Politics always comes with assumptions attached. For example people on the doorstep have said to me ‘It’s all about voting’ or ‘Anything controversial is political’. Everyday political conversation is surrounded by conventions and a strange kind of etiquette. When I talk to people about their vision for the future of their community, I open up a space for them to explore political ideas without that label. When I listen to their ideas for example about reversing the decline in respect and honesty, they seem to forget their inhibitions about ‘politics’ and talk freely about issues close to their heart.
Evaporating political conversation
In a fascinating essay about her research with American interviewees, Nina Eliasoph* explored the evaporation of everyday political conversation in the public sphere. She writes that ‘…citizens delicately but firmly establish a sense of what the public sphere is – of what can be questioned and discussed, where and how…’ She goes on to argue that ‘…civic etiquette made imaginative, open-minded, thoughtful conversation rare in public “frontstage” settings…’ and that the more public the exchange, the less likely were her respondents to be public spirited.
She suggests that in the US, political opinions are contextual and that studies show that ‘…people are fully capable of becoming good citizens, if a social researcher who prods them with good questions should happen along……many fascinating studies show that being interviewed can make interviewees into thoughtful citizens; the interviews opened up free, unjudgemental space, maybe for the very first time in the interviewee’s lives…’
She goes on to say ‘…[n]on-elites have good reason for believing that what they say about politics does not matter: it usually does not…The people I met assumed that powerful institutions would not pay attention to common citizens’ public-spirited talk…’
In the States so in the UK?
Now the political culture of the States is very different to that in the UK. For one thing, it has become almost completely polarised between Republican and Democrat; we may be moving in that direction but we have not moved so far to the extremes. Second, the public political debate has become deeply scarred by personal attack, innuendo and slur. Does Eliasoph’s analysis stand up in the UK? Are British citizens also alienated from imaginative, thoughtful and creative political debate? Do we too keep a public sphere that is devoid of reflective and open-ended popular input?
As I start to listen to the residents of Walworth, my conversations are by their very nature political. We draw a clear distinction between party Politics with a capital ‘P’ and the more informal politics without. My conversations are by their nature neutral to party politics, exploring the motivations, interests and commitments of the people I meet. But even here, the ability and willingness of ordinary citizens to voice generalisations about the community seems deeply lacking.
I recognise in the voice of Walworth people – as in the States – a reluctance to enter into imaginative politics. They seem to view politics as an elite activity over which they can have no control. They skirt round contention and conflicted areas, fearing being judged or condemned; they avoid offending me – with my middle-class accent and white face – by exposing their real political thoughts. Their deeper selves – their private selves – are somehow invisible and kept for another whispered dialogue.
Talking ourselves into political ideas
Just as studies have shown that US citizens are open to being prodded into open-minded political discussion, so they have shown that citizens of both the US and the UK are woefully ignorant of the basic political facts. The opportunity for citizens to ‘…talk themselves into their political ideas together…’ as Eliasoph puts it, ‘…means having everyday places for casual political conversations…’ One of the key contributions from organising to a local community’s life is to support and sustain everyday political exchange, in which listening, thinking and doing are closely linked.
Most people sense that listening is not a viable part of our formal political culture. ‘Listening exercises’ seem to reinforce a sense for many that the politics that determine their lives in unresponsive and normally has predetermined decisions ready to be justified from varied citizen opinion. Listening to each other as peer citizens and opening up safe spaces for citizens to talk about their deeper views is excavating the foundations of a new politics of the everyday.
* Nina Eliasoph is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California
Nina Eliasoph (1998) Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life Cambridge University Press
Nina Eliasoph (1998) The Evaporation of Politics in the Public Sphere Essay from Avoiding Politics reprinted in the 2010 Kettering Review pp37-48 Available as a pdf download.