Democrats as technocrats

This web search takes you to a whole stack of good recent writing about the Democratic Party as the technocratic party, with headlines ranging from Twilight of the Technocrats? to The Triumph of the Technocrats. In lieu of a critical review, I’d pose these questions:

  1. What would a technocrat support and do in our context? It’s possible to be a socialist technocrat or a technocrat who works for a huge, for-profit company. I presume that a technocratic Democrat today is someone who believes in optimizing GDP growth, environmental sustainability, and reductions in tangible human distress (e.g., disease, homicide) through efficient governmental policies. These desired outcomes often conflict, and then technocrats are fine with compromise. To qualify as a technocrat, you can’t be too enthusiastic about working with ordinary citizens on public issues, and you can’t base your agenda on controversial, challenging moral ideals.
  2. Do Democrats present themselves as technocrats, in this sense? Some do and some don’t. It seems fair to read the positive agenda of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign as largely technocratic (she promised to govern competently and continue the balanced progress of her predecessor), although her critique of Donald Trump was ethical rather than technical. I also think that Clinton was in a tough spot because she didn’t believe that she could accomplish transformative change with a Republican Congress; thus managerial competence seemed a workable alternative. The 2016 campaign does not demonstrate that she–let alone all Democrats–are fully technocratic. However, consider a different case that is pretty revealing: the Josiah Bartlet Administration. This is an informative example just because it is idealized and fictional, free of any necessary constraints. The Bartlet White House is staffed with hard-working, highly-educated, unrealistically competent, smartest-guy-in-the-room, ethical people who strive to balance the budget while making incremental progress on social issues. Hollywood’s idealized Democrats are technocrats in full.
  3. Do Democrats choose technocratic policies? Again, I’d say “sometimes.” Both the Clinton and Obama Administrations definitely showed some predilection for measurable, testable outcomes; for behavioral economics; and for models that were consistent with academic research about the economy and the climate. They weren’t particularly good at empowering citizens to govern themselves or collaborating with social movements. On the other hand, the Affordable Care Act has a moral core (aiming to cover people without health insurance), even if many of its tools and strategies are best defined as technocratic.
  4. Are Democrats good technocrats? There has been more economic growth under Democratic than Republican presidents. But the sample is small, several Democratic presidents faced conservative congresses, and any correlation with a small “n” can easily be spurious. A deeper point is that Democrats are currently more committed to the mainstream findings of climate science, social policy research, and academic economics than Republicans are. Their accomplishments may be affected by sheer chance, but their strategies tend to be consistent with positivist, empirical research.
  5. Is Democratic technocracy consistent with justice? No. Almost any theory of justice, from libertarian to strongly egalitarian, would demand fundamental shifts from the status quo. Certainly, I would favor deeper changes in our basic social contract. On the other hand, compared to what? Managing our existing social policies in a competent way delivers substantial, if inadequate, justice. It beats incompetence or deliberate assaults on existing social institutions. In a multi-party parliamentary democracy, a center-left technocratic party would play an important role. I would be open to voting for it, depending on the circumstances and the alternatives. In our two-party system, a technocratic and centrist component competes for control of the Democratic Party. It shouldn’t be surprising that this component receives constant criticism from within the Party, because the Democrats represent a broader coalition, and there is plenty of room to the left of someone like Hillary Clinton. Whatever you think of her, I don’t think you can complain that she was criticized from her left.
  6. Is Democratic technocracy good politics? That’s not a question that will be settled to everyone’s satisfaction any time soon. Clinton lost to Trump but also won the popular vote. She was technocratic but not completely so. She faced many contingencies, from Fox News to Bernie to Comey, and handled them in ways that we can debate for the next decade. Again, the answer has to be: Compared to what? A compelling new vision of America’s social contract would beat competent management at the polls. But competent management may beat incompetence or a deeply unpopular vision (from either right or left).
  7. What’s driving the Democratic Party’s drift to technocracy? One could explain it in class terms: the Democratic coalition is now highly educated, including many people who make a living by demonstrating expertise. But I would propose a deeper thesis. Modernity itself is defined by constant increases in specialization and differentiation, plus radical doubts about our ability to know which ends are moral or just. In that context, people prosper who are good at applying technical reasoning to complex problems without worrying too much about whether the ultimate ends are right. Modernity has generated a white-collar governing class that is currently aligned with the Democrats, but more than that, it has generated a very high estimation of expertise combined with a leeriness about moral discourse. Religious conservatives monopolize the opposition to both of these trends. Getting out of this trap requires more than new messages and policies. It is a fundamental cultural problem.

