the Millennials and politics

The summer 2015 edition of Extensions, a journal from University of Oklahoma that has good reach on Capitol Hill, is devoted to “The Millennials.” The main scholarly pieces are by me (“Talking About this Generation: The Millennials and Politics”), Russell J. Dalton (“The Good News is, The Bad News is Wrong: Another View of the Millennial Generation”), and Molly W. Andolina and Krista Jenkins (“Does Hope Abide? Millennial Activists and the 2008 Obama Campaign”). I emphasize that many supposed differences among generations are not really generational. For instance, everyone has lost trust in government, regardless of their age or birth year. Also, differences among members of the same generation who represent different social classes usually dwarf differences among generations. The whole issue is free online (below), and my own piece can be downloaded from here.


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although Millennials are most numerous, youth share is shrinking

Richard Fry of the Pew Research Center reports, “This year, the ‘Millennial’ generation is projected to surpass the outsized Baby Boom generation as the nation’s largest living generation, according to the population projections released by the U.S. Census Bureau last month.” His article is illustrated with this graph:

That analysis tells one important story. It suggests that the youngest generation will have growing political, economic, and cultural clout, which is true in some respects.

But there is also another valid story: even as the Millennials outnumber each of the older generations taken separately, younger people are declining as a percentage of the whole population. That analysis suggests that their political clout (dependent on their share of voters and activists) will likely shrink.

How can this be? On one hand, the youngest generation is larger than its predecessors because of population growth, while the older generations are shrinking because of mortality. (The downward slope of the Boomers in the Pew chart above is a momento mori.) Yet, on the other hand, each of the older age categories is larger today than the same category was in the past. The median age, after all, is rising. Since there are many age categories, not just two, it’s possible for the youngest generation to grow relative to every other generation while also shrinking relative to the whole. And that is what has happened over the past 50 years, as my graph shows:

age distribution

If we are champions of youth civic engagement, I think we can take some advantage of the large numbers of Millennials, but we must also address the fact that youth represent a smaller proportion of the whole population than ever before.

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on Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of #blacklivesmatter

The taped discussion between Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of Black Lives Matter is a rich and fascinating document (full transcript here). Jones begins by telling HRC, “You and your  family have been personally and politically responsible for policies that have caused … disasters in impoverished communities of color. … And so I just want to know how you feel about your role in that violence and how you plan to reverse it?”

HRC acknowledges the very bad consequences of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. But the two disagree about whether those policies were “extensions of white supremacist violence” (Jones) or else well-intentioned responses to the “very serious crime wave that was impacting primarily communities of color and poor people” and to the “very real concerns of people in the communities themselves” (HRC).

(NB It is possible that both interpretations are true, or at least partly so. For an interesting contemporaneous document on Black politicians and the 1994 Crime Bill, see this clipping, courtesy of the Brennan Center.)

Clinton repeatedly asks Jones for policy proposals, and Jones repeatedly presses Clinton for more explicit expressions of regret or changes of heart. The dialog ends with this exchange:

JONES: The piece that’s most important, and I stand here in your space, and I say this as respectfully as I can, but you don’t tell Black people what we need to do. And we won’t tell you all what you need to do.

HILLARY CLINTON: I’m not telling you—I’m just telling you to tell me.



HILLARY CLINTON: Well, respectfully, if that is your position then I will talk only to White people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems—

QUESTION: That’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean. But like what I’m saying is what you just said was a form of victim-blaming. Right you were saying that what the Black Lives Matter movement needs to do to change white hearts—

HILLARY CLINTON: Look I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. …

One difference here is about mechanisms of change. Clinton acknowledges that there is value to the “the consciousness-raising, the advocacy, the passion, … of your movement,” but she believes that change always requires the passage of laws that reallocate rights and powers. Jones thinks that what Clinton believes and says to other White people about their own responsibility is a crucial element of change.

Another (related) difference is about the diagnosis of social problems. Clinton sees a set of interlocking causes for mass incarceration, including well-intentioned laws, economic factors, racism, etc. “You know, it’s not just an economic issue—although I grant that some of you will see it like that. But it’s more than that and I think there is a sense that, low level offenders, disparity treatment, we’ve got to do something about that. I think that a lot of the issues about housing and about job opportunities—’Ban The Box’—a lot of these things, let’s get an agenda that addresses as much of the problem as we can.”

In partial contrast, Jones sees one root cause to the problem, and it involves the hearts of white people (which Clinton has said you can’t change). Jones says, “Until someone takes that message and speaks that truth to White people in this country so that we can actually take on anti-Blackness as a founding problem in this country, I don’t believe that there is going to be a solution.”

