Since 1964, many commentators have been speaking of a crisis of confidence in the United States, a malaise marked by widespread public belief that major institutions—businesses, labor unions, and especially the government, political parties, and political leaders—are unresponsive, remote, ineffective, and not to be trusted (Lipset and Schneider 1983). Alienation became the catchword for these sentiments, detected among discontented workers, angry youth, and militant minority groups. American leaders concerned about the increase in alienation found new relevance in ongoing discussions among sociologists and other social scientists, who have defined alienation, used survey research to measure the level of alienation in society, and have debated the causes, significance, and consequences of alienation and particularly, political alienation.


Theorists and sociological researchers have developed different definitions of alienation (Seeman 1975). Scholars influenced by the philosophical writings of Karl Marx have used the word alienation to mean self-estrangement and the lack of self-realization at work (Blauner 1964; Hodson 1996). Marx argued that although humans by their very nature are capable of creative and intrinsically rewarding work, the Industrial Revolution alienated workers from their creative selves and reduced workers to the unskilled tenders of machines (Braverman 1974). The worker produced machinery and other commodities that formed the capitalist system of workplace hierarchies and global markets, which the worker could not control. Rather, the system dominated workers as an alienated, ”reified” force, apart from the will and interests of workers (Meszaros 1970). Whereas this oldest definition links alienation to the development of capitalism in modern society, some scholars see alienation as a characteristic reaction to the postmodern condition of fragmented multiple images and loss of individual identities and any shared meanings (Geyer 1996).

Alienation can also refer to the isolation of individuals from a community—a detachment from the activities, identifications, and ties that a community can provide. In addition, the concept of alienation has included the notion of cultural radicalism or estrangement from the established values of a society. Ingelhart (1981) has argued that the highly educated generation that came of age in the counterculture of the 1960s rejected their elders’ traditional values of materialism, order, and discipline. Easterlin (1980, pp. 108-111 ) suggests that it is the relatively large cohort size of the Baby Boom generation that led them to suffer competition for jobs, psychological stress, discontent, and hence, generalized political alienation. On the contrary, Inglehart (1997) argues that baby boomers and succeeding generations will only express alienation against specific authoritative institutions, such as the police, the military, and churches. With succeeding generations increasingly espousing ”postmaterialist” values such as the quality of life, self-realization, and participatory democracy, Inglehart finds a worldwide increase in some activities that reduce alienation such as petition-signing and political conversation.

Much of the literature on alienation in the 1990s focused on alienation from political institutions, and some writers have examined how alienation has changed in former authoritarian nations such as Argentina and South Africa and in Eastern Europe (Geyer 1996; Geyer and Heinz 1992). Sociologists interested in the political well-being of the United States have measured the extent to which individuals feel powerless over government (i.e., unable to influence government) and perceive politics as meaningless (i.e., incomprehensible; Seeman 1975). Such attitudes may be connected to a situation of normlessness, or anomie, which occurs when individuals are no longer guided by the political rules of the game (Lipset and Raab 1978). Social scientists have been concerned that alienation might reduce political participation through institutional channels such as voting, and might lead to nonconventional activity like protest movements and collective violence.


Political alienation consists of attitudes whereby citizens develop (or fail to develop) meanings and evaluations about government and about their own power (or powerlessness) in politics. Specifically, political alienation is composed of the attitudes of distrust and inefficacy. Distrust (also called cynicism) is a generalized negative attitude about governmental outputs: the policies, operations, and conditions produced by government. Compared to the simple dislike of a particular policy or official, distrust is broader in scope. Whereas distrust is an evaluation of governmental outputs, inefficacy is an expectation about inputs, that is, the processes of influence over government. People have a sense of inefficacy when they judge themselves as powerless to influence government policies or deliberations (Gamson 1971).

Researchers have sought to find opinion poll questions that yield responses consistently correlated to only one underlying attitude, of distrust for example. Mason, House, and Martin (1985) argue that the most ”internally valid” measures of distrust are two questions: ”How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right—just about all of the time, most of the time, or only some of the time?” and ”Would you say that the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all people?” Similarly, a person’s sense of inefficacy can be measured by asking the person to agree or disagree with the following statements, which contain the words ”like me”: ”People like me don’t have any say about what the government does” and ”I don’t think public officials care much what people like me think.”

