political theory and me

(Warning: the following is probably self-indulgent, because it?s my effort to define my own scholarly career in contrast to other people?s. Please skip ruthlessly if you find this uninteresting.)

I have become a regular reader of Left2Right, a group blog written by a 29 distinguished political theorists, political philosophers, and constitutional scholars from the moderate to radical left. Two of the contributors are friends; I deeply admire them and several of the others whom I have never met. I received a similar professional training and hold similar views. I would eagerly trade my own skills, knowledge, and record of contribution for any of theirs.

Yet I?m evidently not doing the kind of work described on Left2Right?and not merely because I lack the necessary ability. I have chosen a different path from most of the contributors, and I think my choice is defensible.


The first difference is one of scale. Modern political philosophers and theorists mostly consider the overall structure of a society and the definition and distribution of rights and goods to all the society?s members. Meanwhile, ethicists consider decisions and dilemmas faced by professionals, such as lawyers and physicians, in their dealings with individual patients. In short, most normative scholarship deals either with the largest or the smallest scale of human interaction.

In contrast, I am interested in the middle range, in the strategic choices faced by concrete institutions, networks, and social movements at the present historical moment. For example, I am deeply immersed right now in discussions about the reform of civic education and the mobilization of young voters. I work on those issues, not with fellow political theorists, but with civic educators and nonpartisan political operatives. I am interested in their choices and priorities for two reasons:

1. My ?theory of change? is different from that of mainstream political theorists. To the extent that they want to influence the world at all, they seek to address the sovereign: the power that can shape the overall structure of their society. In olden days, the sovereign was the monarch, so philosophers from Plato to Bacon tried to get the prince?s ear. Today, the sovereign is supposed to be ?the people,? so engaged political theorists attempt to influence public opinion. They do so by translating their abstruse (but impressive) ideas into relatively readable, public arguments. Left2Right is a typical effort of this type. (Its name implies that leftish scholars want to persuade right-leaning voters to change their opinions.) Many of its contributors have also been successful ?public intellectuals? in the older media: newspapers, radio, and television.

I am skeptical that I can change public opinion by making philosophical arguments. Besides, even if people come around to my opinion, they also need skills, confidence, and institutions through which to act. Thus my ?theory of change? is to find congenial organizations and social movements that have broad constituencies. I then become involved in their discussions about goals and strategies. They are the ?change-levers?; I try to influence their choices.

2. My style of engagement is relatively open-ended or ideologically agnostic. I do have political opinions, and I think it?s fine to express them. However, as a professional, I take the stance that we Americans need to develop, refine, and pursue our political goals better than we do today. We need not only better dialogue and deliberation, but also more opportunities for concrete experimentation in the real world. Thus I have participated in movements for election reform, broadcast media reform, civic uses of digital media, public journalism, ?civic philanthropy? (grantmaking that enhances civil society), face-to-face public deliberation, democratic libraries, stronger undergraduate student government, service-learning, civic education, and youth voting. All of these movements are relatively open-ended about the structure of our overall society. Their goal is to enhance the public?s voice.

The model presumed by many political theorists is: (a) develop and refine views about how society should be organized; (b) promote those views in public fora; and (c) hope that legislation is passed to implement the vision. My model is (a) find organizations that seem to be enhancing the quality and quantity of public engagement; (b) help address the ethical and strategic questions those organizations face; and (c) sit back and see what citizens come up with.

My focus strongly influences my methodology or ?modus operandi.? If you are concerned about the distribution of goods and rights in a society, then you must know the facts about wealth, poverty, justice, and injustice at a macro scale. You should also master arguments in political, moral, and legal theory. The Left2Right group knows all this material better than I (although I once spent the better part of a year studying labor unions in a fairly mainstream, detached way). But I want to address the concrete moral and strategic choices that face people like social studies teachers and campaign workers. I cannot learn about them from books. Usually, there are no current studies at all, and the few that exist are biased and inadequate. If I want to reflect on the progress of current institutions and social movements, I must attend their meetings. They won?t invite me unless I come as a participant. Thus my usual stance is one of participant-observer.

I also do pure philosophical work on the nature and justification of moral claims. I believe that moral theory has deep implications for the daily work of democratic institutions, and vice-versa. My work in moral theory happens to be as idiosyncratic as my political work, but that’s another story.

Finally, I should acknowledge that I have role models. Some theorists participate in open-ended movements for civic renewal and democratic engagement. I listed several in a previous post, including Archon Fung, who recently joined Left2Right. Nevertheless, Left2Right mainly reflects an approach to political thought that I have chosen not to pursue, although I respect it and consider it important.

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3 Responses to political theory and me

  1. Brad Rourke says:

    While you graciously focus only on yourself, Peter, and while you are equally gracious in your praise of the strong thinking of the folks at L2R, your description of your own approach carries with it a powerful critique of the present intellectual landscape. Your description of the dominant academic-driven theory of change seems accurate — and when stated so plainly the theory seems to fall slightly short. There is, as you point out, a collection of “public intellectuals” who are more “public” than “intellectual” insofar as they work _in_ the world as opposed to think _about_ the world.

    It is, in the end, a difference of attitude. Are highfalutin (“abstruse”) political arguments getting “translated” so they are “relatively readable?” Or is civic work being joined in a real fashion, and lessons drawn out from that and presented in a language that would then need to be translated _up_ in order to access the learned journals? The former, it seems to me, kids itself that the resulting translation has clear relevance for those for whom it is intended. (You gently point this out: “I am skeptical that I can change public opinion by making philosophical arguments.”)

    I yearn for there to be room in society for a different sort of public intellectual than now dominates. This different sort writes books and articles with no intention of seeing them in academic journals, but instead with the intention of illuminating, for all, the issues of the day. Such an intellectual may or may not be attached to a university. There are a few of these folks around (more attached to universities than not, I admit). In my view, you are one. Archon Fung another, and Rich Harwood. Others you name elsewhere, as well.

    There is an implicit power differential in your piece. The intellectual firepower harnessed by L2R is impressive, and so it is no surprise. This differential creates the notion that practical-intellectuals must somehow justify their approach to the theoretical-intellectuals. Your own piece, in part, seeks to do that.

    But part of me wonders whether it ought not be the other way ’round. Because, in the end, what will more usefully advance society: an explanation of how capitalistic theory relates to monetary policy, or a synthesis of what was learned in efforts by young people to create a map of the civic resources available to them? I’d suggest the latter has more traction than the former, as it contains the seeds for replication.

  2. Joseph Sinatra says:

    While building trust, skills and some of the other attributes you mention, working through institutions and movements would produce more lasting and sustainable societal change. Changing legislation does not seem to address these other areas.

    However, what really attracts me to your view on “how you work” is that in it, there is an implicit respect for citizens to be a creative, engaged and powerful part of the process.

  3. Peter,

    I think of the theory of change for theorists to be high risk/high return. Most of the time, you can safely ignore them. But every now and again, you have Machievelli or JS Mills or Rawls, and their frameworks impact society for decades or longer. (In the case of Plato and some of the ancients, perhaps the impact can last millenium.)

    On the opposite end of the spectrum you have practictioners. They are almost certain to have *some* impact. But only the rare bird will actually affect long-term, systematic change.

    By mingling with practitioners as a theorist, I think you are playing a middle ground. Spun positively, you are more likely to make a real change than pure theorists and more like te make long-term, systematic change than a practitioner. But it is a hedged position.

    At the end of the day, both the civic practitioners and theorists are kind of like referree wanna-bes. We want to define the boundaries of playing field, and perhaps have a say in who scores, but at the end of the day the players are the real story.

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