Political activism has a special place in the hearts of American college campuses. Campuses often possess a young politically aware population, some of which band together based on common political values and create clubs. These clubs exist to help further the agenda of their designated affiliation. Nina Eliasoph, in her book Avoiding Politics, questions how much politically based conversation actually takes place surrounding groups that form around a set of motives. These motives then reflect themselves into politics. Susquehanna’s student group, the SU Democrats (SU Dems for short), operated in a free market-like system in which they had to remain mindful of the amount of support they could receive from the same body that funded other campus groups. This created a need for a different approach towards discussing politics. Existing in a closed community brought along a number of circumstances Elisaoph, in her otherwise brilliant account, didn’t get a chance to explore.
For this study, I attended five meetings from September to November, each lasting about forty-five minutes. I participated with the ‘Public Relations’ committee of the group that dealt with organizing how the group came into contact with the rest of the student body. I also participated in the various brainstorm sessions that semi-regularly took place.
The notion of a public sphere is important for understanding how the SU Dems came into contact with politics. Eliasoph’s definition of it is as follows:
“The public sphere is, theoretically, defined as the realm of institutions in which private citizens can carry on free and egalitarian conversation, often about issues of common concern, possibly welding themselves into a cohesive body and a potent political force. It is not just a closed, hierarchical workplace and not just family but is a third setting for conversation with three main characteristics: participation is optional, potentially open to all, and potentially egalitarian.”[Eliasoph 1998:11]
Public spheres are forums in which people can discuss social issues that they feel are important to them and create a dialogue that can engage them in a larger scale of politics. Everyone in the community has access to it at anytime and, ideally, there is no power structure. Without it, Eliasoph argues, “democratic citizenship is impossible: there are no contexts to generate … relations to the wider world that democracy demands” [Eliasoph 1998:11].
Because the SU Dems is a group with a clear political identity, the first circumstance I looked into was how they either helped to foster a public sphere or muffle it. One method they used to create a public sphere was a large display they called the healthcare wall. Healthcare has been a pressing issue in US politics, and so the SU Dems set out to create a large poster that attempted to ‘clarify’ what they felt were myths put out by the political right. In addition to that goal, a significant portion of the poster was left blank with markers beside it to encourage students and faculty to chime in with their views on healthcare. By doing this, they effectively had people enter into a conversation (however anonymous it may have been) with each other over which no one had control. Eventually, the conversation turned into a debate with many sides protecting their own thoughts while pointing out what they felt were follies in others. Even if people didn’t put up their own opinions on the board, the public record of the conversation was still on display for all to read and consider.
However, the board was not without its problems. While people largely took advantage of the situation and used it as it was intended, some comments simply insulted those they disagreed with. I saw this as a potentially chronic complication of public dialogues; not all members of the community will view a conversation or even a debate as a critical thing that must be held. However, they can’t be effectively ostracized, especially in an anonymous environment. The best the SU Dems could do was press on and hope it didn’t happen very often. Though, those comments on the board showed that as a group, they didn’t prevent any measure of the student body from expressing itself – an impression I believe would help prove a measure of worth.
As the SU Dems actively created dialogue, they accidentally ended up stifling it among members, which happens to be the second consequence of the environment the group existed in. It wasn’t in the way they asked their members what they thought about a particular plan or idea; they did plenty of that. It was more in the manner of expectations. After a few meeting or so, I began to see how it was assumed that by being at the meeting, everyone present was already on the same political page. This assumption then meant that there was no need for discussing our own personal politics. No discussion meant no public sphere. No public sphere meant that our individual ideas were not challenged or developed.
Yet, it is comprehensible why things were like this internally. The proper goal of the group was to focus on affecting the political conversation of the campus as a whole, not the conversation between the twenty of us. Time had to be allocated towards accomplishing that goal and moving against the SU Republicans, who have been constructed as the opposition. There was also a need to make efforts clearly visible to the community at large to indicate that the group was being active; improving the political understanding of the members didn’t hold many opportunities for showing off.
The third element I noticed was the way the group had two different patterns when discussing issues publicly and internally. This relates to Eliasoph’s theory of the front and backstage behaviors of groups. For the volunteer groups Eliasoph was studying, they “created ‘front stage’ group contexts that made publicly minded conversation seem out of place and discouraging” (Eliasoph 1998:24). When members were not in a group, in their backstage dialogue they recognized that there was a problem with what they said front stage and spoke with politics un-divorced from the issues they aimed to fix (Eliasoph 1998:24).
