should civic educators modify their neutral stance?

(Washington, DC) I’m here for the National Council for the Social Studies annual convention. Right after the election, the NCSS sent a “post-election message” that talked generally about the importance of teaching about government and civic engagement:

As social studies educators, we teach and learn about our system of government, about controversial and timely issues, and about making informed decisions as active participants and defenders of our democracy. Our civic duty did not end at the voting booth; in fact, it has just begun. We can share instructional practices about the electoral process, the upcoming transition plans for newly elected leaders at all levels, and the new teams that will play a central role in our conversations for the next several years. We teach the principles of our U.S. Constitution.

This message could have been sent after any presidential election in the past century. There was no mention of Donald Trump or anything unusual about the campaign or the condition of the republic. I am not necessarily critical of this stance, which reflects a deep-seated and well-grounded commitment to a certain form of political neutrality. Many other schools, districts, universities, and nonprofits have taken a similar stance. However, civic educators must at least consider whether a different set of principles should apply in 2016.

Here are some arguments for neutrality:

  1. It’s dangerous for an arm of the state, a public school, ever to take sides on political issues. Citizens are forced to pay for public education and face considerable pressure to turn their kids over to these institutions. Children form an impressionable, captive audience in the classroom. Teachers have great power over students’ life-prospects. It’s unethical for them to use that power to change children’s political views.
  2. If teachers take–or imply–critical positions about any particular party or leader, elected officials and electoral majorities can press them to take different positions. Neutrality is no longer a shield.
  3. We are all subject to bias. Teachers split their votes between Clinton and Trump, but a majority preferred Clinton, and in big city districts on the coasts, the ratio was no doubt very high. Like everyone, Trump opponents need to remember that they could be wrong. Lots of people believe that Barack Obama is a dangerous enemy of American values. I heartily disagree, but this disagreement shows that judgment is fallible. A critical estimate of Donald Trump is a judgment, not a simple matter of fact. The “text” that we must interpret is the vast quantity of his statements over many months. People hear different points and take different messages from all this verbiage. Those of us who think Donald Trump is a profound threat to the republic could be wrong; and teachers shouldn’t communicate uncertain ideas as if they were truths.
  4. One of our worst problems is political polarization, a failure to interact with and understand people who disagree with us. We don’t learn or practice deliberation enough in the US today. But there is always some ideological diversity in a social studies classrooms, and teachers can advance deliberative values by creating spaces for open conversations. Further, if a particular group (such as Trump voters–or Trump opponents) happens to be missing from a given classroom, teachers can help students to understand the absent perspective. However, if the teacher takes a position, that can chill deliberation.
  5. Schools teach civics and social studies in the first place because elected officials tolerate it. Civics is rarely a high priority and is often on the list to be cut. Yet students benefit from civics. Therefore, the responsible course is for educators–and especially associations like NCSS–to keep their heads down. The last thing they should do is appear to oppose the incumbent administration, because it will be easy for federal and state governments to eliminate civics entirely.
  6. Since individual teachers will bear the brunt of any criticism and retribution, administrators and nonprofit organizational leaders should adopt a tone of complete neutrality to protect them.

But here is the opposite argument:

