Thomas Jefferson once said, "Government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part." As such, an important part of maintaining a healthy relationship between state, local, and federal governments is having an active and educated citizenry. Civic engagement can cover a broad range of topics such as voting, contacting governmental representatives, volunteering, discussing political issues with neighbors, etc. These acts not only allow citizens to express their opinions on various issues—but the number of people participating (or not participating) can also be an indicator of how satisfied citizens are with their government as well as how influential they think their voices are.
Tracking Citizen Engagement
There are several ways to track citizen engagement. One such measure is tracing whether or not citizens follow what is occurring in government and public affairs. Pew has been tracking this very question since 1985. In the graph below, the first tab shows varying levels of engagement or awareness of public affairs. Those who say they pay attention to government and public affairs "most" of the time has increased from 36% in 1985 to 59% in 2017. It is also interesting to note how these numbers are influenced during election years. For example, 2012 had a high of 69% and similarly, in 2020, there was 62% of respondents who selected "most of the time." It is also encouraging that generally, less than 20% of respondents felt that they were following civic affairs "now and then" or "hardly at all." While other research suggests that these numbers might be inflated (or vary according to factors such as level of government, age, race, party, etc.), these numbers show that Americans at least perceive themselves to be engaged in public affairs.
Knowing what is going on in public affairs is only one aspect of measuring civic engagement. Another telling measure is how often individuals vote. In 120 years, 2020 actually had the highest turnout rate at 66.7%. Furthermore, voter turnout generally tends to be higher in presidential elections than in midterm or even state/local elections. This could explain the percentage variation from year to year (as shown in the graph below). Another factor to consider when looking at public opinion data for elections is social-desirability bias (individuals will say that they voted even when they didn't, to look like better citizens), this could explain why a majority of respondents answered that they vote "always" or "nearly always" even when the actual voter turnout is much lower. While it would be better if the two numbers were more closely aligned, it at least shows that a majority of citizens perceive the importance of voting or perhaps have a desire to vote more frequently.
This next graph looks at a tracker from YouGov on how easy citizens feel it is to register and vote in their prospective state. While this tracker is limited in its scope, one can notice that even during COVID-19 a majority of citizens feel that it is "very easy" or "somewhat easy" to do so. It will be interesting to see if this trend changes in upcoming years.
Youth Engagement—Expressing Opinion
These next graphs examine data taken from CIRCLE examining youth (the age range varies from 16-29 depending on the question) civic engagement. This first series examines questions on how often they discuss political issues—whether on social media, public officials, neighbors, etc.
This first graph looks at the percentage of youth who share their views about various issues on the internet or social media by location. The highest response was 30.2% in Washington, D.C. with the average being 18.77%. The lowest response was in Rhode Island at 10.5%.
This next graph from CIRCLE examines whether youth have expressed their opinion to public officials at any level of government. Once more D.C. is ranked in the number one spot; however, responses are lower is this survey as the highest response was at 20.10% and declines with the lowest ranking response, Delaware, at 0%.
While the first two graphs look at youth engaging with more external sources, this next graph looks at how they express their political opinions with those who are at a closer level—namely, friends, family, and neighbors. Perhaps, not surprisingly, respondents are more likely to discuss various issues with friends and family than neighbors. In fact, the response rate for family and friends is significantly higher than the previous two graphs (with the highest being 78.10% and the lowest 43.6%). However, discussing issues with neighbors has a response rate that is closer to the previous two graphs (the high was 24% and the low was 8%).
Youth Engagement - Community Action
This next series continues examining youth civic engagement, but this time respondents were asked whether they participated in an activity or organization that had an impact on their community.
The three graphs below look at volunteer opportunities in three different scenarios—neighborhood, organizations, and individually. "Volunteered" has the highest response while "neighborhood/community" and "group/organizations" have similar responses.
In this next question, respondents were asked whether they have bought or boycotted products/services based upon the views or practices of a company (which might be attributed to personal reasons or because of larger social movements). The responses in this were similar to other civic engagement practices with a high of 31.2%.
This next graph looks at citizens' perceptions of how much influence their votes have on government action. A majority of citizens actually feel that their votes make a difference in how the government runs things. In this study, the percentage of those who felt that way follows a bell curve, starting at 58% in 2015, reaching a peak at 68% in 2018, and dipping back down to 59% in 2021.
These next two graphs analyze if individuals have participated in activities in the past six months, past year, or within the past five years. These activities include: attending a political rally or campaign event (online or in-person), contributing money, displaying campaign artifacts, or working/volunteering for a candidate/campaign/party. The highest "yes" responses came from those who said they did it within the past year, followed by those who did it within the past five years (but not within the past year), and finally those who did it within the past six months.
Impact of Media and Interest
This next series of graphs (click on the tabs below to switch between graphs) looks at various aspects of social media as it relates to civic engagement. This includes aspects such as whether or not social media:
Helps individuals to engage with political or social issues
Allows individuals to show/raise support for a cause
Helps individuals to find news, information, or groups that are pertinent to causes/political topics they are interested in
Provides a venue to express political opinions
Brings awareness to elected officials/influencing policy decisions
In the first graph, respondents seem split on whether social media is more positive or negative. On the one hand, respondents are more likely to feel that social media distracts from important issues and can give users a false sense of impact. On the other hand, they feel that it aids in holding powerful people accountable, gives a voice to underrepresented groups, and gives the spotlight to issues that otherwise might be overlooked.
With the second graph, respondents were asked whether or not they had engaged in a certain activity over the past year. For all of the responses, a large majority of respondents had not participated in the action, though those with the highest participation were encouraging action in an issue that's important to them and participating in a group that is focused on a certain issue/cause.
In the third graph, respondents were more divided on whether or not social media was important to them as individuals when looking for others who shared their views, getting involved in salient issues, and having a venue to express their views.
The fourth asked respondents whether in general social media helps to create sustained movements, cause elected officials to pay attention, and influence policy decisions. These questions received more positive responses than the previous graph.
This final graph looks at how interested citizens are in the current campaign. Unlike other measures of civic engagement, it is intriguing to see that, although this measure had (for the most part) been on the decline since 2004, there has been a dramatic increase—reaching peak levels in 2016 and 2020 at 49%. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in subsequent years.
While there has been an increase in those who pay attention to elections "most of the time," these numbers are usually higher in presidential election years rather than in just congressional years. This also coincides with how there is a greater number of those who vote in presidential elections versus midterm or state/local elections.
With youth engagement, the highest involvement was with discussing political issues with friends/families by a large margin, followed by volunteering and belonging to a group. The lowest response was contacting an elected official.
The general population showing support for a candidate through social media was the highest followed by displaying an item (poster, bumper sticker, etc.) or contributing money in support of a candidate/campaign. The lowest response was attending a political rally or working/volunteering for a candidate/campaign.
There are mixed results when it comes to the role that social media plays with civic engagement, allowing certain groups to have a voice, and influencing governmental decisions.
American National Election Studies Trust in Government Index
Kincaid, John and Richard L. Cole. "Citizen Attitudes Toward Issues of Federalism in Canada, Mexico, and the United States." Publius: The Journal of Federalism 41, issue 1 (2011): 53-75.
PEW 'Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government' (2015)
PEW Research Center, 'Governance Survey Final Topline' (2015)
Barthel, Michael and et al., "Civic Engagement Strongly Tied to Local News Habits." Pew Research Center. November 3, 2016.
Desilver, Drew. "U.S. Trails Most Developed Countries in Voter Turnout." Pew Research Center. May 21, 2018.
Philbrick, Ian Prasad and David Leonhardt. "How to Participate in Politics." New York Times.
Voter Turnout, Fair Vote
Longley, Robert "What is Civic Engagement? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. September 1, 2020.