notes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution

For use in today’s Summer Institute of Civic Studies. The morning’s readings are

  • Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, pp. 18-25, 37-48, 240-7
  • Hannah Arendt” from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I first asked participants to name various kinds of freedom, and categorized the answers as positive and negative, inner (such as freedom from anxiety) and outer (such as freedom from coercion), and individual and group.

Arendt’s reading of the American Revolution: the founders were after freedom, which they didn’t initially define all that sharply but which probably meant mostly negative individual freedom: “the more or less free range of non-political activities which a given body politic will permit and guarantee to those who constitute it” (p 20). But in creating new institutions that would protect that kind of freedom, they discovered public freedom—the freedom to create together. And this was a source of happiness for them. P. 24: “they were enjoying what they were doing far beyond the call of duty.”

In the French Revolution, however, the leaders felt themselves compelled by great forces beyond their control and they also lost interest in creating new institutions or even following the rules they had constructed as they declared the “social problem” the only thing that mattered. As a result, they lost all forms of freedom (pp. 40-1).

Relation between freedom and equality

Many might see freedom and equality in tension. But for Arendt, public freedom requires equality. People are not naturally equal but they are made equal in “artificial” political spaces, “where men [meet] one another as citizens and not as private persons” (p. 21.) The tyrant, the master and the slave are not free because they are not engaged in equal politics.

Politics as performance and self-discovery

Arendt is not a deliberative democrat, envisioning public life as a discussion about what should be done, in which people try to discipline their own interests and personalities in the interests of the common good. She appreciates competition and the pursuit of excellence in public life. And people discover their full humanity by displaying their personalities in public. “Freedom was understood as being manifest in certain, by no means all, human activities, and that these activities could appear and be real only when others saw them, judged them, remembered them. The life of a free man required the presence of others. Freedom itself therefore needed a place where people could come together—the agora, the market-place, or the polis, the political space proper” (p. 21)

Civic republicanism/liberalism

Arendt sees political participation as a source of happiness (at least for some) and self-discovery. It is thus an intrinsic good, not just a means to justice, or security, or happiness, or other goods. And you need government not so much to guarantee good outcomes for communities as to be a space for politics.

That reflects what is now being called the “civic republican” tradition, in contrast to what is sometimes called “liberalism,” which holds that politics and governments are costs we must pay to get benefits. The liberal tradition encompasses a great variety of answers to the question: how much government and politics do we need? (Some liberals say: a lot.) But all see government and politics as a cost, whereas Arendt sees politics as a benefit and government as the space that allows politics.

Must/should everyone participate?

The civic republic tradition poses the question: who should participate? Granting that politics has intrinsic value, does it have value for all (or only some) and is it the highest value or only one valuable pursuit?

On p. 271, Arendt suggests that there are just some “who have a taste for public freedom and cannot be ‘happy’ without it.” And it’s OK not to participate, because “one of the most important negative liberties we have enjoyed since the end of the ancient world [is] freedom from politics.” (p. 272)

But on p. 247: “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.”

How to keep public freedom alive?

Most of us are not in the position of the American founders, able to discover happiness and freedom by creating institutions and feeling that “man is master of his destiny, at least with respect to political government” (p. 41).

So what are some options?

  • Frequent revolutions?
  • Co-creation in other domains? (What about a startup enterprise?)
  • Radical decentralization—Jefferson’s proposal for “ward” government?

Private and public

In the civic republican vein, Arendt is a great defender of public life. But she is also an explicit and strong defender of the private life and, indeed, of privacy. Sometimes she takes the latter to a fault, as in her “Reflections on Little Rock,” where she argues that sending paratroopers to Arkansas was a violation of the private sphere. But it makes sense that we need a strong private domain to create an impressive public space. The “four walls, within which people’s private life is lived, constitute a shield against the public aspect of the world. They enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive” (Between Past and Future, p. 186). After all, her public space is not about agreement but contention, and one needs a private space to develop enough individuality to contend.

See also: Hannah Arendt and thinking from the perspective of an agentHannah Arendt and philosophy as a way of lifehomage to Hannah Arendt at The New Schoolwhen society becomes fully transparent to the state; and on the moral dangers of cliché.

