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.

needed: pragmatists for utopian experiments

It’s possible to organize a group of people so that goods and time are shared and decisions are consensual. Such groups avoid relying on two other prevalent forms of organization: authority (some tell others what to do) and exchange (individuals regard their goods and time as private property and trade them transactionally). We even see sharing and consensus arise in familiar locations like corporate offices, where workers will voluntarily share a stapler without keeping score, so long as morale is reasonably high.

With apologies for the oversimplification, I would assign the consensus-based commons to two categories: traditional ones–often agricultural villages of long standing–and experimental ones: intentional alternatives to the dominant society.

An example of traditional commons (one of many) is a longhouse in the Iroquois nations, “where most goods were stockpiled and then allocated by women’s councils, and no one ever traded arrowheads for slabs of meat” (Graeber, 2011, p. 47). Such institutions are not chosen by their participants; people grow up in them. They presumably encompass a range of personality-types and opinions, but they tend to socialize their children to be useful participants. That means that they may inculcate strongly communitarian values, even to the point where I might object to a lack of concern for autonomy and diversity.

In contrast, experimental commons are set up by founders (individuals or groups) who recruit volunteer participants. Here I have in mind New Harmony, IN from 1814-1827 and many other Victorian utopian socialist communities, workers’ co-ops, Black Mountain College (1933-1957) and other experimental schools, Gandhian ashrams, hippie communes, kibbutzes, #occupy encampments, and many more.

Traditional commons have set extraordinary records for durability (Ostrom 1990). Some of the experimental commons also survive for quite long periods. A house in my neighborhood has been a successful commune since the early 1970s; the original residents are now aging in place. However, the overall record of utopian experiments seems disappointing. Even the ones that survive fail to spread widely–perhaps because of organized opposition, but perhaps also because they do not appeal to most people.

I think part of the problem is that self-conscious utopian experiments attract principle-driven idealists. Such people can be effective collaborative workers, but I doubt that idealism correlates with effectiveness. You have to be very lucky to find a full complement of participants who are both committed to building utopia and good at getting the work done. Even those rare types tend to be overly concerned about abstract principles, and thus too reluctant to compromise and too sensitive to hypocrisy or imperfect processes. The record shows many cases of controversy and disintegration, or a drift toward intolerant extremism and capture by the radical fringe, or–ironically–dominance by a charismatic leader who thrives in an atmosphere without sharp and clear limits on power.

Years ago, I used to speculate about an alternative form of college or university in which all the faculty shared the essential work of administration and student affairs. There would be no distinctions among instructors, administrators, and staff, but roles would be rotated or shared, and decisions would be made by committees.

I still think that this could work and it might cut costs and improve results. But I believe you would need a crew of easy-going pragmatists to get it done. They would have to be the kind of people who address pressing problems without generating unnecessary new ones; who notice serious injustices toward others but don’t stand on ceremony when it comes to themselves; who think ahead about what needs to be done and are quick to volunteer to do it; who balance their own needs with the common good in a sustainable way; and who may even demonstrate some impatience with fine questions of principle.

The problem is, it’s hard to attract people like that to a risky experiment, and it’s hard to keep ideologues out. If someone figures out a solution to this selection problem, we will be more likely to see successful experiments that influence the mainstream.

David Graeber, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years (Melville House, Kindle Edition, 2011); Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). See also: making college much cheaper; the death of an ancient commons?; what a libertarian commune says about political socialization and freedom. (I am mildly amused to find that I made a similar argument in 2015 but forgot it completely.)

Register for Frontiers of Democracy

June 24, 2022, 9 am-4:30 pm, live in Boston or online

In 2022, the annual Frontiers of Democracy conference at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life has a special format. The main activity will be to deliberate in small groups—at tables or on Zoom—about the issues raised in selected “civic cases.”  

Individuals may choose to attend either in-person or remotely. The entire conference will take place between 9 am and 4:30 pm on June 24. The in-person version will be held in Tufts’ downtown Boston campus.

If you have not done so already, please purchase a ticket for the event now, choosing an in-person or remote ticket.

If registration for the face-to-face version looks unexpectedly low, or if the pandemic situation worsens, it may be necessary to cancel the in-person version. In that case, in-person tickets will be refunded in full. The status of the face-to-face meeting will be reviewed on May 13.

