Monthly Archives: May 2015

America’s Civic Renewal Movement: implications for youth engagement

(Detroit) On April 16, Tisch College released “America’s Civic Renewal Movement: The View from Organizational Leaders” by me and Eric Liu, the founder and CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program.

At Tisch College, we define “civic renewal” as efforts to increase the scale, impact, and equity of civic engagement in the United States. With support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we interviewed 20 leaders from large, national organizations that organize civic engagement about strategies for civic renewal.

The focus of this report was not youth, nor were many of the interviewees young people. Nevertheless, the key findings are applicable to efforts to increase the scale and impact of youth civic engagement.

First, several of the organizational leaders interviewed for the paper lamented the lack of youth in formal settings, such as public hearings or lobbying efforts. They suggested that youth are interested but are not invited or encouraged to participate in these ways. Bill Muse from the National Issues Forums Institute said that younger people are rarely enlisted as moderators of community conversations, but when they do moderate, they do a fantastic job. Lenny Mendonca of McKinsey & Co., who serves on several influential nonprofit boards concerned with democracy, said that most of his peers are “people like me, middle-aged white men who want to help.” He wants to see younger people, people of color, and non-English-speaking people in leadership roles.

Second, the paper makes the case that the grassroots activists who enable civic participation are essential for civic renewal. Large and powerful institutions such as the federal government, school systems, political parties, and the mass media lack incentives to support civic engagement; and average Americans have had too little civic experience to demand more. But there are grassroots civic leaders who are deeply invested in civic activities. They have the skills and motivations to create new opportunities for others.

The paper finds that civic organizations as diverse as Citizens for Self-Governance, Ducks Unlimited, MoveOn, Student Veterans of America, and United We Dream (all included in the study) work on civic renewal—although without using that term—but do not yet form a coherent network. Among the twenty organizations, some have reasonably compatible political agendas, but few work together. The paper makes a case for network-building in the cause of civic renewal.

The paper also proposes a taxonomy. Groups can be large (reaching many people) or deep (helping their members to achieve profound personal change). Groups can be ideologically and philosophically diverse, or they can be focused on a shared agenda. The authors find a lack of organizations that are large and also diverse; this appears to be a gap not only among the interviewees’ groups but in the whole current landscape of American civil society. And they find that the large groups struggle to be deep, and vice-versa.

For instance, Scott Reed of the faith-based PICO network said that his organization “invests lots and lots of time to connect with people and develop relations.” But “scale is what we are trying to figure out … because we are nowhere near where we want.” Meanwhile, Anna Galland of MoveOn acknowledged that the online organization has “tremendous scale and little depth.” MoveOn’s goal, she says, is to “move from a list of 8 million to horizontal connectivity.”

Young people are coming of age at a time that the interviewees described as highly polarized, unequal, and corrupt. They are also developing their civic identities when there is not yet a robust network for civic renewal, although there are many impressive groups that could form such a network.

For people primarily concerned with civic education and civic engagement, the paper poses questions about how to build a base of active supporters, how to connect them into more effective networks, and how to offer young people organizations that are deep as well as large, and diverse as well as focused.

Read the full report here. For more on Tisch College’s research on civic renewal, go here. This post is cross-posted from the CIRCLE site.

defining “games”

I am reading Josh Lerner’s Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics because it makes an important argument. Games are fun for specific reasons; most political processes fail to be fun because they lack those elements; and we could make politics more fun without sacrificing serious purposes if we learned from game design. That’s the great value of the book, but here is a philosopher’s digression ….

Lerner (p. 29) defines games as “systems where players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in measurable outcomes.” My ears perk up at any definition of “games” because Ludwig Wittgenstein famously avoids defining that word in his Philosophical Investigations. There he observes that games come in many different forms and asserts that no single feature defines them all. Games constitute a family of cases, each of which resembles several others even though they are not all alike in any particular respect. We know how to use (and teach) the word “game” even though we cannot define it in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. This observation is important for Wittgenstein because he believes that language is a heterogeneous set of games. And we think in language. Thus our thought is a set of practices that lack a common feature, yet we can learn to think and communicate.

