Listening Posts: Where People Talk Politics Has Civic Discourse Run Its Course? People Gathering To Talk Politics Is Not As Common As It Once Was

SUNDAY, MAY 19, 1996

A retired railroad worker watches tufts of hair float to the floor as he rails about rising gas prices.

“Damn oil companies are socking it to us, ain’t they?” he asks no one in particular.

Barber Richard Bird nods his head in agreement, a metronome keeping time against the hum of his clippers. A national gas tax doesn’t help, he says.

“That’s liberals for you,” Bird adds. “At least Helen Chenoweth is doing good.”

The railroad man screws up his heavily lined face and jams his hands in a flannel jacket.

“Shoot, she’s not worth the effort it’d take to blow her up,” he says, disgusted, but clearly meaning no harm.

So begins a typical day at Best Avenue Barber, a tiny three-stool clip shop in Coeur d’Alene, where locals gather to talk issues, catch up on news and - perhaps - trim a bit around the ears.

Topics range from county politics to local crime to the U.S. Constitution. The best discussions occur before 9 a.m. and on Saturdays.

These days, casual civic discourse is less common, some experts say. It’s gone the way of front-porch swings and fence-top chats.

People are too busy with family and work, too disenchanted with politics to want to talk about it, too consumed by television to leave their homes.

Instead of shopping at the corner grocery, they shop at mega-stores and supermarkets. Instead of working a few blocks from their homes, they work miles from their suburban residences. Instead of sitting on their porches and talking with neighbors, they pull into garages and zap their doors shut with remote controls.

“People seem to be increasingly more isolated,” says Viktor Gecas, a sociology professor at Washington State University. “They aren’t so prone to meet at cafes and have coffee and talk politics.”

Gecas met almost daily in the 1970s and early 1980s with colleagues at a campus coffee shop. Busy lives capsized the meetings about 10 years ago.

Life is full of diversions, Gecas says, but that doesn’t mean people stopped caring about public issues.

“I think they still care very much,” he says, adding they’re just too overwhelmed by society’s many problems to think they can change things. “You don’t know where to put your finger.”

After two decades of study, Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam has come to believe people make fewer social associations than they used to.

In his essay, “Bowling Alone,” Putnam talks about how more people bowl than ever before but fewer people belong to bowling leagues.

“The broader social significance …lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo,” Putnam says. “Bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital.”

Blaine Garvin, a political science professor at Gonzaga University, says he respects Putnam’s research and is saddened by its conclusions. “If there really is a drop-off, it’s a dangerous sign,” Garvin says.

As to whether the casual discourse once common in restaurants and bars has decreased, “it’s a very difficult question to answer,” Garvin says.

Studies show that freshman college students are far less interested in politics than 10 years ago, he says. “There’s a dramatic decline, and that may be a harbinger of the future.”

Steven Stehr, director of WSU’s Thomas Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service, says the “jury’s still out” on Putnam’s ideas.

He says people tend to romanticize the past, imagining a bygone era when nearly everyone was politically aware and socially active. “Generally those people didn’t live in the good old days….You have to be careful with broad sorts of generalities.”

Several university studies and national polls show that people weren’t any more informed about politics in the 1950s than in the 1990s, Stehr says.

There has been a major decline is trust in government, he says. In 1965, a national survey showed that 65 percent of citizens thought government worked for the public good. A recent survey pegged that number at 12 percent, he says.

Will the Internet be the hot spot for future political debate? Maybe, says Gecas, but he doubts computer chats are a good substitute for face-to-face conversations.

“I’m a pessimist when it comes to technology,” Gecas says. “It certainly will connect people around the world …but I see it as a more isolating activity than an integrating activity.

“You’re not engaging with your friends.”

As for talk radio, Gecas says, he has trouble believing broadcasters talking at people will spark their talking to each other.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: Changed in the Spokane edition.

Changed in the Spokane edition.

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