Joining the Political Process

Process, product, and participation—the three Ps and voter apathy. Antipoverty programs and dependency. The Voting Rights Act. Political mobilization for local campaigns.

I will emphasize one broad point in my presentation to you, and that relates to the matter of participation—political participation—broadly interpreted in the political system.

The three Ps—process, product, and participation

The issue regarding politics in the context of black alternatives for the 1980s is not a matter of party labels—Democrats, Republicans, or even some form of recently announced national black political party. It is also not ideological identification—liberals, conservatives, integrationists, nationalists. It is, rather, what I would call for purposes of discussion the three Ps—process, product, and participation.

We know that electoral participation is declining generally in the country, especially among certain demographic groups—the young, the poor, and so forth. There are a number of speculative and empirically supported reasons for this. But my three-P formulation suggests the following: when the process is perceived as related to the products people want, then participation will increase. I hypothesize, therefore, that declining participation results substantially from a perception that involvement—participation—in certain prescribed processes simply is not likely to yield, for any number of reasons, the particular things people want. So they do not vote because they simply do not see the process of voting as relevant to the products they want.

In some instances, I suggest that this is not apathy as properly understood, but quite an accurate assessment of the situation and a rational judgment: the costs simply exceed the benefit. So people tune out. They do not participate.

My point, then, is that those persons interested in maximizing political participation of blacks in the 1980s ought to give considerable attention to processes that attract previously uninvolved people or that even attract those who have become disaffected for various reasons.

Government programs cannot promote political mobilization

These processes need not and should not only relate to voting per se. They should involve a range of activities connected with essentially local goals which might include strategies for community-based educational systems, public and private, crime prevention and law enforcement strategies, tenant co-ops, and so forth. I emphasize the locally based orientation of these efforts precisely because I believe that it is at the local level that one is best able to discern the relationship between process and product. It is thus politically effective.

This is not to say that I would encourage a continuance of the maximum-feasible-participation formula of earlier antipoverty programs. That experience essentially encouraged political mobilization around easy money, public-sector dollars, Office of Economic Opportunity grants, and the like. This was at best, I suggest, a most tenuous basis for sustained political participation—plus, it created what I characterize as an essentially dependent patron-recipient relationship.

One lesson is that government programs really cannot be—indeed, ought not to be—the promoters of political mobilization. The government simply ought to make sure, as with the Voting Rights Act, that people are not impeded for racial reasons when they attempt to mobilize and act politically.

Viable political mobilization must be self-generated and self-sustaining. The starting place for action ought to be the local community, with activities that yield relatively quick measurable returns. I am reminded of the statement by Harold Lasky, that in attempting to politicize previously nonactive or nonpolitical people you must take care to do two things: first, establish a habit of organization, and second, nurture a consciousness of the ability to act.

The political process has to be seen to work before many people will employ it

I would suggest that mammoth voter-registration drives, which we see conducted frequently at election time, are probably not very fruitful in terms of politicizing blacks—even if those who register turn out to vote. Elections, particularly at the national level, constitute one of the most difficult pro- cesses for making that important connection between process and product, political participation and personal goals. People need to see immediate and direct results from their participation in the political process.

Local community-based politics traditionally have served as the initial points for ethnic political mobilization. Important as elections are, we must put our political expectations in perspective and take care not to overpromise when the likelihood is that the political system will not be able to perform. But some very important things, essentially selfgenerated, can and ought to be done, whether it is a campaign to fix the potholes or whatever.

In short, I do not agree that there is pervasive apathy, as popularly understood, in the black community. There is, rather, nonparticipation due to a perception which in many ways is rational. The political process has to be seen to work before many people will employ it. I hope that serious thought will be given to concrete ways to launch legitimate, politicizing processes that would stem this nonparticipation trend.

The Imperative for Change Table of Contents Politics, Power, and Horsetrading: The Broad Opportunities