new Civic Engagement section for the American Political Science Association

Elizabeth Bennion (Indiana University – South Bend), Richard Davis (Brigham Young University), and I have proposed a new APSA Organized Section on Civic Engagement. It will promote the teaching of and scholarship about civic engagement through sponsorship of civics education and civic research panels and/or short courses.

“The Civic Engagement Section would serve as an institutional home for a diverse, growing and important group of scholars. It would create new opportunities to showcase the best new research at APSA’s annual meeting, promote subfield collaboration, and serve as a focal point for coordinating the various projects being undertaken by civic engagement scholars. Indeed, we welcome scholars working with diverse methodological backgrounds and in diverse institutional settings including research intensive universities, teaching intensive colleges and universities, HBCUs and HSIs, community colleges, and in the nonprofit sector.”

If you are an APSA member, you can sign the petition here. We are on course to have enough signatures for formal review of the proposal, but we still welcome more support, which will strengthen the petition.

If you’re not an APSA member–or a political scientist, or an academic–you may still want to keep an eye out for opportunities to work with the new section.

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an agenda for political reform in Massachusetts

Today at the Boston Foundation, MassINC & Tisch College released our report on reforming state government in Massachusetts.

The major theme is that a small number of people who lack the diversity of our state dominate the process of governance, which includes voting, running for office, assessing problems and possible solutions, consulting stakeholders, and building coalitions.

State government is very powerful because of a lack of county governments and weak home-rule for our cities. Within the legislature, especially in the House, power is strongly concentrated in the leadership.

Strong leadership is not necessarily problematic, and it is typical of large legislative bodies, such as our House. But centralized control is problematic if the leadership lacks diversity. In our case, of the 76 legislators who hold leadership positions, four are people of color.

And centralized control is problematic if people outside the center lack the capacity to play their own important roles in governance In our case, most state representatives employ just one staffer–not enough to play a meaningful role in legislating. The parties are shells, employing very few people. And state and local newspapers are near collapse.

As solutions, we propose:

1. Synchronize state and local elections. Holding local elections in odd years dramatically reduces turnout leading to an electorate that is unrepresentative and vulnerable to influence by special interests. To attract more voters, Massachusetts should follow other cities and states that have moved municipal contests to even years.

2. Provide public funds for candidates and parties. Public financing increases the racial, economic, and gender diversity of those running for office. Massachusetts should join a growing number of cities and states that provide public funding to both candidates and parties.

3. Increase the capacity of the whole legislature to legislate. All legislators should have the capacity to consult with citizens and experts, analyze legislative proposals, develop their own proposals, and build coalitions. Massachusetts should follow the practice of 46 states and create a research office to provide nonpartisan analysis of pending legislation. The Legislature should also provide rank-and-file legislators with more professional staff and ensure that they are adequately compensated.

4. Invest in the press. Concerted effort is needed to find new business models for state and local news. The legislature should act expediently on pending legislation that would establish a commission to examine policy options to ensure that residents in all of our communities have access to quality state and local news.

We also endorse civic education, lowering the voting age, Ranked-Choice Voting, Election Day Registration, and the Citizens Initiative Review.

Read the whole thing here. It can be cited as: Peter Levine, Benjamin Forman & Laurel Bliss, MassForward: Advancing Democratic Innovation and Electoral Reform in Massachusetts (Boston: MassINC, 2019)

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in defense of (some) implicit bias

I hope that if there were an implicit bias test for Nazism, I would demonstrate a strong negative bias. Shown rapid-fire images of swastikas and Nazi leaders, I would be unable to associate them with positive words without strenuous effort. The reason is that I learned a deep aversion to National Socialism, based originally on reasons and evidence. It is now no longer efficient for me to use conscious effort to assess Nazis, their pros and cons. I have rightly translated a very well-founded judgment into a habit, which works like a constructed instinct. That way, I can reserve my limited attention and cognitive capacity for other issues.

