Monthly Archives: March 2012

civic relationships (what they are and why they matter)

For about a decade, I have been arguing that the heart of democracy is deliberation plus collaboration–talking, listening, and working together. I have put my position in slogan form: deliberation without collaboration is empty, but collaboration without deliberation is blind.

I am increasingly aware that a third term ought to be added–for theoretical reasons and also because it is explicit and important in the work of practitioners whom I respect. The term is “relationships,” but I would narrow it to specifically civic relationships.

Participants in politics and civic life frequently say that they prize relationships with other participants. Civic relationships generate power, they build communities, they reflect values and principles, and they are intrinsically rewarding.

In 2001, Doble Research Associates conducted focus groups for the Kettering Foundation on the topic of testing and accountability in schools. That year, the No Child Left Behind Act codified the national movement toward regular measurement of students and schools and promised parents choices if their schools were deemed to have failed. In short, the relationship between a public institution (the school) and its citizens was defined in terms of information and consumer choice. But in the Doble focus groups, parents were highly resistant to the idea that testing would improve education. For one thing, they wanted to hold other parties accountable, starting with themselves. A Baltimore woman said, “If kids don’t pass the test, is that supposed to mean that teachers are doing a lousy job? That’s not right. I mean where does the support come from? You’re pointing the finger at them when you should be supporting them.” Another (or possibly the same) Baltimore woman explained, “When I think about accountability, I think about parents taking responsibility for supervising their children’s learning and staying in touch with teachers.” This respondent not only wanted to broaden responsibility but also saw it in terms of two-way communication.

Many participants wanted to know whether schools, parents, and students had the right values. They doubted that data would answer that question. And although the Doble report doesn’t quite say this, I suspect they envisioned knowing individuals personally as the best way to assess their values. The focus groups turned to a discussion of relationships:

First woman: People don’t know people in their communities any more.
Second woman: That’s right. I was raised in an area where you knew everyone. That’s just the way it was. But you don’t know your neighbors anymore.
Third woman: I have neighbors that lived next door to me for nine years and they don’t even wave or talk to anybody in the neighborhood.

And so on—the conversation continued in this vein. Note that this was supposed to be a focus group about accountability in education. One Atlanta woman summed it up: “What we’ve got to do is develop a stronger sense of community between the schools and families in the community.” I suspect that she envisioned a situation in which school staff and parents knew one another, shared fundamental values, and committed to support one another.

Similar results emerged from focus groups conducted ten years later, after American parents had gained access to a deluge of new data on test scores and school spending. According to the Public Agenda Foundation summary, “Typically, people know almost nothing about specific [accountability] measures, and they rarely see them as clear-cut evidence of effectiveness. For most people, the best evidence that a system is working is its responsiveness and the personal interactions they have with it. “You can’t even get a human being on the phone” is perhaps the chief indicator of failure.

Implicitly, these citizens understand the concept of “social capital.” In fact, when the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam revived that technical term in his scholarly article entitled “Bowling Alone” (1995), he hit such a chord with the public that he was featured in People Magazine. Depending on one’s theoretical framework, social capital can be understood as a public good or resource that people produce by engaging civically, as a measure of their engagement, or as a precondition of active citizenship. In any case, it means the strength, distribution, and quality of relationships in a community. Thus, in the book version of Bowling Alone, Putnam defines social capital thus:

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals [such as their own skills], social capital refers to connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called ‘civic virtue.’ The difference is that ‘social capital’ calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations.”

Before Putnam, the most influential scholar of social capital had been James S. Coleman, who had found that young people benefited tangibly from “the social relationships that exist among parents,” the structure of those relationships, and “the parents’ relations with institutions of the community” (Coleman, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” 1988). If social capital predicts important outcomes, such as success in school, then enhancing relationships becomes a promising strategy. In keeping with the work of Coleman and Putnam, many grassroots organizing groups now explicitly aim to reform education by strengthening relationships that involve educators, parents, and students themselves.

