explore Tisch College

(Washington, DC) Yesterday’s launch of a very attractive new website for the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life provides a reason to explore what we offer at Tisch. We provide advanced civic education for students in all of Tufts University’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs; research about civic life in the United States and around the world; and practice–partnerships with a wide range of civic organizations. That’s a unique combination in higher education. The new website gives a much-improved overview of our programs.

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so, you want to strengthen democracy?

This year’s Frontiers of Democracy conference explored a set of analytical tools that may be useful if you want to improve or defend democracy:

  1. You should decide where you stand on the current crisis in American democracy (which is mirrored in many other nations). You may conclude that there isn’t a special, short-term crisis, that the issues are long-lasting, or even that the Trump Administration has positive potential. That is still a stance on the current situation. This flowchart can help you navigate to a position of your own.
  2. You should decide on the core values that define a good democracy. Edna Ishayik presented a draft framework from Civic Nation in which the core values are deliberation, collaboration (or public work) and civic relationships. That framework is similar to the one in my book We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For. You may prefer alternative values, however.
  3. You should practice systems thinking. Social problems don’t have root causes. Almost every problem has many contributing causes. For each cause, there are other factors that cause it, in turn. These chains of causation often produce vicious or virtuous circles. To decide where to intervene, you must begin to understand the relevant factors and how they relate in a complex web. The Democracy Fund presented a draft systems map for US democracy, still in development. Here is an overview of the approach.
  4. You should think about multiple levels of power. This discussion goes back at least to Stephen Lukes in the 1970s. At Frontiers, Archon Fung offered a version of this framework, which has four levels. The first level is getting a better deal for an individual (e.g., obtaining a visa for a refugee). The second is changing laws or policies (e.g., restricting or liberalizing immigration law). The third is changing who decides and how decisions are made (e.g., by making visas subject to judicial oversight). The fourth is changing what people believe and value (e.g., shifting views about immigrants–for better or worse). Archon argued that organizations tend to focus on the first and second level of power, but the other two levels are more important. What are you doing about levels 3 and 4?
  5. You are going to need processes of one kind or another. Ceasar McDowell offered a framework of design principles in a version of this talk.
  6. You should try to maximize Scale, Pluralism, Unity, and Depth, even though those objectives are in tension, because bottom-up social movements only win when they have SPUD.
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how to get a deliberative democracy

The annual Frontiers of Democracy conference ended on Saturday–and my thanks to the 150 dedicated and skillful participants. It’s billed as a gathering of people committed to various forms of democratic reform, but it tends to draw colleagues from one of the fields in which I also proudly work: deliberative democracy. Two thirds of the 100 people who completed a pre-conference survey said they work on dialogue and deliberation. Of those (about one third) who said that they are active in social movements, more than 60 percent also said that they specialize in dialogue and deliberation. That means that many participants organize and/or study events and processes that aim to be representative, balanced, transpartisan, inclusive, equitable, “civil” (in some version of that word), and discursive. Openly contentious forms of politics are not widely represented at the conference. Just over one quarter of attendees are interested in government reform, but since the vast majority of those also said they work on deliberation, I think the reforms they support tend to be public deliberations–rather than, say, voting rights.

I believe in deliberative values, although I don’t think they are the only values we need in a complex modern democracy. For me, the question is whether to pursue values such as deliberation directly–by organizing deliberative spaces and projects–or to promote changes in the political economy that might generate better deliberation as a byproduct.

For instance, I asked participants to consider eight possible responses to the current political crisis, of which two involved “winning the next election.” Half a dozen participants have told me they object to this option. For some, the framing is too partisan, implying that Donald Trump is the problem and that a Democratic victory in 2018 would be a solution. For others, the framing is too conservative, in the sense that it reflects support for our basic process of adversarial, representative democracy. Can’t we move beyond elections to become a deliberating (if not a beloved) community?

I sincerely welcome this feedback, which prompts a valuable discussion. Speaking just for myself, I would raise doubts about the strategy of promoting deliberation by being explicitly and directly deliberative. It’s plausible that Donald Trump represents a clear and present threat to deliberative democracy, not because he’s identified with the right and the GOP, but because he is opposed to truth, civility, inclusion, equity, and constitutional limitations. (I have argued that he is anti-conservative in fundamental ways). Further, it may be that when deliberative values are threatened by very powerful politicians, the pressing need is to defeat them decisively at the next election. Finally, it may be the case that the only plausible agents capable of defeating Donald Trump are Democratic candidates and never-Trump Republican candidates (including true conservatives). In that case, “winning the next election” is an essential and urgent step to defend deliberative democracy.

