Monthly Archives: October 2019

we are lucky with our right-wing authoritarian

(Washington, DC) At today’s Deliberative Democracy Consortium’s Research & Practice Meeting on “Deliberative Democracy and Human Cognition,” Shawn W. Rosenberg made a point that I have often considered but never expressed.

Here is the background to the point: A broad range of people in many advanced democracies are potential supporters of ethno-nationalism (which means racism in the United States), autocratic leadership, and hostility to opposition parties, a free press, and intellectual critics. In a contest with liberal democratic values, this combination has built-in advantages. It is simpler, less cognitively and emotionally demanding, and more affirming of the people who belong to the ethn0-nationalist in-group.

In the United States, the chief representative of that combination is Donald J. Trump. But he lost the popular vote in 2016 and has never surpassed 45.5% popularity in the polling average. I think this is because he combines the globally ascendant right-wing authoritarian package with: personal indiscipline and frequent incompetence, laziness, blatant small-bore corruption and nepotism, a failure to retain the loyalty of his lieutenants, ignorance of the structures of power, a superficial grasp of his own ideology, and a rhetorical style that impresses only a small minority of Americans (a subset of his own voters).

If and when we face a right-wing authoritarian “populist” who moderates his (or her?) rhetoric skillfully, deploys resources efficiently, develops and implements strategies, sacrifices some personal needs and interests for his ideology, and manages the White House competently, we will be in deep trouble.

On the other hand, we might prove lastingly fortunate if this special moment of opportunity for white nationalism in America (while the national majority is still white but perceives status threat*) is dominated by a man who happens to be very bad at his job.

See also: Trump at the confluence of populism, chauvinism, and celebrity; fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism; pluralist populism; is Trumpism akin to the European right? etc.

*Whether status anxiety explains the 2016 election is controversial; but even if it doesn’t, the anxiety still seems palpable.

work and play and civic life

(My notes for a talk this evening at a Ludics Seminar at Harvard’s Mahindra Center on “The Role of Play in Human Evolution and Public Life: Work, or Play?”)

It is very common to distinguish politics or civic life from both work and play. (The words “politics” and “civic” have overlapping meanings, coming respectively from Greek and Latin, and I’ll use them interchangeably here.)

Aristotle provides an early example of the distinction between work and politics. He begins with the premise that “the citizen’s function” is “deliberating and judging (whether on all issues or only a few).” In other words, to act as a citizen means to talk, to listen, and to vote. It is discursive and cognitive. Citizens, understood as deliberators and judges, must be free from doing the necessary tasks of life, which are done by slaves (who work for individuals) and by mechanics and laborers (who work for the community). Aristotle advises: “The best form of city will not make the mechanic a citizen.” Note that the mechanic or laborer is not defined by poverty, for some are very rich, but by participation in the marketplace. Working distorts people’s values and goals and makes them bad at deliberation about the public good, perhaps because they focus on their economic interests. Governance is best reserved for a class that has enough wealth not to work.

I cannot think of anyone today who would openly disenfranchise workers for the reasons that Aristotle cites. However, the same distinction between work and politics is evident in several political traditions that make the opposite value-judgment from Aristotle’s. Like him, they presume that politics is about talking, listening, and deciding, and it’s done outside of work. But unlike Aristotle, they think that only those who work are worthy of politics, because they alone have the appropriate values or because their productive labor gives them the right to rule.

One version holds that people of industry and thrift are worthy of governing a republic. This idea is familiar from the English Revolution, the Dutch Republic, and Colonial New England. It associates the bourgeois work ethic with republican virtues.

A different version is agrarian populism, which sees the stalwart farmer as the most legitimate citizen. Like Cincinnatus, a republican farmer puts down his plow to govern and fight, but he hastens back to his fields when his civic duty is done. Jeffersonian American populism and Russian Narodnism are examples.

A third version is Marxist. The workers form a class, distinguished from the bourgeoisie, who merely claim a “work ethic” while they exploit the actual laborers. The working class should rule. Marx offers the resonant ideal of unifying work with Aristotelian politics, removing the alienation between ruling and making. But my impression is that Marxist reforms–from mild democratic socialism all the way to Maoism–have hardly ever realized that ideal. Instead, they have tended to distinguish–just as Aristotle did–between work and governance, but they make the workers into the governors. You work in the factory by day, and after the whistle blows, you attend a workers’ council meeting to make decisions. In fact, the problem with socialism, according to Oscar Wilde, is that it occupies too many evenings.

