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citizens against domination

This review-essay was recently published and is available for free: Peter Levine, “Citizens against Domination: A Critical Reading of Ian Shapiro,The Good Society, vol. 28, No. 1-2 (2019), pp. 1-8.

I admire and recommend Shapiro’s book, Politics against Domination, but I use the review as an opportunity to push two positions that I frequently advocate:

  1. The state should not be sharply distinguished from other institutions; it is not uniquely capable of dominating people [or preventing domination]; and
  2. The salient question is not how to design a state to prevent domination–because none of us are really state-designers–but how we should prevent domination by working through the state and the other institutions that we can influence.

The rest of the special issue is valuable. I have been particularly eager to see Brooke Ackerly’s essay, “Rage, Resistance, and Politics against Oppression,” in print. She explores the overlap and the differences between domination–the keyword in modern republican political theory–and oppression, a fundamental term for much of the left, especially for intersectional social movements. That contrast is valuable for anyone to consider.

See also: from classical liberalism to a civic perspective;  do we live in a republic or a democracy?; against state-centric political theory; avoiding arbitrary command; authoritarianism and deliberative democracy.

promoting democracy and reducing polarization

Some of the threats to democracy in the USA involve bias or injustice in our political system: barriers to registration and voting, gerrymandered districts, the filibuster, money in politics, the Electoral College, and an unrepresentative Senate. With some important exceptions, reforms that address those problems will tend to benefit Democrats and progressive causes.

A particular kind of polarization also threatens democracy. The problem is not disagreement. Our elected representatives should hold diverse political views–maybe more diverse than they do now. Debate and contestation are valuable. It is good to have at least two parties with sharply distinct approaches, so that people can choose between them.

However, our Constitution was written by people who disliked parties and didn’t anticipate them. It is badly designed for partisan polarization. Whenever the branches are controlled by different parties that have homogeneous ideologies, all the incentives favor mutually destructive game-playing.

I can accept the argument that Republicans have played harder and less ethically than Democrats, although I am not certain that’s true, because my prior assumptions and my media stream are biased. But even if it’s true, all the incentives now predict that Democrats will play tit-for-tat.

Besides, affective partisanship–disliking fellow citizens because of their political identities–is the kind of divide that prevents human groups from governing themselves. In order to deliberate, you need not agree, but you must believe that it’s valuable to discuss common issues with the other side. Affective polarization blocks discussion. In the absence of a reasonable level of goodwill, arguments and reasons have no purchase.

The main alternative is simply power: amassing more votes than the other side has. That is preferable to amassing more dollars or more guns than the other side, but it is still raw power. It is government by accident and force, not by reflection and choice, to paraphrase Federalist #1. I suppose if mobilizing more votes consistently generated good outcomes, it might be OK–but it doesn’t.

Democrats and progressives (if they take power) and nonpartisan reformers face a real dilemma. Political reforms will be seen as partisan because they have unequal effects, but partisan polarization is also a problem–and an obstacle to achieving progressive goals.

This is what I would recommend:

First, push political reforms despite their partisan impact if they’re the right things to do. Not only are equity and accountability very high priorities, but our current system actually worsens polarization by giving the parties too many opportunities to pass or block policies without building consensus. I’d vote for expanding the Senate and the Supreme Court, but those reforms are so unlikely that perhaps it’s a mistake to focus much attention on them. More to the point would be voter protection, districting reform, and ending the filibuster.

Second, include political reforms that are bad for Democrats if those are also the right things to do. Redistricting reform meets that criterion in some states. Ranked-choice voting might qualify. Constraining the executive branch is an example, if Biden is president.

An often-overlooked problem involves the dates of municipal elections. Many mayors and city councils are elected in odd-numbered years or in different months than November. Democratic incumbents and municipal employees’ unions benefit because the electorate shrinks to hard-core party and union members. But turnout is often miserably low. I’d move municipal elections to November of even-numbered years and fight Democratic city halls to get that done.