Lerner offers a definition. He emphasizes relevant and important features of many practices that we call “games”–features that we should heed when we design political processes, which is Lerner’s interest. One wouldn’t need his definition to understand the word “game”: I have been playing games for almost half a century without thinking in Lerner’s terms. His doesn’t exactly work as a literal definition, because, for instance, a business competition could easily be an “artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in measurable outcomes” such as profit and loss. If that competition is devoid of fun, we wouldn’t call it a “game,” except metaphorically. Also, if you showed Lerner’s definition to someone who had never played a range of games, it wouldn’t communicate what he has in mind. This person might think of standardized tests, duels, court cases, and other artificial conflicts that we don’t usually call “games.”

This is not a criticism of Lerner. I think his definition plays its intended role in his book. He presumes some real world experience with games and provides many vivid examples to expand one’s store of cases. His definition points to general tendencies in those examples that are important in a different context, politics. That is a typical and appropriate way to advance an argument. But I am left thinking that Wittgenstein was right about the indefinability of the word “game.”

(As a digression on this digression: Wittgenstein wrote in German, and the word “Spiel” means both “game” and “play.” For Lerner, the differences between the English words “game” and “play” are important; to make politics more game-like is different from making it more playful. Does Wittgenstein fail to see a common denominator to all “Spiele” because that word encompasses play as well as games? I don’t think so: all of his examples are actually “games” in the English sense. His argument works perfectly well when translated.)

overview article on civic engagement

Newly out this weekend is: Levine, P. 2015. Civic Engagement. Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences (2015), 1–7.


Civic engagement is usually measured as a set of concrete activities, from voting to protesting, that individuals undertake in order to sustain or improve their communities. Higher rates of civic engagement generally correlate with desirable social outcomes. Education and socioeconomic status predict whether individuals participate, but programs that recruit and organize disadvantaged people are effective at boosting their civic engagement. Although it is valuable to know the causes and consequences of these behaviors, the ideal of civic engagement is intrinsically normative, connected to basic debates about what constitutes a good society and a meaningful human life. In the future, civic engagement research should not only be an empirical investigation into concrete behaviors but also a reorientation of research throughout the liberal arts to serve civic ends. That will require more fruitful combinations of empirical, normative, and strategic thinking.

(The uncorrected page proofs are available here.)

medieval iconoclasm and modern prejudices

More than 1,000 years ago, the Christian world was consumed with a violent conflict over religious images: whether they should be venerated or destroyed as idols. That conflict, which brought down emperors, has resonances today. But even before the days of ISIS, modern historians were mining the obscure quarrels of medieval Christian iconoclasm for evidence of their own prejudices.

For instance, in this passage, John Julius Norwich (1929-) explains why iconoclasm declined during the 9th century:

The times, too, were changing. The mystical, metaphysical attitude to religion that had originally given birth to iconoclasm was becoming less fashionable every day. Of the eastern lands in which it had first taken root, some had already been lost to the Saracens; and the populations of those that remained, beleaguered and nervous, had developed an instinctive distrust of a doctrine that bore such obvious affinities with those of Islam. There was a new humanism in the air, a revised awareness of the old classical spirit that stood for reason and clarity, and had no truck with the tortuous, introspective spiritualizings of the Oriental mind. At the same time a naturally artistic people, so long starved of beauty, were beginning to crave the old, familiar images that spoke to them of safer and more confident days. And when, on 20 January 842, the Emperor Theophilus died of dysentery at thirty-eight, the age of iconoclasm died with him.

I don’t like to speak evil of the living, but this is pretty bad. I can pass over the undocumented and surely exaggerated claims (“less fashionable every day”; “so long starved of beauty”). I can forgive the emphasis on royal biography and chronology as explanations for larger trends, because the medieval sources focus on affairs of court. It’s much harder to ignore Viscount Norwich’s view of “the Oriental mind” as irrational and mystical.

Edward Gibbon, although just as judgmental as Norwich, organized his prejudices differently. In the Decline and Fall, he associates the veneration of images with the “long night of superstition,” when Christians forgot the “simplicity of the Gospel” for the “worship of holy images.” The “holy ground was involved in a cloud of miracles and visions; and the nerves of the mind, curiosity and skepticism, were benumbed by habits of obedience and belief.”

He is talking about the centuries when Norwich’s “old, familiar images” were still venerated. But then Leo III began the iconoclastic era. Although the emperor was less learned than a classical Roman, “his education, his reason, and perhaps his intercourse with the Jews and Arabs” made him criticize images. Leo came from the East and may have been influenced by the still-further-eastern Muslims. Yet Gibbon has no hesitation in claiming that Leo’s movement showed “many symptoms of reason and piety.”

