do we actually want higher youth voter turnout?

Abby Kiesa and I have a new piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (online), entitled “Do We Actually Want Higher Youth Voter Turnout?” We dispute the premise that youth turnout has declined–or risen. Instead, we note the “the relentless replication of political inequality by class,” as illustrated (for instance) by this graph:

We observe that the traditional solution to political inequality has deteriorated. “The civil society built in the 20th century tended to recruit young members for non-political reasons and then make them political. Large institutions—such as unions, churches, Urban League, and Elks—had the means and motivations to recruit widely, and they had incentives to interest at least some of their young members in politics. Belonging to these groups (or subscribing to a newspaper) was correlated with voting. But … all these organizations have lost youth members since the 1970s.”

We argue that no single reform or strategy will work in the 21st century, but that sustained investment by major organizations would pay dividends.

Some Twitter replies to the article have said that we overlook new platforms and modes of engagement that have arisen in this century. This is what we said, though:

To be sure, there are now alternatives to these organizations that serve to empower at least some young people. No one could join a social media campaign in 1974, for example. Still, the new array of civic networks and groups have not yet shown that they are capable of boosting youth voter turnout significantly or reducing gaps by social class.

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how talking about Millennials obscures injustice

(Washington, DC) Generational analysis often conceals power and inequality and justifies the status quo. A great example is The New York Times‘ article yesterday about, entitled, “What Happens When Millennials Run the Workplace?” Mic’s staff of 106 employees is described as “trim 20-somethings, with beards on the men and cute outfits on the women, who end every sentence with an exclamation point and use the word ‘literally’ a lot.” These folks like to “ride hoverboards into the kitchen for the free snacks. ” The challenges for the managers (who are also under 30) include handling “a sense of entitlement, a tendency to overshare on social media, and frankness verging on insubordination.”

All of this is presented as if it were typical of “millennials.” But the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that only 10,000 Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 (and another 28,000 between 25 and 34) are employed as “news analysts, reporters and correspondents.” Very few of those work for hip web startups. Meanwhile, 529,000 Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 work in “healthcare support occupations,” such as nurse’s aides, dental assistants, and vet techs. The fastest growing occupation of all in the US today is personal care aides, who help elderly and disabled clients with bodily (as well as social) needs. These aides earn about $20,000/year and need no preparation other than “short-term on-the-job training.” I guarantee that they never ride hoverboards into the kitchen or talk back to their employers, or else their highly contin[g]ent positions will cease within the hour.

Nearly two million people between 20 and 24 work in food service, of whom just 2.3% are chefs or head cooks. If you’re one of the 101,000 fast food counter-service workers in that age range, you are scrutinized closely to make sure that you are always perfectly deferential to customers, regardless of the situation. Talking back to anyone on the other side of the counter can get you immediately terminated.

So what does the workplace represent? I would say: nothing distinctive about Millennials. I bet the Village Voice newsroom had a similar vibe in 1975. These are situations in which the workers have very high market value and lots of options, the management is not very distant from them in terms of market value, social status, or financial stake, and the culture of the occupation is informal.

If you own a piece of a startup whose value lies entirely in its skilled workforce, you’d better to be nice to those workers. If you sit in the headquarters of a multinational fast food empire, your only concern about your line workers is how to weed out the least efficient and deferential 50 percent of them and control labor costs. Since for each employee of Mic, there are about 20,000 food service workers of the same age, this is not an article about Millennials. It’s a timeless tale of how people act when they are worth a whole lot in a labor market.

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Sanders’ youth votes > Clinton + Trump

This graphic is the focus of Aaron Blake’s Washington Post article entitled “74-year-old Bernie Sanders’s remarkable dominance among young voters, in 1 chart.” As Blake writes, “Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are well on their way to becoming their parties’ 2016 nominees for president. Among young voters, though, Bernie Sanders has more votes than both of them — combined.” The source is CIRCLE’s analysis released today.


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is the Sanders campaign a movement?

