Monthly Archives: September 2004

what’s going on at the office

(From Greenville, SC): Periodically, I get the urge to download what I’m doing onto my blog. These posts usually lead people to email me with questions or concerns, which is why I allow myself to write them now and then. (I believe that a high proportion of the readers of this blog are somehow professionally associated with one of the organizations that I work for.)

First, we are trying to set up and fund a series of randomized field experiments connected to this year’s election. For each experiment, we must connect a funder, a researcher, and a political group that is doing actual fieldwork–and they must all agree on the details of project. The researcher always takes a list of registered voters (or residents) and randomly selects a subset of them. The political group contacts that subset in a particular way or with a particular message. Finally, the researcher consults voter rolls to see how many of those who were contacted actually voted, compared to those who were not contacted. The difference is a very reliable measure of the effect of the canvassing method. (This [pdf] is an example of a recent experiment.) Experiments conducted since 1998 have revolutionized campaigns by proving that door-to-door and phone canvassing work. Mark Lopez and I are also writing an overview article on the subject.

Several colleagues and I have been running after-school programs at the local high school, most recently with support from the National Geographic Foundation. This fall, our high school students will continue studying geographical factors that increase obesity, and will produce a radio show with their results. For the most part, I have been addressing various bureaucratic obstacles.

I’ve taken over an undergraduate program called Leaders for Tomorrow and have been working with 14 exceptional freshmen to develop a collective project that combines scholarship, leadership, and service. Speaking of scholarship, I have been coaching a strong crop of Rhodes candidates from the University of Maryland.

John Gastil and I are nearing the finish line with an edited book of essays, probably to be called The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the Twenty First Century. Meanwhile, Jim Youniss and I are at the first stage of a funded project to explore how changes in the US political system affect young people’s political development.

I’m chairing a subcommittee at the University that is trying to identify all the opportunities that our undergraduates have for civic engagement and leadership on campus.

The Deliberative Democracy Consortium is beginning to plan a second meeting of researchers and practitioners in the field; the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is preparing materials for its new state teams; and the Alliance for Representative Democracy is planning the second annual Congressional Conference on Civic Education. I’m on the relevant steering or planning committees for each of these projects.


My organization, CIRCLE, jointly released a poll with MTV yesterday. (That should raise my hipness quotient at least a bit.) It was a survey of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. Some of the highlights:

  • Young people are paying more attention to the campaign, and expressing more interest in voting, than at any comparable time since 1992. (Youth turnout spiked in ’92, so we’re hopeful for ’04.)
  • Kerry leads in this age bracket, although neither candidate is held in very high esteem. Right now, young registered voters would choose Kerry by 46%-40% (with 4% for Nader). They see Bush as a better boss, dad, or person to hang out with; but Kerry is seen as a better teacher. They perceive a closer match between Kerry’s priorities and their own, which is probably why they favor him slightly.
  • As in all previous polls taken over the last two years, young people rate as their top issues the economy and jobs, terrorism, and the war. This is the same set of priorities that we see among older people.
  • Meanwhile, I’m off to Greenville, South Carolina to speak about civic education at the State Bar Association meetings ….

    around, about, and go to

    If you hang around social and political activists nowadays, you’ll hear them say things like, “That organization does work around brownfields regulation,” or “We had a great conversation around making our messaging work more impactful.” If you spend your time with humanities scholars, you’ll hear sentences like, “Nabokov’s later texts are about the primacy of the personal,” or “The discourse of late modernity is about alienation.” And lawyers have always been taught to say, “This testimony goes to my client’s whereabouts on the night of Sept. 20″ or “That point goes to Justice O’Connor’s dictum in City of Richmond v Croson ….”

    These are three ways of connecting bodies of words, on one hand, to particular issues or subjects, on the other, when the speaker is not sure about the nature of the connection. Obviously, it’s better to avoid any of these expressions, which are overly vague. However, we all have our linguistic weaknesses, and I find the differences in dialect interesting.

    the vision thing

    In the last New York Times poll, 57% of registered voters said that John Kerry has not “made it clear what he wants to accomplish in the next four years as president” (pdf, p. 26). I can’t say I blame them. Granted, it’s very difficult to develop a plan for Iraq, since there are no good options there, and a future president could undermine his negotiating position by broadcasting his intentions. However, John Kerry has plenty of opportunity to say what he would do back home. He has a health care plan, but I’d be surprised if one in a hundred Americans knows what’s in it. As far as I can tell, Kerry never explains it. I realize that most people won’t want to sit through a long lecture on the details of the proposal (nor would the press report such a speech). However, the Democrats could use their health plan–which is by far their biggest domestic initiative–to exemplify their general philosophy of government. Kerry should describe his proposal as innovative and unprecedented, or market-based and efficient, or bold and revolutionary, or cost-effective and moderate, or whatever he imagines it to be. This should then become the hallmark of a general vision for the next four years, of which he should be able to provide more examples.