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job openings in civic renewal (10)

This is the tenth in an occasional series. Just two jobs in this post, but they are important and good ones. Four good jobs in this post:

Director of Public Engagement for Public Agenda. Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues and work together on solutions. For forty years, Public Agenda has fought gridlock and facilitated public problem solving on K-12 and higher education, health care, criminal justice reform, and many other issues. We do so by acting as an honest broker employing the tools of research, engagement, and communications. We also seek to contribute to the field of deliberative democracy and enhance the nation’s capacity to solve problems.

The director of public engagement leads a team in the development and execution of public engagement projects on a variety of local and national issues, and leads the ongoing development of our public engagement methods, products and services.

Senior Associate and Public Engagement Associate at the Great Schools Partnership, a leading education nonprofit working to create innovative models of public schooling. With offices located in downtown Portland, Maine, the Great Schools Partnership works on a variety of small- and large-scale educational projects throughout Maine, New England, and the country. The Partnership offers professional development and technical assistance to educators, schools, districts, and state agencies, while also developing practical school-improvement resources and coordinating the implementation of grant initiatives.

Director of Leadership for the Greater Good, Engaged Cornell. The 10-year Engaged Cornell initiative, launched last October, is charged with promoting innovation in community- engaged and real-world learning, and making those practices the hallmark of the Cornell undergraduate experience. This is a $150 million initiative for community-engaged learning.

Director, Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, University of Texas. The Director will be a well-known figure in government, politics, or the civic engagement community; knowledgeable specifically about Texas and United States government and its politics, as well as possessing acumen in non-partisan activities. The Director will serve as an inspirational leader both internally and externally, acting as the face of the Institute for its many publics. Funded by the state monies, grants, and private donations, the current income for the Institute is $1.3 million and the long-range plan is to grow the endowment by $10 million over the next five years.


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the seventh annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies is underway

We will be meeting daily for 6-7 hours of seminar discussion for the next two weeks. The syllabus is here. This year’s participants include professors and civic activists from Zimbabwe, Liberia, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Singapore, as well as professors, graduate students, NGO leaders, social entrepreneurs, and a civil servant from the US. Today we will be considering some topics that I’ve blogged before: why Margaret Mead’s exhortation to “change the world” is inspiring but flawed; Seamus Heaney’s vision of a “Republic of Conscience”; the relationship between education/human development and civic engagement; the work of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom; and Elinor Ostrom’s own framework.

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“Run Like a Girl … for Office”

My colleagues Nancy Thomas and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg have an article in Diversity & Democracy entitled “Run Like a Girl … for Office: How Higher Education Can Advance Gender Equity in Politics.”

It’s very obvious that far too few women hold political office in the US. Until my colleagues started working on this topic last year, I had been naively thinking that the problem would gradually fade as younger women capitalized on their strong gains in education; or that the barriers were things like campaign financing or family-leave policies that would yield to rather direct policy reforms. But Kei and Nancy have developed and assembled evidence that the problem is partly psychological–a persistent lack of confidence among younger women. And, like most psychological problems, this one has social roots: in this case, the disparate ways that educators treat girls and boys, even when they want to be equitable. The article ends with practical suggestions for colleges and universities, who form the target audience for Diversity & Democracy.

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one more day to register for Frontiers of Democracy 2015

Frontiers of Democracy 2015 (June 25-27 in Boston) offers a great line-up of speakers and a diverse and enticing array of interactive sessions. An excellent body of participants has already registered, but there is still some space before we’d have to move to a larger room. And you have until tomorrow to register.

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why I still believe in institutions

(on the DC-Boston shuttle) Over the past 48 hours I have participated in three consecutive meetings in which an important point of debate has been whether to reform or rebuild institutions–flawed and disliked as they may be–or to look for “disruptive” changes and looser forms of community. In one meeting, in a tech space in Cambridge, I was one of the most “institutionalist” participants and was invited to defend that view. In a different meeting, near Dupont Circle in DC, I was perhaps one of the least institutionalist.

This is why I believe what I do. The graph shows levels of engagement for working class American youth in the 1970s and 2000s, using the kinds of survey measures developed in the seventies. Note that all forms of engagement are down except for volunteering, on which more below.

Note also that each of the key institutions that recruited working class youth in the 1970s had: a business model that allowed it to grow large and to be independent; arguments for joining that didn’t require any preexisting interest in civic engagement; incentives to recruit working class younger Americans; and a self-interest in making these members interested in politics. The newspaper offered sports and classifieds but put news on the front page. The church offered salvation and family but socialized people to participate. The party offered jobs and other benefits. You joined a union because the job was unionized.

