To the extent that my interviewees thought about citizenship in political terms, they tended to think of elections, and particularly voting. They did not raise boycotts, demonstrations, sit-ins, or even organizing via the internet, as one might expect from Russell Dalton’s characterization of young Americans as “engaged citizens” more inclined to unconventional politics (Dalton, 2008). Edward was no different than my other respondents in thinking of politics in electoral terms, and he may have imagined little if anything more than voting as the proper act of a good citizen. Remarkably though, his conception of the good citizen is not a nice civil citizen, or even a civic citizen raising awareness about human rights or environmental destruction, but an “effective” political citizen in the most conventional sense: a participant in elections.
It should be noted that Edward spoke these words in November 2005, a year after the 2004 presidential election, in which incumbent President George W. Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry, a win Bush interpreted as a mandate to continue waging a war in Iraq, despite frequently reported casualties, American and Iraqi. Such a political context can impress upon citizens the importance of elections, and Edward did in fact go on to talk about the presidential election. But this context makes Edward’s response all the more remarkable since the vast majority of my interviews were conducted after the 2004 election – not to mention the historically close and contested 2000 election – yet the majority of my interviewees thought of citizenship in more civil than electoral terms.
It is also worth noting that in response to the “good citizen” question, a few respondents did prescribe political engagement in certain ways: besides Edward, two mentioned voting, a few said staying politically informed, three raised changing or improving laws, and one mentioned discussing politics with family and co-workers. But these political answers were often embedded in more civil responses. For instance, Charles, a 25 year old investment analyst, like Mark, started his response to the good citizen question with the need for responsibility. “I think the number one thing is responsibility and realizing that your actions affect other people…which I think is highly lacking in today’s society. I find most people are trying to push the blame on others. Responsibility is a dirty word and no one wants to have it, you know.” This initial statement urging responsibility could have led Charles in any number of directions, including: assertions of political or economic responsibility as, say, consumers, workers or taxpayers; examples of collective rather individual responsibility; and/or a call for responsibility to those distant as much as those near, on whom American citizens may have direct and indirect impact as consumers, workers, and/or taxpayers. Yet when I asked Charles “how would a good citizen establish or restore that sense of responsibility?” he responded as most of my interviewees responded, with an individualistic civility oriented toward those near:
Well essentially, it’s just common courtesies. I mean, you know, the clichés – character is what you do when no one’s looking, you know… not trying to jump through red lights, holding doors for people, letting people in, cleaning up after yourself, really basic things that are just lacking everywhere in society. Basic responsibilities. You know, if it’s a common space, people try to maximize their usage and don’t clean up after themselves. Simple things like you go to a baseball game or a concert and you have a lawn section and you arrange yourself in a way such that you take up the most space or you leave little pockets of space all over the place but not enough place for another person to come and sit down. Really basic things that if you were aware of the bigger picture, and, how your actions affect others, you know, hopefully you wouldn’t do.
Only after further prompting did Charles then mention politics:
Me: So it’s civility?
Charles: Civility! Yes! A lot of it’s civility. But, you know, also one thing, by definition I mean voting. I mean if you don’t participate in the process you’ve no reason to complain about it….And if you really have a disagreement and you feel that you can make things better then it’s your responsibility to go out there and run for that office, if you really feel that you can do a better job and it’s really that important to you.
Hence, political engagement does come up for Charles, as it did for Edward, but it comes second to civility in his response. Moreover, while Edward does not specify in the above quote whether political engagement for him is individual or collective, Charles here articulates it in individual terms: his many “you’s” appear singular rather than plural, giving no indication that an individual’s vote or bid for office emerges from a social context, or collective action.
When scholars interested in democracy speak about “civic engagement” they tend to concentrate on civic and political citizenship, but what emerged from my interviews with young Americans was not mainly politics or civics, but civility. These three forms of citizenship are worth distinguishing conceptually. Political citizens participate in government or seek to influence government by voting or urging others to vote, contacting a representative or urging others to do so, pursuing legal action to change laws, volunteering for an issue or election campaign, running for public office, etc. Civic citizens address individual or group needs and problems individually or collectively but not through government, and they do so by participating in a walk or run for cancer research, tutoring or mentoring a child, volunteering at a soup kitchen, cleaning up parks and rivers, etc. Civil citizens, in contrast, are foremost considerate toward others by putting trash where it belongs, providing directions to those lost, opening doors for others, smiling and saying hello, helping those in accidents, giving up their bus seat for another, etc.
Community neighborliness may have atrophied over the last several decades (Wuthnow, 1998), but civility still appears to be a virtue for some young Americans (Chiodo & Martin, 2005; Zukin et al., 2006). Civility may be a weaker form of consideration than neighborliness, but it extends beyond one’s neighbors – who are more often than not racially, and socio-economically similar – to the many and diverse strangers contemporary Americans commonly encounter in everyday life. Civility does not mean making soup or baking cookies for similar neighbors, or diverse strangers for that matter, but it does entail smaller acts of consideration for strangers and neighbors alike.
As civility proponents past and present, academic and popular (e.g., Washington, 1987; Martin, 1996; Carter, 1999; Forni, 2002, Smith, 2002) remind us, everyday acts of civility matter considerably to the quality of our lives, whether enacted as self-restraint or pro-active kindness. Clearly, whether or not people “massacre, kill, murder or rape,” as my respondent Mark put it, matters to the quality of social life. But smaller acts of incivility, such as littering, and neglecting to open doors for others, can also adversely impact social life. These and the myriad of small acts of civility or incivility in everyday life signal, subtly or not, whether people respect and care for each other, and their environments.
In a democracy, civility makes it easier for citizens to get help from each other in times of distress, such as when floods, hurricanes, fires, or accidents occur. Civility can help in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable citizens, such as the handicapped, the poor, the young, and the aged. Civility can also help ensure smooth interactions and exchanges between citizens in social and political situations, and prevent or reduce acrimonious conflict when citizens’ interests, goals or manners clash. And yet, the civility my interviewees upheld does not seem to mix well with the political action democracy requires of citizens.
At the start of each interview, I asked my respondents to write down what immediately came to mind when they thought of the word “politics.” Many of the words and phrases they wrote associated politics with conflict. These included: “bickering,” “argument,” “struggle,” “contest,” “mudslinging,” “dividing,” “divisive,” “tear apart,” “struggle and fight,” “war,” “terrorism,” “social Darwinism,” “disharmony,” “causes conflict,” “hotly debated,” and “why can’t we all just get along?” Conflict is antithetical to the civil citizen’s polite ethic, and since politics entails conflict, politics readily seemed distasteful to my civil respondents.
Another reason politics seems distasteful is because it involves compromise. As Laura, a 26 year old corporate attorney, told me, “I understand that you have to make concessions [in politics]. I don’t think all politicians are crooked, but I do think it’s hard to be entirely like a straight arrow in politics. There’s a lot of compromising. And, I don’t think there’s much we can do about it because it’s just a reality.” Compromise has an ambivalent meaning in the English language. It can mean a settling of differences through mutual concession, but it can also mean a loss of integrity. In the minds of some Americans, like Laura, the line between these two meanings is blurred; at least in politics, mutual concession often entails loss of integrity. In contrast, the civility my interviewees advocate entails no loss of integrity to the extent that it is a unilateral code of conduct. I do what is right regardless of what others do, and if others choose not to follow suit, shame on them. This civil ethic does not suggest, nor does it need compromise or conflict between people in determining how to act. One either chooses to be civil, or one does not.