With another presidential election season in full swing, Katherine Cramer Walsh mines her research on political conversation to demonstrate what political campaigns are really all about: how we think about ourselves. This article is based on her book Talking about Politics: Informal Groups and Social Identity in American Life.
"With Talking about Politics, Walsh makes a strong case for the need to examine the everyday conversations that democratic citizens use to make sense of their complex political world. The result is a distinct and compelling new perspective into the ubiquitous, mundane, doggedly messy everyday contexts in which political interpretation and understanding happens."—Taeku Lee, University of California, Berkeley
"Walsh's arguments are highly original, well-researched, and creatively constructed. This is a fascinating study of the dynamic role that social identity plays in political understanding."—Ann Crigler, University of Southern California
Politics is Us
Talking about politics in polite company, it is said, is as forbidden as talking about religion and sex. But research on how often and with whom Americans talk casually about politics suggest that most of us must not count our friends as polite company. Talking about politics is a common part of everyday life. Granted, informal political conversations may not be sustained, and they are not typically conducted for the purpose of reaching a decision. Instead, when the forum is friendly, we use politics like we use the weather, sports, and family—as a way to relate to one another.
These conversations constitute a major part of the fabric of our civic life. I recently had the privilege of studying how a group of retired, white, middle class men who met every morning over coffee in a neighborhood corner store talked about politics. The three years I spent time with them and other groups, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, overlapped with the 2000 presidential election primary season. I had a chance to listen to how they made sense of the candidates through their visits with each other. Their opinions are not representative of the nation as a whole. (A survey study indicated that they tended to be more conservative than the nation and people of a similar age, race, income and education). However, observing their conversations revealed the incidental nature of informal talk about politics. And it also showed how these everyday interactions help us maintain our sense of who we are.
In the 2000 primary season, both the Democratic and Republican nominees were up for grabs. Early on, Bill Bradley seemed to be giving Al Gore a serious challenge, and some believed John McCain was as much a contender for the Republican nomination as George W. Bush. One day the group of men turned their talk to politics.
These folks were getting a good deal of their information from the news. But their conversations enabled them to do something else—make sense of the potential nominees through the lens of how they saw themselves. Bill Bradley was O.K. to these folks (despite the fact that he is from New Jersey and a Democrat), because he was an All-American kind of guy, and an athlete. Elizabeth Dole was O.K. (even though she is a woman) because they perceived that she is not a crazy liberal cut from Hillary Clinton cloth.
In coffee shops in New Hampshire, bowling alleys in Wisconsin, and elsewhere around the country, people are spending a bit of their social time talking about the presidential primary in much the same way that these men were doing in 1999. As people interpret the field of candidates, they use themselves as reference points. Election seasons, therefore, are not just important because they are the moments when we pick our leaders. They are crucial public moments because they cause us to reflect on who we are, whom we consider to be people like us, and whom we want to lead us into the future.
These conceptions, simply put, are social identities. They are tools of understanding that are integral to the way we interpret politics. The powerful thing about casual political talk is that it is through this kind of interaction that we figure out what it means to be an American, a Republican, a Midwesterner. And we do this through a wide variety of topics—explicitly political ones like last night's debate, but also topics of less obvious political content, such as whether it's right that our neighbor's daughter remains unmarried at the age of 37. In this way, informal chatting about politics need not change anyone's mind in order for it to matter for our national political life. When we relate to each other through the medium of politics, we are making our own small contributions to ideas about who and what we ought to stand up for.
These are things that polls don't catch easily, if at all. Polls are an amazing resource. With just a small sample, they can, with a great deal of accuracy, tell us how a large population of people feels about candidates and issues. (If you don't believe this, as CBS News once put it, the next time you have a blood test, have the doctor take it all.) Despite the sophistication and utility of today's surveys, what they don't reveal is what people mean by concepts like "Democrat" and how, through the course of their day as active participants in the social world, people arrive at their ideas of what constitute fair and appropriate political choices.
Opinion polls that keep track of the horse race help us figure out who is going to win. But they do not clue us in to the way everyday conversations, however incidental, contribute to the clarification—and perhaps redefinition—of our national identity. Public opinion can be measured. But it is also a dynamic entity, that, whether we notice it or not, ordinary people are actively creating together in small pockets across the country. This year, as we equate how the public feels about the candidates with their standings in the polls, we overlook how much this election is not about Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, or George W. Bush. It's about us.
Copyright notice: ©2004 by Katherine Cramer Walsh. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.