During election years since the 1950s, the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has posed these and other questions to national samples of citizens. Those replying that you can trust the government only some of the time or none of the time comprised 22 percent in 1964 but 73 percent in 1980. This percentage fell during President Ronald Reagan’s first term but then increased through 1994 (reaching 78 percent) before falling to 67 percent in 1996. Those disagreeing with the statement that public officials care rose from 25 percent in 1960, to 52 percent in 1980 and 66 percent in 1994 (Orren 1997; Poole and Mueller 1998).

In addition, polls indicate that in the same time period, increasing numbers of citizens felt that government was less responsive to the people (Lipset and Schneider 1983, pp. 13-29). This attitude, which can be termed system unresponsiveness, was measured by asking questions that did not use the words ”like me.” Responses to the questions thus focused not on the respondents’ evaluations of their own personal power, but rather on their judgments of the external political system. (Craig 1979 conceptualizes system unresponsiveness as ”output inefficacy”).

What are the consequences of the increase in political alienation among Americans? Social scientists have investigated whether individuals with highly alienated attitudes are more likely to withdraw from politics, engage in violence, or favor protest movements or extremist leaders. Research findings have been complicated by the fact that the same specific alienated attitudes have been linked to different kinds of behaviors (Schwartz 1973, pp. 162-177).

The alienated showed little tendency to support extremist candidates for office. (The only exception was that high-status alienated citizens supported Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964. See Wright 1976, pp. 227, 251; Herring 1989, p. 98.) Social scientists have generally agreed that politically alienated individuals are less likely to participate in conventional political processes. During four presidential elections from 1956 to 1968, citizens with a low sense of efficacy and a low level of trust were less likely to vote, attend political meetings, work for candidates, contribute money, or even pay attention to the mass media coverage of politics. Although some studies fail to confirm that those with low trust are likely to be apathetic (Citrin 1974, p. 982), those with a low sense of political efficacy are indeed likely to be nonvoters, mainly because they are also less educated (Lipset and Schneider 1983, p. 341). In the United States, the percentage of eligible voters who actually cast ballots declined between 1960 and 1980, while the percentage who expressed political inefficacy rose in the same period; Abramson and Aldrich (1982) estimate that about 27 percent of the former trend is caused by the latter. (See Shaffer 1981 for confirmation but Cassel and Hill 1981 and Miller 1980 for contrary evidence).

Piven and Cloward (1988) vigorously dispute the notion that the alienated attitudes of individuals are the main cause for the large numbers of nonvoters in the United States. Piven and Cloward construct a historical explanation—that in the early twentieth century, political reformers weakened local party organizations in cities, increased the qualifications for suffrage, and made voting registration procedures more difficult. Legal and institutional changes caused a sharp decrease in voting, which only then led to widespread political alienation. Voting participation, especially among the minority poor in large cities, continues to be low because of legal requirements to register in advance of election day and after a change in residence, and because of limited locations to register.

Some researchers have found that the politically alienated are more likely to utilize nonconventional tactics such as political demonstrations or violence. College students who participated in a march on Washington against the Vietnam War, compared to a matched sample of students from the same classes at the same schools, expressed more alienated attitudes, stemming from an underlying sense of inefficacy and system unresponsiveness (Schwartz 1973 pp, 138-142). Paige’s (1971) widely influential study drew on Gamson’s distinctions between trust and efficacy and showed that Blacks who participated in the 1967 riot in Newark, New Jersey, had low levels of political trust but high levels of political efficacy (i.e., high capabilities and skills to affect politics, measured indirectly in this instance by the respondents’ level of political knowledge). However, Sigelman and Feldman’s (1983) attempt to replicate Paige’s findings in a seven-nation study discovered that the participants and supporters of unconventional political activity were only slightly more likely to feel both efficacious and distrusting. Rather than being generally distrusting, participants and supporters in some nations were more likely to be dissatisfied about specific policies. (See also Citrin 1974, p. 982 and Craig and Maggiotto 1981 for the importance of specific dissatisfactions).

