Monthly Archives: June 2016

the lack of diversity in philosophy is blocking its progress

I’m on vacation this week and most of next, so I’m not blogging. However, a piece of mine has just appeared in Aeon, entitled “The lack of diversity in philosophy is blocking its progress.” It begins:

Philosophy is a remarkably un-diverse discipline. Compared with other scholars who read, interpret and assign texts, philosophers in the United States typically choose a much higher percentage of their sources (often, 100 per cent) from Europe and countries settled by Europeans. Philosophy teachers, too, look homogeneous: 86 per cent of new PhD researchers in philosophy are white, and 72 per cent are male. In the whole country, only about 30 African-American women work as philosophy professors.

the politics of discontent

We just finished a Frontiers of Democracy session entitled “The politics of discontent: it works in practice, but can it work in theory?” The premise is that we live in an age of discontent. To theorize about that means to ask: what is discontent, what causes it, and how can we use it to build a better society?

I am actually somewhat skeptical that a category called “discontent” is helpful for describing such a range of phenomena as Trump, Sanders, Brexit, etc. An alternative view would be that there’s a political status quo, and people are inevitably more or less contented with it depending on where they stand across a broad political spectrum. At any time, many people are discontented, but they don’t have anything particularly important in common. Some of them have valid grievances and some don’t. What we might call a climate of discontent is just the aggregate of all the variously unhappy people and movements. The aggregate is likely to be worse when economic times are bad, because then the pie is smaller, but discontent is natural.

Here are some other views that emerged in the discussion:

  1. There is a shared basis of discontent, and it’s procedural. People don’t feel heard; they don’t have opportunities for engaging each other. This discontent is valid, and the solution is more and better democracy. (I’d like to believe this thesis because it would validate a lifetime of work in political reform. But I’m not sure I do believe it.)
  2. There isn’t yet–but could be–a shared basis of discontent if we had better ways of talking with each other across partisan and demographic divides.
  3. There is a shared and valid basis of discontent, and it’s social/economic. For instance, Sanders supporters and Trump voters–and even Brexit voters–share a common root grievance: a global financial system that is cozy with governments and receives bailouts from everyone else. Even if these movements express their views in different ways, similar policies might satisfy them all.
  4. Most of the discontent is coming from formerly privileged groups losing their advantages. A better phrase for it is “right-wing ethnonationlism.” That certainly excludes Sanders voters and Black Lives Matters, but it wouldn’t be valuable to categorize them together with the nationalist right under a heading like “discontent.” Let’s acknowledge that we live at a moment of right-wing ethnonationism when there is also some energy on the left.
  5. This is not particularly a time of discontent. Many aggregate measures of well-being and confidence are up. There are some angry voters, but a total of about 25 million people have voted for Sanders and Trump combined so far (in a nation of more than 200 million adults). The ultimate winner of the presidential campaign is likely to be the most “establishment” candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1992. An odd result for year of discontent.

opening remarks at Frontiers of Democracy 2016

We meet at a sobering moment. This conference is a descendent of a meeting organized in 2008 called No Better Time. Today does not seem like “no better time.”

The most thoughtful predictions give a man who has been called a fascist by senior members of his own party a 30% chance of becoming president. If the doctor gave you a 30% chance of succumbing to a deadly disease within the next five months, you wouldn’t draw a lot of comfort from the thought that you’re more likely to survive. Like that patient, our republic is in danger.

Meanwhile, fascist candidate Marianne Le Pen leads French polls for president, drawing twice as much support as the incumbent. Strongly paternalistic and antidemocratic nationalist leaders—all strong men—already dominate most of the nations in an arc from China and Russia to Hungry. Venezuelans are fighting in supermarkets for loaves of bread for their children because of a crisis of governance. The Arab Spring has turned into five consecutive years of repression in the whole region and slaughter in Syria, where 400,000 have died with no end in sight. And here in the United States, a man can murder 49 human beings because they are gay. Some are inspired by the sit-in in Congress, but hardly anyone really expects the government to make changes that will reduce the chances of the same thing happening again.