My thoughts, for what they’re worth:

First, if it is ever helpful to ask any candidate about her values and priorities, then it is appropriate to probe Hillary Clinton’s “heart” on questions about race. I tend to think that we rely too much on psychological evaluations of candidates. Our impressions are almost always inaccurate, because our relationships with politicians are mediated; and they have less scope for choice than we assume. But this is a huge issue on which President Hillary Clinton might have quite a bit of scope for choice. She also has a problematic record. It is helpful to know what she deeply thinks now. That is information a citizen can use in deciding how and whether to vote.

But I have doubts about a general strategy of trying to get people to acknowledge their privileges. (This is more about the White voters to whom HRC would talk about white supremacy than about her own opinions.) “Privilege” means an unjustifiable advantage. Telling people they have a privilege may easily remind them of an advantage that they will want to protect. Cases are rare indeed when large numbers of people have acknowledged privileges and then dropped them. One example was August 4, 1789, when representatives of the French aristocracy stayed up all night voting to repeal the various privileges of the nobility. It was a glorious night but it did not end well.

The last paragraph may seem cynical, but I am optimistic about other paths to change that do not involve getting privileged people to acknowledge their privileges. The oppressed can gain leverage (economic or political) and negotiate change. Or a majority can be persuaded that change is in their interests as well. For instance, middle class white people may be persuaded that mass incarceration is unnecessarily expensive. In the transcript, HRC says, “That’s what I’m trying to put together in a way that I can explain and I can sell it.  Because in politics, if you can’t explain it and you can’t sell it, it stays on its shelf.” I don’t know if she has in mind arguments about cost, but they would exemplify arguments that she could “sell.”

I am generally committed to a critique of root-cause analysis. (See Roberto Unger against root causes and this post on the idea of root causes in education.) I believe that problems typically involve multiple causes and complex feedback loops; and sometimes you can make the most substantial and lasting difference by attacking an apparently superficial element of a system. That said, the Black Lives Matter campaign is making a strong argument that racism, if not the one root cause of a wide range of problems, is at least necessarily involved in any solution.

Finally, I do not agree with Clinton that you can’t–or shouldn’t–“change hearts.” In the 2008 primaries, she and Senator Obama had an important debate about the role of bottom-up social movements in reforming society by changing values and perceptions. Clinton tended to disparage their impact, arguing, for instance, that the main impact of the Civil Rights Movement came from politicians’ passing the Civil Rights Acts. I think Obama was right to emphasize the deep changes in values and everyday behavior that arose from the social movement. (See Wilentz v. Ganz on the Obama social movement and the Clinton/Obama spat.)

However, a national political leader is well placed to pass laws but poorly placed to lead a social movement, as I think we have observed during President Obama’s period in the White House. So it could be that HRC is correct about the role she should be playing, even if she is wrong to downplay social movements that change hearts.

(Cf. #Blacklivesmatter and Sen. Sanders: social democracy and identity politics.)

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debating the continued importance of institutions

Back in June, at the Boston Civic Media conference, I was part of a panel with Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, Christine Gaspar, director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy, and Doris Sommer, professor and Director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University. Among other topics, we debated the continued importance of institutions in a world increasingly characterized by loose networks. I took an institutionalist (maybe even an unrepentantly paleo-institutionalist) line. Boston Civic Media has put up a brief and cogent summary of the panel as well as the full audio, which is below. See also “why I still believe in institutions,” which I posted immediately after.

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on the proper use of moral clichés

In Joseph Roth’s finely wrought novel The Redetsky March (1932), a simple and good-hearted peasant orderly tries to make a huge financial sacrifice to help his boss, Lieutenant Trotta. The feckless Trotta is badly in debt, and the orderly, Onufrij, has buried some savings under a willow tree. Onufrij has already appeared in the novel many times by this point, but always as a cipher. Now suddenly we see things from his perspective as he walks home (fearfully and yet excitedly), tried to remember which one is his left hand so that he can identify the location where he buried his money, digs it up, and uses it as collateral to obtain a loan from the local Jewish lender.

