Millennials’ political opinions: insights from the new CIRCLE poll

In November’s election, youth turnout seems to have been roughly on par with recent elections. Young voters preferred Clinton to Trump by 55% to 37%, but a majority of young whites chose Trump. See the full CIRCLE post-election report based on exit poll data.

Since then, there has been much political ferment among Americans in general, and specifically among Millennials. My colleagues at CIRCLE surveyed 1,608 young adults last October and recontacted 1,002 of them for a post-election survey released on March 7. The new CIRCLE report contains many insights about the election and the Trump era.  I’ll just mention two to give a flavor.

First, young people who voted for Clinton and Trump differed on many contested social issues, which is not surprising in itself. Young Trump voters were more likely to think poor people are too dependent on government, much less likely to be concerned about racial discrimination, and more critical of political correctness (although 43% of Clinton voters shared that view). Almost three quarters of Trump voters wanted to protect traditional American values from outside influences, a rare concern for Clinton voters. But a majority of Trump voters agreed with a larger majority of Clinton voters that the top 1% have too much political power.

Second, even as early as January, CIRCLE found that most Millennials (whether voters or not) said they intended to protest or resist the Trump administration, and half were ready to support his impeachment. Of course, most Trump voters didn’t intend to protest or call for impeachment, but small minorities of his voters did seem to support the resistance, broadly defined.

Read the whole report here.


Posted in 2016 election, Trump, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

microgenetic, ontogenetic, and sociogenetic civic learning

At a Center for Ethics & Education conference last week in Kansas City, I learned from Larry Nucci about an important taxonomy. In my summary:

  • Microgenetic learning means obtaining particular knowledge, skills, concepts, values, etc. through particular experiences. A student doesn’t know about Abe Lincoln, reads a book about him, and knows and remembers the president’s story. That is an example of microgenetic learning. We often measure it with assessments before and after lessons or courses. However, it happens at more precise moments, so it’s possible to zero in on the learning events and understand the learning mechanisms.
  • Ontogenetic learning means becoming something different. A small child doesn’t know how to read but becomes literate, a reader. An undergrad doesn’t know much about medicine but ultimately turns into a skilled, practicing physician. Typically, the timescale of ontogenesis is longer than that of microgenesis, but that’s not the essential difference. In theory, ontogenetic change could happen suddenly, as perhaps for Paul on the road to Damascus. The definition is a change in who the person is, not just what he or she knows.
  • Sociogenetic learning is change at the level of a community or society. A community is oral and becomes literate, or pagan and becomes Christian, or analog and becomes digital. Such changes imply that different ontogenetic learning outcomes will become possible, valued, and typical. For instance, a Roman pagan ca. 100 BC couldn’t learn to be a Christian, but his descendants three centuries later could and even had to become Christians. That implied some new microgenetic experiences, like reading scripture and listening to sermons.

These levels of learning can relate in many complex ways. For instance, people can learn specific skills for civic engagement that help them to become activists, and as activists they can change what their society values. Then microgenesis -> ontogenesis -> sociogenesis. Probably more common is the reverse pattern: a society starts to value something, it establishes a new standard of success, and that leads schools to assign new lessons.

This diagram from Saxe 2012 illustrates the various possible pathways.

In fields like literacy and STEM education, which have received heavy investment, scholars have given attention to all three domains. However, I perceive a trend toward the microgenetic level in those fields. It’s increasingly common to apply Learning Sciences and Cognitive Sciences to understand how child A learns skill B at time C. If that trend comes to dominate, there will be need for a critique. We’ll be at risk of missing the forest for the trees and–especially–overlooking what people should learn ontogenically to produce a good society.

In civics, which is underfunded and understudied, most of the research is ontogenetic. It’s most common to use surveys to determine whether children or young adults have become good citizens of one kind or another, and then ask whether civics courses, democratic school climates, or other large influences are related to those outcomes. Practitioners and scholars are certainly interested in microgenetic questions, but that research is scattered and limited, mostly for lack of resources.

