Author Archives: Peter

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

encouraging working class candidates

The quote below is from an article in The Hill by Alberto Ramos, director of talent development at New Politics. He says he “was raised by a gritty, single mother of three in a trailer park on the eastern desert outskirts of Las Vegas. Every day, we scraped and struggled to get by, but thanks to her perseverance and determination, we survived.” Now he works to encourage people from similar backgrounds to run for political office:

Peter Levine, Associate Dean at Tufts University conducted a survey of over 700 candidates for local office in 2021 …. He asked about the degree to which concerns over credentials, fundraising networks, economic hardship, or public scrutiny might cause an otherwise viable candidate to hesitate to run. The starkest differences appeared when factoring in childhood economic adversity.

Almost half of the people who experienced poverty and received welfare when they were children — regardless of their race, gender, or level of education — doubted their credentials were good enough, compared to only 15 percent of those who never had. One-third of those who received welfare as children were anxious about even being able to afford a run for office, compared to a mere six percent of their peers who never had.

Some forms of disadvantage are being slowly and arduously addressed. The proportions of women, people of color, and sexual minorities among elected politicians are rising. The same is not true of social class. The proportion of working-class members of state legislatures declined from an already low rate between 1960 and 2010 (Carnes 2018). Our survey is meant to inform efforts to turn that trend around.

See also: Challenges Reported by Candidates for Local Office; class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; and social class inversion in the 2022 US elections.

two criticisms of Effective Altruism

In the week after Sam Bankman-Fried (known as “SBF”) lost his whole $16 billion fortune, I’m sure that everyone who was already skeptical about crypto, Silicon Valley, boy geniuses, billionaires of all ages, political donors, and Effective Altruists is now piling on. Schadenfreude flows palpably through the world’s social networks–flawed as they may be.

I don’t know whether personal attacks are merited. SBF had explicitly committed to making high-risk bets with relatively low odds of success, because he thought that was his moral duty. Even if he deserves to be denounced, I’m not interested in celebrating anyone’s failure or reinforcing my prior assumptions.

But Adam Fisher’s beautifully written pre-collapse profile of SBF supplies quotations that illustrate why I have always resisted Effective Altruism, as a matter of principle.

I believe:

  1. The world gets better when people have the capacity to define, analyze, and address their own problems.
  2. Being happy, in a worthy sense of that word (“eudaimonic,” if you prefer), is hard and rare. Most of us live lives of quiet desperation. Material conditions help but are insufficient. We must accomplish worthwhile happiness ourselves. To the extent that we can help others to flourish, it’s by sharing insights and developing relationships.

These two points are distinct, but they intersect because working with others to shape our world is a path to inner happiness. It is not the only path, and it’s often a fraught one, but it must be kept open. By exchanging proposals and then acting together with people whom we view as equals, we can broaden our thinking and enrich our inner lives.

In contrast, utilitarianism “in its purest—Benthamite—form” (Fisher’s description of SBF’s philosophy) presumes that we can and must make other people happy by acting on or for them at a distance. We can calculate the best decision privately and then just do it.

SBF asks Fisher to imagine a world in which many people resemble his description of himself. They take risks to make money that they then give away to assist the world’s poorest. Some succeed and some fail, but whether you are one of the successful shouldn’t matter much to you, because you are just one person among billions. “The starving child doesn’t give a shit about which person it is who does that good. So why are you concerned about this little term in the equation?”

“This little term” is a way of expressing altruism: each of us counts for almost nothing. But note that SBF’s mind goes to a child who is starving. Children only gradually develop agency. Babies cannot analyze or affect the larger social world. They cannot do better than receiving benevolence, although they need loving relationships as well as nutrients.

To treat adults like needy infants is paternalism, in the root sense of that word. If you recognize adults as fellow human beings, then you must not affect them without asking them what they think, making yourself accountable to them, and allowing them to affect you back.

Unless they are at death’s door, adults typically do care about who is claiming to help them, and why. That is because we want to choose and shape our relationships. We do not want someone else to have a purely discretionary choice about whether and how to affect us, even if that person happens to be benign. Discretionary power is domination, and domination is a basic evil.

