a discussion of Civic Studies at Tufts

Here is a recent discussion of Civic Studies. The audience was Tufts alumni. The speakers (from left to right) are Tisch College’s Associate Dean Diane Ryan; Prof. Hilary Binda, who runs the Tufts University Prison Initiative at Tisch College; Prof. Alnoor Ebrahim of the Fletcher School and Tisch College, whose next book is  Measuring Social Change: Performance & Accountability in a Complex World; and me. We discuss what “Civic Studies” means at Tufts. Much more is written about it here.


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social media and the youth vote

CIRCLE has released a highly substantive analysis of social media and the 2018 youth vote that is worth reading in full.

It probably won’t surprise you that many young adults heard about the election on social media. In fact, it might be worth pausing over the fact that only 47 percent saw something about it on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and/or Twitter. It is possible to go through an election cycle without seeing much about politics on social media if your friend-networks are apolitical. We talk a lot about polarization into left and right, but an equally significant phenomenon is the division between political and apolitical Americans. That was less of a problem when people got their information from sources like broadcast TV and newspapers, which forced everyone to see political headlines.

More than one quarter of young adults heard about the election only on social media, not from traditional outreach by campaigns, candidates, and parties. That probably means that social media is expanding the number of youth who are engaged in the election.

The more you hear about an election, the more likely you are to vote. Compared to young adults who had heard about the election both on social media and from campaigns or candidates, young adults who recalled no outreach were less than half as likely to say (in October) that they were extremely likely to vote.

Some selection is at play here. If you are already a likely voter or part of a community that is seen as active, campaigns are more likely to contact you. If you have friends who vote, you are more likely to see information about the election online, but you might have voted anyway. Maybe you even pick friends who are into politics. Still, evidence from randomized experiments shows that outreach boosts turnout, and at least some of these differences must be attributable to the effects of outreach.

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the state versus petit-bourgeois white America

Citizens experience the state in the form of people–teachers, social workers, police officers, nurses and doctors. These may be public employees or just subsidized by public funds, as when doctors get reimbursed by Medicare or professors get some of their salary from federal financial aid and grants. They help, serve, and protect; they also advise, cajole, assess and select, and discipline.

If we expand distributive justice (taxing richer people and spending the money on “government”), then relatively needy people will be confronted with human representatives of the state. These interactions will be friction points, sites of cultural conflict and resistance.

This is a well-known problem that has been discussed for a century. Traditionally, it has a strong class dimension: the state sends mostly college-educated people to both help and discipline working-class people. The state represents norms and ways of life embraced by the dominant social class. (I think this was even the case in the USSR.) In the US, the friction also has a racial dimension, even though white people have always been recipients of government support and surveillance in the US.

I think four strategies have often been proposed to reduce the friction:

  1. Make the state more demographically representative of the people it relates to. For instance, work to enhance the racial diversity of public school teachers, especially when their students are people of color.
  2. Design programs and laws–also train the “street-level bureaucrats” who deliver services–to minimize unnecessary moral superiority, reduce patronizing attitudes, and shift the balance to helping people versus disciplining them. For instance, educators are taught to be sensitive to their students’ backgrounds; social workers have norms against being judgmental.
  3. Organize or train the recipients of government services to stand up for their own rights and values.
  4. Expand cash transfers and other detached forms of redistribution that don’t involve monitoring and changing behavior (as education, policing, public health, and social work do).

None of these strategies has ever been fully successful. But we now see a new dynamic. A significant segment of the population identifies strongly as middle class and culturally mainstream. These are white, Christian people who may have attended college (often without completing BA degrees) and who may own small businesses or work in white-collar settings. They live in smaller towns, exurbs, and rural settings that represent a vision of respectability.

Traditionally, they identified with the state, particularly since they were very well represented in Congress, the state legislatures, and the military. Their typical question was whether or not to spend money on the government, which might waste their tax dollars but might also protect their national security, might genuinely help them without a lot of lecturing (think of agricultural extension workers or locally-controlled public schools), and would discipline other people.

