academics who promote democracy

I lead a peculiar professional life, one that’s hard to describe to acquaintances; but I’m hardly unique. There are distinguished and successful people who are much further along a similar path than I–to name just a few, Harry Boyte, Barbara Ferman, Lew Friedland, Archon Fung, Bill Galston, John Gaventa, Liz Hollander, Jenny Mansbridge, Elinor Ostrom, John McKnight, Karen Pittman, Jay Rosen, Carmen Sirianni, and Linda Williams. These are all scholars who promote democracy in practical ways. I like to think that my blog describes how one can live that sort of life, in case other people want to try it. My own activities are by no means exemplary, but I often report on what my colleagues are doing.

In brief, they are serious scholars who are developing elaborate worldviews in articles and books. But they draw a lot of their knowledge from hands-on work outside the academy. That description would also cover plenty of academics who are experts in fields of policy and advocates for particular positions. For example, there are hundreds of science professors who promote green policies in conjunction with advocacy groups. That is a completely appropriate form of engagement. But the people I mentioned above are more interested in the democratic process. Specifically, they are concerned about citizens’ capacity to form their own opinions and to shape the world accordingly.


Their scholarly work concerns various aspects of civil society or democracy, not (for the most part) particular fields of policy. The values they advocate include–in various mixtures–participation, voice, deliberation, community development, political equality, civic knowledge, and public work. The institutions that concern and interest them include the press and the mass media, legislatures, political parties, nonprofit associations, development agencies, schools and colleges (as civic actors), and community networks.

Although it’s fine to advocate political positions, I think that promoting democracy fits more naturally with the educational function of a university. A good educator does not indoctrinate, but tries to put his or her students in positions to make good independent judgments and to act effectively. We can think the same way about our work off-campus–with citizens’ groups, communities, and institutions.

The people I have mentioned are not pundits. I can recall significant opinion pieces by several of them, but those are side-products. The pursuit of fame presents moral dangers for scholars. My role-models take more seriously their rigorous analytical work and their partnerships with practitioners.

Certain practical consequences follow if one leads this kind of life. It requires funding, and there are only so many sources of money–mainly a half dozen private foundations. Grant-writing and negotiating with these donors are big parts of this work. Also, one must spend a lot of time (often enjoyably) at meetings: not academic conferences, but roundtable discussions of programs and strategies.

A constant challenge–and opportunity–in such work is to balance tactical and normative thinking. Tactical thinking assumes the ends and asks, ‘How can we get there quickly with the resources we have?” Normative thinking asks, ‘What ends should we pursue?’ People who work full time in practical jobs rarely have the luxury for serious normative reflection. But scholars who never leave the academy are not disciplined by the need to be tactical. The people on my list of role-models spend plenty of time thinking normatively, but they also write planning memos, review strategic plans, consult with funders, develop measurable indicators of success, and otherwise help practical organizations to get from A to B.

This way of life has an unexpected and rare advantage: we are rewarded for offering unremunerated, voluntary assistance. For example, I am asked to itemize the groups I have assisted each year, as part of my reports to my employer and its funders. This means that I don’t just try to help groups out of the goodness of my heart; it’s what I’m paid for. Yet no money has to change hands between me and a partner organization. This is an extremely satisfying way to operate. I sometimes think that it reproduces the advantages that someone like Jane Addams enjoyed a century ago. She could serve and cooperate with others freely because she had independent wealth. I can do it because I’m paid for it; and the same is true for many of my colleagues.

Finally, this kind of engagement is a way to understand certain aspects of the real world that no other kind of research can grasp. For instance, Friedland and Sirianni’s Civic Innovation in America is an indispensable guide to a whole quiet movement that’s changing our communities for the better. Carmen and Lew could not have written their book if they hadn’t attended a hundred meetings with practical organizations and funders–not intentionally to study them, but to play a role in the movement. The same could be said of essential work by Gaventa, Ostrom, and Mansbridge, among others.

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  1. Pingback: Elinor Ostrom, 1933-2012 « Peter Levine

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