Category Archives: philosophy

what republic means, revisited

Basic political words (including the word “political”) tend to be appropriated by diverse movements and parties over time, which causes them to accumulate diverse and even opposite meanings. “Liberal” is a great example.

Another example is “republic,” which is now millennia old and appears in the official names of major parties as well as 110 sovereign states (by my count), ranging from the Laos People’s Democratic Republic to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and including such odd couples as both of the Koreas.

Some would say that any real republic is a regime with a popular or majoritarian element that is limited by checks and balances and restraints on the powers of government. These limits distinguish it from a democracy. That usage is not wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily track the terminology of the US founders. For instance, Jefferson defined a republic as a “government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally, according to rules established by the majority; and … every other government is more or less republican, in proportion as it has in its composition more or less of this ingredient of the direct action of the citizens.” As the image shows, many of Jefferson’s contemporaries agreed that a republic was a democracy.

For others, a republic is a system in which the people own and control the most important goods. That is why communist states have generally named themselves republics. One justification may be etymology. The Latin phrase res publica means the public’s thing (or good, or wealth, or interest). Thus, if you believe that things like factories and farms should be public property, you may be inclined to use the word “republic.” In addition, the French revolution has often inspired communists and other left radicals. That revolution called itself “republican.” There is also a less prominent tradition of radical commonwealth thought in English; and “commonwealth” is a direct translation of res publica.

For some political theorists of the last 30 years (e.g., Philip Pettit, Ian Shapiro) republicanism means opposition to domination, which is arbitrary power over others. A republic is a regime that successfully combats domination, and modern republicans debate the necessary and ideal tools for that end. Rule of law, popular participation and responsive government, civil liberties, and checks and balances are among the options.

A different school of modern theorists see a republic as a regime that expects a particularly high degree of virtue from its citizens. For instance, Hannah Arendt defines a republic as a community that allows and expects participants to display civic virtues in public forums.

Until recently, I would have held onto one fixed point. I would have proposed that any definition of republic should cover the regime that governed Rome between the overthrow of the kings and the reign of emperor Augustus and his successors, because the word first arose to name that system. In analyzing the Roman republic, we might prefer to emphasize its appreciation of civic virtues, its empowered populace, its mixed constitution with limited popular power, its defense of private rights, its public property (the forum, the army), or its commitment to rule of law and other protections against domination (for free men)–but one way or another, we would have to tie our definition to the ancient regime. And a monarchy would be incompatible with a republic, since the Roman republic is what we call the interlude between the era of kings and that of emperors. Today, most of the countries that do not call themselves republics are monarchies.

But then I read Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome (Harvard, 2015). Kaldellis shows that almost all Romans believed that their republic persisted under the emperors. The structure of its government changed, but Rome remained a republic–indeed, until 1453. To call a limited period of Roman history “the republic” is to impose modern terminology on the past.

I suspect that one reason that many moderns have believed that the emperors ended the Roman republic is Tacitus. He is a superb author, enormously valuable and timely, but he does have an ax to grind. As a senator and a member the hereditary senatorial class, Tacitus views the emperors’ usurpation of the Senate’s powers as a fundamental blow to liberty. In modern times, his account has been a powerful inspiration for anyone who wants to defend representative legislatures against tyrants. But the Roman senate was never representative; it was oligarchical. Other Romans could disagree with Tacitus that weakening the Senate really undermined the republic. For many of them, the defining feature of a republic (per Kaldellis) was its coherence as a community. Some Romans viewed emperors as good guardians of their community, in which case the republic could thrive under Augustus or his successors. Their main concern was whether a given monarch really served the public good; if not, he was illegitimate.

The conclusion, for me, is that “republic” can mean many different things, and no one should assert that it has only one true meaning. I am interested in anti-domination and civic virtue and prefer to use the word “republican” for combinations of those ideas. But mainly, one should define and clarify one’s terms.

See also: do we live in a republic or a democracy?; civic republicanism in medieval Italy: the Lucignano council frescoes; The French Republic denounces the French State; citizens against domination; James Madison in favor of majority rule etc.

seeking a religious congregation for a research study

I am seeking a congregation (of any religion, denomination, tradition, size, and location) for a research study. My interest is in testing a new method that I have been developing with colleagues that could apply to any community. I would give the congregation’s leadership–or its full membership–easy-to-understand findings about shared values and areas of disagreement within their congregation that should have practical value for planning events and programs.

Please consider whether this project might interest a congregation to which you belong or one that you know. Inquiries are welcome. More details follow:

I would ask the clergy or other leader(s) of the congregation to encourage members to take anonymous online surveys. The minimum would be two: a short survey with open-ended responses followed by a multiple-choice survey a week or two later that is based on the first one. I would be interested in repeating the multiple-choice survey months later to understand change, although that’s optional. If it’s practical, I would also like to visit and observe informally to get a feel for the community.