Now this class—white, non-urban, Christian, and petit-bourgeois rather than working class–is in trouble. Obesity, opioid abuse, and suicide are rising to the point that their life-expediencies are falling. In some cases, their communities are losing population. Their traditional economic roles are in peril, and they’re told that their children must live and learn differently to retain their class position.

“Mortality by Cause for White Non-Hispanics Ages 45–54,” from Anne Case & Angus Deaton, PNAS December 8, 2015 112 (49)

The very bad trends depicted in this figure are concentrated among white people without college experience, but those with some college show increasing mortality. It’s only people with BAs or more who have escaped that pattern.

The state arrives to tell them to eat different foods, not to smoke, to raise their children differently. It may seem that the state disagrees with the messages that they hear in church, which they attend to live good lives. The state tells them to send their kids to the state university if they want to stay in the middle class. Their taxes and tuition dollars will pay for people who relate to them as the state has traditionally related to the poor and working class. Professors and student-affairs workers will steer their kids into a new culture that the coastal bourgeoisie has created. From the same universities come the k-12 teachers, nurses, and others who lecture them back in their own communities about food and exercise and carbon emissions. (Here I am indebted to Kathy Cramer, among others.)

When asked whether the government should “do more” (1 on the scale below) or “is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private business” (5 on the scale), white men have traditionally tilted against government. However, they caught up with white women in their support for government between 2014 and 2016, perhaps because they needed it more. We don’t have 2018 data yet, but we know they voted for Trump that year. This is consistent with needing government but not liking it.

The conflict between petit-bourgeois white people and the state is gendered, because many of the front-line representatives of the government are female, and many of the people with the most counter-normative behavior are men. The conflict is also racial in two respects. First, white, middle class people traditionally distinguished themselves from Americans who needed government aid and guidance, whom they viewed disproportionately as people of color; but that distinction is erased if the middle class also needs help. Second, representatives of the state–especially those who appear on TV–look at least somewhat more racially diverse than white communities do. At the very top of the state structure for eight years was a Black man.

I think these tensions are at the heart of current US politics. Focusing on them challenges both the “economic insecurity” and the “racial resentment” explanations of the 2016 election and its aftermath. A somewhat different premise is that lower-middle-class rural and exurban white Americans are now experiencing the state roughly as poor urban people are used to experiencing it. They need it but don’t like it, because it is always telling them they must change.

I’m not saying that most of them are responding appropriately or wisely, but we might want to dust off our tools for repairing the welfare state: make sure the government employs people who talk and look like those it affects, train them for sensitivity, organize those most affected by the state to push back, and try to shift to cash redistribution instead of invasive behavior-modification.

See also: why the white working class must organizeresponding to the deep story of Trump voterswhat do the Democrats offer the working class?

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civic responses to crime

(Fishkill, NY) In an American Sociological Review article, Patrick Sharkey, Gerard Torrats-Espinosa, and Delaram Takyar find that “every 10 additional organizations focusing on crime and community life in a city with 100,000 residents leads to a 9 percent reduction in the murder rate, a 6 percent reduction in the violent crime rate, and a 4 percent reduction in the property crime rate.” This is not an iron law or conclusive finding, but it’s an impressive piece of social science. The authors use several methodological approaches to triangulate on the same basic finding: civic associations cut crime.

Incidentally, crime rates fell in major US cities just as the number of anti-crime civic groups rose. That doesn’t prove causality, any more than the decline of the European stork population is responsible for declining birth rates in Europe. But along with the causal evidence assembled by Sharkey et al., there really is a plausible case that a bottom-up, voluntary movement to make cities safer worked in the 1990s.

The evidence also suggests that it wasn’t mainly the explicit anti-crime groups that had the biggest effect. Substance-abuse and workforce-training organizations seem to be more important, although that finding is less secure than the general relationship between voluntary groups and safety.