Two additional strands of reform have developed since the Industrial Revolution. I endorse both, but they are not my main subject here. One aims to democratize the workplace by creating co-ops and other alternative enterprises that are governed on the basis of one-worker, one-vote. The other puts democratic pressure on the workforce by forming an independent association of workers than can negotiate and strike–a union. Both reforms narrow the gap between work and politics, but not in the way that I will describe.

My friend Harry Boyte advocates a different ideal, which he calls Public Work. He has uncovered many precedents for it from around the world.

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(Provo, UT) I am at Brigham Young University, discussing civic engagement with insightful faculty and students, against a background of cold, clear mountains. Within the past two weeks, I have had somewhat similar conversations inside the classroom of a Massachusetts medium security prison, a Tufts classroom with 50 talented 18-20-year-olds, a glittering living room in Boston’s Louisburg Square (at a political fundraiser), and in various coffee shops around Cambridge, MA. I’ve also heard a lecture on Tagore and the Upanishads and chatted with colleagues scattered across the country.

I just want to express my gratitude for these opportunities. To some extent, they come with being an academic, which is a privilege in itself. But my particular role and institution make such experiences especially frequent, diverse, and rewarding.

See also: at BYU; and teaching about institutions, in a prison

MassForward event: Advancing Democratic Innovation and Electoral Reform in Massachusetts

Please Join MassForward for “Advancing Democratic Innovation and Electoral Reform in Massachusetts” (Register Here)

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Continental breakfast will be available at 8:00 a.m.

The Edgerley Center for Civic Leadership at the Boston Foundation 75 Arlington Street, 3rd Floor, Boston

Please join the Boston Foundation for the release of new research by MassINC and Tufts’ Tisch College of Civic Life that examines the health of our Commonwealth’s democratic processes and institutions. From increasingly strong one-party rule to lack of representation for communities of color, this report new provides data to illuminate acute challenges and presents a comprehensive set of reforms and innovations to fortify our democracy at the state and local level. This opening presentation will be followed by a panel conversation with leaders who can offer a wide-range of perspectives on workable solutions to these pressing challenges.

Welcome & Opening Remarks

Paul S. Grogan, President & CEO, The Boston Foundation

Presentation of Report

Peter Levine, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs & Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University

Panel Discussion
Jay R. Kaufman, Retired State Representative (D), 15th Middlesex District, Commonwealth of Massachusetts; Founder & President, Beacon Leadership Collaborative
Beth Lindstrom, Former Executive Director, Massachusetts Republican Party
Keith Mahoney, Vice President, Communications & Public Affairs, The Boston Foundation (Moderator)
Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson, PhD, Interim Director, Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy; Interim Director, Gender, Leadership, and Public Policy Graduate Certificate Program at UMass Boston Pavel Payano, Councilor-at Large, City of Lawrence

Closing Remarks
Juana Matias, Chief Operating Officer, MassINC

For additional information, please contact Michelle Hinkle at 617-338-4268 or

By working in collaboration with a wide range of partners, the Boston Foundation provides opportunities for people to come together to explore challenges facing our constantly changing community and to develop an informed civic agenda. All of the Boston Foundation’s civic leadership activities are supported by our annual campaign for Civic Leadership. Visit to learn more about this important campaign. Visit to learn more about the Boston Foundation and its activities.

The Role of Social Movements in Fostering Sounder Public Judgment

Public Agenda has released the first papers in their series on “Sounder Public Judgment.” Among them is my paper on “The Role of Social Movements in Fostering Sounder Public Judgment.” It’s a short essay but it has several objectives:

  1. To encourage people who sit within formal institutions, such as my own university, to analyze and respond to social movements better. Movements are not just bunches of protesters; they have structures and norms that can be admirable or problematic and that deserve attention.
  2. To encourage proponents of deliberation (or, more generally, good discourse and conversation) to see social movements–including radical movements–as essential components of a deliberative society. There may be a tension between cause-driven movements and the institutions (such as newspapers and universities) that pursue impartiality; but a deliberative society needs both.
  3. To encourage social-movement participants to understand the value of deliberation within their movements and in the broader society, and to take advantage of the expertise and techniques of the people and organizations that directly promote deliberation.

I also took the opportunity to put my SPUD framework in print again:

See also: the value of diversity and discussion within social movements; social movements of the sixties, seventies, and today; deliberation depends on social movements; a sketch of a theory of social movements; What is the appropriate role for higher education at a time of social activism?; pay attention to movements, not just activists and events; Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianism; we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth)