Monthly Archives: October 2010

Jürgen Habermas approves this message

I expected my morning newspaper to bring stories about angry American voters and American politicians behaving ridiculously: data about the state of our democracy. I did not expect to see a wide-ranging essay on German democracy by one of the world’s greatest living political thinkers, Jürgen Habermas. Having him pop up in the Times a few days before the election was like suddenly receiving a briefing from Isaiah Berlin or Reinhold Niebuhr.

Habermas describes three phenomena as broadly linked. The first is rising xenophobia, defined nowadays by religion instead of race or language. “With an arrogant appropriation of Judaism—and an incredible disregard for the fate the Jews suffered in Germany—the apologists of the leitkultur [national culture] now appeal to the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition,’ which distinguishes ‘us’ from the foreigners.” In contrast, Habermas’ own position is radically cosmopolitan and liberal: “the state should demand [no] more of its immigrants than learning the language of the country and accepting the principles of the Constitution.” Even in our pluralist democracy of immigrants, that is not a settled position; many people, including some on the left, believe that the community has a right to teach some elements of a national culture. In fact, I would count myself in that camp.

The second phenomenon is “the rejection of political parties and party politics,” in favor of “charismatic figures who stand above the political infighting.” Habermas finds that trend disturbing in the light of German history, but it is certainly evident here as well.

And the third phenomenon is a wave of mass protests against government decisions, especially public protests against a huge public building project in Stuttgart. Habermas blames the government: “the authorities did not, in fact, provide sufficient information … , and thus citizens did not have an opportunity to develop an informed opinion on which they could have based their votes. To insist that they should have no further say in the development is to rely on a formalistic understanding of democracy.” They are taking to the streets because the government ignored the principles of deliberative democracy.

Habermas traces all three trends to a “helpless political system.” National governments are weakening, and “politics submits to what appear to be inevitable economic imperatives.” As a result, people naturally lose faith in representative/deliberative institutions. He doesn’t mention European integration, but that is surely one reason that the state is weakening. (European integration is a direct reason for the Stuttgart train station project, which has E.U. funding.)

Somewhat surprisingly,* Habermas ends with a favorable comparison to our side of the Atlantic. “The United States has a president with a clear-headed political vision, even if he is embattled and now meets with mixed feelings. What is needed in Europe is a revitalized political class that overcomes its own defeatism with a bit more perspective, resoluteness and cooperative spirit. Democracy depends on the belief of the people that there is some scope left for collectively shaping a challenging future.”

*I am not surprised that Habermas holds positive views of the United States; that has been true all along. I am surprised to see anyone favorably evaluate our politics at this precise moment.

civic health in the states

The National Conference on Citizenship has partnerships with 17 states or large cities that are releasing glossy, detailed reports on their own communities’ “civic health.” My organization, CIRCLE (with funding from the federal Corporation for National and Community Service) provided each state’s or city’s team with a long background memo composed of statistics and trends that we drew, in large part, from the Census annual surveys of civic engagement. Although we helped with data, the local teams decided what to say. Their findings are interesting.

For example, Arizona has strikingly low levels of “civic engagement” as typically defined (voting, volunteering, membership in groups). Nevertheless, young Arizonans hold regular political discussions: 40.9% say they talk about politics at least several times per week, more than older people in their state and youth in other states. Maybe controversial issues such as immigration are stirring up discussion there.

The Missouri team emphasized the traditional blue-collar base of civic engagement in their state and how that is fraying in the current economy.

North Carolina’s report states rather boldly, “The state’s civil society–the voluntary and social organizations that make our communities work–is led by a small and homogeneous group of older, college-educated, mostly white residents who are involved in religious organizations.”

Civic engagement is important, but every state has a different civic culture. These reports (and many more to come) begin to diagnose the problems, identify opportunities, and propose solutions appropriate to each place.

what the markets think about the election

I was in a foundation board meeting today, in DC. We heard the usual presentation from investment advisers about the state of the endowment and the future of the markets. Their boilerplate document treats as a positive factor the coalition governments in Britain and Australia and the likely divided government in the US starting in January. Apparently, there will be more checks and balances now, hence more stability and predictability. I presume such thinking helps explain, or justify, why many large investors are backing Republicans.

The coalition government in Britain has actually launched a radical experiment in austerity during a recession that, at best, makes the future there quite unpredictable. Meanwhile, in the US, I fear we will see gridlock that preserves the status quo, which means a long, slow, painful climb out of the hole we’re in.

One interpretation: the finance guys are right. Divided government means stability, and that’s good for “the economy.”

A second interpretation: Republican and Tory victories are good for financial markets but not for most people. Investment advisers know that but don’t say it, even to their own clients, for fear of alienating people who might have different values.

A third interpretation: Investment advisers believe exactly what they write, although they are too optimistic about the public benefits of conservative policy. Their sincere but wrong beliefs tell us something about the micro-structure of ideology.

I don’t know which is correct, but I do know these folks are advising their clients to invest in “emerging markets.” In other words, welcome tax cuts here but outsource your capital to countries with actual growth.?

trying to look at the Empire State Building

(Washington, DC) Over the weekend, I finished Mark Kingwell’s excellent book Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams. By coincidence, I spent today in an office three blocks south of the actual Empire State Building. I saw it first from an airport taxi, got a good direct look at it from the window on 31st Street, walked by its front door, and then watched it vanish over Queens on my way to La Guardia.

