Category Archives: civic theory

An agenda for R&D for democracy

In The American Political Science Review, Henry Farrell, Hugo Mercier, and Melissa Schwartzberg (2022) challenge two influential views.

One view paints a “despairing picture” of democratic reasoning. It assembles evidence that individuals demonstrate “ignorance and incompetence” about political matters, while groups “invariably” suffer from “conformity,” “affective polarization,” “the rejection of countervailing arguments from nongroup members, and backfire effects.”

The other view holds that deliberating groups are wiser than individuals because they can pool intelligence and combine perspectives.

Farrell, Mercier & Schwartzberg argue that both theories generalize too much. Some democratic processes work out well; some do not. They cite recent “interactionist” research in psychology. “Instead of looking to the (supposedly invariant) cognitive limitations of ordinary citizens as skeptics do, an interactionist approach suggests that we should investigate the social context of decisions—how groups are structured—to understand when group identity and social pressure can distort or swamp problem solving [or not].”

Farrell and his colleagues use Elinor Ostrom as a model or inspiration for this agenda. Ostrom did not emphasize the main question of deliberative democratic theory, which is something like this: How should we debate and reach conclusions about contested matters, such as public policies? Instead, she asked how people should coordinate their individual behavior to achieve outcomes that they all endorse. Whereas democratic processes involve reasoning and discussion, many of the examples that interested Ostrom were about quiet work, e.g., digging irrigation canals or editing Wikipedia articles. Still, she confronted a similar situation to the one that Farrell et al. describe in democratic theory today.

When Ostrom got started, a dominant view held that individuals cannot coordinate effectively without external compulsion: the “tragedy of the commons” problem, articulated most famously by Garrett Hardin. Mancur Olson (1971) argued that sometimes voluntary coordination succeeds, and the key variable is the size of the group. Small voluntary groups can function; large ones cannot. Ostrom absorbed that claim as part of a much more ambitious research agenda. She strove to identify aspects of groups that vary and then explored which variables affect the quality of outcomes. The size of groups turned out to be relatively insignificant, not even appearing on her list of “design principles.”

If I may say so, I adopt a very similar position to Farrell and colleagues in my new book, What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life (2022). I summarize Ostrom’s agenda in chapter 3 and then turn to deliberative processes. Like Farrell and colleagues, I argue that we should approach deliberative democracy much as Ostrom addressed coordination. We should experiment and test which specific conditions make discussions go well. I argue that Ostrom’s school of political economy should pay more attention to deliberation about values, because that is a necessary activity of groups. (In many of Ostrom’s cases, there is no dispute about values.) I also discuss nonviolent social movements, but that is a different topic.

When the argument is stated as in Farrell, Mercier & Schwartzberg, I anticipate two difficult but fruitful questions.

First, how should we identify successes and failures so that we can decide which democratic processes work? After all, people often disagree about what constitutes a success. One option is to use obvious cases of failure, when everyone would regard the outcome as suboptimal. We can ask why that happened. But this approach shifts the research away from debates about principles and goals toward purely instrumental problems, like how to preserve common resources, which Ostrom and her many colleagues already studied. The more controversial the topic becomes, the less we already know about how to structure conversations about it–although I would cite literature that Farrell et al. don’t mention, such as work by John Gastil, Archon Fung, Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger, Celina Su, and others. These authors have identified variables that affect conversational quality, such as the method of recruiting or admitting participants, the nature of the facilitation, and the stakes of the discussion. Still, the problem of identifying success remains. (They do mention essential work by Michael Neblo et al.)

Second, what should be done with the findings? This research has implications for the design of governments and other big institutions. The US Constitution already requires jury trials; the Constitution of India requires every village to have an empowered annual meeting. Knowing more about the conditions that make discussions go well can help us to understand whether such provisions are optimal and what other rights and institutions we should add.

But I think the main audience will be civil society. Voluntary groups–including those that seek to influence governments–are best positioned to experiment with formats for discussion. They have more flexibility than governments, they can change more easily, and their sheer number and variety creates more opportunities.

Sources: Farrell, H., Mercier, H., & Schwartzberg, M. (2022). Analytical Democratic Theory: A Microfoundational Approach. American Political Science Review, 1-6; Ostrom, Elinor (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, Olson, Mancur (1991), The Logic of Collective Action, Harvard University Press. See also: don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic; how political talk relates to its context; this is what deliberative democracy looks like; why study real-life deliberation?; the legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School; etc.

are Americans ‘innocent of ideology’?

