Monthly Archives: June 2013

the model of We are the Ones …

My new book, We are the Ones We Have been Waiting For (which you can get from Amazon on October 8), essentially presents the following model:


In part, this model is empirical. The arrows are causal, so they depend on data about  society as a whole and evidence about the performance of particular programs and initiatives. If a given effort works, that strengthens the case for doing more of it. (“Can implies ought.”)

But the model is also openly moral (or “normative,” in the sense that philosophers use that word). I favor the elements of the model for moral reasons, and the programs whose success I cite were built by people who had moral motivations for their work. For instance, educators don’t randomly decide to enlist teenagers in community service projects and observe what happens. They choose this strategy for principled reasons, and when it does not work as they hope, they improve their programs and try again. So their loyalty and hope are partial explanations of the empirical results on which my model is built.

In most comparable models (e.g., Positive Youth Development or Asset Based Community Development), the moral aspect is undeveloped–or so I argue. That is because social science teaches us that values are simply facts about people. A person just happens to believe X instead of Y. For a scholar, believing X is a limitation or bias to be disclosed and minimized.

I argue, instead, that an essential task is to get the values right. This is not just a matter of avoiding evil, but of fine-tuning one’s principles until they are fully satisfactory. That process is as difficult–and as important–as fine-tuning one’s statistical model. When people think generically about “getting the principles right,” they start worrying about moral skepticism and relativism. How can we know if our principles are right? Once we put such abstract worries aside, we can get down to business. We articulate our principles and the reasons for them in public forums in which other people may ask critical questions: Does your moral theory actually align with your practice? Does your moral theory account for another principle that is important in my moral theory? If not, why not? The result is a more robust moral view, analogous (and closely related to) a more robust empirical theory.

I would like to think that my model rests on moral deliberation as well as extensive empirical evidence. It also has a third basis: strategic analysis. I hope that by introducing and defending this model to actual readers, I will help them to modify their actions so that the world changes (at least modestly) in the direction the model suggests. I know that my readers will not be very numerous or powerful, and that fact informs the model. If the Supreme Court asked my opinion, I might make different suggestions, but this is an intervention meant for realistic numbers of my fellow citizens, situated more or less as I am.

In brief, the criteria for a good social model are:

  1. Empirical validity
  2. Moral rightness
  3. Strategic impact

I am not certain that the model in We are the Ones … is correct, but these are the standards by which I would like it to be judged.

educating the public when people don’t trust each other

(This is the fifth in a series of blog posts by CIRCLE, which evaluated several initiatives funded by the Democracy Fund to inform and engage voters during the 2012 election. These posts discuss issues of general interest that emerged from specific evaluations. This item is cross-posted from The Democracy Fund.)

Although low trust for Congress is widely known, it may be just as significant that “a dwindling majority (57%) [of Americans] say they have a good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions” (Pew Research Center, 2007). That trend is consistent with a long and steady decline in generalized social trust, or trust in fellow citizens.


If most people trust their fellow citizens but not the government, they are open to populist forms of political reform, such as referenda, recall, and transparency laws. If most people trust the government but not the people, they may want to consolidate power in the hands of political leaders. But if they trust neither, any reform agenda has a difficult path, and restoring trust in fellow citizens emerges as an important precondition of reform.

When we asked a representative sample to make open-ended comments about today’s political advertising, many respondents blamed voters for deceptive rhetoric, often describing their fellow Americans in scathing terms. They said, for example:

  • “Most people are sheep, the politicians know this and use propaganda to further [their] own ends. But not all of us are sheep, I try not to play into [their] bullshit.”
  •   “Allowing sheeple [people who act like sheep] to vote reduces elections to pure pandering.”
  • “Deceptive advertising is reprehensible and ugly, and its popularity today reflects the American public’s inability or unwillingness to think critically and objectively.”
  • “Most American people believe everything they see on TV and do not take the initiative to research what they are hearing to ensure its validity. This results in the wrong people being elected to offices- people who make our situation a lot worse instead of improving it.”
  • “It’s a sad state of affairs that the political advertising used today is effective because of a largely ignorant electorate.”
  • “The general public doesnt know the difference between propaganda and rhetoric and I find most people too lazy to to research topics that they dont understand or dont know what a law is, they just blindly trust the person to be telling the truth.”
  • “The political ads are of low quality because their target audience is of low quality ….”
  • “There will always be deception in Politics. How else are you going to get a mass amount of ignorant and uneducated people to follow you?”

We coded only 7 percent of all the open-ended responses as critiques of the American people, so we cannot conclude that this was a majority opinion. On the other hand, our question was very broad—about political advertising in general—and it is notable that 42 people took the opportunity to denounce their fellow citizens.