In 1970, Charles Fried proposed as a philosophical thought-experiment a situation in which two people are drowning, one of whom happens to be your spouse. It was “absurd,” said Fried, that you should be impartial about which one to save. Fried was developing an argument against pure impartiality. But Bernard Williams famously replied that you shouldn’t even have to think about which person to save. That would be “one thought too many.” If you must reason about whether to save your spouse as opposed to someone else, you do not love your spouse. The problem with having to think in this case is not mere inefficiency (it might slow you down and increase her chance of drowning). It’s more basic than that. You do not have a “deep attachment” to another person unless—here I extend Williams’ argument—you have turned your preference for that person into an acquired instinct. Your ability to act on that instinct instead of reasoning is proof of a process that we call love.

In a really interesting new paper, “Rationalization is Rational,” Fiery Cushman argues that human beings, since we have limited cognitive resources, have evolved several different modes of representing things in our environment: reason and planning, habit, instinct, and norms. These modes require varying amounts of cognitive attention. Cushman also proposes that we have evolved mechanisms for shifting representations from one mode to another for efficiency’s sake. For instance, we intentionally learn the way home and then form a habit of walking home so that we no longer have to think about it. But we can also make a habit conscious and practice until we change it.

Many people are currently worried about two specific “representational exchanges,” in Cushman’s terms. One is rationalization. We think that we are making a conscious and reasoned choice, but we have actually formed an instinctive reaction that we then merely rationalize with explicit words. This phenomenon is widely taken to be evidence of human unreason and inability to deliberate. But Cushman sees it as an efficient process. We can’t go through life assessing everything explicitly, so we develop habits of reacting to categories of things and then justify our reactions when reasons are needed. So long as the learned habit was based on good thinking in the first place, it is an efficiency measure rather than a limitation. In turn, rationalization (giving reasons for something we have already decided) serves a useful purpose: it puts a habit into verbal form so that it can be debated.

The other problem that worries many of us implicit bias, particularly in the form of racial stereotyping. Tests of implicit bias show that various forms are common in the population as a whole.

Implicit bias research sometimes seems to flatten crucial moral differences. A subject might have a 3% bias against African Americans and a 24% bias against Millennials. This does not mean that generational bias is eight times more important, even in this individual’s case. Racism is structural, historical, connected to laws and institutions, and literally deadly. Generational bias is just one of those things we should probably think about. To assess the empirical data about bias, we need judgments about what is just and unjust.

Applying Cushman’s insight, I would go further. An implicit bias is not necessarily bad at all. It is actually a virtue (in the Aristotelian sense) if it reflects a process of reasoning and learning that we have stored as a habit. Being biased against Nazis and in favor of your spouse are virtues. Being biased against people of color is a vice. The difference lies in the content of the judgment, not the form.

It’s true that any bias can mislead. For instance, your appropriate abhorrence of Nazism might distort your views of justice in the current Middle East. Your appropriate bias in favor of your dearly beloved family members might cause you to treat strangers in unjust ways. It is characteristic of virtues that each is insufficient; we need a whole suite of them. And one important task is to bring even our best biases into conversation with other ideas and principles. But it wouldn’t be progress to temper your bias against Nazis or in favor of your spouse. That would just weaken your virtues. Progress means combating bad biases, developing good biases, and combining your good biases with more abstract principles of judgment.

See also: the era of cognitive bias; marginalizing views in a time of polarization; Empathy and Justice; Jonathan Haidt’s six foundations of morality; and don’t confuse bias and judgment (which is incompatible with this post).

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on baseball as an analogy for civics

(DCA) Yesterday at the “Future of Civics” event presented by The Atlantic and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, I got to hear Paul Finkelman present the same argument he had made recently in The Atlantic under the heading, “Baseball is a Civics Education.” 

Baseball, Finkelman says, is “a wonderful example of a functioning legal system, one that teaches the millions of Americans who play or watch it fundamental principles of American law and constitutional theory.”

Finkelman analogizes baseball to law, meaning primarily the judicial process. It was only the headline writer who called baseball a “Civics Education.” That raised the stakes, because civics is about much more than law. Civics is also about partisan politics, social movements, social capital, identities, ideologies, and a range of other issues that look much less like baseball.