Third, take explicit actions to reduce affective polarization by promoting cross-partisan dialogue and deliberation.

  • Civic education can help if it focuses on discussions of contested issues.
  • Private efforts like Braver Angels have a role.
  • The federal government could organize official public deliberations on controversial matters. The UK Climate Assembly might be a worthy recent model, but the same method could be used to discuss whether to open schools during the pandemic.
  • After the election, Biden and/or Harris could attend listening sessions with people who might be alienated from them–including right-wing groups but also marginalized people of color. It would be easy to mobilize partisans to distort these sessions. Biden/Harris could turn them into manipulative symbolic events. However, skillful advance work could make them work out better. For example, imagine Biden visiting a conservative evangelical church in the South without prior public notice (maybe he’d coordinate in advance with the pastor) and listening to congregants behind the closed church doors before emerging to make some remarks. If that were done with sincerity, it could make a difference.

The extreme polarization of the news and information sphere may actually help. As Barack Obama learned, it doesn’t really matter how you act; the right-wing news cycle will treat you as an anti-American extremist. Under these circumstances, why not push for genuinely worthwhile reforms, while also making sincere efforts to combat polarization?

See also: Four Threats to American Democracy video; empathy boosts polarization; what is polarization and when is it bad?; marginalizing views in a time of polarization; on playing hardball with the shutdown, an agenda for political reform in Massachusetts; is our constitutional order doomed? etc.

overestimating the impact of leaders

A perennial question is the relative importance of influential decision-makers (“leaders”) versus other factors that can cause social outcomes, such as the structure of institutions, mass opinion and behavior, demographic and ecological change, or sheer accident.

Reporters have a professional bias to overestimate the impact of leaders, because it’s easier to write about individuals than abstractions. Video journalists have the strongest bias, because they must put human beings on screen.

Headhunters and search firms have a similar bias. Like journalists, they are indispensable. I wouldn’t recommend trying to find a nonprofit or college executive without their assistance. But they do tend to overestimate the impact of the kind of people they help to hire. They will tell you, for instance, that Dean So-and-So “raised the ranking” of her college. Any Dean was, at most, only a contributing factor to a change in reputation.

I don’t know much about corporate boards, but I suspect they also overestimate (and hence overpay) top executives. That is partly because their explicit task includes hiring, compensating, and assessing CEOs. It’s partly because they tend to be corporate executives themselves. And it is simply easier for anyone to visualize the impact of a person than an abstraction. But if a board believes that the boss personally doubled the company’s earnings, they are not thinking clearly about causality.

Near the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy offers the opposite view–surely exaggerated, but worth considering as a corrective. He argues that of all the people who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon was the least consequential. In a battle, each soldier could decide to stand or run. If most of them stood, Napoleon became a genius. If they broke and ran, he was a defeated fool. His fate was entirely in their hands.

And it was not Napoleon who directed the course of the battle, for none of his orders were executed and during the battle he did not know what was going on before him. So the way in which these people killed one another was not decided by Napoleon’s will but occurred independently of him, in accord with the will of hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the common action. It only seemed to Napoleon that it all took place by his will.

At a larger scale, Tolstoy says, the Napoleonic Wars were the result of an underlying historical current that caused great masses of Europeans to spill beyond their national borders. Napoleon was carried by this current all the way to Moscow. In subsequent decades, Europeans would instead fight their own countrymen in revolutions (and, although Tolstoy doesn’t say so, would conquer other continents). Napoleon was not a cause but an unwitting product of his time.

In her classic work The Thirty Years War, C.V. (Veronica) Wedgewood asks why so many people in the 1600s were so interested in dynastic politics: royal marriages, successions, and usurpations. Commoners were willing to die to ensure that one family prevailed over another. She says the reason was “the faulty transmission of news” and poor “diffusion of knowledge.” People just didn’t know about aspects of politics apart from royal persons. “The public acts and private character of individual statesmen thus assumed disproportionate significance, and dynastic ambitious governed the diplomatic relations of Europe.”

