Participation is a core value of American citizenship and at the same time one of the nation’s most ambivalent concepts. In colonial America, a larger share of white males had the right to vote than in any other society in the world. The Federal Constitution of 1787 was a milestone in the history of political participation because it tied political power to national elections.
In the nineteenth century, universal white manhood suffrage gave rise to the first electoral mass democracy worldwide. The struggle of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and immigrants for full participatory rights has been a major theme in U.S. history and remains a challenge today and into the future. This challenge reaches far beyond the realm of politics and encompasses full and equal access for groups and individuals to participate in a wide variety of social, cultural, religious, and economic activities.
Exclusion from participation based on class, race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation is indeed part and parcel of the nation’s heritage. In recent years, fears of a backlash against participation and inclusion are mounting as economic inequality is growing and American society is becoming more segmented and polarized. Ironically, social media, once believed to usher in a brave new world of easy and universal participation, drive the emergence of parallel worlds and echo chambers.
At the political level, attempts to undermine the right of minorities and the poor to vote are reminiscent of racist disenfranchisement during the age of Jim Crow. Thus, our conference theme is an important and timely topic that also speaks to the full range of disciplines represented in the DGfA/GAAS.