It is commonly observed that the people who are involved in politics, and especially politicians, are somehow different from the general population. This feeds into narratives of a gap between people and those they elect, and the idea that representatives are out of touch with the public. However, surveys rarely, if ever, ask people about the nature of the differences between themselves and those who are politically active. This is why the Privilege and Participation survey asked both about the indicators of status in society and about the indicators of difference that distinguish those who are involved in politics. People’s answers to the latter question are shown in Figure 1 (above, using weighted data).
Half of people (49.4%) think that education sets those involved in politics apart from them, whilst more than two fifths (44.7%) think that their acquaintances mark them as different. Together, these answers indicate the perceived cultural and social distinction of those who get involved in politics. Their perceived cultural difference is also suggested by the third of people (34.6%) who say that politically active people’s ideas set them apart, whilst their perceived economic difference is indicated by the third of people who select income (34.3%) and occupation (31.9%) as markers of distinction in politics. Fewer people, but still a quarter, select pastimes and interests (26.0%), speech (25.7%), or location of residence (25.3%) as markers of the difference of the politically active, whilst the least popular indicators are appearance and dress (14.8%) and possessions (11.8%).
The fact that none of the indicators of difference are selected by a majority is, perhaps, a surprise. However, the focus of the question was ‘people who get involved in politics’ rather than ‘politicians’ and we can safely assume that a greater number of people would have selected indicators if they had been considering the latter group. Indeed, a fifth of people (17.7%) think that people who get involved in politics are not different from them in any of the ways indicated. Nonetheless, a majority of people (54.7%) select at least three markers of the difference of those who participate in politics, as we can see in Figure 2 (below, also using weighted data). This is worth emphasising: more than half of people think that those who get involved in politics are different from them in at least three substantive ways (selecting ‘other’ was not counted), whilst a further quarter (24.9%) think that they are different in one or two ways. This means that only a fifth of people (20.4%) think that people who get involved in politics are not different from them in any of the ways asked about. This speaks of an important perceived divide between the public and politics, which begins at grassroots participation and is likely to expand as we move up through levels of involvement to consider elected national representatives.
|Variable names||pr_spa_b, pr_sps_b, pr_spi_b, pr_spc_b,|
pr_spp_b, pr_spj_b, pr_spe_b, pr_spw_b,
pr_spl_b, pr_spm_b, pr_spo_b
|Numer of cases||1,405|
|Number of categories||2|
|Categories to code as missing||None|
|Cases to code as missing||None|
|Recoded variable names||pr_spn_c|
|Number of cases||1,405|
|Number of categories||11|
|New and old categories||Category 1 (‘Yes’) on each of the original|
variables was counted as 1 (i.e. that
indicator of difference is selected), with
category 0 (‘No’) counted as zero. As such,
0 on the new variable indicates that none
of the substantive indicators of difference
were selected (though these people may
have selected ‘other’), whilst 10 indicates
that all ten of the (substantive) indicators