Hardly a day goes by without news about polarization. Americans are said to be divided into hostile camps on the left and right.

That observation contradicts a line of political science research launched in 1964 by Philip E. Converse. In “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” Converse argued that the vast majority of Americans lacked organized systems of beliefs that could explain or predict their views of candidates or their political behavior. He wrote, “The political ‘belief systems’ of ordinary people are generally thin, disorganized, and ideologically incoherent.” Most Americans were not recognizably liberal or conservative–or anything else. Mainly because they did not spend much time thinking about politics, and especially not in abstract ways, most people were not influenced by the ideas that concerned pundits, intellectuals, and politicians.

Even though many observers assume that the US has become more ideologically polarized since that time, it remains entirely possible to defend Converse’s case. That is the task of Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public by Donald R. Kinder and Nathan P. Kalmoe (University of Chicago Press, 2017). This book is dedicated to “Philip E. Converse, Scholar Unsurpassed” and it ably updates his argument. Some of the key points:

  • People’s opinions about various issues correlate with each other at very low rates (an average of .16 in the American National Election Studies from 1972-2012). If most people held organized systems of belief, then many pairs of issues would correlate strongly. For instance, those who wanted lower taxes would also want to cut spending. The low correlations in the ANES indicate a lack of organization. Nor is there an important change in this measure over time.
  • Most people do not identify as liberals or conservatives, and those who identify as moderates have low information and are relatively unlikely to participate. Few Americans are principled and active centrists, but many are just not engaged.
  • Changes in the majority coalition (such as Reagan’s victories in the 1980s) are unrelated to changes in public opinion. Individuals also seem to change their opinions about most surveyed issues in random ways (notwithstanding some interesting exceptions, such as abortion).
  • Partisanship predicts voters’ choices much better than ideology does. Consistent with that finding, there are still considerable numbers of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and they vote for their parties.

How could this be true in a world of Fox News and MSNBC? Well, Fox News averages about 1.5 million viewers per month, and there are about 258 million adult Americans, so Fox speaks to–and possibly for–less than one in a hundred people.

In some ways, my colleagues and I have found similar results. For instance, in a 2012 survey, CIRCLE reported that just “22% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 could choose the issue of greatest importance to themselves and answer two (out of two) factual questions about the candidates’ positions on that issue.” Scholars in tradition of Converse would say that this was not evidence of anything especially wrong with civic education, Millennials, or the 2012 campaign. Instead, for Kinder & Kalmoe, it is an international and transhistorical reality that most people lack organized thoughts about politics.

I think we must take this argument seriously, but I would raise two main doubts.

First, Kinder & Kalmoe conclude that groups, not ideologies, drive politics. They explicitly mention race, gender, and religion (p. 137). “Scores of studies show that public opinion on matters of politics is … shaped in powerful ways by the attitudes citizens harbor toward the social groups they see as the principal beneficiaries or victims in play” (p. 138). For some people, these attitudes are well-developed and stable. For instance, an “ardent feminist” is one who consistently sees gender as a basis for injustice (p. 138). But most of us can be influenced by events or political leaders to make different identities salient.

In her review of Kinder & Kalmoe, Samara Klar writes, “Group identities are a fundamental informational source in the course of preference formation. But must ideology be cast aside? Perhaps we can instead consider how ideology is intertwined in our identity politics.” In fact, this point seems fundamental to me. Each of the groups that Kinder & Kalmoe offer as an example reflects a complex mix of ideas and material realities.

For instance, race is not simply an idea. In the USA, people can be designated with a race at birth because it as seen as an inherited trait. And even if space-aliens arrived and erased all awareness of race from everyone’s brains, it would remain the case that White families have 10 times as much net wealth as Black families because of historical injustices.

Yet race is also about ideas. The whole concept was invented at specific times for specific reasons and has been imbued with meanings. To think of people as having racial identities is surely a form of ideology, and then to add notions of white supremacy, or ostensible color-blindness, or opposition to inequality, or pride in a minority racial status–these are powerful ideological additions. Racial identities offer politicians opportunities and challenges but are hardly created by current political leaders. They persist and recur. It would be odd to describe Americans as “innocent” of ideology if Americans see society in racialized terms (albeit with a variety of value judgments).