Similarly, in evaluating Face the Facts USA, John Gastil and Dave Brinker asked representative Americans to watch videos of online conversations, and asked “After watching [the video], do you feel that you would be more able to participate in a political conversation?” Most responses were favorable, but some expressed critical views of the people featured in the videos:

  •  “NO, it made me quite upset and I lost a little faith in humanity listening to all the right wingers”
  • “I don’t think this will help any political discussions because as was evident in observing some of the chat, liberals and democrats are incapable of remaining calm and decent 100% of the time and right wingers are incapable 90% of the time.  Check that fact!!  🙂    People are dug into their positions and there is a war coming, it’s just a matter of when, not if.”

In conjunction with survey data about declining social trust, these responses indicate a challenging situation.

However, as part of the same Face the Facts initiative, AmericaSPEAKS also convened citizens to deliberate in Google Hangouts. Compared to a control group—and compared to people who simply received one-way informative materials—citizens who were randomly chosen to deliberate were more likely to express faith in their fellow citizens as deliberators. Their attitude was measured by their agreement with these statements:

  • “The first step in solving our common problems is to discuss them together.”
  •  “Even people who strongly disagree can make sound decisions if they sit down and talk.”
  • “Everyday people from different parties can have civil, respectful conversations about politics.”

So it would appear that actually engaging other people in discussion makes people more favorable to deliberation. Most citizens do not have such experiences. Expanding the scale and prevalence of discussion would have benefits for nonpartisan political reform.

The previous entries in the series can be found below:

1 – Education voters in a Time of Political Polarization
2 – Supporting a Beleaguered News Industry
3 – How to Reach a Large Scale with High-Quality Messages
4 – Tell it Straight?  The Advantages and Dangers of Parody

civic studies at Frontiers of Democracy 2013

Former members of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies and their colleagues have put together a track of discussions for this summer’s Frontiers of Democracy Conference. They have designed an exciting mix of theory, practice, and applications to particular topics–notably, the incarceration crisis. To attend part or all of this mini-conference, you must register for Frontiers.

Friday, July 19, 2013. Tufts University campus in Medford, MA

8:45    Civic Studies:  What is it? What can it become? What research questions are pressing? What do we need to know? How do we find it out? This session explores the state of civic studies as a field. Four years after the inaugural Summer Institute of Civic Studies, where is the field today and where is it going?

Opening Remarks

  • Karol Soltan and Peter Levine, Co-directors and Co-founders of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies

9:00    Civic Studies: What is it? What can it become? What research questions are pressing? What do we need to know? How do we find it out?

  • Tim Shaffer – Director, Center for Leadership and Engagement, Wagner College
  • Peter Levine – Director, CIRCLE, Tufts University
  • Ian Ward – Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Maryland

Moderated discussion including discussants and attendees

Closing Remarks

  • Moderator: Elizabeth Gish, Western Kentucky University

10:15    Break

10:30    Prisons and crime as venues of civic work and topics for civic research/social scientific phronesis

  • Andrew Nurkin – Executive Director of Princeton AlumniCorps, Princeton
  • Peter Pihos – doctoral candidate, University of Pennsylvania
  • Albert Dzur (Bowling Green) and John Gastil (Penn State), via remote presentation

Crime and its aftermath exists at the uneasy boundary between egalitarian civic engagement and expert-led public work. Crime calls for a coordinated civic response, yet routinely criminal justice is institutionalized and bureaucratized, placing it out of the realm of amateur citizen action. How can citizens bend the course of the system that costs hundreds of billions of dollars annually and involves difficult legal, economic, and psychological issues?  In this panel, we will explore the efforts of scholars in the burgeoning field of civic studies to detail the history and promise of antiviolence campaigns, citizen-led police oversight, prison education, and the participatory politics of the jury.

Moderated discussion including discussants and attendees

Closing Remarks

  • Moderator: Joshua Miller, Morgan State University

12:00    Lunch

1:00   The Theory and Practice of Civic Studies: What do we mean by theory/practice, practitioners/academics? How can we think and write better at these intersections?

  • Karol Soltan – Associate Professor, The Department of Government and Politics, University of Maryland
  • Jen Sandler – Director, University Alliance for Community Transformation, UMass Amherst
  • Elizabeth Gish – Western Kentucky University
  • Moderated discussion including discussants and attendees

Closing Remarks

  • Moderator – Tim Shaffer

2:45    Break
3:00    Interactive Capstone: Advancing Civic Theory and Practice

In the study of democracy, ethics, and politics, there is often a perceived tension between theory and practice. Or a divide between “academics” and “practitioners.” This conversation explores these distinctions and tensions in the context of civic studies, asking how we can think and write better at these intersections.