  1. We teach civics to instill republican, liberal, democratic, and humane values. We ask our students to preserve the republic against threats, both domestic and foreign. The acid test of good civic education is whether every graduate would “stand up” instead of “standing by” when a would-be dictator appeared on the scene.
  2. Yes, it is a matter of judgment, not a demonstrable fact, that Trump poses a threat to republican values. But some major Republican intellectuals and GOP political opponents have called Trump an authoritarian and a racist. One can give reasons, evidence, and arguments for these conclusions. Uncertainty remains, but uncertainty does not excuse us from having to decide. As Hannah Arendt would have said, “Ven zee cheeps are down, ve must make yudgments.” Judgment under uncertainty is exactly what citizenship demands. If we’re wrong, we pay the consequences, because–as Arendt would say–“politics is not a nursery.” Incidentally, Trump needn’t be remotely like a Mussolini or a Franco to pose a real danger. A Putin or a Berlusconi would be bad enough.
  3. To teach “standing up” or (as postwar Germans call it, Civil Courage) needn’t be partisan. In fact, if you think that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, then most of us liberals should have been more vigilant during the Obama years. We should have stood up when the current president executed people extra-judicially by drone strike. In other words, Civil Courage would support criticism of Trump, but it would extend far beyond him.
  4. Schools aren’t and shouldn’t be neutral, anyway. Among the values that they must defend are pursuit of truth and basic decency for all. Any political leader who exhibits a lack of regard for truth or bullying behavior violates principles that schools must uphold. They can’t give kids bad grades for using false information, or make them stay after school for bullying, and yet ignore such behavior by the president.
  5. Many teachers have students who are directly threatened by Trump–or feel that they are–and it is wrong for adults to ignore their sentiment by treating the President Elect as a normal leader. By extension, in a class where everyone feels safe, the students should be made aware of how others feel.
  6. If we refrain from exercising Civil Courage because of possible budget cuts or other political consequences, we are abandoning free speech. That is exactly how republics fall.

I actually think the the choice between these two approaches is fairly hard. Individuals and groups can reasonably reach various conclusions. I write only on my own behalf and do not know what I would say if I represented something like the NCSS or a school district. But, at a minimum, everyone involved in educating the next generation should consider this choice.

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being young and evaluating democracy in 2016

The claim that support for democracy is falling in most countries–and falling quickest among the young–has caused much consternation this week. One datapoint that supports this argument: “In 2011, 24 percent of U.S. millennials (then in their late teens or early twenties) considered democracy to be a ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ way of running the country.” Erik Voeten and others have argued that this survey is being presented in an alarmist way by focusing on the minority who chose the extreme responses to key questions. Voeten shows that this is how support for democracy looks if you display the mean responses on a scale from 1-10:


Most people are still in favor, and the gaps by age are not huge.

But it is natural to be a bit uninspired by democracy if you’re encountering it for the first time right now. In my freshman philosophy seminar, democracy has been our topic this week. We’ve been reading:

My questions include the following:

Is democracy a reliable means to achieve such (possibly) valuable ends as human happiness/welfare, liberty and rights, or equality? Is it a process that yields such outcomes? Or is it a good in itself? (To see it as an intrinsic good may require the belief that involvement in self-government is dignified or worthy in some way.) Does democracy mean “voting equality at the decisive stage” (Dahl), or a search for consensus (Wiredu), or an opportunity for discussion that enlarges people’s knowledge and empathy (Dewey et al, not assigned)? Is democracy necessarily adversarial (Eze) or can it be unitary (Wiredu), and if the latter, is unity a good thing, perhaps a sign of fraternité? Finally, is democracy a process or set of rules, or rather a culture and set of norms and practices?

My students are thoughtful, open-minded, and quick to understand various perspectives and arguments. But I think their current views are colored by what they regard as the debacle of the 2016 election–both its outcome and the campaign season that preceded it. I asked them whether they thought the election had changed their views of democracy, and they tended to think it had. They are unlikely to see democracy as an intrinsic good, because it rather seems like an undignified and disappointing spectacle. They are attuned to the dangers of communication (propaganda, group-think, polarization, selective use of evidence) and pessimistic about the potential of communication for learning and consensus-building.

I don’t necessarily disagree. And I certainly don’t play the advocate for any philosophical view in the classroom. But I think that those who hope to engage such young people must make the struggle against forms of politics that they despise seem intrinsically rewarding, and must demonstrate that responsible and responsive communication is possible.