Meanwhile, there is a robust debate about sociogenetic changes in civic life. Scholars and pundits debate how the American polity and political culture have changed, what that means for citizens, and how our polity compares to others. Just as an example, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone offers a sociogenetic thesis: it’s about how Americans have come to engage more individualistically and less collaboratively since the 1960s. The underlying reasons include changes in technology and the economy (not shifts in civic education).

The sociogenetic debate about citizenship still tends to be somewhat disconnected from microgenetic and ontogenetic research. I didn’t know this vocabulary when Jim Youniss and I edited the volume Engaging Young People in Civic Life, but our explicit goal was to connect debates about civic education to debates about changes in civic life. We thought that developmental psychologists tended to assume that civic life was historically constant, and political scientists and sociologists tended to view civic education as historically constant. However, regimes and modes of education change, and these changes affect each other. It’s even possible for kids to gain skills through microgenetic civic learning that enable them to change what the society values.

Ultimately, we need civic education research that combines the microgenetic, ontogenetic, and sociogenetic levels and yields practical advice for practitioners, policymakers, and advocates.

Figure from Saxe, G. (2012). Cultural development of mathematical ideas: Papua New Guinea studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. My main source is Larry Nucci (2016) Recovering the role of reasoning in moral education to address inequity and social justice, Journal of Moral Education, 45:3, 291-307, DOI: 10.1080/03057240.2016.1167027

Posted in advocating civic education, civic theory, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

public speaking this spring

Please join me if you’re able and interested:

March 10, Medford, MA: Fletcher Political Risk conference, morning concurrent session on varieties of populism.

March 24, Boston, MA: Northeastern University’s NULab for Texts, Maps and Networks, keynote at a conference on “Keeping the Public Sphere Open” (Boston, MA)

March 27, Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida: keynote at the Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd Program for Strategic Research & Studies, the Lou Frey Institute, and the Partnership for Civic Learning conference on “Teaching Tolerance & Peace in Education: American Experiences & International Lessons.”

March 29, Waterville, ME: The 2017 William R. and Linda K. Cotter Debate at Colby College: “American Democracy?”, with Benjamin Page, Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making, Northwestern University; author of Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It (Forthcoming); Roslyn Fuller, scholar; author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose (2015); and me. Moderator: Joseph R. Reisert, Harriet S. Wiswell and George C. Wiswell Jr. Associate Professor of American Constitutional Law, Colby College.

April 12, Oxford, OH. At Miami University of Ohio’s Humanities Center, “Civic Studies: An Emerging Field

April 19, Los Angeles, at the University of Southern California, Center for Economic and Social Research, “The Hollowing Out of US Democracy.

April 27, San Antonio, TX: panel at the John Dewey Society annual meeting.

May 18, Medford, MA: Tisch College/Good Society symposium on Facts, Values, and Strategies. (Seminar on works-in-progress; you must request papers in advance.)

June 9, Boston, MA: plenary panel at the 2017 Social Science Education Consortium (SSEC) meeting on the theme, “Whither Democracy? Current State and Future Prospects.”

June 22-4, Boston, MA: Frontiers of Democracy conference.


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school choice is a question of values not data

I disagree with my friend Robert Pondiscio about many policies, but I agree with an essential aspect of his argument in a US News article entitled “Asking the Wrong Questions on School Choice.”

Some impressive-looking recent studies assert that school choice doesn’t “work” because test scores go down when families use vouchers to transfer their kids to private schools. The New York Times describes these results as “dismal” and cites “harms” to the children from voucher experiments. Pondiscio believes that the preponderance of the evidence still “tends to favor school choice.” I don’t know if that is right, but I’m with Pondiscio that “this entire debate puts the cart before the horse.”

After all, who said that test scores are the purpose of schooling? “Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values.” Some parents will prefer schools that achieve lower scores on state standardized tests because they value other ends. To measure choice in terms of test scores “says, in effect, that one’s values, aspirations and priorities for one’s child amount to nothing.” He concludes:

If we limit the frame of this debate to academic outputs alone, every new study provides ammunition, but never a conclusion. The real debate we should be having is, “What kind of system do we want?” Answer that question first, then use evidence to improve the school designs, policies and programs we have agreed deserve public support.