In traditional issue-based organizing, an organizer “already has an issue such as education reform in mind.” He or she may believe that a particular change in official policy (such as more or less testing) would benefit the students. But “in relational organizing, an organizer builds a one-on-one relationship with individuals, trying to know everything about these leaders and members—even things that might at first seem to be irrelevant to education reform. The ideas for campaigns come about more slowly that way, but some argue that groups engaging in relational organizing can be more successful in the long term.” [Celina Su, Streetwise for Book Smarts: Grassroots Organizing and Education reform in the Bronx (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,  2009), p. 16]

Even in Saul Alinsky’s day, community organizing was explicitly concerned with creating and building relationships among diverse residents of poor neighborhoods. Alinksy, however, was skeptical about relationships with the government, which he treated mainly as a distant target of public pressure. His skepticism was evident in his writing and in his daily practices. The Industrial Areas Foundation, which he started, would never take government grants, because Alinsky wanted to retain its fundamental independence. However, in the decades after his death, the IAF has broadened its conception of relationships to include government officials and corporate executives. “IAF ‘accountability nights’ with public officials have undergone a significant shift, from confrontational meetings designed to embarrass and expose leaders in the 1970s to forums designed to consolidate incipient relationships in full public view.” [Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland, Civic Innovation in America: Community Empowerment, Public Policy, and the Movement for Civic Renewal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 51] More generally, the modern IAF now teaches a “relational” view of organizing and of power.” Similar ideas pop up in other networks. Helen Johnson, who organizes in Mississippi, observes that “The whole idea of community organizing is really about relationship building.” [Mark R. Warren, Karen L. Mapp, and the Community Engagement and School Reform Project, A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 139] Often community organizers say that when they seek new recruits, they are looking for people with a “relational” sense.

This vocabulary is not limited to community organizing but is also seen in kindred fields, such as civic engagement for youth. Sistas and Brothas United in the Bronx works on school reform but devotes time to cultivating relationships among youth and between young people and adults. Nathaniel, a teenage organizer, reports “We have fun things. We do trips. And, on a personal level, we chill with each other … We definitely relate differently.” And one of his colleagues observes that these relationships have made her “able to understand people better, not only personally, but what they’re trying to say when they speak at meetings.” [Su, p. 85]

Of all the strands of civic renewal, formal public deliberation seems the most remote from “relational” politics, because individuals are recruited to talk for a limited time and then disband. But participants in juries and policy deliberations often develop strong emotional ties. Further, the organizers of deliberations tend to believe that their own role is to strengthen relationships among citizens. Thus Harold Saunders describes the West Virginia Center for Public Life, which organizes state-wide deliberations on public issues, as having a “relational paradigm.” [Harold H. Saunderrs, Politics is About Relationships: A Blueprint for the Citizens’ Century (New York: Palgrave, 2005), p. 150]

For democracy, reciprocal relationships of concern and support are not sufficient. A civic relationship has the following specific features.

  1. Unlike a family tie, a deep friendship, or a romantic partnership, a civic relationship is non-exclusive. In fact, a community’s social capital is higher if diverse residents are connected by a broad and dense web of relationships. Citizens ought to expand and diversify their own relationships; exclusion and partiality are problematic in civic life.
  2. Although civic relationships involve identities, interests, private concerns, and personal stories, they are not simply personal. For a relationship to be “civic,” it must involve talking, listening, and working on public issues or problems.
  3. A civic relationship need not be “civil,” if that implies politeness and frequent expressions of positive emotions. It can rather encompass sharp disagreements. But the relationship must be predicated on the value of the other person as a fellow citizen, seen as someone who should be encouraged to participate in the common life. Thus civic relationships are connected to particular civic virtues, including loyalty and hope.

justice as bargaining

No legal system has ever met its ideals, but we have shifted even our aspirations and principles for criminal law in troubling ways. We used to believe that a trial was an opportunity for a court (including both the professional judge and the lay jurors) to discover the truth, to reach a just verdict, and to communicate a message to the accused, the victims, and the community, all after deliberation that combined facts with values and that was constrained by law.

