The best books on why ordinary citizen voices matter to a democracy

Gerard A. Hauser Author Of Vernacular Voices: The Rhetoric of Publics and Public Spheres
By Gerard A. Hauser

The Books I Picked & Why

Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life

By Robert N. Bellah

Book cover of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life

Why this book?

The idea of citizenship is vague and can be complicated. Sometimes it refers to a person recognized as a natural-born or naturalized denizen of a nation, sometimes the right to cast a ballot, sometimes law-abiding behavior, sometimes civic engagement, and, too seldom, engaging in public work. Bellah and his associates conducted a series of interviews with ordinary citizens across the US to ascertain their understanding and values with respect to private and public (citizenly) life.

Overwhelmingly, those interviewed (mostly white, middle-class Americans) attached great value to their private lives, while acknowledging the importance of civic participation. They commonly expressed a belief that they should be publicly involved. However, when they discussed public life, they had a limited range of ideas about what that participation might look like, especially compared to the rich descriptions they offered for private life and why they valued it so. 

Among others, Habits raises the question of how well citizens understand citizenship as a public act when they lack a rich vocabulary for civic engagement. The explosion of social media and the deepening divisions within US political life since this seminal study was published mark Habits of the Heart as a harbinger of problems lurking at the edges when public engagements lack a robust language to accommodate complexity and difference. 


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Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy

By Robert D. Putnam, Robert Leonardi, Raffaella Y. Nanetti

Book cover of Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy

Why this book?

Putnam and his Italian colleagues studied the performance of Italy’s regional governments over a 20-year period. They asked why some democratic governments succeeded while others failed. They thought differences in success would correlate with a region’s economic vitality. Instead, they found that a strong civic community was a better indicator of success. When citizens sought information from reliable news sources, they tended to interact with one another on political matters.  Informed interaction encouraged trust in political dialogue and encouraged engagement in public affairs. 

Equally, when citizens had access to networks of secondary associations, where they interacted with strangers, they were more likely to have a greater sense of solidarity with, and trust and tolerance for their fellow citizens. When these conditions were absent and social relations were more vertical (relying on a leader) than horizontal (relying on community members), democracy didn’t work. Making Democracy Work shows how vernacular rhetoric that brings citizens into the conversation and encourages treating others with trust as political equals strengthens civic community, while reliance on authority figures (or speaking only to the like-minded) defeats it.


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Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts

By James C. Scott

Book cover of Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts

Why this book?

You can count on citizens who are out of power to struggle to regain it. The more those on top use their position to keep those on the bottom under their thumb, their domination will inspire inventive ways to resist. Scott’s study of the ways the powerless confront the powerful is a mind-opening exploration of the richness and strength of vernacular rhetoric.  From everyday actions that are overtly compliant while simultaneously subterranean expressions of resistance to hush harbors where a vernacular of identity and solidarity is openly shared, the powerless craft the rich rhetoric of opposition. Their arts of resistance fuse vernacular discourse and politics through displays of defiance. By extension, Domination and the Arts of Resistance offers a primer for reading how ordinary citizens communicate shared sentiments often missed by leaders and pollsters. 


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The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

By Greg Grandin

Book cover of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

Why this book?

The push outward to new frontiers is ingrained in America’s identity. What happens when there is no longer an outer frontier beyond the US borders to conquer? Gandlin’s book, which explores the meaning of the US frontier from the Revolutionary War to Trump’s Border Wall, leads to an unexpected and deeply disturbing answer. America’s expanding frontier has always been the site of genocidal savagery.  But the savagery was directed outward, providing a “gate of escape” from facing unresolved internal conflicts.

The twin catastrophes of unwinnable wars in the Middle East and the 2008 financial meltdown, Gandlin argues, ended the frontier’s myth of endless promise and brought long-suppressed fears and prejudices to the surface. The animating power of Trump’s promise to build a border wall, the negative caricaturing of calls for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the widespread belief among Trump’s base that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and the accompanying January 6 insurrectionist attack on the US Capitol, are of a piece. 

They point to the migration of the US frontier to an internal space, where a savage battle is being waged to assert a national identity as founded on “white rights” but threatened by difference, race, and property rights (including the right to life). The End of the Myth reveals a vernacular among ordinary citizens on the extreme right who have larger numbers than previously thought and pose a serious danger to the republic when differences that have been there all along can no longer be kicked to the curb.  


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Challenges of Ordinary Democracy: A Case Study in Deliberation and Dissent

By Karen Tracy

Book cover of Challenges of Ordinary Democracy: A Case Study in Deliberation and Dissent

Why this book?

Perhaps the most widespread engagement by ordinary citizens in political relations is with the education of their children. School boards are increasingly regarded as a site of passionate political contest over what our children will learn, especially when it comes to learning history and its consequences for their understanding of their community and nation. Challenges of Ordinary Democracy reports on three years in the life of a local school board. The voices of administrators, teachers, parents, and the press are examined when dissent takes center stage in the school board’s deliberations. Given that ordinary citizens will disagree, often vehemently, Tracy asks us to consider the parameters of reasonable hostility and why reasonable hostility is important for the voices of ordinary citizens to matter in deciding issues that affect their lives.  


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