My friend Micah Sifry has a must-read article in The Nation entitled “How the Sanders Campaign Is Reinventing the Use of Tech in Politics.” He interviews two key staffers, Zack Exley and Becky Bond, who reveal a lot about the way their campaign has engaged its supporters.

I’ve written before about an oscillation: campaigns go back and forth between using technology to empower volunteers and accumulating Big Data to make their centralized outreach efforts more precise. Bond is explicit about which direction the Sanders campaign wants to move:

We’re shifting the focus away from a small number of sophisticated data and technologists engaged in a kind of Election Day arbitrage that ekes out incremental advantages by using micro-targeting algorithms to identify and turn out voters based on a model. Instead, we’re putting hundreds of thousands of volunteers to work, and in some states have literally called every single voter who will pick up the phone to identify everyone who supports Bernie or is undecided. Then we have other volunteers persuade the undecideds and turn out those who indicated support.

The article repeatedly describes the campaign as a “movement.” For instance, Exley says, “When Claire and I first arrived at the campaign, we knew that a movement was already way out ahead of the campaign. We believed it was our job to set up structures and tools to … help grow the movement.” A campaign fueled by volunteer hours and small donations that encourages its activists to recruit and lead certainly has a movement “feel.” But what would qualify the Sanders campaign as an actual movement–or as part of one?

Some would say that it’s already a movement because it has engaged a lot of fired-up people in unpaid political activity. Exley describes “a massive volunteer organization that’s making more than 1 million calls every day right now, knocking on countless doors and doing so much more.” Those accomplishments are typical of big, grassroots-based campaigns–not only partisan electoral campaigns but also bursts of grassroots energy in civil society. According to the late Charles Tilly and his colleagues, such campaigns are components or activities of social movements. But one campaign–even a large one–does not itself constitute a social movement.

Others would say that Sanders is part of a movement because he belongs to a loose, evolving, open network of academics, cultural figures, union leaders, organizers, and a few politicians that originated in the New Left and that supports democratic socialism in the United States. Not only is that network called a movement, but it is sometimes called The Movement–as in, “I grew up in the movement, you know,” or “I got to know Bernie through the movement back in the ’70s.”

I personally do not identify with this network, in part because I haven’t done anything worthy of admission to it and in part because my actual political beliefs are too eclectic. (I am not sure you can love Hayek and be in The Movement.) But I’ve known and admired bono fide participants all my adult life. The questions are … Does this strain of political thought and activism really qualify as a movement, even as it has spanned multiple decades? Has it shown enough signs of motion to be a movement? And how much of a movement activist is Senator Sanders? My sense is that he has been a solo voice on important issues, but not much of a movement-builder. He is not known for training organizers or leading organizations. As a voice and a vote in the Senate, he may be an asset to the movement–much like a noted author or musician who supports the cause–but I’m not sure he’s a movement person.

His campaign could nevertheless be an important episode in a movement that spans a longer time horizon and that has many more leaders than Bernie Sanders. It’s too early to say whether that’s the case, because everything depends on what happens after the 2016 election.

Another question is what movement his campaign is part of, if it turns out to be part of a movement at all. Sanders’ own roots are in ’60s-style US-based democratic socialism (see the Port Huron Statement), but other currents are feeding his campaign. Bond says, “First of all, I want to take this opportunity to say that the movement to defend black lives is fundamentally changing the terrain of social-change organizing. After recognizing that, yes, the young people and working-class folks, many of whom are from communities of color, who are leading the movement behind Bernie Sanders as volunteers on the ground are changing American politics.” That comment sounds somewhat aspirational to me–Sanders would be closer to the nomination if he had engaged the Black Lives Matter movement more effectively. But a large coalition could still form after his campaign concludes. Influenced in part by Tilly, I’d look for these features as evidence that a movement is afoot:

  • A set of campaigns–such as the Sanders presidential run and the civil disobedience in cities like Ferguson–that gain rather than lose momentum over a span of years and that look increasingly interrelated.
  • A characteristic repertoire of political acts, which might encompass everything from viral “memes” on social media to people shutting down highways.
  • A diverse, not completely consonant, yet overlapping and interacting set of prominent leaders, some involved in politics and some outside of it.
  • Cultural manifestations, such as very popular music in support of the cause.
  • A set of increasingly specific demands that begin to be implemented by major institutions.

