Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


“Why Bother?”: An Introduction

Susan Stokes, S. Erdem Aytaç

Changes in the levels of political participation can alter the course of history. If turnout had been higher among young British voters in the 2016 European Union membership referendum, the United Kingdom might have decided to remain in the EU. If a wave of protests had not taken off in Kiev in the winter of 2013–14, the government of Viktor Yanukovych might have remained in power instead of falling, and Russia would not have invaded Crimea.

Our book, Why Bother? Rethinking Participation in Elections and Protests, shows that existing theories and ideas that social scientists rely on to explain why people take part in collective action in politics fall short in crucial ways. Some rely on assumptions that are counter-intuitive to the basic tenets of human psychology. Others fail to predict regularities that we observe around the world. Most recently in the U.S., for instance, turnout in the 2018 midterm election was exceptionally high. Most commentators have pointed to voters’ perceptions of the high stakes of the election result as a key factor boosting turnout. Yet social scientists have tended to explain variations in turnout as related less to the perceived stakes of the outcome, and more to changes in the costs of voting – how much money, time, and effort it takes to cast a ballot.

Not infrequently, when the costs of participation rise, people become more likely to be involved, not less. Voter id laws meant to discourage targeted groups from voting, by raising the costs of participation, have had weaker effects than expected in the U.S. And when police repress demonstrators, instead of ending, protests often grow, as we witnessed in Turkey, Brazil, and Ukraine.

To make sense of these and other facts about mass participation, in our book we offer a new theory of why people take part in collective action in politics, and test it in the context of voting and protesting. Our central argument is that while voting is indeed costly, abstaining can impose costs as well. These costs of abstention are intrinsic and psychological, taking the form of psychic tension, or dissonance, when people fail (or anticipate they’ll fail) to take part. And they kick in only when people care about the outcome of the collective action, be it voting or protest participation. The strategic context – the expected closeness of the election result or the number of people demonstrating in the streets and presence of repression of protesters – also shapes the costs of abstention.

Our study draws on a wealth of survey data, interviews, and experimental results from Brazil, Sweden, Turkey, U.K and the U.S. We show increases in people’s sense of the importance of elections increases their willingness to vote, and this effect is stronger when the expected outcome is close. People’s subjective moods deteriorate when they anticipate not participating in an election that they care about. In the contexts of protests, we show that government repression of protesters can drive up both costs of participation and abstention, so in certain circumstances it can have a net mobilizing effect. We also explore topics like the malleability of people’s sense of a civic duty to vote and politicians’ and activists’ use of emotions to get people involved.



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