I would publish a scholarly study that would refer to the congregation anonymously (e.g., “a Protestant church in the Northeastern USA”). I would also provide the congregation with concise findings in PowerPoint format and would be happy to discuss them. No money would change hands. The congregation would own the PowerPoint and would not be obliged to publish or share it in any way. No individuals would be obligated to take the surveys, and I would expect only some people to do so. No identifiable information about individuals would be shared either within or beyond the congregation.

I could provide more detail about the method, but in brief, we don’t simply ask people their opinions about values, beliefs, and norms. Instead, we ask them how their personal opinions relate to each other. For instance, do they value A because they value B? Do they think that A causes B? From those responses, we generate network diagrams of the beliefs of each respondent and of the community as a whole. In this study, the questions would focus on religion and the congregation as a community, not on politics (unless respondents happen to bring up political matters).

Typically, each person’s responses are unique—a nice illustration of the uniqueness of human beings and how much we lose when we assign people to categories. Yet we typically see clusters of agreement and disagreement that can otherwise be overlooked. Understanding these patterns should provide ideas for visitors, readings, events, discussion groups (etc.) that would be valuable for the specific congregation.

what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?

Here is what I will call a “top-down” theory of public opinion: Everyone should assess the most important issues of the day. An example might be the federal budget. Individuals are entitled to their personal beliefs or preferences about taxation, spending, and deficits; nevertheless, these three topics have an objective logical structure. If you want lower taxes and no deficits, you must favor spending cuts. If you want more spending, you must support either tax increases or bigger deficits. It is a civic obligation to think through your own complete view of these issues.

Analyzing a nationally representative survey of such matters should reveal that: a) most citizens hold opinions about them, and b) everyone recognizes the same underlying logic, even as they disagree about priorities. Citizens should vote according to their priorities, and the majority should prevail.

If, however, a) and b) are false, then democracy is flawed. Perhaps people should learn more and pay more attention, or the political system should offer greater clarity, or perhaps democracy is simply a false ideal.

Philip Converse’s “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics” (1964) has been enormously influential (cited more that 11,000 times). He does not employ exactly the framework with which I began this post, but his analysis suggests that democracy is a flawed ideal.

Analyzing surveys of political specialists, such as congressional candidates, Converse finds that these respondents meet both tests mentioned above. Professional politicians and other experts hold opinions on the great issues of the day that fit together in similar ways, even as they debate the contested questions. However, according to Converse, surveys of representative Americans reveal scant opinions and no consistent structure among opinions. Ordinary people are not, therefore, in a position to weigh in on the debates of the day.

Converse doesn’t use network analysis, but I can convert his core findings into network maps. (For those interested, I turned every tau-gamma coefficient above .05 in Converse’s Table 7 into an edge in these graphs.)

Congressional candidates share the following model of the political debate ca. 1962.

Whether candidates are Democrats or Republicans is strongly related to their views of federal interventions on education, housing, and employment, and those issues are linked together. Military aid to foreign countries is not connected–it stands alone as a topic. (“FEPC” means the proposed Fair Employment Practices Commission.)

Meanwhile, this is the result of using the same method with Converse’s data from representative adults at the same time:

There are no links at at all among the ideas (meaning no coefficients > .5). Converse suggests that people are not in a position to play the role expected in a “civics class” theory of democracy, assessing and voting on the issues of the day.

Now here is a rival, “bottom up” theory: The social world is enormously complex. Responsible people may hold opinions on myriad issues, and no one can have a view about everything. Even if we focus on a single domain, such as the federal budget, it is highly complex. Federal spending includes funds for many different purposes. Each federal program has a financial cost, but it also has moral significance, behavioral impact, symbolic meaning, likelihood of success, etc. If people are diverse and free, they will naturally form many different structures of opinions about the range of topics that they have considered so far.

Imagine a sample of people, each of whom holds a thoughtful and carefully considered view of public issues and connects each opinion to other opinions in rigorous ways. However, each person holds a unique structure. Then, if researchers contact each person and ask a short list of survey questions (out of the innumerable questions that they could ask), and the aggregate survey data is analyzed using the methods pioneered by Converse, it will reveal no significant links at all. The heterogeneity of individuals’ beliefs will yield very low coefficients at the group level. Their graph will look just like the second graph above–not because they are tuned out of politics or undisciplined in their thinking, but because they differ.

Converse (p. 44) explicitly acknowledges this possibility. He notes that if people’s opinions become “increasingly idiosyncratic” as they move away from the elite, we will find “little aggregative patterning of belief combinations” in their data, because they will not know “what goes with what” (presumably, according to the elites) and will “therefore put belief elements together in a great variety of ways.”

However, Converse counters with a different kind of evidence. According to his analysis of longitudinal data from the American National Election Studies from 1958-60, most people’s opinions on most issues change as if by sheer chance as time passed. This implies that they do not hold “well knit but highly idiosyncratic belief systems” (p. 47). Instead, they have no “meaningful beliefs” at all (p. 51). The exceptions are various small and specialized “issue publics” who hold stable opinions about specific concerns, including many Blacks and some White Southerners on questions of race.