In those days, people would naturally explain important social developments as the consequence of leaders’ actions. For instance, many would have said that south-central Europe was consolidating because of the Hapsburgs’ fortunate marriages or that England had remained Protestant because James VI of Scotland (a Protestant) had inherited the throne. But these were myopic explanations. Much more likely, the Hapsburgs married well because south-central Europe was consolidating, and Jacobean England was Protestant because of the strength of reform movements in northern Europe.

We should be able to fix this problem today by gathering more information and analyzing it better. However, we now have the opposite problem: too much data. So much information is available that we cannot process it, and one common response is to return to understanding the world in terms of the behavior of a few famous or infamous individuals. To the list of people who overestimate the impact of leaders, I would add: most of us voters.

See also how to assess candidates in a presidential primary; how information relates to power, according to C.V. Wedgewood; Has Tolstoy been refuted by sabermetrics?; against methodological individualism; and pay attention to movements, not just activists and events.

what if the people don’t want to rule?

The Athenian tyrannicides found a democracy

It should come as no surprise when elites try to undermine democracies and other forms of republican self-government. It is not in their interest to share power. A republic’s founding story is usually the overthrow of a tyrant, an oligarchical cabal, or a theocrat; and many republics have died at the same hands.

But what if the people don’t want to rule? This is an acute worry at times like the present, when some electorates seem to prefer politicians who disparage democratic values (not just Trump in 2016, but also Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi today) and when the only governments in the world that appear to be broadly trusted are in China, the UAE, India, Indonesia, and Singapore.

Meanwhile, influential frameworks or paradigms in political psychology are raising doubts about people’s ability to participate in–and support–democracy.

Evidence that the people don’t want to rule

These concerns were at least as grave between the world wars, when dictators emerged as popular figures, sometimes attaining office through genuine elections, and when theorists like Walter Lippmann and Joseph Schumpeter anticipated today’s academic skepticism about people’s desire and capacity for self-government.

One cluster of research on this problem was the Frankfurt School, whose most pressing original topic was the failure of the European working class to support revolution. I don’t happen to share the founders’ Marxism, but theirs was a species of republican theory: they wanted the people (equated with the workers) to rule themselves instead of being ruled by capital. And they were concerned about a very real problem: workers’ support for right-wing authoritarians like Mussolini. By exploring the hypothesis that popular opinion might affect history and not simply result from historical forces, the Frankfurt School broke from one orthodox currant in Marxism. As Wayne Gabardi writes, for them, “the problem was not one of objective conditions, but rather of subjective states. This required a radical rethinking of the relationship between social structure and character structure, political-economic forces and social-psychological syndromes, the material and the mental.” It is reminiscent of today’s focus on “subjective states” as an explanation of outcomes like Trump’s 2016 election.

Wanting to add an empirical dimension to the research, Max Horkheimer hired Erich Fromm to conduct a survey. Fromm and colleagues collected data from 584 Germans, including items about their objective circumstances, their lifeworlds, and their opinions. Among the questions were: “What do you and your wife think about early sex education for children (birth, procreation, sexual diseases)?” and “Do you like jazz?” Fromm and colleagues concluded that many of the workers who belonged to left parties held authoritarian attitudes in their personal lives and showed other telltale signs of fascism, such as anti-Semitism and admiration for Mussolini.

This study was the main inspiration for The Authoritarian Personality, the major work that the Frankfurt School’s Theodor Adorno and several American colleagues published in 1950. (See my recent post on that book’s methodology.) Given the change of time and place, the question had shifted from “Why doesn’t the working class support Marxist revolution?” to “Why don’t voters support liberal democracy?” But the threat was the same: authoritarianism. “The major concern was the potentially fascistic individual, one whose structure is such as to render him particularly susceptible to anti-democratic propaganda” (p. 1). The conclusion was also similar to Fromm’s: a substantial proportion of Americans appeared to be potential fascists.

