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Democracy Lives in Darkness: How and Why People Keep Their Politics a Secret

Oxford University Press

*Winner of the 2023 Roderick P. Hart Outstanding Book Award from the National Communication Association, Political Communication Division*

*Winner of the 2023 Best Book Award, Honorable Mention from the American Political Science Association, Information, Technology & Politics Division*

Democracy Lives in Darkness: How and Why People Keep Their Politics a Secret is my forthcoming book (2021) with Oxford University Press in the Journalism and Political Communication Unbound series.

Republicans and Democrats increasingly distrust, avoid, and wish ill upon those from the opposite party. To make matters worse, they also increasingly reside among like-minded others and are part of social groups that share their political beliefs. All of this can make expressing a dissenting political opinion hard. Yet, digital and social media have given people new channels for political discourse, new spaces for building congenial communities, and more control over the visibility of their political identity. The upcropping of secret Facebooks groups before, during, and after the 2016 U.S. election laid bare the fact that even mainstream Republicans and Democrats can and do seek out ways to hide their political beliefs from others.

This book looks at what these changes in the political and media landscape mean for the practice and study of democracy. I uncover and follow a secret political organization in rural Texas over two years. The group, which organized out of fear of their conservative community, has a confidentiality agreement, a private membership, an email listserv and secret Facebook group, and meets in secret every month. By gaining access to and building relationships with members, I explore why they hide their beliefs, how they organize with others intentionally in private, and what this does for both their own political behavior and the politics of their community.

Drawing on research from communication, political science, and sociology, I tell a different story about contemporary democracy than what is currently told. I argue that portions of the public may be silent in one context but not silent altogether; may care about politics but are afraid of making their beliefs public. This work challenges existing assumptions of liberal democracy in the United States. As the public becomes increasingly polarized and sorted, and as digital media makes it easier for individuals to communicate and organize in secret, the potential for and scope of political secrecy becomes more likely, even for those within the national mainstream.

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