See also: the rise of an expert class and its implications for democracyvarieties of neoliberalismthe big lessons of Obamacarethe new manipulative politics: behavioral economics, microtargeting, and the choice confronting Organizing for Action; and why the white working class must organize.

Posted in 2016 election, populism, revitalizing the left, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

no justice, no peace? (on the relationship between these concepts)

As a political philosopher, I’m trained to think about justice versus injustice. Both terms are controversial. It would be hard to find two people (even two who might be labeled “social justice warriors”) who define “justice” exactly alike. We each put together our own recipes using various combinations and flavors of liberty, equality, happiness, solidarity, sustainability, rights, voice, agency, status, security, and other values that conflict in practice. Injustice is equally complicated, and it may not mean the mere absence or negation of justice. But although the polarity of justice/injustice does not generate consensus, it structures many of our debates.

There’s another polarity that plays an analogous role for people who have been strongly influenced by Gandhi or the Civil Rights Movement: for instance, people who work in Peace and Conflict Studies.  This is the polarity of violence versus peace.

Again, both terms are complicated. Just as it won’t really work to define “justice” as equality (Equality of what? For whom? Equality and nothing else?), so it doesn’t work to define violence as physical assault, or peace as the absence of violence. Like justice, peace can provide the framework for a discussion in which various definitions are proposed and defended.

The following schematic diagram depicts these polarities as two different axes. It implies that it’s conceptually possible to have an unjust situation of peace or a just case of violence. Consider, for example, the imprisonment of a former dictator. He is arrested at gunpoint and forced into a cell (violence) but that’s a manifestation of justice. This case belongs in the bottom-left quadrant. On the other hand, situations of political quiescence involve living in injustice without any conflict: the top-right.

Some would argue that (true) justice is (true) peace; and injustice equals violence. Then the schematic is wrong; there is just one continuum whose ends should be labeled “Peace/Justice” and “Violence/Injustice.”

Or it could be that peace is a component of justice but not the only component. Perhaps you can’t have perfect justice with violence, but you can have a violent situation that’s more just than a peaceful situation would be, if the former scores higher on liberty, equality, or some other value.

My general instinct is to resist smooshing values together, because then we fool ourselves into ignoring tradeoffs. For instance, I don’t like to load lots of values into the definition of “democracy.” I prefer to define it as a system for making binding decisions in a group that affords everyone roughly equal influence. Then we can ask whether democracy requires or implies other values, such as social equality or freedom of speech, or whether it conflicts with these values. The same logic would encourage distinguishing between peace and justice as two different goods.

I have not made up my mind on this question, but here’s a text with which to think about it. Dr. King visited Joan Baez and other anti-war protesters in prison in Santa Rita, CA, on Jan. 14, 1968. Addressing a crowd outside the prison, he said (in my transcription from the audio):

There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice. People ask me from time to time, ‘Aren’t you getting out of your field? Aren’t you supposed to be working in civil rights?’ They go on to say, ‘The two issues are not to be mixed.’ And my own answer is that I have been working too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up at this stage of my life segregating my moral concerns. For I believe absolutely that justice is indivisible and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And I want to make it very clear that I’m going to continue with all of my might, with all of my energy, and with all of my action to oppose that abominable, evil, unjust war in Vietnam.

The first sentence might mean that peace and justice are always causally connected: one is necessary for the other. But then it becomes clear that King’s struggle for Civil Rights is about “justice,” and his opposition to the war is about “peace,” and he wants to connect these two concerns because they are both “moral.” That implies that justice and peace are two distinct components of a larger category: what is moral or right. Finally, King defines the specific war in Vietnam as unjust, leaving open the possibility that a different war (e.g., the US Civil War?) might be just. In that case, peace in Vietnam is a necessity of justice but not because it will bring about peace; only because the war is an injustice.