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what activist movements will look like in the Trump era

Dave Karpf has a great piece entitled, “Cyclical patterns in activist politics: what do we know about the politics of opposition”? Karpf argues that opposing a government looks very different from the “politics of articulation” (trying to develop and promote an agenda). These are some key differences:

  1. Opposition unites. As Karpf notes, the Tea Party formed to oppose Obama before he had made any policy decisions. Its original rhetoric–and its very name–implied opposition to tax increases. But Obama mainly cut taxes. That was no problem for the Tea Party, which shifted to opposing the Affordable Care Act. It was nimble about policies because its raison d’etre was opposition to a person, his core values, and the institution he controlled.
  2. Rapid response becomes more valuable. Especially in the age of social media, activist networks are good at getting people out quickly. They are much worse at sustaining pressure, negotiating, and achieving new policies. When your side shares formal power, rapid response is relatively unimportant. But when the main goal is to block policies coming from the other side, rapid response pays.
  3. By the same token, it becomes harder to advance a positive agenda when a movement must spend all its time blocking new initiatives from the government.

I would add two hypotheses:

  1. I think activists on the left will shift from soft, proximate targets to confront their main ideological opponents. The global justice movement of the Clinton era criticized transnational corporations and the governments that supported them, yet it gained attention for protests outside the World Bank, which funds development projects. Occupy Wall Street claimed to target Wall Street, yet it got the most traction in conflicts with Democratic big city mayors and state universities that were simultaneously facing budget cuts from conservative legislatures. The environmental movement focuses on massive destruction caused by fossil fuels but achieved a notable victory by pressuring a Democratic president to block a specific pipeline that could be easily bypassed. The left tends to confront near-allies for showing hypocrisy or weakness, but that impulse fades when explicit opponents take control. (See Bayard Rustin’s absolutely indispensable and totally timely 1965 article “From Protest to Politics” for a similar point.)
  2. Maintaining political discipline will be an enormous challenge. As Rustin reminded his fellow Civil Rights leaders in 1965, the point is to win. That requires mobilizing and inspiring a majority of Americans, not just fellow travelers. National Review’s Jim Geraghty tweeted earlier today, “Anti-Trump protesters are gonna take the bait, aren’t they? They’re gonna burn flags, thinking they’re irking him, but alienating majority.” It’s very hard for any large, loose network to remember what the majority of people value, let alone maintain message-discipline. Whether anti-Trump movements can manage that task is enormously important.

See also: we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth)to beat Trump, invest in organizingbuilding grassroots power in and beyond the election; and democracy in the digital age.

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pluralist populism

The leaders of ChinaIndia, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and Hungary–plus the President Elect of the USA and major political actors in Britain, France, and Austria (among other countries)–are called “populists.” A populist in this sense is one who views The People as homogeneous on important dimensions–for instance, race, culture, occupation, or ancestry–and as distinct from both foreigners and elites. Indeed, foreigners and elites are often seen as collaborating against The People. A populist leader represents The People, speaking for them and serving their interests. Therefore, it is wise to entrust power in the leader, who talks directly to and for each citizen. Majority rule is an attractive process, but majority votes that do not support the populist leader are suspect. Obstacles to populist government–rule of law, checks and balances, an independent press and civic society–are problematic at best.

There is, however, another sense of the word “populist” that deserves attention. In this conception, The People are not only heterogeneous; they are defined by being more pluralistic than the straight-laced elites, who promote one way of life as best for all. Furthermore, The People are not interested in surrendering their power to any leader. Their populist activity is all about building direct, grassroots, horizontal, participatory power. They are proud of their democratic innovations, whether those are letters of correspondence, Grange halls, sit-ins, salt marches, or flashmobs.

Eli Rosenberg, Jennifer Medina, and John Eligon began a recent New York Times article about anti-Trump protests:

They came in the thousands — the children of immigrants, transgender individuals, women and men of all different ages and races — to demonstrate against President-elect Donald J. Trump on Saturday in New York.

Some held handwritten signs like, “Show the world what the popular vote looks like.” The throng chanted, “Not our president!”