Still, I have made analogies between games and politics (why learn game theory?; work and play and civic life). As Finkelman argues, baseball is rule-guided. It channels individual and group competition into an event that serves a larger public; ambition is harnessed for the public good. The rules are explicit but have evolved (informally as well as formally) and are interpreted by human umpires who are trained to be neutral. In addition to explicit rules and penalties, baseball depends on norms.

These are some similarities between baseball and some desirable aspects of politics. On the other hand, politics is not only about who plays better. It’s primarily about ideas, decisions, or policies. To the extent that better play determines the outcome, a political or legal system (unlike a game) is flawed.

In democratic politics and in a jury room, the audience doesn’t just watch; they decide the outcome. And their decision is not about who did a better job, but what about is most true or just. That is a high ideal; in reality, we also decide what will serve our own interests. That is both inevitable and also justifiable, within limits. Politics is an instrument for obtaining the ends we want.

In baseball, the identities of the two teams are sharply defined and are fixed for the duration of the game. In politics, one of the important dynamics is the ability of players to choose and change identities. Baseball is a two-team sport, but even in the dysfunctional partisan duopoly of US partisan politics, there are many more than two teams on the field at a time. And players are constantly changing sides. There is (or should be) no sharp distinction between the audience and the players. Everyone plays. Even apathy has an effect.

Competing baseball teams may be unequal in the sense that one team has better players. But they have the same number of players, opportunities at bat, and other basic resources. In contrast, politics is always unequal, often brutally so. That often makes the game less enjoyable to watch, but nobody designed politics for the audience’s appreciation. It is a manifestation of power.

Most importantly, the stakes are different. Baseball is about who wins. Politics is about who pays or receives, prospers or suffers, lives or dies.

I can see the pedagogical value of analogizing politics and baseball. The sport teaches certain values that are worthy in civic life, such as rule-of-law, fair play, and the value of the opponent. But baseball and other games also differ from politics, and we risk mis-educating people if we drive the analogy too far.

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the Oberlin cultural appropriation controversy, revisited

(Washington, DC) In 2016, I began a blog post:

The Oberlin College Cultural Appropriation Controversy is almost certainly getting more attention than it deserves because it reinforces critiques of political correctness in higher education. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting case to consider the general questions: What is cultural appropriation, and when is it bad?

Some Oberlin students criticized Oberlin’s dining hall’s bánh mì and General Tso’s chicken as cultural appropriations. …

I tried to offer a nuanced response to the general topic of cultural appropriation. Although I see some legitimacy in some critiques of appropriation, I am worried about the stance that cultural products belong to ethno-cultural groups and cannot be borrowed. I find that view empirically untenable, because culture is always borrowed and shared. And I can think of unsavory examples–like Richard Wagner’s decrying classical music composed by European Jews, partly on the ground that music belonged to Germans and not Jews. I start with enthusiasm for a global cultural commons and opposition to all forms of “enclosure.”

However, we now know that I shouldn’t have been writing about the Oberlin episode at all. No Oberlin students organized to criticize the campus food on political grounds. Instead, the college newspaper asked some individuals their opinions of the college bánh mì and sushi. A majority of those interviewed thought these dishes were poor examples of their genres. The bánh mì was made with ciabatta, and the “chicken sushi” wasn’t sushi at all. It’s not clear that even the individuals who were quoted had political or ethical objections to the food. And even if they did, they were responding to a question. There was no student movement against cultural appropriation.

This story fit some people’s prior assumptions and went viral without being fact-checked. In this case, it was about allegedly spoiled PC students on a liberal campus, but we are all subject to being fooled by virally contagious anecdotes. This phenomenon can happen accidentally, but it can also be made to happen by people with nefarious motives. An example is the shadowy Twitter account that “posted a minute-long video showing the now-iconic confrontation between a Native American elder and the high school students.” This misleading video was carefully designed to play on the ideological priors of liberals.

Looking back at my post, I am relieved that I hedged my opening and I didn’t criticize any students. But I did file away the memory that Oberlin undergraduates had mobilized against the bánh mì, which did not happen. And my post, despite its caveats, played its small role in spreading that misperception. We all need to pay more attention to the reliability of the alleged facts that we use as opportunities for arguments.

