Volume 11, Issue 3, Summer 2001

The Culture of Political Avoidance
Nina Eliasoph

In all corners of the political world, politicians, political theorists, and concerned citizens have been voicing a new enthusiasm for voluntary associations. They rightly say that civic groups offer a unique place for citizens to broaden their emotional and intellectual horizons, enjoy the healthy pleasures of open-ended political conversation, and learn to care about each other and the world. In Bowling Alone, for example, Robert Putnam writes that such groups "instill in their members habits of cooperation and public-spiritedness." Certainly, without the infinite nuances of face-to-face conversation and the bonds people forge through simply gathering together, the world of politics would be impossibly distant, cold, and lifeless.

But it is important to specify just how these groups create a sense of public spirit and what sort of public-spirited citizenship they promote. Just advocating "participation" is not enough. Yes, as Putnam claims, civic groups can serve as "schools for democracy," helping their members learn to care about the world and talk about their political concerns. But they can also teach members how not to care and to silence these concerns.

This became clear to me during the two-and-a-half years that I conducted participant-observation research with volunteers, activists, and recreation club members in a sprawling West Coast suburban area. Inside and outside of their group meetings, and in their encounters with authorities like government and media institutions, I listened to them talk--and not talk--about the wider world. I had expected to learn how everyday conversation in voluntary associations works the magic of democracy. What I found instead was the cultivation of apathy--apathy that took hard work to produce.

Volunteers: "We Accomplish a Lot!"

The volunteers with whom I worked were poised to combat the specter of futility that haunts voluntary associations in the contemporary United States; central to their mission was convincing all newcomers that "You really can make a difference!" as they often put it. They hoped to communicate their message through the very act of volunteering--and tried to ignore problems that might undermine that message of hope. They tried hard not to express concern for issues that would require too much discussion to solve, and tried to shrink their concerns into tasks that they could define as apolitical, unconnected to the wider world. These citizens thought they could inspire feelings of empowerment within that small circle of concern, and they implicitly believed that helping people feel empowered was, in itself, doing something good for the community. In trying so hard to maintain their "can-do" spirit, their optimism, and their hope, volunteers assumed that they had to hush any discussion of far-reaching political problems.

Most meetings featured in-depth discussions of practical fund-raising projects, focusing attention on puzzles that were small and "do-able," as they put it. For example, in one meeting they lavished detail on a "Royal Dog Steamer" that they planned on bringing to sports events as a fund-raising tool: "It can steam foot-longs, Polish dogs, hot links, regular dogs, sausages, you name it--about 20 at a time!" But when anyone came to a meeting to try to discuss issues more overtly political than, say, a Royal Dog Steamer, members ignored him or her, or quickly changed the subject. For example, Charles, the local NAACP representative and a parent of a high school student, came to one meeting to tell members that a substitute teacher had called students racist names. When the students complained, the authorities said they were "too busy" to deal with their complaint. Charles said the school hired the teacher even though he had a written record of making similar remarks in another school. Charles also said there were often Nazi skinheads outside the schoolyard recruiting at lunchtime.

Charles's deadpan report took my breath away, especially since we all knew about the recent race riot at the movie theater down the block and the Aryan Nation concert scheduled for later that month. But Parent League members remained calm. No one asked what the teacher had actually said, to judge for themselves whether it was racist. They just sat, blandly listening. First, a parent tried to dismiss the problem, remembering how hard it was for her own (white) parents to talk to teachers. Then Geoffrey, a usually mild-mannered member cut in, crossly, "And what do you want of this group? Do you want us to do something . . . ." Charles said he just thought more people should know about this incident, and that more parents should be involved in general--not only to accomplish things, but to talk.

Of course, members thought involvement was important, too--but they seemed insulted by Charles's urging for greater parental participation. One parent exclaimed, "Don't underestimate us--we make efficient use of a small number of people! We get a lot done!" The parents concluded by turning to Charles: "It is unfortunate that the incident occurred--happened--but it should go through the proper authorities" (never mind that it already had). Geoffrey's minutes for that meeting reported, "Charles Jones relayed an incident for information," as if it was obvious that there was nothing the group could do. After three quick sentences on Charles, the rest of the minutes described various fund-raising projects:

Someone said that Mr. Hardee [the principal] said we should have bingo games. An extensive discussion on bingo operations ensued. Pam had [the] idea that we have one big fund-raiser each year . . . . Trudy suggested a crabfeed, Bob suggested a spaghetti feed . . . .

This continued for half of a single-spaced page.

