call for proposals for Civic Studies papers and panels at APSA 2023

The American Political Science Association’s annual meeting will be in Los Angeles from August 31-Sept 3, 2023. The overall conference theme is “Rights and Responsibilities in an Age of Mis- and Disinformation.” (But most papers do not address the annual theme.)

The Civic Studies Related Group invites proposals for panels, round tables, and individual papers that make a significant contribution to the civic studies field; articulate a civic studies perspective on some important issue; or contribute to theoretical, empirical, or practical debates in civic studies. We especially encourage proposals that emphasize actual or potential civic responses to current social and political crises, their origins, and possible consequences.

Recent civic studies sessions have included a panel on how COVID-19 affected civil society and an authors’ roundtable on the books Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy by Robert C. Lieberman and Suzanne Mettler and The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett.

Civic studies is a field defined by diversity yet connected by participants’ commitments to promoting interdisciplinary research, theory, and practice in support of civic renewal: the strengthening of civic (i.e., citizen-powered and citizen-empowering) politics, initiatives, institutions, and culture. Its concern is not with citizenship understood as legal membership in a particular polity, but with guiding civic ideals and a practical ethos embraced by individuals loyal to, empowered by, and invested in the communities they form and re-form together. Its goal is to promote these ideals through improved institutional designs, enhanced public deliberation, new and improved forms of public work among citizens, or clearer and more imaginative political theory.

The civic studies framework adopted in 2007 cites two ideals for the emerging discipline: “public spiritedness” (or “commitment to the public good”) and “the idea of the citizen as a creative agent.” Civic studies is an intellectual community that takes these two ideals seriously. Although new, it draws from several important strands of ongoing research and theory, including the work of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom and the Bloomington School, of Juergen Habermas and critical social theory, Brent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesis, and more diffuse traditions such as philosophical pragmatism, Gandhian nonviolence, the African American Freedom Struggle. It supports work on deliberative democracy, on public work, on civic engagement and community organizing, among others.

To propose a session, click here. You do not have to be a political scientist, but you would have to attend APSA 2023 in person. APSA members can also join the Civic Studies group (free) at this link.

conversation with Danielle Allen about civic education

I really enjoyed a conversation with Danielle Allen last week, which was organized by Facing History & Ourselves and very nicely moderated by Facing History’s Elizabeth Carroll. You can watch the video here. (You’ll have to create a free account, which is a good thing to do, since Facing History is a wonderful organization.)

possible paths for the Ukraine war

  1. Russia regains momentum and expands its control of Ukrainian territory. Today, most non-Russian military experts discount this possibility, but war is unpredictable. Ukraine would certainly not give up, but it would experience rising external pressure to surrender some territory permanently.
  1. Russia holds a static defensive line, probably set back from the current front. (For instance, Russia would probably abandon Kherson and fall behind the Dnieper.) Ukraine would remain motivated to fight, but European support would become more questionable–and US support, too, if Republicans gain control of Congress or the White House. Putin would try to manage his domestic problems by maintaining a war footing and promising success in some undetermined future. The situation might stabilize, with Ukraine continuing to receive some foreign support and Russia managing to protect some of its 2022 gains. Sanctions would remain in place, but Europe would probably import some Russian energy, albeit less than it used in 2021. There might be considerable partisan warfare and perhaps some organized nonviolent resistance in Russian-occupied territory. The situation would be similar to 2014-22, but with new boundaries–and high costs for all.
  1. Ukraine continues to make breakthroughs. If Ukraine pushes deep into Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Russian forces in Melitopol, Kherson, and Crimea would be stranded on the wrong side of Ukrainian lines and in deep trouble. In that case:

a) Russia could experience a classic military defeat, as in 1905. Russia and Ukraine might or might not sign an armistice or a treaty, but in any event, the war would effectively end in Ukraine’s favor. Putin might survive by exercising repressive control, or he could be removed and replaced either by a better or a worse leader. The potential would certainly remain for Russia to start a new war later, but “rebuilding” an army that has turned out to be hollow would be a major undertaking.

b) Putin might try to avoid suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ukraine by escalating the conflict to include NATO. That would allow him either to salvage a victory by frightening NATO into demanding concessions from Ukraine or at least save face by presenting the West as his foe. (In that case, he would loosely resemble the Japanese military junta in 1945, who used the atomic bombings to cancel their own pledge to fight to the death). To escalate, Putin could:

  1. Attack Ukraine with weapons of mass destruction (WMD);
  2. Attack a NATO country with conventional weapons or cyber; or
  3. Attack a NATO country with WMDs.
  1. At this point, NATO would have a choice about whether and how to respond, ranging from a diplomatic effort to isolate Russia, to a targeted conventional or cyber attack, to a massive military strike on Russia itself. The possible outcomes would range from Putin’s backing down to uncontrolled escalation to WWIII.