Showing the world that the popular vote looks heterogeneous is a traditional populist gambit, familiar from social movements and popular uprisings since time immemorial. It’s a way of demonstrating SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth). I emphasize it because I fear we face three unsatisfactory alternatives:

  1. Trump-style populism, which defines The People as homogeneous, excludes everyone who doesn’t fit, and disempowers the actual people by centralizing political authority in a leader.
  2. Technocratic progressivism, which defers to a highly educated global elite whose norms and range of experiences are actually quite exclusive and narrow.
  3. Thin versions of diversity politics, which celebrate heterogeneity within existing institutions (e.g., racial diversity within a university) but which lack a political vision that can unify broad coalitions in favor of new institutional arrangements.

We need a dose of populism that neither delivers power to a leader nor merely promises fair economic outcomes to citizens as beneficiaries. In this form of populism, diverse people create actual power that they use to change the world together.

See also: two kinds of populism, with some comments on Jan-Werner Müller and Laura Grattan, and why the white working class must organize.

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Trump’s rhetorical style and deliberation

Donald Trump’s speaking style is extraordinarily paratactic. That is, he utters declarative sentences without any of the explicit transitional words that can explain why sentences fit together. No “therefore’s,” “on the other hand’s,” or even “well, I think’s.” He just plunges in. Many listeners perceive the content of his various sentences to be logically unrelated. However, he is remarkably repetitive when he speaks at any length, so the unity of his speech derives from his returning to the same phrases. Finally, he uses “I” sentences overwhelmingly, plus “you” when he’s talking to someone in particular. He makes relatively rare use of the third person. We could name his style “paratactic/egocentric.”

I’ve been arguing that the way we organize our thoughts affects our ability to deliberate with others (to listen responsively to what they say). As I note in this video, some people hold such scattered thoughts that you can’t grab onto their argument in order to understand and engage it. Others have such centralized networks of ideas that all you can do is assess their one core principle (which might be individual freedom, equity, or God). If you happen to disagree with it, there’s no way to route around it. A better structure is connected, complex, and not overly centralized.

By this standard, Trump’s rhetoric is disastrous for deliberation. The network formed by his sentences manages to be disconnected except insofar as he repeats a few nodes and connects all his ideas to Donald Trump (which one cannot take as one’s own idea without becoming personally subservient to him).

My notion of what counts as good talk could be biased by class. After all, one of the things you learn as you accumulate years of education and pile on degrees is parataxis: connecting ideas by using explicit transitional words. That is either a sign of superior reasoning or a way for a white-collar elite to identify its own superiority. (Paging doctors Habermas and Bourdieu for a consult on that question.) Likewise, talking in the third person about ideas and institutions is either essential to deliberation or an evasion of personal authenticity. Some read Trump as honest and view more objective speakers as evasive.

I’ve been developing this view of deliberative rhetoric since long before I cared about Donald Trump. It’s in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, pp. 50-2. I oppose and reject Trump for many reasons other than his rhetorical style. Therefore, I don’t think I’m just criticizing his style to score political points against him. But it’s worth thinking about whether the rhetorical standards suggested by my theory are class-biased.

See also: tracking change in a group that discusses issuesassessing a discussion10 theses about ethics, in network termsstructured moral pluralism (a proposal).

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Clinton’s support in historical context

Hillary Clinton is winning the popular vote, and I am seeing commentary to the effect that she has one of the largest vote counts ever received, at nearly 64 million. It’s true that only Obama beat that number (twice, with 69 million and then 66 million votes in his two presidential races). However, the population of the US keeps growing, so one would expect the number of votes cast to rise.

The best measure of popular support is the percentage of all adults who turn out for a given candidate. Clinton got about 28%; 27.1% voted for Trump. The 0.9% gap was one of the smallest in modern times, although 1960, 1968, and 2000 were actually closer races in these terms. Clinton’s share of all eligible voters was the same as Obama’s in 2012 (28%).

There have been thirty major party presidential nominees since 1960, and Clinton ranks seventh among all of them in votes/adult population. A few candidates drew much bigger shares back when turnout was higher and partisan swings were wider. LBJ drew the votes of 37.5% of all adults in 1964, about one third more than Clinton did–but politics has changed since then.

