Who are the disengaged? A case study from Italy

When political participation falls – who specifically is being left behind?

The data I’m familiar with is all United States based, and points to two compelling reasons: “non-voters” are less engaged because they primarily come from less affluent, less educated backgrounds and thus are less informed about politics; or “non-voters” are less informed about politics because they don’t really care – they prefer entertainment to news.

My colleagues at CIRCLE have some powerful numbers showing the systematic disenfranchisement of youth with no college experience. In the 2012 presidential election, young people with college experience voted at a rate of 55.9% – nearly twice that of their peers with no college experience (28.6%).

Markus Prior looks at disengagement through the lens of self-selection. In a high-choice media environment, people who prefer entertainment to news will naturally become less informed, and therefore vote less, he argues. His work looking at the effect of broadcast and cable television on voter turnout indicates that voting will go down when media choice goes up. If news is the only thing that’s on, you might watch news. But if you can watch Chopped instead…well then, you’ll become less informed.

So I was particularly interested this weekend when I hear an Italian economist make a totally different argument.

Ruben Durante, Assistant Professor of Economics, Sciences Po Paris (visiting Yale), says that in Italy, disengaged voters are the most politicized.

His recent working paper, Politics 2.0: the Multifaceted Effect of Broadband Internet on Political Participation, joint with F. Campante and F. Sobbrio, tracks recent voting trends in Italy.

Similar to Prior’s work exploring the impacts of a high choice and low choice media environments, Durante is interested in the effect of Internet usage on political engagement. Does voting increase because people have more access to information, or does it go down because people have more access to entertainment?

In the high choice media environment, following the wide adoption of Internet, Durante found that voting went down. In the election after that, though…participation went up.

The reason for this, Durante found, was that the market responded to the decline in voting by coming up with new ways to engage voters.

In the 2013 election – in which participation rose dramatically, the newly formed Five Star Movement garnered a shocking 25% of the vote – more than any other party. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that this party grew out of an online, grassroots, movement.

Durante wanted to know who stopped voting in the years for which participation declined. So he compared voting rates for the major parties.

Over 30 parties participate in each election, with two parties dominating and the rest sharing around 10% of the vote.

Durante found that the turnout for the two big parties stayed static during the years voting declined. It was the “outsider” parties that took a big hit.

And who votes for “outsiders”? The radicals.

They have significantly higher levels of political activism, and roughly equal levels of “Interest in politics” and “Political information” compared to the mainstream Center-Left Party. The mainstream Center-Right party is loyal at the polls, but otherwise disengaged.

Thus, Durante concludes, that the voters who dropped out didn’t do so because they were uneducated or didn’t care. They dropped out because they got more news on the Internet – and that reality was too depressing for them.

But when a grassroots movement decided to move into the political realm, to become part of mainstream politics, it brought those voters back with them.

The Internet made them more engaged.

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