(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.