(Major third party candidates are shown for 1968, 1980, 1992, and 1996.)

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CIRCLE’s full post-election analysis of the youth vote

(By the CIRCLE staff, cross-posted from Since Election Day, CIRCLE’s analysis has focused on whom young people voted for, how many voted, and which segments of the youth population cast their ballots—placing each in historical context by examining trends from recent elections. Today’s analysis looks more deeply at the youth vote in the 2016 presidential race, offering a breakdown of young people’s support for each major candidate and for the political parties they represent. We also consider the long-term implications, for both Democrats and Republicans, of a youth electorate that is increasingly loathe to identify strongly with either major party.


Major findings include:

The Youth Electorate

  • CIRCLE analysis suggests that young people voted at a similar rate than in 2012 – around 50%. In 11 battleground states, on aggregate, 55% of youth turned out to vote.
  • The racial and ethnic composition of the 2016 youth electorate closely mirrored the general population of young citizens, and remained as diverse as it has been since 2008, though this year there was a surge of young, White, male voters.
  • Young people without college experience, already historically underrepresented, made up a smaller share of the young people who cast ballots than in recent elections.
  • Less than 4 in 10 young voters identified with the Democratic Party and less than 3 in 10 identified with the Republican Party, suggesting that America’s two major parties are having trouble attracting a substantial youth base.


The Youth Vote for Trump and Clinton

  • President-elect Trump lost the youth vote overall by 55% to 37%, but he garnered support from some segments of the youth electorate: Whites, evangelicals, and young people in rural areas.
  • While Secretary Clinton won by large margins among demographic groups like unmarried young women and youth of color, she lacked key support from young Whites, young men, and young White moderates.
  • President-elect Trump drew significant support from young people whose ideas and concerns tracked closely with the key themes of his campaign: the state of the country,stronger immigration controls, and a the perceived untrustworthiness of his opponent.


Implications for the Future

  • Young people are clamoring for significant change, though there are deep divisions on what that change should look like. Youth also seem increasingly skeptical of the two major political parties’ ability to bring the change they seek.
  • Moderates, Independents, and other young people who eschew the ideological extremes and strong party identification, appear to be a rising force in the youth electorate. They may also be harder to mobilize if they don’t engage with the traditional party—and partisan—organizations that for many youth provide structures and opportunities for political and broader civic engagement.
  • There’s another national election in two years! Only one in five young young people voted in the 2014 midterms, and after an election in which many youth were disappointed with both nominees (and most youth voted for the losing candidate) it may be even harder to keep youth politically motivated. Stronger civic education and strategic, intentional youth outreach remains key.
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we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth)

Whether you’re building a social movement, organization, network, or media platform, you should strive for SPUD:

Scale: You need a lot of people. For instance, if your social movement is anti-Trump, it must include 55% of all voting Americans in 2018 to have a chance of capturing the House. (Note that this is entirely possible. Joshua Spivak cites 1894 and 1994 as “among the two most important midterm elections in American history.” Both “came two years after one party won a seemingly sweeping mandate for power. Both saw historic reversals. And, perhaps more importantly, both completely reshaped the political landscape for decades to come.” Trump’s 2016 victory could be monumentally Pyrrhic–but only if the opposition attains sufficient scale to reverse it).

Pluralism: Your organization, movement, or platform must incorporate a plurality of perspectives. The criterion is not whether it represents the opinions of the American people as a whole. We are entitled to build groups that tilt one way or another; that’s what politics is about. But ideologically homogeneous groups make stupid choices. They also limit their own scale because they forget how many people disagree with their premises. Ideological homogeneity and narrowness are dangers on the left as well as on the right.