Apparently, cheap novels that were popular among Austro-Hungarian officers in Trotta’s day “teamed with poignant orderlies, peasant boys with hearts of gold.” Because his actual servant is acting like a literary cliché, Trotta disbelieves and callously rejects the help. He tells Onufrij that it is forbidden to accept a loan from a subordinate and dismisses him curtly. Trotta “had no literary taste, and whenever he heard the word literature he could think of nothing but Theodor Körner’s drama Zriny and that was all, but he had always felt a dull resentment toward the melancholy gentleness of those booklets and their golden characters.” Thus he understands the offer from Onufrij as a fake episode from an unbelievable book. Trotta “wasn’t experienced enough to know that uncouth peasant boys with noble hearts exist in real life and that a lot of truths about the living world are recorded in bad books; they are just badly written.”

Trotta can be compared to two other characters who have problematic relationships with clichés. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Francesca da Rimini utters a speech that consists almost entirely of slightly garbled quotations from popular medieval romantic literature. She justifies her actions with these clichés and avoids any mention of her own sin. It becomes evident that she never really loved her lover, Paolo, but was only in love with the cliché of being a doomed adulteress. Like The Redetsky March, the Inferno is a beautiful and original construction in which clichés have a deliberate place.

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (living more than five centuries after Francesca) also quotes incessantly from popular romantic literature and thereby avoids having to see things from the perspective of her victims, notably her husband and children. Flaubert italicizes her clichés to draw attention to them. He uses his own brilliant and acidly original prose to describe a person who can only think in clichés.

Even though Francesca and Emma Bovary quote statements that are literally true, they rely on stock phrases instead of seriously thinking for themselves. They love what they would call “literature,” but they reduce it to a string of clichés.

Trotta is in some ways their opposite and in some ways similar. He despises “literature” but knows some clichés that popular books contain and uses them to avoid reality. His method of avoidance is to doubt anything that is a literary cliché, whereas Emma Bovary and Francesca da Rimini believe them all.

Although Dante and Flaubert were making different points from Roth about clichés, I think both perspectives have some value. Certain cultural movements—notably, the Romanticism of ca. 1800 and the High Modernism of ca. 1900—have prized originality and have scorned cliché as one of the worst aesthetic failings. Indeed, they have defined “literature” as writing free of cliché at the level of style, plot and character, or theme. These movements have enriched our store of ideals, but they have been overly dismissive of the wisdom embodied in tradition. If you respect the accumulated experience of people who have come before you, you may reasonably assume that many truths are clichés and that many clichés are true. To scorn cliché can mean treating one’s own aesthetic originality as more important than the pursuit of moral truth.

Thus I would not try to delete statements from my list of moral beliefs because they have been made many times before or have been expressed in a simple and unoriginal fashion. I would even be inclined to consider our culture’s store of moral clichés as a set of likely truths. Roth was right: “a lot of truths about the living world are … just badly written.” Situations repeat, and what needs to be said has often been said many times before.

But the risk is that a stock phrase can prevent a person from grasping the concrete reality of the situation at hand. I’d propose two remedies for that problem. First, it is worth recognizing which of our moral commitments, even if they are fully persuasive and valid, are also clichés in the sense that they are standardized and prefabricated phrases. Those commitments deserve special scrutiny.

Second, it is worth attending to the ways that all of our various moral commitments fit together. Each cliché may be true, but when it is juxtaposed with other general statements, it always turns out to be only partly true. Life is full of tradeoffs and tensions. Even if the components of my overall worldview are mostly clichés, the whole structure of moral ideas that emerges from my best thinking about my own circumstances is original–just because I am my own person.

Sources: Joseph Roth, The Radetsky March, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, Part II, chapter 17; my article “Why Dante Damned Francesca da Rimini,” Philosophy & Literature, vol. 23 (October, 1999), pp. 334-350. See also on the moral peril of cliché and what to do about it; and on the moral dangers of cliché.

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liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitution

Reverence for our written Constitution is a highly unusual feature of the political culture of the USA, sometimes verging on a civic religion. Teaching students to hold the Constitution in high regard is also an unusually prominent purpose of civic education in this country. And of course, our Constitution is the oldest in the world and (to the best of my knowledge) the one least subject to change, which means that it has run as a cord through our whole history since 1788.

According to a 2011 Time/Abt SRBI poll, which is the most recent survey I have found, 64% of Americans believe that the Constitution has “held up well” and doesn’t need change.

That is a majority, but not an overwhelming one, and opinions differ by ideology. According to the same poll, 62% of Republicans are “strict constructionists,” believing that the constitution should be interpreted according to the framers’ original intent. In contrast, 67% of Democrats favor “flexibility.” And Democrats are more open to the idea of a new constitutional convention to change the document.

I would challenge the presumption that conservatives do (or should) like the Constitution more than liberals do. One could argue that everyone reads the document selectively, with some favorite parts and other sections that we would rather delete if we could. Conservatives are enamored of the list of enumerated powers, the Second Amendment, and the Tenth Amendment (among other passages). Liberals are more excited about the Necessary and Proper Clause, the First Amendment, and the Fourteenth Amendment. Many liberals have acknowledged that they would get rid of the Second Amendment if they could. But some strong conservatives would like to repeal the Sixteenth Amendment (allowing the income tax) or even the Seventeenth (direct election of US Senators). Candidates Trump, Paul, Santorum, Graham, Christie, Carson, and Jindal, and (less consistently) Kasich and Walker have said that they would end the birthright to citizenship that is central to the Fourteenth Amendment. That hardly reflects reverence for the document as it is today.

At the same time, I would criticize the bipartisan tendency to constitutional piety and the way that it restricts our constitutional imaginations. There are many reasons to think the document is flawed. Just to name one, the separate election of presidents and congresses is a recipe for gridlock or even for constitutional crises, averted so far mostly because our parties didn’t polarize ideologically until the end of the 20th century.

James Madison made sure to study the experience of as many republics as he could before he traveled to Philadelphia to begin writing the Constitution. No one who undertook a similar study nearly 250 years later would design a constitution with a powerful, separately elected president; and actual new democracies never copy our design nowadays.

Another flaw is a set of massive omissions. The real political system of the 21st century is characterized by corporations, political parties, permanent military and security agencies, and a very large administrative/regulatory state. The Constitution is silent on all of those institutions. The Citizens United decision did not–contrary to received opinion on the liberal side–define corporations as people, but it did treat them as regular associations under the First Amendment. Parties and unions also get lumped together as associations because they are not otherwise recognized in the text of the Constitution. And since the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, and the regulatory state are missing, courts struggle to understand these entities as creatures of the legislature that are lodged within the executive instead of branches of government with their own powers, perils, and limitations.

If you are a libertarian constitutional originalist, you have a clear and simple solution to these omissions. Get rid of the regulatory state, which isn’t an enumerated power of Congress and which unconstitutionally delegates legislative power to unelected executive branch staff. Once the federal government is unable to regulate, corporate political power will become unimportant because there will be little to lobby on. That is a consistent view, and it reinforces enthusiasm for the text of the Constitution, which becomes the basis for a radical reform movement. But no one has ever seen a globalized corporate economy without a regulatory state. I am not sure it is possible; I certainly doubt that it would be desirable or popular.

Assuming, then, that we will continue to have people like party leaders, lobbyists, spies, and regulators, their powers and limitations should be addressed in the Constitution.

More generally, to imagine improvements to a society’s constitutional order seems an important form of citizenship. Even for children, it is interesting and valuable to debate changes in the Constitution or whole alternative documents. Adolescent and adult activists should be free actually to pursue such changes. Our constitutional piety has advantages (reinforcing the stability of our system, restraining certain kinds of populist excess, and providing a superior alternative to ethnic nationalism), but it badly restrains acts of constitutional imagination that should be part of active and creative citizenship.

See also constitutional piety, is our constitutional order doomed?, are we seeing the fatal flaw of a presidential constitution?, on government versus governance, or the rule of law versus pragmatism; and the visionary fire of Roberto Mangabeira Unger.

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blogging lightly this week …

… because I am taking some time off and also because traffic to the blog is low in mid-August, as in past years.

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latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare

When we stand to affect another person or animal, at least four moral considerations seem potentially relevant:

  1. The creature’s suffering or distress versus its happiness, contentment, or satisfaction.
  2. The creature’s sense of meaning, purpose, and agency.
  3. The creature’s ability to live in its natural way or to be itself. And …
  4. The impact on other creatures that know and care about the creature that we are directly affecting.

The first consideration is relevant to all sentient beings in proportion to their capacity for sensation and experience. Perhaps a clam cannot suffer appreciably. But there is no reason to think that we human beings are the most sensitive of all creatures–or at least, not by much. And since the first consideration applies to most other animals, it is wrong to reduce their happiness or increase their suffering.

A more difficult question is whether a sudden and painless death reduces happiness. On one account, the net of a creature’s happiness accumulates like a running tally over the life-course. In that case, a painless death freezes the score permanently in place, which can make the total higher than it would have been if the future would have been less happy than the past was. A different views is that a creature has no happiness or suffering at all after death, and therefore death has no impact on happiness. In Epicurus’ phrase, “Death is nothing to us.” I am dissatisfied with both views but not sure that I have a better proposal. Certainly, happiness has a temporal aspect, because suffering on one day lingers on the next. But I struggle to say what impact ending a life has on the creature’s happiness.