I’ve made similar points in debates about, for example, the economic impact of civic engagement, the educational value of service learning, and the evaluation of policy more generally. We live in an age when science has enormous prestige and values are widely viewed as merely subjective. In that context, it’s common to treat programs and policies much as scientists would view natural phenomena, as things that arise on their own and have measurable effects. To decide whether they “work” means measuring their causal impact with apparently objective measures, of which state-written tests are good examples. Negative results lead to strongly value-laden conclusions–such as the Times’ headline about “dismal failures”–that are not themselves scientific.

In fact, programs and policies arise because people have value commitments. They strive to make their ideas work, albeit for various and contested purposes. Usually nothing works at first. If its impact improves, it’s because people have made it work by refining and improving the practice. The reason that data provides “ammunition, but never a conclusion” is that any empirical result can be changed by revising and improving the program under study. Therefore, the fundamental question is not what works but what we should value and try to make work.

An everyday example is public schooling. Nineteenth century reformers like Horace Mann drew from previous thinkers—and from successful experiences in countries like Prussia—to propose a new idea: every child should be educated at the government’s expense in a state-funded common school under local political control. Since then, not only have educators and policymakers refined and revised most aspects of public schooling, but scholars have critically evaluated actual schools from a wide variety of perspectives. A few observers have concluded that Horace Mann’s core idea was misplaced, but most see their role as helping to make his vision become successful. Public schools did not arise like a new species in Darwinian evolution to survive or fail on its own. Nor did Horace Mann propose a hypothesis that could be tested with a single experiment (e.g., “Common schools will work.”). Rather, universal public schooling originated with an argument that combined values and empirical predictions, and it launched a process of improvement that has combined research with practice.

The question is whether individual family choice is a transcendent value. Robert Pondiscio argues that using test scores to assess vouchers makes family preferences “amount to nothing.” I think we all value parental choice to a degree, but everyone also weighs other concerns: children’s rights, interests, and preferences, community values, prosperity at the state and national scales, democratic ideals of collective self-governance, our responsibilities to children other than one’s own, and criteria of excellence that may be unpopular.

I agree that the American ideal of the common school has always been a bit problematic, and versions of family choice common in Western Europe may get the balance better than we do with our odd mix of local monopoly schools plus radical economic inequality. But if we seriously considered the question “What kind of system do we want?”, I’m not sure the answer would be a system driven by parental preferences.

I should add that another kind of reasoning (besides scientism) motivates experiments with school choice. Some people think that market competition always or generally increases efficiency, so that introducing choice into a former monopoly will improve outcomes, almost regardless of how they’re measured. Then the effects of vouchers on test scores becomes an experiment in the efficiency hypothesis. Even if the results are mixed, the existence of major, high-quality, and recent studies in which the effects are strongly negative sounds like counter-evidence. I think that should embarrass proponents of market efficiency, of whom one was Elizabeth Warren in The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke (2003):

However, as Pondiscio argues, you can support choice as an inherent value, not because of an empirical hypothesis about economic efficiency.

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hearing the faint music of democracy

Democracy has many inherent flaws. This is just the start of a comprehensive list:

  1. Majority tyranny: the many may oppress the few.
  2. Free-riding: it doesn’t pay to be informed or active when you can let others engage instead.
  3. Propaganda: it works.
  4.  Motivated reasoning: people pick information to reinforce existing beliefs.
  5. Boundary problems: many political issues are about who belongs within a given polity, so how can a polity legitimately decide where to draw that line?
  6. The Iron Law of Oligarchy: even in organizations fundamentally committed to equality, a few come to dominate because bureaucracy rewards specialized expertise.
  7. The privileged position of business: because communities need investment, capital will be advantaged even if businesses don’t actively lobby.

Most of these issues have been understood for centuries, yet the scholarly evidence for them accumulates. Then along comes an actual fiasco like the 2016 election, and it’s tempting to give up on the whole idea. Democracy seems to be that system that places a racist fool in the White House.

