Facts/Values/Strategies: a mini-conference at Tufts’ University’s Tisch College of Civic Life

Current global crises of democracy raise fundamental questions about how citizens can be responsible and effective actors, whether they are combating racism in the United States, protecting human rights in the Middle East, or addressing climate change. If “citizens” are people who strive to leave their communities greater and more beautiful (as in the Athenian citizen’s oath), then their thinking must combine facts, values, and strategies, because all three must influence any wise decision. Mainstream scholarship distinguishes facts, values, and strategies, assigning them to different branches of the academy. Many critics have noted the philosophical shortcomings of the fact/value distinction, but citizens need accounts of how facts, values, and strategies can be recombined, both in theory and in practice. John Dewey, Hannah Arendt, Mahatma Gandhi, Jürgen Habermas, Amartya Sen—and many other theorists of citizenship—have offered such accounts.

Actual civic movements also combine facts, values, and strategies in distinctive ways. For instance, the American Civil Rights Movement used the language of prophesy, and Second Wave Feminism strategically advocated new ways of knowing.

These papers propose theoretical, methodological, historical, and empirical responses and case-studies related to the question: how should citizens put facts, values, and strategies together?


  • “Public Entrepreneurship, Civic Competence, and Voluntary Association: Self-Governance Through the Ostroms’ Political Economy Lenses” — Paul Dragos Aligica, George Mason University
  • “Giving Birth in the Public Square: Dialogue as a Maieutic Practice” — Lauren Swayne Barthold, University of Connecticut
  • “William James’s Psychology of Philosophizing: Selective Attention, Intellectual Diversity, and the Sentiments in Our Rationalities” — Paul Croce, Stetson University
  • “The Praxis of Amartya Sen and the Promotion of Democratic Capability” — Anthony DeCesare, St. Louis University
  • “Social Media, Dismantling Racism and Mystical Knowing: What White Catholics are Learning from #BlackLivesMatter” — Mary E. Hess, University of Toronto
  • “Institutions, Capabilities, Citizens” — James Johnson, University of Rochester, and Susan Orr, SUNY College at Brockport
  • “Forgiveness After Charleston: The Ethics of an Unlikely Act” — Larry M. Jorgensen, Skidmore College
  • “Facts, Values, and Democracy Worth Wanting: Public Deliberation in the Era of Trump” — David Eric Meens, University of Colorado Boulder
  • “When Democracy Had Roots and Airwaves: Putting Facts, Values, and Strategies Together in Rural America” — Timothy J. Shaffer, Kansas State University
  • “A Civic Account of Justice” — Karol Edward So?tan, University of Maryland

Paper titles are preliminary

Conference chair: Peter Levine, Tisch College, Tufts University.
Good Society editor: Trygve Throntveit, University of Minnesota

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review article: Public-Spirited Citizenship: Leadership and Good Government in the United States by Ralph Ketcham

[From Political Science Quarterly, vol. 131, no. 4, winter 2016-17, pp. 896-7. Text as submitted. The definitive version is available at www.wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/polq. ]

Ralph Ketcham is a distinguished American political historian and biographer, a renowned educator, and an avid student of political thought from classical to current times. In Public-Spirited Citizenship, the most recent of more than a dozen books, he offers a sweeping narrative about both political science and American politics from the founding era to the present, with a valuable excursion into 20th century East Asia.

His story begins with the civic republican tradition that defined the public good as the purpose of politics, civic virtue as the foundation both of a good society and a worthy life, statecraft as leadership and institutional design to encourage civic virtue and promote the public good, and education as the development of good character along with the skills and knowledge needed for civic life. Ketcham emphasizes that the founders of the American republic were steeped in this tradition.

Civic republicanism never vanished, according to Ketcham’s account, but it suffered a series of blows in the 19th and 20th centuries. The idea of a public good began to seem unscientific and naïve as theories of human nature emerged that emphasized self-interest and irrationality. Education was increasingly defined as the imparting of information and scientific insights about the way things really worked, not moral development or reflection on the public good. Public institutions, too, shifted from deliberative forums to sites of negotiation among organized interests.