Frank Lovett summarizes the classical republican argument (which is as old as Cicero): “to have a master with an exceptionally benevolent disposition is to be reasonably secure in one’s expectation that one will not often be adversely interfered with—but it is to have a master nonetheless. The republican idea of freedom specifically instructs us not to make our master a better person (the goal of the old ‘mirror for princes’ literature), but to render him less of a master.”

Can a financial donor dominate people? I would say absolutely, if the money affects people and the choice of whether and how to give is the donor’s alone. Effective Altruism seeks to make rich people better, much like renaissance books with titles like A Mirror for Princes that aimed to improve monarchs. The point, however, should be to do without masters.

My second concern involves the difficulty of achieving happiness. SBF devotes no evident attention to his inner life. Fisher reports, “SBF spends nothing, it would seem, pursuing his own pleasure. It’s not just that great books aren’t worthwhile. The great movies aren’t worth watching. Food gets the same treatment. … SBF’s rejection of pleasure is so profound it got me wondering if that absence of pleasure—as opposed to his philosophy—was the key to understanding him. Is he so deep in his head that he’s incapable of feeling pleasure?”

SBF says, “I would never read a book. … I’m very skeptical of books.” Although he is entitled to his preference in media, there’s one book that he should definitely read now that he has some time on his hands: The Autobiography of John Stewart Mill.

SBF would recognize the author’s situation. Mill was a famous young prodigy raised by utilitarians. His father arranged a powerful position for him as an administrator of British India. Thus Mill had “what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.” Likewise, SBF was raised by utilitarian law professors and accumulated billions with which to affect countries like India.

I don’t know SBF’s current mental state, but in the India Office, Mill fell into a deep depression. He asked himself :

“Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

SBF presents himself, like the young Mill, as someone who ignored his personal well-being to enhance others’. That verdict may be complicated by SBF’s 1,500 square-foot condo in the Bahamas, “with six bedrooms and spectacular views out every window,” and the possibility that he diverted his investors’ money. But even if SBF was sincere, he was making a fundamental mistake if happiness depends on wisdom, because then we must each learn to be wise. Mill wrote:

the important change which my opinions at this time underwent, was that I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances. …

Mill became a great proponent of the arts, of liberty as a personal accomplishment as well as a lack of censorship, and of representative government. He continued to make utilitarian arguments, but now refracted through an understanding that people must have power over their own lives, individually and collectively.

See also Mill’s question: If you achieved justice, would you be happy?; qualms about Effective Altruism; how we use Kant today; wicked problems, and excuses; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; introducing republicanism; citizens against domination; etc.

call for papers: Pluralism, Polarization and the Future of Democracy

The Good Society: A Journal of Civic Studies is seeking articles on the theme of “Pluralism, Polarization, and the Future of Democracy.”

Many scholars and practitioners argue that cultivating a culture of “pluralism” is key to sustaining and renewing democracy, and that polarization—or more precisely, “affective” polarization, the translation of ideological differences into social, cultural, and personal antipathy—is a direct impediment to the pluralist project. As a result, scholars have conducted extensive research into the micro- and macro-level factors that generate polarization and undermine a pluralistic public culture.

Scholars concentrating on the micro-level focus on the psychological roots of affective polarization, while “bridge building” organizations seek to cross divides via facilitated conversations, swapping of personal narratives, and other efforts to build empathy. Scholars concentrating on the macro-level seek to identify the structural causes of affective polarization, while likeminded practitioners advocate and implement policies assumed to reduce it, including reforms to voting processes, campaign financing, and districting procedures. Still others argue that history reveals an important but often overlooked wellspring of pluralist democracy: citizens—elites and ordinary people alike— working together across difference to solve public problems. While often supportive of cross-partisan dialogue and institutional reforms, those in this last camp think of themselves primarily as witnesses—and in many cases, contributors—to sites of civic co-creation hiding in plain sight.

The Good Society seeks article-length submissions on pluralism, polarization, and the future of democracy, broadly construed. We are especially interested in contributions that engage (both constructively and critically) the work of nonprofits, scholar-practitioners, and other “civic professional” actors dedicated to the renewal of citizen-centered, pluralistic democracy. We also welcome more traditional research articles as well as critiques of the emerging pluralism paradigm.