See also: what is cultural appropriation?; notes on cultural appropriation after the royal wedding; when is cultural appropriation good or bad?; V.S. Naipaul’s view of culture; cultural mixing and power; a political defense of Hamilton; Maoist chic as Orientalism; and “a different Shakespeare from the one I love”

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the New Institutionalism, deliberative democracy, and the rise of the New Right

In public debates about issues and problems, we typically consider institutions in two ways. On the one hand, we discuss their explicit purposes and missions, as reflected in the laws that create and govern them or (if they are autonomous) their mission statements and express goals. We ask whether these purposes are good and, if not, how we should change them. On the other hand, we discuss the institutions’ outcomes: what they actually achieve.

For instance, in public debates about public schools, we debate what they explicitly strive for (producing citizens? boosting the economy?) and what they really accomplish in terms of outcomes for students.

We are then frustrated because institutions do not seem to produce their intended outcomes, nor do reforms move them in the intended directions. This may be because of a set of well-known phenomena:

  • Path-dependence: Once an institution has developed in a certain way, shifting it is expensive and difficult.
  • Principal/agent problems: People in institutions have their own interests and agendas (which need not always be selfish); and there is a gap between their assigned roles and their actual goals.
  • Institutional isomorphism: Even when institutions are set up to be self-governing, they come to resemble each other. Witness the striking similarities among America’s 50 state governments or more than 5,000 colleges and universities.
  • Rent-seeking: People within existing institutions often extract goods from others just by virtue of their positions. Economists call these payments “rents.”
  • Bounded rationality: The individuals who operate within institutions have limited information about relevant topics, including the rest of their own institution. Information is costly, and it’s rational not to collect too much.
  • Voting paradoxes: No system for aggregating individual choices by voting yields consistently defensible results.
  • The Iron Law of Oligarchy: Even in organizations explicitly devoted to egalitarian democracy (the classic examples are socialist parties), a few highly-committed and tightly networked leaders almost always rule.
  • Epistemic Injustice: Knowledge is produced by institutions–not (for the most part) by individuals–and institutions favor knowledge that is in their own interests.

New Institutionalists emphasize and explore these phenomena. Their findings suggest either that citizens (meaning everyone who deliberates about how to improve the social world) should become much more attentive to these features of institutions, or else that we are incapable of social analysis because it is just too hard for millions of people to deconstruct millions of institutions. In the latter case, we should abandon ambitious theories of public deliberation and democracy.

New Institutionalism is heterogeneous. For one thing, it is ideologically diverse. Scholars who write about rent-seeking and voting paradoxes are often coded as right-wing, and sometimes they attribute rents mainly to governmental entities as opposed to markets. (Still, those of us on the left should take this issue seriously if we want to design governments that work for people). Scholars who write about Epistemic Injustice are often coded as left-wing; this idea emerged in feminism. The Iron Law of Oligarchy originated on the left, too, with Robert Michels.

New Institutionalism is diverse in other ways apart from ideology. For instance, the version that emerged from Rational Choice Theory is methodologically individualist. It models institutions as the result of interactions among individuals who have distinct goals and limited information. Some other versions of New Institutionalism are explicitly critical of methodological individualism. They attribute causal roles to institutions as opposed to individuals.

There is also a debate about determinism versus chance and choice. Historical institutionalists often emphasize the contingency of outcomes. Due to a random confluence of circumstances at a pivotal moment, an institution gets on a “path” that persists. In contrast, institutionalists who use rational-choice analysis often try to demonstrate that a given institution is in equilibrium, which implies that it almost had to take the form that it does.

Given this heterogeneity, we might begin to wonder whether New Institutionalism is a thing at all. Here is an alternative view: Institutions matter, but so do ideas, values, climates of opinion, identities, technologies, demographic changes, and biophysical feedback (e.g., climate change). Because many factors are relevant, there is often a moment when someone needs to say, “We have been neglecting institutions!” This person usually fails to find adequate resources in the “old” institutionalist authors: Weber, Veblen, Michels, et al. So she naturally calls herself a “New Institutionalist.”