Yet people have constructed rather remarkable “patches” to keep democracy going. Just for instance, it seems implausible that many citizens would purchase and consume a daily source of fairly independent and well-sourced news that focuses on matters of public importance. But for about a century, most Americans did buy a metropolitan newspaper every day, and the proceeds funded shoe-leather journalism. The newspaper’s financial model worked because people paid for classified ads, comics, and sports as well as news, but they saw the daily headlines on the front page. Although the model was profitable–hence sustainable–it couldn’t have existed without the dedication of the people we call “the press”: professional reporters, editors, publishers, journalism educators (k-16), and some newspaper owners, who were motivated in part by the public interest.

That’s just one example. I would add broad-based political parties, civil rights organizations, public-interest lobbies, responsive government agencies, civic education courses, civic forums, community organizing efforts, the DREAMer movement, and many more.

Why have people worked so hard to create and sustain these efforts, when the flaws of democracy seem intrinsic and intractable? They’ve heard the democratic music as well as the everyday prose.

The music is there if you listen for it. Whitman heard it: “Though it is no doubt important who is elected governor, mayor, or legislator, (and full of dismay when incompetent or vile ones get elected, as they sometimes do,) there are other, quieter contingencies, infinitely more important.” Alexander Hamilton, in most ways so unlike Whitman, heard similar chords. He started the Federalist Papers asking whether we can live together by “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” These authors saw republican self-rule not only as a way of making decisions by choice but also as a path to cultural and spiritual development. For Whitman, it meant being able to stand up “without humiliation, and equal with the rest” and starting that “grand experiment of development, whose end, (perhaps requiring several generations,) may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman.”

If we’re smart, we’ll focus on the prose: the catalog of serious and enduring flaws that beset democracy. But if we’re wise, we’ll also hear the music, and that will keep us working on a new generation of solutions.

Posted in civic theory, populism | 1 Comment

The Civic State of the Union

The Civic State of the Union

Tuesday, March 7 | 6:00 p.m.
ASEAN Auditorium, Fletcher School | Tufts Medford Campus

Join us for a panel about the state of civic life in the United States and the role of civic engagement in addressing national and global problems. Our featured panelists will be Robert D. Putnam, a political scientist and the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government who wrote the seminal book Bowling Alone; Shirley Sagawa, President and CEO of the Service Year Alliance and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress; and Peter Levine, Tisch College’s Associate Dean for Research and the author of We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. The panel will be moderated by Mara Liasson, National Political Correspondent for NPR and a contributor at Fox News. RSVP below. Can’t make it? Watch the live stream here.

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new postdoc in civic studies

Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life Postdoctoral Fellowship in Philosophy or Political Theory

Tufts University’s Tisch College, in collaboration with the departments of Philosophy and of Political Science, will award a Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life Postdoctoral Fellowship in the 2017-18 academic year to a junior scholar with a PhD in the field of philosophy or political theory who is not yet tenured. Candidates should submit a research proposal for scholarly work related to civic studies. Civic studies is an emerging interdisciplinary field that develops ideas and ways of thinking helpful to citizens, understood as co-creators of their worlds. Because civic studies emphasizes the agency of people and groups, it combines ethics, empirical work, strategies, and institutions. Tufts will hold a social ontology conference in 2018, and therefore applicants with interests in social ontology or collective agency are particularly encouraged.

Scholars are required to spend the year (September–May) in residence at Tufts University. For the 2017-18 academic year the Fellowship carries a stipend of $55,000, health insurance, and a $3,000 research fund. The Fellow will be expected to support capstone experiences with Tufts undergraduates and to teach one academic course in addition to conducting their research. The fellow will also be expected to deliver a public lecture at Tufts on the topic of their research at some point during the fellowship year.


Junior scholar with a PhD in the field of philosophy or political theory who is not yet tenured. Candidates should submit a research proposal for scholarly work related to civic studies.

Application Instructions

Applications must include: a cover letter, CV, writing sample, two-page research proposal, and three letters of recommendation. Applications should be submitted to:

Application deadline: April 15, 2017. Notification of award: May 8, 2017.

