Monthly Archives: March 2013

on debating the 2nd amendment in the Senate

On March 14, Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) clashed over the 2nd Amendment during a committee hearing. (Video here.) If you search the Web for the exchange, you’ll find headlines like this, “Senator [Cruz] Schools 6th Grade Senator Dianne Feinstein … on the US Constitution,” and others like this, “Feinstein Smacks Down Cruz Over Gun Ban.” A majority of the sites that carry clips or transcripts presume that Cruz won; they delight in turning Feinstein’s remark, “I am not a sixth grader,” against her. But several liberal sites portray the exchange as a clear win for the Democrat.

I am on Feinstein’s side on the issue of gun control. And I am open to the possibility that Cruz patronized her, “man-splaining” conservative 2nd Amendment doctrine as if Feinstein was a student. But she is the senior Senator from the nation’s largest state, and I would think she could take his rather scholarly question in stride. Indeed, Cruz put his finger on a central issue, and Feinstein owed him a real answer. The response I would recommend would go something like this ….

Senator Feinstein: Senator, I agree that all of us should begin with the Constitution as our foundational document. We owe the text respect as the charter that has carried us this far. Besides, every large group of people needs an agreement to regulate their interactions, and individuals cannot simply ignore the parts of the agreement that they dislike. Because the right to bear arms is in the Constitution, I will give it deference.

But none of us treats every line of the Constitution with equal respect. It isn’t holy writ. The original text acknowledged slavery. The 21st Amendment had to be enacted to repeal the 18th. There are many aspects of the fundamental design that could be improved, starting with the Electoral College. We are allowed to read certain parts of the document expansively while we treat others as challenges. Americans disagree about which clauses are inspiring and which are problematic, and that debate is an appropriate one.

I read the First Amendment expansively–more so than the Framers envisioned. I think it protects pornography, blasphemy, and knowingly false statements against public officials like you and me. I maintain that it absolutely forbids prior censorship and organized sectarian prayers in public schools. I think it gives freedom of the press to anyone who starts a blog (even though she doesn’t own a “press”). This is because I bring to the Constitution an elaborate theory of free speech that had already begun at the time of the Framers–Jefferson was an important source–but that has developed since then thanks to John Stewart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, and many others.

I will yield to you on the Framers’ intent when it comes to the Second Amendment, although I never thought they wanted individuals to own any weapons they chose. In any case, I dissent from an expansive theory that holds that private gun ownership defends us against tyranny or reduces crime. We can debate such theories, and I am obliged to consider all evidence. But I find it completely implausible that private gun ownership will deter the federal government from violating individual rights in the ways that our  government is prone to do.

Since the Second Amendment does not belong within a full political theory that I find plausible, I defer to it simply because it is actually in the Constitution, because a majority of Americans clearly prefer to keep it there, and because the Supreme Court has chosen to read it much as you want them to. I respect all that. But I am perfectly comfortable advocating legislation on the basis of an expansive definition of free speech and a narrow reading of the right to bear arms. This is not a contradiction; it is a political position that I proudly take within our constitutional order. The difference between you and me is not that one of us cares about the Constitution and the other flaunts it. We simply disagree about how to read and apply it, just as our predecessors have done for 226 years and our grandchildren will do after we are gone. Let us exemplify for them how responsible Americans disagree.

games, digital badges, and alternative assessments in civics

Badges are portable credentials that demonstrate that someone possesses a specific skill. They differ from diplomas, which signify the completion of a whole course of study. Critics worry that adopting badges widely would undermine the holistic value of a traditional degree, which is supposed to stand for more than the sum of its parts. That’s a valid concern, but I see huge advantages to badging for civics. For one thing, civics is now very poorly served by curricular mandates and tests; at best, students are required to learn and demonstrate very low-level, individual academic knowledge, rather than the interactive skills we need from citizens. But adding more elaborate assessments would just put new burdens on students and schools. Meanwhile, some young people do obtain advanced civic skills; but without specialized qualifications, they can’t demonstrate their abilities to college admissions officers, prospective employers, or citizens’ groups that might be looking for leaders.

To explore the pros and cons, CIRCLE’s Felicia Sullivan has written “New and Alternative Assessments, Digital Badges, and Civics: An Overview of Emerging Themes and Promising Directions” (published yesterday). She’s also produced a Prezi presentation to summarize the key themes:

(See also “the movement to badges in education, and what it means for democracy,” “badges for civic skills,” “the controversy over badges,” and Peter Levine, “Education for Civil Society,” in David Campbell, Meira Levinson, and Frederick M. Hess [eds.], Civics 2.0: Citizenship Education for a New Generation [Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2012], pp. 37-56.)

new information on youth voting in 2012

For national stats on the 2012 youth turnout, CIRCLE is a good place to start. But here are two important specialized studies by colleagues:

1. The California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis finds “dramatic disparities in voter turnout rates” in their state. In particular, they say, “California counties with the lowest eligible youth turnout are geographically clustered together, creating regional patterns of underrepresentation for youth.” The regions with the lowest turnout (the San Joaquin Valley, Los Angeles and the Northstate) also have the highest poverty and high school dropout rates in California. In a separate brief that focuses on the state’s new online voter registration system, CCEP shows that 18-24-year olds represented 30% of the online registrants; and “seventy percent of  young people who “registered online turned out to vote–25 percentage points higher” than the rate for those who did not register online. By itself, that doesn’t show that online registration increases voting (nor does CCEP claim it does), but it at least suggests that an online system is attractive to young people.

2. The Fair Elections Network’s Campus Vote Project has issued a report summarizing the state of election laws that might restrict student voting as of November 2012, along with the various efforts that they and others made to push back on these laws or to help students overcome barriers. For example, “schools in the University of Wisconsin system and private universities in the state took extraordinary measures to distribute newly required ID documents before the law was ultimately struck down in state court.” It may because of efforts like these that it’s hard to detect the effects of the new laws on aggregate youth turnout rates:


a social media war room for civic renewal

Big companies track mentions of their brands and products in social media and interject rebuttals or enthusiastic responses that lead consumers to buy their stuff. Upwell is a great organization that uses exactly the same techniques to promote its “client”–the ocean. Although supported by philanthropy, Upwell works for the ecosystems of the seas. For instance, when National Shark Week caused a lot of chatter about sharks, Upwell confirmed that most of the tweeters liked sharks and interjected information about conservation efforts, organizations, and legislation. Below is a cute illustration of their methods from their site, but they use a lot harder data than this.

We need an Upwell for civic renewal. Some smart young people should spend all their time in a war room, reading Tweets, Facebook posts, and other social media and identifying topics and events that connect to civic themes. They should work on behalf of a whole array of civic organizations–the kind I mapped here–and insert suggestions to join the most relevant groups, to support reform legislation, or to connect with people of like mind.

See also a video of me describing civic renewal and posts on “political reform on a base of civic renewal,””the folklore of communications and messaging,” and “against ‘messaging.’


I am not forty-six. It’s not six-ten.
I have no appointments and no inbox.
I am just a head pinned to a pillow,
An eye watching the shade turn from black
To a grey rectangle with pale white rims,
The same shape an infant would see before
It cried, or an old man on his last bed,
Or a cat on its side with its legs stretched.
The clock ticks until it buzzes, but while
It ticks, it ticks, and I am just a head.