Category Archives: civic theory

civic leverage

The illustration with this post illustrates an idea from my book What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life, but it is not included in the book (because I just thought of it.)

The circle labeled “institutional design” refers to a process of establishing rules, norms, membership criteria, etc. for any group. Unless an institution evolves from its predecessors, it is usually designed by a single founder or a small leadership team. An inchoate collection of people cannot design an institution from scratch. Only once the design is reasonably effective will many human beings be able to coordinate their behavior sufficiently to accomplish anything worth discussing. The options for designs include democratic processes, market mechanisms, strong leaders, bureaucratic structures, and many more.

From a civic perspective, a good institution is one that encompasses some variety of perspectives and values and that enables its members to express their contrasting views in ways that inform the whole. The circle labeled “conversation about values” can mean a deliberative democracy, but it can take many other forms as well. For instance, although the Catholic Church does not purport to be a democracy, it is a rich platform for discussion and debate. Conversations about values increase the chances that a group will make wise choices and allow individuals to exercise voice and agency, which is part of a good life.

When people in a functioning group discuss values, they may motivate themselves to make sacrifices (the third circle in the diagram). Even an ordinary voluntary association asks people to spend time attending its meetings. A movement that confronts violent repression may ask its participants to put their lives at extreme risk. The degree of contribution varies, but some level is inevitable. “Organization is sacrifice,” as WEB DuBois once wrote.

Sacrifice can affect the original institutional design. For instance, an ordinary voluntary association will wax or wane depending on who gives time and money, and how much. A social movement may change the fundamental structure of the government itself.

This cycle must occur at a human scale. It’s about discussion, relationships, and individuals’ impact on groups. Participants must know one another. The maximum number of people who can engage together is not clear, but it is much less than the eight billion people who share our earth today. Thus the limitation of this cycle is its size in comparison to the scale of our problems.

The answer must be leverage–smallish groups affecting much larger groups by influencing governments, markets, corporations, or media-producers.

Leverage affords power, but it is problematic because it is unidimensional: some people affect others without knowing them or hearing from them. I think we must accept the moral disadvantage of leverage, but we can mitigate it by expecting the people who exercise power over others to do so as members of groups that are somewhat diverse and porous (or connected to other groups) and that go through the cycle of institutional design, conversation about values, sacrifice, and re-design. That process increases the odds that they will be wise in their treatment of strangers.

See also du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence; a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups; both detailed institutional analysis and holistic critique;  a template for analyzing an institutionComplexities of Civic Life, etc.

Mapping Ideologies as Networks of Ideas

Newly published (behind a firewall): Peter Levine (2022) Mapping ideologies as networks of ideas, Journal of Political Ideologies, DOI: 10.1080/13569317.2022.2138293.

This is an early publication from my main current scholarly project. I am concerned that several streams of research and intellectual conversations are converging on the same conclusion: people just aren’t very thoughtful or rational about politics. This stance discourages efforts to enhance democracy and the public sphere. However, the most prevalent measurement tools–standard opinion surveys–are systematically biased against detecting the complexity and individuality of individuals’ political views. Various colleagues and I are experimenting with alternative quantitative methods that involve directly asking people about the connections among their distinct beliefs and analyzing the results as networks. This sole-authored article is a pilot study aimed at validating the method.


Individuals in a non-representative sample of 93 US progressives were asked which social outcomes they valued and then asked about the relationships among these opinions. Did each outcome provide a reason for a different one? Would each outcome cause a different one? If each outcome came to pass, would it make them more likely to support another outcome? Network diagrams derived from these responses represent portions of these individuals’ ideologies, understood as structures of political thought. Scrutiny of the network diagrams and analysis of the aggregate data suggest that most respondents carefully and reasonably identified relationships among their own ideas. Features of their networks predicted their assessments of five prominent politicians. This exploratory study paints a strikingly different picture of the sample than what would emerge from more conventional methods, such as factor analysis. Instead of a group that looks ideologically homogeneous on a unidimensional scale or that exhibits a low level of ideological coherence (because very few of their ideas are correlated), this method displays a collection of people who hold diverse and complex structures of thought. The method should be replicated with representative samples to explore the variation and significance of such structures.

See also: what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?;  individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuonideologies and complex systemsdon’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic, etc.

who are today’s republicans (in the classic sense of the word)?

In our Introduction to Civic Studies course, we are briefly discussing both the classical tradition of republican thought (from Cicero to John Adams) and the contributions of Black American republican thinkers of the 19th century, as described by Melvin Rogers (2020). In this brief introductory video, I identify the following components of traditional republicanism:

  • Opposition to domination (which republicanism defines as the basic problem)
  • Rule of law
  • Separation of powers
  • Deliberation
  • The common good
  • Popular participation (going beyond voting, which by itself can allow domination by the majority)
  • Anti-elitism
  • Civic virtues and an expectation of sacrifice for the common good

One of our US political parties happens to be called “Republican,” and I think that is not merely coincidental. The GOP has roots in antebellum abolitionist movements that, in turn, explicitly invoked republican ideas.