The American Political Science Association played a role in that story. Starting in the early 1900s, leading American political scientists decried education that took the form of “sermonizing and patriotic expostulation” (p. 105). The only alternative they recognized was a rigorous, detached, disenchanted study of politics as it was. In keeping with that goal, they advocated specialization and expertise. Political science meant training for professors and technocrats in basically the current system.

Good citizens, Ketcham argues, will not be “’experts’ in the details of government; rather, they must have a disinterested perspective and must ask the proper public question, ‘What is good for the polity as a whole?’ and not [a] corrupt private one” (pp. 33-34). That stance is best cultivated, Ketcham argues, by a broad liberal education that is “profound,” “integrated,” and “radical.” But all those ideals seem naïve to positivist social scientists, who doubt there is anything good for the polity (apart from the aggregation of private interests) and who favor education that is specialized empirical training for the status quo.

The broad outlines of this narrative are not unique to Ketcham, but he has a sharp eye for overlooked aphorisms, incidents, and characters. This book is a treasury of quotations from proponents of civic republicanism and positivism alike. It is also a pageant of character sketches—from Benjamin Franklin in dialogue with Mohawk King Hendricks about good government in 1754, to Fukuzawa Yukichi reflecting on how republican norms might merge with Confucian ideals in Meiji Japan, to Ketcham’s own colleagues at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, who are giving renewed attention to the ideal of “citizenship” that is in their institution’s name.

I concur with the whole story, but I would add that an 18th century account of the public good and civic virtue can’t directly apply today, not only because we must draw from more diverse sources, but also because we have learned hard truths from history, the natural and social sciences, the terrible experiences of the past century—in a word, from modernity. The decline of civic education and civic culture reflects not only a loss of moral commitment but also a profound intellectual challenge that confronts public-spirited citizens today.

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responding to the deep story of Trump voters

(Washington, DC) This is Arlie Russell Hochschild’s now-famous “deep story” of Louisiana Tea Party supporters, their “account of life as it feels to them.” It’s become famous because it’s also the “deep story” of at least some Trump voters:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

One response to anyone who holds this story is basically: Drop it. The people you believe have moved ahead of you on line are actually still behind, in the sense that they still face unfair disadvantages. For example, an applicant with an identical resume is much less likely to receive a job interview if his name sounds African American rather than White. (My own team is replicating this finding now, as part of a larger study to be released later.) To the extent that some people are moving forward on line, it’s because the most blatant inequalities are being to some extent remedied.

This is true, but I don’t believe it will work politically. I can’t think of any group in history that, upon being informed of its unfair advantages, has responded by yielding them willingly.* The standard response to being told you are privileged is to realize that you have something to defend. And I think that’s an especially likely response if you actually face hardships and disadvantages–which is true of White working-class rural Louisianans.

Waiting in line is a perfect example of a zero-sum situation. Literally, to move one space forward in a queue is to move everyone else one space back. As long as people see themselves in zero-sum relations with others, politics will be ugly. Of course, people don’t have to see the competition in racial terms. If, for instance, White rural Louisianans saw themselves as part of the same group as African-American rural Louisianans, they wouldn’t count successful Black people as winning against them. As Jamelle Bouie wrote yesterday, “many white Americans hold (and have held) a zero-sum view of politics, where gains and benefits for nonwhites are necessarily an imposition on their status.” He adds that how to “fix this white voter problem … is a separate and difficult question.” Telling the people whom Hochschild interviewed that they are racists does not seem to me a likely solution (nor does Bouie suggest it).

A different approach is to attack the zero-sum framing of the situation. People should be asking why anyone must wait so long for the American Dream. White Americans have voted for progressive policies when they have come to think that maybe everyone could achieve a good, secure, prosperous life. The underlying rules could be changed so that everyone wins.

The immediate barrier to that kind of solution is distrust in government. If you don’t believe that government can be trusted to improve the social contract, then the existing contract may seem inevitable. Then your struggle with other people is zero-sum.

And people no longer trust the government much …

Perhaps the most common way to change this trend is to try to “sell” people on the government again– to persuade them that it offers solutions by outlining the policies that it can achieve and by using more effective rhetoric to defend it as an institution.

