Category Archives: deliberation

empathy boosts polarization

In a new article,* Elizabeth Simas, Scott Clifford, and Justin Kirkland provide evidence that empathy is not a solution to partisan polarization in the US. Quite the contrary: people who demonstrate more “empathic concern” are more likely to blame the opposite party for the suffering that they see in the world, hence more likely to decry the other party, to favor censoring it, and to exhibit Schadenfreude (pleasure at others’ pain) when members of the opposing party lose out.

Part of the article involves an experiment with undergraduate subjects. Students are shown a story in which “campus police had to shut down a group of partisan students who were protesting a speech to be given by an individual known for making inflammatory comments about that party. In both versions, a bystander who was attempting to hear the speech was struck by a protestor. And in both versions, the protestors succeeded in getting the speech canceled.” Students were assigned to see versions of the story that randomly varied the partisan identities of the speaker, the protesters, and the bystander.

Students who scored higher on a general measure of empathetic concern were more likely to favor censoring the inflammatory speaker, and more likely to be glad that the bystander was hurt. These results were the same for Democratic and Republican students.

It rings true for me that deep emotional concern is associated with anger and a distancing of intellectual and political opponents, a refusal to hear their arguments.

I’ve posted concerns about empathy several times before.** The main problem is its susceptibility to bias. Usually, empathy is felt for individuals (or concrete categories of people), and it can easily promote injustice against others. There is such a thing as universal, undifferentiated empathy, but it looks more like an ethical principle than a concrete emotion. The Buddhist objective is not empathy (as measured by questions from the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, such as: “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective toward them”). Instead, Buddhism prizes equanimity, which is calm and detached.

I do not take for granted that political polarization is bad. Sometimes it is right to blame political opponents for others’ suffering. And although Schadenfreude should always be avoided, it can be welcome news when a political enemy suffers defeat. These emotions of blame and satisfaction are appropriate if and when the opponent is actually at fault. To find out whether someone is actually wrong requires engagement with that person’s arguments and reasons. Censorship defeats such engagement and is almost always a mistake. It’s troubling that more empathy means more support for censorship, especially if that exemplifies a deeper problem with empathy. Perhaps empathy discourages us from hearing alternative views by fixing our attention on concrete suffering.

*Simas, Elizabeth N., Scott Clifford, and Justin H. Kirkland. “How Empathic Concern Fuels Political Polarization.” American Political Science Review 114.1 (2020): 258-269.

** Civility, humility, tolerance, empathy, or what?; Empathy and Justice; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; “Empathy” is a new word. Do we need it?; empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; empathy: good or bad?; empathy versus systematic thought

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.

The Role of Social Movements in Fostering Sounder Public Judgment

Public Agenda has released the first papers in their series on “Sounder Public Judgment.” Among them is my paper on “The Role of Social Movements in Fostering Sounder Public Judgment.” It’s a short essay but it has several objectives:

  1. To encourage people who sit within formal institutions, such as my own university, to analyze and respond to social movements better. Movements are not just bunches of protesters; they have structures and norms that can be admirable or problematic and that deserve attention.
  2. To encourage proponents of deliberation (or, more generally, good discourse and conversation) to see social movements–including radical movements–as essential components of a deliberative society. There may be a tension between cause-driven movements and the institutions (such as newspapers and universities) that pursue impartiality; but a deliberative society needs both.
  3. To encourage social-movement participants to understand the value of deliberation within their movements and in the broader society, and to take advantage of the expertise and techniques of the people and organizations that directly promote deliberation.

I also took the opportunity to put my SPUD framework in print again:

See also: the value of diversity and discussion within social movements; social movements of the sixties, seventies, and today; deliberation depends on social movements; a sketch of a theory of social movements; What is the appropriate role for higher education at a time of social activism?; pay attention to movements, not just activists and events; Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianism; we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth)

Deliberative Democracy Consortium conference on whether deliberation is feasible

From this official registration page:

On October 30 and 31, the Deliberative Democracy Consortium is convening researchers, scholars, and deliberative democracy practitioners in Washington, D.C., to explore the intersection of deliberative democracy with human cognition, social and emotional intelligence, and moral decision making.

We will explore questions such as:

1) Given what we know about human cognition and moral development, is deliberative democracy feasible?