Many parents of color came to one or two meetings and then never returned. I spoke with one who had concluded that the Parent League was "a bunch of white people who don't care about race." This might have seemed an obvious conclusion, but it was incorrect. First, the group treated all troubling issues this way, not just race. Second, about a third of the group was not white, but all members shared this practical culture of political avoidance. Third, behind the scenes, white parents really did care about a whole range of political issues; these never came up in meetings, but relentlessly arose "backstage," away from the main group interactions. For example, one volunteer, Debbie, hosted a family from rural Ashburn that was visiting for a big, statewide football game. I overheard this story from Cindy, a parent who was telling it to another parent in her tiny, closet-sized office one day after a meeting. Cindy said:

When they got here, the [rural] parents said, "Oh, thank God." So Debbie said, "Thank God what?" They said, "Thank God you're not black. We were worried they'd house us with blacks." So Debbie said that she told her son to invite all his black friends over for a slumber party! Some of the kids from Auburn had never seen a black person before and they were asking them, "What clothes do you wear?" "What music do you listen to?" Debbie said it was quite a cultural experience.

Cindy and the other volunteers applauded this kind of direct action, but quietly. Similarly, behind the scenes I heard volunteers waxing indignant about the long-standing flood in one classroom, the roof that caved in on another, and the lack of heat and general lack of funding for the school. And they worried about homelessness, the prospect of a military draft, and a whole range of political problems that could not be solved locally by good citizens simply banding together with Royal Dog Steamers. Backstage, these good citizens did care about politics, but "frontstage," they wanted to avoid the sense of powerlessness that publicly discussing politics could evoke.

The officials who worked with volunteers echoed this assumption--that publicly talking about problems without immediately offering a solution is just pointless, demoralizing complaining. Emphasizing happy public discourse systematically screened certain types of talk out of public circulation. One volunteer, Barney, often tried to start public debate, but social service workers repeatedly moved the debate backstage. Barney was retired; he had developed a second career as a full-time volunteer and public gadfly who constantly tested the limits of the official culture of political avoidance. At an evening meeting, oddly called a "public forum," a panel of social service workers and police gave speeches about crime and punishment to an audience of about ten people. After the presentations there was some time for questions.

Barney was the first to raise his hand. One officer joked, "You can always count on Barney to say something!" treating him, as usual, as an eccentric old fellow who could always chip in something odd.

Julie, who always stuck up for Barney, said, "I hope so!"

Barney said:

It costs $20,000 a year to put someone in prison, but that's not gonna help. What they need is jobs, and good jobs--a job at $6 an hour only gets you $12,000 a year. Why not just pay them the extra money, give them a well-paying job, instead of waiting till they have to go to jail and then having to spend almost twice as much for them to not do anything, in jail?

Another volunteer added another question, which the police lieutenant answered first. Then he got back to Barney's point: "It's not $20,000 a year, it's $33,000 a year. It's cheaper to send them to Harvard. Now, they don't all go through the whole system or every building would be a jail. But, it's a necessary evil, something society has to have, something society wants." The lieutenant treated Barney's question as a request for information and deflected a potential debate.

But backstage, the lieutenant could acknowledge that he did understand that Barney was trying to start a political debate. After the panel ended and people were milling around, the lieutenant and Barney stood by the aluminum coffeemaker and donut table. The lieutenant, who was black, said quietly to Barney, as if in confidence, that some huge percentage of the juveniles in jail were black. Under his breath, the lieutenant said, "You know, you gotta wonder, when so many of the kids in jail are black and minorities." Then, the local head of Child Protective Services scurried over to Barney and also engaged his contentious question under her breath: "I appreciate your question. I read letters in the paper saying 'put more kids in jail,' but I don't agree, either." Backstage, expressing opinions was acceptable. The two officials made it clear that they had indeed understood that Barney had intended to ignite a debate, but they had assumed that the public forum was no place for that.

Another way to keep discouraging issues at bay was to hone in on a concrete solution to a very large social problem. In one meeting of Just Say No, an anti-drug group, members talked about starting a collection drive for foster children who were turning 18. A member said 18-year-olds were not supported by the state, so many were simply turned out of foster care to fend for themselves. One volunteer said, "Those kids wouldn't have anything of their own." The first volunteer had a solution: "One thing that 18-year-olds would surely need would be blankets." So, they began planning a drive to gather blankets. With an emphasis on the word "one," the volunteers left tacit their doubts about the other things homeless teenagers might need--toothbrushes, beds, homes, jobs, education, love. Thinking about all that would be overwhelming.

Staying "Close to Home"

In the ideal image of the public sphere, citizens casually talk politics, widening their horizons by encouraging what Habermas calls "unrestricted communication." In the United States, we usually imagine that any "restrictions" on public debate must come from outside of the groups themselves--from laws preventing freedom of assembly, or, more subtly, from propaganda that prevents people from learning about politics, or, even more subtly, from long-standing oppression that renders people unable to stand up for themselves. Without dismissing the effects of these restrictions, we can acknowledge that here, participants did some of the work of restricting communication themselves: they assumed that talking about politics would only sap vigor from the healthy tasks that voluntary associations realistically could set for themselves, and would intimidate new members.