Even though politically alienated individuals may sometimes be found in social movements, the alienation of individuals is not necessarily the cause of social movements. McCarthy and Zald (1977) have argued that alienation and indeed policy dissatisfactions and other grievances are quite common in societies. Whether or not a social movement arises depends on the availability of resources and the opportunities for success. The civil rights movement, according to McAdam (1982), succeeded not when blacks believed that the political system was unresponsive, but rather when blacks felt that some national leaders showed signs of favoring their cause.


Social scientists have argued that political alienation is concentrated in different types of groups— among those who dislike politicians of the opposing political party, in certain economic and racial groups, and among those dissatisfied with government policy. Each of these findings supports a different assessment of the causes and the importance of political alienation.

Partisan Bickering? First of all, high levels of political distrust can be found among those who have a negative view of the performance of the presidential administration then in office. Citrin (1974) concludes that widespread expressions of political distrust (cynicism) merely indicate Democratic versus Republican Party rivalries as usual.

Cynicism, rather than being an expression of deep discontent, is nothing more than rhetoric and ritual and is not a threat to the system. Even partisans who intensely distrust a president from an opposing party are proud of the governmental system in the United States and want to keep it. However, King (1997) argues that distrust stems from a more serious problem, that congressional leaders and activists in political parties have become more ideological and polarized (see Lo and Schwartz 1998 on conservative leaders). The public has remained in the center but is becoming alienated from politicians whose ideologies are seen as far removed from popular concerns.

The alienation of social classes and minorities. Second, other researchers interested in finding concentrations of the politically alienated have searched not among people with varying partisan identifications, but rather in demographic groups defined by such variables as age, gender, education, and socioeconomic class. Many public opinion surveys using national samples have found alienation only weakly concentrated among such groups (Orren 1997). In the 1960s, the sense of inefficacy increased uniformly throughout the entire U.S. population, rather than increasing in specific demographic groups such as blacks or youth (House and Mason 1975). Using a 1970 survey, Wright (1976) noted that feelings of inefficacy and distrust were somewhat concentrated among the elderly, the poorly educated, and the working class. Still, Wright’s conclusion was that the alienated were a diverse group that consisted of both rich and poor, black and white, and old and young, making it very unlikely that the alienated could ever become a unified political force.

Research on the gender gap, that is, the differing political attitudes between women and men (Mueller 1988), indicates that women are not more politically alienated than men (Poole and Muller 1998). In fact, a higher percentage of women compared to men support more government spending on social programs and a more powerful government with expanded responsibilities (Clark and Clark 1996) and thus are less distrustful of the broad scope of government. Some studies have shown that the politically alienated are indeed concentrated among persons with less education and lower income and occupational status (Wright 1976, p. 136; Lipset and Schneider 1983, pp. 311315; Finifter 1970; Form and Huber 1971). Research that directly focuses on obtaining the opinions of minority and poor respondents has uncovered high degrees of political alienation among these groups. A survey of roughly equal numbers of blacks and whites in metropolitan Detroit in 1992 showed that blacks, compared to whites, evaluated schools and the police more negatively, distrusted local government more, and thought that participation in local politics was less efficacious (Bledsoe et al. 1996). Bobo and Hutchings (1966) oversampled minority residents of Los Angeles County and found that higher percentages of blacks compared to whites expressed ”racial alienation,” that is, the opinion that blacks faced inferior life chances, fewer opportunities, and unfair treatment. Blacks living in Detroit neighborhoods where over 20 percent of the residents are poor, were more likely than other blacks to say that they had little influence in community decisions and that community problems were complex and unsolvable (Cohen and Dawson 1993).

Wright argues that even though sizable numbers of persons express alienated attitudes, these people pose little threat to the stability of regimes, because they rarely take political action and even lack the resources and skills to be able to do so. Lipset (1963) has argued that apathy is a virtue because it allows elites in democratic societies to better exert leadership. (For a critique see Wolfe 1977, p. 301.) For many social scientists in the 1950s, widespread apathy was a welcome alternative to the alleged mass activism that had produced the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy. However, Wright (1976, pp. 257-301) counters that since the alienated masses actually pose no threat to the contemporary political system, an increase in mass democratic participation, perhaps the mobilization of workers on the issues of class division, could very well be beneficial.