Unity: Groups are more effective when they can present a united front. We march together, sing the same anthem, or use the same hashtag to display unity. Standing together compels respect. Groups also need actual unity so that they can develop agendas and coordinate their resources and actions to accomplish their goals. Compromise is an inevitable aspect of politics, but groups that lack unity can’t negotiate effectively when it comes time to compromise.

Depth: Valuable political organizations change their participants. Truly engaged members learn skills and information, gain agency and purpose, develop allies, and (in the best cases) make their own goals more responsible and ethical by participating in groups. Both political outcomes and the quality of our civic life depend on who develops in these ways.

The SPUD values conflict. Groups with larger scale struggle to provide depth: transformative experiences for their members. But groups that really change lives struggle to reach large scale. Even more obviously, pluralism conflicts with unity. Supporters of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, and #NeverTrump disagree about fundamental matters right now, and that is causing a lot of angst. A cheap consensus would reduce pluralism, but deep and continuous disagreements will block unity.


Despite these tradeoffs and tensions, groups and movements achieve more or less SPUD. There is such a thing as populist pluralism the treats the people as highly diverse and yet united in the common interest. This is an essential antidote to Trumpian populism, which depicts the people as homogeneous and represented by a single leader. It takes work to grow large and go deep, to encourage pluralism and build unity. It would sound utopian except that it’s exactly what our best organizations and movements accomplish. And it suggests a diagnostic checklist for any group, institution, or network you’re part of. How are you doing on each dimension of SPUD?

For these distinctions, see also: Peter Levine, “Democracy in the Digital Age,” The Civic Media Reader, edited by Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), pp. 29-47; and Peter Levine and Eric Liu, “America’s Civic Renewal Movement: The View from Organizational Leaders” (Medford, MA: Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship & Public Service, 2015).

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politics and the problem of evil

The appointment of Stephen Bannon poses the question of evil–certainly not for the first time in recent memory, but forcefully. This is a tricky topic because calling any idea or person “evil” implies a refusal to compromise, to consider agreeing, or to ameliorate the situation by ordinary means. The word “evil” can be a prelude to banning ideas outright or even lining people up to be shot. Perhaps you refuse to employ violence under any circumstances; still, naming something as evil means refusing to tolerate it to any degree.

Manichean politics (depicting the world as divided between good and evil) can be self-defeating. Right now, it’s crucial to form a large majority in favor of basic political decency, and if some people who could belong to that majority feel that they or their ideas have just been called evil, why would they join?

Finally, Manichean thinking blocks learning. I, for instance, was an undecided voter on this year’s Massachusetts ballot initiative to expand charter schools. I voted “no” at the last minute, but I thought it was a close call. I did not benefit from depictions of the proponents as hedge fund managers who wanted to privatize our schools, nor from depictions of the opponents as unionized teachers who wanted to retain their monopoly. I wanted to learn what would be best for kids, and Manichean rhetoric made that harder for me rather than easier.

All that having been said, there is evil in the world–a lot of it. Although neither side in the Massachusetts charter debate was remotely evil, human beings commonly and deliberately harm each other in many ways, extending to mass murder. The theories that most appeal to secular activists for democracy and civil society are often strikingly silent on the issue of evil.

For instance, many democratic educators and builders of local community organizations find John Dewey a congenial theorist. Writing during the decades when hundreds of millions of human beings were intentionally slaughtered in wars, genocides, imperialist adventures, and insane social experiments, Dewey insisted that the “current has set steadily in one direction: toward democratic forms.” This was his rationale for resisting rigid constraints on democracy and encouraging constant experimentation.

Hannah Arendt predicted in 1945 that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe.”* In the decades since then, evil has not dropped out of consideration in European thought. But the most pro-democratic, pro-Enlightenment thinkers, people–like Jürgen Habermas–who have devoted their lives to building decent alternatives to Nazi evil, hardly ever use the word or the concept explicitly.

