Monthly Archives: July 2004

an appetite for public work?

The Washington Post interviewed some undecided voters who had watched John Kerry’s convention speech on Thursday. One viewer “said Kerry made her feel that she had a role to play as a citizen. ‘He seemed to be saying we all have to make this happen. Give me a shovel. I want to dig,’ she said. ‘With Bush, it’s like he’s going to take care of it and we’re supposed to go about our business.” Another said: “He was energizing me. I felt like I need to go out and do something for the country.”

I don’t actually see much evidence of this theme in Kerry’s speech; so far, I’m not convinced that he would substantially increase opportunities for citizens to create public goods or to protect America. However, I do find it heartening that people want those opportunities.

The public role of ordinary citizens has shrunk over the last century. This is partly because professionals and experts have taken over many traditional duties of citizens, from managing towns to setting educational policy to lobbying. (Lin Ostrom notes that four percent of American families included a member of a government legislature, council, or board in 1932, compared to roughly one percent today). At the same time, many civic functions have been privatized. For example, Americans often pay companies to provide neighborhood security or to watch their small children.

All that is left for citizens to do is to complain, vote, and volunteer. Volunteering can be valuable, but it is usually squeezed between work and family time. Moreover, conventional volunteering tends to mean direct, face-to-face service that does not change policies or institutions or grant much power to those who participate. A national survey of Americans conducted in 2002 found that many volunteered, at least occasionally, but only 20 percent of the volunteers (and 10 percent of young volunteers) described their participation as a way to address a ?social or political problem.? In a qualitative study of Minnesota citizens completed in 2000, respondents said that volunteering often consigned them ?to positions of mediocrity with the assumption that they lacke[ed] the capacity to work on big issues that impact the community.? At its best, public service is demanding, creative, responsible, serious business.

It is typical not only of the Bush administration but of modern government in general that no one could think of much for citizens to do after 9/11 other than volunteering to help neighbors; shopping to boost GNP; and possibly enlisting in the military. Our 2002 survey found that young Americans wanted to serve, but weren’t actually doing anything more than they had in 2000–probably because no one was asking them to work in demanding ways.

A president who really wanted to increase opportunities for public work could implement many concrete policies to that end. (See “Idea #4” at the end of this mini-essay, and some proposals for getting citizens involved in national security, here.)

deliberation when the stakes get high

John Gastil and I are editing a book that will be published early in 2005, probably with the title Handbook of Public Deliberation. Each chapter is written by people who organize a different form of meeting or online discussion about public issues. The authors constitute a small but impressive international community of practice.

I’ve been thinking about the future of this movement and the challenges it will face if it really gains traction. To date, most public deliberation in the US has low stakes. In some cases, there is no serious effort to change public policy to match the results of the public conversation. The goal of a meeting may be to build networks of citizens, to develop new ideas, to teach people skills and knowledge, to change attitudes–but not to influence government. In other cases, deliberation does have direct consequences for policy. For example, the budget of the District of Columbia is much influenced by the annual Citizens Summit organized by America Speaks. However, such cases arise under especially favorable circumstances, when the local political leadership is either very enlightened or has special incentives to share power with a deliberating group of citizens.

If public deliberation ever becomes a (non-partisan) political movement, then citizen deliberations will be able to achieve concrete influence even when the conditions are unfavorable. But then I think deliberation will face challenges that have not been difficult so far, because the stakes have been low.

First, who’s at the table? In a low-stakes deliberation, it’s fine to recruit volunteers, as long one aims for diversity of background and opinion. However, as soon as the stakes go up, organized interests will start to send their own foot-soldiers, armed with instructions. Interest-group politics is an acceptable and unavoidable part of democratic politics: “sewn in the nature of man,” as Madison put it. But interest groups are not evenly distributed; for instance, there are effective national groups for developers and landlords, but not for renters or the homeless. Second, some groups are not internally democratic or transparent; they don’t represent the groups in whose name they speak. And finally, because of basic collective-action problems, interest groups tend to form around narrow concerns rather than broad ones. Narrow concerns can be legitimate, but interest-group politics introduces a bias against general values.

