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Citizen Speak: The Democratic Imagination in American Life

Citizen Speak: The Democratic Imagination in American Life

by Andrew J. Perrin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226660813
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/15/2006
Series: Morality and Society Series
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Andrew J. Perrin is assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is coauthor of Women of Courage: Jewish and Italian Immigrant Women.

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Citizen Speak The Democratic Imagination in American Life
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-66079-0

Chapter One Citizenship, Creativity, and the Democratic Imagination

Imagine that you are reading your hometown paper one morning and come across a short item, buried on page 4A:

Since Mayor Jones's election three years ago, crime rates in our area have been cut almost in half. Jones credits his get-tough approach to crime along with the license he has granted to the police department to cut crime however it sees fit.

One controversial step the police department has taken is so-called "profile stops": pulling cars over for minor infractions in the hope that they will yield arrests for more serious crimes. Critics have called the practice punishment for "driving while black," noting that black drivers are three times as likely to be pulled over under the program as are white drivers.

You've heard about "racial profiling" before, on television and in the newspaper. You have some thoughts and feelings on the subject, but you have never become actively involved with it. But now things are different: the issue has come to your town. Decreasing crime is certainly a good thing for your community, but racial fairness is an important principle too. What if friends, neighbors, or colleagues are victimized by the police? What if they benefit from what seems like a real reduction in crime?

Suddenly, the debates are not so distant or abstract. Would you do anything about it? What would you do? Write a letter? Call a friend? Talk to a religious mentor? A work colleague? Worry about it silently all day? Just wait and see what others do? The answers to those questions are many and varied. Many citizens regard the problem of what to do as so complicated, daunting, or conflict-ridden that they ignore it altogether or treat it as if it remained a distant problem. The responses of others (whether supporting or opposing the policy) range from quietly assuming an opinion to becoming a leading voice for a particular position.

The premise of this book is that what you decide to do (or not do) is based largely on what you can imagine doing: what is possible, important, right, and feasible. These concerns, and others like them, are the stuff of what I call the democratic imagination. The democratic imagination is born in conversation with others at work, at home, in schools, organizations, associations, and neighborhoods, and through media like newspapers, television, movies, books, and the Internet.

I asked twenty groups of ordinary citizens to imagine being confronted with this scenario and three others, and to talk about them as groups. To understand how Americans' democratic imaginations work, I wanted to get a snapshot of democratic imaginations in action. This book uses those twenty conversations-their ideas, emotions, concerns, and conclusions-to develop an account of problems in the democratic imagination itself. It then provides a "diagnosis" of the contemporary American democratic imagination and, finally, a consideration of public policies that might "cure" it.

Citizenship in the United States

How do we learn good citizenship? This question is as difficult to answer as it is crucial to assessing the current health of American democracy. In this book, I propose that we fabricate a democratic imagination from our experiences in civic life, along with those in other domains such as work, family, and neighborhood. We use this democratic imagination to tell us when and why to get involved in politics, how to do so, and when and how to stay away. We use it to justify (to ourselves and others) decisions we have made. And we use it to decide when we can expect to convince fellow citizens of our political positions.

Since the design of the American republic, academics, commentators, politicians, and pundits have worried about the fragile state of American democracy (Schudson 1998). At various points in the nation's history, they have criticized citizens for the way they combine private and public concerns. In the 1950s, a raft of popular books worried about the disappearance of the individual in the urban, modern crowd (e.g., Riesman, Glazer, and Denney 1950; Vidich 1958; Whyte 1956). Looking back, recent commentators (e.g., Putnam 2000; Ehrenhalt 1995) bemoan Americans' overly individualistic attitudes and look to the same collective behavior of the 1950s as a time of great civic engagement. Political parties have been vilified for insufficient strength and for too much strength (Shefter 1994; Valelly 1990). News media, communication technologies, public deliberation, social movements-each of these has come under fire for threatening American democracy by being either too strong or too weak.

One reason for this persistent democratic anxiety, as sociologist Michael Schudson suggests in his pathbreaking history of American citizenship, is that a string of necessary evils has plagued the American democratic experiment since its beginning (Schudson 1998). These included compromises and corruptions that allowed the republic to function by glossing over important philosophical differences. Political scientist James Morone, for example, explains that American democracy has been characterized over the years by a compromise between communal sentiments and fierce individualism (Morone 1990). Lawyer and legal theorist Lani Guinier points out that the mechanics of American electoral systems only approximate the Founders' ideals of democratic representation-and often fail even to approximate them (Guinier 1994).

