Category Archives: civic theory

Putnam and Garrett, The Upswing

This is a video of Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett discussing their new book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again in a Tisch College Distinguished Speaker event last night. Our dean, Alan Solomont, introduced everyone and then I interviewed and moderated Putnam and Garrett.

I really do recommend the book and intend to write about it in more detail. It’s methodologically and conceptually interesting. More importantly, it’s a hopeful and patriotic book that comes at an urgent moment.

During our conversation, I proposed a summary of the book’s position that the authors seemed willing to accept. They advocate an appropriate balance between individualism and communitarianism. They believe that a society can be too communitarian, and perhaps that was even true of the US ca. 1960. But now we are far too individualistic. The balance can be restored, as it was in the half-century after 1900. To accomplish that change requires a decentralized and pluralistic effort that encompasses social innovation and social entrepreneurship, organizing and advocacy, cultural work, leadership, and policy changes at all levels of government. This effort should be pragmatic, not ideological, although it can attract people with a mix of ideological views and agendas who overlap on the idea that America should be more of a “we” and less of an “I” society.

An excellent example was the “high school revolution,” a decentralized movement that raised the proportion of Americans who completed high school from less than 10% to more than 70% in a few decades, fueling economic growth and equity. No single law accomplished this revolution; no individual is especially associated with it. It was a “viral” movement that, in turn, contributed to a much broader movement to strengthen American community. I’m guessing that various agendas converged to make this happen, from local boosterism and immigrant assimilationism to ambitious reform agendas, including socialism.

The implication is that we can do the same again, and it might even turn out that leaders as disparate as Barack Obama, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Patrisse Cullors, and Mike Lee–plus countless founders of nonprofits and community organizers–will turn out to be early participants in a new upswing. We certainly need it.

some notes on identity from a civic perspective

In a course on Civic Studies, we recently began a unit on identity. The first readings were the biblical Book of Nehemiah; Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House; and ”Steve Biko, “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity.” Here are some notes.

1. The overall civic question is: “What should we do?”  An identity is an answer to the question: “Who am I?” (Or, “Who is he/she/they?”) For instance, Lorde self-identified as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”

How are these two questions related?

  1. You must consider who you are in order to figure out what “we” you are part of.
  2. Sometimes the “we” is defined badly, and that is the civic problem. People are excluded unjustly or included against their will.
  3. Even when the “we” is right, it may encompass differences of identity that create or reinforce injustices.

2. When discussing Elinor Ostrom and others in the first segment of our course, we were primarily focused on interests. The main solutions included various forms of negotiation and management. When discussing Jürgen Habermas and others in that segment of the course, we were primarily focused on opinions. The main solutions involved various forms of dialogue, deliberation, and communication. Now we turn to identities.

3. Interests, opinions, and identities are interconnected but are not the same. 

  1. Interest: “I want/need …”
  2. Opinion: “We should …”
  3. Identity: “Speaking as a …”

When interests conflict, they can be negotiated, and it is sometimes possible to design and maintain systems to manage interests fairly. When opinions conflict, they can be discussed, and well-structured conversations may (sometimes) convince individuals to converge on the same opinions. When identities clash, it is not clear that individuals should negotiate, compromise, or give reasons for their differences. But it can be controversial whether a given characteristic, such as adhering to a religion, constitutes an interest, an opinion, an identity, or more than one of these. Disagreements about such questions can lead to disputes about whether individuals should be open to negotiation and responsive to arguments, or not.

4. It can be problematic to talk about identity in general terms. Some identities are vastly more significant to social justice than others. For instance, racism is the USA is not just an example of an identity-difference. You can imagine two random groups that don’t happen to like each other and who demonstrate bias or division. That is a challenge, but it is not a good description of the differences that matter to our assigned authors. For Biko: conquest, colonialism, apartheid. For Lorde: 400 years of slavery, terror, and subjugation.

5. Each form of identity has a unique history. It may also have a particular logic. For instance, it’s possible to imagine a society with significant racial diversity that is also equitable. It is not possible to imagine a society with an upper class and a lower class that are equal.

6. Nevertheless, we can also gain some insights into important differences among identities by developing general theories of identity.