We are used to these problems in conventional representative political institutions. Public deliberation is supposed to be an alternative. But interest groups may be at least as effective in high-stakes citizens’ deliberations as in Congress or the town council.

Proponents of random-selection use all these points in their favor. Since meetings of recruited volunteers can be stacked with committed partisans, they advocate randomly selecting citizens to participate. But random selection has its own problems. It’s expensive and practically difficult. It’s not embedded in local networks and associations, so its legitimacy may be questioned. And even in the best cases, the agenda and framing of the discussion can be biased, or perceived as biased.

Then there’s the problem of fairness and equality within a discussion. In a paper entitled “Against Deliberation” that should be read by everyone in the movement (see Political Theory, vol. 25. no. 3 [June, 1997], pp. 347-76), Lynn M. Sanders notes that ?some citizens are better than others at articulating their concerns in rational, reasonable terms.” Some are ?more learned and practiced at making arguments that would be recognized by others as reasonable ones.” Some people are simply more willing to speak; for example, studies of US juries show that men talk far more than women in deliberations.

Furthermore, some people ?are more likely to be listened to than others.” For instance, studies of US juries show that they tend to elect white males as forepersons. Studies of US college students show that white students have much more influence than Black students in joint collaborative projects, even controlling for age, socioeconomic status, height, and attitudes toward school.

I have observed the organizers and moderators of low-stakes public deliberations overcome these problems. They deliberately support participants who might be disadvantaged in the conversation. Today’s public deliberations are likely to be more equitable than juries or teams of college students, because moderators are trained and focused on equality. But what about tomorrow’s deliberations? When the stakes go up, individuals with more status or skill will fight back against efforts to support less advantaged participants. They will depict such efforts as “politically correct” or otherwise biased, and they will use their status, confidence, and rhetorical fluency to win the point.

Barack Obama (part ii)

Barack Obama’s speech was partisan, needless to say. It was delivered at a major party’s national convention, it endorsed the party’s national ticket, and it was rooted in the core values of the Democratic Party, more than in the legitimate but different values of the GOP. (I disagree with some conservatives who apparently believe that Obama’s speech was to the right of the Democratic mainstream. In its elements as well as its overall spirit, it struck me as conventionally Democratic.) However, there is more than one way to be partisan, and some ways are better than others for our political culture.

In all my teaching and professional work, I am relentlessly non-partisan and aim to be neutral with respect to most of today’s controversial issues. I’m professionally concerned about our political culture, not about particular policies. I have never before singled out for praise a partisan speech or even an individual politician. But I do believe in parties–and in intense partisan competition–as mainstays of democracy. Everything depends on how the partisans play.

So consider the most quoted passage from Tuesday’s speech:

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.

We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?

There is a lot of simple truth in this, especially in the first paragraph. To be sure, Obama takes some shots at unnamed opponents who are allegedly exploiting the Patriot Act, who are cynical, and who won’t admit that Democrats are religious or that Republicans have gay friends. In other words, he uses rhetoric against the other party, and I’m not sure that all his implicit charges are 100% fair. However, the critique is oblique and general, not scathing and personal, and for the most part he competes to be more inclusive and more unifying. His aim is to appear more positive about all segments of the American population than the other side is. He is also positive and optimistic about the main features of the political system itself.

Imagine that both major parties competed with this kind of rhetoric, instead of constantly imputing wicked motives to each other. Based on evidence like this, I strongly suspect that the rate of participation would rise. We might even see citizens trust one another more.