Questions about the position should be addressed to Tisch College Associate Dean of Research Peter Levine at

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what it means that people prefer a businessman to a politician for president

The contrast between Donald Trump the businessman and Hillary Clinton the politician has been underplayed (although not entirely overlooked) as an explanation of the 2016 election. I don’t interpret Americans’ admiration for business leaders as a preference for the market over the government, although that distinction might influence some people. Instead, evidence shows that many people dislike deliberation and compromise in politics. That stance is compatible with admiring a president who expands the government, as long as he acts like a private-sector boss.

In 1998 (when HRC was First Lady), John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse* found that most Americans didn’t rate their fellow citizens as informed or intelligent. They didn’t want to participate in government or politics, nor did they prefer a political system with much public involvement. They had few policy preferences, but they strongly disliked the people in charge of the government. They suspected political elites of selfish and greedy behavior. For instance, they thought that elected officials get rich from government service. They believed that the public had consensus on most issues, yet agreement was mysteriously absent in Congress. They interpreted elites’ disagreement as a sign of corruption. A majority of their respondents (about 70%) agreed with two or three of the following propositions, which qualified them as believers in what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse called “Stealth Democracy”:

  • “elected officials would help the country more if they would stop talking and just take action on important problems” (86% agree)
  • “what people call compromise in politics is really just selling out on one’s principles” (60%); and
  • “our government would run better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts rather than politicians or the people” (31%) or “our government would run better if decisions were left up to successful business people” (32%)

Fifty percent wanted the government to be run more like a business. There was also considerable support for billionaires and technocratic experts, since neither could profit from their own decisions. In 1992 Harris Poll, 55% of respondents had agreed that Ross Perot wouldn’t be influenced by special interests because he was rich.

In their book, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse used a survey that’s now 19 years old. In 2009, Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, Ryan Kennedy, David Lazer, and Anand Sokhey challenged their findings empirically, but in 2015, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse repeated the analysis and connected it to the Trump campaign. Believers in what they called “Stealth Democracy” preferred Trump to Clinton by 38%-13%; people who disagreed with that view narrowly favored Clinton.

Trump is a perfect example of a leader who says he’ll “just take action,” in harmony with the consensus of all real Americans. Hillary Clinton exemplifies a politician who is good at compromise, who acknowledges disagreements and engages in debates–and who has become rich as a result of her political career.

I believe that people learn from experience that disagreement exists and compromise is necessary. They learn those truths by participating in diverse groups that can make consequential decisions. But the proportion of adult Americans who either attend weekly religious services or belong to a union has dropped by 21 points, from a majority of 55 percent in 1970 to a minority of 34 percent in 2012. The proportion of all Americans who serve on any local board had plummeted by 75% since the mid-1900s, due mostly to consolidation of governmental functions plus professionalization. Juries are also much less prevalent: 1 in 40 felony cases now goes to a jury trial, down from 1 in 12 as recently as the 1970s.

People still know how bosses operate in the private sector. But few know what it’s like to be democratic leaders, because few are allowed to play such roles locally. That’s a recipe for a rejection of democratic values.

*Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work (Cambridge University Press, 2002). I draw here from my own 2003 summary.

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assessing the congressional town meeting protests, 2009 and 2017

In 2009, when Democratic House members went home to discuss the Affordable Care Act with their constituents, they faced disruptive questions and protests, often from people loosely affiliated with the Tea Party. The protesters cited such supposed evils as Death Panels. This year, when Republican House members go home to discuss repealing the same legislation, they face disruptive questions and protests from supporters of the ACA. In at least one case, a Member of Congress decried the Death Panels that are supposedly now in existence and was hooted down as a liar by his constituents. In both 2009 and 2017, many Members of Congress have decided not to hold so-called Town Meetings at all because of the prospect of protests that would be covered on mass media.









I was prone to lament the protests in 2009 but welcome them in 2017. That sounds like hypocrisy, but the comparison is more complicated. First, the same behavior can be appropriate or inappropriate depending on its purpose and content. Making such distinctions requires judgment, but judgment is essential in politics and is not merely a form of bias. In other words, the right judgment may be that the protests of 2017 are helpful even though those of 2009 were harmful. One reason may be that the protesters of 2017 are speaking truth, and those of 2009 were repeating lies. I acknowledge that’s a simplification, but it may be roughly correct.