Religion is different in detail but similar insofar as it involves both ideas and material facts. For instance, the Catholic Church summarizes its core ideas in its creed and catechism, although it also encompasses a rich diversity of thought. Some Catholics are devout believers. For some, their ex-Catholic identity is important. Although Catholicism is not genetic, it runs in families due to socialization; and even renouncing the faith indicates that the religion is important. The American Catholic church owns tangible resources, from parochial schools and soup kitchens to cathedrals, but it also often holds a subordinate position compared to mainline Protestantism. Catholics have the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, but Protestants have the National Cathedral. Catholics founded Boston College, but Protestants had Harvard.

Again, the point is that material circumstances and ideas are tightly connected. (And this is true for gender as well.) Thus ideology is powerfully active and omnipresent. And just as an opinion about race or religion combines ideas with material interests, so does an opinion about a classic policy-wonk question, such as whether the government should provide health insurance. If people lack opinions about health insurance but hold opinions about race, I don’t see why that makes them “innocent of ideology.”

Second, the kinds of questions fielded on surveys like the ANES are designed to assess where people stand on the kinds of issues that are debated by Democratic and Republican politicians. Insofar as people are asked about ideas outside this official mainstream, not too many usually express support. For instance, although about 40 percent express a positive view of socialism, few of those seem to define it in a radical way that would imply substantial changes in current policies. But this is not evidence of a lack of ideology. It is a sign that there is a dominant ideology in the USA, which contradicts many alternative ideologies available in the world or on paper. Not very Americans are theocratic Shiites, Maoists, or anarchists, and that is an important fact about America. The country is ideological, even if ideology does not explain the outcome of electoral contests between Democrats and Republicans.

History tells us that the dominant ideologies of whole societies can shift, sometimes surprisingly quickly. But such ruptures are not predictable with time series like the ANES.

Reading work in the tradition of Philip Converse can be a bit dispiriting. The data undermine what Achen & Bartels call the “folk theory” of democracy, according to which we debate policies and values, form opinions, vote based on our opinions, and influence policy. The data suggests that most people are not part of this process.

At the same time, this tradition is also basically complacent about the political system. If people demonstrate a surprising lack of ideological awareness in 2022, that is because they always have. It is even the case in other countries, according to Kinder & Kalmoe. Concerns about shifts toward polarization or extremism are overblown, because the actual trends move at a “glacial pace” (p. 87). For instance, the proportions of extreme liberals and extreme conservatives doubled from a very low base between 1972 and 2012. If that pace continued, it would take more than a century for those groups to predominate (p. 176).

The ultimate message seems to be that we should abandon romantic notions of an informed, deliberating electorate and yet not worry about the fundamental condition of our polity, which is stable and “innocent” of ideology.

Theodore Lowi concludes his great book The End of Liberalism (1969, revised in 1979) by saying:

Realistic political science is a rationalization of the present. The political scientist is not necessarily a defender of the status quo, but the result is too often the same, because those who are trying to describe reality tend to reaffirm it. Focus on the group, for example, is a commitment to one of the more rigidified aspects of the social process. Stress upon the incremental is apologetic as well. The separation of facts from values is apologetic.

There is no denying that modern pluralistic political science brought science to politics. And that is a good thing. But it did not have to come at the cost of making political science an apologetic discipline. But that is exactly what happened. … In embracing facts alone about the process, modern political science embraced the ever-present. In so doing, political science took rigor over relevance.

Political science that is both relevant and rigorous takes seriously the evidence about human cognitive limitations but is also serious about moral critiques of the current society and aims to help people change it.

See also: what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?; US polarization in context; affective polarization is symmetrical; why political science dismissed Trump and political theory predicted him.

cover of Levine What Should We Do?

coming in April: What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life

What Should We Do? offers a compelling, thought-provoking, and urgently-needed framework for anyone trying to understand how we can relate to and act with each other to co-create a more just world. I love this book and you will too.” –Hahrie Han, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University

“Peter Levine makes everyone think more clearly about everything. How fortunate for our country that he’s applied this gift to the realm of civic life. In this insightful and wise book, Levine reveals what it truly means to cooperate, deliberate, and activate—and challenges us to do all three more mindfully.” —Eric Liu, CEO of Citizen University, and author Become America 