At another level, of course, King insists on peace as a strategy for justice. Active nonviolence is an ethical and effective method in a wide range of circumstances, with a better record of success than violent insurrection has. But analytically, we could still distinguish between peaceful and just means and between peaceful and just ends and then ask when any of these four go together.

See also:  the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolencesocial justice should not be a cliché; and we are for social justice, but what is it?

Posted in civic theory, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

assessment criteria for participation in a seminar

Thinking that I should be explicit about how I define good participation in a seminar that I’m teaching, I circulated these eight criteria:

  • Being responsive to other students. (Responsiveness needn’t always be immediate, verbal, or occur within the class discussion itself.)
  • Building on others’ contributions, and sometimes making links among different people’s contributions or between what they have said and the text.
  • Demonstrating genuine respect for the others, where respect does not require agreement. (In fact, sometimes respect requires explicit disagreement because you take the other person’s ideas seriously.)
  • Focusing on the topic and the texts, which does not preclude drawing unexpected connections beyond them.
  • Taking risks, trying out ideas that you don’t necessarily endorse, and asking questions that might be perceived as naive or uninformed.
  • Seeking truth or clarity or insight (instead of other objectives).
  • Exercising freedom of speech along with a degree of tact and concern for the other people.
  • Demonstrating responsibility for the other students’ learning in what you say (and occasionally by a decision not to speak).

Students also privately wrote how they will assess themselves. Their assessments will be for their reflection alone–I won’t ever see them.

See also: responsiveness as a virtuewhat makes conversation go well (a network model); and network dynamics in conversation.

Posted in academia, deliberation, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

my fall philosophy class on the question: How should I live?

This introductory course will emphasize one of the great philosophical questions: “How should I live?” The readings will specifically consider whether truthfulness, happiness, and justice are important aspects of a good life, and how each should be defined. …

Moral Mapping Exercise: With colleagues, I have been developing a method for moral introspection that involves making and revising a network diagram (or map) of your moral ideas and the connections among them. I will ask you to make a private map early on and to revise it regularly. I will ask you to bring a copy to class that you are comfortable sharing: it should omit any ideas that you prefer to keep private. At the end, I will collect your final map and a 2-page reflection on it. Instructions are here.

Syllabus: Subject to Change

Continue reading

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the Obama Foundation Fellowship

The Obama Foundation is recruiting their first cohort of Fellows. This inaugural class will have a special opportunity to shape the program for the future. The fellowship takes the form of four face-to-face gatherings over two years, plus a lot of opportunities for professional development. The Foundation is looking for a “diverse set of community-minded rising stars – organizers, inventors, artists, entrepreneurs, journalists, and more – who are altering the civic engagement landscape. By engaging their fellow citizens to work together in new and meaningful ways, Obama Foundation Fellows will model how any individual can become an active citizen in their community.” More here.

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anxieties about American exceptionalism

In our century, a major fault line in US politics has been the question of “American exceptionalism,” meaning the unique excellence or mission of the USA–“the notion that America is freer and more democratic than any other nation, and for that reason, a model, vindicator, and at times the chief defender of ordered liberty and self-government in the world” (Stanley Kurtz).

As I observed in 2010, “Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum agree: the president and his allies in Washington deny ‘American exceptionalism’ in a way that is unprecedented (Huckabee), ‘truly alarming’ (Gingrich), or ‘misguided and bankrupt’ (Romney).”

This was ironic, since Barack Obama had come to national attention with a riveting speech at the 2004 Democratic convention in defense of nothing other than … American exceptionalism. “Tonight,” Senator Obama had said, “we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation.” Throughout his presidency, he often spoke on the same theme. In 2014, he said, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” And yet accusing him of failing to understand–or of actively undermining–America’s unique excellence became a competitive sport on the right.