Considering what they have faced, it is not surprising that African American theorists are more likely to use such language. In Black Reconstruction (p. 722), W.E.B. DuBois writes, “One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over.” Martin Luther King Jr. addressed evil not only as a political leader but also as a theologian. In a philosophy of religion course, he began a paper: “The problem of evil has always been the most baffling problem facing the theist. … Why do the innocent suffer? How account for the endless chain of moral and physical evils? These are questions which no serious minded religionist can overlook. Evil is a reality.”

Last year, I interviewed a European-American left-radical leader with evangelical roots who used the word “satanic” to describe our times. It struck me that most secular people who had exactly the same policy agenda would shun that word.

No one doubts that some people believe and do very bad things. One view is that bad and good lie on a continuum, and we must always strive to move up that scale. “Evil” is just a word for the worst region of the continuum. A different view is that some actions and ideas belong in a whole category of their own. They require extirpation, not amelioration. That’s a theory that takes evil seriously as such.

There’s also a debate about whether evil has depth. Is it the mere negation of altruism and a failure to think carefully–for instance, a failure to see things from a different perspective? This was Arendt’s conclusion in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Or is evil an active malevolence, compatible with high degrees of empathy, self-sacrifice and imagination? Can an evil person or idea be impressive?

I wrote “evil person or idea,” but it’s attractive to say only actions are evil; people are not, and perhaps ideas aren’t either. But I’m not sure about that. Some people and some ideas smoke of evil.

Then there’s a debate about its prevalence. In Calvinism and some kinds of Gnosticism, evil is omnipresent. In more optimistic theologies and philosophies, it is exceptional. One might hold that evil is common in some societies but rare in others.

Finally, to what extent should our political systems aim to prevent and extirpate evil? The obvious answer seems to be “to the greatest extent possible!” But then we’d need strong safeguards on evil behavior that can also frustrate positive change. Judith Shklar wrote, “somewhere someone is being tortured right now.” Her “liberalism of fear” was “a response to these undeniable actualities, and it therefore concentrate[d] on damage control.” Her liberalism was “entirely nonutopian,” informed by memory and not hope.  In practical terms, it was mostly about limiting governmental power.

One could argue that the main sources of evil lie in culture and the market; then an expansive government could be a necessary counterweight to evil. However, you won’t find much discussion of evil in the standard justifications of extensive government, such as Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Except in the anodyne phrase “lesser of two evils,” the word “evil” appears only in the context of conscientious refusal to serve in the military. Rawls notes that a soldier may face “hazards” (perhaps moral hazards as well as literal ones); “but in a well ordered society anyway, these evils arise externally, that is, from unjustified attacks from the outside.” Rawls is confident that a well-ordered society can be evil-free. We may have to fight Nazis, but we won’t harbor any. That’s a pretty strong assumption.

*Quoted in Peter Dews, “Disenchantment and the Persistence of Evil: Habermas, Jonas, Badiou,” in Alan D. Schrift, ed., Modernity and the Problem of Evil, Indiana University Press, 2005, p. 51.

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to beat Trump, invest in organizing

To respond to Trump’s election, we must address who is organized, and how.

Members of organizations are more likely to vote and to take the more costly actions that will be vital during the Trump years, such as protest and resistance. As a quick-and-dirty illustration, consider the correlation between the number of groups that people belong to and the proportion who say they vote.*


This graph combines all kinds of groups. When people belong to organizations that offer them voice and accountability, that address social or political issues, and that encompass at least some diversity, they are not only more likely to vote; they are also more likely to act and choose responsibly. Members of such groups learn to negotiate, to set appropriate expectations for their leaders, and to feel ownership for results.

Before the election, I proposed that Trump mainly appealed to people who lacked accountable organizations, and that’s one reason that they opted for a totally irresponsible (as well as a cruel) celebrity candidate. They behaved as alienated spectators rather than as political agents. I also expected turnout to be relatively weak among people leaning toward Trump.