Second, if we treat a political act (such as organizing or disrupting a public meeting) as a general category, without reference to its purpose or outcome, we still must weigh several values. Disrupting a meeting is bad for civility but may enhance free speech and agency. Only a purist about civil dialogue would automatically oppose any form of disruption.

I took a somewhat unusual position in ’09. I argued that deliberation–i.e., genuinely listening and being open to changing one’s mind–plays an important role in a democracy. When protesters shut down events sponsored by Democrats, or when Democrats stopped holding open meetings in fear of protests, deliberation suffered. This was a shame because we are all badly limited, morally and cognitively, and we need opportunities to hear from the other side.

However, I said then, a major cause of the disruption was the design of these events. In a truly deliberative event, such as a classic New England Town Meeting, the participants make a collective decision that is not pre-determined by the organizer. To make such a discussion go well requires rules that give people and arguments equal time and organize the debate. An event that is billed as a “Town Meeting” is a fake deliberation if the politician-organizer has already made up his or her mind and just wants to persuade the audience. Giving members of the public a chance to react for a minute at the mic. is a recipe for angry responses. Such meetings are so predictably bad that they provide frequent moments of comedy on Parks & Rec:

The solution would be to reserve events that are billed as deliberative for genuine deliberations. Citizens would be invited to discuss and design solutions, and the organizers would be open to any outcomes. An example is our successful recent experiment with a Citizens Initiative Review in Massachusetts.

When, on the other hand, a representative already holds a position on an issue and wants to persuade the public, she or he is entitled to screen the audience, to talk only through the media, or otherwise to control the format. At the same time, opponents are entitled to exercise their rights of assembly and petition to argue the opposite position. If the politician chooses to speak in an open room, then she should expect disruptions. If the politician screens the audience, she should expect people outside with signs.

Several additional issues arise for me:

  1. What should matter to protesters is winning. You win if you get more than 50% of the public to support you actively, e.g., by voting in 2018. A protest that may inspire your side and even encourage more participation may also alienate the undecided. Everyone involved in a social movement should read Bayard Rustin’s 1965 article “From Protest to Politics” to remember the difference between moral purity and political effectiveness. Perhaps “What would the median voter think about this?” is not the only important question, but it is always one question to consider explicitly.
  2. The number of people who are present at these events is trivially small in a nation of almost 320 million. The protests matter because they are covered by mass and social media. Controversy and outrage are profitable for media companies. That means that moments of disruption will receive disproportionate attention, and most moments of actual dialogue will be lost. An effective protest may have at least two mediated audiences: supporters whom it inspires, and opponents whom it outrages. They will see the same event in different media contexts. Smart political activists think their way through to the media coverage in all channels.
  3. Listening is a political virtue, even if it’s not the only virtue. Speaking out of turn at a meeting, or drowning out the main speaker, may be the right thing to do. It allows other people to hear you and it honors your right to a voice. But it does have a cost: the audience can’t hear the person you have drowned out or preempted. It’s appropriate to reduce that cost by (for example) interrupting briefly and then yielding back the floor.
  4. Politicians who appear at open public meetings before hostile audiences to defend their settled positions are not strictly deliberating. They have made up their minds and they seek to use their influence to affect public opinion. However, by physically appearing before their critics, they demonstrate vulnerability. As Danielle Allen argues in Talking to Strangers, democracy requires vulnerability. It is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for valuable interactions between people who are strong and weak. Therefore, Republican Members of Congress who continue to face protesters in open meetings deserve some credit–which takes nothing away from the protesters who challenge them.
  5. A protest is a moment of potential, but only if the protesters find other ways of acting together politically. In turn, that requires members of the protest movement to form durable relationships and to develop and extend their skills, usually in the context of organizations to which they belong. In a very important recent interview, Marshall Ganz says, “Many Democrats confuse messaging with educating, marketing with organizing. They think it is all about branding when it is really about relational work. You engage people with each other, creating collective capacity. That’s how you sustain and grow and get leadership.”
Posted in deliberation, revitalizing the left, Trump, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dubai, Uganda, and today’s global political economy

My family and I are just back from visiting our daughter, who works in Uganda, with a two-day stop in Dubai, where there’s a change of flights en route from Boston to Entebbe. We chose these destinations for family reasons. But it’s significant that Emirates Airlines flies direct from Dubai to Uganda. Even though the United Arab Emirates is small, and these two countries lie far apart, the UAE is Uganda’s 4th-largest source of imports. Dubai, an “Alpha+ Global City,” is a hub in a network of financial and human capital for a vast hinterland that includes Uganda, where 84% of the population still depends on subsistence agriculture.