The question is how to get more citizens involved in the kinds of civic work that can make neighborhoods safer and otherwise better places to live. One opportunity is presented by all the citizens who step forward to give hours of service. Instead of being satisfied with low-impact volunteering efforts, we could help these citizens to organize themselves into powerful groups. And instead of letting them work in isolation, we could coordinate their efforts with those of city officials and agencies and local businesses to address common goals together.

That is the model of Cities of Service, about which Myung Lee and I wrote a Stanford Social Innovation Review article. One specific project of Cities of Service is Love Your Block, in which cities and neighborhood residents get resources to identify and work together to address local needs–the residents contributing free labor, and the city offering its support.

Last year, Mary Bogle, Leiha Edmonds, and Ruth Gourevitch of the Urban Institute wrote a qualitative evaluation of three Love Your Block projects–in Phoenix, Lansing, and Boston. Here are my Google Streetview pictures of the Phoenix and Boston projects, both of which are park renovations.

Bogle, Edmonds, and Gourevitch talked to active grassroots leaders involved in these projects and to other people in the same neighborhoods. They produced social network maps of old and new relationships among the people involved (as a way of measuring changes in social capital). They asked interviewees whether the projects had affected relationships, collective efficacy (the ability of a community to control its own environment), public ownership of public spaces, and safety.

Overall, the results were positive. Participants generally reported more and stronger working relationships. Everyone perceived that crime had declined, although they understandably cited many causes for that trend, not just Love Your Block. Relatively few of the interviewees who were not directly involved in the project saw evidence of stronger community ties, but they were more likely to see such value in Lansing than in the other two cities.

The contexts differ a lot. In Boston, the neighborhood is changing fast–pressures of gentrification are powerful. Some of the Boston participants are well connected to local elected officials and took advantage of that form of social capital. But horizontal ties in the Boston neighborhood are weaker. “A few participants thought community cohesion had gotten worse.” That would not be an effect of the park restoration but rather a consequence of rapid demographic shifts in the neighborhood.

In contrast, Lansing seems more stable, and more residents perceive more impact of Love Your Block on the community as a whole. Horizontal relationships are more important there.

In Boston and Phoenix, gentrification is a concern, and residents involved in improving their communities worry that their good work will displace residents. One Phoenix interviewee said, “I do have this anxiety about being so involved in the organizational side of things and also recognizing that any positive impact we have is veiled privilege.” That is not a problem in Lansing, where capital and population is at risk of flight. The Lansing team worked to restore a garden immediately adjacent to a public school that is vacant due to population-loss–not a problem in Boston.

Although local community work against a problem like crime is not likely to stop gentrification, it can mitigate some of its disruptive effects and empower residents so that they are able to negotiate somewhat better policies. In a 2016 report, HUD argued,

Although residential displacement is a primary concern of many changing neighborhoods, communities should also act to ensure that residents are not left alienated from neighborhood changes. … In order for low-income residents to garner the benefits of neighborhood change, communities should also pursue policy objectives further than affordable housing by supporting neighborhood organizations that foster greater connections between newcomers and long-time residents and that encourage civic engagement among all groups.

Similarly, my colleagues and I are studying the potential of an arts center in Boston’s Chinatown not to stop gentrification but to mitigate its damaging effects.

In the network diagrams of Love Your Block, local businesses emerge as important nodes, and “anchor institutions” (notably ASU in Phoenix and MSU in Lansing) are important assets. In Boston, these institutions are less important, and City Hall is more so. Interestingly, in Boston “the park is falling into modest disrepair already,” whereas Lansing’s park is “self-sustaining” thanks to active volunteer gardeners. That suggests that truly community-based networks are more valuable than ones that rely on official power. But it’s also easier to build horizontal networks in smaller places where the population is more stable and gentrification is much slower or nonexistent.