In-person attendees will be required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and to follow other Tufts procedures in force in June, as described here.

“Civic cases”

Civic cases describe difficult choices faced by real groups of activists, social-movement participants, or colleagues in nonprofit organizations. By discussing what we would do in similar situations, we can develop civic skills, explore general issues, and form or strengthen relationships with other activists and thinkers.

Most of the cases for Frontiers 2022 have been developed by the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins UniversityJustice in Schools, or the Pluralism Project at Harvard, which are co-sponsors of Frontiers this summer. Selected cases can be found here, and more options will be available by June. Unlike most cases about business, public policy, or ethics, these stories involve groups of voluntary participants who must make decisions together. This website (based on Peter Levine’s new book,What Should We Do?) provides an optional framework for such discussions. You will be able to indicate your preference for which cases to discuss. Each group will discuss a case either online or face-to-face (not in a hybrid format). There will be time for two case discussions on June 24, plus plenary sessions meant for both remote and in-person attendees together.

About Frontiers

Frontiers of Democracy has been held annually since 2009, with a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It traditionally attracted about 140 activists and scholars or advanced students from many countries for relatively informal discussions of civic topics. The 2022 version is intentionally shorter and hybrid in format.

Scholars at Risk opportunity at Tufts

I am very happy to serve on this committee and would be open to questions about it:


The Scholars at Risk (SAR) Program at Tufts is dedicated to helping scholars, artists, writers, and public intellectuals from around the world escape persecution and continue their work by providing ten-month-long academic fellowships at Tufts University. Tufts has been a member of the international Scholars at Risk (SAR) network, which is chaired by Tufts Trustee Lisa Anderson, since 2011. Tufts has hosted several scholars in the past in both Medford and Boston. These scholars have made positive contributions to our academic life and offered important perspectives to our students and faculty.

Details are here. There may also be opportunities to conduct funded research or to teach from Ukraine (or from other countries in crisis) without coming to Tufts, but that is still being considered.

what explains state variation in COVID-19 mortality?

Why have some states seen many more deaths from COVID-19 than others? Do differences in state policies matter? Is it mostly about demographics? Or what about factors like climate and population density, which could influence whether and when people congregate indoors?

To explore these questions, I made a spreadsheet with 58 salient variables about the 50 states, drawing most of the data from the Senate Joint Economic Committee or the Kaiser Family Foundation. I then went fishing for variables that could predict cumulative death rates from COVID-19. I use this “fishing” metaphor with irony, because there is a danger of obtaining spurious results when you explore too many variables at once. Still, the following results might suggest tighter research questions.

Below, I describe nine regression (OLS) models, each with a different thematic focus, arranged in order by how much variance in the states’ COVID-19 mortality they seem to explain. (I report adjusted r-square statistics, which should allow the models to be compared despite differences in the number of variables.)

In summary: the states’ policies that I measured and the partisanship of governors did not matter, but the proportion of people who voted for Trump did. That relationship was not explained by demographics, which I controlled for.

Variables that mattered in many of my models included the percentage of the population that was already in poor health, the GOP vote share in 2020, Black/White residential segregation, and the GINI coefficient (a measure of inequality). A model with just those four components could explain 71% of the variance in COVID deaths (unadjusted r-square = .715).

