One of the strongest predictors of participation is what political scientists call “political efficacy”. Broadly speaking, one of the components of political efficacy refers to an individual’s perception of his/her impact through his/her political actions. In other words, all other things equal, the greater your perception that your actions are likely to have an impact, the greater your political efficacy. And the greater this sense of efficacy, the more likely you are to engage. Furthermore, political scientists often refer to the generation of a virtuous cycle in which participation leads to more participation.
A while ago, through a post on techPresident by Micah Sifry I came across this brilliant story about an alternative form of protest in the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Below is an excerpt from Micah’s article that summarizes the idea put forward by Artie Moffa, a “part–time poet and SAT tutor”:
“His idea,which he described in a short YouTube video that has had more than 400,000views in just six days, steals a page from both Saul Alinsky and Abbie Hoffman.You know all those credit card solicitations banks send you all the time, he asks, sitting at his couch in a shirt and striped tie. Take the business reply envelope and stuff it with a message back to the bank, or if you’re feeling like it, add a wood shim or something firm to add to the cost of the return mail. “Every hour banks spend responding to us is an hour banks don’t spend lobbying Congress figuring out how to screw us,” he notes. “If you can’t occupy Wall Street, you can at least keep Wall Street occupied.”
The post includes an interesting and entertaining interview with Moffa. Both the story and the interview present two interesting (although anecdotal) illustrations of how political efficacy can operate.
The first one refers to the action in itself. My hunch is that the reasonable popularity of the idea is a result of the fact that it generates an immediate sense of political efficacy. Although one can question how efficient the practice may be in terms of furthering the causes of the movement, by sending back the envelope individuals know that their action will have a tangible impact: the return mail will have to be paid for by the sender of the correspondence. Making a rough – and maybe unfair – comparison, by sending back the mail with a message or a wood shim inside the envelope gives citizens a stronger – or more immediate – sense of political efficacy than signing an online petition.
The second element corresponds to the virtuous cycle, in which participation, resulting in increased political efficacy, will lead to even more participation. As Artie Moffa puts it it:
“About a month ago, I wrote a letter to the editors of The Economist, teasing them about a bad layout decision they made with the cover for their “Hunting the Rich”issue (Sep 24). I couldn’t believe they printed my letter. I guess that experience itched the bug bite. I wanted to say a little more.”
That bug bite, that made Artie want to say more, was political efficacy.