How to Increase (and Sustain) Political Engagement

With the 2018 midterm elections looming, the stakes are high in American politics. Republicans aim to maintain control of Congress, and Democrats seek to win key elections to flip both chambers. Several new grassroots campaigns—largely organized by high-school students in response to the Parkland shooting—seek to address gun safety by mobilizing citizens to join large-scale political demonstrations across the country in March and April. Common sense might tell us that such high stakes would lead to high turnout and engagement across a variety of political actions throughout this election year. Unfortunately, research indicates that high political stakes don’t always translate to high levels of citizen engagement.

Even when citizens decide to take action, it can be challenging to sustain long-term political engagement. Just because a person takes one type of political action, such as attending a political rally, it does not necessarily mean they will take other political actions in the future.

In March of 2017—during the peak of political engagement in the wake of President Trump’s inauguration—our team at CitizenBe, a nonprofit promoting political engagement, surveyed 527 Hillary Clinton supporters from across the country. We asked them what political actions they had taken in the prior month (e.g., called an elected official, signed a petition, participated in a protest) and what actions they would be willing to take in the following month if given the opportunity. We found that, on average, people took 2.5 actions in the prior month but were only willing to take 1.2 actions in the coming month. We also found that 71 percent of people who took action in the prior month planned to be less involved in the future.

Such findings led us to ask: How can we reduce the barriers associated with taking political action, encourage citizens to stay focused, and sustain political engagement over a lifetime?

How can we reduce the barriers associated with taking political action, encourage citizens to stay focused, and sustain political engagement over a lifetime?

Last fall, we conducted a study for Postcards4VA. Prior to the statewide election in November, the group coordinated over 1,500 volunteers, who wrote more than 137,000 personalized get-out-the-vote postcards to Virginia residents. We were interested in whether postcard writing could elevate political engagement of the writers, particularly through the social and emotional elements.

We surveyed over 600 of the Postcards4VA volunteers and asked them to report on several aspects of their experience: whether they wrote postcards alone or with others, the emotions they felt during postcard writing, the extent to which political participation aligned with their identity, and their intentions to engage in future political actions. (In this case, the 1500 Postcards4VA volunteers were 93 percent female, 72 percent were older than 45 years of age, and 91 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher; a subset completed the survey.)

Drawing from this study and a few others from our work, we offer the following four insights, which may be useful for to citizens to employ directly or to organizations looking to increase political participation.

#1: Choose political actions that fit your identity

It’s easier to stay engaged in political actions that closely align with your identity. In the postcard study, we tested the relationship between identity and political engagement by asking volunteers to report how closely political participation fit with their sense of self. We found that people who identified with political participation tended to report greater enjoyment from postcard writing, greater social closeness with other volunteers, greater intention to take future political action, and less burnout.

These findings suggest that it pays to find a political action that closely aligns with how you view yourself. For example, if you are an artist, helping to make signs for an upcoming protest may increase the likelihood that you’ll continue participating in political actions in the future. Or, if you are a technology or design professional, using your skills to develop and improve the digital content of government services may be a particularly sustainable political action for you.

Our findings are consistent with growing evidence that indicates political mobilization is easier to sustain when people are engaged in behaviors that align with the way they view themselves or would like to view themselves. For instance, a recent get-out-the-vote study found that when people received materials that framed voting as a personal identity (“be a voter”), they voted at a higher rate than people who received materials that framed voting as simply a behavior (“voting”).

It’s important to remember that there is an abundance of lesser-known ways to make a difference in the political system and in your community, so get creative and take actions that fit naturally with your skills and values. The more closely the actions are aligned with your identity, the easier it will be to sustain those actions.

Even when citizens decide to take action, it can be challenging to sustain long-term political engagement.

#2: Take action with others

Sustaining long-term political engagement can be easier when you take actions with your friends. In our postcard study, volunteers who wrote while in social settings reported having more positive experiences during postcard writing, a greater sense of identity around postcard writing, greater intentions to take political action in the future, and less burnout. We also found that postcard writers who reported higher levels of positive social closeness with other volunteers had greater intentions to take political action again in the future. These findings suggest that forming meaningful and personal connections with others while taking political action may be important for sustaining long-term engagement.

A number of mechanisms may explain these effects. For one, research on social observability indicates that people are more likely to engage in behaviors like voting when they are led to expect that their behaviors will be seen by others. In a way, our peers can help hold us accountable for doing the things we say we’ll do. In addition, taking actions with others is simply more fun. Research suggests that people experience more intense positive emotions when interacting with others than when alone. Thus, if you’re a member of a local political organization, making a new social connection at the weekly meeting might help you (and your new friend) stay engaged. Next time you’re making calls to your senator’s office, invite a friend over—doing so might help you pick up the phone and take action again next week.

Social influences beyond immediate friends also have an impact on political engagement. People are broadly influenced by their perceptions of what others are doing. In the above-mentioned survey of post-inauguration political engagement, we asked Clinton supporters to report the extent to which they believed their political actions were a social norm and the extent to which they believed their political actions would affect the political system. Consistent with past research, we found that perceived social norms were much stronger motivators of political action than was perceived impact. In short, it’s easier to take action when you know others expect you to take action.

#3: Engage in political actions that make you feel good

The easiest way to burn out is to force yourself to do things you don’t enjoy. For example, if talking to strangers on the phone stresses you out, then making daily phone calls to elected officials is not a political action you will be likely to sustain. In our postcard study, we found that volunteers who reported feeling more positive emotions during postcard writing also tended to report greater social closeness to other volunteers, greater intention to take future political action, and less burnout. In the above-mentioned survey of post-inauguration activists, we found that people who experienced more positive emotions during their past political actions were more willing to take future actions than were people who felt neutral or negative.

These findings are consistent with research on the factors that enable people to adopt and sustain engagement in new health behaviors. For instance, one study found that experiencing positive emotions while engaging in a newly adopted health behavior (e.g., meditation) was the sole psychological predictor of whether people voluntarily chose to continue engaging in the health behavior as a regular habit more than one year later.

Together, these findings make a compelling case for why it’s useful to consider how political actions make you feel. In the long run, you’ll have a greater overall impact if you are able to sustain your engagement, and you’ll be able to sustain your engagement by taking political actions you enjoy.

#4: Take advantage of winning momentum

Let’s face it: It feels good to win. It feels even better to feel like you helped contribute to a win. In fact, getting a win may even change the way people remember their past political actions.

In our postcard study, an interesting pattern emerged when we compared survey responses between volunteers who completed our survey before the election with those who completed the survey after the election (and thus were aware of the sweeping Democratic victories in Virginia). We found that the volunteers who completed the survey after the election reported greater levels of positive emotions during postcard writing, greater social closeness with other volunteers, and less burnout. These findings offer preliminary evidence that knowledge of the Democratic victories colored volunteers’ memories of their actions. As mentioned above, feeling more positively about past political actions is associated with sustained engagement.

By considering the social, emotional, and psychological factors that influence political engagement, we can develop better tools to help everyday citizens improve the political system.

In another study, we teamed up with Daily Action—a group that sends daily text messages prompting users to call an elected official about an important issue—and tracked their call volume data over time. We found that, generally, response rates were lower for topics users had previously made calls about. That is, the more that users were asked to call, the less likely they were to respond to the call to action. However, there was one exception to this trend. In June and July of 2017—when it became clear that Democrats were having some success in blocking Republican attempts to repeal or replace the Affordable Care Act—we found the more that users were asked to call their representatives about health care, the greater the call volume.

We speculate that part of the reason the trend reversed for calls about healthcare was that there were many positive signs of an impending “win” for the legislation. In what could be described as a bandwagon effect, users may have believed that their calls were contributing to a success, making them more likely to sustain their engagement.

You won’t always have the luxury of feeling like you’re going to win on every issue and in every race, but it may be helpful to make sure some of the political actions you take can feel like wins—actions in service of a goal in which you feel capable of contributing toward a positive outcome. There are two important caveats to this principle. First, if you are so certain that your goal will be achieved that your participation no longer matters, you may be demotivated. Second, even though taking action toward winnable causes may be easier to sustain, there are still underdog causes that are incredibly important and worth fighting for.

The insights offered here are intended to provide individuals and organizations a better understanding of how to create and sustain long-term political engagement. Following the 2016 election, many new tech tools and resources have emerged and become vital to the movement to mobilize citizens. These tools are ideal vehicles to translate the insights offered here into interventions and activities that boost political participation. We believe Postcards4VA is a success story not only for the impact they had in Virginia but also for their willingness to use the research process to better understand the behavioral factors that motivate their volunteers to stay engaged.

Applying behavioral science to political engagement offers a new perspective through which to identify and address the many obstacles that citizens face in sustaining meaningful political participation. By considering the social, emotional, and psychological factors that influence political engagement, we can develop better tools to help everyday citizens improve the political system.