In July 2018, Cities of Service launched a new 10-city program focused on Legacy Cities (“older, industrial cities that have faced substantial population loss”). It will be evaluated by the Urban Institute.

Overall, the evidence seems strong that how communities organize themselves matters for reducing crime. Cities of Service Love Your Block program is one of the most ambitious and well-designed national efforts to engage communities. Early returns suggests that it may help cut crime. Although additional research and evaluation is appropriate (as always), the evidence already suggests that cities should use this approach to boosting public safety.

See also: can the arts mitigate the harms of gentrification? A project in Boston’s Chinatownorganizing is renewable energycivic responses to Newtown and “the rise of urban citizenship

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anxieties of influence

Emerson, Lowell, cummings, and Plath,
Stevens, Roethke, Frost, MacLeish, and Hall,
Ashbery, Bishop, Eliot and Rich–

I write them down in verse, shuffling their names
To fill my lines, making them my material,
They who took all the words I want to use.

(Longfellow, his house a federal shrine,
Is too “historic” to trouble me much.
Phyllis Wheatley, too, but all honor to her;
And grey Amherst is a world apart.)

My adopted city is still more theirs than mine,
Though they have settled into matte darkness
While I still walk the prosaic blocks,
Narrow sidewalks, double-decker homes,
Gingerbread, brutalism, and maple leaves,
And belligerent drunks who own their spots
Until the streetlights dim and the town stirs.

— Cambridge, MA, November 2018

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the value of diversity and discussion within social movements

If you want a more deliberative society–one in which diverse people discuss and learn before (and while) they act politically–you’re not going to accomplish it simply by promoting deliberation. Too many people are understandably motivated by specific agendas, and too many resources are spent to promote specific goals, for a deliberative strategy to work on its own.

But we do have social movements, and they could fuel deliberation. At first glance, they don’t seem promising, because they tend to recruit people who share specific goals and then make demands on target authorities. They do not seem likely to encourage discussion among people who disagree. Charles Tilly, a major theorist of social movements, argued that movements need WUNC–worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment–to succeed (Tilly 2004). A large group of people who demonstrate unity do not seem to be deliberating.

However, the research increasingly suggests that social movements are more likely to succeed if they are internally diverse and good at promoting a free and rich internal conversation. I have cited Erica Chenoweth & Maria Stephan (2011) and Marshall Ganz (2010) to this effect. My own model is SPUD: movements need scale (lots of people), pluralism (diversity of identities and views), unity (shared objectives and tactics), and depth (growth and learning for the participants). Deliberation is relevant because it takes talk to combine scale with depth and pluralism with unity.

New support comes from Wouters (2018). He has shown Belgian and American samples media clips of protests that demonstrate WUNC and that are experimentally altered to show either more or less diversity.

Diversity deals with the heterogeneity of a demonstration’s composition and thus with variation in descriptive characteristics of participants (participation of the young and the elderly; employers and employees; the rich and the poor). Whereas unity deals with the extent to which a group is on the same page and a solid bloc, diversity focuses on a march’s composition. Whereas numbers appeal through an increase in quantity, diversity boosts attractiveness through an increase in quality (various types of participants). Diversity breeds public support, I argue, because observers are presented with more opportunities to identify and because it signals observers that the movement and its grievance engage all citizens. Non-diverse crowds create the impression that the protest serves narrow self-interests, limiting potential identification. In sum, I expect more diverse protesters to facilitate identification and to trigger more supportive reactions.

His finding is that diversity improves audiences’ responses to the protests. He has coined the term dWUNC, “diverse WUNC,” and sees it as an ingredient of success.

Wouters argues that protests are more appealing when members of the audience can see individuals like them among the protesters. They are more likely to see people like themselves if the movement is diverse. He notes that Black Lives Matter protests became more appealing to white viewers if they included some white participants, but black viewers’ opinions did not change.

