when a university is committed to democracy

This is a page from the 2013-14 Rector’s Report of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, an institution that I visited this summer. (Click the image to open the PDF.) The page is headed “A Revolution of Dignity,” and it describes various political–even revolutionary–activities by the university or its members. The next page shows profiles of activists from the university, including a lecturer who was shot to death. It is an interesting combination of American-style glossy PR and strongly worded political commitment.


I would not hope for a comparable stance from an American university. For one thing, this brochure comes from a country with a war on its own territory and ongoing political crises. We shouldn’t wish for that level of strife here, even if it elicited more political commitment from higher education.

Besides, one can critically assess the position that the university has taken. I’m on the same side, but this position is debatable. Universities contribute to the public discussion by being fair and open to a range of perspectives and by demanding standards of evidence and reason from all participants. When a university commits itself strongly to a cause, it can undermine its ability to be an open forum for debate. It also acquires strange bedfellows–people on the same general side of the political issue who may be quite unsavory.

On the other hand, neutrality is impossible and is the wrong objective. Universities exist to promote free thought and substantive dialog and inquiry, which are incompatible with censorship, oppression, violence, and rampant corruption. Scholars also need intellectual freedom and public support in order to do their work. So universities are closely tied to social justice. They must leave space for a debate about what defines social justice, but they should not pretend that it is other people’s business.

US universities tend to respond to political threats and crises by staying clear of them, at least as official institutions. The Ukrainian Catholic University demonstrates what it looks like when an institution leaps into the fray. The Rector writes in his introductory message “we declared civil disobedience against the government and the president,” which is not what you’d expect in an annual report from a US college or university. He adds:

It’s difficult to summarize the last year, for most of the processes have only begun and are now continuing. We are still experiencing the ‘Revolution of Dignity.’ We are still fighting an external aggressor and internal problems. … From the first days of the revolution we clearly understood what we were fighting for. We were not distracted from running the university for a second. But we also supported our students. …  On December 11 we declared civil disobedience against the government and the president, who used violence against his own people. ….

We should work for victory and for reconciliation. Our weapons are truth and peace. We should already be thinking about what will happen after the war, how to heal physical and spiritual wounds, how to strengthen the country. In addition to the external enemy, Ukrainians need to conquer internal enemies: corruption, anger, hatred. I expect that the spiritual and educational life of the university will help our students handle these challenges.

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upcoming talks

These are public talks I am giving in the next two months. All welcome!

Sept. 23: Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) Webinar, “America’s Civic Renewal Movement,” with me and Eric Liu (Citizen University), Kelly Born (Hewlett Foundation) and Joan Blades (Living Room Conversations project). (Register here.)

Sept. 24, Hamline University (St. Paul, MN), Commitment to Community Keynote Address

October 5, University of Texas San Antonio’s Center for Civic Engagement. At its first Civic Engagement Summit, I will talk about “The Promise of Civic Renewal in America.”

Oct. 14, University of Connecticut: the Myles Martel Lecture in Leadership and Public Opinion

Nov. 4, Educational Testing Service office in Washington, DC, “R&D Forum” on civic learning

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why an applied research program is valuable

As an Associate Dean, I am responsible for a cluster of research programs that includes CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement); the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement; and the Tisch College Community Research Center. These outfits are diverse, but they all supply applied empirical research (rather than theoretical or philosophical research or direct programming or advocacy) on questions related to civic life in America. If asked why this kind of work makes a valuable contribution, this is what I would say:

People who are in a position to affect civic life face questions for which answers are unavailable but would be useful. These questions range from concrete and practical (e.g., What is a good assignment for 7th graders during a presidential primary?) to very broad (e.g., What causes good civic practices to become widespread?)

Our first job is to select questions that are truly relevant to good practice, currently unanswered, and empirically tractable. It is very rare to “answer” a question with a single study, so a question should be chosen to contribute knowledge and move toward a more complete resolution.

It is preferable if practitioners pose or at least influence the choice of questions. They have good ideas because of their experience, and the likelihood that they will use research results is higher if they were involved at the beginning. However, I also believe there is a role for independent researchers to notice and pose questions that practitioners haven’t seen.

Once the question is posed, our role is to address it rigorously, to get the results into the hands of people who can use them, and to receive their feedback as well as ideas for new questions. Completing that whole cycle should contribute to the improvement of civic life, although whether, when, and to what degree it contributes are also empirical questions.