In that case, New Institutionalism is not a movement or a phase in intellectual history. It is a recurrent stance or trope in debates since ca. 1900. As Elizabeth Sanders writes:

Attention to the development of institutions has fluctuated widely across disciplines, and over time. Its popularity has waxed and waned in response to events in the social/economic/political world and to the normal intradisciplinary conflicts of ideas and career paths. … Some classic works that analyze institutions in historical perspective have enjoyed a more or less continuous life on political science syllabi. Books by Max Weber, Maurice Duverger, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Locke, Woodrow Wilson, Robert McCloskey, and Samuel Beer are prominent examples.

Elizabeth Sanders, “Historical Institutionalism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions (2008)

Still, a case can be made that we are in the midst (or perhaps the wake) of a New Institutionalist Movement. Sanders observes that classic theories of institutions were “increasingly sidelined … with the rise of behaviorism after the Second World War, particularly with the emergence of survey research and computer technology. …. However, after a hiatus of several decades, the study of institutions in historical perspective reemerged in political science in the 1970s, took on new, more analytical, epistemological characteristics, and flowered in the 1980s and 1990s. Why this reemergence?”

I’d give a slightly different answer from hers. I would note that several ideologies were influential from ca. 1945-1980. Here I don’t define an “ideology” as a form of invidious bias, nor as a mere basket of ideals. It is a more-or-less harmonious combination of ideals, causal theories, grand narratives, exemplary cases and models, and favored institutions. It makes sense of the world and motivates change, including positive change.

By that definition, liberalism, wealth-maximizing utilitarianism, democratic socialism, deliberative or participatory democracy, and Leninism were all ideologies. But none took sufficient account of the phenomena listed above. None was Institutionalist, in that sense. And all have been set back on their heels by the increasing strength and plausibility of Institutionalist research.

This my basis for claiming that New Institutionalism is a movement with consequences. Almost all of the ideological options available in 1968 or 1980 are less confident, less coherent, and less prominent today, thanks in significant measure to Institutionalist analysis conducted since then.

This account applies strongly to the stance that I grew up with: deliberative democracy. It originated in normative political philosophy plus small-scale voluntary experiments that succeeded in their own terms. It never attended enough to Institutionalism, and it now looks increasingly naive.

The main exception is classical liberalism/libertarianism. In the political domain, this ideology faces at least as much trouble as the others do. The libertarian-leaning (but never consistent) Republican Party has been taken over by authoritarian nationalists. However, in the intellectual domain–in the classroom–libertarianism has offered a coherent answer to New Institutionalism. It holds that all the flaws of institutions are worse in monopolistic state organizations than in markets. It can even explain why this insight is not more broadly understood: state schools and nonprofit colleges are run by rent-seekers who oppose libertarian ideas.

I dissent on several grounds (as do thoughtful classical liberals), but I’d still venture that classical liberals weathered New Institutionalism better than their rivals did, which explains a certain confidence in their ranks from ca. 1980-2008.

But now classical liberalism faces the same threat as all the other ideologies. The movement that is being called Populism (although I’d apply that word to other traditions, too) is perfectly calibrated for a world explained by New Institutionalism. Populism begins by denouncing all the institutions around us as corrupt because they unaccountably fail to generate their promised outcomes. It attributes this failure to the treason of elites: people well situated within existing institutions. It describes a homogeneous “us” (usually a racial or national group) that has been betrayed by “them,” the elites and foreigners. And it endorses a strong leader who fights for us against them. It dismisses specific institutional analyses as mere excuses and envisions a simple system that avoids all such Institutionalist problems. In this system, the authentic citizens constitute a unified majority; they select a leader in an occasional vote; and the leader rules.

In the face of this challenge, what are our options?

  • We could embrace the right-wing authoritarian populism. That is morally repugnant. Also, it won’t actually work over the long run.
  • We could ignore the findings of New Institutionalism and barrel ahead with an ideology like deliberative democracy or social democracy. I don’t think that’s smart.
  • We could count on elites to address the flaws of the institutions they lead. I don’t think that will happen, not only because elites are untrustworthy but also because these flaws are hard to fix.
  • We could beat the right-wing populists in other ways: by revealing their corruption, seizing on their missteps, or just running better candidates. This is important, but what happens after a Putin, an Orban, or a Trump?
  • We could re-engineer the institutions we care about by giving more attention to New Institutionalist insights. I think European social democrats have done so, to a degree. Social welfare programs in the Eurozone reflect concerns about path-dependence, feedback loops, principal/agent issues, etc. Deliberative democrats could, likewise, build deliberative institutions that take more account of such problems. This is a worthy approach but it requires compromises. For instance, social democratic systems may have to be less egalitarian to enlist the support of wealthy constituencies. And deliberative democratic forums may have to be made less democratic, for similar reasons.
  • We could enlist a wider range of people than just “elites” to work on the problems of specific institutions. We could make the solutions democratic. That is valuable but a long and slow process.
  • We could educate the public about the inner workings of institutions, their pathologies and solutions. That is important but hard.

I see our work in Civic Studies as a combination of the last two responses.

See also: teaching about institutions, in a prison; a template for analyzing an institution; decoding institutions; a different approach to human problems; fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism; separating populism from anti-intellectualism; against methodological individualism.

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NEH and Department of Education award $650,000 to Educating for American Democracy, a collaborative project to create a roadmap for excellence in civic education

Led by iCivics, Arizona State University, Harvard University, and Tufts University, the effort will bring together more than 100 experts in civics, history, education, and political science to outline a strategy for teaching American Democracy in the 21st century.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Nov 1, 2019) — The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, has awarded a $650,000 cooperative agreement to a collaborative of experts who will work together to design a roadmap to prepare K-12 students for America’s constitutional democracy.

Educating for American Democracy: A Roadmap for Excellence in History and Civics Education for All Learners will bring together more than 100 leading academics and practitioners in education, civics, history, and political science to set out a foundation for understanding and teaching American history and civics. And it will issue a roadmap that will outline high-priority civics content areas and make clear and actionable recommendations for integrating the teaching of civics and history at every grade level, along with best practices and implementation strategies that teachers, schools, districts and states can use to shape their instructional programs. 

The roadmap will develop the foundation from which to prepare all students to understand the value of America’s constitutional democracy as well as its past failures and present challenges. Our goal is to design a program that will secure a strong commitment to and sense of ownership of that democracy in K-12 students.

Educating for American Democracy is a cross-partisan effort led by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, the School of Civic & Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement and Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, and iCivics — the country’s largest civic education provider. 

The group has formed a Steering Committee, as well as task forces in History, Political Science, and Pedagogy that will hold two convenings over the next year — one at Louisiana State University and one at Arizona State University. It will then issue its report, which will be authored by Danielle Allen from Harvard University, Paul Carrese from ASU, Louise Dube from iCivics, and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Peter Levine from Tufts University, prior to a National Forum on September 2020 in Washington, DC, which will be co-hosted by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and the National Archives and Records Administration Foundation. 

“As the United States looks toward our 250th anniversary as a nation in 2026, it is critical that our K-12 educational system teaches the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and the democratic principles on which the country was founded,” said NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede. “The National Endowment for the Humanities is pleased to be working with Educating for American Democracy to identify ways to improve the teaching and learning of American history and government so that all students gain an appreciation of the workings of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.” 

The Educating for American Democracy project responds to an NEH-Education Department call for proposals for a fifteen-month project that would highlight innovative approaches, learning strategies, and professional development practices in K-12 civics education, with an emphasis on activities and programs that benefit low-income and underserved populations.

Educating for American Democracy will rely on the expertise of the teams at ASU, Harvard, and Tufts and will utilize iCivics’ community of more than 100,000 teachers, as well as partner communities for field testing to ensure that the Roadmap is a practical and useful document in the classroom. It will draw upon the collective network of CivXNow, a coalition of 113 organizations and foundations dedicated to improving civic education in order to disseminate the curriculum. 

Educating for American Democracy is an effort to provide guidance for integrating history and civics so that today’s learners form a strong connection to our constitutional democracy—and take ownership of it,” said Louise Dubé, the executive director of iCivics, which was founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2009. “We are very thankful that this cooperative agreement with NEH and the Department of Education will give our team of experts, academics, and practitioners the opportunity to design a trans-partisan roadmap for excellence in history and civics education.”