Seeing it, however, is problematic–that is one of Kingwell’s themes. First of all, it is actually very big. If you are far enough away to see the whole thing, it becomes misleadingly small, unremarkable, dwarfed by routine buildings closer by, sometimes just an extra piece of equipment in the backdrop of a New Jersey auto dealership or a Brooklyn lot. If you come close enough to sense its scale, it veers away so sharply that you can’t really see anything. What you do glimpse is just the skin. It’s a three-dimensional structure; to experience it fully (if such a thing were possible) would require going inside: time and motion would be needed as well as vision.

The Empire State Building is also hard to “see” because you have seen it so many times before, in real life, in postcards and movies, inside snow globes, on tee-shirts, carved as chocolates or soaps. As a result of all that mechanical reproduction, you carry the wrong shape in your mind. In my memory, it had more stone and less steel, more shoulder and less head, than in my experience today.

And it’s a hard object to see because savvy New Yorkers don’t stare up at it, whether they’re walking down the street or in meetings on 31st Street. They are too busy, too blasé. Tourists were standing around the entrance on Fifth Avenue, and since I was also a tourist but didn’t want to seem one, I hurried past.

From the taxi, though, it was OK to stare. The building looked a little solitary, standing down there in the thirties. I recalled Kingwell’s idea that the Chrysler Building is its uptown girlfriend; they seemed a little distant. At first sight, on a grey day, the Empire State Building looked pixilated, like a stack of tiny cubes with angular edges all the way to the Deco dirigible dock at the top. A surprising dark stripe crossed its belly.

I wrote the above on the plane from New York to DC, without really reaching a conclusion before we had to put computers away for landing. We came in low over the Potomac, Georgetown lamps shimmering on the river, the Lincoln Memorial’s skylights glowing upward, and the obelisk standing in the middle of it all. It may have been a trick of the perspective–or something to do with my twenty years of past wrapped up in Washington–but it looked grander than the city we had left.

a map of the civic renewal field

If there is not yet a civic renewal movement, there are certainly many organizations and individuals devoted to fair, deliberative, transparent, participatory democracy. If we hope to build a movement, it is important to understand these groups, how they fit together, and what types of organizations and coalitions may still be missing.

In 2005, I created two maps (one and two) using the links among civic organizations’ websites to create a list of groups and then organize them as a network. That method is dependent on how webmasters handle links–always a bit arbitrary, and increasingly so as groups make heavier use of Facebook and Twitter.

So I have made a new map in a more-labor intensive way. I hand-entered information about all the member organizations of the following networks, which I would argue are important to the field:

  • Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy II (a coalition of political reform, community organizing, and deliberative democracy organizations)
  • Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (a coalition in support of civic education, which was not heavily represented at SOND II)
  • Deliberative Democracy Consortium (a coalition that did participate in SOND II, but some of whose members did not)
  • PACE–Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (ditto, but consisting only of foundations)
  • The Democracy Imperative (ditto, but emphasizing higher education)
  • The Voices for National Service Steering Committee (one of several networks in the “service” field).

I could have included other coalitions, such as the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, Service Nation, or the America’s Promise Alliance, but each of these has such long lists of members that the total number of groups would have become enormous and, I think, less meaningful. By the way, I excluded individuals, government agencies, and whole universities, although I included specialized centers within higher education.

The result was a list of 117 organizations. I can think of missing groups, but the point is not to identify the organizations that I happen to know and admire, but rather to generate a network from a set of initial nodes that I don’t control.

The resulting network has many links–for instance, my own center has close working ties with at least a dozen others–but to detect all the actual connections would be a major project. Instead, I simply entered memberships in the six coalitions listed above. That yielded 270 links. Click on the thumbnail to see the resulting network displayed as a set of rough clusters:

(The method I used here was to display all the nodes randomly on a blank plane within the free software package called SocNetV, and then apply an algorithm that treats each node as an electron that repels the others, and each link as a tie that pulls its two nodes together. That tends to sort the field into clusters.)

Here is another way to look at the map. Now the network hubs are placed close to the center in proportion to how many nodes they have. This is useful for showing which nodes are most important for keeping large sets of organizations connected. (The size of the node shows the number of members it has.)

And here is a third way. Now all the nodes are displayed around one circle. If every one were directly connected to every other, the picture would like like a tight ball of yarn. The white space in the middle indicates that the network is not very dense.

Maps are only one way to investigate this set of 117 organizations. One could also count what they do, how they are organized, and who runs them. I have not yet done that rigorously, but eyeballing the list reveals some clear patterns. Overall, I would make these observations:

    1. We badly need an active and robust organization that fits in the spot occupied by SOND. If you deleted SOND from the network, its density would drop by 34%. The network is reasonably coherent if groups can communicate through SOND and be coordinated or convened by SOND. But SOND has no staff or budget. Thus the network is less robust than it looks, although the very existence of SOND lets us see the potential value of an organization in its spot.

    2. We need more organizations with grassroots constituencies. The map includes some. For example, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is included because of its membership in the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. But I would say there is a rough inverse proportion between centrality in this network and size of grassroots base. With a few exceptions, such as the League of Women Voters, the organizations that have the most citizen members are peripheral to civic renewal, and the pure civic renewal groups are grant-supported professional organizations or foundations.

    3. We need more diverse leadership. I would roughly estimate that at least 90% of the top leaders of these 117 organizations are white and have college degrees.

    4. Certain organizations play significant bridging roles, not as coalitions but as active members of multiple coalitions. The Kettering Foundation has four memberships within this network; Everyday Democracy and CIRCLE have three. Several organizations belong to two coalitions.

    5. There is a reasonably broad ideological mix in the network as a whole. A simple left-right spectrum seems crude for understanding how these groups differ, but it is interesting that the network includes both ACORN and Teach for America (for example). Without taking a position on the issues that divide these two organizations, I would classify both as having a strategy for “civic renewal”–but each has a very different strategy.