This kind of work also has some ancillary benefits. Conducting cumulative, applied, empirical research on one important topic, such as civic engagement in the United States, can illuminate issues about the sociology of knowledge (How is knowledge defined, supported, used, and constrained?) and about larger social systems. To the extent that I have any insights about such questions, they come from my nearly two decades of work in organized applied research on a cluster of specific issues. Such work also occasionally yields new empirical methods that would be useful in other domains. It provides advanced educational experiences for the researchers and sometimes for their partners in practical organizations. And it can create new working relationships among organizations and agencies that remain useful after a research project concludes. But the primary purpose of the whole enterprise remains to pose and address tractable questions that are genuinely unanswered and relevant to practitioners, and then to share the results.

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is Trumpism akin to the European right?

On the whole, I’m inclined to think that Donald Trump’s large lead in the Republican race is a passing phenomenon, similar to several candidates’ surges during 2011-12, and driven mostly by media attention and name-recognition at a time when most people are not yet following the campaign closely. In Die Hard III, which is 20 years old, Trump and Hillary Clinton are already two prominent references. The Donald has a level of celebrity that may give him disproportionate attention early in a multi-candidate campaign but that won’t win him the nomination.

However, there is an interesting substantive discussion of his candidacy. It’s not about whether he will win but rather whether he and his followers are like the right-wing parties in Europe. That constituency might outlast his presidential run.

Trump’s positions are not consistent with American conservative doctrine. He is fanatically anti-immigrant and lobs verbal grenades at various countries every day, but he also says, “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid. … Every other Republican is going to cut, and even if they wouldn’t, they don’t know what to do because they don’t know where the money is.” Apparently, Trump would also raise taxes on unearned income.

The combination of grievances against foreign countries and immigrants plus enthusiasm for state intervention in the domestic economy is a position that tends to be called “populism” in Europe. I resist that terminology for the US because we have a very worthy political tradition officially known as Populism (on which Laura Grattan‘s forthcoming book is excellent). Another term could be “far-right.” As Mathew Yglesias writes, “several of [the European parties] have institutional roots in old fascist political movements.” That would indeed make them far-right. But, as Yglesias adds, “their current ideological positioning is generally much more complicated than that, and some of them have no such institutional roots.” They typically combine extreme positions against immigration with economic policies that would be left-of-center in the US. So perhaps the most accurate term is “economic nationalist.” It can then come in varieties that range from truly chauvinistic to plausibly mainstream.

Similar views make a popular combination in the US as well. As Lee Drutman shows, if you screen for people who favor expanding Social Security and decreasing immigration, you get 24% of the electorate. They may or may not be chauvinists, since their views on immigration could be moderate. But they are out of step with the Republican Party on Social Security and could accurately be called “economic nationalists.” Meanwhile, those who would expand Social Security and keep immigration at least at current levels constitute 26.5%. This second group is in sync with the Democratic Party’s leadership. The strong conservative position (trim or privatize Social Security and restrict immigration) draws just 2.4% of voters, one tenth as many.

Trump is aligned with the 24% who are economic nationalists. If we use Social Security and immigration as the two proxies for that view, then Trump’s constituency is comparable in size to liberals and much larger than conservatives. A third measure would be attitudes toward policing, on which Trump takes an aggressive position that may also be fairly popular (with similar people).

It’s common for a combination of views not to be represented in a two-party system. Antiabortion progressives, for instance, have nowhere to turn in presidential politics in the US. But economic nationalists represent a big enough bloc to possibly destabilize the political system. Antiabortion progressives are typically Democrats who are badly outvoted within their own party on that issue. Economic nationalists, in contrast, seem to be Republicans who represent a large force in their party but are at odds with its elites.

While Trump’s support (about 30% of Republican voters right now) may be boosted by his attention-grabbing style during the silly season of the campaign, it is conceivable that someone with similar views and a less rebarbative and risible style might actually perform better in the long term. Republican elites disagree with half of economic nationalism and will have to figure out how to keep it at bay even after Donald Trump no longer threatens the nomination.

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why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics

Yesterday, I introduced the substance of Brian Epstein’s book The Ant Trap. Epstein analyzes the metaphysics of social phenomena, such as groups. Here I want to argue that social scientists should be more attuned to metaphysical issues in general.

In social science, we think naturally of certain relationships, such as correlation and causation, and of certain kinds of objects, such as individuals and groups. But other relationships are present although less explicit in our work. For instance, the members of the US Congress do not cause the Congress; they compose it. Composition is a relationship that is named (but rarely explored) in standard social science.

