Category Archives: civic theory

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.

Counter-evidence

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.”

what does the word civic mean?

I use the word “civic” every day. It is in the title of my college (The Tisch College of Civic Life) and the major that I direct (Civic Studies) and in the names of many topics and fields that I work on, from civic education to civic media.

But what does it mean? In my own mind, “civic” has certain associations and resonances, although I rarely articulate them. During a recent conversation with colleagues, I realized that most don’t hear the same meanings I do. I don’t blame them; there is no agreement about the definition, and the word has been used in many ways. I’ll turn to its history below.

Today, some people hear in the word “civic” a disciplinary intention, an effort to draw a boundary around respectable and approved behaviors (the “civic” ones). Sometimes it is almost synonymous with “civil.” In turn, “civility” sometimes means almost the same as “politeness.” People may use “civic” to identify approved behaviors, or else they may oppose the word as too restrictive and controlling.

Others want to make the word strictly empirical, rather than a value-laden adjective. Then “civic” may refer to a list of activities, from voting to marching in a protest–regardless of the participants’ values and goals. For example, a march would be civic whether the marchers were members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or Mussolini’s Brown Shirts. (But if we take this approach, why are certain activities on the list, and others not?)

I’d like to make space for a more inspiring use of the word that has deep historical roots. My dictionary-style definition would go something like this:

Civ’-ic. adj. 1. Of or pertaining to a group of relatively equal self-governing people. Hence, 2. virtues, values, or skills for self-government, e.g., civic courage, civic knowledge. 3. Assets belonging to or created by self-governing people, e.g., a civic forum. 4. Activities or other phenomena related to self-government, e.g., civic engagement, civic dialogue, civic education.

By a “self-governing people,” I mean to include all the citizens of any republican country, but not only such groups. A town or city within a larger country can have self-governing power. So can a voluntary association or even some kinds of firms; and they may be self-governing even if the states in which they operate are authoritarian. Thus, institutions of various types and scales can be civic.

The history of a word helps explain how it has accrued its diverse definitions and resonances.

The English word “civic” derives from Latin civicus, which primarily refers to relations among fellow members of the same city. In turn, the classical city (the polis or urbs) was self-governing: not usually egalitarian, but quasi-autonomous and governed by a deliberative assembly. So civicus always had echoes of a deliberative forum.

“Civic” enters the Romance languages to translate Latin texts. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the very first use in English (1542) refers specifically to the ancient Roman oak-leaf-and-acorn garland awarded to men who had saved fellow citizens in war.

A kind of garland was its only meaning in English until the time of the Commonwealth, when Parliament overthrew the monarch and declared a republic. During this period, the Company of Mercers of the free city of London put on a pageant entitled “Charity Triumphant,” parading a female allegorical figure through the streets of the city. Edmund Gayton (“considered a hack writer” and then imprisoned for debt), published a long descriptive and celebratory poem about this pageant, including the sentence, “I cannot here set forth the reason of the late extinguishing these Civick Lights, and suppressing the Genius of our Metropolis, which for these Planetary Pageants and Pretorian Pomps was as famous and renouned in forraign Nations, as for their faith, wealth, and valour.”

Gayton probably deserves his obscurity, but he does seem to coined the word “Civick” in one of its important senses: “of, belonging to, or relating to a citizen or citizens; of or relating to citizenship or to the rights, duties, etc., of the citizen; befitting a citizen” (OED).

In his time, the English were enthusiastic about self-governance and the ideal of a commonwealth, itself a translation for “republic,” meaning the good that a people makes and owns together. Of course, this was also the period of Puritan self-governance in New England and the invention of important activities that we now naturally call “civic”: town meetings, local elections, and civic education, which Massachusetts had required in 1642.

Just one year later, in 1656, Blount’s dictionary defines “Civick” as “pertaining to the city.” Since then, one of its meanings has always been akin to “urban,” as in “Civic Center” for the name of a city’s convention hall. But I think that “the city” had a different original meaning. Now we think of large, dense municipalities. Originally, an urbs or polis was any autonomous community. For instance, the whole Massachusetts Bay Colony was meant to be a City on the Hill.

By 1747, “civic” was used to modify “virtue.” By the end of that century, the word “civique” (with similar associations) had become influential in France. According to the Constitution of 1791: “The Civic Oath (le serment civique) is: ‘I swear to be faithful to the Nation to the law and to the king and to preserve with all my power the Royal Constitution, decreed by the National Constituent Assembly for the Years 1789, 1790 and 1791.‘”

Across the Channel, Edmund Burke denounced the French revolutionaries who would overthrow traditional values and institutions, including religion. He added:

These enthusiasts do not scruple to avow their opinion, that a state can subsist without any religion better than with one; and that they are able to supply the place of any good which may be in it, by a project of their own—namely, by a sort of education they have imagined, founded in a knowledge of the physical wants of men; progressively carried to an enlightened self-interest, which, when well understood, they tell us will identify with an interest more enlarged and public. The scheme of this education has been long known. Of late they distinguish it (as they have got an entire new nomenclature of technical terms) by the name of a Civic Education.

Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

According to the OED, this was first use of the word “civic education” in English. It referred to a radically republican, secular, and patriotic project to which the author, Burke, was hostile. To bring civic education to England would be “the most dangerous shock that the state ever received.”

Thus the first English use of the phrase “civic education” was a denunciation. Yet the ideals that animated the French Revolution–self-governance, commitment to the common good–have deep resonances in England and the USA.

By the way, the word “civics” is a noun, in my opinion: short for “civic education.” It is often used adjectively in the phrase “civics education,” but I think that’s a grammatical mistake. In any case, “civics” is strictly American, and its first attested use is in the Boston Daily Advertiser in 1885: “Henry Randall Waite, Ph.D., president of the American Institute of Civics, was the next speaker… The use of the word civics for political science was explained.”

In short, “civic” has many meanings, but some of the oldest and most recurrent ones refer to a republican ideal: concrete communities of people should decide and act together and develop the rules, values, resources, and habits necessary to succeed.

the New Institutionalism, deliberative democracy, and the rise of the New Right

In public debates about issues and problems, we typically consider institutions in two ways. On the one hand, we discuss their explicit purposes and missions, as reflected in the laws that create and govern them or (if they are autonomous) their mission statements and express goals. We ask whether these purposes are good and, if not, how we should change them. On the other hand, we discuss the institutions’ outcomes: what they actually achieve.

For instance, in public debates about public schools, we debate what they explicitly strive for (producing citizens? boosting the economy?) and what they really accomplish in terms of outcomes for students.

We are then frustrated because institutions do not seem to produce their intended outcomes, nor do reforms move them in the intended directions. This may be because of a set of well-known phenomena:

  • Path-dependence: Once an institution has developed in a certain way, shifting it is expensive and difficult.
  • Principal/agent problems: People in institutions have their own interests and agendas (which need not always be selfish); and there is a gap between their assigned roles and their actual goals.
  • Institutional isomorphism: Even when institutions are set up to be self-governing, they come to resemble each other. Witness the striking similarities among America’s 50 state governments or more than 5,000 colleges and universities.
  • Rent-seeking: People within existing institutions often extract goods from others just by virtue of their positions. Economists call these payments “rents.”
  • Bounded rationality: The individuals who operate within institutions have limited information about relevant topics, including the rest of their own institution. Information is costly, and it’s rational not to collect too much.
  • Voting paradoxes: No system for aggregating individual choices by voting yields consistently defensible results.
  • The Iron Law of Oligarchy: Even in organizations explicitly devoted to egalitarian democracy (the classic examples are socialist parties), a few highly-committed and tightly networked leaders almost always rule.
  • Epistemic Injustice: Knowledge is produced by institutions–not (for the most part) by individuals–and institutions favor knowledge that is in their own interests.

New Institutionalists emphasize and explore these phenomena. Their findings suggest either that citizens (meaning everyone who deliberates about how to improve the social world) should become much more attentive to these features of institutions, or else that we are incapable of social analysis because it is just too hard for millions of people to deconstruct millions of institutions. In the latter case, we should abandon ambitious theories of public deliberation and democracy.

New Institutionalism is heterogeneous. For one thing, it is ideologically diverse. Scholars who write about rent-seeking and voting paradoxes are often coded as right-wing, and sometimes they attribute rents mainly to governmental entities as opposed to markets. (Still, those of us on the left should take this issue seriously if we want to design governments that work for people). Scholars who write about Epistemic Injustice are often coded as left-wing; this idea emerged in feminism. The Iron Law of Oligarchy originated on the left, too, with Robert Michels.

New Institutionalism is diverse in other ways apart from ideology. For instance, the version that emerged from Rational Choice Theory is methodologically individualist. It models institutions as the result of interactions among individuals who have distinct goals and limited information. Some other versions of New Institutionalism are explicitly critical of methodological individualism. They attribute causal roles to institutions as opposed to individuals.

There is also a debate about determinism versus chance and choice. Historical institutionalists often emphasize the contingency of outcomes. Due to a random confluence of circumstances at a pivotal moment, an institution gets on a “path” that persists. In contrast, institutionalists who use rational-choice analysis often try to demonstrate that a given institution is in equilibrium, which implies that it almost had to take the form that it does.

Given this heterogeneity, we might begin to wonder whether New Institutionalism is a thing at all. Here is an alternative view: Institutions matter, but so do ideas, values, climates of opinion, identities, technologies, demographic changes, and biophysical feedback (e.g., climate change). Because many factors are relevant, there is often a moment when someone needs to say, “We have been neglecting institutions!” This person usually fails to find adequate resources in the “old” institutionalist authors: Weber, Veblen, Michels, et al. So she naturally calls herself a “New Institutionalist.”