All these institutions are shattered today. The only form of engagement that has expanded–volunteering–has become more of an institution. Many schools and some large districts require service. Others fund service programs and recruit volunteers. That is why volunteering has grown.

I know we live in an age of networks and personal choice. I still believe that unless we can build functional equivalents to the institutions of the later 20th century, we will not have mass participation in our democracy.

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Hannah Arendt and thinking from the perspective of an agent

In the following passage from On Revolution (pp. 42-3), Hannah Arendt is criticizing the Hegelian tradition of German philosophy (including Marx) that purports to find fundamental meanings in the narrative of world history.  I think that her words would also describe mainstream social science, which attempts to explain ordinary events empirically rather than philosophically:

Politically, the fallacy of this new and typically modern philosophy is relatively simple. It consists in describing and understanding the whole realm of human action, not in terms of the actor and the agent, but from the standpoint of the spectator who watches a spectacle. But this fallacy is relatively difficult to detect because of the truth inherent in it, which is that all stories begun and enacted by men unfold their true meaning only when they have come to their end, so that it may indeed appear as though only the spectator, and not the agent, can hope to understand what actually happened in any given chain of deeds and events.

The more successful you are in social science, the more you can explain who acts and why. By explaining “deeds and events” that have already happened, you make them look determined. You seek to reduce the unexplained variance. But when you are a social actor, it feels as if you are choosing and acting intentionally. The unexplained is a trace of your freedom.

Arendt does not assert that the spectator’s perspective is epistemically wrong, but that it reflects a political fallacy. It has the political consequence of reducing freedom.

On p. 46, she gives an example: the French Revolution has been understood in ways that hamper the agency and creativity of subsequent revolutionaries. She even argues that revolutionary leaders have submitted to being tried and executed because they assume that revolutions must end in terror. Thus all later upheavals have been

seen in images drawn from the course of the French Revolution, comprehended in concepts coined by spectators, and understood in terms of historical necessity. Conspicuous by its absence in the minds of those who made the revolutions as well as of those who watched and tried to come to terms with them, was the deep concern with forms of government so characteristic of the American Revolution, but also very important in the early stages of the French Revolution.

If you are a political agent, you believe that you can invent or reconstruct “forms of government” to reflect your considered opinions. Deliberate institutional design and redesign seems both possible and valuable. But if you think of history as inevitable and driven by grand forces (the World Spirit, the class struggle), by root causes (capitalism, racism), or by empirical factors (income, gender, technology), then institutional design seems to be an outcome, not a cause; and the designers appear to lack agency. “Civic Studies” can be seen as a reorientation of the humanities and social sciences so that they take an agentic perspective and therefore avoid the “political fallacy” of determinism.

See also: Roberto Unger against root causes and the visionary fire of Roberto Mangabeira Unger

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engaging America’s interested bystanders

The Google Civic Innovation Team (Kate Krontiris, John Webb, Chris Chapman, and Charlotte Krontiris) have released an important strategic report based on original research. They argue that 48.9% of American adults are “Interested Bystanders” to civic life. These “people are paying attention to issues around them, but not actively voicing their opinions or taking action on those issues.”

Looking more closely at how the Interested Bystanders think about politics and civic life (and the actual civic actions that they take), the Google Team uncovers some interesting gaps. For instance, “many Interested Bystanders believe they have the most power at the local level, [yet] most participants reported voting only at the national level.” They also divide the 48.9% into eight archetypal groups, each of which would respond to different messages and opportunities.

The main implication for civic organizers and innovators: “you don’t have to design for activists or the apathetic. You can design for Interested Bystanders and still reach a huge market of people and have a huge impact.”

Kate Krontiris and colleagues advocate a strategy that sounds, at first glance, different from the argument of my book We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For and the findings of “America’s Civic Renewal Movement: The View from Organizational Leaders” by Eric Liu and me. Both documents argue that we ought to focus on a small (but demographically diverse) cadre of civic leaders in America–not 48.9% but more like 0.5% of the population–because only about one million grassroots organizers have the experience and motivations to engage other Americans in civic life. These are the people who not only attend meetings but call meetings; who not only vote but get out the vote. They are already at work on civic renewal in America but need better tools, policies, funds, and other supports.

It’s important to have more that one strategic proposal on the table, so I enthusiastically welcome the Google report even if it lands in a different place from my own work. In any case, these strategies may turn out to be complementary. The “One Million” grassroots civic leaders about whom I write are essential for reaching the “Interested Bystanders” whom Kate and her colleagues describe. In some ways, the Google Team is writing for the One Million–or for an even smaller set of national leaders who have the capacity to engage the One Million through their organizations. They advise these civic leaders to engage the next 48% of the population, which sounds smart to me.