We now presume that the purpose of the criminal law is to assign the most appropriate verdict and penalty to each defendant in the most efficient way. A jury trial really doesn’t serve that goal very well, and thus we have almost completely abandoned trials in favor of plea-bargaining. When trials still occur, the jury no longer plays many of its traditional roles, such as directly questioning witnesses and setting penalties. The deliberative, communicative, symbolic, and explicitly moral aspects of the traditional process are gone, even as ideals.

In two decisions yesterday, the Supreme Court addressed a serious flaw in the modern system. If everything is plea-bargained, then the right to a competent counsel implies the right to be well represented during the negotiation process; incompetent representation creates a right to review. So the court decided. What interests me is the majority’s acknowledgement that justice is now defined by efficient bargaining among professionals. As Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority in Missouri v Freye (PDF):

Ninety-seven percent of federal convictions and ninety-four percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas. … Because ours “is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” Lafler, post, at 11, it is insufficient simply to point to the guarantee of a fair trial as a backstop that inoculates any errors in the pretrial process.“ To a large extent . . . horse trading [between prosecutors and defense counsel] determines who goes to jail and for how long. That is what plea bargaining is. It is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.” Scott & Stuntz, Plea Bargaining as Contract, 101 Yale L. J. 1909, 1912 (1992). … In today’s criminal justice system, therefore, the negotiation of a plea bargain, rather than the unfolding of a trial, is almost always the critical point for a defendant. … To note the prevalence of plea bargaining is not to criticize it. The potential to conserve valuable prosecutorial resources and for defendants to admit their crimes and receive more favorable terms at sentencing means that a plea agreement can benefit both parties. In order that these benefits can be realized, however, criminal defendants require effective counsel during plea negotiations.

To be sure, competent representation is a necessary condition of justice, but it is hardly a sufficient one. Saving prosecutorial resources and shortening jail sentences (against a background of 2.3 million Americans in prison) are not the only valid objectives. Justice as bargaining is an idea that needs much more critical scrutiny.

state of the youth vote race

According to our exclusive estimate, 4% of eligible young voters participated in yesterday’s Illinois primary. They favored Mitt Romney but were his weakest age group. Our tally of cumulative youth votes so far* stands at approximately 246,000 for Romney, 224,000 for Santorum, 220,000 for Paul, and 114,000 for Gingrich. No perfect comparison can be made to 2008, because the order of the states that voted was different, but Barack Obama had at least 740,000 youth votes by a roughly equivalent stage in the campaign.

I think the alleged youth surge for Ron Paul is now over, since he is in third place in a field that is drawing poor youth support. Turnout in November is unpredictable, but young voters still seem unmoved by the Republican candidates.

CIRCLE cumulative youth vote graph

*Including only IA, NH, FL, SC, NV, MI, AZ, GA, MA, OH, TN, AL, MS, VA, and IL. In other states, there was no exit poll or the youth sample was insufficient.

participatory budgeting in the US

Participatory Budgeting means asking deliberative groups of citizens to decide how to invest public money. It began in Brazil, when (as I understand the story) the Workers’ Party finally took over after years of military dictatorship. They had promised amazing benefits for all but couldn’t afford their promises, so they created a more democratic process for allocating capital budgets. The process saved their popularity and has survived when conservative parties have rotated into office. It has been found to promote equity and efficiency as well as civic engagement.

Certain elected officials in the US have begun using PB to allocate their own discretionary budgets. Those include Chicago Alderman Joe Moore and New York City Councilperson Brad Lander. PB is being used in a few whole municipalities as well. Gabriel Hetland and Abigail N. Martin report in The Nation that Occupy Wall Street participants have been debating, and in some cases, advocating PB as a way of bringing “participatory democracy inside” the government. The advocates have formed the Community Democracy Project (CDP) to advance PB. The critics, however, are “deeply skeptical of anything that smacks of cooperation with the state.” (Back to the Sixties, anyone?)

Generation Me?

A new article by Jean Twenge and colleagues is getting extraordinary attention from the news media and is being hotly debated in fields concerned with youth civic engagement.* The article argues that young people today–the so-called Millennial Generation–are relatively self-interested, unengaged, distrustful, and unconcerned about social justice and the environment compared to their predecessors. The main evidence is a set of trends like those shown below, which are taken from the vast and highly-respected federal survey of high school students known as Monitoring the Future. These particular questions are behavioral (e.g., Do you think about social problems? In your personal actions, do you make an effort to conserve energy and help the environment?).