Another, more optimistic, interpretation is that angst itself is good for democracy, the constant vigilance of a thinking public being a check on state power (Havel 1987; Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen 2000). Indeed, in seeking to understand when representatives will pay attention to citizens who fail to vote, political scientist R. Douglas Arnold introduced the concept of attentive publics (Arnold 1990, 64-65). These are, essentially, groups of nonvoting citizens who pay attention, raising the possibility that they will choose to vote if they become sufficiently concerned about a problem. The idea of voters lying in wait, ready to become engaged when things go awry, conjures up an image of an anxious voter (not to mention an anxious legislator). I suspect that a large proportion of the country's citizens are parts of such attentive publics: reading, talking, complaining, following, thinking, but not actively engaging. One important implication of Arnold's idea, which I develop later, is that we should not consider attentive publics idle. Rather, the very process of remaining attentive ought to be understood as a practice of citizenship.

In this book, I suggest a third explanation for the seemingly contradictory diagnoses of democratic malaise. As the saying goes, "Stop, stop, you're both right!" The periodic hand-wringing over the health of democracy expresses an abiding, if hidden, concern about citizens' ability to think, deliberate, and act democratically. Sometimes this concern is about the information available to citizens; sometimes, about their ability to discuss, deliberate, and debate the issues; and sometimes, about whether electoral processes and representative structures adequately bring the outcomes of these discussions to the public agenda.

All of these worries, I argue, are rooted in questions about citizens' ability to think democratically. Democracy, as I argue in chapter 3, is a communication system involving information, interest, and emotion (see fig. 1.1). With its faith rooted in the demos-the people-as the source of authority and legitimacy, democratic theory is justifiably afraid of a public that can be misled or tricked by powerful interests or, perhaps worse, may become too distracted or poorly informed to develop meaningful preferences.

As citizens, we constantly seek ways to process new and changing information about politics and the social world around us. To do so, we turn to interpretive filters: collections of ideas, experiences, stories, narratives, and preferences that tell us how to understand what is going on around us (fig. 1.2). The democratic imagination is one such filter we use to interpret these inputs.

Although I argue that citizens-indeed, beyond the realm of politics, all humans-spend much of their time processing information, interests, and emotions, they do not do so in mechanical, predictable ways. The work of interpreting information and forming responses to it is fundamentally a creative, iterative, social, and imaginative task. We use creative faculties to respond to new situations with tools and ideas that spring from a wide variety of past experiences.

The Democratic Crisis and the Deliberative Solution

Are we in a democratic crisis? Cooler heads suggest we are not, at least in comparison to the compromises and concerns raised by American political practice at other times. Patronage, corruption, and party machines in years past-not to mention slavery, Jim Crow, the disenfranchisement of women, and more-certainly compete with today's poor information, media manipulation, and voter apathy as challenges to democracy. But comparing our current political system with its historical precedents is not our only option. We can (and should) compare it with the ideal of what democratic politics could be. With a formally open system, the legal enfranchisement of most groups in society, and better access to information, we ought to be able to build a closer approximation of deliberative democracy than we have had in the past.

One popular approach to this ideal has been developing programs to encourage rational, open citizen deliberation around elections and issues (Leib 2004; Gutmann and Thompson 1996). The most ambitious of these is the "Deliberation Day" proposed by political scientists Bruce Ackerman and James S. Fishkin (Ackerman and Fishkin 2004). Noting the success of experiments that brought citizens together in small groups for concentrated periods of discussion, Ackerman and Fishkin propose expanding the practice nationwide: changing the Presidents' Day holiday into Deliberation Day and offering time off work and a small deliberation stipend to citizens who participate in local discussions.

As a model for democracy in general, though, such deliberation is insufficient at best. The outcomes of such discussions always depend on the inputs: which citizens are placed in which groups, how the groups interact, and so on. Ignoring the group dynamics and social psychology that would underlie such an exercise would render it at least as suspect as our current mechanisms of democratic engagement. Removing citizenship talk from the everyday contexts in which it naturally arises may even make it less democratic.

Furthermore, American politics involves many institutional and organizational actors, ranging from the Sierra Club to the NRA (Walker 1991; Schlozman 1994). Presumably, these groups would-and should-seek to engage in the deliberation process as well. That is not, in itself, a problem, but a plan for nationwide deliberation should recognize that individual citizens are less likely to be doing the deliberating than are the groups to which they belong.

The way we have thought about deliberation, to sum up, is all too deliberate, in both senses of the word. It is deliberate in the sense of "on purpose": deliberation theorists look for opportunities when citizens come together with the express purpose of political discussions. It is also deliberate in the sense of "with care and dignity": deliberators are to be measured, cautious, and above all rational. But each of these qualities excludes normative speech that ought to be included in a democratic dialogue. Citizens routinely think, talk, and practice citizenship in ways that are anything but deliberate.

