I was contemplating writing a “looking towards November” post because that’s what political scientists tend to think about at the beginning of summer. Beautiful weather? The prospect of spending time outside rather than glued to a computer screen? Meh, who needs it. I’d rather spend time thinking about how a small number of people will be collectively spending millions of dollars to duke it out over the various airwaves, broadcasting one of a small and predictable set of messages that have very little to do with real decision-making or most people’s everyday lives. Because that’s what I do.
As you can see, though, my heart just isn’t really in it this morning. Instead, I find myself thinking about Robert Putnam (again), my newly-retired colleague Betty-Jane Meader, my mother-in-law, and voting. In Bowling Alone, Putnam describes the way that the generation coming of age during or just after World War II represented the zenith of civic participation in many ways, from club-joining to volunteering to bridge parties. Voting rates were higher (although we are currently in a period of resurgent voting rates) and people generally felt more positively about the government and each other.
Now, I am far from immune to the excellent arguments made concerning how this entire social arrangement depended on adherence to America’s pre-Civil Rights era racial caste system. Rodney Hero argues that the experience of high civic engagement as salutatory is a kind of false consciousness, dependent on ignoring the fact that the benefits of social capital appeared to accrue mainly to white people. But what Hero doesn’t address, and what I wonder about mostly, is how individuals create a sense of themselves as contributing meaningfully to a larger whole. Whatever its racial expression in the pre-Civil Rights era, the development of a sense of civic responsibility meant that part of what it was to be a good person was to enter into time-consuming, emotion-laden, reciprocal relationships with the other people in your geographic community. In my moral understanding of the world, taking on those responsibilities is enriching, important and humanizing. I think engaging seriously with those often uncomfortable relationships represents the true middle stage of an individual’s lifetime maturation process.
Betty-Jane and my mother-in-law both happened to graduate as Home Economics teachers from UMaine Farmington (attending in overlapping, though not identical years). They both have legendary skills as table centerpiece artists. They are both known for their incredible attention to community members: visiting the sick and widowed, making meals, organizing events, supporting entire divisions at Hallmark through all of their purchases of greeting cards, etc. When I think of civic engagement, without a doubt, I think about Betty-Jane and my mother-in-law. They are the physical embodiment of Putnam’s generational aggregate.
Meanwhile, though I intellectually value that work, do I personally do any of the things I just described them doing? I do not. I’m not proud of that, although I do wonder a lot about how these tasks are assigned and accomplished in an era with different gender roles. I do different things, and I hope they are enough to perform that role of responsible, reciprocal self- and community-enrichment.
What I do know, however, is that voting alone isn’t really “participation” in any meaningful sense. We need a better definition both of the significance of voting and of what it means to participate in political society. Civic engagement is not exactly the same thing as political participation, but it’s something a lot closer than watching the campaign ads go by on TV.