I’m certainly hoping for #3a, a straightforward Ukrainian victory. It seems plausible, if only because Putin appears to hope that new troops will turn the tide, and that false hope could keep him fighting until he has simply lost. Again, war is unpredictable, but today’s reports of Ukrainian advances in Kherson Oblast make a victory seem more likely and a Russian rebound (#1) quite improbable. A stalemate (#2) would be harsh and unjust, but it is not difficult to imagine.

Russian escalation (#3b) is very dangerous for the world. I think it would most likely play out as a Russian WMD attack on Ukrainian military targets that prompts a global reaction that is not devastating and that gives Putin an excuse to settle the war. But the other possible results of #3b are all much worse.

the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education

Lately, debates about how to teach American government and history in K-12 schools have turned very hot.

These subjects have high stakes. A government can require children to study the government itself in ways that it chooses. Witness the appalling new curriculum required by the Russian government during the current war. Even when a government’s intentions are benign, education is still a means of shaping the society; therefore, we should expect citizens to advocate various goals and outcomes. Baron von Clausewitz famously called war “a mere continuation of politics by other means,” and one could say the same about civic education.

I believe that “American civil religion” generates additional energy that makes this issue particularly electric today. I take that phrase from Robert N. Bellah’s essay, “Civil Religion in America” (1967). Bellah writes: “What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity.” He calls this collection a “religion,” for “there seems no other word for it.”

Much of American history and civics in K-12 schools has been defined by this civil religion, for better or worse. Efforts to change the curriculum look like efforts to change the civil religion, and maybe they are.

Although Bellah does not cite Durkheim, he evidently accepts Durkheim’s seminal 1915 definition of religion: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p. 41; my thanks to Brian Hatcher for the reference).

As I observed a decade ago in Montpellier, VA, plexiglass now covers the “ink stain on the floor that may be some of the ink with which Mr. Madison took his notes on ancient constitutions, preparing for the Philadelphia convention.” That ink stain is something “set apart and forbidden” as sacred.

It is a good illustration of the original American Civil Religion, which, according to Bellah, “focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.” Bellah acknowledges a close analogy to Christianity but denies that the founders’ civil religion was meant to promote Christianity or to substitute for it. The founders applied a Christian model reflexively; it was all they knew.

Bellah locates a major change around 1860. “With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the new civil religion. It is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln.” The sin of slavery and its overcoming become explicit and acknowledged elements of the American civil religion; Lincoln becomes a prophet. Like Christianity, the postbellum American civil religion includes evil, sacrifice, repentance, and salvation. I would add that when Reconstruction is betrayed, the national story gains another series of episodes and new prophets. Martin Luther King ultimately joins the annual cycle of collective remembrances, alongside Washington and Lincoln.

Writing in 1967, Bellah adds a new stage to the story:

We as Americans now face … what I call the third time of trial. The first time of trial had to do with the question of independence, whether we should or could run our own affairs in our own way. The second time of trial was over the issue of slavery, which in turn was only the most salient aspect of the more general problem of the full institutionalization of democracy within our country. This second problem we are still far from solving though we have some notable successes to our credit. But we have been overtaken by a third great problem that has led to a third great crisis, in the midst of which we stand.

The Vietnam War symbolizes this third crisis. Bellah argues that the American civil religion has always posed dangers, but its emancipatory and democratic elements have often been helpful at home. (Here I would note the central role of Black Americans in the liberation for which Lincoln was traditionally given credit.) However, Bellah argues, the American civil religion has often been harmful abroad. “With respect to America’s role in the world, the dangers of distortion are greater and the built-in safeguards of the tradition weaker.” Bellah acknowledges that “the theme of the American Israel was used, almost from the beginning, as a justification for the shameful treatment of the Indians so characteristic of our history [and] has been used to legitimate several adventures in imperialism.”

I think that right-wing Americans today see civil religion as under assault by what they label “Critical Race Theory”; their anger reflects a sense of blasphemy or profanation. They are especially anxious because they know that Christians are shrinking to a minority; thus the decline of the secular civil religion reflects a decline in the literal religion that has always mirrored it.

Ron DeSantis and his ilk miss the central meaning of the postbellum civil religion: Americans must struggle to defeat the evil of racism. This error has many precedents. Bellah wrote in 1967, “For all the overt religiosity of the radical right today, their relation to the civil religious consensus is tenuous, as when the John Birch Society attacks the central American symbol of Democracy itself.” On the other hand, I observe that real, principled conservatives know that the American story combines evil and redemption. They are much less fragile when people point out the evil roots of American history.

Bellah’s civil religion cannot suffice today. For one thing, it never seriously grappled with settler colonialism. Columbus stands alongside Lincoln on the annual civil/liturgical calendar, and that symbolism is no longer acceptable. The deep analogy to Christianity has also become increasingly problematic as the population has become more religiously pluralistic and secular. Because of the indelible contributions of Black Americans, I would not call the American civil religion simply ”white,” but it has never been inclusive enough.