A comparable finding emerged much later on from John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse’s Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work (2002). Many Americans apparently believed that political disagreement was a sign of corruption and preferred government by disinterested elites.

And the currently very influential Moral Foundations theory of Jonathan Haidt finds that many people display a latent variable of Authority, which sounds at least potentially undemocratic, especially if it is a predominant factor for an individual. At the same time, Moral Foundations theory implies that people will generally be resistant to sharing political power with other citizens who emphasize different Foundations from their own.


Each of these research programs has been criticized.

The authors of The Authoritarian Personality did not field their scales with representative samples of the US population, so they could not estimate the prevalence of potential fascism. They did not attempt to identify pro-democratic personalities or estimate their prevalence. And they did not explore whether there might be left-authoritarians as well as right-authoritarians.

Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, Ryan Kennedy, David Lazer, and Anand Sokhey (2010) challenged the Stealth Democracy thesis in a paper entitled “Who Wants to Deliberate – and Why?” For part of their paper, they simply asked questions that were the reverse of those fielded by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse. For instance, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse had tested the proposition: “Our government would run better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts rather than politicians or the people.” Thirty-one percent agreed, which Hibbing and Theiss-Morse considered high. Neblo et al. tested: “It is important for the people and their elected representatives to have the final say in running government, rather than leaving it up to unelected experts.” Ninety-two percent agreed. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found that 86% agreed that “Elected officials would help the country more if they would stop talking and just take action on important problems.” But Neblo et al found that 92% agreed that “It is important for elected officials to discuss and debate things thoroughly before making major policy changes.” Hibbing and Theiss Morse found a majority (64%) in favor of the statement: “What people call ‘compromise’ in politics is really just selling out one’s principles.” But Neblo et al found that 84% agreed, “One of the main reasons that elected officials have to debate issues is that they are responsible to represent the interests of diverse constituencies across the country.”

By asking questions that were opposites of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s items, Neblo et al. revealed that even most people who held anti-democratic views also held pro-democratic views. One way to make sense of the apparent contradiction is to think that people wanted real dialog and deliberation, but were unimpressed by the actual debate in Congress.

The other main source of evidence in Neblo et al. is a field experiment, in which people were offered the chance to deliberate with real Members of Congress. People were more likely to accept if they had negative attitudes toward elected leaders and the debates in Washington. Again, that could be because they did not reject deliberation in principle but disliked the official debates that they heard about or watched on TV. People who held those skeptical views were especially impressed by an offer from their real US Representative to deliberate. Individuals were also more likely to accept the offer to deliberate if they were young and if they had low education.

Further, if people showed up to deliberate, their opinions of the experience were very positive. According to the paper, “95% Agreed (72% Strongly Agreed) that such sessions are ‘very valuable to our democracy’ and 96% Agreed (80% Strongly Agreed) that they would be interested in doing similar online sessions for other issues.” These results are consistent with almost all practical deliberative experiments.

Kevin B. Smith and colleagues (2017) cast doubts on three strong claims of the Moral Foundations Theory: that the dispositions labeled “foundations” are stable for individuals over time, that these foundations predict and explain political ideology (and hence explain ideological differences), and that the foundations are inherited–as they must be if they result from Darwinian selection. Surveying twins along with other family members, Smith et al. find that “moral foundations are not particularly stable within individuals across time, at least compared to ideology.” At a given point, individuals’ answers to Moral Foundations questions do relate to their ideologies, but their views change over time. The causal arrow seems to point from ideology to moral foundations, as much as the reverse. Presumably, people are influenced by events, experiences, and discussions to revise their political views, thereby changing their Moral Foundations (which are not actually foundational). Thus the stream of research exemplified in Moral Foundations Theory has been “overly dismissive of the role of conscious deliberation.”