Wouters’ findings are troubling because demographically homogeneous groups also have value. Oppressed people have a right (and sometimes have good reasons) to act separately, without demonstrating that they have “diverse” support. However, if Wouters is correct, then it’s worth at least considering the cost of fielding a homogeneous group.

I would add that a movement that consistently puts diverse people onto the streets will have to promote internal deliberation to keep those people unified. If this is correct, then a strategy for making society more deliberative is to encourage social movements to maximize their internal diversity. They should do so to make themselves appealing, but as a major side effect, they will promote deliberation.

I make this argument in Levine 2018, but without citing Wouters 2018, which appeared too recently. Here is my PowerPoint on the topic:


  • Erica Chenoweth & Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare, 2011)
  • Marshall Ganz, Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 17-18.
  • Peter Levine, “Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianism,” Journal of Public Deliberation, in press
  • Ruud Wouters; “The Persuasive Power of Protest. How Protest wins Public Support,” Social Forces, soy110, https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/soy110 (03 November 2018)
  • Charles Tilly, Social Movements: 1768-2004 (Boulder/London: Paradigm, 2004)
  • Support, Social Forces, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/soy110

See also: we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth)closing remarks at the Bridge Alliance summitWhy Civil Resistance Workstools for the #resistance; and so, you want to strengthen democracy?

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Governor Charlie Baker signs Massachusetts civic education law

A press release from the the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition (of which I’m a member):

The Coalition applauds Governor Charlie Baker for signing into law bill S.2631, giving Massachusetts one of the nation’s most innovative statewide civic education programs. The new law, which Gov. Baker signed today, provides for funding for the professional development of teachers to teach civics effectively, the opportunity for students to participate in civics-based projects, and establishes civic education as a priority for school districts across the state.

The Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition (MCLC) thanks the State Senate, the House of Representatives and the Governor for their leadership in this legislation. This will help ensure that students across the Commonwealth will have access to a civic education curriculum that teaches them the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, fundamental knowledge about government, such as the functions of each branch and the electoral process, as well as key 21st century skills such as media literacy.

We commend the Legislature and the Governor for giving teachers the support they need to implement and teach the curriculum and facilitate civics projects to prepare students for thoughtful and informed participation in civic life. Specifically, MCLC appreciates the commitment to securing robust funding to implement the bill, including the provision of funds for teacher professional development through the Mass Civics Trust Fund.

“With the enactment of this law, Massachusetts has leapt to the forefront of civics education, joining states such as Florida and Illinois to take an innovative — and necessary — step to ensure that every young person in the state is prepared and engaged in civic life,” iCivics Executive Director Louise Dubé said. “This is a critically important law, passed at a critically  important moment for our state and our country.”

Arielle Jennings, Generation Citizen’s Massachusetts Executive Director said, “Young people often have a hard time seeing the political process as relevant to them and are disengaged from it as a result. This law will help strengthen our democracy by educating a new generation of active citizens.”

The Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition is a roundtable of twenty civics education organizations, research institutions, school districts, and stakeholders committed to improving the quality and implementation of K-12 civic education for students across the state. Members of the coalition include: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation, Generation Citizen Massachusetts, iCivics, and other organizations committed to civic education reform.

For further information on MCLC, please visit www.macivicsforall.org

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youth turnout up 10 points, youth opt for Democrats to an unprecedented degree

These two graphs from CIRCLE tell the story of youth in the 2018 election.

First, turnout rose dramatically. The blue line shows estimates of youth turnout using the only method that’s available immediately after an election. CIRCLE relies on the exit polls plus the number of ballots cast and demographic data to generate that line. As shown, this estimate has tracked a different method (the Census Bureau’s November surveys, which simply ask people whether they voted) pretty well historically. As CIRCLE acknowledges, their method could lead to errors if the exit polls’ age breakdown is wrong; but it’s the best available method, and it suggests a very strong year for youth.