Several of the declines are significant, and one could add other such trends. Participation in face-to-face meetings, interest in the news, working on community projects, joining unions, attending religious services, and joining clubs and groups have all declined for youth since the 1970s. Although youth turnout was higher in the presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 than it had been during the 1990s, turnout in off-year elections was consistently higher from 1974-1994 than in 1996-2010. (Off-year elections are arguably better measures of youth engagement than presidential elections, since the latter are more volatile and subject to choices by a few campaign managers.)

On the other hand, as Twenge et al. concede, the youth volunteering rate has climbed since the 1970s. They dismiss that increase as a result of external forces (mandates and rewards for community service), but most large-scale trends in youth behavior can be attributed to context rather than choice. Certainly, whether you vote or join a union has a lot to do with the behavior and resources of parties and unions, respectively. The long-term decline in trust for other people is deeply troubling, but few analysts would be satisfied with saying that young people refuse or fail to trust other citizens. The social context is surely responsible.

Twenge et al. move from the trends shown above (notice all those wavy, non-parallel lines) to two kinds of broad generalization. One is a thesis that civic engagement is down–overall. That conclusion requires combining and weighing many different variables. If one chose presidential-election turnout, Internet-use, and volunteering as the key measures of engagement, the trend would be up instead of down. So the narrative is sensitive to choices about what to include and emphasize.

Their second generalization involves generations. Almost any civic trend will show frequent ups and downs–as in the graph above. A generation is a way of simplifying that complex story. You are even simplifying if you lump together all the young Americans who were born in the same specific year. Distinguishing contemporaries by their educational attainment, race, gender, religion, and ideology would reveal dramatic gaps at any given point as well as divergent trends over time. In fact, differences in civic engagement by social class utterly dwarf changes in average youth civic engagement over time.

Below is an illustration from a CIRCLE report that is supposed to make the point that young people differ an awful lot in their civic engagement. Averages are basically uninformative. (Click the graphic for the report.)

Twenge et al. interpret and simplify complex data in a way typical of psychologists. They administer a battery of survey measures to a particular group of youth (182 San Diego State University undergraduates) to see how the measures cluster. They do not choose their measures randomly but use items that will help them explore specific psychological constructs, such as self-esteem, altruism, conformity, communitarianism, and narcissism. They conclude that rising narcissism really underlies the trends in the larger population.

There is nothing technically wrong with this method. The authors do not use their undergraduate sample to make generalizations about frequencies or trends in the national population, but only to build a conceptual model for interpreting national trends. For that purpose, their sample need not be nationally representative, although it would be interesting to see whether the same patterns emerge, for example, among high school dropouts.

My concern is not technical but philosophical. As I argued at more length recently, civic engagement is not primarily a psychological construct having to do with motives, personal values, and behaviors. It is rather (or also) a set of  actions and values that a good society needs from its citizens. Which behaviors and values are most important depends on one’s theory of a good society. Perhaps volunteering and voting in presidential elections are most valuable, in which case we are in good shape. Or perhaps trust is more important, in which case the decline has been profound and inexorable. The answer lies not in psychological research but in our conception of a good community. Further, the causes of civic engagement and disengagement are unlikely to reside inside young people’s heads. If, for example, being contacted by a political campaign is an indicator of civic engagement, then the reason for the decline from 1972-2o08 was a set of choices by campaigns, not by youth.

In short, I think Twenge et al. provide a helpful reminder that the civic engagement of our young people has changed in many ways, at least some of which are troubling. Their article could be misleading, however, if it led readers to assign too much importance to personality traits or to ignore enormous differences among young people, or if it seemed to prove that certain behaviors are most important for democracy.

*“Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concern for Others, and Civic Orientation, 1966-2009,” Jean M. Twenge, PhD, and Elise C. Freeman, MA, San Diego State University; W. Keith Campbell, PhD, University of Georgia; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, online. PDF currently available here.