trends in egalitarianism

Here are some graphs that show Americans’ changing views of equality. You can click them to expand them. In each case, I’ve graphed the opinion of the whole population, of people who identify as working class (a measure more of self-image than objective resources), of younger people, and of one pivotal generation, the Boomers, as they’ve moved through time. Each point represents at least 100 respondents, usually many more.

Some observations:

Most Americans believe in equal opportunity. Not nearly as many believe that we should worry about equality or that a lack of opportunity is a big problem. (The former question asks whether “We should care less about equality,” and I show the percentage who disagree.) One interpretation is that Americans believe in equality of opportunity but not in equal outcomes, and many perceive that opportunities are pretty equal.

Differences by class, age, and generation are not striking. Younger people have been somewhat more likely to think that we should worry about equality, but they’ve actually been a bit less likely to see unequal life chances as a big problem. Boomers have tracked the national mean during this period, as have working-class people.

The consensus in favor of equality of opportunity fell off substantially during the Obama years. That is not entirely an effect of partisanship, since even in 2012, 83.5% of Republicans favored equality of opportunity, just five points below Democrats.

The other equality measures rose during the Reagan and Bush I administrations, fell under Clinton, rose during Bush II, and fell under Obama. Any of these explanations might hold: people react negatively to the perceived priorities of incumbent politicians; or Americans view equality as taken care of under Democrats and unaddressed under Republicans; or Democrats win elections when the economy is bad, and that’s when Americans grow concerned about equality.

Finally, I really don’t see a secular trend here–i.e., a trend that would reflect long-term changes in the economy or the demographics of the country.  Two of the measures stand roughly where they did in 1984, and the shifts appear to be short-term reactions to presidential administrations or the business cycle. There’s possibly a long-term trend in the general belief that “society” should ensure everyone equal opportunity. One could perceive a decline in that measure since 1992, although if 2016 or 2018 registers a rise, that decline will look illusory.

See also: the most educated Americans are liberal but not egalitarianthe most educated Americans are liberal but not egalitarian (2); a new chapter on generational trends in US politics; and how public opinion on social spending has changed: a generational approach.

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new infographics from CIRCLE

CIRCLE has created new visual guides on how to engage the 50% of young people who don’t vote, five policy steps for better youth engagement, and–displayed below–a path to stronger democracy. Please share!

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the question of sacrifice in politics

Elizabeth Eckford attempting to enter Little Rock School on 4th September, 1957

(Atlanta, en route to Starkville, MS) Sacrifice can be a political act; often politics requires it. Sacrifice would be unnecessary in an ideal society and pointless in a completely static one; but in an unjust society that is subject to change, it is both necessary and powerful. Social movements are fueled by sacrifice. However, sacrifice also presents risks that we must learn to contain.

I’ll consider two cases in this post. Gandhi pledged in 1932 to starve himself to death over an issue related to untouchability. Black parents sent their children to segregated Little Rock schools in 1957 in the face of mob violence. These were acts of sacrifice in the sense that people voluntarily risked something of great value to achieve a political end.

The Gandhi example is fraught. He originally swore to starve in order to prevent Dalits from receiving separate representatives in an all-India legislature. The most charitable interpretation of this rather perplexing stance is nationalist: he wanted everyone to vote simply as an Indian. The great Dalit leader Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar insisted on separate representation for the so-called Untouchables to prevent them from being dominated by caste Hindus. When he visited the literally starving Gandhi in prison, they negotiated a compromise involving a temporary set-aside of seats for Dalilt. Ambedkar wanted that provision to last for ten years “to stabilise opinion” Gandhi countered:

Five years or my life. Tell your followers that is what Gandhi says and plead my case before them, and if they do not accept this from you surely they do not deserve to be called your followers. My life is in your pocket. I may be a despicable creature, but when the truth speaks through me I am invincible. You have a perfect right to demand cent percent security by statutory safeguards, but from my fiery bed, I beg of you not to insist upon that right. I am here today to ask for a reprieve for my caste Hindu brethren.

Gandhi used a threat to end his own life (and thereby produce an enormous emotional upheaval in the subcontinent) in order to limit a provision intended to help the least advantaged Indians. Soon, the Mahatma converted his fast into an attack on the very principle of Untouchability, but he still used a threat to sacrifice himself to defeat Ambedkar, who was never persuaded on the merits yet found Gandhi politically “invincible.”