Barack Obama

I haven’t been watching the Democratic Convention, because I don’t really watch TV. But a partial transcript of Barack Obama’s speech sent me to the Web for a video of the whole thing. Three-quarters of the way through, I’m wiping tears from my eyes, feeling profound gratitude, and recognizing a basic yearning for really impressive leadership. All kinds of burdens are going to be piled on Obama, because he’ll be the only African-American in the U.S. Senate, he’s young enough to be a presidential contender, and he enters the national stage with incredible reviews. It won’t be possible for him to meet these expectations–but I don’t care about unfair pressure. Although I’ll defend the American political system, today’s politicians just cannot satisfy a fundamental need for inspiring, unifying leadership. Obama can do that; he has the talent, the instincts, the intellect, and the personal integrity for it. So he owes it to his country to spend the rest of his life trying to meet our expectations.

There are people who say that “nothing happens” at a convention, that it’s all just an “infomercial” that needn’t be covered. But a convention is an opportunity for political leaders to speak without filters to the American people. Doesn’t “something happen” when a new national leader emerges?

from Persia to 12th century France and the 21st century web

Here’s a discovery from our family visit to France three weeks ago. It’s a twelfth-century carving taken from a monastery in Burgundy. Unmistakably, it’s influenced by Persian images of lion-kings, the most famous of which date from the time of Xerxes. Frenchmen (“Franks”) went to the Middle East in the 12th century to fight the Crusades, so perhaps they saw carved Persian lions. Nevertheless, it’s amazing that a stone-cutter back in Burgundy was able to capture the essence of an animal he never saw–and of Persian art. Perhaps he copied a piece of Crusader booty, something like this printed textile lion from 10th-11th century Iran.

One could find out more about this artifact. Art historians are industrious and prolific, and I’m sure there is specific work on this sculpture as well as general writing about the influence of pre-Islamic Near-Eastern art on medieval Europe. That is the kind of work, however, that tends not to find its way online. Most scholarly research doesn’t go onto the Web because scholars want peer-reviewed publications, and there are few online professional journals. Most publications from before ca. 1995 aren’t digitized. Besides, museums control the right to photograph the works they own. I know from personal experience (with the Bibliotheque Nationale in France) that they like to charge a lot for reproduction rights of obscure images. Giving pictures away doesn’t fit their business plan. Therefore, there really aren’t that many images online. For example, the label under this French medieval lion said that it was derived from Sassanid Persian models (AD 224-651). In fifteen minutes of assiduous searching, I found only one Sassanid lion on the billions of web pages that Google indexes.

On the bright side, it is amazing how people with unpromising motives and perspectives can contribute to knowledge because of the Web. I found the lion’s gate at Persepolis thanks to a site that basically advertises a psychic. And I found the printed lion textile on a high school website.

Jamie Boyle, one of the leading proponents of the digital commons, writes:

If I had come to you in 1994 and told you that in the space of ten years, a decentralized global network consisting of a lot of volunteers and hobbyists and a ideologues and a few scholars and government or commercially supported information services could equal and sometimes outperform standard reference works or reference librarians in the provision of accurate factual information, you would have laughed. Your incredulity would surely have deepened if I had added that this global network would have no external filters, and that almost anyone with an internet connection would be able to “publish” whatever they wanted, be it accounts of Area 51, the Yeti, and the true authorship of the works of William Shakespeare, or painstaking analyses of Scottish history, how to raise Saluki dogs, and the internal struggles in the American Communist Party. Worse still, many inhabitants of this very strange new place will wilfuly and joyfully spread the wildest of rumours and speculations as facts, without going through the careful source-checking or argument-weighing that scholars are supposed to engage in. Your first reaction to this flight of fancy, (and the correct first impression of the World Wide Web as of its inception) was that this would thus be a uniquely and entirely unreliable source of information. And yet … when your child last had a research question from school did you go to Google, or the Encylopedia Brittanica?

When I wanted to find a Persian lion to compare to this French one, I used Google and found some imperfect matches. I was somewhat successful because I was willing to go to sites created by psychics and high school kids as well as museums and archaeologists. (This demonstrates Boyle’s point about the value of an open network.) On the other hand, I could have done much better in my university’s library, if I’d had the time and patience. And I could have learned much more online if we had different legal and economic incentives for publishing images and research.