See also: questions for the social movement post Ferguson.

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game theory, naval warfare, and Derek Walcott

I am in Washington, DC but remembering our winter vacation in Les Saintes, near Guadeloupe, because I am reading Derek Walcott’s astoundingly good epic, Omeros.

In the channel with three islets christened “Les Saintes”
in a mild sunrise the ninth ship of the French line
flashed fire at The Marlborough, but swift pennants

from Rodney’s flagship resignalled his set design
to break from the classic pattern … (XV)

Walcott is referring here to a major naval battle in 1782. When we saw the dioramas of the battle in the local history museum, I wondered why the “classic pattern” was for enemy fleets to form neat parallel lines and blast away at each other.


Was this some kind of courtly custom of the Baroque era? (Walcott writes, “the young midshipman … thought there was no war  /as courtly as a sea-battle.”) I think game theory offers a better explanation. The opposing players chose the best available strategies, each on the assumption that his opponent would make the best choice for him–which is what game theorists call a Nash Equilibrium.

Recall that sailing vessels cannot maneuver with perfect control because they are driven by the wind. Most of their lethal fire is directed from their sides. If they independently choose their own courses during a battle, they can easily get in each others’ way. In principle, each could be given complex directions from some central point, but inter-ship communication was badly limited before radio. It therefore made the most sense to set one simple rule that would guarantee coordination. The inflexible rule of the Royal Navy was to form a line of evenly spaced vessels.

Lord Howe’s Explanatory Instructions (1799) explained, “The chief purposes for which a fleet is formed in line of battle are: that the ships may be able to assist and support each other in action; that they may not be exposed to the fire of the enemy’s ships greater in number than themselves; and that every ship may be able to fire on the enemy without risk of firing into the ships of her own fleet.”

If one fleet had a good reason to form a line of evenly spaced ships, so did its opponent. Both wanted to sail in front of the other’s line, or “cross the T,” so as to be able to rake the enemy’s ships without receiving fire in return. But if two fleets are both trying to cross in front of each other, what you get is a pair of parallel lines.

The result of such a battle was pretty predictable, a function of the number of guns on each side. That meant that a clearly smaller fleet had a strong incentive to avoid battle or, if forced into it, to break the line and take a chance at prevailing in a chaotic melee. A melee could also develop by accident as a result of weather conditions, geographical obstacles, or sheer chaos. At the Battle of the Saintes (1782), the lines got mixed up. Walcott says this was Admiral Rodney’s plan, his “set design.” Wikipedia says the reason was a gusty wind that broke up the lines. Whether by chance or design, the Royal Navy ended up killing 8,000 French to their own losses of just 243 men.

Trafalgar (1805) was another famous counterexample. Nelson deliberately swooped in to break the enemy line, despite the grave risk of being raked by their broadsides, because he had a much greater incentive than the Franco-Spanish fleet to achieve a decisive result that day and was willing to take his chances. Nelson played the chicken game and didn’t swerve, for which he paid with his life but gets to stand on top of a huge column in central London to this day.

In 1913, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill faced the accusation that he had impugned the traditions of the Royal Navy. He replied: “And what are they? Rum, sodomy and the lash.” Maybe he should have said, ” … and the Nash.”

See also the gift economy of Beowulf and some thoughts about game theory.

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Where we vote affects how we vote. So where should we vote?

According to a summary article by Ben Pryor in The Conversation/Scientific American, people’s votes are affected by the voting location. Voting in a church “prime[s] significantly higher conservative attitudes—and negative attitudes toward gay men and lesbians.” On the other hand, “individuals voting in Arizona schools were more likely to support a ballot measure that increased the state’s sale tax to finance education.”