I dissent in part. People should not trust governments. As Jean Cohen writes, “One can only trust people, because only people can fulfill obligations.” Trust in the US government, as displayed by the American public ca. 1958, was naive. It often involved viewing presidents and other national leaders as friendly personalities, which reflected poor judgment. When it comes to governments and other large institutions, we ought to use one of these substitutes for trust:

  1. A sober assessment that the incentives are aligned to make the people who run the government also look out for our interests. I don’t think rural White Louisianans have much reason to make that assessment, even though, in my view, they would have been much better off with Clinton than with Trump.
  2. Personal connections to people who work in or closely with government. Because politics and government service are now the preserves of white-collar professionals, working-class people have few such connections. Consider, for example, the almost total absence of actual, current working-class people at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
  3. Intermediary organizations that tangibly answer to us and (in turn) influence governments. Unions [and grassroots-based political parties] were prime examples, but they are shattered.

I’d support anything that makes White Americans less likely to see zero-sum situations in racial terms. But I believe it’s most promising to reduce the zero-sum situation more generally. Improving the social contract requires large institutions. Governments are strong candidates, although unions, co-ops, and other nongovernmental structures can be effective as well. Any large institution must, in turn, have direct, human connections to the people whose support it seeks. That means that even if the government is our main tool for social change, we need more than the state by itself; it must come with a panoply of social movements and organizations that link people to it. The hollowing out of these movements and organizations is thus at the root of our problems.

See also why the white working class must organizeto beat Trump, invest in organizingbuilding grassroots power in and beyond the election.

*Partial exception: the French nobility voted on August 4, 1789 to abolish the privileges of feudalism, spending all night eliminating one major privilege at a time by majority vote. It was a heady spectacle, but many of them lost their actual heads in 1793-4. Besides, they were voting for a new regime that promised all kinds of glories, not just moving themselves down the social hierarchy.

Posted in 2016 election, populism, revitalizing the left, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

the Democrats and religious Americans

In The Atlantic just before the New Year, Michael Wear–an evangelical who helped Barack Obama with “faith outreach”–offered a critical assessment of the Democrats’ relationships with Evangelicals, 81% of whom supported Trump in 2016. Wear argued that it is a civic obligation to strive to engage all sectors of the society, and it’s a political necessity to engage religious Christians, given their large numbers. Wear wouldn’t expect Democrats to compromise on the substance of abortion, but he suggested that they could acknowledge the moral motivations of abortion’s opponents and look for common ground where it exists. He also decried a certain tone-deafness or ignorance about religious values and traditions, which sometimes verges implicitly on contempt. For instance:

[Wear] once drafted a faith-outreach fact sheet describing Obama’s views on poverty, titling it “Economic Fairness and the Least of These,” a reference to a famous teaching from Jesus in the Bible. Another staffer repeatedly deleted “the least of these,” commenting, “Is this a typo? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Who/what are ‘these’?”

Wear’s remarks are a bit anecdotal and could give a misleading overall impression. However, in The New Republic, Sarah Jones responded in a way that I thought vindicated Wear’s point. She argued that the Democrats should “frame abortion access as a moral good”; women suffer from any wavering on that topic. (Note that an outright majority of women have been against abortion in several recent years.) She added, “The country is becoming increasingly secular and increasingly liberal on issues like marriage equality. The Democratic party won’t win by catering to social conservatives, and it shouldn’t try.”

Leaving aside Wear’s point that national leaders should always try to engage any significant group, Jones is also wrong empirically. It’s true that the proportion of Americans who do not believe in God has risen–to 10% in 2016. Still, 89% say they believe in God, 64% believe in Hell, 54% believe that “religion can answer all or most of today’s problems,” 53% say that religion is very important in their own lives, and 55% claim to belong to a church or synagogue. The secularization trend is subtle and modest. I also fail to see a trend in the pro-choice direction:

Ed Kilgore offers a more interesting response to the Wear interview. He notes that whenever Democrats become concerned about losing “religious” voters, the conversation turns to White Evangelicals (see the Wear interview) or to “cultural conservatives” (as in Jones’ reply), with sometimes a passing reference to Jews. The discussion overlooks Catholics of all backgrounds, Protestants of color, Mainline Protestants (who number 36 million, mostly Whites), Muslims, Hindus, and other religious minorities.