7. Two general theories are worth contrasting:

  1. When two groups of people act and think very differently and have little contact, a powerful identity distinction emerges that can be hard to bridge.
  2. When people are very similar, intimately connected, and liable to mix or exchange places, there is a powerful incentive to erect and insist on identity distinctions.

Examples of (a): Europeans encountering indigenous peoples, and vice-versa. Examples of (b): Modern antisemitism in Europe or the invention of race in 17th century Virginia. My understanding of the 17th-century story is that slavery came first; racism followed. The first rationale for enslaving people from Africa was religious: Christians could enslave “heathens.” But once the enslaved people converted, a different rationale was necessary. For a few decades, colonists tried the idea of “hereditary heathenism” (Goetz 2012), but that was incompatible with core Christian doctrine. So they invented, or re-invented, race. Since then, whites and African Americans have been in constant and intense interaction and have exhibited profound similarities. White privilege is a “common pool resource” in the specific sense that it benefits all white people, whether they want it or not, yet any of us can undermine it by promotion equity. All common pool resources are fragile, and it has taken concerted, sustained effort to maintain white supremacy in the face of actual similarities and actual interactions.

8. A synthesis? Identity distinctions are made by people in response to incentives created by institutions (such as states and markets), power differentials, network ties, and path-dependence, among other factors (Wimmer 2008).

9. Identities are made, but it does not follow that they are easily unmade. They become powerful realities. E.g., modern Americans racially classify a photo of a face in less than one tenth of a second and form affective reactions to that classification (Kubota & Ito, 2007).

10. Power influences how identities are created, but it does not follow that identity-creation is necessarily bad. It can be creative and empowering.

Lorde: “Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.” 

11. Questions from the readings:

  1. Do identity distinctions and boundaries enable collective action? If so, can we solve collective action problems without perpetuating unjust exclusions?

The Nehemiah story is about building a common pool resource and excluding outsiders. (A city wall is a common pool resource. The Jerusamelites have strong social capital. They apply many of Ostrom’s design principles, such as taking turns and enforcing the rules on the leaders) Must self-governance and exclusion go together?

  1. When should we accentuate “many differences,” and when should we look for “solidarity”?

Lorde: “It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians.” Biko uses “the black man” as a category that explicitly encompasses Zulus, Xhosas, Vendas, and South Africans of Indian origin, and implicitly includes black women. He discusses a “strong solidarity” that allows Blacks to “respond as a cohesive group.”

  1. Who has what responsibility for learning and teaching about what?

“Let us talk more about ourselves and our struggles and less about whites” (Biko). Asking oppressed peoples to educate their oppressors “is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.” For instance, to say that women of color must educate white women “is a diversion and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought” (Lorde)

  1. How radical a change is needed?

Lorde: tolerance is “the grossest reformism.” We need to “seek new ways of being in the world.”

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).

ideologies and complex systems

A recent paper entitled “A Complex Systems Approach to the Study of Ideology”* presents a theory much like the one I have begun to develop in a series of posts on this blog and other work.

The authors write,

If we construe ideologies as complex systems, we have (at least) two levels of systems embedded in each other. At the individual level, the elements are ideas, beliefs, and values, whose interactions give rise to a person’s understanding of society, which in turn guides individual political behavior. At the group level, the elements are individual minds whose interactions give rise to discourses and power dynamics, which in turn guide collective action and societal change. We thus conceive of an ideological system as a network of minds, where minds are networks of concepts.

Fig 1 illustrates their model. Compare a diagram of the ideas held by my undergraduate class some years ago (with each student’s ideas in a different color):

The authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” also diagram the ideology of the Tea Party Movement, using the qualitative analysis in a well-known article by Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin as their material.

Their diagram of the Tea Party is not heavily documented, but it demonstrates a payoff of their method. A paradox about the Tea Party is that they were powerful opponents of Obamacare yet passionate defenders of Medicare. The authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” explain this pattern by arguing that “representations of social programs are connected on one hand with representations of the self as a hard worker contributing to society and, hence, deserving of the government check …, but on other hand with the highly negative representations of government, spending, and taxation common to conservative ideologies.”