“Peter Levine is among the leading philosophers of civic life of his generation. What Should We Do? is his magnum opus.  It ranges widely from a masterly review of political philosophy to practical suggestions for addressing issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. For anyone concerned about the state of our democracy and what our role should be, this book is must reading.” –Robert D. Putnam, Research Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, and coauthor of The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again

More information and a link to pre-order the book are here. From the back cover …

People who want to improve the world must ask the fundamental civic question: “What should we do?” Although their specific challenges and topics are enormously diverse, they often encounter problems of collective action (how to get many individuals to act in concert), of discourse (how to talk and think well about contentious matters) and of exclusion. To get things done, they must form or join and sustain functional groups, and through them, develop skills and virtues that help them to be effective and responsible civic actors.

In What Should We Do?, Peter Levine, one of America’s leading scholars and practitioners of civic engagement, identifies the general challenges that confront people who ask the citizens’ question and explores solutions. Ultimately, his goal is to provide a unified theoretical foundation for effective civic engagement and citizen action. Levine draws from three rich traditions: research on collective action by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues, work on deliberation and discourse by Jürgen Habermas, and the nonviolent social movements led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Using these real-world examples, he develops a theory of citizen action that can effectively wrestle with these problems so that they don’t destabilize movements.

A broad theory of civic life, What Should We Do? turns from the question of what makes a society just to the question of how to relate to our fellow human beings in a context of injustice. And it offers pragmatic guidance for people who seek to improve the world.

civility as equality

Nowadays, the word “civility” is often used to mean politeness or adherence to locally recognized norms that divide appropriate speech from inappropriate speech. You might, for example, be “uncivil” if you are too loud or too angry. Such norms can be helpful, but they risk suppressing authentic and justifiable emotions.

The word has a different origin, closely related to “citizen.” In republican political thought, it it can mean equal standing to participate in politics, rather like the classical Greek word isonomia (roughly: the right to look any fellow citizen in the eye and say what you think). Almost the opposite of etiquette, it connotes a kind of plain, direct, and honest speech.

As Renaissance Florence developed a full-blown ideology of republicanism, the city embraced norms, rules, and customs that were meant to convey the equal standing of all citizen men and to discourage distinctions of caste or power based on military might. Just as one example, no man raised his hat to another Florentine. Professional soldiers were led by paid foreigners, never by Florentines, and these mercenaries had to swear loyalty to the republic’s councilors. The plutocrat banker Cosimo de Medici was wise enough to honor republican norms and manipulated the city’s policies quietly through his networks, without seeking offices or titles or any special personal treatment.

The republic finally ended for good when Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, an heir of Cosimo’s vast fortune, got himself installed as a monarchical ruler and brutally suppressed dissent. A Florentine chronicler, Giovanni Cambi, noted that Lorenzo had been raised in monarchical Rome, where he had learned to expect deference. Lorenzo was surrounded by retainers who called him “padrone” and doffed their hats to him. This was evidence that he knew nothing of “civility”:

Guiliano de Medici, blood brother of Pope Leo X, who had ruled the city of Florence, was living in Rome, and deprived of the city government altogether. He awarded that government to his nephew Lorenzo. Because this Lorenzo had been a child when his father was expelled from Florence, when he returned to Florence he did not know a single citizen, and he was not used to civility (civilta), and instead he aspired to arms and to dominate; and he succeeded in that; for although most citizens were displeased, nevertheless in their ambitiousness and avarice, they pretended to rejoice.

Istorie di Giovanni Cambi cittadino fiorentino, p. 67 (my trans.)

We might assume that doffing hats and using titles exemplifies civility–for better or worse. But the opposite was true in Renaissance Italy. Courtly politeness was a symptom of domination, incompatible with civic virtue and “civility.”

[I am drawing on Richard C. Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence, 1991. See also: civility: not too much, not too little; what to do about the guy behind the desk; civic republicanism in medieval Italy: the Lucignano council frescoes; what does the word civic mean?]

what to do about the guy behind the desk

A guy sits at a desk, resolving people’s requests and issuing orders. Most people who encounter him think he’s making their lives worse. What do you assume is going on?

