looking for deliberation in new places

I recently came across a very interesting paper by Nina Eliasoph entitled, “What if Good Citizens’ Etiquette Requires Silencing Political Conversation in Everyday Life? Notes from the Field.” It’s drawn from a large project and contains numerous insights, making it hard to summarize but worth reading all the way through. The title does not do justice to its breadth.

Eliasoph starts with Michael Schudson’s four types of good citizen–ideals that Schudson finds dominant at various points in American history. The “loyalist” citizen was a dutiful member of a community, contributing to collective projects (like barn-raising) without arguing or expressing explicit self-interests. The “partisan” citizen belonged to a movement with an ideology, and loved to compete as a member of his team. The “knowledgeable” citizen of the Progressive Era formed judicious, independent judgments on matters of public policy. And the “rights-bearing” citizen of today understands that the personal is political and constantly monitors institutions (including the family) to protect his or her rights.

The problem that Eliasoph observes is our inability to combine these forms of citizenship, at least in the obvious settings. For instance, in the voluntary associations that she observes (such as PTAs), members are supposed to be consistent loyalists; disagreements and expressions of self-interest are considered inappropriate:

Volunteers assumed that the purpose of speaking in meetings was to encourage each other and other people in the community to think that regular people really can make a difference on issues that are close to home. As one volunteer put it to me, more than once:

“The way to get a volunteer is to say ‘who has a drill bit and can drill 8 holes on Saturday. Maybe you’ll get someone who’s never volunteered and maybe they’ll come again.'”

Information was considered something that people might have unequal access to, as well, so discussing something that might require too much knowledge would be elitist and therefore not good for promoting this fellow feeling

So this goal of creating solidarity meant avoiding talking about issues that might be divisive, that might require debate; and it meant avoiding exposing people’s ignorance about politics or their inability to be articulate; and it also meant avoiding noticing everyday politics.

On the other hand, in settings where self-identified “activists” operate, participants are expected to express nothing but self-interests. Opponents of a toxic incinerator privately hold complex and nuanced views. They tell Eliasoph that they don’t want to practice NIMBY politics. They care about other neighborhoods and want to find basic solutions to environmental problems. However, they are only familiar with a script for public participation in which one expresses self-interest:

Americans assume that people who speak in public contexts–demonstrations, meetings, press conferences–are, just by the very fact they that are speaking in public, acting self-interestedly. There is, in American culture, no other obvious reason for speaking in public; the public sphere is a “spoiled moral environment” (as Vaclav Havel put it, describing pre-1989 Czechoslovakia) and anyone who enters it must be, according to conventional wisdom, be doing so for immoral reasons. The implicit etiquette for public speech demands that speakers “speak for themselves” and only for themselves. Speaking in terms of self-interest is the only way to enter the public arena; and that talking in terms of rights in public was not moral–they could not figure out how to get from “rights” to “justice” (as Pitkin puts it).

Each form of citizenship is flawed on its own. “Colonial [i.e., loyalist] citizenship without the others too readily avoids discouragement and debate; partisan politics without the others becomes self-righteous and too separate from fellow citizens (and is too easily controlled by money, if citizens are not already firmly organized in opinion-forming groups or independently mindful); information is too discouraging without the other two; personalized, rights-bearing citizenship without the other three could be too isolating.” What we need is to combine the benefits of solidarity and loyalty, partisan debate and mobilization, judicious reasoning, and concern for individual interests.

Our public institutions do not encourage or even allow such combinations; nor do we learn useful habits in schools or from the media. However, Eliasoph finds partial combinations in unexpected places. For example, “In public library-sponsored story hours for pre-schoolers, parents often debate the politics and morality of the stories.” On their own email lists, librarians “endlessly” discuss whether telling stories about the Holocaust and other horrors will cause children to despair, or whether omitting such stories would be dishonest.

These debates are political and concern profound moral questions. They do not occur, as conventional political theories would predict, in the voluntary associations of “civil society,” nor in the press, nor in a legislature. Librarians are not volunteers; they are “paid by the state.” However, even though the library is a state institution, storytime is connected to the “intimate domestic sphere.”

Eliasoph asks whether it is adequate to have genuine public deliberations, but only about intimate matters such as which stories to read to small children. On the one hand, many of our problems–Eliasoph cites consumerism, workaholism, sexism, and racism–have cultural dimensions and must be addressed by the way we raise our children and interact with our peers. Deliberations among librarians, parents in playgroups, and officemates can address these issues without either disrupting solidarity or suppressing genuine differences. But, as Eliasoph notes, such discussions are not adequate for generating power, which is one of the chief virtues of political parties, unions, churches, and other conventional elements of “civil society.”

I wonder whether it would make a difference if we had better political leadership. Today’s official political debate is indeed a “spoiled moral environment.” It provides few models for public speaking that are partisan or controversial but also concerned with the common good; that acknowledge interests but also seek solidarity. RFK’s Indianapolis speech, which I described recently, was an excellent model, and so were other important speeches of that era. Barack Obama gained renown for his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention because people are hungry for such examples.