heading to Ukraine

I am on my way tomorrow to Lviv and Chernovitsi in Ukraine, to co-teach the Summer Institute of Civic Studies and Civic Education there. This will be an immeasurably small contribution to what I think is a great cause: the work of the Ukrainian people in constructing a true civil society as the basis of a true democracy. If they can achieve that task in a portion of the former Soviet Union–after a period of kleptocracy and violent repression–they will be a beacon for the whole region.

I won’t blog while traveling but will report afterwards.

By the way, an AP wire story yesterday used my trip as its opening example of US “scholars drawn to conflict zones.” I must emphasize that Lviv and Chernovitsi are far from any violent conflicts. Many colleagues at Tufts (and elsewhere) actually meet this description: “people who should be getting on a plane to go to a country that’s in crisis.” When I said that phrase, I had in mind professors who fly to Sudan or Iraq and really make a difference there. I wasn’t talking about myself going to Western Ukraine to help lead a political theory seminar for a few days. But I am excited and grateful to be going.

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adding democracy to Robert Merton’s CUDOS norms for science

Civic Science is an emerging scholarly conversation, and today we held a discussion of it at Tufts. In my group, we agreed that scientists are not value-free but are indeed defined by certain values. We went back to the list of four values that Robert K. Merton identified in 1942. Per Wikipedia, those are:

  • Communalism all scientists should have equal access to scientific goods (intellectual property) and there should be a sense of common ownership in order to promote collective collaboration, secrecy is the opposite of this norm.
  • Universalism all scientists can contribute to science regardless of race, nationality, culture, or gender.
  • Disinterestedness according to which scientists are supposed to act for the benefit of a common scientific enterprise, rather than for personal gain.
  • Organized Skepticism Skepticism means that scientific claims must be exposed to critical scrutiny before being accepted.

These “CUDOS” norms emerge from the practices of actual scientists, yet they are  aspirational. In fact, they may be rarely honored in a given population of scientists, but they would still reflect the ideals of science. They thus provide tools for the critical assessment of actual science.

We proposed adding:

  • Openness: meaning not only openness to data and evidence, but to diverse perspectives and voices.
  • Democratic Engagement It’s not enough to decide that your scientific work is disinterested. You owe an argument to fellow citizens for why it actually is in the public interest. At the same time, you must influence public priorities. If, for instance, there is no funding for addressing a disease suffered by the world’s poor, that means that you cannot just go out and study it. But you can advocate for funding.
  • Service This goes beyond “the benefit of a common scientific enterprise” to encompass benefit to the world (human beings and other species)
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St. Margaret of Cortona and medieval populism

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This is highlight #3 from our recent vacation in Italy. St. Margaret of Cortona was a remarkable person–more on her in a moment. The picture is a narrative of her life painted around 1298, or just one year after she died. She wasn’t canonized until 1728. In her own community of southeastern Tuscany, she was treated from the moment of her death (and perhaps even while she was still alive) as a saint to be venerated and depicted on par with St. Clare or St. Agnes. A major local church was immediately renamed in her honor, and her mummified body was placed under its altar. Those actions offer insights into medieval Catholicism, which was much more populist and decentralized than we assume on the basis of recent centuries of Church history and governance.

Margaret’ story would work for a novel (and has inspired an opera and a film). A beautiful peasant girl, she quarreled with her stepmother and ran away to live in sin with a nobleman in his castle. One day, his most loyal hound returned alone from the hunt and led Margaret to the scene of his death at the hands of a murderer. Deeply shaken, Margaret became a Franciscan sister, thus joining the most radical and compelling  religious/political movement of the era. She swore personal poverty but may have used her ex-lover’s wealth for philanthropy; we know that she obtained the resources to found a hospital and a convent. No wallflower or passive penitent, she twice challenged the bishop of Arezzo for acting like a warlike lord instead of a man of God. Her example and the force of her thought and personality must have resounded powerfully.