There is much to like in both places—and reasons to hope that their futures will be brighter. However, if the worst aspects of each state predominate, and if the world increasingly resembles this pair of nations, then the human future will be dystopian.

Two centuries ago, both the Buganda Kingdom north of Lake Victoria and the Sheikdom of Dubai were independent monarchies. If we assume that today’s basket of most desired goods (life expectancies above 70, individual freedom, security, etc.) define human development—a contested assumption—than both societies were poorly developed. But they had rich and complex cultures and social structures.

The British made both kingdoms into dependencies and then subsumed Buganda within a full-fledged colony. The period of colonialism must have been experienced as traumatic in both countries. There were important differences. For instance, most Ugandans–but virtually no Emiratis–converted to Christianity. But they also shared some experiences, such as in-migration from South Asia. (Indians and Pakistanis now far outnumber Arabs in Dubai.) Police departments, accounting firms, factories, and many other innovations that we might label “modern” or “Western” arrived in both places with the British.

They gained independence within ten years of each other, but their economic trajectories have split. Dubai, a city-state entrepôt on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, has become the 9th-wealthiest nation in the world, with a per capita GDP of nearly $70k. Uganda, a land-locked agricultural nation of 38 million, ranks 163 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index and has a per capita annual GDP of $572 and a median individual income (my favorite summary statistic) of $2.50 per day. By definition, that means that half of Ugandans live on less than that much–at least as far as a cash economy is concerned–and one in five live below the poverty line of $1.90 per day.

Their political trajectories have also split. Dubai has been a stable absolute monarchy within the federal structure of the United Arab Emirates. Political rights are nonexistent; there is no legitimate public sphere, in the sense of a zone where citizens freely form public opinion and influence the state. The Ruler may choose to consult, but he decides. Most residents are not citizens in any sense; about 90% percent are expatriates.

Albert O. Hirschman argued that two strategies are valuable when you don’t like how things are going: exit or voice. In Dubai, political voice is irrelevant or even illegal. But exit (along with entrance somewhere else) is prevalent. People shape Dubai by moving themselves and their assets there or away, whether they are construction or domestic workers from India or the Philippines or bankers or real estate developers from wealthy nations. With the exception of the most exploited workers, they can leave if they are dissatisfied. This means that Dubai has been created by its residents, not by the Ruler. It’s the residents who have thrust astounding numbers of postmodernist skyscrapers out of the desert or have withdrawn their capital when dissatisfied. But their influence is entirely individual and apolitical.

Uganda, meanwhile, has had a tumultuous history, with only three presidents (although four regimes) so far since independence, and still no peaceful transfer of power. We visited the underground cells behind Idi Amin’s former presidential palace where thousands were tortured and killed by electrocution; no one left those chambers alive. I don’t think I am naive about the limitations of the current democracy, as Yoweri Mouseveni spends his 31st year in the presidency. Yet Uganda is a democratic republic. The people govern through representative institutions, albeit with several dubious elections since 2001. The newspapers call Ugandans “citizens,” respecting them as the people who ultimately govern the republic and implicitly holding them responsible for doing so. (I think respect and responsibility are what define a republican form of government.)

Three democracy indices from V-Dem (not available for UAE)

The Ugandan press is vibrant and competitive. The standard journalistic style is a bit more stenographic than what we are accustomed to in the US. Many articles basically report what someone said, in the same order that he or she said it. But the perspectives captured in these stories are diverse and often sharply critical. There is a public sphere, even if the state is somewhat unresponsive to it.