But there is an important group that doesn’t really believe in American exceptionalism: the American public. Here is a result from this week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC poll:

It looks as if most Americans think the US is above average as a place to live (I agree, by the way), but that just over a quarter think it’s the single best place in the world. Asked to rate the “national character,” the median respondent gives us a score of 5 out of 10, down from 6 out of 10 in 1998. This survey question makes no explicit mention of other countries, and it’s possible that people would rate every other nation’s character lower than ours–but that seems unlikely for the people who rate us 5 or lower.

The claim that America is “is freer and more democratic than any other nation” is empirical. It begs for comparative statistics. Freedom House rates the US 89 on freedom, a good score but 11 points below Sweden’s perfect 100. Maybe they’re wrong, but ranking the US number one in the world certainly requires evidence. It’s not a test of patriotism but a hypothesis about the world.

One might focus instead on prosperity and economic dynamism. But the enormous comparative advantages that we held as result of the Second World War have faded away, and we now represent just 4% of the population of a competitive world in which lots of nations, small and large, inevitably score economic successes.

This gap between a rhetoric of unique superiority and the facts seems to cause profound anxiety. In 2016, Trump positioned himself as the candidate who believed that the US should be better than every other nation but had lost that status due to feckless politicians. He often asserts that we are worse off today than anyone else–for example, that our tax rates are uniquely high, as if we were the socialist exception in a neoliberal world. Clinton took the view that we were “already great.”

Both positions could be seen as responses to anxiety. Valid criticisms of the American past (slavery and segregation, especially) have perhaps fueled this anxiety by suggesting that we were never exceptionally great to start with. That’s a raw point for people who think that our exceptionalism is threatened.

Three issues to think about:

  • To what extent is the US actually “exceptional”–not in the sense of better, but different? We are unusual (but not actually unique) in our degree of racial diversity. We have the oldest constitution in the world. We have no way to call an early election to end a failing administration. We have never had a socialist government, but our left has a robust alternative tradition of pluralist populism. We are the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement and its philosophy of politics. We fought a civil war over the question of slavery in which 750,000 died. We tend to think of ourselves as a commercial republic instead of, for example, a social democracy, a social market economy, or a consensus model. We may once have had a high degree of economic mobility, but now we do not. We once had a very strong voluntary sector, but it, too, is now probably weaker than those in other nations. We are a Petri dish for new religions, some messianic in nature; and we are more religious than other advanced economies. These are just examples of ways that we are, or once were, unusual.
  • Underlying most claims of exceptionalism are normative positions: assertions that some aspects of our society are not just unusual, but valuable. What values that are plausibly associated with the US are worthy of praise? Should we be proud because we have a tradition of laissez-faire economic policies? Or because of the New Deal and its legacies?
  • What attitude should an American citizen hold toward the US Republic? Favoritism over other countries? An even-handed and detached stance toward the US as just one of many countries? For myself, I would say: a special, focused responsibility for awakening the better angels of our nature.

See also: the new history warsAmerican exceptionalismBritish exceptionalism: how the UK is different from Europeshould we teach patriotism?; and a palindrome (a poem on America).

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Glendalough

St Kevin had the gift of talking with beasts.
It came naturally to him, a hermit,
Living amongst them in his hollow tree
In Glendalough, long vale of icy lakes.

But just because he and they could converse
Doesn’t mean that everything went smoothly.
“Let me milk you,” he said, “so that I can
Subsist on a diet of doe’s milk and sage.”

She sprang latterally up the heathered hill.
“Absolutely not; never. That’s invasive,
Embarrassing, probably painful, strange.
Find something else to drink, or go back to your kind.”

“Modesty forbids,” he said, “that I
Should apply the word to myself, yet ‘saintly,’
Surely, is the term that simple truth demands.
Didn’t you see how, when they’d gnawed bare the bones

And longed for more–my human multitude–
I had only to pray; then juicy meat reclothed
Each rib that they had stripped to white? I am
listened to; you’d be wise to do what I say.”

But she was gone, her dappled flanks just shimmers
In the fluttering lushness, the cool dampness,
The extravagant, multitudinous greenness
Of the breezy glen with its two clear lakes.

A red fox spoke up. “Large mammals are warned,”
Said he, “to be in their dens or burrows
By nightfall and to avoid all noises
That might disturb or fright the smaller kind.

