Monthly Archives: October 2016

America: The Owner’s Manual

atom-cover-highresI’m delighted to see that the new edition of America: The Owner’s Manual is out. Senator Bob Graham, a truly dedicated leader for civic engagement, has written it with Chris Hand. They take the research, structure, and impact of the book with the utmost seriousness and have worked hard to revise it for a new edition. As I say in my blurb, “America, the Owner’s Manual is the only book that comprehensively explains how to be effective in American politics and civic life, and it does so brilliantly. It’s consistently practical, realistic, accessible, and inspiring. It’s perfect for anyone who wants to improve the world.” It works very well as a textbook, but you can also use it on your own or with a voluntary group.

Buy it here. Follow it on Twitter, @USAownersmanual; on Facebook, USAownersmanual; or use hashtag #ATOMbook.

a definition of “civic”

In phrases like “civic education,” “civic engagement,” “civic technology,” or (as in the name of our college) “civic life,” what does the word “civic” mean?  In conversations and writing about the topic, I detect several definitions. Each definition can be introduced with a different keyword:

  1. Power. Perhaps politics means influencing decisions and institutions to get the outcomes you want–or at least to move them closer to your preferences. In democracies, citizens have tools for increasing their influence, e.g., popular votes, petitions, strikes, and protests. “Civic” activities may mean tools for power and influence that are relatively democratic. That category would include popular votes but not presidential decrees; grassroots petitions but not professional lobbying efforts. Acts like voting and contacting government are often included in official surveys of civic engagement. Note that in this conception, politics is zero-sum (every decision has winners and losers), but what makes a form of politics “civic” is its accessibility to ordinary citizens.
  2. Virtue. The adjective “civic” is often paired with nouns like “virtue,” “character,” or “values.” In this conception, the civic is a subset of the political. It’s the best part, the part that exemplifies classical republic virtues, such as concern for the common good, patriotism or cosmopolitanism, commitment to law and to equity, and perhaps even self-sacrifice.
  3. The commons. Every society needs common resources as well as privately owned ones. Common goods may include natural resources (such as air), institutions (such as law), knowledge (such as general principles of science), and norms (such as trust). The whole commons is the “commonwealth,” a direct translation of the Latin res publica (public thing), from which we derive the word “republic.” The commonwealth can be created, expanded and protected, or exploited and degraded. According to some theorists, the civic is work that contributes to the commons. That would include paid work in for-profit enterprises if it produces public goods directly or as externalities. (Note the direct contrast with #1. There, civic engagement was generally zero-sum. Here, it is defined as win/win.)
  4.  Discourse. In some ancient and still-influential conceptions, the core function of a citizen is to deliberate about what is right and good. Public deliberation creates public opinion, which should influence institutions, such as states, courts, and perhaps firms and markets. Civic discourse is defined by deliberative values, such as genuine openness to what others are saying, commitment to truth, and pursuit of consensus. Classical civic institutions are spaces for discourse: newspapers, coffee shops, legislatures, and (now) the Internet.
  5. Community. People need social bonds: to be cared for and to care for others. Most human beings–and especially vulnerable people like children–thrive much better when they are embedded in an affective community. The norms and habits that form among people in such communities (“social capital”) are also resources that can be used for power, discourse, etc.  To  measure social capital, one typically aggregates behaviors like volunteer service and membership in groups, plus attitudes like trust and care. “The civic” is whatever contributes to such community bonds.
  6. Performance. Some would say that civic life offers spaces for people to perform and to be recognized by others. Life is richer and more satisfying when we can create personas and display them for others, and when others can acknowledge and appreciate who we are. The main purpose of a public debate is not to identify the best policy but to display characters. For instance, in the cabinet battles imagined by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson get to show off who they are, and that’s why it’s so great to be in “the room where it happens.” Debate is only one form of performance; activities like theater, spoken word, gaming, and design also count. On this conception, Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed might be the pinnacle of the civic.

I value all these things. It’s tempting to say, then, that the right definition of “the civic” is the union of all of them. But that seems a bit ad hoc, a miscellaneous assemblage of desirable behaviors and values. It would be better to have an organized account of how they all fit together. For instance, perhaps we need community to provide people with enough support that they can exercise relatively equal power, but power is best when informed by deliberative discourse. In turn, deliberation encourages attention to the commons, allows performance, and both requires and develops republican virtues.

That is a rather discourse-centered theory; one could instead make the various ideas center on the commonwealth, or on democratic exercises of power. It’s also reasonable to weigh some of these ideas much more heavily than others.