One can ask, more generally, what kinds of relationships exist and what kinds of things are related to each other. Constitution and causality are two different relationships. Groups, moments in time, and ethical qualities are three different kinds of things. These types and relationships can go together in many ways. We can ask about their logic or their epistemology, but when we ask specifically, “What kinds of things are there and how do they go together?” we are putting the question in terms of metaphysics.

Social scientists should be concerned with metaphysics for two big reasons. First, in our actual writing and modeling, we often use some metaphysical terms (e.g., object, composition, causation), but only a few of those get explicit critical attention. In my experience, most of the meta-discussion is about what constitutes causality and how you can prove it—but there are equally important questions about the other relationships used in social science.

Second, professional philosophers have developed a whole set of other types and relationships that are typically not mentioned in social science but that can be powerful analytical tools if one is aware of them: supervenience, grounding, and anchoring being three that play important roles in The Ant Trap.

Since metaphysics is a subfield of philosophy, and since philosophers are probably outnumbered 50-to-one by social and behavioral scientists, it’s easy for the latter to overlook metaphysics. In fact, I suspect that the word “metaphysics” (as modern academic philosophers use it) is not well known. If you Google “metaphysical relationships,” you will see New Age dating tips. But all scientific programs involve metaphysics, and it is important to understand that discourse–not only to be more critical of the science but also to develop more powerful models.

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is social science too anthropocentric?

Consider these statements: “A group just is the people who make it up.” “If a group can be said to have intentions at all, its intentions must somehow be the intentions of its members.” Or: “When a convention arises, such as the convention that a dollar has value, it must exist because the people who use dollars have imposed some meaning on material reality.”

In The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences, Brian Epstein criticizes an assumption that is implicit in these statements (which are mine, not his): that social phenomena can be fully explained by talking about people. It’s obvious that non-human phenomena–from evolution to climate change–influence or shape human beings. But the thesis that people fully determine social phenomena is worth critical scrutiny.

Epstein’s book is methodical and not subject to a short paraphrase, but some examples may give a flavor of the argument. For instance, is Starbucks composed of the people who work for it? Clearly not, because the coffee beans and water, the physical buildings, the company’s stock value, the customers and vendors, the rival coffee shops in the same markets, and many other factors make it the company that we know, just as much as its own people do. Indeed, its personnel could all turn over through an orderly process and it would still be Starbucks.

Likewise, if the Supreme Court intended to overturn the ban on corporate campaign contributions, was its intention a function of the preferences of the nine individual justices? No, because in order for them to intend to overturn the ban, they had to be legitimate Supreme Court justices within a legal system that presented them with this decision at a given moment. I could form an opinion of the Citizens United case, but I could not “intend” to rule for the government in that case, because I am not a justice. And what makes someone a justice at the moment when the Citizens United case comes before the court is a whole series of decisions by people not on the court, going back to founding era.

In general, Epstein writes, “facts about a group are not determined just by facts about its members.” And it’s not just other people who get involved. Non-human phenomena can be implicated in complicated ways. For instance, the Supreme Court is in session on certain days, and on all other days, a “vote” by a justice would not really be a vote. What makes us say that a certain day has arrived is the movement of the earth around the sun. So the motion of a heavenly body is implicated in the existence and the intentions of the Supreme Court. That is an apt example, because Epstein calls for a Copernican Revolution in which we stop seeing the social world as “anthropocentric.”

Note that we are talking here about grounding relations, not causation. Public opinion may influence the composition of the Supreme Court and its decisions. The movement of the earth does not influence or affect the Court, and you wouldn’t model it that way (with the earth as an independent variable). Rather, the court is in session on certain dates, and the calendar is grounded in facts about the solar system. Likewise, a president can influence the court, and you could model the president’s ideology as an independent variable. But the composition of the court is grounded in decisions by presidents and senates in a more fundamental way than causation. To be a justice is (in part) to have been nominated and confirmed.

When people criticize anthropocentrism, usually they mean to take human beings down a peg. But in this case, the critique is a testament to our creativity and agency. Human beings can create groups in limitless ways. We can intentionally ground facts about groups in circumstances beyond the control of their members, or indeed in facts that are under no human’s control (like the motion of the earth). It can be wise to limit the power of group members in just these ways. Epstein writes, “Our ability to anchor social facts to have nearly arbitrary grounds is the very thing that makes the social world so flexible and powerful. Why would we deprive ourselves of that flexibility?” But the same flexibility that empowers the human beings who design and operate groups also creates headaches for the analysts who try to model their work. “Compared to the social sciences, the ontology of natural science is a walk in the park.”