Many of these constituencies see politics through religious lenses, at least in part. They are prone to be alienated by an aggressive secularist agenda, and they are likely to see issues like abortion as morally complicated, wherever they land. Often enough they vote for reasons other than religious ones. For instance, a majority of Mainline Protestants supported Trump, which I would attribute mainly to their race and class rather than their faith. Still, there are powerful faith-based reasons that they might oppose not only Trump but also Paul Ryan’s economics. Meanwhile, religious congregations remain sources of social capital and bottom-up political power that progressives ignore at their peril.

See also the political advantages of organized religion.

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why the global turn to authoritarian ethnonationalism?

It seems impossible to explain why Donald Trump won the 2016 election. For one thing, he lost the popular vote. Besides, a single election is an “n” of one with numerous contingent circumstances, in this case including the FBI’s last-minute intervention, Hillary Clinton’s gender, and the behavior of cable news. We often think of a cause as something that would yield a different result if it were changed. In this case, changing any of a dozen or more factors might have put Clinton in the White House.

More valuable is to consider why authoritarian, illiberal nationalists either dominate or (like Trump) have narrowly missed winning majorities in many countries: at least in Austria, China, Hungary, India, Israel, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States–with England and France also looking at risk. Across the 34 OECD countries, true right-wing parties still capture only about 8 percent of total popular support, but that’s steadily up from five percent in the 1970s. This graph from Funke, Moritz & Schularick shows the recent shift in nine major European nations.

Vote Share for the Far Right Since 2004

At the global level, the “n” is much greater than one, and we can rule out certain explanations for the trends. For instance, in other counties, an authoritarian leader hasn’t replaced a person of color or defeated a female opponent.

I cannot estimate the relative impact of the following factors, but they seem plausible to me across the whole range of cases:

Oligarchy: Many of the authoritarian leaders are billionaires or closely associated with billionaires. Their supporters are personally wealthy individuals rather than multinational public companies, which are more comfortable with predictable centrists like Hillary Clinton. A billionaire can know political leaders personally, can trade wealth for influence, and can profit from disruptions in the larger economy. Several of the key billionaires are media personalities. I think some of them develop authoritarian expectations by being the barons of large private enterprises, within which their word is law. Billionaires have almost tripled their share of global GDP since 1996, and their inflation-adjusted total assets have risen by 7.5% annually over those two decades. They represent a global force that was absent in 1996.

A gap in the ideological landscape: For this purpose, let’s categorize ideologies along two dimensions. They are either pro-state or anti-state/pro-market. And they either favor a narrowly defined ethnocultural group or they support diversity and globalism. I’ll call the latter spectrum closed versus open.

Since the 1950s, the dominant parties and movements in the wealthy democracies were all fairly open, at least in principle; the debate was about how much the state should intervene. We often thought of the US ideological spectrum as one-dimensional, from pro-state to pro-market, with everyone giving lip-service to openness. Some conservatives claimed to be pro-market and nationalist, but it’s not clear that that was a coherent position. The whole structure ignored the possibility of a pro-state, explicitly closed position. Like entrepreneurs who have discovered a market niche, authoritarian nationalists have filled the corner previously occupied by fascism. To be sure, Trump may govern like a market libertarian if he turns things over to Paul Ryan and contents himself with symbolic nationalism, but that’s not what he promised to do.

You would think that nationalist authoritarians wouldn’t cooperate much across international borders, because they are xenophobic. But there was a short-lived Fascist International in the 1930s, and we definitely see some coordination today.

Al Qaeda/ISIS: Before explaining why I think these terrorist organizations share causal responsibility for the global turn to authoritarianism, I want to stipulate that we are morally responsible for how we have responded to them. We did not have to invade Iraq, pass the Patriot Act, or turn Guantanamo into a prison. Those stupid and harmful acts are our responsibility as American citizens. Still, it seems both naive and misleading to omit the intentional acts of Al Qaeda and ISIS from our causal theory. They sought to provoke antidemocratic reactions, and they succeeded. An admired friend of mine recently summarized her qualitative research with Muslim teenagers in suburban New Jersey over the past decade, explaining that they have moved from a comfortable feeling of being Americans to a sense of vulnerability and alienation. This is an injustice that is up to remedy. But it struck me as a mistake not even to mention Al Qaeda as a major cause of the change. Osama bin Laden got what he wanted when he sent those planes into the Trade Towers. Although the US leadership of 2001 (including H. Clinton) proved monumentally stupid, Al Qaeda found a vulnerability that would have been hard to defend.