Reflecting on today’s panels and discussion, what do we need to move forward?

Who is this “we”? What networks or actions will sustain this work?

Fifty years in the future, what would a healthy Civic Studies look like?

  • Facilitators – Liza  Pappas, City University of New York and Alison Staudinger, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

In this session, we’ll reflect on the work of the day, as well as build networks and concrete plans to tackle the key problems for civic studies going forward. Moderators will lead participants through individual and paired reflection exercises and will model a “one on one” organizing technique that will help us connect our reflections to our stories, develop our relationships, and gauge what we share in common. We’ll end the session examining what the future of civic studies might hold.

4:30    Break

Albert O. Hirschman on exit, voice, and loyalty

Jeremy Adelman’s recent biography of the recently deceased Albert Hirschman has prompted good writing: see Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, Cass Sunstein in the New York Review, and a nice discussion at the Reality-Based Community.

For me, Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty is a touchstone. The insight of this book is that we have two potential responses when we don’t like an institution or community. We can leave it (“exit”) or we can advocate change (“voice”). When both options are available, what causes us to choose voice over exit is loyalty.

I study citizenship, which has a lot to do with voice and loyalty. I happen to think that Hirschman’s emphasis on voice omits work as another means of improving situations. That said, his scheme is powerful and illuminating. It usefully challenges laissez-faire economics, civic republicanism, and socialism.

Hirschman believed in exit. It saved his life, since he was a refugee from tyranny. And he endorsed exit from businesses as a means of improving them. Exit is the fundamental market mechanism: owners must either produce good services or lose their customers. Because Hirschman understood the value of exit, he was not a classical republican or a socialist.

But he saw that exit will not solve all our problems …

For one thing, monopolies actually like people to exit. It helps them maintain their power without changing their behavior. For instance, if there really is no alternative to the cable company, then disgruntled customers will make a fuss, using their voices to cause trouble. The cable company prefers the angriest people to leave (albeit at some cost and inconvenience). Non-murderous dictatorships, like today’s People’s Republic of China, use the same strategy, encouraging their toughest dissidents to go into exile.

Bureaucrats in governments and corporations are not necessarily constrained or chastened by exit. Why should they care if some employees or customers leave? One of the limitations of standard public choice theory (a la James M. Buchanan) is its attribution of the same motives to bureaucrats as entrepreneurs. Both are assumed to want bigger operations. But this is only true of some bureaucrats. At least as many would like to see people leave. The workload shrinks and the most troublesome individuals depart. For instance, leaders of urban public school systems do not suffer because some kids leave for private schools and charters. At the extreme, they could lose their jobs–but senior bureaucrats are the last to go. In the meantime, exit just makes their jobs easier.

Besides, exit confers no information. You can count the people leaving, but that doesn’t tell you why they’re exiting or what would make them stay.

Hirschman quotes Milton Friedman’s argument for school vouchers. “Parents [with vouchers] could express their views about schools directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending them to another, to a much greater extent than is now possible. In general they can now take this step only by changing their place of residence. For the rest, they can express their views only through cumbrous political channels” (p. 16).

Hirschman responded (with dry sarcasm):

I am not interested here in discussing the merits of the Friedman proposal. Rather, I am citing the above passage as a near perfect example of the economist’s bias in favor of exit and against voice. In the first place, Friedman considers withdrawal or exit as the “direct” way of expressing one’s unfavorable views of an organization. A person less well trained in economics might naively suggest that the direct way of expressing views is to express them! Secondly, the decision to voice one’s views and efforts to make them prevail are contemptuously referred to by Friedman as a resort to “cumbrous political channels.” But what else is the political, and indeed the democratic, process than the digging, the use, and hopefully the slow improvement of these very channels? (p. 17)

If exit is the only means of improvement, then human organizations and communities are like species in a Darwinian struggle for survival. They just do what they do, and the ones that lose their customers or employees die off. But Darwinian struggle is incredibly wasteful, slow, and inconsistently beneficial. (Cockroaches are much “fitter” than tigers, but which is more impressive and beautiful?) We humans can do a lot better than that, but it takes thinking, communicating, and listening. In a word, it takes politics.

One of the commentators on the Reality-Based Community (“Ebenezer Scrooge”) puts the point well:

I work as a bureaucrat in a bureaucratic business organization. I therefore know a little something about bureaucratic employment practices. … Any management that primarily relies on exit information is way behind the curve. When the cost of exit is high (as it is in most employment), almost all forward-looking information comes from voice. Employment exit is only useful for upper levels of management, who need some accessible metric to evaluate lower levels. There is a way to generalize this. The invisible hand is–ultimately–the invisible hand: incentives matter. Lousy monopolists ultimately collapse. But the force and fingers of the invisible hand are often social structures … .