The Ant Trap does not offer one model as an alternative to the standard anthropocentric ones, because social phenomena are diverse as well as complex. But if we narrow the focus a bit from the whole social world and look at groups, they tend to require (in Epstein’s analysis), a two-level model. Various facts about each group are grounded in other facts. For instance, the fact that the Supreme Court is in session is grounded in facts about the calendar (as well as many other kinds of facts). In turn, these grounding relationships are anchored in different facts–for instance, facts about how US Constitution organized the judiciary system.

My day job involves very conventional social science. We study various groups, from Millennials and voters to Members of Congress. After reading The Ant Trap, I won’t think of groups in the same way again. I am not yet sure what specific methodological implications follow, but that seems an important question to pursue.

See also Brian Epstein’s TedX Standford talk, which captures some of the book.


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the Millennials and politics

The summer 2015 edition of Extensions, a journal from University of Oklahoma that has good reach on Capitol Hill, is devoted to “The Millennials.” The main scholarly pieces are by me (“Talking About this Generation: The Millennials and Politics”), Russell J. Dalton (“The Good News is, The Bad News is Wrong: Another View of the Millennial Generation”), and Molly W. Andolina and Krista Jenkins (“Does Hope Abide? Millennial Activists and the 2008 Obama Campaign”). I emphasize that many supposed differences among generations are not really generational. For instance, everyone has lost trust in government, regardless of their age or birth year. Also, differences among members of the same generation who represent different social classes usually dwarf differences among generations. The whole issue is free online (below), and my own piece can be downloaded from here.


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although Millennials are most numerous, youth share is shrinking

Richard Fry of the Pew Research Center reports, “This year, the ‘Millennial’ generation is projected to surpass the outsized Baby Boom generation as the nation’s largest living generation, according to the population projections released by the U.S. Census Bureau last month.” His article is illustrated with this graph:

That analysis tells one important story. It suggests that the youngest generation will have growing political, economic, and cultural clout, which is true in some respects.

But there is also another valid story: even as the Millennials outnumber each of the older generations taken separately, younger people are declining as a percentage of the whole population. That analysis suggests that their political clout (dependent on their share of voters and activists) will likely shrink.

How can this be? On one hand, the youngest generation is larger than its predecessors because of population growth, while the older generations are shrinking because of mortality. (The downward slope of the Boomers in the Pew chart above is a momento mori.) Yet, on the other hand, each of the older age categories is larger today than the same category was in the past. The median age, after all, is rising. Since there are many age categories, not just two, it’s possible for the youngest generation to grow relative to every other generation while also shrinking relative to the whole. And that is what has happened over the past 50 years, as my graph shows:

age distribution

If we are champions of youth civic engagement, I think we can take some advantage of the large numbers of Millennials, but we must also address the fact that youth represent a smaller proportion of the whole population than ever before.

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on Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of #blacklivesmatter

The taped discussion between Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of Black Lives Matter is a rich and fascinating document (full transcript here). Jones begins by telling HRC, “You and your  family have been personally and politically responsible for policies that have caused … disasters in impoverished communities of color. … And so I just want to know how you feel about your role in that violence and how you plan to reverse it?”

HRC acknowledges the very bad consequences of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. But the two disagree about whether those policies were “extensions of white supremacist violence” (Jones) or else well-intentioned responses to the “very serious crime wave that was impacting primarily communities of color and poor people” and to the “very real concerns of people in the communities themselves” (HRC).

(NB It is possible that both interpretations are true, or at least partly so. For an interesting contemporaneous document on Black politicians and the 1994 Crime Bill, see this clipping, courtesy of the Brennan Center.)

Clinton repeatedly asks Jones for policy proposals, and Jones repeatedly presses Clinton for more explicit expressions of regret or changes of heart. The dialog ends with this exchange:

JONES: The piece that’s most important, and I stand here in your space, and I say this as respectfully as I can, but you don’t tell Black people what we need to do. And we won’t tell you all what you need to do.

HILLARY CLINTON: I’m not telling you—I’m just telling you to tell me.



HILLARY CLINTON: Well, respectfully, if that is your position then I will talk only to White people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems—

QUESTION: That’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean. But like what I’m saying is what you just said was a form of victim-blaming. Right you were saying that what the Black Lives Matter movement needs to do to change white hearts—

HILLARY CLINTON: Look I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. …

One difference here is about mechanisms of change. Clinton acknowledges that there is value to the “the consciousness-raising, the advocacy, the passion, … of your movement,” but she believes that change always requires the passage of laws that reallocate rights and powers. Jones thinks that what Clinton believes and says to other White people about their own responsibility is a crucial element of change.