Citizens think with a complex and ever-changing array of tools: information and reason, to be sure, but also emotion, solidarity, taste, aesthetics, friendship, empathy, and animosity, to name a few. Generations of feminist theory have demonstrated that privileging abstract, rational thought over other ways of thinking serves to silence important, often marginal, constituencies (Gilligan 1982; Belenky et al. 1996). Proponents of isolated, pure deliberation claim that these nonrational modes of thought should be excluded from the democratic process and that carefully designed deliberative forums will help keep them out. But, as political theorist Danielle S. Allen has pointed out, "[If] ... speakers enter the deliberative forum already mutually well-minded toward one another, ... the battle to achieve a reasonable policy outcome is already 75 percent won" (Allen 2004, 56). Political scientist Jason Barabas carried out a series of experiments showing, eventually, that real deliberation resulted in an enlightened consensus (Barabas 2004). But since he required that his participants have open minds before the study began, it remains unclear whether the consensus emerged because of the deliberation or because of the unusual mental state in which his subjects began the experiments.

Later I present evidence and a theory of citizenship to demonstrate that seeking to eliminate these elements from citizenship talk is futile. And it is also the wrong goal. The point of a political regime is to reconcile divergent views that are potentially deeply divided, and they may be-indeed, they often are-divided precisely along the kinds of nonrational lines that current theories of deliberation seek to write out of politics (Walzer 2004).

Scholars who see social movements (or, more broadly, "contentious politics," [McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001]) as an avenue for renewal (e.g., Polletta 2002; M. R. Warren 2001; Wood 2002) offer a different approach to resolving the democratic crisis. Since politics is essentially about conflicts between groups, they reason, social movements arise from the democratic potential of these groups to make their needs and preferences known. Social movement scholars have successfully shown how, in specific circumstances, less-powerful groups may enter the democratic arena. A plethora of groups designed to further causes may also provide "political education" (Walzer 2004, 92) for citizens beyond their actual effectiveness in the political arena.

Social movements have inspired a lot of good research that examines their recruitment, mobilization, development, and success. But if the deliberative ideal is an artificially thin vision of democracy, social movements are such a rare kind of politics that they cannot provide a general democratic solution. Successful, popular social movements are the exception rather than the rule. Most social problems never lead to the formation of collective grievances (McAdam 1982; Schlozman and Verba 1979), and most collective grievances die quiet deaths, failing to spawn noticeable, let alone successful, social movements.

In everyday political life, though, citizens do have the opportunity to deliberate, though not in the laboratory conditions of Ackerman and Fishman, nor in the dramatic street battles of social movements. They can deliberate with friends, colleagues, fellow students, neighbors, members of organizations they belong to, anonymous others through letters to the editor, talk radio, Internet chat, and more (Clayman 2004; Warner 2002). When they choose to do so, how often, with whom, and within what parameters, helps define their democratic imaginations. I have called these contexts political microcultures (Perrin 2005b). Bounded and incomplete as they may be, they are a more realistic starting point for deliberative democracy than are either social movements or formal deliberation.

Bounded Imaginations

The sociological study of culture and political psychology gives us an important basis for understanding the democratic imagination. Perhaps most important, sociologists of culture and cognition have shown persuasively that the cultures people are part of endow them with specific ways of understanding and approaching social tasks-what sociologist Ann Swidler (1986) calls "styles, skills, and habits."

This collection of styles, skills, and habits-the elements of the democratic imagination-is not fixed, comprehensive, or uniform, either for a given person or throughout a culture. It is not fixed, meaning that groups and individuals can learn and forget cultural elements over time. It is not comprehensive: the collection of cultural elements excludes some potential elements just as it includes others. And it is not uniform, since individuals and cultures may have better or worse command of different elements, and may combine and deploy them in different ways. This last point-the variability in the use and command of cultural elements-is best captured by using the term repertoire to describe the collection (Swidler 2001; Tilly 1992; Silber 2003). Citizens make choices-sometimes conscious, sometimes not; sometimes "rational," sometimes "emotional"; sometimes wise, sometimes not. In navigating these options, they draw upon and construct cultural repertoires to provide themselves with tools not only to respond to new situations (Swidler 1986) but also, crucially, to determine what they want to happen, both morally and in terms of their own self-interest (Eliasoph 1998; Smith 2003).


Excerpted from Citizen Speak by ANDREW J. PERRIN Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. Citizenship, Creativity, and the Democratic Imagination
2. How Do Civic Organizations Mobilize?
3. Talking about Politics in Groups: What to Look for in Citizenship Discourse
4. Mistrust, Information, and Legitimation: Justifying Citizenship Decisions
5. Morality, Ideology, and Interest
6. Capacity and Expression: The Tactical Repertoire of Citizenship
7. Political Microcultures: The Structure of Political Talk
8. Conclusion: How to Use Civic Life to Build Citizenship
Appendix A. Methodology: How Associations Mobilize
Appendix B. Methodology: Focus Group Research

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