a definition of “civic”

In phrases like “civic education,” “civic engagement,” “civic technology,” or (as in the name of our college) “civic life,” what does the word “civic” mean?  In conversations and writing about the topic, I detect several definitions. Each definition can be introduced with a different keyword:

  1. Power. Perhaps politics means influencing decisions and institutions to get the outcomes you want–or at least to move them closer to your preferences. In democracies, citizens have tools for increasing their influence, e.g., popular votes, petitions, strikes, and protests. “Civic” activities may mean tools for power and influence that are relatively democratic. That category would include popular votes but not presidential decrees; grassroots petitions but not professional lobbying efforts. Acts like voting and contacting government are often included in official surveys of civic engagement. Note that in this conception, politics is zero-sum (every decision has winners and losers), but what makes a form of politics “civic” is its accessibility to ordinary citizens.
  2. Virtue. The adjective “civic” is often paired with nouns like “virtue,” “character,” or “values.” In this conception, the civic is a subset of the political. It’s the best part, the part that exemplifies classical republic virtues, such as concern for the common good, patriotism or cosmopolitanism, commitment to law and to equity, and perhaps even self-sacrifice.
  3. The commons. Every society needs common resources as well as privately owned ones. Common goods may include natural resources (such as air), institutions (such as law), knowledge (such as general principles of science), and norms (such as trust). The whole commons is the “commonwealth,” a direct translation of the Latin res publica (public thing), from which we derive the word “republic.” The commonwealth can be created, expanded and protected, or exploited and degraded. According to some theorists, the civic is work that contributes to the commons. That would include paid work in for-profit enterprises if it produces public goods directly or as externalities. (Note the direct contrast with #1. There, civic engagement was generally zero-sum. Here, it is defined as win/win.)
  4.  Discourse. In some ancient and still-influential conceptions, the core function of a citizen is to deliberate about what is right and good. Public deliberation creates public opinion, which should influence institutions, such as states, courts, and perhaps firms and markets. Civic discourse is defined by deliberative values, such as genuine openness to what others are saying, commitment to truth, and pursuit of consensus. Classical civic institutions are spaces for discourse: newspapers, coffee shops, legislatures, and (now) the Internet.
  5. Community. People need social bonds: to be cared for and to care for others. Most human beings–and especially vulnerable people like children–thrive much better when they are embedded in an affective community. The norms and habits that form among people in such communities (“social capital”) are also resources that can be used for power, discourse, etc.  To  measure social capital, one typically aggregates behaviors like volunteer service and membership in groups, plus attitudes like trust and care. “The civic” is whatever contributes to such community bonds.
  6. Performance. Some would say that civic life offers spaces for people to perform and to be recognized by others. Life is richer and more satisfying when we can create personas and display them for others, and when others can acknowledge and appreciate who we are. The main purpose of a public debate is not to identify the best policy but to display characters. For instance, in the cabinet battles imagined by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson get to show off who they are, and that’s why it’s so great to be in “the room where it happens.” Debate is only one form of performance; activities like theater, spoken word, gaming, and design also count. On this conception, Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed might be the pinnacle of the civic.

I value all these things. It’s tempting to say, then, that the right definition of “the civic” is the union of all of them. But that seems a bit ad hoc, a miscellaneous assemblage of desirable behaviors and values. It would be better to have an organized account of how they all fit together. For instance, perhaps we need community to provide people with enough support that they can exercise relatively equal power, but power is best when informed by deliberative discourse. In turn, deliberation encourages attention to the commons, allows performance, and both requires and develops republican virtues.

That is a rather discourse-centered theory; one could instead make the various ideas center on the commonwealth, or on democratic exercises of power. It’s also reasonable to weigh some of these ideas much more heavily than others.

See also: what is the definition of civic engagement? and defining civic engagement, democracy, civic renewal, and related terms

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questions about happiness

We discussed the following questions in my first-year philosophy seminar last week, after having read selections from Plato, Nietzsche, Epicurus, Buddha, and Emerson, and before turning to J.S. Mill. They seem valuable prompts for personal reflection, too.

  1. Do we have a right to pay much attention to our own happiness? (Twenty-one children under the age of five die every minute because of preventable causes. Why are we spending 75 minutes talking about happiness in class while 1,575 kids die?) Do we have a duty to pay attention to our own happiness?
  2. To what extent can we affect others’ happiness? Which others? How?
  3. Does happiness require autonomy, or community, or both? (Can you be happy alone?)
  4. Is it best to aim for a high state of well-being (bliss, satisfaction, etc.) or rather strive to avoid bad mental states (suffering, despair)?
  5. Are there other outcomes for ourselves that we should seek instead of, or as well as, happiness? E.g., excellence, authenticity, dignity? (I leave aside justice to others as a whole topic unto itself.)
  6. Do we know whether we are happy? What kind of knowledge is that? Can we be wrong about it?
  7. Can you tell whether someone else is happy? What evidence is relevant? Could you be right and they be wrong?
  8. Is it possible to compare two people’s happiness on one scale?
  9. Should someone else’s happiness affect my happiness? Under what circumstances?
  10. For an individual, is there one scale from suffering to bliss, or are there many different continua?
  11. What are the behavioral consequences of happiness? Does happiness necessarily produce observable outcomes at all? Is happiness that does not produce any good outcomes nevertheless desirable?
  12. Are there beliefs about the world that promote happiness? (E.g., only the present is real; or everything happens for a reason.) Are these beliefs true? Does that matter?
  13. To answer, “What is happiness?” must we answer metaphysical and epistemological questions? (E.g., your view of happiness might be very different if a benign creator has created your immortal soul, as opposed to living in a universe in which life is suffering.) The answer might also be different if I can–or cannot–know whether I am happy.
  14. What is the relationship between truth and happiness? Let’s disaggregate the virtue of truth into sincerity, integrity (truth to who one is), and responsible inquiry. Let’s break down happiness into pleasure, peace, satisfaction, etc. What are the relationships among these things?
  15. Could being good (or just) to others be a path to happiness for ourselves? Is that a reason to be good? Is that the only reason to be good?
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state of the youth vote in 2016

CIRCLE has begun to release results from its survey of 1,605 Americans between the ages of 18 and 34. CIRCLE’s headlines are:

  • Most Millennials paying attention to presidential election, but far fewer to congressional elections
  • 30% of Clinton supporters contacted by campaigns, 28% of young Trump supporters contacted, 70% not contacted at all

Contact is important because it gives the recipients information and motivation to vote. These contact rates are disturbing low–and also uneven by region, gender, and party. Young men who live in battleground states have been contacted at nearly twice the rate of young women in “safe” states (38% vs. 20%).

Among likely young voters, Clinton beat Trump by 21 points (49% vs. 28%) in this poll, which was conducted between September 21 and October 3, 2016. USA Today/Rock the Vote released a youth poll yesterday that put the margin at 68%/20%. I’m not sure whether that difference results from methodological choices, such as the way the surveys define likely voters and present third-party candidates; but it is interesting that USA Today/RtV were in the field on October 11-13. The difference could therefore suggest a substantial improvement in Clinton’s margin since September.

The CIRCLE release presents additional information about young people’s attitudes, including this chart that compares the words that Trump supporters and Clinton supporters used to describe their own favored candidate.

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to boost youth voting, teach civics and promote electoral competition

I have a short piece in the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” section this morning. It begins:

Once young adults start voting, the habit tends to persist for their whole lives. One way to boost young people’s voting — and their understanding of the political system and current issues — is to teach them civics while they are still in high school. Young adults are more likely to vote if they have experienced interactive civic education, if a teacher specifically taught them about voting, and if they discussed current events while they were teenagers.

After elaborating a bit on the importance of civics, I turn to political competition:

A wealth of experimental evidence also shows that young people respond well to personalized outreach: We have to ask them to vote. The organizations that have the greatest capacity to contact youth are parties and campaigns, and nothing would increase turnout as much as a robust competition for the youth vote.

Another contributor to the forum, Lisa Garcia Bedolla, also argues for personalized outreach, but Alan Gerber provides evidence that it is not hugely effective. I’d argue that outreach is particularly valuable for youth, who gain more than older adults do from information and encouragement, and who begin lasting habits of turnout. Finally, Jan E. Leighley and Jonathan Nagler make the case for being able to register on the same day you vote, which our research also finds beneficial for youth.

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a map of civic renewal


At the National Conference on Citizenship in Washington, DC, 250-300 people are collectively building a model of civic life in America to strategize about civi renewal. Here is the state of the map as of 1:55 pm.

PS: And here’s a larger version as it stood at the end of the day.

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democracy in the digital age

New chapter: “Democracy in the Digital Age,” The Civic Media Reader, edited by Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), pp. 29-47

Abstract: Digital media change rapidly, but democracy presents perennial challenges. It is not in people’s individual interests to participate, yet we need them to participate ethically and wisely. It’s easier for more advantaged people to participate. And the ethical values that guide personal relationships tend to vanish in large-scale interactions. The digital era brings special versions of those challenges: choice has been massively disaggregated, sovereignty is ambiguous, states can collect intrusive information about people, and states no longer need much support from their own citizens. I argue that these underlying conditions make democracy difficult in the digital age.

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The Moment is Now National Convening

Registration is now open for Everyday Democracy’s The Moment is Now: National Convening, December 8-10, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. People will come together from across the country to think of dynamic ways to solve community problems and build racial equity.

Related to the conference is a video competition for young leaders (18-30). The deadline is October 17th, and the winners will receive a small grant and full all–expenses-paid scholarship to the convening.

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it’s hard to talk about tough issues if no organization represents you

I’m back from a great meeting in Chicago in which one theme was the need to have honest, productive conversations between people who might support Donald Trump and members or supporters of movements like Black Lives Matter. I’d note a major obstacle: the fact that working-class white people–the demographic core of Trump’s support–don’t have organizations that answer to them. As an illustration, consider that just 6 percent of adult Whites without college educations now belong to unions. That’s below the rate for college graduates, many of whom have other organizations behind them.


A lack of organization blocks or distorts difficult discussions, for these reasons:

  1. It’s literally hard to convene people who aren’t organized. Absent organizations, conversations tend to be online or draw highly atypical individuals who show up of their own accord.
  2. People who have no organizations behind them usually feel powerless. If that’s how they feel, they are unlikely to want to participate in difficult conversations. Especially when the topic is their own ostensible privilege, they are likely to resist talking. To be clear: I believe that everyone who is White in the US gains privilege from that. But if I felt politically powerless, I would not be in a mood to have that conversation, especially with people who were better organized than I was.
  3. People without organizations end up being represented by famous individuals–celebrities–who claim to speak for them and who claim mandates on the basis of their popularity. Celebrities have no incentives to address social problems; they gain their fame from their purely critical stance. And they owe no actual accountability to their fans, since no one (not even a passionate fan) expects a celebrity to deliver anything concrete. Donald Trump is unusual in that he has moved from a literal celebrity to a presidential nominee; but he still acts like a celebrity, and presumably he will return to being a pure mouthpiece once the election is over. Meanwhile, back at the grassroots level, a person who feels represented by celebrities is unlikely to talk productively with fellow citizens who disagree.
  4. People without organizations cannot negotiate. For instance, imagine that an individual Trump voter becomes convinced of the case for reparations, or at for least for race-conscious policies aimed at equity. That person cannot literally support such remedies, because he has no means to enact them. All he can do is assent to their theoretical merit. That also means that he can’t get anything tangible out of a deal. He’s just being asked to concede a point.

In 1959, A. Philip Randolph helped found and led the Negro American Labor Council as a voice for civil rights within the labor movement. As he pressed and negotiated with his fellow labor leaders on matters of civil rights, he was giving their millions of White rank-and-file members the opportunity to discuss segregation and racism productively. Crucially, not only were the Sleeping Car Porters organized; so were the predominantly White autoworkers, steelworkers, and mineworkers. Randolph also had–and used–substantial leverage over a Democratic Party that was still dependent on working-class voters, White and Black.

I’m certainly not implying that everything went smoothly in those days and reached satisfactory conclusions, but Randolph at least had a strategy that made sense. In an era of niche celebrities, candidate- and donor-driven political parties, and weak civic institutions, that strategy looks much harder.

Counterargument: The Fraternal Order of Police is an organization. Its members, although diverse demographically and ideologically, need to be at the table for any discussion of racial justice. But the FOP has endorsed Trump; and in many local contexts, its spokespeople seem particularly unwilling to deliberate and negotiate. Hence being organized is not a path to productive conversations. … To which I’d respond: Privilege yields to political power. Only effective political action will bring a group like this to the table. But the police can come to the table because they are organized, and that creates a strategic opening that is absent when people with similar views aren’t organized. It also enables pressure to come from within. For instance, the association that represents 2,500 Black police officers in Philadelphia has called Trump an “outrageous bigot” even as the Philly FoP has endorsed him.

See also: why the white working class must organize.

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the Pew climate change survey and the state of science

According to Pew’s new survey, only about one third of Americans care “a great deal” about climate change. That might be a matter of values: some citizens may set a higher priority on liberty or growth than on environmental protection, or they may not trust the government plus scientists to protect the climate.

But the public is also divided on a key matter of fact. In reality, there is near-universal scientific consensus that humans cause global warming, but only 27% of Americans perceive that consensus, including just over half of liberal Democrats.

If I thought that scientists were divided on the basic question of whether humans cause climate change, I would be much less confident that the problem is worth combating.climate

Two fairly obvious but crucial lessons:

  1. Giving an impression that a topic is contested is a great way to sew doubts about it. Once just a few people who claim expertise criticize the mainstream scholarly view, the issue looks debatable. Then everyone has permission to be skeptical.
  2. Scientists must take more responsibility for how their work is communicated, debated, received, and used by the public. There’s not much point to specific studies of climate change if a large majority of the public remains unconvinced about the basic problem. If the traditional division of labor–scientists conduct research; reporters cover it–ever worked, it doesn’t work now. Scientists and their institutions (including universities) must develop better ways of engaging in public life.

See also Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communicationscience, democracy, and civic life.

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it’s 1989 all over again: HRC and Bush 41

If Hillary Clinton is elected in November, the parallels with the start of the George H.W. Bush Administration will be striking. That does not imply that Clinton’ presidency must follow the trajectory of his: history rarely echoes, and her luck as well as her personal qualities may prove different. But she will begin where he did.

Bush the Elder ran for president in 1980 as the favorite of his party. He had the longest resume, stood near the ideological center of the traditional GOP, had close ties with powerful leaders in business, government, and foreign capitals, and was the son of a US Senator. He lost to the insurgent Ronald Reagan, who represented “change.” Bush served loyally in the Reagan Administration and then ran to succeed his boss and uphold a legacy that he had not originally endorsed.

Hillary Rodham Clinton ran in 2008 as the favorite of her party, with a long resume, relationships comparable to Bush Senior’s, and the support of party regulars. She was the spouse of a former president and had helped him to define the ideological center of the New Democrats. She was defeated by an insurgent who represented “change,” but she then served loyally in his administration and is running to preserve his legacy.

Both candidates were distrusted by the ideological base of their party. Bush 41 had to beat Pat Buchanan in 1988. Buchanan turned out to represent a powerful strand in the future of the GOP. Bush promised “No new taxes” to satisfy his base. Clinton had to beat Bernie Sanders in 2016. The demographics of Sanders’ support suggest that he represents a major strand in the future of the Democratic Party. Clinton has made policy concessions to satisfy Sanders voters (and Black Lives Matter).

Mike Dukakis is a fine public servant and an exemplary person, but he ran a notably weak campaign against George H.W. Bush in 1988. Donald Trump cannot hold a candle to Gov. Dukakis as a human being, but Trump is also running a poor campaign.

Although both George H.W. Bush and HRC are capable, detail-oriented policymakers who are said to be impressive in private, neither has the kind of eloquence that leaves a mark on the language or memory. Bush Senior is known for “Read my lips” and “Message: I care.” I don’t think Hillary Clinton is yet associated with any particular phrases.

Bush 41 faced a Democratic Congress with formidable opposition tacticians, such as Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. HRC is likely to face at least a Republican House in 2017, and probably a Republican Senate after 2018. In the face of congressional opposition, Bush achieved no changes in domestic policy other than a grand compromise on the budget that lost him the support of the Republican base. Clinton will have to negotiate budgets with the Republican House. Bush left a much bigger mark on foreign policy. Clinton has also demonstrated that she is willing to use executive power overseas. Both confront a war in and around Iraq

When Bush the Elder took office, an economic recovery was 7 years and three months old and had only 18 months left to run. When our next president takes the oath of office, the current recovery will be seven-and-a half years old and probably can’t last much longer. Both also inherit a party apparatus that is pretty tired after almost a decade in control of the executive branch.

Again, none of this implies or predicts that Clinton (assuming that she is elected) will follow the path of Bush Senior. New realities will confront her, and she has some freedom to act differently. But the parallels are a bit sobering and deserve some thought.

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