See also: what is the definition of civic engagement? and defining civic engagement, democracy, civic renewal, and related terms

questions about happiness

We discussed the following questions in my first-year philosophy seminar last week, after having read selections from Plato, Nietzsche, Epicurus, Buddha, and Emerson, and before turning to J.S. Mill. They seem valuable prompts for personal reflection, too.

  1. Do we have a right to pay much attention to our own happiness? (Twenty-one children under the age of five die every minute because of preventable causes. Why are we spending 75 minutes talking about happiness in class while 1,575 kids die?) Do we have a duty to pay attention to our own happiness?
  2. To what extent can we affect others’ happiness? Which others? How?
  3. Does happiness require autonomy, or community, or both? (Can you be happy alone?)
  4. Is it best to aim for a high state of well-being (bliss, satisfaction, etc.) or rather strive to avoid bad mental states (suffering, despair)?
  5. Are there other outcomes for ourselves that we should seek instead of, or as well as, happiness? E.g., excellence, authenticity, dignity? (I leave aside justice to others as a whole topic unto itself.)
  6. Do we know whether we are happy? What kind of knowledge is that? Can we be wrong about it?
  7. Can you tell whether someone else is happy? What evidence is relevant? Could you be right and they be wrong?
  8. Is it possible to compare two people’s happiness on one scale?
  9. Should someone else’s happiness affect my happiness? Under what circumstances?
  10. For an individual, is there one scale from suffering to bliss, or are there many different continua?
  11. What are the behavioral consequences of happiness? Does happiness necessarily produce observable outcomes at all? Is happiness that does not produce any good outcomes nevertheless desirable?
  12. Are there beliefs about the world that promote happiness? (E.g., only the present is real; or everything happens for a reason.) Are these beliefs true? Does that matter?
  13. To answer, “What is happiness?” must we answer metaphysical and epistemological questions? (E.g., your view of happiness might be very different if a benign creator has created your immortal soul, as opposed to living in a universe in which life is suffering.) The answer might also be different if I can–or cannot–know whether I am happy.
  14. What is the relationship between truth and happiness? Let’s disaggregate the virtue of truth into sincerity, integrity (truth to who one is), and responsible inquiry. Let’s break down happiness into pleasure, peace, satisfaction, etc. What are the relationships among these things?
  15. Could being good (or just) to others be a path to happiness for ourselves? Is that a reason to be good? Is that the only reason to be good?

state of the youth vote in 2016

CIRCLE has begun to release results from its survey of 1,605 Americans between the ages of 18 and 34. CIRCLE’s headlines are:

  • Most Millennials paying attention to presidential election, but far fewer to congressional elections
  • 30% of Clinton supporters contacted by campaigns, 28% of young Trump supporters contacted, 70% not contacted at all

Contact is important because it gives the recipients information and motivation to vote. These contact rates are disturbing low–and also uneven by region, gender, and party. Young men who live in battleground states have been contacted at nearly twice the rate of young women in “safe” states (38% vs. 20%).

Among likely young voters, Clinton beat Trump by 21 points (49% vs. 28%) in this poll, which was conducted between September 21 and October 3, 2016. USA Today/Rock the Vote released a youth poll yesterday that put the margin at 68%/20%. I’m not sure whether that difference results from methodological choices, such as the way the surveys define likely voters and present third-party candidates; but it is interesting that USA Today/RtV were in the field on October 11-13. The difference could therefore suggest a substantial improvement in Clinton’s margin since September.

The CIRCLE release presents additional information about young people’s attitudes, including this chart that compares the words that Trump supporters and Clinton supporters used to describe their own favored candidate.

to boost youth voting, teach civics and promote electoral competition

I have a short piece in the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” section this morning. It begins:

Once young adults start voting, the habit tends to persist for their whole lives. One way to boost young people’s voting — and their understanding of the political system and current issues — is to teach them civics while they are still in high school. Young adults are more likely to vote if they have experienced interactive civic education, if a teacher specifically taught them about voting, and if they discussed current events while they were teenagers.

After elaborating a bit on the importance of civics, I turn to political competition:

A wealth of experimental evidence also shows that young people respond well to personalized outreach: We have to ask them to vote. The organizations that have the greatest capacity to contact youth are parties and campaigns, and nothing would increase turnout as much as a robust competition for the youth vote.

Another contributor to the forum, Lisa Garcia Bedolla, also argues for personalized outreach, but Alan Gerber provides evidence that it is not hugely effective. I’d argue that outreach is particularly valuable for youth, who gain more than older adults do from information and encouragement, and who begin lasting habits of turnout. Finally, Jan E. Leighley and Jonathan Nagler make the case for being able to register on the same day you vote, which our research also finds beneficial for youth.