But that doesn’t mean that either of our major parties today is necessarily more republican (in the classical sense) than the other. The recent Civic Language Perceptions Project from Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) offers a chance to see how partisanship–as well as demographics–relate to classical republican ideals. Not all of the components of republicanism are tested, but some are. The data come from a nationally representative random sample of 5,000 registered voters conducted in 2021.

One component of traditional republicanism was an orientation to the common good. That phrase might seem like empty rhetoric, but classical republican authors placed the common good ahead of individual negative freedom, material prosperity, and pluralism, which they often decried as “factionalism.”

PACE asked respondents to react to the phrase “common good,” and it performed best among people who identified as “very liberal.” (See the graph above.)

Patriotism is not on my list of components of republicanism, but often the civic virtues have been defined in patriotic terms. Although some today may see patriotic rhetoric as conservative, it was fundamental to left-wing revolutionary republican movements, from France in 1789 to Mexico in 1910 to Russia in 1917. According to the PACE data, patriotism polls far better among Republicans than among Democrats: a 36-point gap. (See below.)

“Liberty” was the great principle for classical republicanism, and it polls better among Republicans than Democrats. However, some Americans may think of liberty as non-interference (simply being left alone), whereas for classical republicans, it meant non-domination (freedom from arbitrary will). This semantic ambiguity makes the result hard to interpret.

Both parties like “unity,” which was a classical republican value, but Democrats like “diversity” much more than Republicans do. Classical republicans tended to be skeptical of diversity. Therefore, either Democrats dissent from classical republicanism on this issue, or else the word “diversity” is being used in a new way–basically to mean racial equity, which Democrats like much more than Republican do: a 22-point gap. Classical republicans should have embraced racial equity, even though few actually did.

Republics require participation, also known as civic engagement, and that phrase is more popular among Democrats than Republicans.

Democracy is compatible with republicanism, although proponents of democracy tend to emphasize majority rule and responsiveness to mass opinion, whereas republicans want voting to play the limited role of checking elite domination. Madison writes, “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views, by regular vote” (Federalist 10). In this passage and many others, he’s defining “republican” as majoritarian, but his own overall view is more complex. Democrats are more favorable to the word “democracy” than Republicans are, according to the PACE data, although a majority of Republicans do support it.

On balance, one might conclude that today’s Democrats are more republican than Republicans are; but perhaps it’s more accurate to regard the classical republican tradition as marginal all across our spectrum.

PACE infographic

Source: Melvin Rogers, “Race, Domination, and Republicanism,” in Difference without Domination: Pursuing Justice in Diverse Democracies, edited by Danielle Allen and Rohini Somanathan (University of Chicago Press 2020). See also introducing republicanism; James Madison in favor of majority rule; every Republican president [until Trump] insisted that the US is a democracy; a Democratic Republican Federalist; what defines conservatism?; liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitution etc.

the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education

Lately, debates about how to teach American government and history in K-12 schools have turned very hot.

These subjects have high stakes. A government can require children to study the government itself in ways that it chooses. Witness the appalling new curriculum required by the Russian government during the current war. Even when a government’s intentions are benign, education is still a means of shaping the society; therefore, we should expect citizens to advocate various goals and outcomes. Baron von Clausewitz famously called war “a mere continuation of politics by other means,” and one could say the same about civic education.

I believe that “American civil religion” generates additional energy that makes this issue particularly electric today. I take that phrase from Robert N. Bellah’s essay, “Civil Religion in America” (1967). Bellah writes: “What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity.” He calls this collection a “religion,” for “there seems no other word for it.”

Much of American history and civics in K-12 schools has been defined by this civil religion, for better or worse. Efforts to change the curriculum look like efforts to change the civil religion, and maybe they are.

Although Bellah does not cite Durkheim, he evidently accepts Durkheim’s seminal 1915 definition of religion: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p. 41; my thanks to Brian Hatcher for the reference).

As I observed a decade ago in Montpellier, VA, plexiglass now covers the “ink stain on the floor that may be some of the ink with which Mr. Madison took his notes on ancient constitutions, preparing for the Philadelphia convention.” That ink stain is something “set apart and forbidden” as sacred.

It is a good illustration of the original American Civil Religion, which, according to Bellah, “focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.” Bellah acknowledges a close analogy to Christianity but denies that the founders’ civil religion was meant to promote Christianity or to substitute for it. The founders applied a Christian model reflexively; it was all they knew.