“Also: no kindling fires or leaving picked bones
In piles, no uncovered waste, odd chanting,
Spitting in the loughs, marching right though nests,
Shouting, shooting, or walking on the grass.”

St Kevin understood where this was headed.
It wasn’t just his personal repute
He had to worry about. There was also
His ministry to pagans and sinners.

He gathered the wary beasts in a ring.
“I’ll live humbly in my hollow tree, making
No demands, restricting my human flock
To the upper vale and ringing their buildings

“With stone walls, as much to hem them in
As your kind out. Let’s just keep today amongst
Ourselves, shall we? Let the story be that Kevin,
Renouncing the world, spoke the tongues of beasts

In Glendalough, that broad, still vale, where leaves
Of every green tremble when the soft rain falls.”

(See also: the scholar and his dog ; for Gerard Manley Hopkins; and The Cliff-Top Monastery by A.B. Jackson)

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Jonathan Strange, Mr Norrell, and the Industrial Revolution

I read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell a decade ago (blog post here) and recently watched the BBC adaptation. I’d agree with Kate Nepveu that the miniseries is worth watching even though the changes in plot make it less compelling and less politically trenchant than the book. The two main women and the major character of color, Stephen Black, become more passive and less impressive in the miniseries than they are in the novel.

I still have’t seen anyone else draw the parallel that struck me as obvious when I read the book in 2007. I shouldn’t have called it an “allegory” of the Industrial Revolution because that would imply a mechanical, one-to-one correspondence between magic in Jonathan Strange and industrialization in Britain ca. 1800. But I think that Clarke is playing with the similarities.

Essential components of the industrial economy, such as the spinning jenny (1770), the modern steam engine (1778), iron-rolling (1783), and the manufacture of sodium carbonate (1791) were typically invented by gentlemen-amateurs in Northern England or Lowland Scotland. These men won patents and drew attention for their small miracles of automation: making devices that moved on their own. They often formed clubs and societies. The Napoleonic Wars promoted industrialization: the first mass-produced components were pulley blocks for Royal Navy ships. But it was only as these wars ended that many small inventions came together to transform the world. Latent power was unleashed from under the earth, blackening the skies. New roads (made of iron rails) suddenly crisscrossed the land, allowing rapid movement. The people who understood and controlled these new powers and resources became the rulers of Britain, supplanting the old owners of ordinary land. And it all depended ultimately on the slave trade and the labor of Africans.

I won’t give away the plot, but it seems to me that magic follows the same trajectory in the world of Jonathan Strange. Northern gentlemen experimenters, the revelation of powers dormant underground, the influence of the Napoleonic Wars, rapid movement on the king’s new roads, a key role for a former slave, and the resulting social upheaval all resemble the Industrial Revolution. The main contrast is that magic in Clarke’s world is a medieval power rediscovered or revived by Mr Strange and Mr Norrell. Notwithstanding a scattered heritage of cottage industries and Cornish mining, industrial manufacturing was something truly new after 1770. The medieval background gives Clarke’s world an appealing spookiness, but I still think that industrial history is what interests her.

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what is polarization and when is it bad?

We might say that people are polarized when …

  1. They hold opposing positions on issues that matter to them.
  2. They hold contrasting core values that drive their opinions about issues.
  3. They identify strongly and stably with parties or ideological groups or movements that compete.
  4. As a principle or guideline, they oppose compromise with the other side.
  5. They use partisan labels as heuristics to judge candidates or issues.
  6. They use partisan heuristics to make decisions not directly related to politics, e.g., which community to live in or whom to date.
  7. They don’t actually interact with people who disagree or with people who identify differently.
  8. They don’t want to interact with people who disagree or with people who identify differently.
  9. They select or filter news and opinion to match their partisan opinions.
  10. They hold different factual beliefs that support their values.

These are separate issues, and we may feel differently about each one. For instance, I think that #1 and #2 (disagreeing about issues and about underlying principles) are completely fine. It’s even possible that we should cultivate a wider range of views and air them more openly and extensively. If that means more “polarization,” so be it. Also, #3 (identifying stably with an ideology) seems fine as long as you are thoughtful about it.