If you are trying to set the rules of the game at a very high level, e.g., by writing a constitution, you should allow exit, both to preserve human rights and to create competition. But if you actually work in an organization or a community, you’d better encourage and listen to voice. That is what will determine your success and survival. Strengthening markets may increase the incentive to promote voice, but people must still learn to communicate and listen.

Finally, the choice between exit and voice is fundamentally ethical and relates to the question of a good life. I am not saying that voice is always better. The right thing to do can be to resign from a committee or go into exile as a matter of conscience. (“Ich kann nicht anders.”) And sometimes exit is fine just because the moral stakes are very low–you are entitled to walk out of one pizza joint and into another because the slices there are better.

But there are important situations in which staying and speaking is the right thing to do. That idea is invisible if we imagine that market competition is the only means for improving institutions. Not only is voice in some circumstances the more honorable choice, but it creates the potential for various forms of satisfaction and fulfillment that are lost if one casually exits. As Hannah Arendt wrote, the Americans of the Revolutionary era “knew that public freedom meant having a share in public business, and that the activities connected with this business by no means constituted a burden but gave those who discharged them in public a feeling of happiness that they could acquire nowhere else.”

Another weakness of Chicago School economics is defining incentives too narrowly. The opportunity to speak and be heard, the satisfaction of responding well to someone else’s thoughts, and the reputation one can acquire from effective speaking–those are powerful as well as honorable human motives.

tell it straight? the advantages and dangers of parody

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts by CIRCLE, which evaluated several initiatives funded by the Democracy Fund to inform and engage voters during the 2012 election. Our posts discuss issues of general interest that emerged from the specific evaluations. Join CIRCLE for an ongoing discussion of the posts using the hashtag #ChangeTheDialogue, as well as a live chat on Tuesday, June 25th at 2pm ET/1pm CT/11am PT.

Parody is powerful. Scholarly papers by Young Mie Kim and John Vishak, Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, Amy Becker, Michael Xenos, Xiaoxia Cao, and others have found that late-night comedy influences viewers’ political belief and attitudes. Presumably, parody works by motivating viewers to pay attention (when they might tune out less amusing material) and by provoking strong emotions, such as disdain for the person being parodied. In turn, those basic emotional framings strongly affect how people collect and interpret factual information. A parody can also spread “virally” if people enjoy it and choose to share it. The popularity of shows like the Colbert Report demonstrates the appeal of satire.

The challenge is that some people do not get the joke. For example, Flackcheck produced a parody video entitled “Could Lincoln be Elected Today?” that purported to be a television ad from the 1864 election. Its purpose was to teach viewers to shun deceptive advertising from real, modern campaigns.

Other experiments seem to suggest that these parodies were just as effective at informing viewers as more traditional fact check articles found at places like

However, we found that substantial numbers of people did not understand the parodic purpose of this video. Two-thirds (67.4%) of all respondents thought that it was reminiscent of real campaign ads shown today. That was the intention of the parody, and two-thirds “got” it-but the remaining one third did not.

Three quarters (76.2%) thought that the Lincoln video was deceptive in that it would have been unfair to compare President Lincoln to Benedict Arnold, as the video did. Again, that means that most of the respondents understood and agreed with the premise of the video. But about one quarter did not.

A few thought that Lincoln is overrated; they were pleased that the video would reduce his popularity, which they took to be its intent. About two percent of the respondents saw a partisan purpose to the video, e.g., “Well done video. An obviously very pro Obama video,” or “This video was obviously made by left wing nuts.”

Some other responses:

“It was disrespectful to our 16th President. Negative ads should be banned from all government elections”

“I think it was stupid and who ever used it, or if it was used, should never hold an office in this country and the public should have been outraged.”

“Anyone who believed this video was and is a traitor to the USA.”

Overall, we can conclude that most people understood the video, but there was substantial “leakage” in the form of people who missed its parodic intent, thought that it was fair to compare Lincoln to Benedict Arnold, were furious at it, or otherwise drew the wrong message from it.

Anyone working to educate the public about politics in a nonpartisan way faces a choice. Very straightforward messages may come across as boring or preachy and may not be viewed willingly, let alone shared. Funny messages spread further, but a significant proportion of the recipients miss the point–and they may be the very people who would most benefit from a deeper insight into politics and public affairs.

This post is cross-posted on the Democracy Fund blog. Stay tuned for more analysis in the upcoming weeks. The previous entries in the series can be accessed at:

  1. Educating Voters in a Time of Political Polarization
  2. Supporting a Beleaguered News Industry
  3. How to Reach a Large Scale with High Quality Messages