On this point, I would only note that an enormous number of longitudinal studies have been conducted since 1962, and some find stability over time (e.g., Kustov, Laaker & Reller 2021), unexplained–and perhaps random–change (Jaeger, M. M. 2006), or a mix of the two, depending on this issue (Kiley & Vaisey 2020). For instance, according to the last of those studies, the proportion of individuals who change their opinions about abortion is extraordinarily low. Converse’s blanket claim that most people’s opinions on most issues change randomly seems overstated.

I do not assume that all of my fellow Americans (or anyone else) holds complex and rigorous mental models of politics. Some people hardly hold any opinions, or cannot connect their opinions together, or do so in illogical ways. My point is that we cannot tell from aggregate data what proportion of people hold thoughtful views unless we assume that all worthy views must manifest the same structure. Converse uses scare quotes around the word “proper” when he mentions “the sophisticated observer’s assumption of what beliefs go with other beliefs,” but if we seriously doubt that elites understand the “proper” arrangement, then we should expect regular people to exhibit great diversity.

In that case, we should seek to understand the heterogeneous structures of ordinary people’s views. This kind of research has three important purposes:

  1. It may counter the very low assessment of public capacity that is fashionable now in political science, deriving from Converse. That skepticism may prove self-reinforcing, since experts who doubt the public’s ability to reason will not be motivated to defend or improve democracy.
  2. It may yield specific findings about structures of thought shared by sub-groups. Those insights will be invisible as long as we only we ask whether the public shares the structures assumed by political elites.
  3. It offers a perspective on political institutions. Even if many people hold worthy but heterogeneous structures of ideas, we probably still need mass elections to address prominent topics, such as whether to raise or cut taxes. I support that kind of democracy. But it will always be frustrating, because the structure presented by elites will fail to match the reasonable structures in many people’s minds. Fortunately, we can complement mass majoritarian democracy with other forms of participation. Civil society provides an enormous range of specialized groups, and individuals can choose to join the groups that match their personal ideologies, exit ones that don’t, advocate for adjustments within the groups they belong to, and compete for new members. Meanwhile, relatively small and relatively discursive bodies, such as local town meetings or Participatory Budgeting sessions, offer individuals opportunities to share their idiosyncratic views in public. We might understand those venues as opportunities for deliberation that can yield wiser judgments. Or we might understand such venues as places where people can display their uniqueness, as Hannah Arendt advocated. Thus a “bottom up” theory supports decentralization, pluralism, or polycentricity.

See also: Moral and Political Discussion and Epistemic Networks; modeling a political discussion; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; ideologies and complex systems; don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic, polycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economy, etc. I also acknowledge Jon Green, Nic Fishman, Sarah Shugars, and others who are working in this general domain today.

Moral and Political Discussion and Epistemic Networks

Yesterday, I got to give an International Society for Quantitative Ethnography (ISQE) Webinar on “Moral and Political Discussion and Epistemic Networks.” I really enjoyed the questions and conversation. This is the video of the whole event:

Abstract: An individual holds linked beliefs about political or moral issues, which we can model as a network. How these ideas are linked together influences the person’s actions and opinions. When individuals discuss, they share some portions of their respective networks of which they are conscious at the time. Some network structures are better than others for discussion: overly centralized or scattered networks are problematic. Individuals tend to demonstrate similar network structures on different issues. Thus, relying on certain kinds of networks is a character trait. People, with their respective networks of ideas, are also embedded in social networks. An idea is more likely to spread depending on features of both the social network and the idea networks of the people who interact. As a whole, a population may develop a shared network structure. An idea that is widely shared and frequently central in individuals’ networks becomes a norm. Institutions are partly composed of such norms. A community or a culture is a single network with disagreement. Ultimately, all such networks interconnect. This theory has implications for politics, ethics, and research methodologies.

Additional ISQE webinars are listed here.

Transformative Learning and Civic Studies

Newly in print: The Palgrave Handbook of Learning for Transformation, edited by Aliki Nicolaides, Saskia Eschenbacher, Petra T. Buergelt, Yabome Gilpin-Jackson, Marguerite Welch and Mitsunori Misawa (2022).

Although I am not deeply knowledgable about Transformative Learning, a movement launched by the sociologist Jack Mezirow, I like its emphasis on learning as a lifelong process of transforming one’s perspective on society.

This volume includes a chapter entitled “Reconsidering the Roots of Transformative Education: Habermas and Mezirow” by Saskia Eschenbacher and me (pp. 45-58). Our abstract:

Jack Mezirow acknowledged the deep influence of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (1929–) on the development of transformative learning. We describe some fundamental elements of Mezirow’s and Habermas’ thought, explore their affinities, and argue that Mezirow did not give adequate attention to two important themes in Habermas: the power and value of social movements and the need to reform the overall structure of a society to enable transformative learning. We argue that transformative learning would benefit from a deeper consideration of these topics. Finally, we introduce Civic Studies, a parallel intellectual movement that also owes much to Habermas, and we suggest a convergence.