Pryor draws the conclusion that we should vote by mail–which, for most people, would mean voting at home. One objection is that home isn’t a neutral place. It will bring its own biases. I don’t know whether voting at home has been experimentally compared to voting at (say) a school, but let’s imagine that being home makes people more resistant to taxes. Why is that the most authentic, or most rational, or most autonomous perspective? To prefer the home seems to assume a rather contentious view of the relation between the public and private sphere. In political theorists’ terms, it’s a hyper-liberal view as opposed to a republican or communitarian one. Arguably, you should vote where you are primed to think about other people.

But isn’t it problematic that a church, for instance–with all the deliberate persuasive power of its iconography and architecture–should be the required context for voting in a secular republic? Well, maybe. But I don’t accept the view that citizens can be or should be disembodied and culture-free. The Progressive movement that achieved the secret ballot envisioned the ideal voter as a rational calculator of best interests (either his own interests or the nation’s). Progressive voting reforms were probably helpful, on the whole, but the guiding ideal seems both naive and a little unattractive. What, after all, is in our interests once we strip away values and group-memberships?

The opposite view–just for the sake of argument–is that we construct communities that are redolent of values. That’s why they are full of religious buildings, public structures with inscriptions and allusive architectural styles, businesses that promise various versions of the good life, and even natural spaces that we interpret as having moral significance. Communities govern themselves by making decisions, and a vote is one important moment for decision-making. Each person’s vote is profoundly influenced by the community context. Yet individuals push back. While the average voter may be influenced in a conservative direction by voting in a church, some are probably alienated by the context and pushed in the opposite way.

On every day, not just on Election Day, the community changes as people build, alter, and decorate its physical spaces and communicate in more ephemeral ways. For instance, the church in which a polling place may be located was built by people who wanted to change  local values and commitments. They were not satisfied with whatever religious structures and institutions already existed, but chose to make a new one. That was part of an endless process of community-formation. The material with which we reason and choose is given to us by the community so far, but we can change it one piece at a time. The real me doesn’t emerge when I am inside the home that my family has privately decorated. I am really “me” everywhere I go, and that means that I am always being shaped by my context and often pushing back.

See also: on voting by mail and voting and punishment: Foucault, biopower, and modern elections.

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the question each citizen must ask

(New York City) “The Question Each Citizen Must Ask” is my new piece in Educational Leadership, the magazine for k-12 school administrators (vol. 73, no. 6, March 2016, pp. 30-34. It begins:

When universal public education was invented in the United States, visionary proponents like Horace Mann believed they were building the first large-scale democracy in the history of the world. They realized that citizens would have to be educated to play their parts in a system that depended on millions of wise and active participants. They made a courageous bet that children could be taught to make democracy work.

I argue that civic education must equip students to ask the citizen’s core question, and I explain what that is and what pedagogies are most promising. (The article is also available via

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the long march through institutions–for civic renewal

(Baltimore, MD) I am here for a panel on “Systems Change and Culture of Health” at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health conference. My great fellow panelists were Sonal Shah (Georgetown), Derwin Dubose (New Majority Community Labs), and Karen Matusoka (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services). The audience seemed to be composed mostly of health practitioners and policymakers who were already strongly committed to three goals:

  1. Doing a better job of understanding the needs, priorities, and circumstances of truly diverse people by engaging them in influencing health interventions and policies. For instance, instead of telling a specific group of new immigrants how to improve their health, pay attention to what they already know and want.
  2. Supporting solutions that require collective action by residents. Dubose brought up a situation in which individuals couldn’t exercise in a local park because it was too dangerous, but a group started tai chi exercises there every day at noon. Only a coordinated strategy would work, and coordination requires organization, trust, leadership, and skill. This point is related to the previous one, because community members would be the first to know about the danger of the park and the popularity of tai chi. Not only is a coordinated strategy essential, but only the participants are likely to be able to invent it.
  3. Recognizing and enhancing the civic capacity of whole communities to achieve better  health. For instance, Robert Sampson’s major book Great American City shows that Chicago neighborhoods achieve better outcomes for their children if the adults are organized and active in civic life.

Several participants noted that these were shared principles in the room–but none of the ideas are really new. In fact, a roughly similar discussion could have occurred 50 years ago, during the 1960s movement to make health (and research) more “community-based.” That impulse still remains marginal, which can be discouraging.