Likewise, it may be that the best way to revivify a moribund public sphere is to support contentious social movements that resist the two powerful “systems” of state and market and thus compel discussion of overlooked issues. These movements will not be deliberative. In fact, they may gravitate to occupations, boycotts, and other adversarial modes. But their byproduct is a more deliberative democracy.

My main point is that we must consider the choice between direct and indirect paths to deliberative democracy, taking due account of the institutions, incentives, power structures, and social divisions that actually exist in our society.

For what it’s worth, my own view would be that it’s important to build and sustain a movement devoted to explicit work on dialogue and deliberation. Deliberative experiments yield knowledge of group processes, generate models that can be inspiring, and produce a cadre of professionals whose well-deserved reputations for skillful neutrality make them useful at opportune moments.

But I don’t see a political strategy for taking such work to scale. I don’t see who would pay for it or what would motivate most Americans to participate in it. (And I think the disproportionately white, middle-class makeup of the Frontiers participants reflects the limited appeal of this approach). Professional proponents of dialogue and deliberation will succeed when–and only when–powerful grassroots political movements, including parties, force changes in our basic political systems. It’s their work that increasingly draws my attention.

See also: three views of the Democratic Party when democracy is at risk; saving Habermas from the deliberative democratssaving relational politics.

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Frontiers of Democracy starts today

About 140 thinkers and activists for democracy gather today at Frontiers of Democracy. If you’re not among us, you can watch the live-streams of the plenary sessions. The #DemFront hashtag is also being used already for substantive conversations.

In past years, the title of the conference has invoked the idea of expanding the frontiers of democracy, whether geographically (by supporting people who are trying to make their countries into democracies) or by realizing democratic ideals more fully in countries like the US.

Some may feel that the objective of expanding democracy’s frontiers remains exactly appropriate and timely in 2017, just as it was last year. I salute that view. But others may feel that our primary cause this year is to defend the frontiers of democracy, to stand guard against the many people and movements that seek to undermine it, to say that they must stop here, with people like us. ¡No Pasarán!

That’s just one dimension of disagreement. Participants may disagree about the central and defining values and highest ideals of democracy–for example, should it be more deliberative, or more competitive and full of contention? They may disagree about institutions, such as representative bodies and political parties. They may disagree about how deep a transformation we must seek in order to make societies into better democracies.

These and other disagreements are, of course, desirable. In fact, the greatest danger in a gathering like this is homogeneity of views or politeness about differences, and so I am going to encourage disagreement; and if agreement comes too quickly, I hope people will broaden the conversation by introducing alternative views.

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a sketch of a theory of social movements

Any social movement needs resources, such as money, existing organizations with members, physical spaces, tools for communication, people with special skills, allies within existing power structures, etc. These resources are somewhat flexible; for instance, you can do without money if you have in-kind assets.

The social movement deploys its resources to organize actions, such as mass meetings, boycotts, strikes, processions, performances and occupations (among many others).

These actions coalesce into larger campaigns, each of which has a narrative arc: origin, growth, crisis, end. A set of campaigns constitutes a true movement with a larger arc. (However, a single campaign can have the spirit of a movement.)

Campaigns accomplish immediate outcomes, to varying degrees. These outcomes include: demonstrating the capacity to enlist and deploy large numbers of people, who are reasonably diverse yet unified behind the cause; sacrificing goods, salary, time, personal safety, or even lives; demonstrating legitimacy, whether of the “respectable” kind (orderly marches led by clergy and parents with children) or more challenging types (occupations by dispossessed people, funerals of martyrs);  discussing questions of means and ends within the movement to achieve at least a working consensus on core issues; enforcing tacit norms about what means and ends are appropriate for the movement (e.g., no violence in a nonviolent movement); and communicating with outsiders, at least so that they know the movement’s positions, and ideally so that the outsiders learn from the insiders, and vice-versa.

I’d offer a functionalist explanation for why campaigns seek these immediate outcomes: they confer power. As a result of its actions, the movement can put tangible pressure on target authorities. The powers-that-be lose money due to boycotts, lose elections due to voter mobilization, lose allies who defect to the movement, or lose control of streets and buildings.

It then becomes possible to negotiate an end to a particular campaign, even if the larger movement continues on with new demands and new target authorities. The negotiation may be relatively formal: movement leaders sitting around a table with officials. Or it may be tacit, an understanding that if the law is changed, then most of the protesters will go home. Even if there are formal negotiators, the ultimate success of any settlement depends on its popularity within the movement and within the official institutions.

