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Who Deliberates? Discursive Participation in America (WP-05-08)

Fay Lomax Cook, Michael X. Delli Carpini, and Lawrence R. Jacobs

Much contemporary analysis of American democracy sounds the alarm that citizens are retreating from the process of electing government officials, influencing the legislative process by which government policy is made, and engaging in other forms of civic and political life. This paper addresses an important and understudied outlet for political engagement by citizens: the various ways—from informal conversations to deliberative forums—in which individuals talk in public about policy issues affecting the local, national, and international communities in which they live. We report findings from a national sample of 1,501 adult Americans describing the extent, distribution, and correlates of what we call “discursive participation.” We conclude that such participation occurs more frequently than assumed and that while there are notable variations in participation, it appears that discursive participation may be less directly stratified by income than other forms of political and civic engagement. Our organizational and political model of public deliberation largely attributes discursive participation to organizational membership and political interest and knowledge. We conclude by suggesting that public talk may be one dimension of political and civic life that exhibits an energetic, inventive, and vital citizenry.

Fay Lomax Cook, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy; Director and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Michael X. Delli Carpini, Professor of Communication; Dean, Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania

Lawrence R. Jacobs, McKnight Land Grant Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota

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