Get Involved

One of the most astute observers of American democracy was a foreigner. In the early nineteenth century, a time when democracy was still uncommon anywhere in the world, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States. Tocqueville sought to understand the political spirit of the young America, and famously observed that citizens there had a gift for civic association. Everywhere he traveled, Tocqueville saw American political culture rooted in a multitude of small, voluntary associations formed to address local needs.
1. Do you belong to any clubs, associations, or teams? How might your membership in these groups affect your political views or involvement?
Later observers of American culture have not always confirmed Tocqueville’s observations. In the 1990s, another democratic theorist named Robert Putnam raised a stir with his thesis that Americans were increasingly a people who were “bowling alone.”

Read Putnam’s controversial essay online at: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/DETOC/assoc/bowling.html

America’s small civic associations, Putnam proposes, had once served as a foundation of American “social capital,” but they were in decline. Putnam suspected a variety of culprits for this decline, but one of his chief suspects was the role of twentieth-century technologies like television. By making it easier and more attractive for Americans to avoid social interactions, Putnam theorized, television weakened the social bonds that glued America together.
2a. Based upon your reading of his essay, do you agree with Putnam’s theory? Why or why not?
2b. Clearly the Internet has different, interactive features that distinguish it from the largely passive experience of watching television. Using the Internet can be an interactive encounter where citizens seek out information and collaborations with other like-minded individuals. In the twenty-first century, will the Internet lead to more debate and understanding between Americans of different political ideologies, or more balkanization, where Americans increasingly talk online only to those who share similar biases?
As the chapter notes, America has its own diverse political culture and multiple ideologies. A fun website designed to challenge any traditional “left vs. right” ideological model is Politopia.

Take the Politopia quiz to estimate where it places your own political leanings: http://www.politopia.com/quiz_index.php
3a. What “neighborhood” did you end up in your political leanings? What public officials are you closest to, according to this survey? How would you characterize your political outlook, based upon this quiz?
3b. Do you agree that it makes sense to divide ideology into questions about personal freedom and questions about government control of the economy? Why or why not?
For a contrasting survey of your political ideology, take the Pew Research Center’s Political Typology test at: http://typology.people-press.org/typology/

The website asks for your opinion on a range of controversies. It then proposes some models for the ideology your answers are most closely associated with. After taking the test, answer the following questions.
4. What was your Basic Description in your typology? What are the Defining Values of your typology? How did the results characterize the Lifestyle Notes and Media Use for your typology?
5. Which survey did you prefer, Politopia or Pew? Which one do you think gave a more accurate description of your ideology? Why?

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About This Exercise

This exercises provides resources that will help you participate in the political process.