Some movements fall apart before they can exert enough pressure to negotiate. A few movements do not end with negotiations because they supplant the powers-that-be, becoming the new authorities. I think those cases represent the boundaries of social movement politics, the points at which movements cease to be such.

[See also: what is a social movement?social movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own)does Occupy Wall Street need a demand?we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth) and Charles Tilly, Social Movements: 1768-2004 (Boulder/London: Paradigm, 2004); Marshall Ganz, “Why David Sometimes Wins: Strategic Capacity in Social Movements,” in Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper, Rethinking Social Movements: Structure, Meaning, and Emotion (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) pp.177-98.]

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Hannah Arendt and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of the American Revolution may not be accurate history, but it is valuable political theory, and it finds an eloquent echo in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

Arendt argues that the American revolutionaries began by seeking liberty, which they didn’t define sharply but which mainly meant negative individual freedom (On Revolution, p 20). (On this point, Phillip Pettit disagrees, arguing that the founders were motivated by opposition to “domination,” or subjugation to another person’s discretion.) In creating new institutions that would protect negative freedom, the revolutionaries discovered “public freedom”—the freedom to create together. And they found that this was a source of happiness for them. “They were enjoying what they were doing far beyond the call of duty” (p. 24).

Freedom, for Arendt, is in no tension with equality, because political equality can only exist among equals, free people who decide together what to do. She writes, “Freedom was understood as being manifest in certain, by no means all, human activities, and that these activities could appear and be real only when others saw them, judged them, remembered them. The life of a free man required the presence of others. Freedom itself therefore needed a place where people could come together—the agora, the market-place, or the polis, the political space proper” (p. 21). Equality is not natural but is created by people who decide to govern themselves on terms of freedom (pp. 30-1). Aristotle calls equals who govern together political friends.

A strong word for the kind of excellence and flourishing that the founders discovered in revolutionary action was “glory” (p. 196). Arendt is not a deliberative democrat who understands public discussion as a quest for consensus about the right thing to do. She is more of a performative democrat who sees politics as a place for demonstrating excellence to friends and to posterity.

In retrospect, we can explain the founding of the American republic in terms of contingent causes: France and Spain gave military support to defeat Britain, Parliament was divided, the size of the colonies made them ungovernable, etc. That is the perspective of a spectator. But the founders saw themselves as agents (p. 52), initiators of a story whose end was not determined.

The hard question posed by the Revolution was how to make the “public happiness” enjoyed by the founders in Philadelphia in 1776 or 1788 available to all Americans across time: the question of scale and sustainability.

In Miranda’s Hamilton, these themes are pervasive. The whole story is about Hamilton’s quest for glory and his discovery of freedom among friends (and Burr’s exclusion from the “rooms where it happens”). The themes of freedom, equality, friendship, glory, story-making, and expanding the scale of the revolution come together neatly in the the tavern scene where Hamilton and his friends sing “The Story of Tonight”:

I may not live to see our glory!
I may not live to see our glory!
But I will gladly join the fight!
But I will gladly join the fight!
And when our children tell our story…
And when our children tell our story…
They’ll tell the story of tonight
Let’s have another round tonight
Raise a glass to freedom
Something they can never take away
No matter what they tell you
Raise a glass to the four of us
Tomorrow there’ll be more of us
Telling the story of tonight
They’ll tell the story of tonight
Raise a glass to freedom
Something they can never take away

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CQ article on civic education

There’s always a steady trickle of articles about civic education, and I don’t post most of them, but I do recommend “Misinformed and Unschooled, Young People Are Failing in Civics” by Emily Watkins for CQ/Roll Call. Actually, the headline is a little too dire, since most kids face some kind of required course on civics that is graded, and most pass. But the content of the article is good. In particular, it highlights news media literacy as an objective, focuses on a real decline (class time devoted to social studies k-8), and gives an overview of the policy landscape, including the positive news of a current federal appropriation for civics.

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saving Habermas from the deliberative democrats

“God save me from the Marxists”–attributed to Karl Marx

Jürgen Habermas is often presented as the master theorist of deliberative democracy, the author who believes that a society should approximate an “ideal speech situation” in which “the only force is the force of the better argument.” People apply his theory by creating deliberative fora, such as citizen’s juries or Participatory Budgeting processes, that approach an ideal speech situation. People criticize him for being utopian or overly rationalistic.