Bertold Brecht wrote a poem in 1939 entitled “To Future Generations”:

Truly I live in dark times!
A sincere word is folly. A smooth forehead
Indicates insensitivity. If you’re laughing,
You haven’t heard
The bad news yet.
What are these times, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many misdeeds,
When, if you’re calmly crossing the street,
It means your friends can’t reach you
Who are in need?

This we knew:
Even hatred of humiliation
Distorts the features.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
Could not ourselves be kind.
But you, when
one can help another,
Think of us

This is the context in which we gather for Frontiers. Indeed, it could be said that there is no better time to meet

We are hardly alone, of course. We have many allies around the world. In fact, right at this minute, by sheer coincidence, a conference has begun at the Central European University in Budapest entitled “Frontiers of Democracy.” Seeing a photo of their sign, texted by a friend, I thought of another poem written in 1939.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages …

Perhaps we can send some light in the direction of Budapest and many other places around the world.

I have given a dark picture, albeit with some ironic lights. None of that implies that we can’t have fun. Working together to build a better world is a source of satisfaction, even joy. We can exemplify the pleasure and humor that comes from civic life at its best. I hope you will enjoy every aspect of Frontiers, especially your interactions with one another. If we let civic life turn dreary, few will chose to participate, and politics will be left to the ruthless.

At the same time, we must be profoundly serious. The stakes couldn’t be much higher. We must squarely face unresolved problems, such as how to expand civic values and practices to the scale of nations and the globe, how to tap the power of social movements, and how to define and confront evil.

We must do more and better, and we must change fast. We have a lot to accomplish in the next 48 hours. Let’s get to work.

pragmatism and the problem of evil

Discussing Dewey in the Summer Institute of Civic Studies yesterday, I (and, I think, several colleagues) had the sudden recognition that American pragmatists tend not to deal with evil very persuasively. In The Public and its Problems, Dewey writes:

Nevertheless, the current has set steadily in one direction: toward democratic forms. That government exists to serve its community, and that this purpose cannot be achieved unless the community itself shares in selecting its governors and determining their policies, are a deposit of fact left, as far as we can see, permanently in the wake of doctrines and forms, however transitory the latter. They are not the whole of the democratic idea, but they express it in its political phase. Belief in this political aspect … marks a well-attested conclusion from historic facts. (p. 146)

Dewey’s idea is that we can’t justify processes like electing leaders a priori. There is no natural right to vote; it doesn’t depend on a social contract. Rather, it’s a “deposit of fact” left from human learning over many centuries. Voting exists because we have learned to vote. Fortunately, that process is progressive and beneficial: the current has steadily flowed toward democracy. It is crucial not to fetishize any given process or right, because we will come up with better ones later. When we think of documents like the Constitution, Dewey says, “the words ‘sacred’ and sanctity’ come readily to our lips” (pp. 169-70), interfering with our critical reasoning and our ability to learn from experience.

These words were published in 1927. About 14 million people were sentenced to the Gulag from 1929 to 1953. Auschwitz opened in 1940. The current was not exactly steady in the direction of democracy. Robert Zaretsky has a beautiful piece in today’s Times about how not being occupied during World War II made Americans–probably white Americans more than others–“stupid.”  According to Zaretsky, Czeslaw Milosz was fairly indulgent of our stupidity, although he diagnosed it clearly. It is precisely the kind of foolishness suggested by the first sentence in Dewey’s quotation above.

What if we said the following instead? Human beings torture each other, enslave each other, carpet-bomb each other, and intentionally wipe out whole communities. This happens often. Enough: it has to stop. Translated into constitutional terms, “thou shalt not torture people” turns into a right to due process and rule of law. We must do our best to make such rights sacred and nonnegotiable. They are not literally sacred, in the sense that God or nature decreed them. But they are bulwarks against cruelty, which is the worst of us, to paraphrase Judith Shklar’s Liberalism of Fear. When everything is left open to experimentation and learning, people may spend hundreds of years “learning” that they can own other people or that Jews are blood-sucking parasites. We should rather treat as sacred and unamendable such passages as Article One of the German Constitution:

(1) Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. (2) The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world.