Theda Skocpol finds that the rural and exurban areas where Trump performed best did have “organized networks – NRA, Christian Right, some RNC and Koch network/AFP presence – that amplified the right media attacks on HRC nonstop and persuaded many non-college women and some college women in those areas to go for Trump because of the Supreme Court.” Skocpol acknowledges that Trump himself “had no organization,” but, she says, he “made deals to get the NRA, Christian right and GOP federated operations on his side. They have real, extensive reach into nonmetro areas.” I’ve also estimated, based on Exit Poll data, that 56% of Trump voters attend church at least monthly. His turnout wasn’t great, but it was sufficient to win the Electoral College.

I was wrong in part. Trump did well because of the traditional mechanism: outreach by groups. However, I would still propose that the groups that reached Trump voters were unaccountable to them. The Koch Network, for instance, is centralized, fueled by two brothers’ money, and undemocratic and opaque in its internal organization. The relationship between such an organization and its target population is transactional and instrumental: it spends money to persuade them to vote. That is consistent with my view that Trump’s voters aren’t authentically organized. Being mobilized is not the same thing.

Meanwhile, Skocpol is definitely right about the other side:

HRC had the typical well-funded presidential-moment machine, an excellent one. We on the center left seem to treat these presidential machines as organization[s], and they are, but they are not as effective as longstanding natural organized networks. … [Off] the coasts, Democrats no longer have such reach beyond what a presidential campaign does on its own. Public sector and private sector unions have been decimated. And most of the rest of the Democratic-aligned infrastructure is metro based and focused. That infrastructure is also fragmented into hundreds of little issue and identity organizations run by professionals. HRC’s narrow loss was grounded in this absent non-metro infrastructure – and Dem Party losses in elections overall even more so.

In areas where progressive voters predominate, we need a much more authentic, democratic, and integrated base of organizations. Instead of parachuting presidential machines into diverse urban areas every four years in search of votes, the left must invest in younger and more diverse local leaders who have real authority and voice and who can work continuously. American democracy has always functioned best when organizations offer a range of goods, of which political power is just one. For instance, churches offer spirituality; unions raise salaries. Their members ultimately vote, but that’s not the main service these organizations advertise. Right now, resources should flow to multipurpose organizations and movements that will turn out voters in 2018 and 2012, but that will do much before then–starting with protecting safety and civil rights against both hateful individuals and government agencies.

The decline in votes in Wayne County (Detroit) between 2012 and 2016 (37,364) will almost certainly be larger than the final margin of victory for Michigan. Milwaukee saw a 41,000-vote decline that was bigger than the state’s margin. I suspect that scarce investment in organizing was as important in Wisconsin as voter-suppression. These statistics should ring loud alarms, if they haven’t already. How many young African American and Arab American organizers can count on paid activist jobs in Detroit in 2017 and 2018?

Meanwhile, we also need organizations in red states and red counties, in rural areas and exurbs. The point of organizing there is not to show empathy to Trump voters or to honor their concerns. The point is to win. Particularly in 2018, anti-Trump votes will be very poorly distributed–far too concentrated in the great cities to win the House and Senate back. Every extra vote in a white non-urban county will matter, and that requires organizations to change minds, to empower the disenfranchised, and to offer real benefits. By the way, although I think the Democratic Party is a necessary component of the opposition, it is not sufficient. Electing or reelecting responsible and caring Republicans in red districts is also essential.

In our October poll of Millennials, we found that just 30% of Clinton supporters had been contacted by a campaign or organization that had urged them to vote; 28% of young Trump supporters had been contacted; and 70% had not been contacted at all.  Young people who had received multiple contacts were 19 points more likely to say they’d vote than those who’d received none. That poll was a warning that young Americans across the spectrum were not being reached by organizations. Young Trump voters were almost as likely to receive outreach as Clinton voters were: another indictment of the left’s investments. The time to change this is now.

*I’m showing General Social Survey data from 1987 about whether people “always vote” and from 2000 about whether they voted in the last presidential election. Unfortunately, I can’t find more recent comparable data, but I hope the graph illustrates an important pattern. Note that the correlation applies to people who have no college experience (the working class) as well as the population as a whole.

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