The second consideration depends on an ability to make meaning or sense of one’s life and to make consequential choices according to one’s sense of purpose: in a word, “agency.” I am not committed to the premise that agency is a capacity of human beings alone, but we certainly have a very advanced version of it. Note that this capacity is temporal: we make meaning by putting our present state and our current choices in a longer narrative that includes a past and a future. One reason that killing a human being is badly wrong is that it ends the narrative that the person is constructing and thereby destroys her agency. I don’t think the same argument applies to the instantaneous and painless termination of the life of a chicken.

The third consideration–naturalness–seems to apply most to creatures that are not human beings. If possible, a bear should be left alone to live as a bear. Our family dog would not be better off if he were left in the woods to fend for himself like coyote, but he should be able to live the life natural to a domesticated dog, with activities like walks and cuddles. And as for a cow–I am inclined to think that its natural state must include time grazing in a field and nursing a calf. I am not sure that suddenly being slaughtered violates its ability to live a natural life. That means that factory farming is unacceptable but family farming may be consistent with respecting the natural states of farm animals.

As for human beings, we are also natural creatures in the sense that we are an evolved species with many innate limitations and tendencies. But we are capable of reflecting on the whole range of our inherited traits and distinguish the better from the worse. We have a natural proclivity to altruism but also to aggression, even to rape and murder. For us to live according to nature is not nearly good enough. We build institutions and norms to change our inherited natures for the better. That forfeits a right to live naturally and makes the third consideration irrelevant to us.

The fourth consideration applies to any animal that cares for another. In the old Disney cartoon, the death of Bambi’s mother deeply hurt Bambi. Although the cartoon anthropomorphized its animal characters, Bambi’s emotional reaction seems plausible enough for a deer. Still, people may be unique in that our relationships with other people are mediated by language and other forms of communication. We can suffer–or have our sense of purpose and agency frustrated–by learning of the death of someone we have never even met. In contrast, if Bambi had not directly experienced his mother’s death, he wouldn’t have suffered from it.

Freedom is certainly a moral consideration as well, but for human beings, it has a lot to do with #2 (purpose and agency), whereas for animals, it is related to #4 (naturalness). For a person, to be free is to be able to live according to her own sense of purpose. But a bear is free if it’s left alone to be a bear.

What all this means: Intentionally causing the suffering of another creature is always wrong, albeit a wrong that should be balanced against other considerations. Reducing the ability of a non-human creature to live naturally is also a wrong, at least ceteris paribus. But that is a complex question when it comes to farm animals. Killing a person is a special evil because it not only causes suffering but it ruins the purpose and agency that came from that person’s ability to plan and foresee the future. Furthermore, the impact on other human beings of killing a given person is particularly deep and widespread. This is one reason that it is badly wrong to kill even a human being who does not have much agency, such as a neonate. Killing an advanced animal painlessly and suddenly (beyond the sight of its kin) does not necessarily violate considerations #3 or #4. It may violate #1, depending on how we understand the temporal dimension of happiness and suffering. And it may violate #2, but only to the degree that other advanced species have capacities for long-term planning.

See also my evolving thoughts on animal rights and welfare.

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on vacation

I like to post every work day (this is post # 2,978 since 2003), but I will be on vacation and trying to be off digital media until August 17.

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why I stand with Ukraine

(This was written in Lviv, Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 9.59.44 AM but posted in Cambridge, MA).

We all receive moral and political inheritances. Although the stories of our ancestors are not equally attractive, we all have exactly the same responsibility: to recognize our whole birthright, to address the shameful parts, and to use the best aspects of our histories to improve the human condition. I observe influential Ukrainians doing that very well right now, while the leaders and dominant voices in Russia do it very badly. And that is why I believe it is essential that Ukraine prevails.


Seamus Heaney’s narrator seeks admission to the “Republic of Conscience.

At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.

Note: the immigration clerk does not show a picture of the would-be entrant, but rather of her or his grandfather. The photo symbolizes the past that we each must carry–both for good and ill. We cannot shed that inheritance without also renouncing all the other ways that our past has shaped us, including even the language with which we think.

The past also gives each of us gifts, and conscience demands that we offer them to humanity:

The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.