I think that there are pragmatist replies to this kind of liberalism, but I can’t be satisfied with them unless they explicitly invoke and address the problem of evil. I’m worried about this kind of theme in Dewey (ably summarized by John M. Savage in John Dewey’s Liberalism):


I’m all for cultivating democratic habits, but that’s not the only bulwark against tyranny. It’s also helpful to ban tyranny and to make that prohibition permanent.

CIRCLE briefing on Donald Trump and the Youth Vote

Medford/Somerville, MA – Young people have turned out in record numbers for the 2016 GOP primaries and caucuses. Now that Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee, researchers at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) – the preeminent, non-partisan research center on youth engagement at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life – today released an analysis of his level of support from young people during this primary election cycle. This briefing examines how Mr. Trump’s support from young voters stacks up with previous Republican nominees, as well as implications for the general election.

The briefing offers findings in response to several key questions:

How did Donald Trump do among young people who voted in the primaries?

  • Generally, Donald Trump has received a lower level of support from youth, ages 17-29, than from older voters, particularly those over 45: averaging roughly one-third of the youth vote vs. 43 percent of older voters.
  • In the first 21 states for which youth data are available, Mr. Trump won 17 overall and received a plurality of youth votes in just 11.
  • As the Republican field narrowed, young people who identified as or with Republicans showed greater levels of support for Mr. Trump in states like Pennsylvania and Indiana.

How does Trump’s youth support compare to that of previous Republican nominees?

  • Mr. Trump has received a slightly larger proportion of estimated youth votes in the primary season than previous Republican nominees Senator John McCain (2008) and Governor Mitt Romney (2012).
  • In 2016, both parties’ nominating contests remained competitive for many months, which may have driven youth turnout.
  • While Republican youth have been underrepresented in recent primary and general elections, this year youth participation in the Democratic and Republican contests has been rather evenly split. Currently, in the states for which data are available for both parties, 55% of young primary participants have voted in Democratic contests, while 45% have voted in GOP contests.

How do young people overall view Donald Trump?

  • As a whole, young people view Mr. Trump unfavorably, with young women and non-white youth, who together make up roughly 70 percent of the youth electorate, viewing him even more unfavorably; young people with less formal education have shown greater levels of support in the primaries.
  • Our analysis shows that among “solid Republican” youth, 8 out of 10 are non-Hispanic Whites; and this group skews slightly male.
  • Among all young eligible voters, 78% do not have a four-year college degree—whether because they have no college experience or because they are in college but have not yet graduated.
  • Mr. Trump also performs well with young people who are disillusioned with the overall state of the country.

What are the potential implications for the general election?

  • Two major factors may affect Donald Trump’s performance with young voters in November: education and ideology/party affiliation.
  • Young people without a four-year college degree—one of Mr. Trump’s strongest constituencies among youth—tend to vote at higher rates in general elections than in primaries. However, their overall turnout is still fairly low. This could inform Mr. Trump’s campaign outreach strategy and suggests a need to mobilize a great deal of non-college youth to move the overall youth electorate in his favor.
  • Consistent with the political polarization of the general electorate, about two-thirds of young people who participated in the Republican primaries identified as conservatives rather than moderates.  However, like many young voters today, young Republican primary participants were less likely than older voters to identify with the Republican Party.

For CIRCLE’s full briefing, please see hereCIRCLE’s 2016 Election Center will continue to offer new data products and analyses providing a comprehensive picture of the youth vote, including a forthcoming analysis of the presumptive Democratic nominee Secretary Hillary Clinton. CIRCLE researchers also will provide insight into key states where young people have the potential to shape the 2016 general election, as rated in CIRCLE’s Youth Electoral Significance Index.