parents. What a child learns and the degree to which they retain information depends on what is left to be learned about the subject, the quality of teaching they are receiving and the frequency of which it is reinforced (Easton, 38). Families, teachers and peers have the greatest influence for exerting their political beliefs onto children which may serve to preserve the democratic regime as it is unique to the American system (Easton, 34).
In order to preserve a government that secures individual rights and democratic sovereignty, people must actively participate in their country’s political arena. Scholars have always linked political efficacy to participation. Political efficacy is enhanced through political participation especially after an outcome which is favorable to a participant. In the late 1950s, two types of political efficacies became prominent. The first is internal efficacy which is the perception that one has the skills and sources to influence the political system (Clark et Al, 552). Internal efficacy corresponds to an individual’s personality traits such as their ego and self-esteem. The second is external efficacy which is the assumption that government institutions and elites will respond to those attempting to influence political matters (Clark et Al, 552). Political efficacy is developed from political socialization. When certain social institutions teach individuals how to participate, take interest in, and influence politics, our levels of political efficacy increase (Beaumont, 217).
Internal efficacy claims that political participation through voting and campaign involvement has direct positive effects on external efficacy making them dependent of each other. Individuals who participate are more likely than non-participants to be supporters of the regime because such behavior reinforces their belief that the system responds to citizen involvement. People who participate by voting or campaigning for winning candidates have increased levels of both internal and external political efficacy. The reason for this is because such individuals are likely to conclude that their participation directly caused a candidate’s victory and their needs and demands deserve immediate attention. On the other hand, both efficacies will decrease among supporters of losing candidates. An interesting finding is that some people who do not participate politically, yet support winning candidates, will also experience increased external and internal efficacy (Clark et Al, 1989, 553).
External efficacy will increase because of the belief that winning candidates will now respond to the partisan and socio-demographic groups with which that individual identifies. Internal efficacy will increase because the election’s outcome demonstrated that people similar to them are already influencing the political process. The salience of an election is an important indicator of whether or not political efficacy is fluctuating. Presidential elections receive far more attention than congressional elections. During the presidential elections individuals tend to have lower levels of internal political efficacy. During congressional elections, individuals tend to have higher levels of political geographically. This can be due to environmental factors such as geography and demography. (Clark et Al 553,561)
It has been argued that political efficacy should not be measured at the individual level if there is even a slight chance that such efficacy is conditioned by macro-level events (Ainsworth 2000, 90). This is because individuals first existed within classes or groups through socialization. Truman once said “man is characteristically human only in association with other men' (Ainsworth 2000, 91-92). Groups are thought of as possessing the ability to pacify individuals; therefore, creating order from chaos. Individuals participate because they believe that their participation is for the greater good of their group. Being part of a group helps the coping process of losing a political debate or election. Group political efficacy does not easily fluctuate as does individual efficacy. Groups are also easier to examine when it comes to income and education. Those who share similar socioeconomic backgrounds and party identifications are more successful at influencing and advocating for better public policy that better serves the whole.
In her book Uncivil Agreement, Lilliana Mason references Miller et Al’s research which shows how “some groups in America have participated in politics at a higher rate than their socioeconomic resources alone could predict”(Mason, 103). This is explained by people being fully aware and driven to participate because of their group memberships (Mason 2018, 103). Political efficacy can also be connected to political interest. Those who are not interested in politics tend to have low levels of political engagement. The challenge lies within finding what generates greater interest. Social rewards such a sense of belonging to a certain group might often drive people to participate even while not being politically efficacious. Interested citizens are more likely than their uninterested peers to have knowledge about politics and display consistent political behavior. (Robinson, 2017).
It is common to see an underrepresentation of minority groups in political arenas. This is a direct result of low internal and external political efficacy. Such groups must first believe that their activism has the power to yield change in social policies that directly address inequality. One thing that contributes to political efficacy and can encourage political participation amongst these groups is descriptive representation. In the 2008 primary elections, African American political efficacy increased with Obama’s mere presence as a candidate. This continued to increase as his chances of winning did. On the other hand, the political efficacy of whites remained unaffected (West, 352). This trend indicated that the increase of African Americans political involvement and efficacy was driven by the descriptive representation of race.
When it came to gender, Clinton's candidacy did not correlate much with men or women’s political efficacy. When candidates share a common identity with the people, positive attitudes toward the government are created which in turn increase trust and participation (West, 351). Critics of descriptive representation question and argue whether African American political efficacy increases with an African American representative or if African Americans are elected because black citizens, in general, are more empowered to vote and participate in politics than before (West, 351). It is important to detect which is the causal relationship in order to better comprehend and predict future elections. Before Barack Obama’s election, political efficacy as it pertains to African Americans had only been studied at lower government levels (West, 351).
Using the American National Election Study Data from the 2016 presidential elections, I wanted to see how the presidential vote depended on the political efficacy of the voters. The political atmosphere was especially intense for this specific election as the candidates reflected the partisan makeup of the American people and political participation through voting and campaign support were the ultimate tests of political efficacy. Each side was determined to see a victory for their party and concerns about what a victory for their opponent would mean spurred up a sense of fear, confusion and political uproar.
This frequency distribution shows that among the voters, those who possessed the highest level of political efficacy voted for the democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton while those with lower levels of political efficacy voted for the Republican candidate, Donald Trump. There are several explanations as to why democrats might have displayed more political efficacy than republicans. Democrats generally stand for public policy that helps enhance the quality of life for a wide range of cross cut identities whom republicans may not always deem as worthy of government assistance. Some people might have taken the opportunity to vote in place of those who aren’t legally able to cast a ballot. Organizations like Rock the Vote were especially relentless in making sure youth were educated about their civic duties which in turn might have enabled them to step out of their comfort zones and skepticisms. Age groups 18-34 displayed the highest levels of political efficacy in 2016 presidential election (ANES).
Whereas, a great number of republican voters might have constituted those who felt incompetent or uneducated about politics to the point where economic insecurities hindered sincere policy preference. When controlling for age, one is able to see how as people get older, their politically efficacy remains rather stable. This can simply be due to years of political participation through voting or activism. It could also reflect relationships that may have been formed in later life with elected officials such as senators and mayors. It can also reflect the ongoing dominance of an individual’s identified party as seen in all branches of government.
I also wanted to use the ANES data to see how the presidential vote depended on the voter’s trust in government. Political trust is especially important with regards to external political efficacy or the belief that the government is directly responsive to certain groups or individuals. This frequency distribution shows that among voters, those with the highest trust in government voted for the democratic candidate while those with the lowest trust in government voted for the republican candidate. Having had a democratic administration from 2008-2016, the American people might have felt more trusting of the government under Hilary Clinton’s leadership even as a female candidate because of the social barriers that were broken down during Obama’s presidency. An accepting government tends to be a more trusted one.
Being politically efficacious is reflected through political participation. Although the direct form of participation is voting there are other activities that can express internal and external efficacy. Data drawn from ANES between 1972-2012 (Mason, 105, Figure 7.2) shows that the most common form of political activism is speaking to others in attempt to gain same candidate support (Mason, 105) This is followed by the act of wearing a button, putting a bumper sticker on a car or a sign in the yard (Mason 2018, 106). Politically efficacy is developed from a very young age and is often anchored throughout the life course due to socialization. Being part of a group and actively participating in campaigns/rallies may help boost politically efficacy. Descriptive representation and salient elections can either aid or hinder political participation.
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