Another (related) difference is about the diagnosis of social problems. Clinton sees a set of interlocking causes for mass incarceration, including well-intentioned laws, economic factors, racism, etc. “You know, it’s not just an economic issue—although I grant that some of you will see it like that. But it’s more than that and I think there is a sense that, low level offenders, disparity treatment, we’ve got to do something about that. I think that a lot of the issues about housing and about job opportunities—’Ban The Box’—a lot of these things, let’s get an agenda that addresses as much of the problem as we can.”

In partial contrast, Jones sees one root cause to the problem, and it involves the hearts of white people (which Clinton has said you can’t change). Jones says, “Until someone takes that message and speaks that truth to White people in this country so that we can actually take on anti-Blackness as a founding problem in this country, I don’t believe that there is going to be a solution.”

My thoughts, for what they’re worth:

First, if it is ever helpful to ask any candidate about her values and priorities, then it is appropriate to probe Hillary Clinton’s “heart” on questions about race. I tend to think that we rely too much on psychological evaluations of candidates. Our impressions are almost always inaccurate, because our relationships with politicians are mediated; and they have less scope for choice than we assume. But this is a huge issue on which President Hillary Clinton might have quite a bit of scope for choice. She also has a problematic record. It is helpful to know what she deeply thinks now. That is information a citizen can use in deciding how and whether to vote.

But I have doubts about a general strategy of trying to get people to acknowledge their privileges. (This is more about the White voters to whom HRC would talk about white supremacy than about her own opinions.) “Privilege” means an unjustifiable advantage. Telling people they have a privilege may easily remind them of an advantage that they will want to protect. Cases are rare indeed when large numbers of people have acknowledged privileges and then dropped them. One example was August 4, 1789, when representatives of the French aristocracy stayed up all night voting to repeal the various privileges of the nobility. It was a glorious night but it did not end well.

The last paragraph may seem cynical, but I am optimistic about other paths to change that do not involve getting privileged people to acknowledge their privileges. The oppressed can gain leverage (economic or political) and negotiate change. Or a majority can be persuaded that change is in their interests as well. For instance, middle class white people may be persuaded that mass incarceration is unnecessarily expensive. In the transcript, HRC says, “That’s what I’m trying to put together in a way that I can explain and I can sell it.  Because in politics, if you can’t explain it and you can’t sell it, it stays on its shelf.” I don’t know if she has in mind arguments about cost, but they would exemplify arguments that she could “sell.”

I am generally committed to a critique of root-cause analysis. (See Roberto Unger against root causes and this post on the idea of root causes in education.) I believe that problems typically involve multiple causes and complex feedback loops; and sometimes you can make the most substantial and lasting difference by attacking an apparently superficial element of a system. That said, the Black Lives Matter campaign is making a strong argument that racism, if not the one root cause of a wide range of problems, is at least necessarily involved in any solution.

Finally, I do not agree with Clinton that you can’t–or shouldn’t–“change hearts.” In the 2008 primaries, she and Senator Obama had an important debate about the role of bottom-up social movements in reforming society by changing values and perceptions. Clinton tended to disparage their impact, arguing, for instance, that the main impact of the Civil Rights Movement came from politicians’ passing the Civil Rights Acts. I think Obama was right to emphasize the deep changes in values and everyday behavior that arose from the social movement. (See Wilentz v. Ganz on the Obama social movement and the Clinton/Obama spat.)

However, a national political leader is well placed to pass laws but poorly placed to lead a social movement, as I think we have observed during President Obama’s period in the White House. So it could be that HRC is correct about the role she should be playing, even if she is wrong to downplay social movements that change hearts.

(Cf. #Blacklivesmatter and Sen. Sanders: social democracy and identity politics.)

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debating the continued importance of institutions

Back in June, at the Boston Civic Media conference, I was part of a panel with Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, Christine Gaspar, director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy, and Doris Sommer, professor and Director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University. Among other topics, we debated the continued importance of institutions in a world increasingly characterized by loose networks. I took an institutionalist (maybe even an unrepentantly paleo-institutionalist) line. Boston Civic Media has put up a brief and cogent summary of the panel as well as the full audio, which is below. See also “why I still believe in institutions,” which I posted immediately after.

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