Political Behavior, Vol. 25, No. 1, March 2003 ( 2003)
PARTICIPATORY REACTIONS TO POLICY
THREATS: Senior Citizens and the Defense
of Social Security and Medicare
Andrea Louise Campbell
The sociodemographic factors emphasized in much participation research cannot ex-
plain abrupt changes in levels of activity. This study shows how threat of undesirable
policy change acts as an impetus to participatory activity, helping to explain temporal
variation in participation. Newly available individual-level time-series data are used to
show surges in senior citizen letter writing in response to threats to Social Security
and Medicare during the 1980s. Policy threat interacts with individual characteristics
to produce variations in participatory reaction congruent with the magnitude of the
threat to the individual.
Key words: participation; policy threat; Social Security; self-interest; senior citizens.
The extensive literature on political participation has rigorously documented
who is politically active in terms of demographic characteristics. Increasingly
sophisticated models elucidate the mechanisms that link those characteristics
with participatory activity—resources, political engagement, and recruitment
patterns (Rosenstone and Hansen, 1993; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, 1995).
For all their merits, however, these models remain quite removed from poli-
tics, rarely including likely motivating factors such as issues that individuals
care about (Brady, 1999).
Although difficult to study with extant survey data, issue motivations de-
serve more attention. Engagement in specific issues may be a powerful influ-
ence on participatory behavior, helping to explain variation in activity levels
across individuals, even beyond those produced by sociodemographic factors.
Issue engagements may also improve understanding of temporal variation in
political participation. Proposed changes in policy, for example, may motivate
Andrea Louise Campbell, Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Harvard University,
Littauer Center 317, Cambridge, MA 02138, (email@example.com).
0190-9320/03/0300-0029/0 2003 Plenum Publishing Corporation