Category Archives: civic theory

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.

applying Beyond Adversary Democracy to solve problems

Jane Mansbridge published Beyond Adversary Democracy in 1983. This book has been cited thousands of times and has deeply influenced political theory, certainly including my own work. At the recent annual meeting of the American Political Science association, Mansbridge won the Benjamin E. Lippincott Award for a “work of exceptional quality by a living political theorist that is still considered significant after a time span of at least 15 years since the original date of publication.” Beyond Adversary Democracy was the book in question, although Mansbridge would also deserve the Lippincott for Why We Lost the ERA (1986). She gave a beautiful and interesting lecture on the future of political theory.

During her speech, Mansbridge recalled that she had been inspired to write Beyond Adversary Democracy to help the radically democratic organizations of the 1970s–the many co-ops and communes that sprang up in that era–to address the challenges of self-governance that seemed, sooner or later, to wreck most of them. Someone asked whether any group had ever used her book to solve such problems. She said: never!

Perhaps no one has developed, tested, improved, re-tested, refined, and disseminated a practical toolkit based on the theory of the book. Such a product would be useful not only for radically democratic organizations but for any group that employs democratic decision-making for some purposes and at some times. For instance: a department in a university.

The first draft of such a tool would be an experiment, requiring testing and improvement. The draft might start like this:

A friendly person who is independent of the organization should conduct an anonymous survey (derived from Jenny Mansbridge’s own instrument) to identify points of widespread agreement as well as conflicts of deeply felt interest within the group. “Interests” mean not only self-interested goals and needs (like raising one’s pay) but also ideals, such as committing the organization to a certain strategy.

The person who conducts the survey should then provide a public list of any issues that are not conflictual within the group. Members should not devote time to discussing these issues. Instead, they should delegate them to one person or a small team. The people who are put in charge of each non-conflictual issue should be required to report back periodically and to keep records, and they should be open to advice and complaints, but they should decide what to do without the whole group’s involvement. Rotating such responsibilities can be smart, but it can also be wise to give these tasks repeatedly to people who enjoy them and are good at them.

The survey should also generate a public list of issues that are contentious. The whole group should discuss these issues with a trusted moderator who can stay fairly neutral. An important purpose of such discussion is to help everyone better understand the contours of the disagreement by allowing individuals to voice their divergent values and needs. Some time should be spent looking for creative solutions that could satisfy most people. However, the group should be prepared to resolve such issues by voting anonymously after a finite amount of time spent on deliberation. Although majority rule cannot satisfy everyone, it is better than trying fruitlessly to reach consensus when interests actually diverge.

Once a vote is taken, the fact that a minority has lost should be explicitly acknowledged, and the group should formally thank them and resolve to try to make it up to them in some way later on. Then the group should shift to an issue that has been identified as non-controversial. They should explicitly mark this transition. “Well, that was a tough discussion, but now let’s talk about office furniture. Does everyone agree that Al can take care of that? Thanks so much, Al. Everyone, please contact Al if you have any special concerns.”

The survey should be designed to reveal whether differences of interest fall along identity lines. For example, women might be tend to differ from others on matters related to maternity. Or people of color might have specific concerns in a predominantly White organization. When that is the case, it is important for the people who hold leadership positions to represent both or all of the relevant identity groups. It may be both fair and necessary to reward them for serving on committees, since this burden can fall disproportionately on disadvantaged members of an organization.

On the other hand, when there are no differences of interest, or when differences do not fall along identity lines, then it is much less important for the decision-makers to be demographically representative. It becomes correspondingly more important to give tasks to willing volunteers, to individuals who have experience for the task at hand, or to people whose turn it is do more for the group.

These are principles or maxims, but they could be turned into flowcharts with diagnostic questions and suggestions. For instance: “Does this disagreement seem to divide your group by race, or gender, or job title, or some other identifiable characteristic? If so, what is the characteristic? Does the committee include people on both sides of that difference? How should we reward individuals who join the committee to make it more representative?” (etc.)

This kind of application by no means exhausts the value of Beyond Adversary Democracy, which is mainly a rich contribution to theory. For instance, the book can influence how we read Aristotle or Rousseau. However, applying insightful theories can improve the world; and the experience of applying them can further enrich theory.

Added later: a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups. See also: the New Social Movements of the seventies, eighties, and today; friendship and politics; needed: pragmatists for utopian experiments

explaining Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) was a political scientist at Indiana University and a leader of the intellectual movement informally known as the Bloomington School. She won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 and was a MacArthur “genius” Fellow and president of the American Political Science Association. For me, she was a major inspiration, and I find that I have mentioned or discussed her in 142 blog posts over the years. I also summarize her work in chapter 3 of What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life (2022).

I have now recorded two videos to introduce all of her major ideas, as I see them. I discuss her basic principles in Part I (17 minutes) and how to apply her ideas in Part II (11 minutes). These are free for anyone to use and are embedded in this public website about what we should learn to be effective citizens.

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.