the Millennials’ political values in context

The General Social Survey asked a set of questions about political values or principles twice, in 2004 and 2014. The questions were phrased, “How important is it ….?” and the items included: always to obey the law, always to vote, never to try to evade taxes, and always to understand other people’s reasoning. Respondents were also asked how important it is for people to be able to participate in making decisions. It’s a nice mix of conventional civic obligations and deliberative and participatory values.

As is my wont, I have looked at the changes generationally. Graphs are helpful for visualizing these changes. For instance, the first graph below displays an interesting pattern in attitudes towards understanding other people’s reasons. Generation Xers have become substantially more committed to this value as they (or I could say “we”) have aged, although we still lag a bit behind our elders. Older Americans have lost their commitment somewhat, especially the group that was born between 1926 and 1945. Millennials enter the picture with the highest levels of support currently, although they rate listening as less important than their grandparents did a decade ago.


I’ll display a second graph that shows quite a different pattern. The younger you are today, the less likely you are to believe that it’s very important for people to be able to participate in decisions. At least since 2004, the older cohorts have not changed their minds on that topic. Millennials continue the pattern of declining support by entering adulthood with the lowest levels of commitment to the value or principle of participation. This graph suggests that unless we do something to change the trends, generational replacement will gradually lessen our commitment to participation.


The pattern for always obeying the law looks like the second graph above, although the gaps are smaller. Millennials seem less committed than their predecessors, which could reflect an openness to civil disobedience.

All the older cohorts have grown to oppose tax evasion more as they have aged. Millennials enter the picture least committed to that ideal, but they are just where the Xers were a decade ago, and it’s possible that people’s focus on this topic naturally grows as they age.

Voting, finally, shows a pattern like participation in decisions (the second graph above). Commitment is lower for each generation, and much lower for Millennials. The older generations did not change their minds between 2004 and 2014, but the shrinking of the pre-War cohort and the growth of Xers and Millennials pushes down the average for the population as a whole. Voting is becoming less of a perceived obligation due to generational replacement. However, it’s important to note that this is a question about the obligation to vote. Actual voting rates have been flat over time. In other words, Millennials vote at similar rates to their predecessors; they are just less likely to conceive of that action as a duty.

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America’s Civic Renewal Movement: The View from Organizational Leaders

With support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Eric Liu—the founder and CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program—and I interviewed 20 key organizational leaders about strategies to expand civic engagement in the United States. Our new paper is: 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).

Interviewees agreed that the nation faces polarization, corruption, and weakened civic capacity. David McKinney from the Alliance for Children and families observed: “Everyone is sick-and-tired of hyper-partisanship,” and we need “stories of leaders and their lives, folks that are doing the work in ways that are trying to cut through.” Anna Galland from MoveOn said, “Right now, our government is captive to lobbyists with money to spend.” Paul Schmidt of Ducks Unlimited observed that “the need and desire for affiliation has eroded.”

Most interviewees thought that citizens would have to play a major role in reversing these declines. John Bridgeland of Civic Enterprises said that we need civic engagement “now, more than ever” because of the paralysis and dysfunction of government and changes in society such as emerging conflicts, gaps in education and social mobility, racial conflict, and divides over immigration.

Some organizations included in this study are large, some are ideologically diverse, some have a coherent and focused agenda, and some are deep (engaging their members in learning, growth, leadership, and voice). But no organization has managed to be large, deep, diverse, and focused.


Furthermore, despite some working connections among these organizations, they do not yet form a coherent network. A simple network analysis of the connections that were either mentioned explicitly in the interviews or implied by the interviewees’ bios (for instance, when an individual holds leadership positions in two or more organizations) yielded the diagram below.


In exemplary episodes from American history, such as the Civil Rights Movement, networks of organizations have managed to be large, deep, diverse, and focused.

The paper concludes with some recommendations for research and convening to strengthen today’s network for civic renewal. You can download the full report here.

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Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg to lead CIRCLE

I am thoroughly delighted about this announcement:

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg has been named the new director of Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

Dr. Kawashima-Ginsberg served as deputy director of CIRCLE since 2013, and has been a senior researcher with the team since 2008. She will be the third director in CIRCLE’s 14-year history, succeeding Peter Levine, who will remain active with CIRCLE while overseeing all of Tisch College’s research in his role as Associate Dean, and founding director William A. Galston, now of the Brookings Institution.

“It’s truly a privilege to serve as CIRCLE’s next director. I look forward to helping deepen our collective expertise and impact on opportunities for civic and political development among young people who are marginalized or disadvantaged,” said Kawashima-Ginsberg. “These young people are virtually shut out of public life, and our research can help identify barriers, test solutions, and transform the dialogue about the engagement of young people in our country.”

Kawashima-Ginsberg brings her extensive experience overseeing CIRCLE’s core research projects and producing resources, scholarly works, and reports for practitioners and researchers alike. With a background in positive youth development and an interest in diverse and marginalized youth, Kawashima-Ginsberg is primed to bring a sharpened focus to this important dimension of CIRCLE’s work. She is ideally prepared to provide organizations, communities, and the public with research that will increase civic and political learning and engagement opportunities.

Among her research projects at CIRCLE, Kawashima-Ginsberg has led studies on the leadership and political development of women and girls, the social class divide in the extracurricular experiences of youth, and the diversity of Millennials.

“Kei is the perfect choice to lead the next phase of CIRCLE’s development,” said Levine. “Her impressive background in youth development brings an important perspective to our work. She has been our lead researcher since 2008 and played an essential role in all of our activities. Many colleagues, both practitioners and scholars, already know her as a superb scholar and leader. I am excited to continue to work with her as she takes CIRCLE in important new directions.”

As Tisch College’s Associate Dean for Research, Levine will remain active in CIRCLE’s research and will support the organization.

Kawashima-Ginsberg earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with Specialization in Children and Families from Loyola University Chicago and has extensive experience in working with youth of diverse backgrounds both as a researcher and practitioner.

As it says above, I will remain deeply involved with CIRCLE–and more broadly with the research of Tufts’ University’s Tisch College of Citizenship, of which CIRCLE is a key part. In fact, my time commitment will not diminish. At the same time, Kei will be the true leader of CIRCLE, and that represents an enormous opportunity to develop and strengthen the organization in the service of youth civic engagement.

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Hillary Clinton should name a VP nominee soon

The 2016 Democratic nominating contest looks unprecedented so far. The party has neither an incumbent president with a VP already in place, nor a competitive field of potential nominees, each ready to step up if anyone else falters. Instead, the Democrats have one candidate who is so far ahead in her own party’s primary race that she resembles an incumbent president, but no one is obviously ready to replace her should she hit a major obstacle.

By the way, I am not predicting that anything will happen to her. She seems healthy enough, and most of her past has already been relentlessly vetted. But she is human and she could face a crisis in the 19 months before Election Day. Democrats have serious grounds to worry that if something does happen to Clinton, they would be left without a plausible nominee at all.

If, on the other hand, she were to name a VP candidate soon, then a strong replacement would be ready should she have to withdraw for any reason. Meanwhile, she would have a second Democratic heavyweight to campaign with her for 19 months (possibly someone who would otherwise have been a competitor). Finally, the announcement could counteract any drawbacks to Clinton’s candidacy, such as her age and her reputation as a classic insider.

There are obvious drawbacks to naming a VP more than a year before the customary date:

1. It would look arrogant. It would indicate that Clinton thinks she is positioned like an incumbent president. But she could address that impression directly, saying that she learned the hard way in 2008 that her nomination is hardly inevitable. There are other likely Democratic candidates, and she realizes that one of them could defeat her. She has simply chosen to share her VP choice with the public early; other candidates can do the same.

2. She would miss the “bounce” that usually follows a VP announcement roughly five months before the election. That is correct, but it’s called a “bounce” for a reason. It doesn’t last. VP nominations have only mattered in a negative way; a few choices have hurt the ticket on Election Day. No one had gotten a clear benefit that has lasted until November.

3. She might make a bad choice. Her prospective VP might prove a weak candidate or have a major vulnerability. But that would also be a problem if she made the choice in the summer of 2016. There is no substitute for choosing wisely.

Finally, a disclaimer: This is a tactical suggestion. It is not an endorsement. I have serious misgivings about Hillary Clinton and am hoping for a real choice in the primary campaign. Here I simply suggest that it’s in her own interest for Clinton to make a VP choice soon.

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alienation from politics in Europe

I have been invited to speak in Spain on “youth alienation from politics” this June. I have no doubt that if you ask young people in any of the wealthy democracies what they think of politics, you will get negative responses. But the question remains whether that is a special phenomenon of youth in the present moment, of youth at all times, or of all people in the present moment.

The European Social Survey asks respondents whether they trust politicians. Respondents are offered a 10-point scale, and after some experimentation, I have divided the subjects into those who gave scores between 0-5 and those who said 6-10. The available data come from even-numbered years between 2002 and 2012:


Note, first, that not many people rate politicians 6 or higher on a 10-point scale. That is not exactly startling news. Second, all age groups were more positive in 2002, less so by 2010, and somewhat more trusting again in 2012. Finally, the four major age groups show the same trends. If you wanted to identify a generational difference, you might note that seniors lost less trust between 2002 and 2004–possibly buffered from the recession by national retirement programs. The young are currently the most trusting, albeit not by much.

This graph is evidence that there isn’t really a phenomenon of youth distrust in politics in Europe. The distrust is shared. That said, I should note two caveats. First, the span of years shown above is short; it would be interesting to know how a similar question would have been answered in 1988 or 1966. Second, I didn’t track the same birth cohorts over time. People aged 14-29 in 2002 were 24-39 a decade later. It is conceivable that tracking birth cohorts would reveal a significant difference between those born in 1982 versus 1992–but that seems unlikely given the lack of a relationship between age and trust.

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Frontiers of Democracy 2015

Frontiers of Democracy 2015
June 25-27
145 Harrison Avenue, Boston, MA 02111

To register and hold a place at the 2015 conference, please use this form. The conference venue is in downtown Boston, easily accessible from hundreds of hotels. Participants are responsible for arranging their own lodgings.

While powerful forces work against justice and civil society around the world, committed and innovative people strive to understand and improve citizens’ engagement with government, with community, and with each other. Every year, Frontiers of Democracy convenes some of these practitioners and scholars for organized discussions and informal interactions. Topics include deliberative democracy, civil and human rights, social justice, community organizing and development, civic learning and political engagement, the role of higher education in democracy, Civic Studies, media reform and citizen media production, civic technology, civic environmentalism, and common pool resource management. Devoted to new issues and innovative solutions, this conference is truly at the frontiers of democracy.

Most of Frontiers is devoted to interactive discussions and learning exchanges, but we do offer very short, provocative, invited talks. The “Short Takes” speakers for 2015 will include, among others:

Harry Boyte leads the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College. Boyte has been an architect of a “public work” approach to civic engagement and democracy promotion, a conceptual framework on citizenship that has gained world-wide recognition for its theoretical innovations and its practical effectiveness.

Hahrie Han teaches political science at Wellesley College. His two most recent books are How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century and Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.1 Million Activists Transformed Field Campaigns in America (co-authored with Elizabeth McKenna)

Diana E. Hess is Senior Vice President of the Spencer Foundation and Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her most recent book, with Paula McAvoy, is The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education.

Caroline W. Lee teaches sociology at Lafayette College. Her most recent books include Do-it-Yourself Democracy, based on her ethnography of the public engagement industry, and Democratizing Inequalities, an edited volume with Ed Walker and Mike McQuarrie about the dramatic expansion of democratic practices in an era of stark economic inequalities.

Abhi Nemani is currently the first Chief Data Officer for the City of Los Angeles. Formerly, he helped build, launch, and run the national non-profit, Code for America.

Ajume Wingo teaches philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder. His last book is entitled Veil Politics in Liberal Democratic States, and he is collaborating with Michael Kruse on The Citizen, a book about how Africans can move beyond where their history has put them and begin to make their own future and secure their own political freedom.

Brenda Wright is Vice President of Legal Strategies at Demos.  She has led many progressive legal and policy initiatives on voting rights, campaign finance reform, redistricting, election administration and other democracy and electoral reform issues and is a nationally known expert in these areas.

Frontiers is sponsored by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship at Tufts University, which is the host, along with the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and The Democracy Imperative.

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Innovation and Civic Engagement

I’m speaking briefly tomorrow at a Tufts Institute for Innovation symposium on “Research, Innovation, and Community Engagement.” I may say something along these lines:

It is exciting and valuable to put these four words together. We need innovation because existing strategies have not solved stubborn problems. We need research to explain the problems and to assess what works. We need communities, meaning not just populations of people who happen to live in particular places, but groups of people who have networks and norms that allow them to improve the world. (Voluminous scholarship finds that community ties are essential for success.) And we need engagement if we want research and innovation to influence the world.

So I am a fan. But I would like to take a few minutes to note some risks that may arise if we try to combine research, innovation, community, and engagement in the wrong ways.

Research and innovation go together neatly. In fact, university-based research must be innovative, almost by definition. An inquiry doesn’t count as “research” if it has been done before. To be sure, some academic research is highly routine and standard. But that kind of work is valued less than original research. Innovation is esteemed in the university. Famous scholars are innovators.

Innovation is also valued highly in the private sector, in part because making or doing something new can be especially profitable. One definition of a “commodity” is a good for which the demand is met by undifferentiated suppliers. It doesn’t matter whether your shirt was stitched by Bangladeshi workers or a machine in Germany; the shirt comes out the same. A commodity yields low profits because anyone can turn capital into the good and compete. Innovation allows the innovator to reap greater advantage by avoiding competition.

Since innovation is prized in the academy (where the currency is fame) and in the marketpace (where the currency is money)–and since the academy and the market are merging–it is no surprise that glamor attaches to the idea of innovative research that produces innovative solutions that go to market. That is the current ideal.

It is an ideal that also finds its way into public policy. The Obama Administration loves concrete new policy interventions that can be rigorously evaluated. In 2o13, for instance, the administration proposed $200 million in a competitive pool for state governments that cut energy use and expanded HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation and Enforcement scheme), which had performed well in evaluations. But it proposed to cut Social Security by $130 billion and Medicare by $380 billion.

Social Security and Medicare are old, not innovative. These big, old programs are not subject to being invented and then tested in randomized experiments. Yet cutting $130 billion from a basic entitlement is massively more consequential than spending $200 million on innovations. And the reason for the cuts was not an actual preference by the administration; it was a function of the balance of power, with Republicans controlling Congress. If we presume that innovation by itself solves problems, we forget about power–power to devise innovations, power to use them, and power to change larger systems that have little to do with innovation.

If innovation and research fit comfortably enough together, innovation and community make a more difficult pair. Communities do not necessarily need innovation. They may prefer to preserve what they have, or to develop in regular and predictable ways. They may value tradition. They will ask whether an innovation is an improvement or a new evil. For these and other reasons, they often resist innovations.

Even when it comes to research, communities may not need originality. Once it is known that cigarettes cause cancer, a community needs to know who is smoking and where the cigarettes come from. The original discovery about the impact of tobacco was valuable, but now the community just needs routine data of the kind that will not look impressive on an academic’s CV.

In a competitive research university, the more innovation, the better. In a community, that is not the case. True, a world of innovation can be exciting and liberating. But if everyone else is innovating, it becomes difficult to make plans for yourself. That actually undermines personal liberty; you are constantly reacting and adjusting to other people’s innovations. The same is true for communities. They cannot govern themselves and form durable laws if everything if always being changed. As James Madison argued: A “mutable policy … poisons the blessings of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws … be repealed or revised before they are promulg[at]ed, or undergo such incessant changes, that no man who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow.”

I haven’t said anything about “engagement” yet. Real engagement is not a one-way flow. For instance, to develop and deploy an innovation in a community does not reflect engagement. Two people are said to be engaged if they plan to form a couple. Two gears are engaged if turning either one moves the other. Two gears are engaged if stopping one stops the other. A community and a university are engaged if they form a kind of couple, and if motion–or stillness–on either side influences the partner.

Communities can innovate. And civic engagement can be done in innovative ways. Indeed, Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland’s book, Civic Innovation in America: Community Empowerment, Public Policy, and the Movement for Civic Renewal is an indispensable work that counters narratives of civic decline by showing that new forms of civic engagement have been painstakingly developed to respond to a changing world.

In an age of innovation, we’d better engage citizens in new ways. In that respect, innovation and engagement fit neatly together. But we must not yield to the assumption that “innovation” is desirable because it is the path to fame and profit. If we are really engaged with communities, they will have the power to stop or alter the cleverest innovations. At least some of the power will come from their side.

In short, I am all for developing innovative solutions to social problems and engaging communities in using them. But we must not forget issues of power and of ethics. Some innovations are good, some are bad, and some are insignificant compared to bigger social decisions. A relationship should form between any academic or entrepreneur who is strongly motivated to innovate and the community that might want to participate. That relationship must be ethical and fairly equitable. Ideally, some of the insights and innovations will come from the community side. And like an engaged gear, the community will have the power to stop and prevent the research partner from moving forward.