The 2007-8 financial crisis: Funke, Moritz & Schularick show pretty compellingly that voters shift to the far right after financial crises. This has been a pattern across many nations for at least a century. The 2007-8 collapse was an especially terrible one. It hit the advanced economies particularly hard, thus giving their voters a sense that they were losing comparative advantage as well as absolute wealth. It was followed by fiscal austerity that punished ordinary people, while no elites were held accountable for the trillions of dollars of waste and disruption. My sense is that Barack Obama got a pass from a majority of Americans because he wasn’t responsible at the time of the crisis, and he has been seen as laboring to repair the damage. But Hillary Clinton was part of the governing elite that was on duty when the fateful decisions were made.

Cultural backlash: Pippa Norris proposes that cultural liberalization (marriage equality, improving sexual equality, growing racial diversity, etc.). have produced a backlash rooted in the White working class of OECD countries. She clearly favors the trend of cultural liberalization and abhors the backlash, but a different take is Nancy Fraser‘s: people are rightly rejecting a form of “progressive neoliberalism” that unites “new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights)” with the cultural agendas of “high-end ‘symbolic’ and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood).” That is the coalition that delivers diversity in schools and workplaces along with “the weakening of unions, the decline of real wages, the increasing precarity of work, and the rise of the two–earner family in place of the defunct family wage.”

A hollowing out of democracy: People have died or placed themselves in terrible danger in the name of democracy and liberal values, whether on Omaha Beach or the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But an inspiring vision of democracy means more than the right to choose among professional politicians every few years. Even a call for equality isn’t inspiring enough, because how much should each of us care whether our share of power is as great as everyone else’s? Democracy must mean working together to create a better world.

Instead, the US rightwing has abandoned the sometimes inspiring pro-democratic rhetoric of Ronald Reagan to claim that we are not a democracy at all, but a republic. Similar rhetorical shifts away from democracy are evident in other countries as well. Meanwhile, the technocratic center presents democracy as a system of regular elections along with transparent information. Even defenders of the EU admit that it demonstrates a severe “democracy deficit.” Democratically governed associations, such as unions and congregationalist churches, are in decline. And several strands of the left are reflexively critical of any pro-democratic project that emerges in the US or elsewhere in the wealthy global North. People seem increasingly sophisticated about democracy’s drawbacks (misinformation, majority tyranny, cultural bias, etc.) and decreasingly inspired by its promise. That leaves the field open for explicitly illiberal and antidemocratic movements.

Posted in 2016 election, democratic reform overseas, Trump | 2 Comments

winter break

As friends know, I’ve been blogging almost daily here since Jan. 8, 2003 (with 3,313 posts so far). I usually try to rotate among political analysis, social theory, and some cultural commentary. While I expected Clinton to win the 2016 election, I looked forward to reducing the frequency of my topical political posts. Barack Obama is a leader for whom I feel unique regard and emotional commitment. I thought that once his eight years were over, I’d try to go a bit deeper into theory, while the US political system entered a period of–as I expected then–stalemate. Instead, on Nov. 8, we experienced the civic nightmare of a Trump victory. For the first time in nearly 14 years of blogging, I have focused essentially on one question every day: how to respond? Although this remains a comparatively low-traffic site, it saw enormous growth compared to any time in its history. Particularly popular posts (by my standards) have been:

We are about to take a family vacation, and I am also feeling the need for a mental break–not to retreat from political engagement (much as I would like to be able to consider that option), but to regroup and consider how to be most useful. Thus I am signing off until Jan. 2. Happy holidays!

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the verdict on the Massachusetts Citizens Initiative Review

Last summer, working with Healthy Democracy and the office of State Rep. Jonathan Hecht, we at the Tisch College of Civic Life organized the first Citizens Initiative Review in Massachusetts. A representative group of citizens deliberated intensively about a pending ballot initiative to legalize marijuana and co-wrote an informative statement about the initiative’s pros and cons that we helped to disseminate to voters. Watching them at work was a powerful antidote to the atmosphere of civic despair so prevalent in 2016.