It is tempting for an outsider to evaluate the inheritance of a given people and to draw comparative moral judgments about them as a whole group. Canadians born a few miles north of the US border are dealt a hand without the cards for slavery and genocidal settlement that I carry because I was born not far south of that same border. In that sense, at least, the Canadian inheritance is better.

I am not a relativist; I would insist that some political histories and cultures are superior to others. But there are two reasons not to focus on comparative judgments of this kind. If the inheritance of a people is largely evil (which I would not say of the US, by the way), it is too easy to ignore that people’s potential for doing good in the future. And if their inheritance happens to be largely innocent, it is naïve to assume that they will continue to act well once they obtain power.


I have been visiting a country at war. To the east are people who call themselves “Russians.” They carry a thick book of history. One way to make sense of it is to say that the story began in the late 800s in Kiev. That does not imply that Kiev rightly belongs to Moscow today (the reverse would actually be more logical), but some Russian nationalists have drawn that inference. In any case, what followed after Kievan Rus has been–in this version–a long story of patriotism, suffering, military valor, victory under strong rulers, defense of Orthodoxy and other orthodoxies, and resistance to the decadence of the west and south. This is Putin’s way of playing the mixed deck that history handed him.

But it is not the only way. One could tell a story in which the diverse peoples who live within Russia are constantly being oppressed by bloodthirsty rulers from the capital, yet they show a special gift for turning their suffering into witness, resistance, and empathy. Then the best cards in the hand show Decembrists, Turgenev and Pushkin, and Akhmatova and Sakharov, and the worst show Stalin or the Tsars.

Ukrainians have also been dealt a vast and varied deck. One would have to give a different list for any Ukrainian city, but Lviv has been part of at least the Halych-Volyn Principality, the Kingdom of Poland and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Habsburg, Austrian and Austro-Hungarian Empire, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Republic of Poland, the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the Republic of Ukraine. Lviv can count among its famous citizens the Polish saint Józef Bilczewski, the German-Jewish-Israeli philosopher Martin Buber, the Austrian-American economist Ludwig von Mises, the Ukrainian national poet Ivan Franko, and Muhammad Assad, born Leopold Weiss, who translated the Koran into English and played a role in the founding of Pakistan.

A modern Ukrainian can play these and many more inherited cards in many ways—and can even decide whether or not to identify as a Ukrainian in the first place.

One important and influential group of modern Ukrainians views their inheritance thus: They are a pluralistic people, drawing from many roots. All of the residents of Lviv named above are part of the Ukrainian story. Ukrainians of all backgrounds have flourished best under governments that have been explicitly pluralistic, even when the center of gravity has lain far away, in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth or in Austria. That is one reason the European Union seems so attractive to Ukrainian protesters that some carried the EU flag into fatal conflicts with the police.

They also have a tradition of republican self-government that began in Kievan Rus, when the people held assemblies called veches to elect their leaders. The tradition reemerged in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, the Cossack states, the late Austrian empire (when there was a Galician parliament in Lviv) and the two Maidan uprisings, when the impromptu meetings were again called veches.

Yes, some Ukrainians were complicit or even aggressively active in pogroms, slave raids, oppressions of serfs, the Shoah, and communist atrocities; but these are inheritances that the modern republic can explicitly acknowledge and mourn.

Meanwhile, I do not currently observe an influential movement of the same type in Russia, one that tries to make the liberal, pluralistic, and humane traditions of that country central while treating militaristic machismo as a threat to the Russian people and peace. A fine article by Karine Clément gives some insight into brave Russian organizers who are creating valuable spaces for democratic engagement; but the date of that article is 2008, and the subsequent seven years have been hard ones.


The reason that liberals are influential in Ukraine and vanishingly marginal in Russia is not that Ukrainians are superior to Russians. No people is superior, and in any case, the differences in their current situations can probably be traced to local and recent contingencies, such as the greater efficiency of the Russian security and media agencies and the flood of petrodollars that fund them. But the fact remains that Ukrainians who are cosmopolitan, liberal, and republican hold considerable power in their country, and there is nothing similar right now in Russia.

It is a deep disappointment that, seven decades after the Second World War, so much of the world is dominated by regimes that are militaristic, authoritarian, and nationalist, devoted to the cult of the strong (male) leader, and content to combine kleptocratic crony capitalism with state repression. One could mention Xi Jinping, Nerendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and many more along with Putin–and American voters are not immune to similar attractions. But Ukraine is a place where civil society has confronted the authoritarian wave and now has a chance to prevail.

And that is why I stand with the Ukrainian people and believe that their country is a front line in our era’s struggle for democracy and human rights.

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