There is some basis for this interpretation of Habermas, but it overlooks that he is a sociologist with an abiding interest in the big Systems of a modern polity: markets, firms, legislatures, courts, unions, and the like. He understands modernity as a process of differentiation in which institutions that have diverse organizational logics and incentives arise and interrelate. I haven’t encountered a point at which he advocates creating ideal participatory fora and adding them to the mix of social institutions (although he may have done so somewhere in his voluminous works). What he does advocate is social movements, especially the “New” movements that have arisen since the 1970s, which he understands as efforts to resist the encroachment of the state and the market on everyday life. He names, as examples, squatter movements that occupy houses in German cities, and anti-tax protests. He argues that these movements revivify the public sphere by forcing the public to debate the proper role of state and market in relation to private life. A better speech situation results as a byproduct of contentious politics.

The New Social Movements are not deliberative fora to which representative citizens are invited to discuss public issues and reach agreement on policies. Instead, they combine “discourse” with a whiff of tear gas. I think they are needed for a full appreciation of Habermas.

See also: Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we needHabermas and critical theory (a primer)the New Social Movements of the seventies, eighties, and today

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does the UK election show a return to two-party rule?

A May 2016 article in the Financial Times was headlined, “British politics has broken out of the two-party system.” The lead explains:

Politics has fragmented. London’s choice of Sadiq Khan as mayor grabbed the headlines — and rightly so. But the local and regional elections across the UK carried a broader message. British politics has broken out of the familiar framework of the two-party system. As in much of the rest of Europe the old rules are being discarded.

Provisionally, it seems the 2017 election results tell the opposite story. Here’s a hypothesis about what happened in Britain last week:

  1. Elections based on single-member districts tend to produce two-party systems, because votes for parties other than the top two are seen as “wasted.” The exceptions occur when regional parties are able to win majorities in their home areas.
  2. Given two parties, over time, people tend to split their votes about 50/50. If one party has a big advantage, that’s a disequilibrium; soon some demographic or identify groups migrate to the other party to even it out. Voters use party labels as heuristics and are not mainly affected by the specific policies or personalities on offer in a given campaign. That each party will get 50% of the vote is a pretty good guess.
  3. Britain avoided a two-party system for parts of the 20th century, but the 2017 election saw the duopoly return. That’s why, despite May’s poor performance and Corbyn’s arguably radical views, each got closer to 50% of the vote than their predecessors had for decades.

This second graph breaks it down by party:

Sources: The Guardian for the 2017 vote tallies so far. The UK Electoral Commission for historic data. Analysis is my own.

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starting the 9th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies

The 9th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies begins this morning and continues for two weeks, with 6½ hours of seminar discussion daily.  This year’s participants hold degrees in religion and literature, social policy, social welfare, international relations, political theory, philosophy, management, education, public administration, communications, geography, and sociology. They come from Liberia, the Philippines, Latvia,  Colombia, Nigeria, China, and the US. And they come from graduate programs, faculty positions, or staff roles at Brandeis, Harvard, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, Penn State, Sheffield, Syracuse, University of Colorado, University of Ottawa, University of the Philippines-Los Banos, University of South Florida, Vanderbilt, the UN mission in Liberia, the US Embassy in Brazil, the Chicago Community Trusts, and the private sector.

One of our inspirations is this “Framing Statement” by Harry Boyte, Stephen Elkin, Jane Mansbridge, Elinor Ostrom, Karol Soltan, Rogers Smith, and me.  At one point in the Statement, the “civic ideal” is defined (in part) as “Public spiritedness, or the commitment to the public good, the res publica (to make explicit the republican roots of this idea in the Western tradition), a certain form of patriotism, a loyalty directed toward political communities.”

I like to present the ideal of public spiritedness in this way. If you look around a university, you will see lots of people asking the following questions:

  • What is going on? For instance, who is in poverty? How is the global climate changing?
  • What causes these patterns and what would change them? For example, would a global carbon tax reduce emissions?
  • How should things be? (What is justice?)
  • What should be done–for example, by the government?

But if you’re public-spirited, your question is different. As a public-spirited citizen, you ask:

  • “What should we do?”

A “Copernican turn” is a terrible cliché and sounds arrogant. But it works as a metaphor for what the authors on our syllabus have tried to accomplish. Copernicus kept all the planets and other heavenly models from the old system; he just moved the sun to the center. Civic Studies retains all the components (governments, markets, etc.) of standard social science and political theory, but it moves the citizen to the center. It’s an effort to theorize rigorously from the perspective of “we.”

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