At the National Conference on Citizenship in Washington, DC, 250-300 people are collectively building a model of civic life in America to strategize about civi renewal. Here is the state of the map as of 1:55 pm.
New chapter: “Democracy in the Digital Age,” The Civic Media Reader, edited by Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), pp. 29-47
Abstract: Digital media change rapidly, but democracy presents perennial challenges. It is not in people’s individual interests to participate, yet we need them to participate ethically and wisely. It’s easier for more advantaged people to participate. And the ethical values that guide personal relationships tend to vanish in large-scale interactions. The digital era brings special versions of those challenges: choice has been massively disaggregated, sovereignty is ambiguous, states can collect intrusive information about people, and states no longer need much support from their own citizens. I argue that these underlying conditions make democracy difficult in the digital age.
I’m back from a great meeting in Chicago in which one theme was the need to have honest, productive conversations between people who might support Donald Trump and members or supporters of movements like Black Lives Matter. I’d note a major obstacle: the fact that working-class white people–the demographic core of Trump’s support–don’t have organizations that answer to them. As an illustration, consider that just 6 percent of adult Whites without college educations now belong to unions. That’s below the rate for college graduates, many of whom have other organizations behind them.
A lack of organization blocks or distorts difficult discussions, for these reasons:
It’s literally hard to convene people who aren’t organized. Absent organizations, conversations tend to be online or draw highly atypical individuals who show up of their own accord.
People who have no organizations behind them usually feel powerless. If that’s how they feel, they are unlikely to want to participate in difficult conversations. Especially when the topic is their own ostensible privilege, they are likely to resist talking. To be clear: I believe that everyone who is White in the US gains privilege from that. But if I felt politically powerless, I would not be in a mood to have that conversation, especially with people who were better organized than I was.
People without organizations end up being represented by famous individuals–celebrities–who claim to speak for them and who claim mandates on the basis of their popularity. Celebrities have no incentives to address social problems; they gain their fame from their purely critical stance. And they owe no actual accountability to their fans, since no one (not even a passionate fan) expects a celebrity to deliver anything concrete. Donald Trump is unusual in that he has moved from a literal celebrity to a presidential nominee; but he still acts like a celebrity, and presumably he will return to being a pure mouthpiece once the election is over. Meanwhile, back at the grassroots level, a person who feels represented by celebrities is unlikely to talk productively with fellow citizens who disagree.
People without organizations cannot negotiate. For instance, imagine that an individual Trump voter becomes convinced of the case for reparations, or at for least for race-conscious policies aimed at equity. That person cannot literally support such remedies, because he has no means to enact them. All he can do is assent to their theoretical merit. That also means that he can’t get anything tangible out of a deal. He’s just being asked to concede a point.
In 1959, A. Philip Randolph helped found and led the Negro American Labor Council as a voice for civil rights within the labor movement. As he pressed and negotiated with his fellow labor leaders on matters of civil rights, he was giving their millions of White rank-and-file members the opportunity to discuss segregation and racism productively. Crucially, not only were the Sleeping Car Porters organized; so were the predominantly White autoworkers, steelworkers, and mineworkers. Randolph also had–and used–substantial leverage over a Democratic Party that was still dependent on working-class voters, White and Black.
I’m certainly not implying that everything went smoothly in those days and reached satisfactory conclusions, but Randolph at least had a strategy that made sense. In an era of niche celebrities, candidate- and donor-driven political parties, and weak civic institutions, that strategy looks much harder.
Counterargument: The Fraternal Order of Police is an organization. Its members, although diverse demographically and ideologically, need to be at the table for any discussion of racial justice. But the FOP has endorsed Trump; and in many local contexts, its spokespeople seem particularly unwilling to deliberate and negotiate. Hence being organized is not a path to productive conversations. … To which I’d respond: Privilege yields to political power. Only effective political action will bring a group like this to the table. But the police can come to the table because they are organized, and that creates a strategic opening that is absent when people with similar views aren’t organized. It also enables pressure to come from within. For instance, the association that represents 2,500 Black police officers in Philadelphia has called Trump an “outrageous bigot” even as the Philly FoP has endorsed him.
According to Pew’s new survey, only about one third of Americans care “a great deal” about climate change. That might be a matter of values: some citizens may set a higher priority on liberty or growth than on environmental protection, or they may not trust the government plus scientists to protect the climate.
But the public is also divided on a key matter of fact. In reality, there is near-universal scientific consensus that humans cause global warming, but only 27% of Americans perceive that consensus, including just over half of liberal Democrats.
If I thought that scientists were divided on the basic question of whether humans cause climate change, I would be much less confident that the problem is worth combating.
Two fairly obvious but crucial lessons:
Giving an impression that a topic is contested is a great way to sew doubts about it. Once just a few people who claim expertise criticize the mainstream scholarly view, the issue looks debatable. Then everyone has permission to be skeptical.
Scientists must take more responsibility for how their work is communicated, debated, received, and used by the public. There’s not much point to specific studies of climate change if a large majority of the public remains unconvinced about the basic problem. If the traditional division of labor–scientists conduct research; reporters cover it–ever worked, it doesn’t work now. Scientists and their institutions (including universities) must develop better ways of engaging in public life.