The front and back stage concept changes for a group such as the SU Dems. Because they are rooted in politics, they can’t avoid speaking in that vein all together. Instead of the issue being how in the public eye, politics finds its way out of the conversation, it is how to go about publicly speaking about politics. As the group was designing flyers to compliment their work with the healthcare poster, a great deal of care was taken by the Public Relations committee (of which I was a part of) to select their words carefully. One member said that they were aiming to be a little snarky, while still being respectful. They were seeking the perfect balance between clearly stating their message and being aggressive towards dissenting students.
In open conversation within the group though, people were much less cautious about expressing their views. For example, during a discussion about the Republican student group’s kickoff movie night in which they were showcasing the movie “Gran Torino”, jokes went around about how they felt that was the best way to perpetuate the stereotype of the grumpy, old, Republican white male who doesn’t take kindly to minorities. One person even shouted out “Have fun with your racist movie night!” This was something that would have never been said out in the open air, but was more than okay to be said within the context of the group. There were no concerns about offending anyone backstage because everyone belonged to the same party and had the same rival. On a more public front stage, the rules of loyalty are gone and with it the protection it granted. You are much more liable to step on someone’s political toe and so treading lightly was a necessity.
As for the tension between being too forward and making themselves clear on the front stage, Eliasoph noticed a similar conflict in the activist group she studied.
“After about a year of meeting regularly, though, members began asking what was the relation between personal style and political ideas. The group explicitly discussed the conflict between looking respectable and expressing feelings, and tentatively decided that it was more important to ‘play the game’” [Eliasoph 1998:177].
The issue for the activists was how to be thought of as ‘respectable’ while discussing how they felt about their issues. The decision that ‘playing the game’ was of more importance meant that they saw how people had a number of expectations from groups like theirs. And in order to get what they want, they would have to do things to alter expectations. For example, as they went about figuring out a name for their group, they rejected names that would imply too much negativity and radical behavior or names that were ‘sappy’ [Eliasoph 1998: 177]. For the SU Dems, finding the balance between their extremes was playing the game; they had no third alternative to run to. Unlike the activists, if the SU Dems didn’t respect the values of all on campus, a higher authority could very likely stop them.
The SU Dems’ hierarchical structure is a fourth consequence of operating within the campus. Power was in many ways a clear top-down model. They had a president and numerous officers as most if not all the other groups did on campus. The times I had arrived early for the meetings, those in seats of power would already be inside the meeting space, discussing private business while those of us outside began to socialize. I also noticed how people reacted towards seating arrangements. When members came in for the meetings after the doors had been open, there were many who hesitated when they saw empty seats at the far end of the table. It was understood that the end of the table was where the officers and president sat and so no one wanted to cross a line of territory. Interestingly enough, there was never an incident in which any of us were actually told where we could and couldn’t sit; it was just an unspoken way of conduct. Had power been spread around, the hesitation people expressed when looking for a seat would likely not had existed.
The structure that was chosen for the group also helped to ensure things got done. As mentioned before, I was a part of the ‘Public Relations’ committee. During the second meeting I attended, everyone was asked to pick one of three committees to join (the remaining two was ‘Events’ and ‘Fundraising’) and focus their efforts within. Dividing the existing amount of manpower the group had was done in order to become more efficient with their time. Both the power issue and division of labor hint towards how the group was in many ways run like a business. The preference for this type of organization is a ramification of the school’s free-market. In order to stay alive the group has be active, and if the way their organization isn’t conductive to their goal, they’ll sink in the sea of other campus clubs.
After having studied in the SU Dems, I participated in a focus group, questioning a bunch of students and one faculty member to express their thoughts on how the school I did my research in lived up to their mission statement. The group made a clear dissention between the success of the academics and the extra- curricular (which would include the SU Dems). They said the extra-curricular clearly helped to prepare students for lives of achievement and leadership. And so, I asked about the free-market nature of the sea of campus groups and it was explained to me that such a system helped to ensure clubs followed the interests of the students at large. When people have lost the passion needed to keep a club alive, another that better fits the internal current replaces it. Basically the old give way to the new. This is the challenge for all campus clubs: how to remain relevant while at the same time retaining your collective values. The SU Dems merely shaped themselves in a way that does both – they fight for their right to exist (funding, members, etc) and push their political agenda. The resulting positive and negative effects on the discussions of politics in a closed system are never completely considered. Eliasoph was right to explore this matter – how people are able to relate to politics are important to understanding the development and sustainment of democracy, particularly within halls of academia.
1998 Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life. New York: Cambridge University Press.