An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2011

Who Speaks? Citizen Political Voice on the Internet Commons

Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady

Using an August 2008 representative survey of Americans conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, we investigate the consequences of Internet-based political activity for long-standing patterns of participatory inequality. There is little evidence of change in the extent to which political participation is stratified by socioeconomic status, even when we account for the fact that the well educated and affluent are more likely to be Internet users. However, because young adults are much more likely than their elders to be comfortable with electronic technologies and to use the Internet, the Web has ameliorated the well-known participatory deficit among those who have recently joined the electorate. Still, among Internet users, the young are not especially politically active. How these trends play out in the future depends on what happens to the current Web-savvy younger generation and the cohorts that follow as well as on the rapidly developing political capacities of the Web.

KAY LEHMAN SCHLOZMAN, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2003, is the J. Joseph Moakley Endowed Professor of Political Science at Boston College.

SIDNEY VERBA, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1968, is the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor Emeritus and a Research Professor of Government at Harvard University.

HENRY E. BRADY, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2003, is Dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy and Class of 1941 Monroe Deutsch Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

From the Greek agora to the Habermasian public sphere, the public commons is a space, open to all citizens, where political discourse and contestation take place; where citizens gather to discuss and possibly influence public policy; where they inform each other about relevant facts and share and debate their preferences. In the ideal commons, discussion is open and civil and essential to democracy. The public commons takes many forms, ranging from small-scale gatherings in a town meeting to national election campaigns that engage millions. The Internet has added a new commons, a virtual space for citizen communication. The novel properties of the Internet raise many questions: Is the political information on the Internet accurate? Does the Internet encourage understanding among those with different views? Does it create community? In short, what does it mean for democracy?

We are concerned not so much with the nature and quality of the discourse taking place in the Internet commons as with who participates in that discourse. In its earliest incarnation, the Greek agora, the commons was open only to a limited set of Athenians. Similarly, for much of our history, full participation in the American political commons was denied to many–in particular, women and African Americans. Although access is more nearly universal now, many are excluded by their youth, incarceration, or immigrant status, and still others take little or no part. More specifically, our question is whether–compared to traditional, pre-internet modes of expression of citizen political voice–the virtual commons on the Internet makes opportunities for public discourse more egalitarian in terms of who takes part.

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