The Little Rock school desegregation campaign is far more attractive, yet Hannah Arendt famously disapproved of it. Partly, that was because she interpreted US racial conflict from the perspective of a formerly assimilated German Jew who had concluded that Jews would never be accepted in Europe; thus she leaned toward separatism rather than integration. She also misunderstood race and racism in the US. But most importantly, her republican political ideals caused her to overlook the value of sacrifice.

In a republic, citizens are both rulers and ruled (to use Aristotle’s definition). They make joint, binding decisions about life-and-death matters after airing their differences in public fora. Sometimes, a citizen must pay a high price—for instance, being drafted and then killed in a battle for the republic. But that is not a “sacrifice” in the sense of an individual, voluntary act. It’s the outcome of a joint decision made through law.

A core republican idea is “non-domination.” No citizen may just tell any other citizen what to do. Citizens are governed by general laws that must be defended with general arguments. Therefore, the paradigmatic examples of sacrifice for Christians—God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac; God sacrificing His only-begotten son for love of the world—are not models for republican politics.

People are either citizens of a given republic or not. Arendt strongly opposed statelessness because it made refugees into citizens of nowhere. She thought that children and adolescents were not citizens because they couldn’t rule. In “Reflections on Little Rock,” she describes schooling as preparation for “future citizenship.” Because children are not current but future citizens, to ask them to act politically is to expect them to be ruled without ruling.

However, the most startling part of the whole business was the Federal decision to start integration in, of all places, the public schools. It certainly did not require too much imagination to see that this was to burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve. I think no one will find it easy to forget the photograph reproduced in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, showing a Negro girl, accompanied by a white friend of her father, walking away from school, persecuted and followed into bodily proximity by a jeering and grimacing mob of youngsters. The girl, obviously was asked to be a hero–that is, something neither her absent father nor the equally absent representatives of the NAACP felt called upon to be. It will be hard for the white youngsters, or at least those among them who outgrow their present brutality, to live down this photograph which exposes so mercilessly their juvenile delinquency. The picture looked to me like a fantastic caricature of progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it. Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change or improve the world?” And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the schoolyards?

Arendt didn’t use the word “sacrifice” in this passage because it was not yet part of her vocabulary. Ralph Ellison took her to task on that point in an interview with Robert Penn Warren:

That’s right – you’re forgetting sacrifice, and the idea of sacrifice is very deeply inbred in Negroes. This is the thing – my mother always said I don’t know what’s going to happen to us if you young Negroes don’t do so-and-so-and-so. The command went out and it still goes out. You’re supposed to be somebody, and it’s in relationship to the group. This is part of the American Negro experience, and this also means that the idea of sacrifice is always right there. This is where Hannah Arendt is way off in left base in her reflections on Little Rock. She has no conception of what goes on in the parents who send their kids through these lines. The kid is supposed to be able to go through the line – he’s a Negro, and he’s supposed to have mastered those tensions, and if he gets hurt then this is one more sacrifice.

To her credit, Arendt wrote to Ellison, “It is precisely the ideal of sacrifice that I didn’t understand.”

Danielle Allen, in Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education, rightly makes the dispute between Arendt and Ellison a central issue for democratic theory. Allen argues that sacrifice is a characteristic political act, because even belonging to a community requires giving things up, and changing it usually carries a higher price. Although formally we all sacrifice by belonging to a community, the actual level of sacrifice always differs very unfairly. Unequal sacrifice is thus a fundamental reality; it calls for specific responses, such as acknowledgement and recompense.

I agree; political theory must address and encompass sacrifice. Acts of sacrifice also have specific cultural and religious resonances, different in each tradition, and these are resources for the world’s oppressed people. The trouble is that sacrifice is also coercive and can overwhelm deliberation. As with many aspects of politics, what we need is balance.

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the changing norms for Supreme Court nominations

This graph shows the proportion of each president’s Supreme Court nominations who were confirmed as opposed to rejected, withdrawn, or postponed. I draw attention to the rocky record of the antebellum presidents, the very high confirmation percentage between 1900 and 1967, and the mixed story since then.