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civics in the Senate education bill

Reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which has been known for the past decade as “No Child Left Behind”) will be a tortuous and uncertain process. But at the moment, the leading contender is the “Every Child Achieves Act,” negotiated by the Senate education committee chair, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and the ranking member, Patty Murray (D-Wash.). The text is here. It is 601 pages, covering most aspects of k-12 education in the United States. But for those of us most deeply concerned about educating the next generation of American citizens, these are the golden words:

‘‘SEC. 2304. NATIONAL ACTIVITIES. (will receive 5% of this Part’s funding)
‘‘(a) PURPOSE.—The purpose of this section is to  promote innovative strategies to promote innovative history, civic, and geography instruction, learning strategies, and professional development activities and programs for teachers, principals, and other school leaders, particularly for low-income students in underserved areas.
‘‘(b) IN GENERAL.—From the funds reserved by the  Secretary under section 2301(b)(3), the Secretary shall award grants, on a competitive basis, to eligible entities for the purposes of—
‘‘(1) developing, implementing, evaluating and disseminating for voluntary use, innovative, evidenced-based approaches to civic learning and American history, which may include hands-on civic engagement activities for teachers and low-income students, that demonstrate innovation, scalability, accountability, and a focus on underserved populations; or
(2) other innovative evidence-based approaches to improving the quality of student achievement and teaching of American history, civics, and government in elementary schools and secondary schools.
(1) IN GENERAL.—A grant awarded by the Secretary to an eligible entity under this section shall be for a period of not more than 3 years.
‘‘(2) RENEWAL.—The Secretary may renew a  grant awarded under this section for 1 additional 2- year period.
‘‘(3) DIVERSITY OF PROJECTS.—In awarding grants under this section, the Secretary shall ensure that, to the extent practicable, grants are distributed among eligible entities that will serve geographically  diverse areas, including urban, suburban, and rural areas. …

Civic education badly needs innovation. Innovation costs money. The federal government should support innovation (along with rigorous assessment). That is one of its most valuable and least controversial roles. States won’t pay for elaborate innovation because the benefits are shared nationally but they would bear the costs. Foundations can help to a limited extent, but they don’t have enough money. The feds should pay for the next generation of civic education–Civics 2.0, civics that is more effective, more engaging, harder, and more fun than what we received. And if this bill passes, they will.

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a deep dive on deep dives

Suddenly everyone wants to do a “deep dive” into every subject. Today, for instance, Pew offers a “Deep Dive into Party Affiliation.” The phrase appears in The Ridiculous Business Jargon Dictionary right after “decruit,” an Orwellian term for firing someone. I would have said that metaphorical uses of “deep diving” were much less common even a year ago, but these things are hard to measure. Books always provide a lagging indicator and don’t necessarily catch up with spoken language even after a delay. But the Google book trend for the phrase “deep dive” is interesting. It shows a rapid increase in the 1970s, a bear market for deep diving in the 1980s-1990s (my impressionable years), and then a steep upward slope until 2008, which is the last year of available data.

To decode the scale: this graph means that one of every five million phrases in printed books in 1972 was the phrase “deep dive.” Some uses probably referred to pearl fishers and Soviet submarines. But the increase could reflect an emerging business metaphor.

The word “cliché” was invented by French printers in the age of moveable type to refer to a precast word or phrase that could be dropped into text for efficiency. I don’t think you would bother to forge a cliché for the word “deep dive” as long as it stayed at the level shown above. Thus it isn’t literally a cliché. But two parts in every ten million seems like plenty to me.

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against fatalism: responding to Krugman and Sunstein

(Washington, DC) Harry Boyte, Albert Dzur, and I have a letter in the latest New York Review of Books that is pertinent to today’s column by Paul Krugman. Krugman’s piece, entitled “Economics and Elections,” is deeply depressing and depressed, exemplifying the very mode of thought that Harry, Albert, and I wanted to challenge in our letter about Cass Sunstein and Michael Walzer, which we wrote more than a month ago.

Krugman argues today that the British Tories did immense and unnecessary damage to the UK economy by enforcing austerity policies. However, the British economy has grown of late, and “a large body of political science research” finds that what determines the outcome of a national election is economic growth during “the last two quarters before the election.” That factor is much more important than any behavior or rhetoric by politicians or anything that the media can say or do. It explains why the Tories may win.