Ultimately, it was a female ruler who restored the “idols,” which were always “secretly cherished by the order and the sex most prone to devotion; and the fond alliance of the monks and the females obtained a final victory over the reason and the authority of man.” A final victory, that is, until the “reformation of the sixteenth century, [when] freedom and knowledge had expanded all faculties of man: the thirst of innovation superseded the reverence of antiquity; and the vigor of Europe could disdain those phantoms which terrified the servile weakness of the Greeks.”

If you’re going to use medieval theological controversies to reinforce modern stereotypes, Gibbon’s version at least seems to make more sense that Norwich’s. Norwich tries to establish a spectrum from the iconoclastic East to the reasonable West. But consider the Pilgrim Fathers who founded New England. Surely they favored “tortuous, introspective spiritualizings”; and their churches were stripped of all images, even crosses. Their brethren in Cromwell’s England and Protestant Holland also smashed religious pictures, as did the later secular republicans of revolutionary France and civil war Spain. “According to Georg Kretschmar, ‘Calvin built up the most precise and radical position opposed to the icon theology of the 787 Council of Nicea.'” As a consequence [of Calvin’s iconoclastic writing] Protestant places of worship have a stark austerity in comparison to Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches.” Yet, according to Norwich, a starkly austere church is “oriental,” whereas one bedecked with sparkling icons recalls the “old classical spirit that stood for reason and clarity.”

The moral of this post is not that historians are biased or that orientalism prevails. I have cited just two writers, one of them dead since 1794. Real professional historians work hard not to let such prejudices determine their views. But Gibbon and Norwich are influential authors–the first redeemed by his superb style and enlightened spirit; the second, a poor substitute.

making big donors part of the political debate

Peter Beinart quotes an estimate that $5 billion may be raised from private donors for the 2016 election, much of it coming from extremely rich individuals who are able to keep relatively low profiles. Some of these donors may personally give amounts in the hundreds of millions. Here is a case for forcing them onto the public stage.

On one hand, there is no doubt that their money conveys power. You can’t make a serious run at the White House without raising hundreds of millions of dollars. Barack Obama did comparatively well at raising small contributions, yet (according to our good friends at the Center for Responsive Politics), 68% of his support–almost half a billion dollars–came from “large individual donors” in 2012.

On the other hand, the only true power is the vote, which is distributed to adult citizens equally (leaving aside felony disenfranchisement and a few other exceptions). Billions are spent to persuade voters how to use their power. But voters have the ability not to be persuaded, and they have–collectively–far more persuasive power over their fellow citizens than all the big donors and professional campaigns in America.

So campaign money is both a massive force and a kind of phantom, theoretically susceptible to being ignored and therefore becoming irrelevant.

Of course, there is something romantic and bootless about that latter point. It’s like saying that HIV has no real power because we could all just stop having unprotected sex and the virus would go extinct. Its power is very real because human behavior is predictably imperfect.

Likewise, we could imagine, per Habermas, that the only power becomes the power of the stronger argument. But real people (including me) will miss valid arguments unless they are loudly and repeatedly delivered, and we will accept invalid arguments that are effectively transmitted. Since expensive political communications are generally untrustworthy, it would be better if everyone ignored them all and decided how to vote based on personal discussions and reflections and high-quality news media. But as long as they are pervasive, they will matter.

The question, then, is how to break the spell of money. Beinart has a suggestion. He observes, “Right now, while presidential candidates experience proctological scrutiny from the press, mega-donors experience relatively little. As a result, they wield enormous power over government policy without facing the public glare that, in a democracy, those with great political power should have to endure.” His proposal: the news media should put the mega-donors under close scrutiny, reporting all their statements and positions and financial interests. Then a candidate who takes money from Billionaire X would gain power to communicate but also become associated with the embarrassing personal opinions and interests of the said Billionaire.

This is not a direct strategy for getting people to ignore what money buys. It actually makes money more central (while perhaps discouraging candidates from taking funds from some sources). The reporting that Beinart recommends will encourage ad hominem arguments, i.e., not “You are wrong because your premise is mistaken” but “You are wrong because you took money from a guy who said offensive things.” But once you are using large amounts of money to purchase influence over voters, your motives and goals do become relevant. If campaign spending is “speech,” then a donor is a speaker in the public sphere who can be held to account. And Beinart’s proposed strategy could be a disruptive move that, while it does not create an ideal political conversation, breaks the spell of the current one.