I would note that some relevant practices and networks have grown and strengthened over the past half century. (See, e.g., Community-Campus Partnerships for Health and the networks it represents.) But I would also acknowledge the powerful hold of a technocratic model in which solutions are developed at the “bench” and implemented at the “bedside.” That model is deeply rooted in modern epistemology and reinforced by the prestige of technology. It serves both governmental and corporate bureaucracies. So it is not easy to shake, and may even be worse than it was in the 1960s.

Policy changes can help. If–as one example–the National Institutes of Health funds community-based research, we get community-based research. But even the best-intentioned policies don’t implement themselves. They require dedicated and persistent work, everywhere from the national or state agency to the street level.

Civic engagement by communities can help. Why do Chicago neighborhoods get better outcomes–regardless of race and class–if they are organized and active? I would propose that this is partly because they support and compel local institutions, such as schools, police districts, and hospitals, to engage with them better. Every Chicago neighborhood has the same police chief, school superintendent, and mayor, but some neighborhoods receive more responsive government at the local level. Note that residents are not organized in specific policy domains, such as health or public safety. They are organized in multi-purpose civic and religious associations and networks. Those are essential for driving change through institutions.

Finally, we need effective organizing within the professions, a strategy that my friends Harry Boyte and Albert Dzur have advocated–and practiced–effectively for years. Like any good organizing effort, this strategy begins with recognizing the assets and interests of the people in question. Physicians, health administrators, and academic researchers are people, too. Lecturing them that they should be less arrogant and more sensitive to diversity may fail for the same reasons that it usually fails to lecture people to eat more vegetables.

But health professionals have interests that can be tapped–for instance, interests in getting better results and escaping social isolation. Most of all, they can develop genuine skills for engaging the public better. That is hard, complex, challenging work. It requires evidence and analysis. When we tell professionals to be less professional–to diminish their sense of expertise and authority–I think it goes over like asking people to eat their broccoli. Even if they want to comply, all the incentives work against it. But when we reward them for exercising advanced professional skills in community engagement, we treat them as assets and give them ways to excel. Combined with policy changes and grassroots pressure from outside, this organizing effort within professions may begin to change systems at a large scale.

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Bourdieu in the college admissions office

In the college admissions office of a very highly respected liberal arts college, the admissions officer asks the prospective applicants what they think they might like to study. The first two teenagers say “business,” which is not in the curriculum of this college. Presumably, they and their families want them to get ahead, they see business as the path to success in America, and they assume that attending a highly selective and famous college is a step to business leadership.

Meanwhile, other families in the room also want our kids to get ahead. But we know that there is quite a different pathway that involves intentionally not studying anything as practical and applied as business. If you’re on this path, you know that the right thing to value is a liberal arts education. That will always mark you as someone desirable to employ at businesses and other organizations run by fellow graduates of elite liberal arts colleges.

Paging Dr. Bourdieu, who would explain that a ruling class reproduces itself by defining a certain habitus, or structure of values, that is difficult to acquire and that identifies its bearers as members of the ruling class. The purpose, then, of a highly selective liberal arts college is to transmit the habitus.

That is a hard diagnosis to avoid when sitting in an admissions office. I think there’s a lot of truth to it, although I’d note some complications.

First, there are many paths to wealth, power, and social standing. It’s been said that Washington is full of Harvard grads working for Ohio State grads, and if there’s still truth to that, it’s because America has many centers of power–financial, industrial, military, and political. Bourdieu’s theory may apply more neatly to the France of the grandes écoles than to our stratified–but polycentric–nation.

Second, what you learn from a liberal arts education has incalculable value. It’s not like mastering court etiquette so that you can mingle with aristocrats. You’re learning quantum mechanics, Japanese history, psychometrics–and Bourdieu. These attainments contribute to a good life. They also encourage a range of careers. Many liberal arts graduates just use the habitus to rise in the social hierarchy, but others are inspired to work in kindergarten classrooms, refugee camps, and monasteries. It’s interesting to speculate why the ruling class has chosen rites of passage for its young that are not efficiently designed to produce new rulers. There’s a lot of leakage, as some graduates voluntarily choose not to compete for the top of the social hierarchy.

