Political participation, whether it takes the form of voting or volunteering, can have profound psychological, societal and interpersonal effects, according to experts.
Millennials will soon replace Baby Boomers as the generation with the highest share of the electorate in America, but older voters consistently turn out to vote at higher numbers than younger voters.
A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Atlantic found 74 percent of seniors say they plan to vote in the upcoming midterm elections, compared to 28 percent of people ages 18-29 who said they plan to vote.
Kenneth Andrews, chairperson of the sociology department at UNC, said higher political participation can lead to more trust and investment in political and societal institutions.
A 2001 paper by Lynn Sanders, an associate professor of American government at the University of Virginia, examined the mental health impacts of political participation.
Sanders found that taking action or “fighting back” through political activity is a resource that can protect against future psychological distress.
“Both forms of political participation should afford psychological protections, or reduce the chance of psychological distress,” the paper said. “Further, these protections should be more pronounced for 'disempowered' respondents who have previously exhibited signs of psychological distress.”
Andrews said decline in political participation goes hand-in-hand with a decline in trust in many parts of society. However, this decline does not have to continue.
“A lot of what we know about political engagement is that it’s relational," Andrews said. "People don’t sit at home and formulate their ideas, interests or what they want the political system to do. Part of being politically engaged is being connected to other people – people that you talk with about what’s going on in politics or in society.”
According to a study from the Pew Research Center about the political environment on social media, 64 percent of social media users reported having less than they thought in common with others while discussing politics online.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, has written about increasing polarization in America, hoping to encourage people to engage with and try to understand their opponents’ views.
"There is rising anger, hostility and distrust," Haidt said in an interview with the American Psychological Association. "If you look at what people in each party think of people in the other party, it has gotten steadily worse since the mid-1990s."
"This is an urgent problem," he said.
Andrews said a worrisome trend in contemporary politics is increased cynicism and apathy stemming from less concern with the public good.
“When people are more disengaged from politics, you have political institutions and political leaders that are less responsive to a broad cross section,” he said. “That has all kinds of consequences.”
When comparing the composition of the U.S. Legislature to the composition of the country, some striking differences emerge. The average age of members of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016 was 57 while the average for the Senate was 61. The median age of all Americans in 2016 was 38.
The 115th Congress, which began in January 2017, is the most diverse but is still significantly less diverse than the general population. In particular, the percentage of women in Congress is 19.9 percent, and the percentage of women in the U.S. is 50.8 percent.
A record-breaking number of women are running for office in the 2018 election cycle. There will be 494 women from both the Republican and Democratic parties running, which is up from 312 women who ran in 2016.
Andrews said political participation can be achieved through community action, and it can start small.
“Starting where you are and starting around the things that people care about is a good a place as any,” he said.
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