  • Maybe it’s capitalism and the profit-motive. The guy is probably corporate, and if he works for the government, that shows that it’s a “neoliberal state” (captured by capital.)
  • Maybe it’s state-backed coercion: a denial of free choice. The guy is probably a state bureaucrat. If he works in the private sector, he still reflects the power of the government, which flows from the mouth of the gun. If free individuals were left alone, they wouldn’t come into a room like this.
  • Maybe it’s colonialism. Rooms with desks arrived with Europeans and replaced other (presumably better) ways of relating that were indigenous and traditional. Even if the guy behind the desk descends from indigenous people, his behavior is colonial.
  • Maybe it’s patriarchy. I intentionally called him a “guy” to suggest that his behavior might be gendered.
  • Maybe it’s a bureaucracy in Weber’s sense, a technology for coordinating specialized labor, which is much more productive than unspecialized labor. It is an unavoidable price of progress.

There can surely be truth to each of these theories, but it interests me how many different kinds of people sit behind desks giving out orders: corporate executives, civil servants, military officers, monsignors, mullahs, associate deans, chiefs of pediatrics, union shop stewards, Soviet commissars, Confucian officials ….

A desk sounds somewhat culturally specific, but with a change of furniture, one might imagine the same behavior from a Sumerian temple scribe, an Aztec huecalpixque (regional tribute manager), an iyase from the Kingdom of Benin, or a Tibetan abbot. Considering the globe as whole, the person behind the desk is probably not white, and quite often, not a man.

I would avoid the kind of root-cause analysis that asks which underlying bad phenomenon explains all such cases. For one thing, that style often implies the possibility of an innocent condition, one without profits, rulers, settlers, or guns. But revolutionary and post-colonial systems often put new people behind the same desks. The myth of innocence can be a cover for new forms of tyranny. Besides–and I realize this is almost unprovable–I think that problems such as limited resources, conflicting interests, and cognitive biases are built into human interaction and cannot be wished away.

I would also avoid a blanket denunciation of everyone who sits at a desk making unpopular decisions. Maybe this is a hard-working, underpaid, front-line public servant, just doing her best.

Here’s a way of thinking about the problem without root-cause analysis. Human beings have a wide range of techniques for organizing complex interactions in the face of endemic problems like scarcity, conflict, and cognitive limitations. These techniques are the ingredients from which we make our social recipes. Examples include officials making discretionary decisions–that person behind the desk–but also secret-ballot votes, lotteries, auctions, exchanges, gifts, public deliberative assemblies, randomly-selected panels, turn-taking, adherence to precedent or original documents, obedience to unseen powers, inheritance, chance (e.g,., flipping a coin), blind peer review, randomized experiments, popularity scores, endurance challenges, romantic partnerships, kinship relations, teacher/pupil pairings, and many more. I have omitted the really awful forms and, of course, failed to list the many tools that have yet to be invented.

We can combine these forms in many ways. Before we assess the guy behind the desk, we should understand which other ingredients are involved in the whole recipe. Maybe he was randomly selected for a short term of service. Maybe he was appointed enthusiastically by a popular assembly. These facts would change our assessment.

The situation might involve domination: arbitrary control over another. That is the case if the guy behind the desk can choose at will and doesn’t have to give reasons or face an appeal. The situation might involve oppression, if the guy belongs to a social group that regularly treats a different group in ways that reduce their human flourishing. But it might involve only one of those things, or neither. The person behind the desk might belong to the same social group as those in front of it and might have no scope for arbitrary decisions.

Yet we shouldn’t be quick to accept a situation that–per the original story–makes most people unhappy. Many actual systems are very bad, and for very bad reasons. They emerged from conquest, subjugation, and cruelty. They manifest both domination and oppression. These systems now enjoy enormous status quo advantages. Organizing to replace them is very hard, especially in the face of powerful incumbents and elaborate justifications. They may inspire fear and awe. For an individual, compliance may be completely rational.

We must challenge domination and oppression and cook up better social recipes. The reason is not to combat capitalism, statism or colonialism, but to free people from oppression and from domination. That requires building better structures, which is as important as disrupting the bad ones. And it means addressing the endemic challenges of flawed creatures who are in (partial) conflict under conditions of scarcity.

See also: both detailed institutional analysis and holistic critique; Complexities of Civic Life; citizens against dominationavoiding arbitrary command; civic education and the science of association;  a template for analyzing an institutionthe legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School; avoiding a sharp distinction between the state and the private sphere; etc.