Monthly Archives: December 2011

Cedar Rapids Gazette editorial on youth voting

This op-ed of mine was published in the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette on Christmas Day (Dec. 25, 2011), but is not online.

America is watching the Iowa caucuses for clues about how the whole 2012 election will play out. Who will be the nominee? What themes and issues will predominate in the campaign? What new political and strategies will work this time around?

One of the most important questions is how youth will participate. By turning out, they can affect who wins and which issues are discussed, because they have distinctive values and concerns. Their participation also shapes the future of our democracy. A generation that votes and participates while its members are young will remain engaged for decades to come, whereas a generation that is alienated will take but slowly to politics.

In 2008, youth played an important role in the Iowa caucuses, more than tripling their turnout compared to 2004 and opting strongly for the eventual winner, Barack Obama. Four fifths of young Iowa caucus-goers participated on the Democratic side, but young Republican caucus-goers also helped to pick the state’s winner, choosing Governor Mike Huckabee by a substantial margin.

The Iowa caucuses set the tone for the whole season. Youth turnout was strong in the primaries and general election. Young people supported Obama to an unprecedented extent. Not only did they vote, but they set the record for campaign volunteering and were generally enthusiastic and engaged.

Certainly, 2012 could be different. Like older Americans, many young people are discouraged and angry. Recent focus groups conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found Iowa’s young people much less enthusiastic than they were in 2008.

Yet Iowa has a strong and durable tradition of youth participation. The state’s youth turnout rate in general elections always exceeds the national average and is sometimes near the top of the rankings. The same is true of community service and volunteering, in which young Iowans excel.

Although a discouraged national mood may push youth participation down, Iowa’s strong civic traditions should boost turnout if campaigns, politicians, and civic leaders work to engage young people in the election.

The research on youth voting offers some lessons.

  • Reach out to young people personally: they respond much better to individualized encouragement and two-way conversations than to mass advertising and news events.
  • Keep the message relatively moderate and bipartisan. Of the young Iowans who participated in the 2008 GOP caucus, more considered themselves “moderate” than “very conservative,” and that balance reflects national trends.
  • Don’t forget the 17-year-olds, who have a right to participate in Iowa’s caucuses if they will turn 18 by November 2008.
  • Finally, give young people serious responsibilities in the campaign—they will perform well and bring their peers with them.

Peter Levine directs CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

the feds want your input about deliberative democracy

The Federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) conducts research that “compares drugs, medical devices, tests, surgeries, or ways to deliver health care.” Traditionally, drugs and other interventions are approved if they meet basic criteria of effectiveness and safety, but they are not compared, so we may  pay for and use expensive and wasteful tools. Comparative research is fought tooth and nail by the pharmaceutical industry and is sometimes implicated in hot public debates about health care reform (“death panels” and the like). Indeed, it can raise value-tradeoffs, for instance between price and effectiveness, as well as merely technical issues like which drug has more side-effects. Any time value onflicts arise, the legitimacy of decisions by an administrative agency will be questioned.

In the stimulus bill of 2009, the AHRQ was authorized or required (I am not sure which) to organize public deliberations on the topic. They define public deliberation by “three core elements”:

(1) Convening a group of people (either in person or via online technologies to connect people in remote locations),
(2) Educating the participants on the relevant issue(s) through dissemination of educational materials and/or the use of content experts, and
(3) Having the participants engage in a reason-based discussion, or deliberation, on all sides of the issue(s).

Implicitly, they distinguish public deliberation from “stakeholder” input, which is a separate objective. (See my complaints about stakeholder processes.) The agency is going to fund “a randomized controlled experiment comparing five distinct methods of public deliberation to find the most effective approaches for involving the general public.” Some of the methods will be online; others, face-to-face. They will also vary in the size of group and the duration of discussion.

Right now, they are seeking public comment on this whole project. Written comments should be submitted to: Doris Lefkowitz, Reports Clearance Officer, AHRQ, by email at doris dot lefkowitz at Jan. 30 is the deadline.

man the unwedgeable and gnarled oak (thoughts on Measure for Measure)

Duke: Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ’twere all alike
As if we had them not. … (Act. 1 Sc. 1)

Lucio: Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt. (Act 1, c. 4)

Angelo: … ‘Tis very pregnant [natural],
The jewel that we find, we stoop and take’t
Because we see it; but what we do not see
We tread upon, and never think of it. (Act 2, Sc. 1)

These are statements in the form of generalizations about human beings. They come from the first two acts of Measure for Measure. The form–a maxim about us–is not unusual in Shakespeare. (Cf. Kent in Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well,” and many other examples.) But the frequency seems notably high near the beginning of this play.

In Measure for Measure, the main pair of lovers is guilty of “fornication,” which is a capital offense in the fictionalized setting of Vienna. No one in the play doubts that premarital sex is wrong. The question is whether it is inevitable because of human nature. Lucio claims that fornication is “impossible to extirp … till eating and drinking be put down.” He argues that laws against fornication would prevent the species from reproducing. Speaking of the Puritanical tyrant Angelo, Lucio says: “this ungenitured agent will unpeople the province with continency; sparrows must not build in his house-eaves, because they are lecherous.” (Again cf. Lear: “The wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly / Does lecher in my sight.”)

Since Lucio is himself a lecher and a hypocrite, his view is hardly authoritative. But the holy and chaste Isabella has a more persuasive argument against inflexible rules. “Man,” she says, is an “unwedgeable and gnarled oak” (Act 2, sc. 2). She sounds like Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” This is an argument against inflexible laws.

In short, the explicit question facing the characters in Measure for Measure is about human nature; hence the drumbeat of maxims near the beginning. In addressing that question, the characters must remain within the bounds of Christan thought. Their community has  friars and nuns, and Isabella is a source of orthodox theological wisdom. Christians may argue about freedom and original sin, but they cannot claim that all laws and moral strictures are arbitrary human conventions.*

That is why Lear makes an interesting comparison. Its setting is explicitly pagan. Major characters are cast out of society onto the natural heath, where a person is just a “poor, bare, forked animal.” The King (albeit, when mad) comes to see all laws as oppressive conventions. The possibility opens up that life is meaningless: “Ripeness is all.”

Following Stanley Cavell, I think Lear demonstrates that one should not ask general questions about human nature and the purposes of human life. Those questions will yield nihilistic conclusions that are really excuses for avoiding emotional connections and responsibilities for other people. That is a view derived from Montaigne and ancient skeptics. It’s not really acceptable in Christian Vienna, where institutions are derived from providence, and souls are destined for salvation.

*No one uses the word God in Measure for Measure–instead “Jove” is used–but I presume that is because of scruples about taking the Lord’s name in vain on the stage. Also, the setting appears to be Catholic, even though Catholicism was illegal in Shakespeare’s England. Still, the characters are recognizably Christian.


nine general but contradictory truths

My recent post about Native American youth demanding respect makes me think that we must keep several principles in mind, even though they conflict with each other:

1. The odds are against constructing a full and flourishing human life unless you have a secure home and neighborhood, health care, nutrition, and educational opportunities–including informal learning experiences, such as the ability to buy books or afford some occasional travel.

2. Yet the most important aspects of a full and flourishing human life (relationships, cultural expressions, understanding the external world, developing a complex inner life, and having self-respect) must be created by individuals and networks. They cannot be provided by outsiders. Further, individuals and communities can flourish fully on very low incomes, whereas some wealthy communities are hollow.

3. Yet relationships, cultural norms, and the grounds of self-respect are also often the causes of tragedies and injustices. Some cultural norms are just bad–such as discrimination. Others are commendable but have costs because they do not fit with the norms of a broader society. For example, working-class American parents have attractive parenting styles and expectations that do not prepare children well for white-collar careers.

4. To change human behavior on any large scale requires shifting the incentives, the penalties and benefits. We need to get laws, markets, and entitlements right.

5. Yet people are smart enough to subvert and compromise any system of incentives if they do not want to comply with its objectives. Even without incentives, people sacrifice when they motivated to do so and when peers expect them to do so.

6. Wise leadership requires a breadth of experience and knowledge. If you want to influence public affairs, you are obliged to challenge yourself by listening to people who are different from you, by visiting remote places (in person or through media), and by studying difficult topics.

7. Yet communities that cannot afford education or interactions with diverse outsiders still have the capacity for wise leadership. Highly educated people sometimes make the worst leaders.

8. Repressive power is not monopolized by official institutions (governments, armies, corporations) but is diffused through all human interactions and often exercised unconsciously in ways that wound both the ostensibly powerful and the putatively powerless.

9. Yet every venue of human interaction (even the limiting cases, like prisons and psychiatric hospitals) are also sites of creativity, collaboration, and a deepening of human subjectivity.

Because these principles are all true and yet they produce dilemmas when combined, I am especially interested in practices such as Positive Deviance, asking The Right Question, Power Cube analysis, social accountability, and public deliberation (all briefly described here) that start with local knowledge and assets while also developing and challenging people to do better.

Vaclav Havel

I think my fondness for the late Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) can be explained partly in generational terms. He became world-famous when I was young–the Velvet Revolution occurred the year I graduated from college as a student of political philosophy–and Prague turned into the European destination for young Americans, supplanting Paris. Images of the president of Czechoslovakia walking to his office in the Prague Castle in jeans, leather jacket, and backpack were icons matched only by photographs of Nelson Mandela from the same years.

Havel in 1990, visiting the prison where he had been incarcerated, via Columbia Journalism Review

I was going to write some substantive comments about Havel’s political thought, but I find that I’ve already noted the main points here. In short, his genius was to understand that politics need not be about trying to reach some kind of outcome that matches your values or interests and that can be codified in laws and politics. (He called that a “technological” understanding of politics, taking the terminology from Heidegger.) The alternative is politics as open-ended dialogue and caring interaction with other people, moving not toward a known goal but rather embodying an authentic community.

The limit of Havel’s thought was his inability to bring that kind of “antipolitics” with him into power. The dissidents who opted out of Communist society constructed an authentic community–because they had no ability to make decisions binding on others. Once Havel was thrust, like some fairy-tale character, into the Castle made famous by Kafka, regular politics took over and the magic was gone. His country literally split in half against his wishes, and the “other Vaclav,” Vaclav Klaus, steered the rump Czech Republic in a neoliberal direction. But Havel never lost his personal compass nor his sense of irony, humor, and compassion.

If we could learn how to preserve the ethic of a dissident movement after it achieves power, we would find the key to the deepest afflictions of modernity. Meanwhile, we should salute Havel as one of the few who courageously and skilfully tried.

(By the way: Vaclav is pronounced VATZ-lav. It sounds better that way and it’s correct. Fittingly, it means Wenceslas: the Good King and the quasi-legendary father of the Czech people.)