For politicians, the lesson is to ignore the good of the country if you want to be reelected. In fact, “the politically smart thing might well be to impose a pointless depression on your country for much of your time in office, solely to leave room for a roaring recovery just before voters go to the polls.” Scholars and public intellectuals can do little to change this reality, Krugman argues, but they should commit to the truth anyway, like geeky existentialists. Our duty as intellectuals:

Try to get it right, and explain our answers as clearly as we can. Realistically, the political impact will usually be marginal at best. Bad things will happen to good ideas, and vice-versa. So be it. Elections determine who has power, not who has the truth.

(By the way, this is an interesting reversal for Krugman, who early in the Obama years was quick to accuse the president of not using the Bully Pulpit effectively. As he now notes, political scientists basically don’t believe in the Bully Pulpit.)

Cass Sunstein, a distinguished and often insightful political scientist, has collected evidence along similar lines to the “large body” of research cited by Krugman today. Sunstein and his co-author Reid Hastie argue that individuals and groups reach irrational conclusions because of hard-wired cognitive limitations, such as a tendency to “groupthink.” The behavior of voters in a national election is just an example.

Such evidence should be taken seriously. But Michael Walzer offered an important critique in the New York Review of Books that could also apply to Krugman’s article today. Walzer argued that problems (like groupthink) that bedevil discussions inside Congress, the Supreme Court, or any committee room may not be as serious as “powerlessness and inequality.” He concluded:

Organizing, agitating, demonstrating—these are ways of bringing the powerless to the attention of the powerful. They can contribute importantly to democratic decisions, even if they seem nondeliberative. … Sometimes we will want the people outside the room actually to win—to organize and agitate so successfully that they take over the small groups who dominate decision-making, with the result that they change the political conversation. … So, yes, we need to be wiser in the ways described by Sunstein and Hastie; but we also need a radically different kind of decision-making than what they describe, involving a larger number of people inside and outside the rooms where small groups sit.

We concur but would push the argument further. Political institutions can be changed. This is not only a matter of adjusting the rules that govern, for instance, parliamentary districts in the UK or campaign finance in the US. It is also about achieving cultural change within major institutions, such as legislatures, newspapers, and schools and colleges. It is about changing us (the citizens), not just them (the rulers). We wrote:

Sunstein, like Habermas and many others, sees major institutions as largely fixed and unchangeable, not subject to democratizing change. This assumption generates fatalism, which has shrunk our imaginations about decision-making, politics, and democracy itself. The challenge is to recognize that institutions of all kinds are human creations that in turn can be recreated, reconnected to questions of civic and democratic purpose. For this task we need to bring in Max Weber as well as Machiavelli and Marx [whom Walzer had recommended in his review]. Weber described the “iron cage” that results from technical rationality. In his essay “The Profession and the Vocation of Politics,” Weber also evocatively termed the pattern “the polar night of icy darkness.” Thawing the polar night is a frontier of democracy in the twenty-first century.

The evidence that Krugman and Sunstein cite is empirical. By definition, it derives from the past. In the case of Krugman’s column today, it derives from quantitative studies of US presidential campaigns since World War II. We should pay attention to trends in the recent past so that we know what to change. But we cannot allow the past to become a dead hand so that we surrender our political agency.

I addressed the very same topic in We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For (pp. 26-7):

The outcome of presidential elections in the United States is strongly correlated with the performance of the economy in the previous year. That means that all the deliberate work of campaigns, parties, and independent advocacy groups matters less than the blind, impersonal force of the business cycle.

Nevertheless, working together in small groups is morally important—it is what we should do and should care most about. To be a good person is to do this work well. That is reason enough to make it a central question for reflection and research. In addition, deliberate human action has significant impact. Small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens do make a difference under appropriate circumstances, as shown by the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the conservative legal movement, and numerous other examples. … Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for demonstrating that the organization and governance of voluntary groups affects whether they can solve social problems. These findings suggest that “small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens” matter, even if other factors matter too.

If the leaders of the South African freedom movement reviewed the scholarly literature on democratization during the apartheid years, they must have found it depressing. Prosperity, economic equality, and ethnic homogeneity were the factors that had been found to increase the odds of a successful transition to democracy. These structural factors were all evidently absent in South Africa. … Thus, if the African National Congress and other democratic reformers had been guided by hard-nosed, empirical research, they would have chosen a goal short of democracy, something like a negotiated arrangement among separate authoritarian communities. But they were right to ignore the scholarly literature because it was based on empirical data—in a word, on the past—and the past can never determine the future. So far, their peaceful revolution appears a monumental work of deliberate human agency.

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