In that case, New Institutionalism is not a movement or a phase in intellectual history. It is a recurrent stance or trope in debates since ca. 1900. As Elizabeth Sanders writes:

Attention to the development of institutions has fluctuated widely across disciplines, and over time. Its popularity has waxed and waned in response to events in the social/economic/political world and to the normal intradisciplinary conflicts of ideas and career paths. … Some classic works that analyze institutions in historical perspective have enjoyed a more or less continuous life on political science syllabi. Books by Max Weber, Maurice Duverger, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Locke, Woodrow Wilson, Robert McCloskey, and Samuel Beer are prominent examples.

Elizabeth Sanders, “Historical Institutionalism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions (2008)

Still, a case can be made that we are in the midst (or perhaps the wake) of a New Institutionalist Movement. Sanders observes that classic theories of institutions were “increasingly sidelined … with the rise of behaviorism after the Second World War, particularly with the emergence of survey research and computer technology. …. However, after a hiatus of several decades, the study of institutions in historical perspective reemerged in political science in the 1970s, took on new, more analytical, epistemological characteristics, and flowered in the 1980s and 1990s. Why this reemergence?”

I’d give a slightly different answer from hers. I would note that several ideologies were influential from ca. 1945-1980. Here I don’t define an “ideology” as a form of invidious bias, nor as a mere basket of ideals. It is a more-or-less harmonious combination of ideals, causal theories, grand narratives, exemplary cases and models, and favored institutions. It makes sense of the world and motivates change, including positive change.

By that definition, liberalism, wealth-maximizing utilitarianism, democratic socialism, deliberative or participatory democracy, and Leninism were all ideologies. But none took sufficient account of the phenomena listed above. None was Institutionalist, in that sense. And all have been set back on their heels by the increasing strength and plausibility of Institutionalist research.

This my basis for claiming that New Institutionalism is a movement with consequences. Almost all of the ideological options available in 1968 or 1980 are less confident, less coherent, and less prominent today, thanks in significant measure to Institutionalist analysis conducted since then.

This account applies strongly to the stance that I grew up with: deliberative democracy. It originated in normative political philosophy plus small-scale voluntary experiments that succeeded in their own terms. It never attended enough to Institutionalism, and it now looks increasingly naive.

The main exception is classical liberalism/libertarianism. In the political domain, this ideology faces at least as much trouble as the others do. The libertarian-leaning (but never consistent) Republican Party has been taken over by authoritarian nationalists. However, in the intellectual domain–in the classroom–libertarianism has offered a coherent answer to New Institutionalism. It holds that all the flaws of institutions are worse in monopolistic state organizations than in markets. It can even explain why this insight is not more broadly understood: state schools and nonprofit colleges are run by rent-seekers who oppose libertarian ideas.

I dissent on several grounds (as do thoughtful classical liberals), but I’d still venture that classical liberals weathered New Institutionalism better than their rivals did, which explains a certain confidence in their ranks from ca. 1980-2008.

But now classical liberalism faces the same threat as all the other ideologies. The movement that is being called Populism (although I’d apply that word to other traditions, too) is perfectly calibrated for a world explained by New Institutionalism. Populism begins by denouncing all the institutions around us as corrupt because they unaccountably fail to generate their promised outcomes. It attributes this failure to the treason of elites: people well situated within existing institutions. It describes a homogeneous “us” (usually a racial or national group) that has been betrayed by “them,” the elites and foreigners. And it endorses a strong leader who fights for us against them. It dismisses specific institutional analyses as mere excuses and envisions a simple system that avoids all such Institutionalist problems. In this system, the authentic citizens constitute a unified majority; they select a leader in an occasional vote; and the leader rules.

In the face of this challenge, what are our options?

  • We could embrace the right-wing authoritarian populism. That is morally repugnant. Also, it won’t actually work over the long run.
  • We could ignore the findings of New Institutionalism and barrel ahead with an ideology like deliberative democracy or social democracy. I don’t think that’s smart.
  • We could count on elites to address the flaws of the institutions they lead. I don’t think that will happen, not only because elites are untrustworthy but also because these flaws are hard to fix.
  • We could beat the right-wing populists in other ways: by revealing their corruption, seizing on their missteps, or just running better candidates. This is important, but what happens after a Putin, an Orban, or a Trump?
  • We could re-engineer the institutions we care about by giving more attention to New Institutionalist insights. I think European social democrats have done so, to a degree. Social welfare programs in the Eurozone reflect concerns about path-dependence, feedback loops, principal/agent issues, etc. Deliberative democrats could, likewise, build deliberative institutions that take more account of such problems. This is a worthy approach but it requires compromises. For instance, social democratic systems may have to be less egalitarian to enlist the support of wealthy constituencies. And deliberative democratic forums may have to be made less democratic, for similar reasons.
  • We could enlist a wider range of people than just “elites” to work on the problems of specific institutions. We could make the solutions democratic. That is valuable but a long and slow process.
  • We could educate the public about the inner workings of institutions, their pathologies and solutions. That is important but hard.

I see our work in Civic Studies as a combination of the last two responses.

See also: teaching about institutions, in a prison; a template for analyzing an institution; decoding institutions; a different approach to human problems; fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism; separating populism from anti-intellectualism; against methodological individualism.