Apathy is a concept used in studies of political behavior to help explain why people do not vote or otherwise participate in politics. To say that someone is politically apathetic is to suggest that he or she does not participate because of a lack of interest or concern regarding significant political matters. The political scientists Bernard Berelson, Paul Lazarsfeld, and William McPhee used the term in this way in their classic 1954 book, Voting, categorizing nonvoters as the “apathetic segment” of the American public. Since then many prominent political scientists, such as Samuel Huntington ( 1975, 1981 ), and political commentators, such as George Will ( 1983, 2004, 2012 ), have explained nonparticipation in political life in more or less the same way. However, the motivations for and causes of nonparticipation in politics can be varied, and political apathy is only one possible explanation. Moreover, the concept of apathy is itself complex.
As commonly used and understood, the word “apathy”—denoting a lack of emotional affect toward something about which a person otherwise should care— is not neutral. It suggests that something has gone wrong. Has a person who is apathetic about politics or current affairs abdicated responsibility, in which case the person is not behaving as a good citizen? Or has the political system and society instead generated failures, such as inequalities, that promote apathy, in which case the polity is not functioning well as a democracy? Unfortunately, despite thesetwo possibilities, when someone is labeled “apathetic,” without giving further elaboration or explanation, the implication commonly understood is that the politically apathetic individual bears responsibility for his or her own passive disposition. In the United States, for example, political participation of all kinds, including voting, is correlated with class status, educational level, and ethnic background. This indicates that the problems of apathy and nonparticipation may also derive from external factors: political, economic, educational, and social disadvantages may spawn political impassivity among certain groups of citizens.
Political apathy, therefore, has two faces. The first face attributes responsibility for apathy to the individual's choices and character. The second face directs responsibility to the society and its institutions. Each describes an emotional state of indifference toward otherwise valuable political questions and activities. Each, however, assigns responsibility in ways with radically different consequences for assessing the democratic character of a polity ( De Luca 1995 ).
A pair of examples illustrates the two faces of apathy: (1) A poor, single, working mother with a high school education may feel that political discussions on TV are irrelevant to her needs and even demeaning to her gender and class position. She may have internalized social cues suggesting she bears sole responsibility for her lot in life, thus becoming discouraged. She becomes apathetic about politics and does not vote. (2) A married father and welloff lawyer, confident that his success is earned, nevertheless, has made over time a series of personal and career-driven decisions that lead him to lose interest in public affairs and politics. Even though he has easy political access and the ability to navigate complex issues, he too becomes apathetic and does not vote. Through will, effort, and with political help, either person might be able to break free of political apathy. Nevertheless, the individual in the second example is responsible for his political apathy in a way that the individual in the first example is not responsible for hers. This distinction between apathy's two faces is essential. Without it, the causes of nonparticipation can be misunderstood, with disadvantaged citizens being blamed for their own political inaction.
The argument has been made by Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee, as well as by Huntington and Will, that, ironically, apathy is good for democracy because it cushions democratic governance from the destabilizing effect of excessive participation. Yet whatever the levels of participation citizens think best for democracy, they must first be certain that those who have withdrawn from politics do so freely. That is why it is essential to also consider the second face of apathy in explanations of nonparticipation.
Flattening out the complexities of apathy is exacerbated by the fact that political apathy is overused in explaining political nonparticipation. People sometimes confound apathy and nonparticipation, as if a disposition (i.e., apathy) and a behavior (i.e., nonparticipation) were the same thing. Though related, motivation and behavior are different. A person who votes out of habit may be described as apathetic; a person who refuses to vote out of a conviction that the candidates or party programs are not worthy would not be described as apathetic. Many people do not participate in politics, but they are not all politically apathetic.
SEE ALSO Alienation ; Cynicism ; Deliberative Democracy ; Political Legitimacy ; Public Trust .
Berelson, Bernard R., Paul F. Lazarsfeld, and William N. McPhee. Voting: A Study of Opinion Formation in a Presidential Campaign. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954.
De Luca, Tom. The Two Faces of Political Apathy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.
Huntington, Samuel P. “The United States.” In The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, edited by Michel J. Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki, 59–118. New York: New York University Press, 1975.
Huntington, Samuel P. American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1981.
Will, George. “In Defense of Nonvoting.” Newsweek, October 10, 1983.
Will, George. “Bringing Out the Big Guns.” The Washington Post, October 14, 2004, A 31.
Will, George. “Federal Voting Drive Makes a Mountain Out of a Molehill.” The Washington Post, December 19, 2012.
Tom De Luca