I just started a new job as an assistant professor. I haven’t felt this anxious since I was finishing my dissertation: I wake up early, terrified I’ll fall even more behind if I don’t get started as soon as I can. I put off exercising, think guiltily about how I could be having breakfast with my partner, and drive to work even though I know riding my bike would only take a few extra minutes. I stay at work too late, get home, spend a few hours talking with my partner, maybe eat dinner with her (though I often eat at work), and then go to bed early enough to do it all again. I recognize it’s not an ideal way to live, but like a lot of middle-class people who worked really hard and also got really lucky, I love my job and I’m also terrified of being bad at it. So, like most Americans, I work too much.
But let’s say I gave myself more leisure time. What would I do first? I’d eat better and exercise more. I’d spend more time with my partner, maybe read more novels. I’d cook. I’d hike or go to museums with my friends. And, when we eventually have kids, I’d spend more time with my children, helping them cultivate their talents and passions. In other words, I’d be a stereotypical member of the neoliberal middle class—when not obsessively working, we are cultivating some ideal vision of ourselves or our families or our friends.
It’s partially thanks to this intense focus on the self (and the self-selected family and friends) that American civic and political participation is nowhere even close to what it could be: A 2013 Pew survey finds that fewer than half of Americans “take part in a civic group or activity.” Many Americans have little time or energy for relationships outside of work, family, and a few friends. We hardly interact with our neighbors, let alone community members or fellow citizens. The most famous recent study of this is Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone, in which he used the evocative image of lonely bowlers without a league to communicate Americans’ increasing isolation. Describing how Americans “have been pulled apart from one another and from [their] communities over the last third of the century,” Putnam uses data on all sorts of connections—political, civic, religious, workplace, among others—to argue that Americans are less connected than they used to be.
As Election Day draws near and many of us make plans to vote, we reward ourselves for being good citizens. Everyone should vote. But doing so should be thought of as the bare minimum of civic obligation. That it’s considered the pinnacle of political involvement is indicative of our modern way of thinking about politics, one in which all you have to do is vote, read the news, and maybe have a strong opinion on social media. Those are all great things, but stopping at that weakens our nation’s politics and civic life considerably.
Today, American democracy is increasingly understood as the aggregation of many individuals’ self-expressions, rather than as the working out of a specific public or even a group of publics. (For a great introduction to this, see Andrew Perrin’s American Democracy.). That matters, because a democracy functions best when it’s understood as a culture rather than only as a form of government. When democratic culture succeeds, it’s often referred to by such indicative names as civil society or the public sphere. What they’re referring to is a space that’s separate from the self-interest of the market, the bureaucracy of the government, and the parochialism of family and private life. To be a democratic citizen, then, means not just voting and trusting the government to the rest. It means actively participating in political conversations, community organizations, and groups that are trying to find a way past our “big sort.”
Scholars like Putnam and communitarian conservatives like Robert Nisbet often argue that our civic lives were better before the governmental expansions and cultural changes at the middle of the 20th century. Putnam contrasts the last 40 years with the first two thirds of the 20th century, arguing that people now participate less in all sorts of ways: religiously, civically, politically, and informally. (To be fair, there’s actually some debate over whether there’s been a decrease in community.) Either way, there is also the question of whether those communities were even good for democracy. For one thing, they were largely segregated. Strong communities of people who look and think a lot like each other can cause a lot of problems. So even though civic engagement was likely higher during this period, to focus on the rosy days of early– and mid–20th century community meetings is problematic. It ignores the women and people of color who weren’t allowed to attend and whose exploited labor provided white men with the leisure time necessary for robust civic lives. If we’re going to build a better system today, we cannot do it on the backs of others—we must aim for something higher.
In the end, it doesn’t actually matter if we’re less civically engaged than we used to be. What actually matters is if we’re as engaged as we could be, or as engaged as our various problems require. And the answer, of course, is no. As Nina Eliasoph shows in her book Avoiding Politics, it’s actually very difficult to talk about the things you care about in public: Many Americans learn a form of political apathy, instead focusing on their own personal lives and maybe one or two external issues.
