S5 E2. Closet Civics

In rural Texas, about 130 women were scared to come out — as progressive.

This woman in Toronto was among the enormous crowds that filled streets around the world on Jan. 21, 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration in the United States. Women like her, and their allies, had a lot to say: about their opposition to misogyny, to authoritarianism, to patriarchal power. But how many millions more women felt they couldn’t enjoy that luxury, for fear of reprisal, marginalization and worse in their local communities, even in their homes? Our guest today tells the story of one small group of women in America’s heartland who found each other and nurtured their politics in the dark.

Photograph by Arindam Banerjee via Shutterstock.com

In January 2017, millions of women marched in solidarity to oppose Donald Trump’s inauguration. But in a small Texas county, a growing network of likeminded ladies found each other — and started meeting in secret. Communications scholar Emily Van Duyn followed these women as they became improbable, undercover champions of civic engagement while keeping their activism hidden, from their husbands, families and neighbors. We explore what their story says about the politics of silence and the silencing of politics.

After some debate, the women Van Duyn worked with kept men, including spouses, out of their meetings. The group worried that even men friendly to its cause would take over the conversation.

Illustration via Shutterstock.com

For those living in communities where their convictions — not just their ethnic, racial or gender identities — are in the minority, Van Duyn says, “coming out” in favor of the absentee party can be a powerful assertion of self.

On the other hand, it can also be an invitation to social stigma, economic loss and threatening behavior, Van Duyn found. Her work looks at this universe in a grain of sand, exploring how people suppress their politics even as they try to express it. The women’s group she studied suggests that progress is possible from the shadows. Thanks to their efforts, phone banks took flight, voter lists got updated, and one of their ranks ran for office, then won.

Still, what does it say that even a predominantly white, middle-class group of relative privilege has to hide its motely, and fairly moderate, mix of views?

About our guest

Emily Van Duyn is an assistant professor of communications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Many of our shows deal with the ills and unintended consequences of social media, but her work focuses on how it can also be a force for good, making it easier for people to build community and participate in politics under challenging circumstances. Van Duyn’s first book, based on her doctoral field research, is Democracy Lives in Darkness: How and Why People Keep Their Politics a Secret (Oxford, 2021). Follow her on Twitter @emilyvanduyn.

This episode was released on Sept. 7, 2022.

What we’re reading

By our guest

Democracy Lives in Darkness plays off of the Washington Post’s motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” adopted in February 2017 to emphasize the watchdog role of the press in a free society. Van Duyn says she feels her work tells the flipside of that story: how, in hard times and places, democratic principles may need darkness to incubate.

Watch Van Duyn discuss her research in greater depth in a video presentation she did earlier this year.

Together with Cynthia Peacock, Van Duyn has published other work looking at how civility dissolves in the comments sections of news sites, and why men are more likely than women to post such comments in the first place.

From around the web

Local politics has become increasingly nationalized — reflecting the larger polarizing and partisan trends seen across the country. The Annual Review of Political Science summed up research on this phenomenon in May 2019.

Rural Texas is not especially friendly to Democrats anymore. This stop sign on a dirt road has been vandalized to proclaim “Obama, Stop.”

Photograph by J.B. Manning via Shutterstock.com

Two Texas scholars more recently looked at how this situation is playing out in their state and poisoning its political climate.

As the Democratic Party in the past few decades has withdrawn from vast swaths of the state, Texas has gotten a lot redder. At the same time, its cities are growing fast, and that may portend further unpredictable shifts: many Californians, for one, are moving to urban and suburban areas of the Lone Star State.

In April, NBC News’s Meet the Press Reports explored how the influence of the Democratic Party has receded in rural areas across the country, not just in Texas.

The Rural Democracy Initiative is a progressive movement trying to overcome some of those losses by supporting civic engagement in the heartland. A recent report from the initiative made the case for why investing in small-town voters matters.


Photograph by Lev Radin via Shutterstock.com

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz speaks in August at the CPAC conference near Dallas. He’s not up for reelection this year, but Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is — against Democratic nominee Beto O’Rourke.

 

Social scientists say threatening rhetoric is on the rise in American political discourse. This man protests stay-at-home orders in Los Angeles, in May 2020.

Photograph by Matt Gush via Shutterstock.com

How serious is the problem of secrecy and fear in American political discourse? The libertarian Cato Institute found in a 2020 survey that 62 percent of citizens are afraid to share their views for fear of offending people around them.

The women’s group Van Duyn worked with feared marginalization and even assault in response to their politics. Research from the Brookings Institution says the risk of being targeted for your views is real. 

In August, authorities shot and killed a gunman who attacked the FBI office in Cincinnati. The New York Times spoke with experts who said the “apocalyptic language” of prominent right-wing personalities is helping inspire such acts.

Qualitative research helps scholars like Van Duyn get behind the numbers to see how political dynamics work on the ground. For more on ethnographic methods in politics, check out this volume, edited by Edward Schatz of the University of Toronto.

In case you missed them, give some of our related episodes a listen. We’ve covered a lot on social media; visited the republic of Texas; and unpacked violent extremism.

A transcript of this episode will be available soon.

Heard on the show

Our theme music is the title track off the 2010 album Neogrotesque, by the Montreal band Tortue Super Sonic.

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