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Avoiding Politics

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Avoiding Politics

How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life

Cambridge UP,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Even charitable people avoid open debate to maintain harmony. The result is apathy; they don’t seem to care. Do you?

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Nina Eliasoph describes the ways that volunteers get involved - or don’t get involved - in political activity. Most volunteers, she notes, intentionally shy away from discussing the core political issues related to their volunteer efforts. She suggests that these volunteers have learned apathy in order to avoid the confrontation that public political debate might provoke. The volunteers she studied are willing to raise difficult issues in private, but not in public. Instead of finding - as might be expected - that joining groups helps people become activists, she finds the opposite. Group membership seems to blunt personal action. Eliasoph can be academic and repetitious, in that she uses multiple examples to make a single point. So, while respecting her research and her passion, suggests this book is primarily aimed at political scientists and at readers who are truly concerned that more institutions should foster public debate and more of us should engage in it. The author is deeply worried about apathy’s effect on democracy. The question is, do you care?


The Limitations on Public Discussion

Generally, people involved in community volunteer work, such as anti-drug or child welfare programs, aren’t interested in getting involved in issues that don’t affect them in their personal lives.

For example, when volunteers in one coastal town were asked if they cared about battleship oil spill problems, most thought the issue did not affect them although they lived within a short drive of a nuclear battleship base with a large toxic pit that had been deemed dangerous by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These volunteers also didn’t think that they personally could do much about this problem.

Volunteer group members may have broad private concerns, but they generally don’t speak about such issues at meetings or to the press. They tend to be reluctant to share their real concerns with others because they prioritize group harmony and prefer not to deal with hard political issues. Such reactions reflect a kind of "shrinking circle of concern." This hesitancy to speak in public shows a disconnection between what people feel and believe privately, and what they are willing to talk about openly. The agenda that matters...

About the Author

Nina Eliasoph teaches in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was a Visiting Scholar at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. She has published articles on sociology, politics and communications, and has produced radio news and public affairs programs.

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