Monthly Archives: May 2009

Project Vote Smart

I’m two and a half hours southeast (I think) of Missoula, Montana, amid dramatic alpine mountains, getting ready for a meeting with the good folks at Project Vote Smart. This is where scores of college interns come every summer to crunch data about American politicians and enjoy the fishing, hiking, and the black bears, one of whom ran across the property earlier today.

hard-wired political traits

Nicholas Kristof in today’s New York Times:

    If you want to tell whether someone is conservative or liberal, what are a couple of completely nonpolitical questions that will give a good clue?

    How’s this: Would you be willing to slap your father in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit?

    And, second: Does it disgust you to touch the faucet in a public restroom?

    Studies suggest that conservatives are more often distressed by actions that seem disrespectful of authority, such as slapping Dad. Liberals don’t worry as long as Dad has given permission.

    Likewise, conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.

    The upshot is that liberals and conservatives don’t just think differently, they also feel differently. This may even be a result, in part, of divergent neural responses.

These are depressing findings. We believe we are reasoning about Judge Sotomayor’s judicial opinions–or at least about the relevance of ethnicity and gender to a judicial appointment–when all that really matters is our visceral reaction to authority figures and sharing drinks. This research reminds me of the application of birth-order theory to politics. Supposedly, first-borns are conservative; younger siblings are more radical. That’s another example of a basically immutable trait that shouldn’t have any relevance to our political views, but that seems to affect them.

But such theories have two huge limitations. First, they do not explain historical change. Maybe the French revolutionaries of 1789 were more comfortable than their royalist opponents were with slapping their fathers in jest and sharing glasses. But there are always people with these traits. So we need an entirely different explanation for why the French Revolution happened in 1789 instead of 1750–or never. We also need a different kind of explanation for why the Revolution took the course that it did. Immutable traits won’t explain change, unless the distribution of those traits shifts, which would itself require an explanation.

Second, these theories don’t explain the content of our political views. Today, liberals tend to favor legal gay marriage, and conservatives tend to oppose it. Fifty years ago, liberals tended to favor racial intermarriage, the opponents of which tended to be conservatives. The psychology of this debate may have remained the same over the fifty years. That is, opponents of “miscegenation” in 1950 might have had the same attitudes toward sharing glasses of water that opponents of gay marriage do today. But it makes an enormous difference that interracial marriage is now a settled issue–as gay marriage will likely be in another 20 years.

I am open to the possibility that immutable and non-rational traits help determine who takes which side in political debates at any given time. But what the two sides believe and who wins the debate must be determined by other factors. We should hope that the strength of arguments is one of the factors that counts.

with the League of Women Voters

I’m speaking tonight at an annual meeting of the League of Women Voters in Winchester, MA. I have actually been a member of the League (which doesn’t discriminate by gender) since I was in my twenties. I was then working for Common Cause–frequently a coalition partner of the League–and writing a book about the Progressive Era. I love the fact that the League was launched by suffragists at the end of the Progressive Era, just when they were sure that the 19th Amendment would pass and women would be able to vote. Their immediate response was that women should vote well, which would take work. Note the combination of equality (votes for women as well as for men) and quality (voting after talking and learning). That remains the essential combination. I also appreciate the combination of governmental reform and grassroots civic action.

The Winchester chapter has asked me to talk about generational issues. The rising generation offers a lot of promise for American democracy and shares some traits with the generation that launched the League in 1920. (Idealism, enthusiasm for consensus and deliberation, and some leeriness about political parties.) It is a different question whether the new generation will choose to populate and sustain the League itself. I don’t have an answer to that, but I hope to discuss it.

express your views on transparency in the federal government

The White House has created a platform for public discussion of “how to make our government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative.” The process is in its first stage, “brainstorming,” and you are invited to participate here.

I have posted my own idea about engaging young Americans and an idea about “public work.” I would certainly welcome anyone to click through to my ideas, comment on them, and consider voting for them. [Added later: a mini-idea about deliberations on public holidays.]

Meanwhile, AmericaSpeaks, Everyday Democracy, and Demos have been organizing discussions of the same topic involving (among others) senior civil servants. AmericaSpeaks has posted their seven top ideas on the White House site and is encouraging visitors to support those proposals and to comment on them. Entering through the AmericaSpeaks page guides you to those strong proposals. (For full disclosure: I serve on the boards of AmericaSpeaks and Everyday Democracy.)

a college curriculum defined by active citizenship

This is a complete list of the departments and subject areas that would be offered at an imaginary college. The idea is to provide all the most important fields of study that people need if they want to sustain and improve a community to which they belong. (That’s my definition of “citizenship.” The community can be anything from a small religious congregation to the earth.) Each student would major in one of the first four departments. There would be mandatory courses in all seven.

Department of Ethical Reasoning

Courses in moral philosophy, normative political and social theory, literary criticism and history (with emphasis on ethical analysis), religious ethics

Department of Cultural Interpretation

Courses in cultural history, literary criticism, cultural anthropology, history of art, musicology

Department of Institutional Analysis

Courses in economics (markets as institutions), political science, public law, institutional history, organizational sociology, social psychology, and abstract methods of analysis such as game theory and network theory

Department of Policy

General courses in policy analysis and focused courses on international relations, education, environment, health, etc.

Office of Community Partnerships and Placements

Providing an array of internships, research, and service opportunities; also, courses about the local community based on accumulated research by students

Department of Methods and Tools

Courses in statistics, psychometrics, foreign languages, qualitative research, accounting, evaluation methods, rhetoric (written and spoken), and pedagogy.

Department of Natural Context

Courses in environmental sciences, cognitive science, human development, and health, all taught with relevance to questions of active citizenship

I do not believe that this civic focus is the only valuable one. If all colleges and universities adopted this model, the natural sciences, aesthetic values, and such abstract fields as mathematics and metaphysics would become too marginal. I dissent from the instrumental pragmatism of reformers like Mark C. Taylor, who wants to focus all education on addressing “important problems.”

On the other hand, I admire coherent educational programs–both for individuals and for whole communities of scholars and students. No student can learn everything; breadth degenerates into superficiality. A large university can offer practically every field of study in some depth, but then there is no common set of issues and values for everyone to debate. “Great books” colleges, religious programs, experiential curricula, and Mark Taylor’s “zones of inquiry” are worthy examples of attempts to bring some coherence and focus to undergraduate education. We badly need more experimentation and more diverse models, and this “civics” curriculum seems a promising one to add to the mix.