Democratic Phoenix
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Democratic Phoenix

Reinventing Political Activism

Pippa Norris

Book published 2003 CUP 304 pages 30 line diagrams 45 tables 1 map | ISBN: 0521010535 Paperback $23 Hardback $65


At the very time when electoral democracy has spread around the world, the conventional wisdom suggests that citizens in many countries have become disengaged from the traditional channels of political participation. Commentators highlight common warning signs undermining the three central channels of mass activism, including sagging electoral turnout, rising anti-party sentiment, and the decay of civic organizations. But are these concerns justified? This book is the last of a trilogy considering related facets of this phenomenon. The first, A Virtuous Circle, developed a critique of the media malaise thesis, demonstrating that attention to the news media was positively, not negatively, linked to civic engagement. Digital Divide explored the potential of the Internet for civic engagement, and the way that new opportunities online altered the resources for political competition, facilitating a more level playing field for smaller challengers and opposition movements with technical skills and know-how.

Building upon this foundation, this book compares systematic evidence for electoral turnout, party membership and civic activism in countries around the world and suggests good reasons to question popular assumptions of pervasive decline. Instead, it is suggested, not only is the obituary for older forms of political activism premature, but multiple forms of civic engagement may have emerged in modern societies to supplement traditional modes. Political participation appears to have evolved and diversified over the years, in terms of the agencies (collective organizations), repertoires (the actions commonly used for political expression), and targets (the political actors that participants seek to influence).  The process of societal modernization and rising levels of human capital are primarily responsible for driving these developments, although patterns of participation are also explained by the structure of the state, the role of mobilizing agencies, and social inequalities in resources and attitudes. As a result, contrary to the conventional wisdom, democratic engagement may have been reinvented for modern times, rather than simply atrophied.

The first two chapters set out the reasons underlying these claims and the explanatory framework.  Subsequent chapters review the evidence by comparing patterns of voting turnout, party membership, and civic activism in many countries around the globe as well as over time. The conclusion summarizes the key findings and considers the implications for democracy.


"....[Norris'] arguments are cogent, theoretically rigorous, and backed by the best available data in the field. An elegantly written and important book. Highly recommended." Choice




List of Tables & Figures


1.     The Decline and Fall of Civic Activism?

2.    Theories of Political Participation

I. The Puzzle of Electoral Turnout

3.      Mapping Turnout 

4.      Do Institutions Matter?

5.      Who Votes?

II: Political Parties

6.      Mapping Party Activism

7.     Who Joins?

III: Social Capital and Civic Society

8.      Civic Society & Social Capital

9.     Traditional Mobilizing Agencies: Unions and Churches

10.  New Social Movements,  Protest Politics and the Internet


12.  From Loyalties to Choice?


Appendix A





Copyright 2004 Pippa Norris, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138.

Last updated 12/06/2009