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A hypothetical claim in search of evidence

- February 3, 2009

Something that occurred to me at a dinner discussion about campaign finance a few days ago. Someone mentioned the extraordinary ease with which you can find online FEC data that is “nicely sorted out geographically”:http://fundrace.huffingtonpost.com/neighbors.php so as to figure out who your neighbors contributed to and when. This reminded me of Diana Mutz’s work on the relationship between cross-party discussion and participation – roughly speaking, Mutz finds that the more that you talk to people who have different political views than your own, the less likely you are to participate in politics.

What connects FEC data and Mutz’s work is one of the mechanisms that Mutz identifies. She suggests that one key reason why people may be less likely to participate in politics when they have politically diverse social networks is because they don’t want to upset friends and neighbors, by engaging in public acts of participation that demonstrate their political differences. But doesn’t the combination of geolocation, roll-yer-own Google Map APIs and electronic FEC data make contributing money (above $200) into a public act? If your neighbors can see how much money you’ve given, and to who, then your calculus for whether to give money or not may change. If you are in a heterogenous neighborhood, Mutz’s argument would suggest that you will be less likely to give money (it would allow the leftier-than-thou folks across the street to figure out that you have a sneaking regard for John McCain. In contrast, if you are in a more homogenous neighborhood, demonstration effects and so on may make you more likely to make that donation.

This is, as the post suggests, a claim in search of evidence, and any effect may quite possibly be swamped by the influence of other causal factors. But it does at least suggest that the impact of new technology and more information, cheaper search costs etc may not always be to increase political participation, as some technological evangelists have suggested.