A certain kind of conservative might say the problem here is government. Especially since the New Deal, conservatives have argued that too much state interaction in daily life robs people of an incentive to create civic spaces. While that kind of trust in local associations is admirable (when it’s not a smokescreen for avoiding taxes), most of the government programs we developed came out of a real need to assuage human suffering rather than some deep desire for big government as its own end. More importantly, we shouldn’t forget the civil sphere operates in opposition to both the government and the market, and it’s often the market’s demands that rob people of the time, energy, and stable location necessary for civic participation. It’s often government programs that provide safety from market instability, giving space and time for public life. It’s striking how often conservatives themselves can ignore that difference, looking for “market” solutions to government problems as though civic and market are more or less the same thing.
As things are, we participate when we have to. And often, the burden of who has to is unfairly distributed. There’s a long history in this country of civic and political activism from marginalized groups: women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ, Muslims, Jews, and other religious minorities. The list could go on. And the motivation behind these groups’ activism is simple—they are often forced into activism. Wearing a hijab, for example, is political even if its wearer wants it to be as simple as when I put on a button-down shirt. There are many Americans for whom simply “being your best self” is not an option, or, at least, it’s a more difficult option than it is for a white straight male like me. Association with a minority group should not require activism, but our current society has created contexts where it often is. These people often don’t have the choice to ignore civic responsibility to focus inward, on themselves. (There are also folks who have chosen to sacrifice their pursuit of their best selves in order to prioritize issues they care deeply about: urban education, prison reform, climate change, species extinction, and on and on.)
Yet political and civic participation should not only happen because our specific communities are marginalized or we happen to be saints: It should happen because we’re citizens and we’re obligated to each other. It’s a mark of the neoliberal, consumerist nature of our society that political participation can be seen as just one way to cultivate a “best self” as equally valid as any other. In this way, Donald Trump is a symbol and a result of that neoliberal order. He is selfish, individualist, and stunningly superficial, yet his success is also the result of economic inequalities and racial tensions that have served the interests of economic elites.
So what do we do? How do we work to make a country without candidates like Trump? There is evidence that experiences of difference can help people to humanize those with whom they disagree. Yet there are also bigger problems—economic inequality, racial stratification, cultural marginalization—that are at once symptoms and causes of Trump’s rise. Getting to know someone who doesn’t vote like you won’t solve those either, and neither will being naïve about building bridges as an end in itself. But, again, the civil sphere is not the private sphere: The point isn’t to become friends, but rather to work together toward common ends we identify in conversation. As countless think pieces (and one SNL skit) have pointed out, Trump voters have more in common with people of color than they might at first recognize. A few community meetings won’t get us past centuries of the white working-class’ racial anxiety, but it will be a start.
I know we’re all busy. Yet at least for me, my lack of time is less obvious than it at first appears: I actually don’t need to work so many hours, nor do I need to put so much time into all the various projects of familial and self-cultivation that I think I do.
The last thing I want to be is the annoying activist undergrad that judges everyone for not spending every hour at a protest (not least because I’d mostly be judging myself). Moral and political choices are complicated. Self-care is important. All of that’s true. But part of the reason we don’t get more involved—or at least I don’t—is simply because I’m not good at it and I assume it’s not as much fun as other things I could be doing.
I recently woke up early on a Saturday. Instead of reading a book or obsessively checking Twitter, I drove to downtown Los Angeles, took a bus to Nevada, and spent several hours registering voters (or rather, trying to register voters) for the Hillary campaign. That first week, I only got one voter, and that was because another volunteer basically just let me take the registration card of a woman he had successfully convinced. It was hot, and I was miserable, and I ate way too many slices of Domino’s Pizza. I met a lot of really great people though, and we all made each other laugh. Even though I felt terrible about wasting everyone’s resources, the Hillary people told me to come back, and so I did. The next week, I registered six. Still not fantastic. But I made some nice friends, and they convinced me to try Budweiser Cheladas, which, you should know, are truly hideous. Certainly not my best self.
But that wasn’t the point.