  1. A politics and policy model. Variables: party of state governor, percent of the 2020 state’s popular vote for Republicans, whether the state required masks indoors for some people in Feb 2022, whether the state required, allowed, or banned local vaccine requirements, and state/local spending per capita. The only statistically significant correlate of the mortality rate: the GOP vote share in 2020. Adjusted r-square = .203, meaning that this model offers little insight.
  2. A geography model. Variables: population density, percentage rural, average commuting time, mean daily temperature. Statistically significant correlates: none. Adjusted r-square = .240 (again, a poor fit).
  3. Sociability model: Variables: average number of close friends, percent of neighbors who regularly do favors, number of nonprofits per 1,000 people, percentage who worked with neighbors to fix/improve something. Statistically significant correlate: working with neighbors (related to lower mortality). Adjusted r-square = .415.
  4. A comorbidities model: Variables (all measured pre-pandemic): percent in poor health, premature mortality rate, mortality from suicide/drug overdose, percent disabled, percent with diabetes, obese, and smokers. Statistically significant correlates: general poor health and disabilities. Adjusted r-square = .451.
  5. A political participation model: Variables: percent who participated in a demonstration, attended a public meeting, served on a committee, and voted in 2012 and 2016. Statistically significant correlate: attending a public meeting (related to lower mortality). Adjusted r-square = .483.
  6. An economics model. Variables: unemployment, incarceration, poverty, GINI coefficient, college graduation rate, internet access at home. Statistically significant correlates: worse inequality, higher incarceration, fewer people with BAs. Adjusted r-square = .623.
  7. An inequality model: Variables: Black/White residential segregation, GINI coefficient, college graduation rate, incarceration rate. Statistically significant correlates: racial segregation, GINI coefficient. Adjusted r-square: .646.
  8. A politics and demographics model. Variables: the party of state governor, percent of the 2020 state vote for Trump, and the racial demographics and median age of the state. Statistically significant correlates: higher GOP vote, more African Americans, more Latinos, a higher median age. Adjusted r-square = .647.
  9. A model that explains most of the variance. Variables: percent in poor health before the pandemic, GOP vote share, Black/White segregation, GINI coefficient, percent over age 65, incarceration rate, college graduation rate. Statistically significant correlates: the first three. Adjusted r-square = .699. (Unadjusted r-square = .735.)

My dataset also included some variables that I have not mentioned here, including several measures of trust (for other people and for institutions) and other types of civic and political participation. None seemed to be influential in any of the models I tried.

social class in the French election

The left should represent the lower-income half of the population; the right should represent the top half. When that happens, the left will generally advocate government spending and regulation. Such policies may or may not be wise, but they can be changed if they fail and prove unpopular. Meanwhile, the right will advocate less government, which (again) may or may not be desirable but will not destroy the constitutional order. After all, limited government is a self-limiting political objective.

When the class-distribution turns upside down, the left will no longer advocate impressive social reforms, because its base will be privileged. And the right will no longer favor limited government, because tax cuts don’t help the poor much. The right will instead embrace government activism in the interests of traditional national, racial or religious hierarchies. The left will frustrate change, while the right–now eager to use the government for its objectives–will become genuinely dangerous.

This class inversion is evident in many wealthy democracies, although usually with exceptions and complexities. For instance, in the USA, Democrats now represent the 17 richest congressional districts and most of the richest 50. Put together, Democratic districts are wealthier than Republican ones, although Democratic candidates often win a bit more of the vote below $50,000/year than above that income level. It’s in this context that we now see Republicans eager to use state power against private companies on cultural issues.

A similar inversion was evident in France this week. The class called “cadres” could be translated as executives, although I understand that it is a larger category than that English word implies. Among the cadres, Macron (a centrist technocrat) won and Melenchon* (from the left) came in second, with Le Pen (right-wing) drawing only about 12%.

The “intermediate professions” split their votes about evenly. This is a large and diverse group (26% of all employees), ranging from teachers to technicians. I would guess that sub-groups within this 26% voted quite differently from each other.

At the bottom of the scale–the ordinary employees and workers–Le Pen won by pretty substantial margins. Melenchon edged out Macron among these two categories, but he ran far behind Le Pen. If we look instead at wages, Macron performed better at the higher end, while Le Pen and Melenchon split the lower end about evenly. Macron won the most retirees and came in third amongst the young.

In the first round, French voters had numerous choices, and three candidates finished pretty close to even. That makes the outcome somewhat difficult to compare to a two-party contest between left and right, as in the USA. But one could envision Biden as a kind of hybrid of Macron and Melenchon (we can debate which one he is closer to), and Le Pen as Trump. Then the class inversion is clear.

This pattern is by no means exclusive to France, but it presents dangers wherever it appears.

I do perceive France as combining relatively egalitarian economic policies with a particularly sharp gradient of prestige and power. As the figure below shows, France uses taxation and spending to transfer far more cash than the US does (albeit mostly to pensioners), yet an extraordinary proportion of French business, cultural, and political elites attend a few Parisian schools. This means that a welfare state that redistributes a great deal from rich to poor has a culturally elite look. That may be a refined version of an international problem.

Joumard, Pisu & Bloch 2012

*This blog isn’t letting me use accent marks, unfortunately. See also: the social class inversion as a threat to democracy; what does the European Green surge mean?; and why the white working class must organize