It is a familiar option to try to change a society by engaging a relatively well-placed minority as leaders. Consider W.E.B Du Bois’ early embrace of the Talented Tenth strategy, for example. The advantage is realism: not everyone is ready to participate, and anyone who tries to catalyze a significant change has too few resources to engage the whole population. The potential disadvantage is exclusivity. Marxist revolutions based on “vanguards” have all turned, in my view, into nightmares.

Thus it is very important to my argument that America’s grassroots civic activists are (empirically) a diverse group–diverse in terms of demographics, styles of engagement, and substantive beliefs. My paper with Eric Liu begins to explore the kinds of people who  engage through Ducks Unlimited, PICO, Tea Party Patriots, and United We Dream, among others. Their diversity is important not only for equity and representativeness but also because there is no serious prospect that people this different from each other could turn into a clique or interest group. The question is whether we can get them all working–in different and even competitive ways–to engage their fellow citizens in public life. The “Interested Bystanders” report is a helpful step.

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how our two-party system frustrates political innovation

I was in Spain this past week for a pair of political science conferences. My visit came soon after an election in which two new parties emerged: Podemos (leftist and innovative in how it engages voters) and Ciudadanos (center-right and also somewhat innovative). Naturally, many conversations turned to these parties and to party competition in general. I return feeling jealous of multi-party systems because they present opportunities for civic innovation.

The United States has had the same two parties for 155 years because we use single-member districts. A third party that at first attracts less than 50% of the vote in every district wins no seats at all and can’t get off the ground. Also, despite our important regional differences, we have essentially one national public sphere, so regional parties don’t arise to win majorities in their own areas. A case like Bernie Sanders from Vermont is anomalous and arguably getting more so. In 2012, voters chose straight Democratic or Republican tickets more than at any time since 1952.

If the question is how best to represent the public, a two-party system is not intrinsically worse than a multi-party system that emerges from proportional representation. Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem proves that no system is really ideal in that respect. If voters are given many choices, no party is likely to gain a majority, and then either a minority leads the legislature or there must be some horse-trading to produce a majority coalition that voters did not deliberately select. In a two-party system, the people choose the majority, but only because their choice has been restricted.

The problem, then, is not that our system is especially unrepresentative but that certain kinds of innovations and opportunities are blocked. In the US, as everywhere else, people form new groups that reflect their views, not only about how the world should be but also about how they will relate to each other and make decisions. These groups vary enormously, from terrorist cells led by charismatic clerics to New Left assemblages in which all the decisions are made by consensus and anyone can enter or exit at will.

Let’s assume that some groups are better than others and, indeed, that a few are very good. Because they start as small associations, they cannot directly govern at large scales. They need more than ideals and ways of interacting with their own members; they also need strategies for influencing law, government, and the economy. In a word, they need leverage.

In a system that encourages new parties to form and compete for power, one powerful form of leverage is available. The intellectuals and grassroots activists who emerged from the Occupy-style social movement in Spain naturally formed a political party, Podemos, to reflect both their views of national policies and their ways of self-organizing. It remains to be seen whether they can remain faithful to their origins as a social movement now that they are a formal political party with seats in the legislature and control over some cities and provinces. But that path was available and they took it.

Innovation is not intrinsically good. ISIS is highly innovative. But it is crucial that a political system allows new entrants: not just individuals who haven’t run for office before, but new kinds of people with new ideas. Otherwise, it hardens into an oligarchy.

In the US, people still come together in all kinds of movements and networks within civil society. #BlackLivesMatter, Occupy, and the Tea Party are just some of the high-profile recent examples. If you looked more closely, you would see many more of these groupings, some with narrower ranges of issues, less explicitly political agendas, or more idiosyncratic organizational forms.

Such movements and networks often talk about scale and leverage. In the US, they think first about trying to change public opinion, influence the media, or recruit new members. Occasionally, they also talk about running candidates for office. In the Tea Party’s case, they have used primary campaigns to obtain some influence over a major party. But they cannot gain momentum by launching new parties of their own and coming before the electorate with their own platforms, leaders, and organizational structures. And this is why the discussion of large-scale strategy is so frustrating in the US.

