Monthly Archives: November 2016

being young and evaluating democracy in 2016

The claim that support for democracy is falling in most countries–and falling quickest among the young–has caused much consternation this week. One datapoint that supports this argument: “In 2011, 24 percent of U.S. millennials (then in their late teens or early twenties) considered democracy to be a ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ way of running the country.” Erik Voeten and others have argued that this survey is being presented in an alarmist way by focusing on the minority who chose the extreme responses to key questions. Voeten shows that this is how support for democracy looks if you display the mean responses on a scale from 1-10:


Most people are still in favor, and the gaps by age are not huge.

But it is natural to be a bit uninspired by democracy if you’re encountering it for the first time right now. In my freshman philosophy seminar, democracy has been our topic this week. We’ve been reading:

My questions include the following:

Is democracy a reliable means to achieve such (possibly) valuable ends as human happiness/welfare, liberty and rights, or equality? Is it a process that yields such outcomes? Or is it a good in itself? (To see it as an intrinsic good may require the belief that involvement in self-government is dignified or worthy in some way.) Does democracy mean “voting equality at the decisive stage” (Dahl), or a search for consensus (Wiredu), or an opportunity for discussion that enlarges people’s knowledge and empathy (Dewey et al, not assigned)? Is democracy necessarily adversarial (Eze) or can it be unitary (Wiredu), and if the latter, is unity a good thing, perhaps a sign of fraternité? Finally, is democracy a process or set of rules, or rather a culture and set of norms and practices?

My students are thoughtful, open-minded, and quick to understand various perspectives and arguments. But I think their current views are colored by what they regard as the debacle of the 2016 election–both its outcome and the campaign season that preceded it. I asked them whether they thought the election had changed their views of democracy, and they tended to think it had. They are unlikely to see democracy as an intrinsic good, because it rather seems like an undignified and disappointing spectacle. They are attuned to the dangers of communication (propaganda, group-think, polarization, selective use of evidence) and pessimistic about the potential of communication for learning and consensus-building.

I don’t necessarily disagree. And I certainly don’t play the advocate for any philosophical view in the classroom. But I think that those who hope to engage such young people must make the struggle against forms of politics that they despise seem intrinsically rewarding, and must demonstrate that responsible and responsive communication is possible.

what activist movements will look like in the Trump era

Dave Karpf has a great piece entitled, “Cyclical patterns in activist politics: what do we know about the politics of opposition”? Karpf argues that opposing a government looks very different from the “politics of articulation” (trying to develop and promote an agenda). These are some key differences:

  1. Opposition unites. As Karpf notes, the Tea Party formed to oppose Obama before he had made any policy decisions. Its original rhetoric–and its very name–implied opposition to tax increases. But Obama mainly cut taxes. That was no problem for the Tea Party, which shifted to opposing the Affordable Care Act. It was nimble about policies because its raison d’etre was opposition to a person, his core values, and the institution he controlled.
  2. Rapid response becomes more valuable. Especially in the age of social media, activist networks are good at getting people out quickly. They are much worse at sustaining pressure, negotiating, and achieving new policies. When your side shares formal power, rapid response is relatively unimportant. But when the main goal is to block policies coming from the other side, rapid response pays.
  3. By the same token, it becomes harder to advance a positive agenda when a movement must spend all its time blocking new initiatives from the government.

I would add two hypotheses:

  1. I think activists on the left will shift from soft, proximate targets to confront their main ideological opponents. The global justice movement of the Clinton era criticized transnational corporations and the governments that supported them, yet it gained attention for protests outside the World Bank, which funds development projects. Occupy Wall Street claimed to target Wall Street, yet it got the most traction in conflicts with Democratic big city mayors and state universities that were simultaneously facing budget cuts from conservative legislatures. The environmental movement focuses on massive destruction caused by fossil fuels but achieved a notable victory by pressuring a Democratic president to block a specific pipeline that could be easily bypassed. The left tends to confront near-allies for showing hypocrisy or weakness, but that impulse fades when explicit opponents take control. (See Bayard Rustin’s absolutely indispensable and totally timely 1965 article “From Protest to Politics” for a similar point.)
  2. Maintaining political discipline will be an enormous challenge. As Rustin reminded his fellow Civil Rights leaders in 1965, the point is to win. That requires mobilizing and inspiring a majority of Americans, not just fellow travelers. National Review’s Jim Geraghty tweeted earlier today, “Anti-Trump protesters are gonna take the bait, aren’t they? They’re gonna burn flags, thinking they’re irking him, but alienating majority.” It’s very hard for any large, loose network to remember what the majority of people value, let alone maintain message-discipline. Whether anti-Trump movements can manage that task is enormously important.

See also: we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth)to beat Trump, invest in organizingbuilding grassroots power in and beyond the election; and democracy in the digital age.

pluralist populism

The leaders of ChinaIndia, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and Hungary–plus the President Elect of the USA and major political actors in Britain, France, and Austria (among other countries)–are called “populists.” A populist in this sense is one who views The People as homogeneous on important dimensions–for instance, race, culture, occupation, or ancestry–and as distinct from both foreigners and elites. Indeed, foreigners and elites are often seen as collaborating against The People. A populist leader represents The People, speaking for them and serving their interests. Therefore, it is wise to entrust power in the leader, who talks directly to and for each citizen. Majority rule is an attractive process, but majority votes that do not support the populist leader are suspect. Obstacles to populist government–rule of law, checks and balances, an independent press and civic society–are problematic at best.