2) At what scale?

3) Under what conditions?

This meeting will give scholars, practitioners, funders, and others an opportunity to explore both the promise and the limitations of deliberative democracy in the context of human behavior and development. The meeting may result in an edited volume; future convenings; an action plan; a statement of shared values; promising partnerships; etc.


Evening of Wednesday, October 30 – 5:00pm – Reception with no host bar and heavy hors d’oeuvres

Thursday, October 31 – 9:00am – 4:00pm – All day meeting – Continental breakfast (8:30am) and lunch included

I’ll be moderating a panel. Part of our session description (still under construction) says:

The traditional “civics class” description of democracy assumes that citizens reason independently about issues, listen to and learn from each other, and then select leaders or policies that represent their views. It is consistent with liberal democratic tenets of individual and minority rights, free speech and the rule of law. 

The Behavioral Revolution presents a very different premise: human beings are deeply biased, and the reasons we express are mainly justifications for opinions we already held without conscious choice. Meanwhile, New Institutionalism suggests that even when individuals reason well, the processes that yield decisions in groups add arbitrariness and bias. These are two of the most influential currents in the study of human beings, and both tend to support arguments for expertise and unregulated markets, technocracy, or authoritarianism. Specifically, right-wing authoritarian populism is on the rise.  …

How can deliberative democracy address these problems of citizen capacity and the consequent vulnerability of liberal democracy?

Please join us.

revisiting Against Deliberation in the age of Trump

In Introduction to Civic Studies, we recently discussed Lynn M. Sanders, “Against Deliberation,” Political Theory, June 1997 v.25 no. 3

Here are some illustrative arguments from her important piece:

“Appeals to deliberation, I will argue, have often been fraught with connotations of rationality, reserve, cautiousness, quietude, community, selflessness, and universalism, connotations which in fact probably undermine deliberation’s democratic claims.” (p. 2)

“Some citizens are better than others at articulating their arguments in rational, reasonable terms. Some citizens, then, appear already to be deliberating, and, given the tight link between democracy and deliberation, appear already to be acting democratically.” (p.2)

“Deliberation is a request for a certain kind of talk: rational, contained, and oriented to a shared problem” (p. 13). “Arguing that democratic discussion should be rational, moderate, and not selfish implicitly excludes public talk that is impassioned, extreme, and the product of particular interests. (p. 14)

“Prejudice and privilege do not emerge in deliberative settings as bad reasons, and they are not countered by good arguments. They are too sneaky, invisible, and pernicious for that reasonable process. So worrying about specifying what counts as a good argument, or trying to enhance reason-giving either via the formulation of better rules and procedures or by providing the time, money, and education necessary to become a responsible deliberative citizen, does not engage some of the most serious challenges to the possibility of achieving democratic deliberation. Some people might be ignored no matter how good their reasons are, no matter how skillfully they articulate them, and when this happens, democratic theory doesn’t have an answer, because one cannot counter a pernicious group dynamic with a good reason.” (p. 4)

I see these as serious concerns. Rose Marie Nierras and I found that many activists from the Global South felt them acutely. (Levine, Peter and Nierras, Rose Marie [2007] “Activists’ Views of Deliberation,” Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 3 : Iss. 1 , Article 4.)

But I also sense that the main problem has shifted, requiring a reevaluation of these arguments against deliberation.

It’s true that reason-giving can favor the privileged because they are good at it (or they can hire professional reason-givers, such as lawyers), and because they are basically OK with the social system in which reasons are exchanged.

But it is also a characteristic of privilege not to feel any compulsion to give reasons. It is the autocrat who says, “Because I said so.” Donald Trump is completely unwilling to give or hear reasons, and he may have developed that attitude as a result of extreme socio-economic privilege. His opponents and critics want reasons from him and are willing to give reasons for their demands.

Indeed, there is a long tradition of the people demanding reasons, and authoritarian elites trying to evade reason-giving. When we have that tradition in mind, it’s natural to equate deliberation with political equity. On the other hand, when we think about formal deliberative bodies within a stable but imperfect state–American juries, for example–we worry that deliberation and equity can conflict, because those with advantage prevail in such discussions.

As with many issues, Donald Trump reminds us of the positive case.

See also Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianism; postmodernism and Trump;