Third, by rewarding proficiency in the liberal arts, we create incentives to practice these arts at all stages of life. Meritocracy is a highly problematic concept–that is the main theme of this post. But it isn’t an empty idea. Students in a seminar room in a highly selective liberal arts institution really do practice the liberal arts at a remarkably high level. That is not because of their native excellence, but because they–and the adults who care about them–have spent the 18 years before college honing their skills. These kids have worked very hard, and so have their parents and teachers. Many of their peers haven’t made it to the elite colleges because they haven’t performed as well. One outcome is to mark a ruling class by giving them a set of difficult attainments, a habitus. Another outcome is to produce truly excellent scientists, poets, and teachers.

Finally, the people who run these institutions are not intentionally invested in reproducing a ruling class. At least at the level of conscious, deliberate intention, they are motivated by love of the liberal arts and by a sense that the college adds value and provides opportunities for upward mobility. They don’t want to admit and educate only the children of alumni and others like them. They are actually pleased to see students attain the habitus when their parents were far from having it. Diversity, inclusion, equity, and upward mobility are among the highest notional values of these institutions. Such values inspire the educators and administrators and legitimize the whole business. The result is a somewhat diverse actual student body in an institution that still pretty well fulfills the function that Pierre Bourdieu diagnosed.

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teaching online civic engagement

For several years, Joe Kahne and his colleagues have been conducting intensive research on young people’s use of digital media for politics and what that means for education. Their research has taken the form of large-scale youth surveys, interviews, and experiments. The following is a broad and detailed new article that pulls together much of their research and provides concrete examples of classroom practice:

Joseph Kahne, Erica Hodgin & Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, “Redesigning Civic Education for the Digital Age: Participatory Politics and the Pursuit of Democratic Engagement,” Theory & Research in Social Education, Volume 44, Issue 1, 2016, pp. 1-35 (open access)

The authors address two concerns that I have raised in previous work. First, “Many efforts to produce and circulate content will confront what Levine has termed ‘the audience problem’ (2008, p. 129). Simply put, many blogs or other digital content may get relatively few views and little or no response.” I would add that this is almost a logical inevitability because there aren’t enough eyeballs to allow millions of content-producers all to reach large audiences. As I can testify from years of experience, the median blog or video reaches just a few. The authors reply:

Of course, many off-line political activities also fail to engage many members of the public. We would classify a blog that addresses a political issue but has few readers an act of participatory politics just as we would classify a protest that people ignore as a political activity. That said, clearly, the power of public voice is diminished if one fails to reach a public. This reality highlights the need for educators to help set realistic expectations and to support and scaffold activities so that youth can more effectively produce and circulate political content.

Second, “a number of scholars (Levine, in press; Sifry, 2014) have detailed ways that individuals’ and non-institutionalized groups’ efforts to achieve greater voice by leveraging the power of the digital media often fail to prompt institutional change. Expressing caution, Milner (2010) wrote, ‘[youth who] turn their backs on [institutional] politics in favor of individual expression will continue to find their priorities at the top of society’s wish list–and at the bottom of the ‘to do’ list”(p. 5).” Here I would add that loose online movements are frequently defeated by disciplined organizations, such as corporations, armies, and security agencies. But the authors reply:

one might note that a wide range of significant change efforts ranging from #BlackLivesMatter, to the DREAMer movement, to the protests against SOPA, to the push for marriage equality have employed digital media in ways that changed public attitudes and that these changes have enabled new legislation. Still, the concern remains. Watkins (2014) noted, for example, that when it comes to digital media, youth are often “power users” (frequent users), but they are not necessarily “powerful users” (influential users). In order for youth to realize the full potential of participatory politics, they will frequently need to both understand and connect their efforts to institutional politics. Helping youth identify ways to build bridges from voice to influence is vitally important.

These are just two of many issues discussed in this extensive and deeply researched survey article.

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