A political sociologist addresses the cultural dimension of American political involvement:
Yet there is also a cultural dimension to democracy and political engagement. In “The Good Citizen,” a well-regarded history of American civic life, sociologist Michael Schudson recalls that in the mid to late 1800s, sometimes considered the golden age of American political participation, election campaigns were often raucously public and partisan affairs, including parades, speeches and debates that made politics popular entertainment. Of course, politics cannot compete with the dazzle of today’s entertainment industry, but Schudson’s point is that politics today is less public than private, less collective than individual.
The most fundamental political act of voting, for example, is in the eyes of many Americans a private and sober affair. As one young professional told me in interviews I conducted to explore how young Americans think about politics, the good citizen sits down alone and does their homework, studying the candidates and issues carefully before casting their vote. This good citizen may seem admirable to contemporary Americans, but would seem strange to many 19th century Americans.
Politics is not just a set of evolving rules, it is an evolving culture, including taken-for-granted notions about politics and citizenship. As we come together to celebrate our Independence Day, let us consider what it would take to engage more Americans in politics. Maybe the answer lies in part in transforming how we think about politics: maybe not as partisan parade, and still less as lonely homework, but rather as the social art of moderate government.
This explanation is interesting as it roots decreased levels of political engagement in a broader cultural shift away from community life and toward individualism. In this scenario, politics may be more entertaining than ever but it is not working, not because of its shallowness or an increased level of vitriol, but because it goes against the private nature of governmental beliefs. Occasionally, politics can tap into the potential of social movements, like the 2008 Obama campaign, but this is difficult to do.
This reminds me of arguments about the privatization of American religion. Is politics now similarly comparmentalized? Americans seem more unwilling to impress their religious beliefs on others; is this the same with politics? How many Americans would say that talking about politics is acceptable in general social settings and how has this changed over time?
Does this all fall under the Bowling Alone thesis?
0 thoughts on “The cultural side to decreasing American political engagement”
Interesting post and I really like Schudson’s book. I think that it is important to remember his arguments about the rights bearing citizen. That is where his response to Putnam can be teased out. This is my read: Americans, in Schudson’s account, have not necessarily withdrawn from politics, it is that politics has invaded the “microprocesses” of everyday life. Gender, sexuality, and others, as well as various “presentations of self” have taken on new political meanings, which are the subject of routine, daily politics. Americans may not show up to the ballot box for the reasons mentioned and rights may or may not be a good foundation for building communities, but that is not to say that they have withdrawn from politics. The domain of politics has shifted.