Linking Members to Leaders: How Civic Associations Can Strengthen Members’ External Political Efficacy

AuthorGeoffrey Henderson,Hahrie Han
Published date01 May 2021
Date01 May 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(3) 293 –303
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20972101
Americans’ perceptions of their external political efficacy—
their ability to influence government decisions—are central
to their decisions about whether to take part in all kinds of
collective action, from voting to protest (Finkel, 1985;
Hirsch, 1990; Moe, 1981; Olson, 1965; Verba et al., 1995).
Many Americans do not participate in politics because they
do not believe their participation will make a difference. In
recent decades, Americans’ external efficacy has declined
precipitously, posing a threat to the vibrant public engage-
ment that democracy requires (Kellman & Swanson, 2017;
Putnam, 2000). Growing disaffection with government has
dovetailed with a decades-long process of disengagement
from political and civic life (Putnam, 2000; Rosenstone &
Hansen, 1993; Skocpol, 2003).
Scholars have long suggested that involvement in civic
associations can help ordinary Americans discover their effi-
cacy as political actors (Christens et al., 2011; Han, 2014;
Osterman, 2006; Warren, 2001). Prior research has estab-
lished the link between association membership and politi-
cal participation, suggesting efficacy as a possible pathway
through which participation becomes more likely (Cassel,
1999; McFarland & Thomas, 2006; Olsen, 1982; Rogers
et al., 1975; Sobieraj & White, 2005; Verba & Nie, 1972).
Likewise, scholars have found that involvement in civic
associations facilitates the development of civic skills which
can be applied to political activity (Brown & Brown, 2003;
Terriquez, 2011; Verba et al., 1995).
We still need further analyses to better understand the
relationship between civic associations and people’s effi-
cacy, however, and the kinds of experiences within civic
associations that are most likely to shape efficacy. In many
cases, a lack of longitudinal data on members’ experiences
after they join civic associations has impeded efforts to
examine this relationship. This study draws on an original
panel dataset of several hundred environmental association
members to explore how various forms of involvement in a
civic association affect members’ external political efficacy.
This dataset allows us to examine trajectories of people’s
participation over time. The association in our study is typi-
cal of national civic associations in the United States, par-
ticularly as a voluntary organization with a democratic and
federated governance structure and an orientation toward a
public purpose. We find that relationships with leaders
increase external efficacy among association members. In
other words, members who get to know their association’s
972101APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20972101American Politics ResearchHenderson and Han
1Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA
2University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Geoffrey Henderson, Johns Hopkins University, 338 Mergenthaler Hall,
3400 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21218-2625, USA.
Linking Members to Leaders:
How Civic Associations Can Strengthen
Members’ External Political Efficacy
Geoffrey Henderson1,2 and Hahrie Han1
Americans’ sense of external political efficacy—their belief in their ability to influence government decisions—has declined
precipitously in recent decades, eroding the public’s confidence in our system of representative democracy. Scholars have
long argued that involvement in civic associations can help ordinary Americans realize their political efficacy, yet a lack of
longitudinal data on association members’ attitudes and behaviors has impeded efforts to test this claim. To collect such
a dataset, we partnered with a national environmental association to conduct a unique panel study of members of eight
state-level organizations. We show that members who get to know their association’s leaders believe that they have greater
influence over government decisions. Our findings suggest that civic associations can strengthen their members’ efficacy by
cultivating volunteer leadership and fostering relationships between members and leaders.
civic associations, external political efficacy, leadership, political participation

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