Second, although young people do not always vote Democratic, they sure did this year. The partisan gap is unprecedented. I happen to think it’s folklore that once people have voted the same way three times, they keep voting that way for life. However, folklore sticks for a reason, and it’s certainly plausible that voting for the same party a few times in a row creates a habit that tends to persist. If that’s true, Republicans are taking a chance on long-term catastrophic damage.

Meanwhile, if you’re a Democrat in a mood to be a little chagrined by yesterday because your high expectations were not quite met (after all, you are a Democrat), just don’t blame youth. These trends are startlingly positive for Democrats. The problem lies further up the age pyramid.

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working against gerrymandering

At Tisch College and Tufts, we are extremely proud of Moon Duchin and her team in the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering group. This new video takes less than two minutes to play and introduces their work:

Moon and her colleagues are generating tools, participating in legal processes, and training people (from k-12 students to expert witnesses)–all in the interests of democratizing influence on the redistricting process.

As an example, they develop algorithms that start with the existing map and randomly generate enormous numbers of additional maps. Observing that set of possible maps allows one to see whether any given one is more partisan–or otherwise less fair–than the norm. Often, the real or proposed map is an outlier because it reflects a political agenda.

I am pleased to help promote this initiative on the eve of an election that will be deeply shaped by gerrymandering–and likely to affect the electoral map for the next decade.

See also Rebooting the Mathematics Behind Gerrymandering by Moon Duchin and me.

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2020 will also be tough for Senate Democrats

In 2016, everyone thinks the Senate “map” is terrible for Democrats. Forty-two Republican incumbents don’t face an election this year, whereas Democrats must defend 24 incumbents, 10 of them in states that Donald Trump won in 2016–sometimes by very large margins. Even a Blue Wave is expected to leave the Republicans in charge of the Senate.

You would think that 2020 would have to be better for Democrats. After all, Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in national votes for the president and the House. If, by the luck of the draw, the Democrats face a bad Senate map one year, the next time has to be better–right?

Actually, 2020 looks like another pretty hard year for the Dems. According to Nathaniel Rakich in FiveThirtyEight, 22 Republican Senators will face reelection. That sounds like fertile ground for Democrats, except that only two of those 22, Cory Gardner and Susan Collins, represent states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Based on that information, you might expect Republicans to lose just a seat or two. Meanwhile, 11 Democratic Senators will face reelection, and two of them represent states that Trump won in 2016: Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire (which was close) and Doug Jones of Alabama (which Trump won by 27 points). Based on that information, you might expect the Democrats to lose Jones and maybe one or two more.  If each party loses a seat or two to the other, it will be a wash, preserving the Republican majority.

How can this be? One reason is that a harder year will finally arrive for the Republicans in 2022. Twelve Democrats and 22 Republicans will have to defend seats that year, including several Republicans in swing states: Rubio in Florida, Grassley in Iowa (if he runs again at 89), Burr in North Carolina, Portman in Ohio, Toomey in Pennsylvania, and Johnson in Wisconsin. All the Dems who are up in 2022 are in either blue or purple states.

But the other reason is the extraordinary gap between the Senate and the American population. Even now, with the Senate controlled by Republicans, Democratic senators represent substantially more people:

The Constitution enshrines this imbalance. Anything in the whole document can be changed by amendment, “provided that… no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” This is is our only unamendable rule.

Long-term predictions are foolish, but I think you can imagine a pattern of Democratic presidents and House majorities being systematically stymied by Republican senates and the Supreme Court that the Senate has shaped. Then a significant majority of the public will be consistently blocked by an increasingly radicalized minority that is based in different parts of the country as we address climate crises, AI, and other truly profound challenges. Many people will not trace the failures of the government to specific provisions in our Constitution; they will perceive a government that’s inexplicably unresponsive and unrepresentative. And that, it seems to me, is a recipe for constitutional collapse.

See also: is our constitutional order doomed?two perspectives on our political paralysis; and are we seeing the fatal flaw of a presidential constitution?

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