If voice is more evident in Uganda than in Dubai, exit is rarer. Few Ugandans can afford to or want to leave, although remittances from emigrants are rapidly growing. The largest migration of people consists of refugees into the country from South Sudan; they lack both exit and voice.

In Dubai, the global consumer brands are pervasive, including the Trump brand, now attached to a huge new golf course. There is a preserved old quarter that represents traditional Emirati culture, but it is probably smaller than one Bulgari ad on the side of one high-rise office building. We saw at least four billboards for completely different products that used the same format: a White woman in fashionable Western clothes and an Emirati man in a traditional white dishdosh and headscarf are beaming at the same consumer good. Even though about 70% of the residents are Asians, rich Westerners and Arabs are the normative consumers.

In Uganda, despite a few ads for Coca-Cola and Pepsi, the global brands are rare. Almost all stores are one-story brick structures with a raised front wall that can display messages above the door. By my count, about 30% of the stores in the cities and along the paved intercity roads (but fewer on dirt back roads) display painted advertisements for a handful of local brands, mostly telecom service-providers, construction materials, and detergents. Another notable form of advertising consists of new mosques, ubiquitous next to the roads in this overwhelmingly Christian country, thanks to funding from Turkish and other Middle Eastern sources. Finally, one often sees the logos of aid agencies: national, multilateral, or nongovernmental. In one national park, a sign announced that the signage had been given by the “people of the United States” through USAID. Paying for the signs that carry our national logo seems a way to maximize the ratio of branding to actual benefit.

Language often offers insights into culture. I’m sure that individuals in each country have unique relationships to the languages they speak, but I’ll risk some generalizations about English in Uganda and in the UAE. Ugandan (or East African) English is a branch of the language, like the Queen’s English or my own. It is mutually intelligible with American English, yet highly distinctive, full of terms for local foods and activities, loan-words from Swahili, and idioms and rhythms that make it a vehicle for expressing a particular culture. You could learn to speak Ugandan English, and that would be a linguistic attainment, an addition to your repertoire.

The English of the UAE sounds to me like what one learns in a second-language course in a business college. It is error-prone but functional, jargon-filled, strictly pragmatic. It might offer possibilities for creativity and insight—but I doubt it. I’m guessing that most residents experience cultural depth and aesthetic satisfaction in their native tongues. In Joseph O’Neill’s wonderful novel set in Dubai, The Dog, the narrator says, “I have a real soft spot for the habitual accent of Arab speakers of good English, in whose mouths the language, imbued with grave trills, can seem weighted with the sagacity of the East. (See Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia.)” That may be true, but only 12% of the UAE’s residents are Emirati, and not all of those speak good English. Purely functional English–plus math–is the code of business, and business is the culture that counts in Dubai.

Looking toward the future, one can imagine that Dubai adds political liberties and public deliberation to its market freedoms, and Uganda not only honors the true spirit of its republican constitution but also develops sufficiently so that all its people attain the core human capabilities. That would be a better world. To be even more utopian, we might hope that the relationships among Uganda, Dubai, and the inevitable third corner of the triangle–the OECD nations–becomes genuinely just, not just in the sense that human circumstances converge but also that the people of Uganda can make real claims on the people of Dubai or New York.

One can also imagine that Dubai continues to prosper without political freedom, much as Shanghai also does today. Absolute monarchies seem quaint, but arguably the real players in Dubai are the big corporate investors, and corporations are not democracies. Their influence could grow, not only in Dubai but in all the Global Cities. Indeed, as the world gets hotter, dryer, more postmodern, higher-tech, more racially intermingled, yet more culturally homogeneous, one could imagine that all the cities that dominate the global economy will look like Dubai today. Already, the man whose portrait hangs in every federal office building in the USA also has his name on the huge billboards for Dubai’s newest golf course.

Meanwhile, Uganda faces rapid population growth, a median age of 15, a worsening climate, unstable neighbors in several directions, and the risk of political instability once Mouseveni finally retires. One could imagine that Uganda will look much as it does today, only poorer and more violent, and that many other nations will look more like it. That is the dystopian future that haunts us.

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