Democracy is For the Dogs


With a new round of state and local elections just around the corner, I am regularly asked about what brings Americans out to the polls and helps them politically engage them with their communities.

As turnout is fairly low in the United States in off cycle elections and America’s civic health is generally in decline, people want to know what mobilization efforts work. Do direct mailings or yard signs increase turnout? What about knocking on doors of neighbors, friends, or acquaintances? Does Fox News chatter or Twitter actually matter or other do various forms of social media drive community connectedness?

The answer to the engagement question is that while all of these forms play a role in turnout and engagement to small and varying degrees, people often overlook something else that plays a significant role in mobilizing civic behavior: aspects of local, daily life that bring people out of their homes and into the community.

In other words, political turnout and engagement is generally higher in those places where residents are close to community amenities like public parks, cafes, community centers, and even bowling alleys. Local amenities help create connections to others which increases the likelihood of participation in local elections.

Data from the new AEI Survey on Community and Society show that when Americans live near a variety of public places and spaces – from cafes and bars to shopping areas and parks, playgrounds, or beaches – trust in others and sense of community increases, feelings of loneliness and isolation decline, and faith is local government is higher than in areas with fewer communal amenities. The data also reveals that these amenities can be regularly found throughout most residential spatial forms to varying degrees around the country from inner cities to small towns and suburbs; only rural areas tend to lack close proximity to these amenities en masse.

In the AEI Survey on Community and Society, I was able to measure how close Americans lived to six divergent types of communal spaces that could be either public or private in nature: grocery stores; restaurants, bars, or coffee shops; gyms or fitness centers; movie theaters, bowling alleys, or other entertainment venues; parks or recreation centers; and community centers or libraries. Work by my AEI colleagues found that those who live in high-amenity communities live on average within walking distance of four of the six types of neighborhood amenities. Americans in moderate-amenity communities are on average no more than a short car trip (5 to 15 minutes) away, while low-amenity residents live on average a 15-to-30-minute drive from all six types of amenities.

More specifically, the AEI data found that Americans who live in neighborhood with a wide selection of these communal amenities are two times as likely to talk with their neighbors on a daily basis compared to places which have few amenities. Moreover, those Americans who are closer to amenities such as community centers and supermarkets are appreciably less likely to feel isolated and this held true regardless of location from large cities to small towns to suburbs. When asked to rate one’s community as a place to live, 89% of those in amenity rich areas rate their communities as excellent or good compared to a lower 71% for those places which lack such features.

Unsurprisingly, these community resources play a significant role in turnout and civic participation as well. The AEI survey asked about voter turnout in local, off-Presidential year elections and there is a significant difference based on one’s proximity to community amenities. When citizens are not close to many community resources, turnout in local elections was only 55%. But with a moderate amount of amenities are nearby, that figure jumped to 64%. The number increased a bit to 67% when citizens live in neighborhoods with many close places to socialize and connect with others. An almost identical pattern exists during national elections where a 14-point difference exits between turnout rates in low amenity areas — 63% –and high amenity areas– 77%.

So, the data demonstrate that where one lives and what neighborhood one happens to be “embedded in” does have a very real impact on voting during various election cycles. The finding is robust regionally despite some regions being more participatory than others and the finding holds for small towns, urban and suburban areas but is a bit less reliable as a trend in rural areas, as already noted, for rural areas have fewer amenities in close proximity.

Going further, amenity rich neighborhoods -- including many suburbs -- have the spaces and places that promote their being more civic generally. For instance, citizens are more likely to contact their elected officials or politicians in general if they reside in neighborhoods where community centers, playgrounds, and libraries are within walking distance or are easily accessible by car or public transit. 35% of those in walking distance reported contacting their local officials in the past two years. If the same facilities are 15 to 30 minutes away, that number drops to 24% and drops further to just 15% if one is 30 minutes to an hour away.

Attending political rallies, speeches, and campaign events are also impacted by community features such that those who live within walking distance to their favorite café or bar are almost twice as likely to participate in such political activities compared to those who live more than an hour away by car or public transit.

It is it very clear that the built and spatial environments in which Americans are embedded play a significant role in helping them connect with others and their communities and this has a non-trivial impact on political participation; being close to communal third spaces helps build community and promotes socio-political engagement.

One additional finding in the AEI data extends to dog ownership; having a dog and regularly walking that dog plays a very real and important role in stimulating engagement. Those who regularly walk dogs in their communities are far more likely to be out repeatedly, engage with others and the spaces around them and thus have a reason to be more involved with their communities.

The AEI data confirms this reasoning: 64% of dog owners who regularly walk their dogs say they know their neighbors very or fairly well, compared to 54 percent of dog owners who do not walk their dogs regularly and 49 percent of non–dog owners. Higher shares of people who own a dogs and walk them regularly also say they talk to their neighbors at least a few times a week and, separately, that they and their neighbors help each other at least a few times a month compared to the other two groups.

Voting in local elections is impacted here too: those who own and walk their dogs are 7 points higher in terms of reporting that they regularly vote in local elections; 67% of dog owners who regularly walk their dogs vote in local contests compared to 59% who either do not own a dog or walk it themselves.

Other forms of participation are deeply influenced by dog walking as well. Dog walkers are 9 points more likely to display a lawn sign or wear a political message on their clothing and are 3 more points likely to ask their friends, neighbors, family, or co-workers to support a candidate or political position. Dog owners who walk their dogs regularly are even 7 points higher in their contributions of money to candidates running for public office or to a group working to impact public policy. So, dogs impact political participation and thus democratic discourse as well.

In short, the new data from AEI confirms Churchill’s sentiment that we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us. Where we live and the various built and natural third spaces present in our neighborhoods makes a potent difference in terms of political participation; the greater the number of local amenities, the more likely one will have opportunities to connect with one’s community and become socio-politically engaged.

There are two valuable lessons here when thinking about elections and engagement: the first is that for those interested in mobilization efforts and the question of where one can make an influence in the polls. As elections and especially off-year local elections are often won by close margins and generate fairly low turnout, one can maximize impact by looking for dog walkers or amenity rich areas and target those neighborhoods.

The second is that if we want to promote more democratic discourse and participation, urban planners and politicians must make sure that more communities have local amenities and communal resources which bring people out of their homes and into their neighborhoods where real social capital can be generated for voting and participation happens in real space, well beyond isolating social media. Neighborhood resources are anything but even across the nation and democracy would be well served if more places to connect were created.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photo credit: Tim Savage via Pexels