Civilization and Its Discontented: Links Between Youth Victimization, Beliefs About Government, and Political Participation Across Seven American Presidencies

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Abstract

Promoting trust in public officials and active political engagement is vital to sustaining a well-functioning democracy. Developmental psychologists propose that youths’ beliefs about government and participation in politics are rooted in personal experiences within their communities. Previous studies have focused on how positive experiences within youths’ families, schools, and communities facilitate greater social trust and political participation. However, less is known about how negative interpersonal experiences—such as criminal victimization—intersect with youths’ beliefs about the trustworthiness, competence, and knowledge of government officials, and their participation in political activity. Using data from 39 waves of the Monitoring the Future study, the current study examined associations among youth victimization, beliefs about government, and participation in various political activities. Adolescents (N = 109,574; 50.9% female) enrolled in 12th grade across the United States reported on whether they had experienced various types of victimization during the previous year, their beliefs about government, and their participation in multiple forms of political activity. Adolescents who reported more frequent victimization experiences endorsed significantly greater discontent with government and were significantly more engaged in various forms of political activity. The magnitude and direction of these effects were generally consistent across different types of victimization, different demographic subgroups of youth, and different sociohistorical periods. Findings are interpreted from a social contract theory perspective, followed by a discussion of implications for building psychological theory and informing public policy.

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