Surveys ask people about #4: Do you want politicians to compromise or to stand on principle? I find this a somewhat frustrating question, because it typically mentions only two options. A person can refuse to budge in a negotiation, give ground in the face of an opposing power, choose to compromise in the interest of moving forward, favor compromise because it is fair for interests to be balanced, or actually learn from an opposing argument and change her mind. I’m for changing one’s mind when (but only when) the opposing arguments are good. I’m not necessarily for compromising or holding firm in a negotiation: that depends on the circumstances. I’m not sure how I would answer the standard survey questions about willingness to compromise.

Partisan heuristics (#5 and #6) are problematic. Indeed, heuristics of any kind are problematic; they are shortcuts that evade harder thinking. On the other hand, heuristics are necessary because our brains are limited and we have other things to think about besides politics. People who have strong partisan identifications are more likely to vote and otherwise participate than people who don’t know how to identify themselves politically. This suggests that partisan heuristics are resources that enable political action. As long as the available party labels stand for reasonably valuable options, and the major options are available, I am not overly worried about partisan heuristics.

Here’s a thought-provoking example: Between 2011 and the revelation of the “Access Hollywood” tape, White Evangelicals changed their minds about whether political leaders who act immorally in private can nevertheless “behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life.” In 2011, White Evangelicals were the group least likely to agree with that; now they are the most likely to agree–a rapid, 42-point change. It would seem that their support for Donald Trump (81% of them voted for him) drove their opinions about a broader and deeper issue. But was this a case of partisan heuristics overwhelming people’s judgments or of people learning from experience? Perhaps their assessment of Trump caused them to revise and complicate a prior assumption about private morality.

It seems worse to choose neighborhoods and friends based on party labels (#6) than to vote on the basis of partisan heuristics (#5). To be sure, it’s good to take politics seriously, and if you do, your political judgments may affect your everyday choices. But using party labels to choose friends and neighbors prevents exposure to a broader range of perspectives (#7 and #8).

Problems #7-9 are all about living in separate bubbles, whether by accident (#7) or by choice (#8); whether in real life (#7 and #8) or in the media environment (#9). The last issue, #10 (holding different factual beliefs) follows from #7-9. I am not certain these problems are worse than they were when the entire South was “solid” for the Democrats and the whole small-town North “waved the bloody flag” for the GOP. However, we have lost large mediating institutions, such as grassroots-based political parties and metropolitan daily newspapers, that once exposed people to alternative views. The trend has been toward massively disaggregated choice. You used to decide whether or not to subscribe to a daily newspaper. Now you decide which paragraph of which article to send to whom. Massively disaggregated choice has promoted balkanization, which manifests in #7-10.

See also: the hollowing out of US democracycivic education in a time of inequality and polarization; and don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic.

Posted in civic theory, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence

We see nonviolent social movements forming and acting all around us right now: Charlottesville, Boston, Phoenix. There’s also a lively debate about whether nonviolence is the best response to threats like the alt-right, and if so, why. (Is nonviolence a moral principle, a strategic choice, or both?)

A characteristic aspect of any nonviolent movement is sacrifice. Participants sacrifice by renouncing consumer goods, by contributing money, by spending evenings at rallies, by putting their bodies in harm’s way, by going on hunger strikes, or even by choosing to die before onrushing tanks.

In Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King describes the “laborers and domestic workers, many of them well past middle age,” who had to “trudge” as many as 12 miles each day to sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King writes, “They knew why they walked, and the knowledge was evident in the way they carried themselves. And as I watched them I knew that there is nothing more majestic that the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity.” The words “suffering” and “sacrifice” create a leitmotif in the book as a whole.

Sacrifice deserves scrutiny because it is powerful. Occasionally it shakes the conscience of opponents. More often, it persuades enablers of the current regime and bystanders to take the insurgents’ side. It demonstrates Worthiness, Commitment, and Unity, three of the four assets of any social movement, according to Charles Tilly. (The fourth asset, Numbers, is necessary to make a sacrifice effective.) Yet sacrifice is not always appropriate or valuable. Critical analysis is necessary.