I also believe that we should be careful about generalizing the findings of Moral Foundations Theory to political contexts. Haidt et al. ask individuals to make private judgments about emotionally charged questions that are often related to human biological functions: universals. In completing these questionnaires, respondents do not have to act, make decisions together, preserve relationships with fellow decision-makers, follow procedures for group decision-making, or assess the kinds of complex, changing, and morally mixed institutions that are the main topics of politics–things like the US government, or the neighborhood’s public schools, or Islam. (See Flanagan 2016.) The Foundations may recede in importance once we enter the Public Sphere.

What should we make of the evidence?

So far, I have summarized some empirical evidence that challenges the assumption that people really want to govern themselves, and then some rebuttal evidence. But once any evidence emerges that people may not want to deliberate and rule themselves, the worm of skepticism is already inside the apple. Maybe some studies have overstated the prevalence of anti-democratic attitudes; nevertheless, it’s clear that such attitudes exist, and they may be prevalent in a given time and place. That helps to make sense of the fact that 44% of Americans approve of Donald Trump’s performance in office, even today.

This is the main response I would offer: Some people are authoritarian. It is not wrong to construct a causal theory in which these people help to cause democracies to fail. However, that is not the whole causal story. Something makes people authoritarian. If authoritarianism were inherited or hard-wired, then we could not explain massive changes in attitudes toward democracy within the same populations. In Erich Fromm’s time, many Germans were proto-fascists, which they demonstrated by giving Hitler’s party the largest share of the vote in 1932. Today, their descendants widely support one of the stablest and best-performing liberal democracies in history. Context and experience must matter.

Some combination of centuries of feudalism followed by rapid industrialization, the slaughter and then defeat of World War I, hyperinflation, and sophisticated Nazi propaganda could make people into fascists. On the other hand, living in Angela Merkel’s Germany makes or keeps most people liberal and democratic. As Neblo and colleagues show, inviting people to a well-designed deliberative event with their own elected representatives increases their commitment to democracy. The Tocquevillian argument is that “experience with liberty” and “experience with solving problems directly through collective action” inculcate liberal and democratic virtues (Allen, Stevens & Berg 2018, p. 36)

What should we do?

One conclusion might be that elites–the people in charge of institutions–should create rewarding opportunities for self-governance at many scales, from empowered student governments in middle schools to national deliberations that influence Congress.

That conclusion is true but empty. Elites will not share power because they should. They will do so if they believe it is in their self-interest, and they are more likely to reach that conclusion to the extent that the public organizes to demand self-governance. Unfortunately, such pressure will be weak to the extent that most people have lost experience with, and appetite for, self-governance.

A vicious cycle is certainly possible–and probably evident in many countries today. But the situation is not as dire as it might seem. The good news is that we do not need the active support of a majority of citizens to spread opportunities for self-rule. Some of us can build such opportunities and invite others in, and we can thereby expand the constituency for real democracy.

If we could ask the public–in a truly valid and reliable way–whether they want a deliberative democracy, the results would probably be mixed and ambivalent. Depending on the political context, more or fewer people would agree. Unfortunately, at crisis points, when it’s most important for people to stand up for democracy, their support is likely to be the softest.

But whether a whole society should be a deliberative democracy is not the salient question, anyway. None of us can decide to make it one. The salient question is whether we–you and I and our colleagues and allies–should build and expand opportunities for deliberative democracy in the various contexts where we have influence: our schools and colleges, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and online venues.

The answer to that question may not always be yes. Values other than deliberation and democracy may be paramount in some contexts, such as a scientific lab, an artist’s studio, or a warship. But there are good reasons for us to build more deliberative democratic opportunities than we find around us today. These opportunities can make their immediate contexts better and can extend the public’s appetite for deliberative democracy at larger scales.