Still, the postbellum civil religion was emancipatory and democratic. The American Civil Rights Movement then appropriated and strengthened the received story in powerful ways. Meanwhile the American national civil religion legitimized a federal role in social policy, which has served progressive ends.

Therefore, I wouldn’t give it up too quickly. I would be more interested in deepening and complicating the national myth than abandoning it. Taking a leaf from the major religious traditions, we should remember to include solidarity, celebration, contribution, salvation, and hope–as well as acknowledgement and repentance–in the recipe. (This is a gentle critique of certain forms of social movement activism that seem to favor repentance and blame over redemption, rather like politicized Calvinism.)

Political leaders and movements should tell and retell the national story in ways that broadly resemble religious narratives. In an educational setting, however, any single story poses a threat to free inquiry and debate. Inculcating a national civil religion, no matter how benign, is not the same as educating free citizens. For this reason, I would use questions to define the content of American history and civics, rather than promulgating any particular answers.

That distinction is a bit too simple, since the choice and framing of questions always reflects deeper commitments. Schools should be committed to such to core values as equity and liberty. It’s also unfair to describe a religion, as Durkheim does, as a “unified system of beliefs,” since religion always involves disagreements, questions, and critical debates. These can be elements of a civic religion as well. However, the more that a curriculum resembles Durkheim’s portrait of a religion as a unified belief-system, the less it involves free inquiry. And free inquiry is the core of liberal education.

See also: constitutional piety; when political movements resemble religions; is everyone religious?; the Democrats and religious Americans; what secular people can get out of theology; civic education in Russia;  the political advantages of organized religionthe I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology;

artificial intelligence and problems of collective action

Although I have not studied the serious scholarship on AI, I often see grandiose claims made about its impact in the near future. Intelligent machines will solve our deepest problems, such as poverty and climate change, or they will put us all out of work and become our robot overlords. I wonder whether these predictions ignore the problems of collective action that already bedevil us as human beings.

After all, there are already about 7.5 billion human brains on earth, about 10 times more than there were in 1800. Arguably, we are better off than we were then–but not clearly and straightforwardly so. If we ask why a tenfold increase in the total cognitive capacity of the species has not improved our condition enormously, the explanations are pretty obvious.

Even when people agree on goals, it is challenging to coordinate their behavior so that they pursue those ends efficiently. And even when some people manage to work together toward a shared goal, they have physical needs and limitations. (Using brains requires food and water; implementing any brain’s ideas by taking physical action requires additional resources.) To make matters worse, human beings often have legitimate but conflicting interests, like the need to gain sustenance from the same land. And some human beings have downright harmful goals, like dominating or spiting others.

One can see how artificial intelligence might mitigate some of these drawbacks. Imagine a single computer with computational power equivalent to one million human beings. It will be much more coordinated than those people. It will be able to aggregate and apply information more efficiently. It can also be programmed to have consistent and, indeed, desirable goals–and it will plug away at its goals for as long as it receives the physical inputs it needs. For instance, it could clean up pollution 24/7 instead of stopping for self-interested purposes, like sleeping.

However, it still has physical needs and limitations. It might use fuel and other inputs more efficiently than a human being does, but that depends on how good the human’s tools are. A person with a bulldozer can move more garbage than a clever little robot that works 24/7–and both of them need a place to put the garbage. (Intelligence cannot negate physical limits.)

Besides, a computer is designed by people–and probably by individuals arrayed as corporations or states. As such, AI is likely to be designed for conflicting and sometimes discreditable goals, including killing other people. At best, it will be hard to coordinate the activities of many different artificially intelligent systems.

Meanwhile, people already coordinate their behavior in quite impressive ways. A city receives roughly the amount of bread it needs every day because thousands of producers and vendors coordinate their behavior through prices. An international scientific discipline makes cumulative progress because thousands of scientists coordinate their behavior through peer-review and citation networks. And the English language develops new vocabulary for describing new phenomena as millions of people communicate. Thus the coordination attained by a machine with a lot of computational power should be compared to the coordination accomplished by human beings in a market, a discipline, or a language–which is impressive.

One claim made about AI is that machines will start to refine and improve their own hardware and software, thus achieving geometric growth in computational power. But human beings already do this. Although we cannot substantially redesign our individual brains, we can individually learn. More than that, we can redesign our systems for coordinating cognition. Many people are busy making markets, disciplines, languages, and other emergent human systems work better. That is already the kind of continuous self-engineering that some people expect AI to accomplish for the first time.

It is of course possible to imagine that an incredibly intelligent machine will identify solutions that simply elude us as human beings. For instance, it will negate the physical limitations of the carbon cycle by discovering whole new processes. But that is an empty supposition, like imagining that regular old science will one day discover solutions that we cannot envision today. That is probably true–it has happened many times before–but it is unhelpful in the present. Besides, both people and AI may create more problems than they solve.

See also: the progress of science; John Searle explains why computers will not become our overlords;