Political Scientist Ben Berger Examines
Political Apathy, Effective Engagement in New Book
by Alisa Giardinelli
Accompanying the coverage generated by the GOP 2012 primary debates and President Obama's re-election campaign is a soft but steady drumbeat of concern that voter apathy could derail one or both parties' ability to engage voters. But as Associate Professor of Political Science Ben Berger says in a new book, handwringing about political apathy is as old as democracy itself.
"People always pay much less attention to politics than idealists and very engaged practitioners think they ought to do," says Berger, author of Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement (Princeton University Press, 2011). "To say 'democracy' is to say 'attention deficit,'" he adds, noting that Aristophanes complained about apathy in ancient Greece, as did Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s.
Zócalo Public Square, a project of the Center for Social Cohesion that focuses on citizenship and community, recently included Attention Deficit Democracy among its list of best nonfiction of 2011. A q&a with Berger appeared on the site last month.
"While voter apathy is not a new thing," Berger says, "it takes on some new characteristics in this particular age. The biggest of those is who gets hurt when they don't pay attention. The poor and poorly educated are not only the most likely to be politically disengaged, but the most likely to be poorly represented when disengaged."
According to Berger, if he or his peers were to not participate politically, many of their core commitments would still likely be addressed by elected officials. "But when marginalized citizens disengage politically," he says, "the representatives who claim to speak for them frequently emphasize issues other than the ones that the marginalized citizens claim to value most when they're asked directly."
An expert in modern political theory, Berger is one of 26 Periclean Faculty Leaders nationwide and directs the College's "Engaging Democracy Project," a program designed to promote community engagement, political participation and responsible citizenship in the classroom, on campus, and in the wider community. In one of his courses, students augment their traditional classroom learning by meeting with civic leaders, visiting town hall and school board meetings, and interning with political or public interest organizations in order to understand better the daily experience of democracy in different types of communities.