The editorial board invites papers of 6,000 to 8,000 words that address the issues above, as well as other relevant questions emerging from serious inquiry into the character of a good society and the conditions for achieving and maintaining it. Please submit papers by March 1, 2023 to: http://www.editorialmanager.com/gs/default.aspx

For more information regarding this call, write Trygve Throntveit, Editor, trygve@mnhum.org; and Isak Tranvik, Associate Editor, itranvik@gmail.com.

The Good Society is the flagship journal for the interdisciplinary (between disciplines) and transdisciplinary (beyond disciplines) field of Civic Studies. For more information on Civic Studies, please visit https://tischcollege.tufts.edu/civic-studies or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civic_studies.

social class inversion in the 2022 US elections

I’ve argued that democracy is dangerously threatened when influential left parties rely on upper-income voters and influential right parties depend on working-class support. In such cases, the left parties block significant progressive change and frustrate disadvantaged constituencies, while the right shifts from libertarian to chauvinist policies.

There is evidence of this class inversion in many democracies, including (among others) France and Germany. In the US, the inversion is partial, because race, income, and education push in different directions. This partly explains the incoherent positions of both major parties. Democrats draw highly educated whites and people of color; Republicans attract whites at both ends of the socioeconomic scale.

I have graphed the difference between Democratic support among college graduates and non-college graduates by state and candidate in 2022. If college is a proxy for the upper portion of the socioeconomic scale, then Democrats should perform better among non-college graduates, but the opposite happened in every case.

At a national scale, the Democrats won a majority of voters with college degrees (54%), but a minority of those without college degrees (43%). That 11-point gap is evidence of one kind of class inversion. On the other hand, the Democrats won a majority of voters with household incomes below $50,000 (52%) and a minority of those above that threshold (45%) and above $100,000 (46%). They drew half the white college graduate vote (50%), just 32% of the white non-college vote, and 68% of people of color with or without college degrees. Again, the picture is mixed.

There were some interesting differences by state. The class inversion was most pronounced in Wisconsin, where Gov. Evers won 62% of the college vote and 45% of the non-college vote on his way to reelection: a 17-point gap. Evers drew the support of only 37% of white voters without college degrees, 59% of white voters with college, and 83% of voters of color, regardless of education.

In the Ohio and Pennsylvania Senate races, the Democratic candidates explicitly courted working-class voters of all races. These campaigns were experiments in reversing the class inversion. Both Democrats lost non-college voters, and neither performed much differently from the national average with that demographic group. (Ryan got 34% of non-college white votes; Fetterman got 38%.) Of course, they had different opponents. JD Vance made an explicit pitch to non-college whites in Ohio that may have worked for him, whereas Mehmet Oz lost overall in Pennsylvania.

In Michigan, traditionally a blue-collar state, the Democrats performed very well. The interplay of class and race was particularly evident in that state’s results, with Gov. Whitmer drawing 42% of non-college whites, 60% of college whites, and 82% of non-college people of color. In other words, she reflected the Democrats’ formula of educated whites plus all people of color. That formula can win elections but makes Democrats dependent on an upscale portion of their electorate.

In Florida, the Republicans simply performed better than in other states. The demographics there are also somewhat unusual. The Exit Polls report all people of color as one category, and in Florida, that means more Latinos than in some other states. Notably, DeSantis won almost half of voters of color with college degrees (48%), who represented 14% of the state’s electorate. But he got 70% of white voters without college.

See also: class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; social class in the French election;

the 2022 youth vote

Joe Biden today: “I especially want to thank the young people of this nation who, I’m told, voted in historic numbers again, and just as they did two years ago.”

For much detail on the youth vote, follow CIRCLE on Twitter, @civicyouth, or on their Election Center website. New analysis is appearing regularly. Some highlights so far:

  • “youth (ages 18-29) are the only age group in which a strong majority supported Democrats.”
  • “89% of Black youth and 68% of Latino youth voted for a Democratic House candidate. Among white youth, the vote was 58% for Democrats and 40% for Republicans.”
  • “In the Pennsylvania Senate race, where Democrat John Fetterman won by a slim 3% margin, youth ages 18-29 preferred Fetterman 70% to 28%, compared to 55% to 42% among voters ages 30-44, with voters over 45 preferring Republican candidate Dr. Oz.”