Chapter 7: Political competence
If citizens are to exercise reasoned control over political decision making, interest and knowledge are only part of the story. A key supposition for the operation and maintenance of genuine democratic control is that citizens should also possess a sense of personal political competence, a belief that ‘they are capable of understanding politics and competent enough to participate in political acts’ (Acock et al. 1985: 1064). As Abravanel and Busch (1975: 61) state, ‘In a society committed to popular rule, a widely shared sense of political competence encourages an aware and active citizenry and thus allows some influence over the general direction of public policy’. To lack subjective political competence will for many constitute a psychological obstacle to political involvement and hence serve to weaken the foundation of democratic government. If individuals are to enter the political arena and contribute to the processes of democratic decision making, in short, they need to feel adequately qualified and capable of taking part on an equal footing with their fellow citizens. Legal provisions are often important in this respect. Struggles for emancipation and equal voting rights offer a classic illustration of efforts to remove the onerous distinction between different segments of society, a distinction that bears a stigma suggesting that some individuals are less qualified to take part in democratic government than others. But apart from such formal stipulations, an informal sense of personal worth and competence is equally significant; it is a condition which serves to lower the barrier to personal involvement in politics.
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