This problem is going to be especially acute for the left for the next few years. On the right, the Tea Party and libertarian movements have found ways to compete within the GOP. The seemingly open and competitive Republican primary campaign means that conservative activists have a strategy for leverage: pick one of the candidates. Although only two or three of the Republican contenders have plausible chances, the competitive start of the campaign makes the GOP presidential primary look like an opportunity for diverse activism on the right.

On the Democratic side, the unprecedented dominance of Hilary Clinton means that supporting a campaign is really not a way to innovate in politics. Clinton and her staff can innovate if they want to. As a voter, you can support Clinton if you agree with her more than with the Republicans. Otherwise, you must innovate outside of formal politics.

I exaggerate because there are other Democratic presidential candidates, and more could enter. But the lack of a candidate who reflects (for instance) any of the recent ferment about race and racism is a symptom of our situation.

My point, again, is not that our elected leaders fail to represent the people. Some Democratic Members of Congress represent predominantly urban African American communities and are reasonably in sync with their constituents. The point is rather that no one–other than established party leaders–can seriously innovate within electoral politics on the Left for the time being. I predict that will produce a lot of frustration unless someone can figure out an alternative form of leverage.

See also community organizing, community-engaged research, and the problem of scale; beyond small is beautiful; leverage as a moral issue; and “En EE UU, el populismo es bastante razonable.”

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America’s Civic Renewal Movement: implications for youth engagement

(Detroit) On April 16, Tisch College released “America’s Civic Renewal Movement: The View from Organizational Leaders” by me and Eric Liu, the founder and CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program.

At Tisch College, we define “civic renewal” as efforts to increase the scale, impact, and equity of civic engagement in the United States. With support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we interviewed 20 leaders from large, national organizations that organize civic engagement about strategies for civic renewal.

The focus of this report was not youth, nor were many of the interviewees young people. Nevertheless, the key findings are applicable to efforts to increase the scale and impact of youth civic engagement.

First, several of the organizational leaders interviewed for the paper lamented the lack of youth in formal settings, such as public hearings or lobbying efforts. They suggested that youth are interested but are not invited or encouraged to participate in these ways. Bill Muse from the National Issues Forums Institute said that younger people are rarely enlisted as moderators of community conversations, but when they do moderate, they do a fantastic job. Lenny Mendonca of McKinsey & Co., who serves on several influential nonprofit boards concerned with democracy, said that most of his peers are “people like me, middle-aged white men who want to help.” He wants to see younger people, people of color, and non-English-speaking people in leadership roles.

Second, the paper makes the case that the grassroots activists who enable civic participation are essential for civic renewal. Large and powerful institutions such as the federal government, school systems, political parties, and the mass media lack incentives to support civic engagement; and average Americans have had too little civic experience to demand more. But there are grassroots civic leaders who are deeply invested in civic activities. They have the skills and motivations to create new opportunities for others.

The paper finds that civic organizations as diverse as Citizens for Self-Governance, Ducks Unlimited, MoveOn, Student Veterans of America, and United We Dream (all included in the study) work on civic renewal—although without using that term—but do not yet form a coherent network. Among the twenty organizations, some have reasonably compatible political agendas, but few work together. The paper makes a case for network-building in the cause of civic renewal.

The paper also proposes a taxonomy. Groups can be large (reaching many people) or deep (helping their members to achieve profound personal change). Groups can be ideologically and philosophically diverse, or they can be focused on a shared agenda. The authors find a lack of organizations that are large and also diverse; this appears to be a gap not only among the interviewees’ groups but in the whole current landscape of American civil society. And they find that the large groups struggle to be deep, and vice-versa.

For instance, Scott Reed of the faith-based PICO network said that his organization “invests lots and lots of time to connect with people and develop relations.” But “scale is what we are trying to figure out … because we are nowhere near where we want.” Meanwhile, Anna Galland of MoveOn acknowledged that the online organization has “tremendous scale and little depth.” MoveOn’s goal, she says, is to “move from a list of 8 million to horizontal connectivity.”

Young people are coming of age at a time that the interviewees described as highly polarized, unequal, and corrupt. They are also developing their civic identities when there is not yet a robust network for civic renewal, although there are many impressive groups that could form such a network.

For people primarily concerned with civic education and civic engagement, the paper poses questions about how to build a base of active supporters, how to connect them into more effective networks, and how to offer young people organizations that are deep as well as large, and diverse as well as focused.

Read the full report here. For more on Tisch College’s research on civic renewal, go here. This post is cross-posted from the CIRCLE site.

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