But the class mobilization that Wright envisions might turn out to be a middle-class affair (Teixeira 1996) rather than a working-class revolt. Whereas Lipset and Wright have been concerned about the concentration of political alienation in the lower socioeconomic strata, Warren (1976) emphasizes the alienation among ”Middle American Radicals,” who believe that they are disfavored by a government that gives benefits to the poor and to the wealthy. Feelings of inefficacy and distrust have increased the most among the middle strata—private-sector managers, middle-income workers, and a ”new layer” of public-sector professionals (Herring 1989).

Unlike the poor, the middle strata have the resources to protest and to organize social movements and electoral campaigns, exemplified by protests against the property tax that culminated with the passage of Proposition 13 in California and Proposition 2 1/2 in Massachusetts. Property tax protesters were middle-class homeowners who expressed their political alienation when they condemned ”taxation without representation.” Citizens who felt cut off from political decision making were the most likely to support the tax revolt (Lowery and Sigelman 1981). Protests centered around unresponsive government officials who continued to increase assessments and tax rates, without heeding the periodic angry protests of homeowners. Movement activists interpreted their own powerlessness and power in community and metropolitan politics, thereby shaping the emerging tactics and goals of a grass-roots citizens’ movement (Lo 1995).

A Crisis for Democracy? Finally, other social scientists have found intense alienation among those with irreconcilable dissatisfactions about government policy, thus threatening to make effective government impossible. Miller (1974) argued that between 1964 and 1970, political distrust (cynicism) increased simultaneously among those favoring withdrawal and those favoring military escalation in the Vietnam War. Similarly, distrust increased both among blacks who thought that the civil rights movement was making too little progress, and among white segregationists who held the opposite view. The 1960s produced two groups— cynics of the left and cynics of the right, each favoring polarized policy alternatives (see also Lipset and Schneider 1983, p. 332). Cynics of the right, for example, rejected both the Democratic and Republican parties as too liberal. (Herring 1989 has developed a similar ”welfare split” thesis, that more social spending has different effects on the distrust level of various groups but, overall, raises political distrust.) Miller concludes that increased cynicism, along with a public bifurcated into extreme stances on issues, makes it difficult for political leaders to compromise and build support for centrist policies. While agreeing with Wright that the alienated are divided amongst themselves,

Miller argues that this fragmentation does indeed constitute a crisis of legitimacy for American politics.

For some social theorists, widespread political alienation is a sign of even deeper political contradictions. Throughout American history, as citizens have fought to extend their democratic freedoms and personal rights, businesses have used the notion of property rights to protect their own interests and stifle reform (Bowles and Gintis 1987). Wolfe (1977) sees political alienation as a symptom of how the democratic aspirations of the citizenry have been frustrated by the state, which has attempted to foster the growth of capitalism while at the same time maintaining popular support.


One diagnosis for overcoming alienation has been proposed by Sandel, Etzioni (1996), and others from the communitarian perspective, which promotes the values of civic commitment. Sandel (1996) argues that citizens today feel powerless over their fate and disconnected from politics because of an excessively individualist culture in the United States. America’s leaders must encourage devotion to the common good, attachments to communities, volunteerism, and moral judgments and dialogues. Political alienation can be overcome through the associations and networks of civil society.

Others also trace political alienation back to its roots in society, but focus on work and economic hardships, which Marx long ago characterized as alienating and that now prevent the emergence of the caring and democratic public life envisioned by the communitarians (Bennett 1998). According to Lerner (1991), people experience a deep and debilitating sense of inefficacy (what he terms ”surplus powerlessness”) in their personal and family lives. Surplus powerlessness can be overcome through such measures as communities of compassion, occupational stress groups, and family support groups, which will build the attachments and religious values sought by the communitarians, while at the same time compassionate unions will seek to change power relations at work and in the society at large.

Alienation, originally a Marxist concept depicting the economic deprivations of industrial workers, is now a political concept portraying the plight of citizens increasingly subjected to the authority and the bureaucracy of the state in advanced capitalist societies. Perhaps returning to the original theorizing about alienation in the economic sphere can deepen our analysis of contemporary political alienation.

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