Before we can analyze the kind of sacrifice that is evident in nonviolent movements, we need a serviceable definition of it. Some characteristics of non-violent political sacrifice also arise in other contexts. For example, soldiers make sacrifices that are (in certain respects) just like those of nonviolent protesters. Gandhi was once asked whether his “activities [could] be described as war.” He says he “had no hesitation in replying, ‘Our struggle has all the attributes of a war.’” Yet his nonviolent campaign surely differed from an actual war in more than just its refusal to use physical violence. Thus we need a relatively precise definition of the phenomenon.

I posit that the category of sacrifice found in nonviolent social movements (but not necessarily there alone) has four features.

  1. It is concerned with public–social or political–issues. If you give up your career to care for a sick relative, that is a sacrifice but not of the relevant kind.
  2. It has a real cost to the one who sacrifices. If you boycott a good that you didn’t like anyway, or for which there are easy substitutes, that is not a sacrifice, even though it might be a politically effective act.
  3. The cost is concentrated on the one who sacrifices. If you blow yourself up on an airplane, along with all the other passengers, that is a political sacrifice, but not the kind offered in nonviolent social movements.
  4. The act of sacrifice is performative and communicative. A relevant audience must understand that you are sacrificing for a given cause. They must recognize your intention and objective and the cost that you bear.

This fourth criterion goes a long way toward explaining why sacrifice is powerful. It is a form of rhetoric. When you voluntarily bear a steep cost, you provide compelling reasons for observers to draw the following conclusions: you sincerely care about the issue; you and the others who join you are willing to act and will not be easily ignored; in contrast to a violent actor, you are likely to respond positively to reasonable concessions; and you have a perspective that should at least be considered by anyone who wants to understand what people believe about the issue.

These reasons fall short of an actual justification of your position. You could have a sincerely held perspective that is unjust. However, the sacrifice draws attention to your voice and clears away certain barriers to being heard, such as the assumption that you are insincere or unserious. Sacrifice thereby creates the opportunity to offer actual justifications. King writes, “nonviolence comes in as the ultimate form of persuasion. … We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.”

Various complications arise for this four-part definition. For one thing, even if sacrifice always has a cost, that doesn’t mean that the impact on the sacrificer must be a net negative. Gandhi holds that “a life of sacrifice is the pinnacle of art, and is full of true joy.” This aphorism comes amid his summary of the metaphysics of the Bhagavad Gita, according to which “the world cannot subsist for a single moment without yajna [sacrifice]” and “the body, therefore, has been given us, only in order that we may serve all creation with it.” Gandhi also holds that worldly entanglements prevent equanimity, so sacrificing them is the way to avoid distress.

These arguments are rooted in specific religious and philosophical traditions, but people from a wide range of cultures and faiths have experienced joy while making political sacrifices. King observed workers walking miles to work with their heads held high because they were part of a boycott that was part of a movement for dignity. Although walking for miles is a sacrifice, it can bring more satisfaction than discomfort, even during the march. A week in jail with one’s comrades can be a time of solidarity and inspiration even though one’s liberty and comfort have truly been taken away. I think a sacrifice is still a sacrifice even if the net impact on the actor’s utility happens to be positive. This balance may be rare, but the definition of sacrifice does not require feeling more unhappiness than happiness. If it brings joy, so much the better.

Another complication is that it is very difficult to bear all the costs of a sacrifice oneself. In Stride Toward Freedom, King subtly but pervasively traces the impact of his actions on innocent others, starting with his own family. He says that he “gradually lost [his] role as husband and father” because of his activism. His father fell “into a state of constant terror,” and “mother too had suffered,” even taking to her bed under the strain that Martin Jr. was causing. “I was worried about their worry. I knew that if I continued the struggle I would be plagued by the pain I was inflicting on them.” Years after he wrote these words, when he was finally assassinated, his family were again the ones who bore his loss–along with concentric circles of people who had loved him, extending to millions of human beings. Anyone who is cared about causes collateral damage by sacrificing herself. I think a reasonable definition of nonviolent sacrifice should encompass acts that distress the innocent, even though it must exclude intentional efforts to harm opponents.