It’s often said that Robert Bork was the first nominee of modern times rejected on ideological grounds, not because of a scandal. Conservatives (rightly or wrongly) view that episode as the moment when a norm was broken, since 20th century presidents had been allowed to name candidates who met basic qualifications. Liberals now feel equally strongly about Merrick Garland, the first modern nominee not to receive a vote at all, even though he was clearly a moderate. If Democrats filibuster Neil Gorsuch and Republicans end the filibuster, that will be seen as a new stage. The new implicit rule will be: presidents can name Supreme Court nominees when a majority of the Senate chooses to concur, but otherwise the seat stays vacant. In general, we will expect vacancies to be filled when the Senate and White House belong to the same party, but otherwise to remain empty unless the two sides happen to be able to work out a win/win deal.

This trend could be taken as an example of the decline of norms and comity in Washington. I believe in the general truth of that story. However, I would interpret the changing norms for confirmation in a different way. From 1900 until around 1970, both national parties had conservative and liberal wings. Conservative Southern Democrats stood to the right of Republicans on social issues. Some Northern Republican Senators were genuine liberals. This meant that most presidents could assemble majority coalitions on important votes–not only nominations, but also landmark bills and budgets–regardless of which party controlled the majority. A Democrat would use party loyalty and intraparty horsetrading to line up most of his own caucus, adding liberal Republicans to reach a majority. A Republican would do just the reverse to win. As a result, the norm was not only that presidents got their way with Supreme Court nominations (absent scandals) but also that they drove national policy.

Once the parties polarized into left and right, that situation no longer applied. Since then, presidents have really only been able to govern domestically when their party has controlled Congress, although they have increasingly resorted to unilateral executive actions at other times. The only moments of effective governance, as envisioned by the Constitution, have occurred in 1980-82, 1992-4, 2003-6, and 2009-11. The rest of the time has seen stalemate or executive unilateralism.

For Supreme Court nominations, only the Senate matters. Since 1980, 11 justices have been confirmed while the Senate and presidency have been aligned, three (Kennedy, Souter, and Thomas) slipped through despite a hostile Senate, one (Miers) was withdrawn despite unified party control, and two (Bork and Garland) were blocked.

Going forward, I think it’s pretty much inevitable that presidents will get their Supreme Court nominees through when they have majorities in the Senate, and otherwise, they will be blocked. Merrick Garland deserved a vote but would have been defeated under this new norm. Trump gets Gorsuch and can fill other vacancies until he loses the Senate or his own reelection. Democrats should use the filibuster now, so that Republicans have to end it and the underlying rules are clarified. If Democrats win the Senate and White House in 2020, they should use majority votes to appoint strong liberals to the court.

I am not saying the new normal is acceptable, but I fail to see an alternative, and we might as well understand the stakes.

Data from the Senate. See also: is our constitutional order doomed?are we seeing the fatal flaw of a presidential constitution?, and two perspectives on our political paralysis.

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discussing civics on BYU Radio

I enjoyed a conversation with Dr. Matt Townsend yesterday on the topic of civic education. Here is the audio. Dr. Matt’s show has a national audience and is devoted to “talking about good.” We discussed the importance of learning to deliberate controversial current issues with people who disagree.

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taking satisfaction from politics in the face of injustice

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick.

From Jack Gilbert, “A Brief for the Defense.”

On Saturday, I ate my 50th birthday dinner with my beloved wife and younger daughter in a restaurant in Cambridge, MA. While we waited for the check, we heard about the protest at Logan Airport and decided to go. I then watched two of my favorite people stand against injustice in the company of a large and passionate band of our fellow citizens.

To say that I enjoyed my birthday evening seems wrong. It sounds a bit like saying, “The US Coast Guard turned the refugee-laden ship St Louis away from Miami in May 1939, and 254 of the passengers were soon murdered in the Holocaust, but I enjoyed standing on the dock with a ‘Let them in!’ sign.”

But there is another way of looking at these situations. Politics is often about cruelty and injustice. Sometimes the people who respond with optional political actions–like carrying signs in Logan’s Terminal E–are not directly at risk. We may nevertheless take satisfaction from our political action if we contribute, in some ultimate way, to a better world.

For one thing, we should draw satisfaction because that motivates more activity. If politics is mere sacrifice, everyone except the most direct victims (the ones with their backs to the wall) will drop out sooner or later. I think it’s wise for activists to advertise the emotional benefits of action.

More than that, we should take satisfaction from politics, even if others are suffering while we are safe, because consequential public action is part of a dignified life–an aspect of dignity too often denied to us by bureaucracies and markets. Hannah Arendt thought that the American Framers originally revolted in defense of their own private liberties, but they discovered, as they made the new republic together, that “no one could be called happy without his share in public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called either happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public business” (On Revolution,  p. 247). Lin-Manuel Miranda captures that feeling at the very end of Hamilton, when his hero sings, “I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference.”

We shouldn’t wish for injustices so that we can make a difference. (Young-man Hamilton does–singing “God, I wish there was a war! / Then we could prove that we’re worth more /
Than anyone bargained for…”–but he outgrows that sentiment.) When, however, we are confronted with injustices that we did not choose, we may take some joy from rising up together with those we love:

For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.
[…]
Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
Did both find, helpers to their heart’s desire,
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
Were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,–the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!

– Wordsworth, “The French Revolution

See also: unhappiness and injustice are different problems ; you have a right and a responsibility to attend to your own happinessnotes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution; and Mill’s question: If you achieved justice, would you be happy?

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registration open for Frontiers of Democracy

Tickets are now available for Frontiers of Democracy, June 22-24. Frontiers is an annual conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, with partners. This year’s theme is defending the frontiers of democracy against undemocratic, xenophobic, and illiberal trends around the world. Some of the time will be spent working with this framework, and others that take different approaches:

Purchase now to hold your place. Regular tickets cost $240, and there are discounts for current students and Tisch College’s Community partners. Alumni of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies attend free.

As always, the format of Frontiers is highly interactive; most of the concurrent sessions are “learning exchanges” rather than presentations or panels. We welcome proposals for learning exchanges for 2017. Please use this form to submit ideas.

Frontiers is public. It follows immediately after the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a selective 2-week seminar for scholars, practitioners, and advanced graduate students that is capped at 20 participants. Applications for the Institute are being accepted now. Email me (peterlevine@tufts.edu) your resume, a graduate transcript if applicable, and a cover letter explaining your interest.

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why Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet)

(Washington DC) Kevin Drum imagines how a Trump fan receives the president’s tweets:

You’re at home, watching the Factor, and O’Reilly is going on about the crime problem in Chicago. It’s outrageous! The place is a war zone! Somebody should do something!

Then, a few minutes later, you see Trump’s tweet. “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible “carnage” going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” Damn straight, you think. They need the National Guard to set things straight there. Way to go, President Trump.

This exchange is good enough for you–on its own. You don’t really want Trump to send the feds into Chicago, whatever that might mean. If it would cost money or create a precedent for federal intervention in your town, or anything like that, you might actually be against it. But your media stream will never give you an update on whether Trump sent in the feds or what happened to the murder rate in Chicago. You are immersed in media that consists largely of bad news about places you don’t like. You are satisfied that the guy in charge shares your opinion and has announced he’s on it. He even quotes verbatim the same stats you just saw on O’Reilly. It’s a magic solution–at last.

I think more or less the same will happen as a result of Trump’s announcement today that Mexico will pay for the border wall via a 20% import tax. That is highly unlikely to occur, because Congress would have to enact the tax, and I’m guessing the economic effects would be awful if it did; but Trump’s fans will probably never get an update. They may hear about battles between the president and Congress over taxes, but those will take the form of specific insults flung from his end of Pennsylvania Ave. up to the Hill, which they will endorse. Each exchange will be an event unto itself.

I happen to think that this kind of politics has yuge political limitations for Trump. Most people already disapprove of him, and his welcome is going to wear even thinner when people’s actual lives fail to improve. In turn, massive disapproval will weaken his already shaky position. But it’s still a very dangerous situation, at best, and is very far from any reasonable model of a democracy.

My explanation is that millions of Americans have lost all expectation that leaders will be accountable to them. At the national level, they are not getting very good results from the government that purports to represent them. At the local level, they have lost the kinds of institutions that used to depend on people like them. To reprise a graph from a recent post, here is the trend in the proportion of people who belong to a church and/or a union:

For all their flaws, these are the kinds of institutions that make promises and then have to deliver. If they fail, their members know about it and complain, act up, or walk out. A union or a church has a real covenant with its members. When people have no such expectations of accountability, they are much more likely to be satisfied because the boss just tweeted something they agreed with. Again, I think Trump’s own appeal will wear even thinner than it is now, but the underlying problem is a lack of accountable organizations in many communities.

