Volume 11, Issue 3, Summer 2001
The Culture of Political Avoidance
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
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.
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
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!"
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.