Each idea and link in the Tea Party ideology is consistent enough in its own way, and the overall system generates a combination of policy positions that only seem inconsistent if you try to place the whole ideology on one linear spectrum from pro- to anti-welfare. As a network of ideas, the ideology is as well structured as many others are. This is not an endorsement, since some of the specific nodes in the Tea Party’s network are objectionable by my lights. But a complex systems model offers a more refined analysis.

The word “complex” is used loosely and in various ways, but the authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” mean systems that exhibit “emergence, nonlinearity (disproportionality of cause and effect), path dependency, and multiple equilibria.” In the Tea Party ideology, for example, resentment of groups perceived as undeserving (which, in turn, is a racialized perception) has a powerful effect because of its location in the whole network. The Tea Party can land in several places (libertarian or #MAGA) that reflect multiple equilibria.

I find it intuitive that our ideas are structured and that the structures matter apart from the lists of individual ideas we hold. I acknowledge that we are not necessarily conscious of the whole structures of our own thought. Self-consciousness requires critical introspection and/or interaction with other people, and it is always partial.

However, I do believe we are conscious of portions of the network at any given time–not just the individual ideas, but the connections among them. Much of our discourse is about mini-structures of ideas, e.g., “I think this because of that.” Methods that reveal structures of ideas and links are alternatives to the family of methodologies that use latent variables to “explain” lists of specific beliefs, as in Moral Foundations Theory. I believe that such methods assume rather than demonstrate that human beings are driven by a few unconscious psychological traits. Although such explanations offer some insight, they should be combined with methods that allow us to see how people and groups build more complex structures. This is why I am excited to see this new paper and the work that underlies it.

* Homer-Dixon, Thomas, Jonathan Leader Maynard, Matto Mildenberger, Manjana Milkoreit, Steven J. Mock, Stephen Quilley, Tobias Schröder, & Paul Thagard. “A Complex Systems Approach to the Study of Ideology: Cognitive-Affective Structures and the Dynamics of Belief Systems.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology [Online], 1.1 (2013): 337-363. Web. 4 May. 2020. I had been previously influenced by Thagard’s work although I have not made the detailed study of it that it deserves.

See also: judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view; from I to we: an outline of a theory; an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory; etc. `

du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”

A group can accomplish more than an individual can—whether for good or evil—as long as it holds together. To form and maintain a functioning group is an achievement, requiring individuals to coordinate their behaviors and often to sacrifice for the whole. Only once you have a group can you ask the citizen’s question, which is: “What should we do?”

Because groups have potential and are vulnerable, it can be wise to support less-than-ideal groups in order to maintain them for another day. In Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen emphasizes that democracy always involves sacrifice, and the amount and type of sacrifice is usually unequal. Therefore, crucial democratic practices include recognizing, acknowledging, and trying to reciprocate sacrifices. This is true at the scale of a nation-state but at least as true at smaller scales.

I recently found a three-word sentence by W.E.B Du Bois that sums it up: “Organization is sacrifice.”

The context is an article in the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, that you can read in its original format online. Du Bois is responding to charges that the NAACP is too strongly influenced by Whites. He mentions the 8-to-1 predominance of Blacks in the NAACP’s membership as a whole and in its leading offices. He defends the value of “a few forward looking white Americans” to the organization. And then he suggests that the “real animus back of this veiled and half articulate criticism is the fact that a large organization must make enemies—must create dissatisfaction in many quarters , no matter what it does”

This is where he posits a general principle: “Organization is sacrifice.” And he elaborates:

You cannot have absolutely your own way–you cannot be a free lance; you cannot be strongly and fiercely individual if you belong to an organization. For this reason some folk hunt and work alone. It is their nature. But the world’s greatest work must be done by team work. This demands organization, and that is the sacrifice of some individual will and wish to the good of all.

W.E.B. DuBois, “White Co-Workers,” The Crisis, vol. 20, no 1 (May 1920), p. 8

For someone as fiercely principled and intellectually independent as Du Bois was, this realization must have come hard; but he was right. To be able to ask the question, “What should we do?” implies that all have given—and some may have given much more than others—to create the “we” that acts together. There comes a point when the sacrifice is too high (Du Bois ultimately resigned from the NAACP over a fairly subtle matter of principle), but some sacrifice is necessary to create the conditions for politics in the first place.

See also the question of sacrifice in politics; the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence; and “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses.”