The Educating for American Democracy cooperative agreement is funded through a partnership between NEH’s Division of Education Programs and the U.S. Department of Education’s American History and Civics Education-National Activities program and is part of NEH’s newly announced “More Perfect Union” initiative focused on the upcoming 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States.

“Our republic is at a crossroads, facing deep partisan and philosophical polarization, while understanding of and trust in America’s democratic institutions are dangerously low – especially among younger citizens.  Our interdisciplinary and balanced team of scholars, teachers, and civic educators believes that the relative neglect of civics education in the past half-century is a major root cause of much civic and political dysfunction,” ASU’s Paul Carrese said. “We’re grateful to the NEH and Department of Education for marshaling the resources and attention needed to spur real reform.”  

National Endowment for the Humanities: Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at:

The School of Civic & Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University blends a liberal arts education with civic education to prepare 21st century leaders for American and international affairs, balancing study of classic ideas with outside-the-classroom learning experiences.  The School also provides civic education programs such as a podcast (Keeping It Civil), the Arizona Constitution Project, and the Civic Discourse Project – a national-caliber speakers program partnering with Arizona PBS to provide a space for civil discourse on pressing issues.

The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University seeks to strengthen teaching and research about pressing ethical issues; to foster sound norms of ethical reasoning and civic discussion; and to share the work of our community in the public interest. The Center stands at the core of a well-established movement giving ethics a prominent place in the curriculum and on research agendas at Harvard and throughout the world. The Center’s Democratic Knowledge Project is a K-16 civic education provider that seeks to identify and disseminate the bodies of knowledge, capacities, and skills that democratic citizens need in order to build and sustain healthy, thriving democracies.

Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life and Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement: The only university-wide college of its kind, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University studies and promotes the civic and political engagement of young people at Tufts University, in our communities, and in our democracy. Peter Levine serves as Associate Dean of Academic Affairs. Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), directed by Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, is a premier research center on young people’s civic education and engagement in the United States, especially those who are marginalized or disadvantaged in political life. CIRCLE’s scholarly research informs policy and practice for healthier youth development and a better democracy. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded iCivics in 2009 to transform the field through innovative, free educational video games and lessons that teach students to be knowledgeable, curious, and engaged in civic life. Today, iCivics is the nation’s largest provider of civic education curriculum, with our resources used by over 108,000 educators and more than 6.7 million students each year nationwide. Visit to learn more

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we are lucky with our right-wing authoritarian

(Washington, DC) At today’s Deliberative Democracy Consortium’s Research & Practice Meeting on “Deliberative Democracy and Human Cognition,” Shawn W. Rosenberg made a point that I have often considered but never expressed.

Here is the background to the point: A broad range of people in many advanced democracies are potential supporters of ethno-nationalism (which means racism in the United States), autocratic leadership, and hostility to opposition parties, a free press, and intellectual critics. In a contest with liberal democratic values, this combination has built-in advantages. It is simpler, less cognitively and emotionally demanding, and more affirming of the people who belong to the ethn0-nationalist in-group.

In the United States, the chief representative of that combination is Donald J. Trump. But he lost the popular vote in 2016 and has never surpassed 45.5% popularity in the polling average. I think this is because he combines the globally ascendant right-wing authoritarian package with: personal indiscipline and frequent incompetence, laziness, blatant small-bore corruption and nepotism, a failure to retain the loyalty of his lieutenants, ignorance of the structures of power, a superficial grasp of his own ideology, and a rhetorical style that impresses only a small minority of Americans (a subset of his own voters).

If and when we face a right-wing authoritarian “populist” who moderates his (or her?) rhetoric skillfully, deploys resources efficiently, develops and implements strategies, sacrifices some personal needs and interests for his ideology, and manages the White House competently, we will be in deep trouble.

On the other hand, we might prove lastingly fortunate if this special moment of opportunity for white nationalism in America (while the national majority is still white but perceives status threat*) is dominated by a man who happens to be very bad at his job.

See also: Trump at the confluence of populism, chauvinism, and celebrity; fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism; pluralist populism; is Trumpism akin to the European right? etc.

*Whether status anxiety explains the 2016 election is controversial; but even if it doesn’t, the anxiety still seems palpable.

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work and play and civic life

(My notes for a talk this evening at a Ludics Seminar at Harvard’s Mahindra Center on “The Role of Play in Human Evolution and Public Life: Work, or Play?”)

It is very common to distinguish politics or civic life from both work and play. (The words “politics” and “civic” have overlapping meanings, coming respectively from Greek and Latin, and I’ll use them interchangeably here.)

Aristotle provides an early example of the distinction between work and politics. He begins with the premise that “the citizen’s function” is “deliberating and judging (whether on all issues or only a few).” In other words, to act as a citizen means to talk, to listen, and to vote. It is discursive and cognitive. Citizens, understood as deliberators and judges, must be free from doing the necessary tasks of life, which are done by slaves (who work for individuals) and by mechanics and laborers (who work for the community). Aristotle advises: “The best form of city will not make the mechanic a citizen.” Note that the mechanic or laborer is not defined by poverty, for some are very rich, but by participation in the marketplace. Working distorts people’s values and goals and makes them bad at deliberation about the public good, perhaps because they focus on their economic interests. Governance is best reserved for a class that has enough wealth not to work.

I cannot think of anyone today who would openly disenfranchise workers for the reasons that Aristotle cites. However, the same distinction between work and politics is evident in several political traditions that make the opposite value-judgment from Aristotle’s. Like him, they presume that politics is about talking, listening, and deciding, and it’s done outside of work. But unlike Aristotle, they think that only those who work are worthy of politics, because they alone have the appropriate values or because their productive labor gives them the right to rule.

One version holds that people of industry and thrift are worthy of governing a republic. This idea is familiar from the English Revolution, the Dutch Republic, and Colonial New England. It associates the bourgeois work ethic with republican virtues.

A different version is agrarian populism, which sees the stalwart farmer as the most legitimate citizen. Like Cincinnatus, a republican farmer puts down his plow to govern and fight, but he hastens back to his fields when his civic duty is done. Jeffersonian American populism and Russian Narodnism are examples.

A third version is Marxist. The workers form a class, distinguished from the bourgeoisie, who merely claim a “work ethic” while they exploit the actual laborers. The working class should rule. Marx offers the resonant ideal of unifying work with Aristotelian politics, removing the alienation between ruling and making. But my impression is that Marxist reforms–from mild democratic socialism all the way to Maoism–have hardly ever realized that ideal. Instead, they have tended to distinguish–just as Aristotle did–between work and governance, but they make the workers into the governors. You work in the factory by day, and after the whistle blows, you attend a workers’ council meeting to make decisions. In fact, the problem with socialism, according to Oscar Wilde, is that it occupies too many evenings.

Two additional strands of reform have developed since the Industrial Revolution. I endorse both, but they are not my main subject here. One aims to democratize the workplace by creating co-ops and other alternative enterprises that are governed on the basis of one-worker, one-vote. The other puts democratic pressure on the workforce by forming an independent association of workers than can negotiate and strike–a union. Both reforms narrow the gap between work and politics, but not in the way that I will describe.

My friend Harry Boyte advocates a different ideal, which he calls Public Work. He has uncovered many precedents for it from around the world.

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(Provo, UT) I am at Brigham Young University, discussing civic engagement with insightful faculty and students, against a background of cold, clear mountains. Within the past two weeks, I have had somewhat similar conversations inside the classroom of a Massachusetts medium security prison, a Tufts classroom with 50 talented 18-20-year-olds, a glittering living room in Boston’s Louisburg Square (at a political fundraiser), and in various coffee shops around Cambridge, MA. I’ve also heard a lecture on Tagore and the Upanishads and chatted with colleagues scattered across the country.

I just want to express my gratitude for these opportunities. To some extent, they come with being an academic, which is a privilege in itself. But my particular role and institution make such experiences especially frequent, diverse, and rewarding.

See also: at BYU; and teaching about institutions, in a prison

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