There is, however, another sense of the word “populist” that deserves attention. In this conception, The People are not only heterogeneous; they are defined by being more pluralistic than the straight-laced elites, who promote one way of life as best for all. Furthermore, The People are not interested in surrendering their power to any leader. Their populist activity is all about building direct, grassroots, horizontal, participatory power. They are proud of their democratic innovations, whether those are letters of correspondence, Grange halls, sit-ins, salt marches, or flashmobs.

Eli Rosenberg, Jennifer Medina, and John Eligon began a recent New York Times article about anti-Trump protests:

They came in the thousands — the children of immigrants, transgender individuals, women and men of all different ages and races — to demonstrate against President-elect Donald J. Trump on Saturday in New York.

Some held handwritten signs like, “Show the world what the popular vote looks like.” The throng chanted, “Not our president!”

Showing the world that the popular vote looks heterogeneous is a traditional populist gambit, familiar from social movements and popular uprisings since time immemorial. It’s a way of demonstrating SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth). I emphasize it because I fear we face three unsatisfactory alternatives:

  1. Trump-style populism, which defines The People as homogeneous, excludes everyone who doesn’t fit, and disempowers the actual people by centralizing political authority in a leader.
  2. Technocratic progressivism, which defers to a highly educated global elite whose norms and range of experiences are actually quite exclusive and narrow.
  3. Thin versions of diversity politics, which celebrate heterogeneity within existing institutions (e.g., racial diversity within a university) but which lack a political vision that can unify broad coalitions in favor of new institutional arrangements.

We need a dose of populism that neither delivers power to a leader nor merely promises fair economic outcomes to citizens as beneficiaries. In this form of populism, diverse people create actual power that they use to change the world together.

See also: two kinds of populism, with some comments on Jan-Werner Müller and Laura Grattan, and why the white working class must organize.

Trump’s rhetorical style and deliberation

Donald Trump’s speaking style is extraordinarily paratactic. That is, he utters declarative sentences without any of the explicit transitional words that can explain why sentences fit together. No “therefore’s,” “on the other hand’s,” or even “well, I think’s.” He just plunges in. Many listeners perceive the content of his various sentences to be logically unrelated. However, he is remarkably repetitive when he speaks at any length, so the unity of his speech derives from his returning to the same phrases. Finally, he uses “I” sentences overwhelmingly, plus “you” when he’s talking to someone in particular. He makes relatively rare use of the third person. We could name his style “paratactic/egocentric.”

I’ve been arguing that the way we organize our thoughts affects our ability to deliberate with others (to listen responsively to what they say). As I note in this video, some people hold such scattered thoughts that you can’t grab onto their argument in order to understand and engage it. Others have such centralized networks of ideas that all you can do is assess their one core principle (which might be individual freedom, equity, or God). If you happen to disagree with it, there’s no way to route around it. A better structure is connected, complex, and not overly centralized.

By this standard, Trump’s rhetoric is disastrous for deliberation. The network formed by his sentences manages to be disconnected except insofar as he repeats a few nodes and connects all his ideas to Donald Trump (which one cannot take as one’s own idea without becoming personally subservient to him).

My notion of what counts as good talk could be biased by class. After all, one of the things you learn as you accumulate years of education and pile on degrees is parataxis: connecting ideas by using explicit transitional words. That is either a sign of superior reasoning or a way for a white-collar elite to identify its own superiority. (Paging doctors Habermas and Bourdieu for a consult on that question.) Likewise, talking in the third person about ideas and institutions is either essential to deliberation or an evasion of personal authenticity. Some read Trump as honest and view more objective speakers as evasive.

I’ve been developing this view of deliberative rhetoric since long before I cared about Donald Trump. It’s in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, pp. 50-2. I oppose and reject Trump for many reasons other than his rhetorical style. Therefore, I don’t think I’m just criticizing his style to score political points against him. But it’s worth thinking about whether the rhetorical standards suggested by my theory are class-biased.

See also: tracking change in a group that discusses issuesassessing a discussion10 theses about ethics, in network termsstructured moral pluralism (a proposal).

Clinton’s support in historical context

Hillary Clinton is winning the popular vote, and I am seeing commentary to the effect that she has one of the largest vote counts ever received, at nearly 64 million. It’s true that only Obama beat that number (twice, with 69 million and then 66 million votes in his two presidential races). However, the population of the US keeps growing, so one would expect the number of votes cast to rise.

The best measure of popular support is the percentage of all adults who turn out for a given candidate. Clinton got about 28%; 27.1% voted for Trump. The 0.9% gap was one of the smallest in modern times, although 1960, 1968, and 2000 were actually closer races in these terms. Clinton’s share of all eligible voters was the same as Obama’s in 2012 (28%).

There have been thirty major party presidential nominees since 1960, and Clinton ranks seventh among all of them in votes/adult population. A few candidates drew much bigger shares back when turnout was higher and partisan swings were wider. LBJ drew the votes of 37.5% of all adults in 1964, about one third more than Clinton did–but politics has changed since then.

(Major third party candidates are shown for 1968, 1980, 1992, and 1996.)