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assessing the charge of respectability politics

“Respectability politics” is a valuable term of criticism. Apparently, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined it in 1993. It refers to a strategy of trying to look “better” in the eyes of the dominant group in order to be accepted and make progress. Since respectability politics puts unjust and impossible burdens on the marginalized, we should diagnose and try to avoid it.

At the same time, successful social movements do try to look better. An appearance of moral or spiritual discipline and excellence–“Worthiness” –is an asset that social movements can build and use for political purposes, along with “Unity,” “Numbers,” and “Commitment” (WUNC, for short). They claim higher ground because that’s a powerful strategy.

Also, democratic social movements demand that their own members–previously excluded from civic life–be treated as full citizens. True citizens display values and commitments that are not very common in any population: for example, they are actively engaged with public issues and concerned for the common good. Therefore, in asserting a right to be full citizens, social movements often try to embody values that are better than what they see around them; they try to “Be the change.”

My friend Harry Boyte has saved the Program Notes from the 1963 March on Washington, which says, among other things: “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.”

I don’t think that message should be labeled “respectability politics.” The point of the Program Notes was not to look better to White people. The point was to live up to high expectations chosen and embraced by the Black leaders of the March. The movement redefined respectability–indeed, excellence–on its own terms.

For example, it’s traditional for a crowd at a march or rally to hear a famous and excellent singer. That is one way to display both worthiness and unity. At the 1963 March, Mahalia Jackson filled this traditional role when she sang, “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned.” The difference was that she sang an old gospel song about her own people. This was a performance designed to move and inspire Whites (and others) as well as African Americans, yet she didn’t sing a “White” song to obtain their support.

Likewise, Dr. King’s speech was aimed at a majority-White and overwhelmingly Christian nation, but his specific style of prophetic oratory was uniquely African American. One of the achievements of an effective social movement is an expansion or redefinition of respectability–but not an abandonment of respectability as an ideal.

It’s hard to redefine and consistently demonstrate respectability within a mass movement that is voluntary and democratic. People will join with all kinds of agendas and styles, and they have a right to that diversity. Some will make choices that look bad to others. Enemies of the movement will emphasize the outliers: for example, FoxNews showed footage of last Friday’s anarchists to illustrate Saturday’s vast and peaceful women’s marches. Still, I think the women’s marches represented “worthiness” to an extraordinary degree, and that is a basis for optimism about the next few years.

Opinions about any specific case will differ, but we can look at a sign, slogan, or statement; at a whole episode, like Saturday’s marches; or at a movement composed of many such episodes, and assign it to a category:

  1. Problematic respectability politics, when the movement adopts norms that exclude some people in order to gain support.
  2. Neutral respectability, when the movement just happens to be respectable in many people’s eyes, without adjusting its rhetoric or strategies or excluding anyone.
  3. Pursuit of excellence: whether by displaying self-sacrifice or by singing as well as Mahalia Jackson (or in many other ways), a movement presents itself as more than respectable. Most people cannot meet this ideal, but it becomes a resource for the whole movement. Maybe only Gandhi is starving himself, but we are all satyagrahis if we support him.
  4. Shifting the border of respectability in productive ways. For example, wearing a pink pussy hat on Saturday was a way of rebuking the utterly disreputable new president with a sly and kid-friendly answer. In my view, the hats were fully respectable, but in a way that shifted respectability slightly.
  5. Unhelpfully un-respectable politics, such as the anarchists’ window-breaking on Friday or (arguably) Madonna’s speech at the March.

My main point is that the choices are not just 1 or 5. Some movements fill the other categories, and all are options.

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fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism

In lieu of a substantive new post here today, I’ll link to an essay of mine on the Oxford University Press blog, “Fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism.” It concludes, “We need a dose of populism that neither delivers power to a leader nor merely promises fair economic outcomes to citizens as beneficiaries. In this form of populism, diverse people create actual power that they use to change the world together.”

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