Bellah locates a major change around 1860. “With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the new civil religion. It is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln.” The sin of slavery and its overcoming become explicit and acknowledged elements of the American civil religion; Lincoln becomes a prophet. Like Christianity, the postbellum American civil religion includes evil, sacrifice, repentance, and salvation. I would add that when Reconstruction is betrayed, the national story gains another series of episodes and new prophets. Martin Luther King ultimately joins the annual cycle of collective remembrances, alongside Washington and Lincoln.

Writing in 1967, Bellah adds a new stage to the story:

We as Americans now face … what I call the third time of trial. The first time of trial had to do with the question of independence, whether we should or could run our own affairs in our own way. The second time of trial was over the issue of slavery, which in turn was only the most salient aspect of the more general problem of the full institutionalization of democracy within our country. This second problem we are still far from solving though we have some notable successes to our credit. But we have been overtaken by a third great problem that has led to a third great crisis, in the midst of which we stand.

The Vietnam War symbolizes this third crisis. Bellah argues that the American civil religion has always posed dangers, but its emancipatory and democratic elements have often been helpful at home. (Here I would note the central role of Black Americans in the liberation for which Lincoln was traditionally given credit.) However, Bellah argues, the American civil religion has often been harmful abroad. “With respect to America’s role in the world, the dangers of distortion are greater and the built-in safeguards of the tradition weaker.” Bellah acknowledges that “the theme of the American Israel was used, almost from the beginning, as a justification for the shameful treatment of the Indians so characteristic of our history [and] has been used to legitimate several adventures in imperialism.”

I think that right-wing Americans today see civil religion as under assault by what they label “Critical Race Theory”; their anger reflects a sense of blasphemy or profanation. They are especially anxious because they know that Christians are shrinking to a minority; thus the decline of the secular civil religion reflects a decline in the literal religion that has always mirrored it.

Ron DeSantis and his ilk miss the central meaning of the postbellum civil religion: Americans must struggle to defeat the evil of racism. This error has many precedents. Bellah wrote in 1967, “For all the overt religiosity of the radical right today, their relation to the civil religious consensus is tenuous, as when the John Birch Society attacks the central American symbol of Democracy itself.” On the other hand, I observe that real, principled conservatives know that the American story combines evil and redemption. They are much less fragile when people point out the evil roots of American history.

Bellah’s civil religion cannot suffice today. For one thing, it never seriously grappled with settler colonialism. Columbus stands alongside Lincoln on the annual civil/liturgical calendar, and that symbolism is no longer acceptable. The deep analogy to Christianity has also become increasingly problematic as the population has become more religiously pluralistic and secular. Because of the indelible contributions of Black Americans, I would not call the American civil religion simply ”white,” but it has never been inclusive enough.

Still, the postbellum civil religion was emancipatory and democratic. The American Civil Rights Movement then appropriated and strengthened the received story in powerful ways. Meanwhile the American national civil religion legitimized a federal role in social policy, which has served progressive ends.

Therefore, I wouldn’t give it up too quickly. I would be more interested in deepening and complicating the national myth than abandoning it. Taking a leaf from the major religious traditions, we should remember to include solidarity, celebration, contribution, salvation, and hope–as well as acknowledgement and repentance–in the recipe. (This is a gentle critique of certain forms of social movement activism that seem to favor repentance and blame over redemption, rather like politicized Calvinism.)

Political leaders and movements should tell and retell the national story in ways that broadly resemble religious narratives. In an educational setting, however, any single story poses a threat to free inquiry and debate. Inculcating a national civil religion, no matter how benign, is not the same as educating free citizens. For this reason, I would use questions to define the content of American history and civics, rather than promulgating any particular answers.

That distinction is a bit too simple, since the choice and framing of questions always reflects deeper commitments. Schools should be committed to such to core values as equity and liberty. It’s also unfair to describe a religion, as Durkheim does, as a “unified system of beliefs,” since religion always involves disagreements, questions, and critical debates. These can be elements of a civic religion as well. However, the more that a curriculum resembles Durkheim’s portrait of a religion as a unified belief-system, the less it involves free inquiry. And free inquiry is the core of liberal education.

See also: constitutional piety; when political movements resemble religions; is everyone religious?; the Democrats and religious Americans; what secular people can get out of theology; civic education in Russia;  the political advantages of organized religionthe I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology;

introducing Habermas

This is a 29-minute video lecture* in which I introduce the core ideas of the great German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas. I made it for our current Introduction to Civic Studies course, but it’s available for anyone to use. It also summarizes the beginning of chapter 4 of my recent book, What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life. In the book, I proceed to raise numerous critiques of Habermas, all of which have some validity, although I continue to find his framework useful.

*New version posted on 9/29, with better audio.