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civic republicanism in medieval Italy: the Lucignano council frescoes

This is highlight #2 from our recent time in Italy. Lucignano is a small medieval town in Tuscany, notable for its street plan of concentric ellipses capping a steep hill. During the middle ages, it was contested by larger city-states, but it sometimes enjoyed a degree of independence or civic freedom. It certainly had its own town hall and, within that building, a Sala di Consiglio or council chamber.

At first, this room was decorated by one large fresco of the Madonna in Majesty. If I recall correctly, the inscription under her picture reminded Lucignano’s leaders to listen to both sides of every dispute. Then, between 1438 and 1475, the town’s councilors contribruted personal funds to cover the ceiling with frescoes of exemplary figures from history, each labeled with a name, and most accompanied by an instructive quotation. “Virgil the poet” is shown above.

Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier offers excellent background information on this decorative scheme.* It was not uncommon to depict heroes from the past (often known as “worthies”) in public spaces. And there was a very famous model of a council chamber decorated with frescoes about good (and bad) government in nearby Siena. But the Lucignano frescoes were unique in that the list of exemplary figures came from a specific source, Dante, who also provided many of the quotations painted on the ceiling.

Dante held an elaborate political theory that I will not attempt to summarize comprehensively here. But it seems to me that Lucignano’s civic elders borrowed the following elements of his thought for their council chamber:

  1. Civic responsibility. Cicero is depicted as one of the exemplars (no surprise there); but as Joost-Gaugier notes, it was thanks to Dante that Cicero came to represent “the value of active participation in civic life” and the “civic spirit of Roman law as it centered on the complete man espousing the common good.” The Lucignano frescoes emphasize not only the value of participating in everyday civic affairs but also the need for sacrifice. For instance, the Roman heroine Lucretia is shown. Her suicide sparked the revolt that founded the Roman Republic.
  2. Lay government. One saint (Paul) is depicted among the worthies, but his quote from Romans 12:17-19 is about obeying the law. Figures like Justinian are deeply Christian, but they mingle on the chamber ceiling with pagan Romans and ancient Jews without distinction. The Roman republic and empire were Dante’s political models, and they were led by laymen rather than clergy. Although Dante and the medieval leaders of Lucignano believed that law should be consistent with scripture, the point emphasized in the Council Chamber is the primacy of law.
  3. Independence: Joost-Gaugier notes a subtle dig at Siena, from which Lucignano had won its freedom. Siena claimed to be founded by Remus, who was its mascot, but the frescoes in Lucignano suggest that Rome had been founded by the god Janus and not by Romulus and Remus at all. While Lucignano’s elders may have simply had a quarrel with Siena, they also hoped to govern their community free of any outside domination. Self-governance is an implicit theme here.
  4. The unity of history. Ancient Romans, Jews, and Christians all look alike in these frescoes. That is partly a result of the historical naivety of Lucignano’s artists. They had no idea that Samson and Virgil should be dressed differently from a Tuscan of the 1400s. At the same time, however, Dante offered a more substantive reason to treat all these worthies as similar. He held that world history had a unity determined by providence. See Paradiso VI, where Justinian mentions several of the other figures shown on the ceiling at Lucignano as bearers of God’s unfolding will.

People who thought in this way were liable to see themselves as appropriate heirs to the republican citizens of ancient Rome, capable of self-governance, obligated to sacrifice for the common good, and committed to the same law that had prevailed in Rome. This room is a vivid illustration of the idea that civic republicanism flourished in late-medieval Italy and came to the Atlantic world from there.

*Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, “Dante and the History of Art: The Case of a Tuscan Commune. Part II: The Sala del Consiglio at Lucignano,” Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 11, No. 22 (1990), pp. 23-46.

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the year the people took back politics: a vision for 2016

Below are my keynote remarks yesterday at …

Breaking Through: Increasing Civic Engagement, Before, During and After Elections

The video is here:


I did alter the prepared text a fair amount to address the audience of civic innovators who had gathered in Austin. By the time I spoke, I knew more about their projects. These are the prepared remarks:

A presidential election cycle is a great civic ritual. Even though only about 60% of adults vote—when we’re lucky—a national campaign still touches most Americans in one way or another. It challenges us to consider fundamental issues. And it connects us to our political heritage, for many of the greatest moments in our political history have been presidential elections.

As the 2016 cycle heats up, what should we expect from this great national civic experience? What do we have a right to expect from the election?

I would say …

The campaign must engage all Americans, without respect to wealth, social status, age, race, gender, disability, and political and religious opinions.

It must give all Americans equal weight and importance, honoring the fundamental principle of one person/one vote. It must make our leaders accountable to the people as equals.

The campaign must provoke a serious conversation about the most fundamental issues facing us as a country.

It must enlist our higher instincts. It is absolutely fine for citizens to retain their diverse political ideologies and their various and conflicting interests. But we must all be reminded of the more generous and idealistic aspects of our own views and interests—or what Lincoln called, after the fateful campaign of 1860, “the better angels of our nature.”

During a national political campaign, Americans must have respectful interactions with fellow citizens who hold different views from their own. The goal is not consensus but mutual understanding and an awareness that we are all legitimate participants in one great political debate.

Some of our interactions must be personal, in the sense that we get to know one another and can actually reply to each others’ ideas—whether online or face-to-face. In other words, it’s not enough to relate to politicians and other celebrities by following what they say. We must also relate to one another.

Citizens must see ways of acting on their political values that go beyond casting a ballot in November, important as that is. If, for instance, you are moved by the problem of climate change or concerned about moral decline, the campaign should inspire you to reduce carbon or to restore traditional values by working with neighbors and peers. The act of voting should be just one of the political efforts that you undertake as a result of the election.

Finally, a diverse set of new actors must see openings to enter political life, whether as campaign volunteers and staffers, independent activists, or reporters, artists, and bloggers. Presidential elections are entry points for new generations of activists and leaders.

I have described a national election in rather glowing terms, but we all know that the reality falls far short. Continue reading

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2014 set records for lowest youth registration and turnout

(Austin, TX) CIRCLE is reporting today that 19.9 percent of 18-to 29-years old cast ballots in the 2014 elections. That was the lowest rate of youth turnout recorded by Census data since the voting age was lowered to 18. The proportion of young people who said that they were registered to vote (46.7%) was also the lowest over the past forty years.

There was, however, a great deal of variation in youth turnout by state (e.g., 31% in Colorado and 15% in Texas). Since the degree to which a state had a competitive senatorial or gubernatorial race was strongly related to its youth turnout, one reason for the record-low may have been the shrinking number of competitive statewide races. Another reason could have been the slew of restrictive voting laws passed by many states between 2010 and 2013.

For more analysis, see the CIRCLE site.

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#Blacklivesmatter and Sen. Sanders: social democracy and identity politics

(Winston-Salem) Last weekend, #BlackLivesMatter activists disrupted a forum with Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders at Netroots Nation. An objection to Gov. O’Malley was that he oversaw the State of Maryland while it incarcerated many thousands of young Black people. That was a pretty standard case of holding a leader accountable for his performance, and the governor’s response was terrible.

The critique of Sen. Sanders was more interesting, and I would love to see a real dialogue between the activists and Sanders–rather than what sounds like a dismissive response on his part. Without wanting to stereotype any individual, I would propose that Sanders and #Blacklivesmatter represent two wings of the American left that are genuinely different and that need more conversation. (See also “Why doesn’t Bernie Sanders talk about race” and “#BernieSoBlack: Why progressives are fighting about Bernie Sanders and race,” both in Vox.)

Consider two simplified ideological positions. One can be called classical social democracy. It holds that the root cause of social injustice is the economic and political power of capital, referring to the companies and individuals who control large economic investments. They represent a small slice of the population. The Occupy Movement asserted that the economic oppressors were 1% of Americans; and while that claim rested on some recent data about wealth distributions in the US, it has always been the case that capitalists are outnumbered by something like 99-to-1.

The classical democratic socialist view is that other problems follow from the power of concentrated capital. For instance, as I have argued, a situation like police violence in Ferguson, MO can be interpreted as a result of massive deindustrialization (the loss of hundreds of thousands of unionized blue-collar jobs in that region), which rendered young men without college degrees very economically weak, which has enabled violent abuse. So—argues the classical democratic socialist—it should be everyone’s priority to reduce the economic and political power of big capital. That means financial reform, antitrust, tax reform, and campaign finance reform to get capital out of politics.

Dara Lind writes:

When my colleague Andrew Prokop profiled Sanders last year, he pointed out astutely that Sanders’s career has been ‘laser-focused on checking the power of the wealthy above all else.’ Sanders believes in racial equality, sure, but he believes it will only come as the result of economic equality. To him, focusing on racial issues first is merely treating the symptom, not the disease.

Meanwhile, the political strategy of classic democratic socialists is to build very broad solidarity. Ninety-nine percent of us are not big capitalists, so we are in basically the same boat and should not allow ourselves to be divided. For instance, police officers are blue-collar or lower-income white-collar unionized state employees who need to be brought into the same coalition with unemployed youth.

The second view—I struggle to name it fairly—takes seriously many other sources of power, privilege, and domination. According to this view, we are not divided between the 99% and the 1%, but into a rainbow of racial/ethnic groups, genders, sexual identities, etc. Oppression is manifold and complex, and often “intersectional” in the sense that race, gender, sexual orientation, and class can overlap. Although it may be valuable to reform capital markets, that is neither sufficient nor the central concern. Power must be confronted directly in all of its forms and settings.

I suspect that neither Senator Sanders nor the #Blacklivesmatter activists at Netroots Nation would want to be placed simply in one of those two boxes. Every serious person develops more complex views in the course of struggling with difficult realities. But these are two general tendencies and they do explain, for instance, why the demographics of an #Occupy gathering or a Bernie Sanders rally are so different from the demographics of a #Blacklivesmatter protest.

For my part: I am not a democratic socialist, for two reasons. First, I am somewhat more enthusiastic about markets, individual economic liberties, and pluralism than a classical (statist) socialist would be. Secondly, I am somewhat persuaded by the second position summarized above and do not believe that concentrated capital is our only problem.

But I do worry a lot about concentrated, unregulated capital and doubt that much can be accomplished on other fronts if we don’t address that. I observe that concerns about race, gender, and sexual orientation have produced scattered victories over the past 30 years, not only in national politics (e.g., marriage equality) but also within institutions like corporations and universities. Meanwhile, the traditional democratic socialist agenda has been in steady retreat for the same 30 years, sometimes verging on a disorganized rout. National and global policies are more neoliberal and less economically egalitarian than at any time since the 1920s.

Younger people on the left typically have a lot to say about issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. They have diagnoses, solutions, heroes, and movements they can join. But most struggle for comparable ideas about reforming the global political economy, if they think about that at all. Despite the terrible injustices that motivate movements like #Blacklivesmatter, there is some sense of momentum toward policy changes, such as sentencing reform. We see nothing comparable when it comes to global capital markets. Thus I am glad to see the voices of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren resonating with at least some Americans.

I wish Sanders had taken the #Blacklivesmatter protesters seriously, because they deserve that, and the progressive movement needs their support to win. Yet I’d prefer that Sanders stuck to his position in a respectful debate, so that his side of the argument would convey. He is not going to be president; his contribution may be to put a different diagnosis and solutions on the table. The last thing I’d do is to silence #Blacklivesmatter protesters, but I wish that they and the Senator could have a substantive debate, in which both sides laid out some of these genuine points of disagreement.

Posted in 2016 election, revitalizing the left, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Donald Trump as the schoolyard bully

(Winston-Salem, NC) Recent events involving The Donald strike me as powerfully reminiscent of an unpleasant schoolyard. Wanting to be popular and the leader of the cool clique, he picks on the most marginal group–in real life, Mexican immigrants. The other would-be leaders don’t necessarily like his bullying, and they worry that everyone may get in trouble for it, but they see that the abuse is popular among the bystanders, so they keep their objections to a low mutter. As for the bystanders, they are looking for a bad boy who will make trouble for the teachers and the school. Plus a lot of them dislike the marginal kids in the first place, or they want to differentiate themselves from them.

Then the bully, who is stupid as well as mean, makes a mistake. Instead of just picking on the weakest kids in the schoolyard, he says something utterly offensive about one of the cool kids. In real life, The Donald insults a Republican senator, war hero, former presidential nominee of the party, and son of an admiral. Now all the other would-be alpha dogs see an opening. This is not cool. They can criticize him. And once the mood has shifted, they can start throwing all kinds of other objections at the bully. They still won’t say anything in defense of the weak and the marginalized, but they can start questioning the bully’s claims to be cool. In a schoolyard, they would ridicule his clothing or musical tastes. In real life, they can all start saying that Trump isn’t a conservative because he has been pro-choice, has donated to the Clintons, etc. And whoever does the best job taking down the bully has the best chance of replacing him. That is the phase that has now begun.

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youth Participatory Budgeting in Boston

In April, 2014, I had the pleasure of watching Boston teenagers begin a youth Participatory Budgeting process. The city has asked them to decide how to allocate $1 million of capital funds, engaging their peers in research, deliberation, and voting. I described my observations in “You can add us to equations but they never make us equal: participatory budgeting in Boston.”

Now their decisions have been announced. The projects they selected include extending the city’s bicycle share system and free WiFi to additional neighborhoods, installing water bottle refill stations, and renovating a high school gym. The photo below shows some of the kids with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. More here.

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how to respond to a leader’s call for civic renewal

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama spoke at length, consistently, and passionately about renewing citizenship in the US. I collected many of the key quotes here. There was a depth to these comments because Obama had worked for a faith-based organizing network, had studied Asset Based Community Development, had served on Robert Putnam’s Saguaro Seminar, and was married to the leader of a youth engagement nonprofit. He knew what he was talking about. And although he sought to lead the Democratic Party, he explicitly included Republicans and Independents in his call for civic renewal. However, the press ignored his citizenship theme, both during the campaign and later on (examples here). Policy wonks and Democratic Party elites also ignored it. I served on both the Education and Urban Policy committees of the campaign, and neither group generated strong policy proposals for enhancing civic engagement. Thus the administration–of which I am a defender, when it comes to mainstream matters of domestic and foreign policy–has done little to support enhanced citizenship in the US. A president cannot accomplish much alone, and if even his allies don’t hear his call for something as abstract as civic renewal, nothing will happen.

This summer, Pope Francis has made an impassioned call to the peoples of the world to organize from the bottom up to combat environmental crises. Like Obama’s call in 2008, this one is rooted in experience and theory–in the Pope’s case, extending back to his sainted namesake in the 13th century, but also including sophisticated modern theology. The Pope is the leader of Catholicism, yet he has explicitly included non-Catholics and non-believers in his call for global organizing. But again, the theme of civic agency has been lost on the punditocracy. The Pope’s speech at the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements was all about popular organizing, and yet the New York Times largely ignored that theme, summarizing his visit in these words: “Pope Francis met Thursday with President Evo Morales of Bolivia and apologized for the church’s ‘sins’ during Latin America’s colonial era. … But if Francis again called for change, he also offered no detailed prescription.”

Leaders alone cannot create social movements, but their words can be useful resources. Barack Obama gave us an opportunity in 2008; I do not think we (or he) took adequate advantage of it. The Pope is giving us another chance. How–concretely and practically–should we respond this time?

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