Thus, in group meetings, volunteers tried hard not to show that they had ever noticed any connections between their genuine local concerns and broader political problems. In interviews, though, it became clear just how much work it took for the volunteers to produce this public display of political disconnection and apathy. Several volunteers simply could not stop talking to me about local environmental problems, especially the nuclear military base--deemed "dangerous" by the Environmental Protection Agency--that was about a mile from most of their homes. When I finally asked why they chose to participate in an anti-drug group, and if they had ever considered "doing something about" the nuclear base, their responses were all the same: the nuclear base was not "close to home" and did not "touch me personally." Solving the drug problem was "close to home," "do-able," and "in our backyards."

All these volunteers were within a 20-minute drive of several chemical plants that had four major fires or spills in the time I was doing fieldwork (locals said that the company reimbursed people whose cars had the paint eaten off of them by the soot); a river whose cheese-smelling water was so polluted that all the fish had died; a military station whose soil was so toxic that all the worms at the site had died; and two ozone-depleting factories. Literally, these global problems were in their backyards; environmental issues were no less close to home than drugs. Although they spoke in terms of self-interest, self-interest clearly could not account for their involvement in an anti-drug group rather than an environmental one. So why did they use such language?

By diligently using the language of self-interest, the volunteers avoided having to connect their actions to larger political issues. They, like the rest of us in the U.S., share a culture that devalues public speech, that fails to recognize any good that can come from public discussion itself. Apparent only are the many reasons to shy away from it--fear of discouragement, lack of time, and desire for agreement, to name a few. So when discussing potentially political topics, the volunteers tried hard to accentuate the personal.

Ironically, I witnessed a very similar pattern even among a group of activists who had decided to focus on environmental problems and were trying to prevent a toxic incinerator from being built near their neighborhood. Like volunteers, activists' backstage and frontstage speech differed dramatically. In casual, backstage conversations, activists passionately discussed questions like where waste should go, why so much waste is produced (especially by the U.S. military), what government policies could prevent corporations from producing more waste, and why to be, in principle, against incineration-for-profit. In front of the press, though, these same activists spoke completely differently. Suddenly, the activists presented themselves as panicked "moms" and self-interested property owners. The language would often shift the very moment reporters turned on the cameras and microphones, and shift back again the moment the cameras and microphones got turned off. One activist said to every reporter she met, "She's a new mom and I'm an old mom. That's why we're in it. We're worried." She had been an activist since the civil rights movement, but she always presented herself as a "mom" in more formal settings.

In trying to encourage people to care about the incinerator, these activists had hoped to open up a larger debate about corporate power and the state, to inspire average citizens to ask big political questions. But saying, "I'm a mom who cares only because of self-interest" had the opposite effect; this language invited listeners to avoid questioning the overwhelming political world, and shut debate down.

The Public Minus Politics

Missing from public settings was respect for discussion itself, willingness to risk discouragement and debate about troubling issues that might not be resolved immediately. Of course, discussion does not always generate right decisions--or any decisions at all, for that matter. But saying, "I care but feel powerless" is very different from saying, "I don't even care!" Saying, "I don't care" may protect a delicate feeling of empowerment within a small circle of concern, but it does so by silencing broader political questions.

Without such discussion in public, people have no place for actively, collectively forming a will, a community, a vision of the wider world together. They are deprived of the powers to distinguish between what is natural and what can be changed, to say publicly what is right and what is wrong. They are deprived even if they successfully promote local projects that are in their interest. The point is not that once we figure out our real interests, and act on them, we can stop talking and go home. The point is that being able to speak in public can be a good in itself that offers its own kind of power.

When citizens relegate public-spirited dialogue to the private sphere, the public realm appears to most citizens as a spoiled moral environment, populated only by seemingly selfish people who can speak only of narrow reasons for involvement. While it is no doubt true that many powerful speakers enter public debate for sordid reasons, if citizens automatically assume that everyone enters only for those reasons, we miss a crucial opportunity to cultivate and learn about our own and each other's broader political ideas. Thus political ideas become ever more bewildering, and political worries come to feel more like personal woes--privately alarming but publicly unspeakable, like a kind of secret domestic abuse. The lack of learning--and the lack of a shared, public language for political worries--makes it hard for citizens to get together to advocate for better policies. In such a corrupt, vapid public sphere, it is hard for citizens to imagine any good reason for conducting potentially dispiriting political discussion. Thus, the cycle of political evaporation is complete, and we are left with a culture of political avoidance.

With this malnourished folk definition of the public forum in mind, good citizens often avoid discussing politics in public. In fact, claiming not to care about politics can be some good citizens' way of promoting local community involvement. The problem is, such involvement comes at the expense of broader political discussion. The citizens I have described here really did care about the wider political world, but could not express their concerns in the public forum. In this way, a precious moral, intellectual, and emotional good evaporated before reaching public circulation.

As the politicians and political theorists of all stripes insist, civic groups like these are necessary for democracy. But we also need to pay attention to the quality of conversation that takes places within them. To renew American democracy, we need to open up a new kind of civic etiquette that can acknowledge frustration and disagreement without causing groups to crumble, that can welcome these seemingly unpleasant feelings as challenges to overcome instead of threats to ignore.

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