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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on teaching the US Constitution

Today at a Social Science Education Consortium meeting, Walter Parker is presenting his fine paper with Sheila Valencia and Jane Lo entitled “Going for Depth in Civic Education: A Design Experiment,” and I am replying.

Parker and colleagues have completely redesigned the AP American Government class–often a rapid march through miscellaneous material–so that it employs nothing but elaborate simulations (a model Congress, a mock Supreme Court, etc.) and focuses on a few central concepts instead of a long list.

The results have been positive: students perform just as well on the AP test while developing much more civic skills and interests. I love the move to interactive projects and the willingness to distinguish central from peripheral concepts. I also agree with Parker and his colleagues that if the course is AP American Government, then the core concepts are “federalism and constitutional reasoning.” Working with those concepts in interactive settings will teach you what you need to know to score high on the test.

The question is whether these should be the core concepts if we have one chance to teach civics to high school seniors. I can think of three major reasons that they should be:

  1. Americans should understand federalism and separation of powers as major aspects of our constitutional system, because the constitution determines our politics.
  2. Americans will be more effective if they understand these concepts. For instance, if you understand federalism, you won’t contact your Member of Congress to report a broken streetlight on a state or city road.
  3. Americans should honor the basic values of constitutional government, which include obeying the rules that constrain us and recognizing the value of limitations on the power and discretion of each person and office.

Here are my reasons to doubt, or at least to complicate, these arguments.

First, the US Constitution is not very well designed for our era. I am not primarily talking about its undemocratic aspects, such as the highly unequal significance of a vote in different states. That is a planned feature, not a bug. Instead, I am talking about the bugs.

For example, if the president and Congress belong to different parties, no coherent policy is possible, and all the incentives favor each side sabotaging the other. Juan Linz found that the US was the only presidential republic that hadn’t already collapsed into a dictatorship. The reason may have been lucky circumstances (vast ideological diversity within each party) that allowed US presidents to form working majorities regardless of which party controlled Congress. Those days are gone.

Likewise, the Constitution fails to acknowledge such crucial components of our modern polity as parties, general purpose corporations, lobbies, media companies, administrative agencies, security agencies, and nonprofits. Our jury-rigged system copes by treating parties, companies, and nonprofits as First Amendment “associations,” media companies as “the press,” and federal agencies as arms of the president. This doesn’t work very well. Therefore, learning the official theory of the Constitution does not help a citizen to understand how things actually work; and learning how things work does not reinforce trust in the official theory. (See yesterday’s post on the small negative correlation between political knowledge and trust in government.)

Second, learning the official rules doesn’t help you navigate the system all that well. A very common assignment (or assessment question) asks students to choose which branch or level of government to contact about various topics of concern. But that’s not how things really work. Your Member of Congress might be the best person to ask about a significant road repair if you know her; she can call a city official and get it fixed. Your Representative is not worth contacting about a federal issue if she she has taken a hostile position on it or if the issue is off the table. Effectively navigating the system involves answering such questions as: What is being decided, by whom? Whose interests align with yours? Whom do you know? Whom do you know who knows someone else who knows an actual decision-maker? What does the press care about? Is there an organization that might take an interest in your issue? I fear that by teaching the official theory, we actually give the wrong impression of how a bill becomes a law. (A question for Walter is whether simulations of governmental processes primarily teach the official rules, or skills like persuasion, or both.)

Third, I am not sure that the values implied in a curriculum about separation of powers are the most important ones for students to learn. We do want people to honor the best principles that underlie a constitution like ours, such as rule of law and limits on powers. Our president never acknowledges that he should be limited in these ways, which is one of the reasons that I consider him anti-conservative. Citizens who understand the importance of limits may be less likely to assess politicians in unreasonable ways–expecting them to accomplish things that they are prevented from doing.

However, these principles may not be the paramount ones for everyday citizens (as opposed to presidents of the United States). Citizens should also honor such principles as personal responsibility for the world, openness to alternative views, concern for facts, and fairness. I am worried that by emphasizing constitutional values that mainly pertain to office-holders, we encourage students to think like states, when they should above all think like citizens.

See also: is our constitutional order doomed?the Citizens United decision and the inadequate sociology of the US Constitutionliberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitutionconstitutional piety.

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how political knowledge related to opinions in 2016

Last fall, the American National Election Study asked a representative sample of Americans four factual-knowledge questions about government: which party controlled the House and the Senate, how long a Senator’s term lasts, and which federal program costs the most. The mean respondent got just under two (1.94) of the four items right.

I thought some comparisons would be interesting. As shown in the chart below, Clinton voters scored a bit higher than Trump voters–but not by a mile. Political knowledge of this type correlated somewhat with understanding climate change, and a lot with following political news and planning to vote. Obama and Romney voters had indistinguishable levels of political knowledge. Liberals performed a bit better than conservatives, and both knew more than moderates. Knowing more about government correlated with trusting it a bit less.

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Mindlessness: A Sonnet

I’m striving to be a little less present.
You need the attention of our group.
Your anxious eyes, urgent words convey a gripe;
They sketch a threat you’re sure is prescient.

But I’m counting syllables in my head,
Selecting words for a private longing,
Rehearsing anxieties—more than learning.
The staccato of your speech makes it hard

For me to keep my restless inward eye
Focused steadily on my lost past, my fears,
Or to freeze this mood in lasting phrases.
You, they, and we interrupt the flimsy I.

It’s a discipline to suggest attention
While indulging fully my own tension.

(Posted on the DC->Boston shuttle)

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