Cowboy citizenship: the rhetoric of civic identity among young Americans, 1965-2005
Childers, Jay Paul
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This study has been guided by a belief that everyone has a civic identity—a sense of self emerging from one’s response to community demands, to the processes of governance, and to the recognition of power relations—and that a number of important societal changes occurring over the last fifty years have been affecting these identities. To get at how people have been responding to these social changes, this project has asked the following questions: (1) What unique role does civic identity play in an individual’s life? (2) Given this role, are there multiple manifestations of civic identity within a given population? (3) Have the dominant rhetorical manifestations of civic identity changed over the course of late-modernity? (4) If changes are found, can these differences be reasonably connected to causal factors resulting from changes in society at large? To answer these questions, I chose to look at the language of young adults over the past forty years in seven high school newspapers from around the United States, using a set of critical probes to facilitate the message analysis conducted. Four emergent trends were found. American youth have increasingly become (1) cosmopolitan flaneurs, losing connection with the local as they have come to locate community at the national and international level; (2) removed volunteers, finding a sense of civic engagement in the acts of donating and volunteering while eschewing traditional forms of political participation; (3) protective critics, taking a decidedly negative stance toward the mediated spectacle of politics; and (4) independent joiners, coming to see most political issues as private matters and only joining groups for self-interested reasons. Tying these trends together, I argue that today’s young adults have adopted a kind of cowboy citizenship—somewhat homeless, somewhat distrustful, and resolutely independent. In the end, I ask how this new form of civic identity may be affecting the health of the American democracy.