A third complication is that violent acts can work just like nonviolent civil disobedience under certain circumstances. Gandhi often analogizes satyagraha campaigns to battles. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln eulogizes the men who “gave the last full measure of devotion” by sacrificing their lives on a literal battlefield. We know that they were trying to kill their enemies while surviving to fight another day. However, in contrast to almost all martial speeches, the Gettysburg Address never mentions the Union victory or the Confederate defeat; apart from one use of the word “fought,” it is all about suffering, not winning. Pointedly, Lincoln refuses to differentiate between the sides. He converts a bloody battle into an act of pure self-sacrifice, as if the casualties had died while turning the other cheek. The result is effective rhetoric for the same reason that an act of civil disobedience is persuasive. Lincoln presents the soldiers’ sacrifice as a call to our conscience. This is a borderline case, about which readers may disagree, but I am inclined to think that Lincoln successfully expands the category that we are considering so that it includes violent conflicts, as long as they are interpreted as shared sacrifices in the common interest.

At this point, we have a rough, four-part definition of nonviolent political sacrifice. We can also see why it is often effective. It serves as a powerful form of persuasion and it sculpts the soul. King holds that “unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transformative possibilities.” King proceeds to quote Gandhi to reinforce this point.

With this definition in hand, we can also consider whether nonviolent political sacrifice is always praiseworthy. I think it is not.

For one thing, the costs transmitted to others can be too high. In a section of his autobiography entitled “Quickened Spirit of Sacrifice,” Gandhi recalls that an American salesman talked him into buying a life insurance policy for the sake of his wife and children. Gandhi’s decision to buy the insurance demonstrated his own “mixed desire. The spirit of self-sacrifice was tempered by the desire to lay by something for the future.” But then his “outlook changed” and he decided that everything he did should be “in the name of God and for His service.” Gandhi stopped making the insurance payments, reasoning that his brother could care for his family if he died, and that, by purchasing insurance, he had “had robbed [his] wife and children of their self-reliance.  Why should they not be expected to take care of themselves? What happened to the families of the numberless poor in the world? Why should I not count myself as one of them?”

Note the way that Gandhi’s “self-sacrifice” is strictly borne by his wife and children. He never hints that the insurance payments undermined his ability to lead a nonviolent movement; rather he sacrificed his family’s income security because he wanted to purify his own stance. In the same book, Gandhi recalls that he “did not hesitate to sacrifice” his children’s literary education in the interest of having them remove human waste from the house and walk five miles each day to his office and back. “My sons have therefore some reason for a grievance against me. Indeed they have occasionally given expression to it, and I must plead guilty to a certain extent. … But I hold that I sacrificed their literary training to what I genuinely, though may be wrongly, believed to be service to the community.” Even if Gandhi’s decision was right, this case is close enough to make the point that sacrificing others is not always justified. A more famous Gandhian example is his unilateral decision to become celibate, although married.

Even if one could bear 100 percent of the cost, sacrifice might not be ethical. Imagine a person with no friends or family who dies in a hunger strike. There is no damage to innocent third-parties, but the sacrificer has destroyed her own life. A utilitarian calculus holds that every life counts the same, including one’s own. By that standard, the sacrifice is ethical if, but only if, it does sufficient good to outweigh the death. Other philosophical traditions (notably, Kantianism) go further and assert that we have duties to ourselves. It could be wrong to squander oneself in a political cause.

But sacrificing not only oneself but others whom one loves can be precisely the right thing to do, as I explore in this post on the Little Rock school desegregation case. Indeed, causing the ones you love to suffer can be one of the most potent and transformative strategies available to the poor and oppressed.

See also: the question of sacrifice in politicsself-limiting popular politicsa sketch of a theory of social movements; and taking satisfaction from politics in the face of injustice. Citations from: Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958) (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010); Veena R. Howard, Gandhi’s Ascetic Activism: Renunciation and Social Action (Albany: SUNY Press, 2013) , p. 75; M. K. Gandhi, The Message of the Gita (Navajivan Publishing House Ahmedabad, 1959), pp. 17, 15; M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography Or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, translated by Mahadev Desai, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahemadabad, 1927, pp. 315-6, 374.

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