    Since 1900, no Democrat has been elected president without some kind of positive vision, which has combined general slogans and novel turns of phrase with exemplary policy proposals. I don’t believe that the conditions are right for a revolutionary vision like those of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, but Kennedy and Carter were elected on the basis of moderate philosophies and small-scale exemplary proposals.

    I see only two ways that Kerry can win in 2004. Either he develops a coherent domestic-policy philosophy within the next 2-3 weeks, or he achieves an unprecedented victory premised only on the need to defeat a failed incumbent. I frankly doubt that the latter is possible.

    varieties of relativism and particularism

    The big guns of the blogosphere are suddenly discussing moral relativism and particularism, topics about which I’m supposed to know something. It all started when Eugene Volokh came to liberals’ defense, arguing that we lefties are not the moral relativists that conservatives call us, because we tend to believe strongly in moral principles that apply everywhere. Besides, liberals and conservatives agree that principles “admit of exceptions.” Matthew Yglesias (who has good philosophical training) then argued that relativism is a position without any practical consequences; it’s a meta-ethical view that tells us something about the nature of our moral beliefs, not how we may or should act. Brian Weatherson, on Crooked Timber, considered all the claims made in the earlier posts and concluded that Volokh was talking about “particularism,” not relativism. Furthermore, Yglesias was partly mistaken, since relativism sometimes has moral consequences.

    Philosophers love to make distinctions, and maybe these will be useful:

    One can be a "moral universalist" about ?


    species cultures the scope of duties the nature of reasoning 
    Moral rules are independent of specifically human cognition; they come

    from God or pure reason

    The same rules or judgments ought to apply to members of any culture We have the same duties to all human beings. For instance, perhaps we

    are required to maximize everyone?s happiness, to the best of our ability,

    not favoring some over others.

    What is right to do in a particular case is shown by the correct application

    of a general moral rule

    The opposite is of this kind of universalism is …


    Naturalism: Moral rules are created by human beings and derive from our


    Cultural relativism: At least some moral principles are particular to

    cultures (they only bind people who come from some backgrounds).

    Communitarianism: We have stronger obligations in particular people, such

    as our own children or compatriots.

    Moral particularism: we can and should decide what to do by looking carefully

    at all the features of each particular case. General rules and principles

    are unreliable guides to action. Any rule or principle that makes one situation

    good may make another one bad.


    These columns are completely independent; you can mix and match answers from the top and bottom rows.

    In my view, the distinction in column #1 makes no practical difference. It doesn’t matter whether moral principles derive from Reason or from human thinking, because they govern us either way. The distinction only matters if you think that morality comes from God, and God’s will is knowable from a source such as the (inerrant) Bible.

    A lot of post-modern leftists favor cultural relativism (column #2), to the annoyance of conservatives–but I think that’s a mistake. True progressives and liberals have always believed that certain moral principles apply universally, regardless of what anyone may think in the local culture.

    Communitarianism (column #3) is controversial on both sides of the political spectrum. However, some neoconservatives and many liberals share a belief in Wilsonian universalism and oppose a narrow commitment to national interests. They mainly differ in the means they favor for improving the world (unilateral force versus multilateralism).

    Finally, I don’t see a left/right tilt in the debate between particularists and moral universalists (column #4). In the 1960s, there was a fairly silly view called “situation ethics” (which Kevin Drum rightly mentions as a backdrop to today’s debates). Joseph Fletcher and other situation-ethicists of the sixties emphasized that moral rules were subject to frequent exceptions; they used these examples to argue against the whole of conservative religious morality. Understandably annoyed, religious conservatives are still prone to see particularism as a threat. But sophisticated particularism is not lax and permissive, nor is it the enemy of religious orthodoxy. Indeed, Jesus was a particularist compared to the Pharisees (see John 8:2-11 and elsewhere).