Citations: Wayne Gabardi, “The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study by Erich Fromm, Barbara Weinberger and Wolfgang Bonss” (review), New German Critique, No. 41, Special Issue on the Critiques of the Enlightenment (Spring – Summer, 1987), pp. 166-178; Neblo, M. A., Esterling, K. M., Kennedy, R. P., Lazer, D. M., & Sokhey, A. E. (2010). Who wants to deliberate—and why?. American Political Science Review, 566-583; Smith, Kevin B., John R. Alford, John R. Hibbing, Nicholas G. Martin, and Peter K. Hatemi. “Intuitive ethics and political orientations: Testing moral foundations as a theory of political ideology.” American Journal of Political Science 61, no. 2 (2017): 424-437; Flanagan, Owen. The geography of morals: Varieties of moral possibility. Oxford University Press, 2016. Barbara Allen, Daniel Stevens & Jeffrey Berg, Truth in Advertising? Lies in Political Advertising and How They Affect the Electorate (Lexington Books 2018).

six types of claim: descriptive, causal, conceptual, classificatory, interpretive, and normative

Any serious (non-fiction) thinker makes claims, supports them with warrants, expects each claim to be challenged, and will withdraw a claim if the challenge proves valid.

However, people make many types of claims, with many kinds of warrant.

Here is a chart that suggests six different kinds of claim (descriptive, causal, conceptual, classificatory, interpretive, and normative) with examples of how a humanist, a social or behavioral scientist, and a natural scientist might make each of them.

humanitiesSocial/Behavioral SciencesNatural Sciences
descriptive claimKing Lear was written soon after Oct. 12, 1605. (Warrant: it refers to “these late eclipses in the sun and moon.”)44% fewer people dined in a restaurant this year than last year.2019 was the second-warmest year on record.
causal claim(s)Shakespeare wrote King Lear. Machiavelli influenced Shakespeare (which may mean: Shakespeare chose Machiavelli as an influence).Mass concern about COVID-19 has reduced demand for restaurants.Increased burning of carbon causes the climate to warm.
classificatory claimKing Lear is a renaissance tragedy.Restaurant meals are a form of consumer purchasing.Carbon dioxide is an example of a greenhouse gas.
conceptual claimThe renaissance was the rebirth of classical culture, which included such classical ideas as Stoicism. The price of a commodity is a function of supply and demand.The carbon cycle includes photosynthesis, respiration, burial, extraction, exchange, and combustion.
interpretive claimKing Lear reflects a fundamental pessimism that is incompatible with Christianity. A restaurant meal can be a status symbol or else a mere convenience. n/a (?)
normative claim(s)King Lear is a great play. King Lear displays the moral perils of avoiding love.People should stay out of restaurants to combat COVID-19.We should cut carbon consumption.

Every one of these claims (including the normative ones) is testable and falsifiable. Each one requires some kind of reason–but not the same kind of reason.

Each kind of researcher or scholar makes more than one kind of claim. It is not true that natural scientists rely exclusively on experiments and are only interested in causal claims. They also describe, classify, and build conceptual models.

It is not clear, however, that natural scientists truly make interpretive claims. They certainly interpret data, but I think their interpretations are actually descriptive, causal, conceptual, or classificatory claims. In the humanities, “interpretation” means understanding the subjective meaning of an action for the actors, and that is not possible for most of the natural world–excepting people and perhaps some other animals. In a phrase like “the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics,” I don’t think that the word “interpretation” means what it does for a scholar of human beings. It’s more like a model.

It is also not clear that science–natural or social–provides reasons for normative claims. It is true that we should cut carbon consumption, but not directly because of what science finds. Science describes and explains the situation; to decide that we should do something requires a different kind of reason.

People can provide good normative reasons (or bad ones, which can be rejected), but these reasons do not arise from science. That is why scientists often claim to be value-neutral. In contrast, humanists’ claims often have strong normative implications. To explain, classify, describe, conceptualize, or interpret a human action often provides the grounds for judging it.

See also: navigating the disciplines; what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects; what are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists); what does a Balinese cockfight have to do with public policy analysis?; notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds.