Political participation is any activity that shapes, affects, or involves the political sphere. Political participation ranges from voting to attending a rally to committing an act of terrorism to sending a letter to a representative. Broadly speaking, there are three types of participation:

  1. Conventional participation: Activities that we expect of good citizens. For most people, participation occurs every few years at election time. People strongly committed to politics are more likely to participate on a regular basis.

    Example: Conventional political participation includes voting, volunteering for a political campaign, making a campaign donation, belonging to activist groups, and serving in public office.

  2. Unconventional participation: Activities that are legal but often considered inappropriate. Young people, students, and those with grave concerns about a regime’s policies are most likely to engage in unconventional participation.

    Example: Unconventional political participation includes signing petitions, supporting boycotts, and staging demonstrations and protests.

  3. Illegal participation: activities that break the law. Most of the time, people resort to illegal participation only when legal means have failed to create significant political change.

    Example: Illegal political participation includes political assassination, terrorism, and sabotaging an opponent’s campaign through theft or vandalism.

Why People Participate

Most democratic citizens feel that some level of political participation, particularly conventional participation, is admirable and acceptable. But political participation can be hard: One must find time, and perhaps money, in order to participate. So why do people do it? People participate in politics out of a sense of the following:

  • Idealism: Some participate because they believe strongly in a particular idea.
  • Responsibility: For many, participation is a responsibility of democratic citizenship.
  • Self-interest: A person might work to promote issues and causes that personally profit that person.
  • Enjoyment: Some simply enjoy public activity, either because of the activity itself or because of the friends they make while politically engaged.

The Paradox of Participation

Rational choice theorists have argued that participation, particularly voting, is irrational. In a large country, the probability that one’s vote will decide the outcome of an election is microscopic. Because participation has costs (time to vote, effort to learn about the candidates and issues, and so on), the costs of voting outweigh the benefits. In other words, voting does not make sense for people as an activity. Another way to think about this issue is to consider the person who votes because he or she desires to have an impact on the government. If he or she votes out of a sense that the one vote will make a difference, then this person will be sorely disappointed. The truth is that one vote does not make a difference. At the same time, however, if everyone who votes ceased to believe in the power of voting to effect change, then no one would turn out for elections and the democratic process would stop functioning. Political scientists call this phenomenon the paradox of participation.


In some countries, large parts of the population do not participate in politics at all. In the United States, for example, only about half of all eligible people vote in presidential elections. Such nonparticipation signifies a number of attitudes:

  • Contentment: Lack of participation indicates satisfaction with the status quo—if they were upset about an issue, people would participate.
  • Freedom: In a democratic society, people have the freedom to not participate.
  • Apathy: Many people do not know much about politics and do not care.
  • Alienation: People do not participate because they feel that no one in power listens to their views and that the government is, at best, indifferent to them.

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