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Disavowing Politics: Civic Engagement in an Era of Political Skepticism
Elizabeth Bennett
Gianpaolo Baiocchi
Alissa Cordner
Peter Klein
Stephanie Savell

1. Department of Political Science, Brown University
2. Department of Sociology, Brown University
3. Department of Anthropology, Brown University
Corresponding Author: Elizabeth Bennett. Direct all correspondence to Project@brown.edu or
Elizabeth Bennett, Department of Political Science, Brown University, Box 1844, 36 Prospect
Street, Providence, RI 02912.



ABSTRACT

Americans are skeptical, distrustful, cynical about, and disappointed in politics. However, political action and civic engagement persist—and by some measures are on the rise. How and why is it that, in an era of skepticism, Americans continue to engage? Based on a one-year, multi-cited, collaborative ethnography of civil society groups in a medium-sized American city, we explore the tension between skepticism and engagement in civic life. Drawing on elements of cultural sociology—particularly symbolic boundary making, ambiguities, and role distancing— we develop the concept of disavowal of politics. Our analysis demonstrates that disavowal is a cultural idiom of simultaneous involvement with civil society and critique of politics. It is neither a false negation nor a cynical disengagement, but rather emerges to distinguish between the unsavory realm of politics and the desire to work for social and political change. By paying attention to the day-to-day practices and meanings of participants in civil society, we show that disavowal of the political allows people to creatively constitute what they imagine to be appropriate and desirable forms of political engagement. In this way, the disavowal of politics provides an avenue of democratic participation.


INTRODUCTION

Is distrust of government and political institutions dangerous to democracy? Certainly, a long line of thinkers has thought so, from canonical figures like de Tocqueville to more recent observers like Putnam. They argue that political disaffection leads individuals to withdraw from social and political life, and that this sort of apathy corrodes even the most vibrant of democracies (Wuthnow 1991; Goldfarb 1991; Calhoun 1993; Putnam 1995, 2000; Bellah et al. 1996; Skocpol 1999, 2003; Mouffe 2000; Zizek 2003). On this point, de Tocqueville famously wrote that in a democracy, despotism emerges when individuals turn their back on the common good, and begin to think of fulfilling their political duties as “a troublesome annoyance” (2003 [1840]: 627). Unsurprisingly, in the 1990s, when Americans’ trust in politics and approval of politicians fell to (what was then) an all-time low, the status of political engagement—and therefore the state of democracy—became a central concern within and outside of the academy.

Political scientists and sociologists meticulously documented American political apathy, cynicism, and distrust of government (Dionne 1991; Craig 1993; Tolchin 1996; Bennett 1997; Nye, Zelikow, and King 1997), and analyzed empirical trends in civic and associational life (Teixeira 1992; Paxton 1999, Rotolo 1999; Baer, Curtis, and Grabb 2001), which were generally argued to be on the decline (Putnam 1995, 1996, 2000, Skocpol and Fiorina 1999). Today, Americans are even more skeptical of political actors and institutions (Pew 2010; American National Election Studies 2010), but by several measures are participating more than ever in civic life (Corporation for National and Community Service 2006; American National Election Studies 2010. If distrust, cynicism, and disaffection are typically synonymous with disengagement, withdrawal, and apathy, what explains today’s paradoxical state of skeptical engagement? In this article, we ask what it means when citizens participate passionately in civic life whilst swearing off politics. We explore the meaning of being a citizen, in a time when declaring, “I am not political” seems central to political action. What does skeptical engagement mean for democracy today?

This article speaks to a central debate in the contemporary civic engagement and democracy literature by bringing the sociology of culture to bear on the practices of American civil society and the meanings that animate it. By drawing on evidence from original ethnographic fieldwork, we extend both literatures by developing a concept called disavowal of politics. We examine empirical and theoretical work on the relationships between political skepticism, civic engagement, and democratic health. We review how scholars have addressed similar questions (e.g., Bellah et al. 1985; Mouffe 2000; Zizek 2003; Offe 2006; Norris 2011), and highlight how cultural sociology on “actually existing civil society,” especially boundary making (e.g., Lamont and Molnar 2002; Eliasoph and Lichterman 2003; Wacquant 2009; Baiocchi and Corrado 2010) and role distancing (e.g., Goffman 1961; Coser 1966; Snow and Anderson 1987; Teske 1997; Eliasoph 1997; Taft 2006; Norgaard 2006), can contribute to analysis. We then describe our field site of Providence, Rhode Island, a mid-size city facing post-industrial transitions, economic decline, and immigration challenges similar to many of its rust belt contemporaries. Our team of five researchers 1 collaboratively studied seven civil society organizations – each researcher observing all sites – for one year, using ethnographic methods and collective, workshop style system of data management, coding, theorizing and writing. Our research confirms among activists in Providence what has been documented more generally: that whatever their race, class, social background, or political ideology, Americans hold politics in low regard, and consider “being political” as unsavory or seedy (Eliasoph 1998; Dionne 2001). But what our research also showed was that, surprisingly, having a negative view of the workings of government did not make for thin or instrumental commitments to narrow interests. Perhaps even more surprising was that rejecting politics often went hand-in-hand with direct involvement with political institutions and actors.

We introduce a new concept: disavowal of politics. The concept of disavowal, a form of cultivated disinterest, though originating in psychoanalysis, has been developed in Bourdieuian accounts as a way to describe fields, like art or the academy, or even some sports that are predicated on a self-understanding of autonomy (1993). The disavowal of politics, like Bourdieu’s concept, is used to distinguish one’s self as autonomous, but in this case, the anonymity is from the state, politicians, and political institutions, as opposed to the economy. In extending the usage of disavowal to civil society, we draw heavily on the literature on symbolic boundaries (e.g., Lamont and Molnar 2002; Eliasoph and Lichterman 2003; Wacquant 2009; Baiocchi and Corrado 2010) especially Mary Douglas’s work on symbolic pollution (2002). We show that disavowal of the political involves identity work that creates boundaries between the activities in which people engage, and the unsavory and contaminating sphere of politics.

Disavowal emerges when people seek an appropriate way of ‘doing’ civil society work. This action of distancing allows one to engage in the political system by resolving or addressing the ambiguities involved with participating in politics. That is to say, by asserting that she “is not political,” an individual may distinguish her actions and her self from the unsavory qualities popularly associated with politics. We argue that, in this way, the disavowal of politics is productive for civic engagement—in generating taboos against politics, it actually creates new notions of what it means to be a good citizen, and these notions provide an avenue for engagement. Disavowal makes sense of engagement in an era of skepticism. We conclude that distrust and cynicism about politics is not in itself a threat to democracy or a prelude to disengagement. Rather, attention to the day-to-day practices and meanings of participants in civil society shows that disavowal of the political allows people to creatively constitute what they imagine to be appropriate and desirable citizenship and civic engagement.