Now a research team led by Penn State’s John Gastil has published an evaluation. These are some key findings (verbatim from this site):

The 2016 Massachusetts CIR panel achieved a high quality of deliberation, which enabled panelists to understand and consider key arguments for and against Question 4 (marijuana legalization ballot measure).

  • The 2016 Massachusetts CIR maintained either the same or a higher level of deliberation obtained in previous years and in other locations. The review provided participants with high quality information provided by strong teams of advocates and experts and created a respectful and open atmosphere for panelists to engage in deliberation.
  • The vast majority of participants reported learning enough about the measure, and most reported little difficulty processing information, arguments, and underlying values related to Question 4.
  • CIR panelists and neutral observers largely agreed in their assessment that the CIR was both analytically rigorous and conducted in a democratic fashion.

The 2016 Massachusetts CIR produced a clear and reliable Citizens’ Statement.

  • Claims made in the 2016 Citizens’ Statement generally were accurate and verifiable, though some elements reflected unchallenged expert testimony of indeterminate accuracy.
  • The 2016 Massachusetts Citizens’ Statement was clearly written in broadly accessible language, but the Statement could have been stronger with better direction in relation to the ordering of claims and the inclusion of values.

Voters rated the 2016 Massachusetts CIR Statement as useful and informative.

  • Nearly two-thirds of voters (65%) rated the Statement as “easy to read.”
  • The vast majority of voters rated the Statement as either “very informative” (42%) or “somewhat informative” (52%).
  • In deciding how to vote on Question 4, a third (32%) said the Statement was “very helpful,” and another 45% said it was “somewhat helpful.”

Voters shown the 2016 Massachusetts CIR Statement on Question 4 increased their issue knowledge and were eager to share its findings

  • Massachusetts voters were randomly divided into two groups—one reading just official information about Question 4 and the other reading those same materials, along with the CIR Statement. The CIR exposure group improved its knowledge scores on three of the four factual claims tested by becoming both more accurate in its beliefs and more confident in the correct knowledge those voters held.
  • Knowledge gains were found across three different voter groups, including those opposed to Question 4, those in favor, and those undecided on the measure.
  • A majority of voters (57-75%) said they would “probably” or “definitely” share these four pieces of information. This finding held true across all three voter groups (those opposed to, in favor of, or neutral on Question 4), though those in favor or opposed to the measure were somewhat more eager to share the information that aligned with their views.

When asked whether they would continue to believe findings in the CIR Statement even after being refuted by an alternative source, voters were divided. When the hypothetical refutation came from pro and con campaigns, roughly twice as many voters continued to trust the CIR versus those inclined to doubt it. When the refutation came from an “independent expert,” a plurality were more inclined to trust the expert.

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save the date for Frontiers of Democracy: June 22-24, 2017 in Boston

Frontiers of Democracy is an annual conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University with partners.

In 2017, the frontiers of democracy are threatened around the world. Leaders and movements that have popular support–yet are charged with being undemocratic, xenophobic, and illiberal–are influential or dominant in the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, South Africa, France, Britain, and the United States, among other countries. Meanwhile, many peoples continue to face deep and sustained repression. Social movements and networks are confronting this global turn to authoritarianism. Please join us for a discussion of what we must do to defend and expand the frontiers of democracy.

You can enter your information here (shortlink: http://tinyurl.com/zp2qlpz) to let us know that you are interested in attending and to ensure that you receive additional information about the agenda and registering for Frontiers. (This is not a registration link.)

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

Frontiers is a public conference that follows immediately after the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a 2-week seminar for scholars, practitioners, and advanced graduate students. The Summer Institute requires an application, and admissions decisions are usually made in May. Prospective applicants should sign up on the Summer Institute’s webpage (shortlink: http://tinyurl.com/hgm64rb) to receive more information.

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the bright side of one-party government: accountability

Here’s an excerpt of Sarah Kliff’s interview with Debbie Mills, a Trump voter:

Are you surprised how much Republicans are talking about repeal [of Obamacare]?


Did you expect do you think they’ll do it, or do you think it’ll be too hard?

I’m hoping that they don’t, ’cause, I mean, what would they do then? Would this go away?

Yes, possibly.

The insurance?

It will go, if they repeal it. I mean, that’s what they promised to do in so many elections.

Right … so … I don’t know. … [snip]

Our interview began to make her a bit nervous.

You’re scaring me now on the insurance part … I’m afraid now that the insurance is going to go away and we’re going to be up a creek.

How could this happen? Why would vulnerable people vote against their own essential interests when they are aware of the stakes and have no altruistic or principled objections to the policy that’s at risk?

Kliff proposes that it was reasonable to doubt that Obamacare really would be repealed, since many political experts also predicted that it would become untouchable, like Social Security. Even to this day, there is a chance that Republicans will leave it alone. But, if we assume that Debbie Mills should have voted for Clinton over Trump to preserve Obamacare, then here are two familiar explanations for her choice:

  1. Trust. Nobody really knows that political leaders will do in the future. Nobody even knows what any given policy will accomplish. We all rely on information, interpretation, predictions, and promises from sources that we trust. I think many Trump voters did not trust Trump to do anything specific that he said, but they did trust his general competence and alignment with their interests. Meanwhile, they distrusted Clinton’s motivations. I believe they were wrong in these judgments, but the difference is not my superior rationality. Rather, we made different assessments of trustworthiness.
  2. Salience: Joseph Schumpeter observed in 1942 that “the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective.” This was true, Schumpeter said, of “educated people and of people who are successfully active in non-political walks of life.” The reason was basically that each vote hardly counted, so it was irrational to spend a lot of time sorting through the “masses of information” that were already available in 1942–not to mention the vast masses today–to make careful judgments. In the absence of “immediate responsibility, ignorance will persist.” And voting, although a responsibility, is too small to compel much attention. Schumpeter originated this way of thinking about politics, but much subsequent psychological research has reinforced it.

I would add a third explanation, and this one is significant because it is likely to change.

  1. Divided government. For 28 of the past 36 years, the elected branches of the federal government have been divided between Democrats and Republicans. Even during the remaining eight years (two each under Clinton and Obama and four under G.W. Bush), Senate filibusters, opposing state governments, and courts have checked the majority’s power. This is one reason that net government spending–federal plus state plus local–rose by nearly 50% under a conservative-sounding president (Bush) and leveled off under under a liberal-sounding president (Obama). As long as the ideology of our most prominent leader is largely unrelated to the actual policies in place, voters get poor feedback from their choices at the ballot box. That makes them unlikely to learn.

I am not saying that it’s a Good Thing that we now face unified Republican government in most of the country. Mills will probably lose her health insurance, which could shorten or wreck her life. Many others will pay a severe price as well. It’s relatively easy for me to see the bright side, since I am not nearly as vulnerable.

But there is a bright side. If you believe in electoral democracy at all, you must acknowledge that voters will make mistakes severe enough to cost lives. The argument for electoral democracy is that voters will learn from such mistakes. But we have frustrated such learning for more than a generation. The political system has performed very poorly at times–killing half a million Iraqis, incarcerating 2 million Americans, allowing our industrial cities to whither wither away–but few citizens have had to rethink their prior assumptions about which ideology is better for them. The signal has been lost in the noise.

The signal is now about to be heard pretty clearly. Democrats and other progressives should amplify it by constantly drawing connections between the reigning ideology and its outcomes, and by refusing to mitigate the short-term damage. Then Trump’s 2016 victory will be Pyrrhic.

Posted in 2016 election, Trump, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

prospects for civic media after 2016

Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice is a new book edited by Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis. I contributed the introductory chapter, “Democracy in the Digital Age.” On Nov. 16, I joined Eric, Paul, Ethan Zuckerman (MIT), Colin Rhinesmith (Simmons), Beth Coleman (University of Waterloo), and Ceasar McDowell (MIT) for a book-launch discussion that focused on the role of media in the 2016 election and the prospects for civic media in the near future. Here’s the video.

Posted in 2016 election, audio and video, press criticism | Leave a comment