calling youth to government service

According to the 2020 American National Election Study, 63% of people under 30 thought that the government should be doing “more things,” versus just 37% who thought it should “do less.” Yet few young Americans even consider working in the civil service.

At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where “Ask what you can do for your country” is engraved on the wall, 44% of the graduating class of 2022 took jobs in the private sector, 22% for nonprofits, and 28% for any government. From my beloved Tufts University, where students tend to be very idealistic, 6% of the undergraduate class of 2022 will work for “Government, Law, Public Policy, [or a] Think Tank.” I suspect public sector employment represents a small proportion of that 6%.

The role of the federal government expanded substantially in 2021-2 with the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the $739 billion Inflation Reduction Act, and the $280+ billion CHIPS Act. Yet young people have not heard a call to go to Washington to make these new programs work.

Some colleges and universities produce large numbers of public employees, especially teachers and law enforcement personnel. I am grateful to them and believe that a degree of class bias explains why such jobs are less popular at institutions like Tufts and Harvard. Still, the civil service is a different category than regular public sector employment. At several points in our history, government service has attracted people who have advantages and cultural capital. Not so today.

Some reasons are on the demand side. The Partnership for Public Service says that the federal “hiring process is long and complicated,” the “pay system is antiquated,” and “opportunities for young people are hidden and scarce.” The Partnership and others–including some civil servants–are working on those problems. It’s easy for me to criticize without helping with the solutions. But these challenges need attention.

The supply side is also important (and more related to my work). Recent college graduates are not just avoiding public sector careers because of clunky hiring processes and antiquated pay grades. Many of them are against it.

From one direction, there are lots of left-wing students who might (or might not) vote for Bernie Sanders and his promise to expand government, yet who deeply distrust the national government of the USA. For them, the word “state” often comes with adjectives like “carceral,” “neoliberal” or “colonial.” Why work for that kind of organization?

From the opposite direction, I think many people have absorbed the lessons of public choice theory, which is presumptively skeptical about government.

Antony Downs offers a classic statement (Downs 1957). He writes that no economist would “advise monopoly corporations to increase social welfare by cutting prices.” We assume that a corporation is self-serving, and we consider changing its incentives by boosting competition or regulating it. Nevertheless, Downs says, people routinely call on government to maximize the public good without considering the motives of the people who actually operate the government (p. 283). This is naive.

Downs acknowledges that some individuals act altruistically, but he makes the simplifying assumption that people generally direct their own behavior “toward selfish ends” (p. 27). That premise leads him to the following assumptions about government: politicians and parties try to gain and retain office, bureaucrats strive to expand their budgets and personnel allotments, and citizens collect political information and vote only insofar as that will benefit them personally. “They treat policies purely as means to the attainment of private ends” (p. 28).

There is then little point in advising a government to do better. The only strategies that can work are to alter the incentives of public employees or to reduce the size of the state.

Downs assumes bounded rationality and limited cognitive capacity, but he emphasizes people’s selfishness. In An Economic Theory of Democracy, he never cites his contemporary, Friedrich Hayek, for whom cognitive limitations were more important than bad motivations. For Hayek, the main problem with government is that it cannot know how to allocate resources, because understanding a whole society is just too hard. In contrast, markets generate reliable signals in the form of prices.

My view is that both left-wing anti-institutionalism and public choice theory offer genuine insights. They both conflict with social democratic theories, which are similar to the ideals of the New Deal and Great Society and Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda.

In that case, one might ask which theory is right, but that’s not how I would proceed. I acknowledge that there are truly bad ideologies–based on immoral premises–that are very unlikely to yield beneficial results. Leaving those ideologies aside, I see grand social theories less as hypotheses that can be proven true or false (or right or wrong) than as forces that motivate and orient people.

A social democratic ideal can draw people to work for (or alongside) a national government and to build excellent public programs. A critique of government can inspire people to build private-sector alternatives that also do good. Although it’s worth thinking critically about these contrasting assumptions and predictions, much more depends on who responds to each ideal and what they do together.

The example I give in What Should We Do? (2022) is public schooling. Movements for universal public education arose in countries like Prussia and the USA during the 1800s. It was never true–nor was it false–that mandatory, public funded schools are good for children or a society. Some are good, some are not. The public education movement, however, had inspiring ideals, and it launched the professions of teaching, educational research, educational administration, and teacher education.

Since then, people in those professions and their allies have tried to make public schools work. At times–being human–they have failed or have even failed to try. Reform movements have arisen that offer various prescriptions, such as progressive pedagogy, choice and competition, or measurement and accountability. Again, I doubt that any of these prescriptions is right or wrong, but each has created a new field of practice and new organizations that have done some degree of good (and harm).

By the same token, the competence, fairness, and responsiveness of government are variables, not constants. Some bureaucracies behave worse than in Downs’ model, because he explicitly assumes (p. 30) that officials will follow laws, which is often not the case. But some public agencies perform much better than he would anticipate, because they attract talent and develop impressive professional cultures. Downs’ assumption of selfishness is a priori, not empirical. Real people go into public service for a variety of complex reasons, some quite impressive. (By the way, if they were strictly motivated by economic self-interest, they wouldn’t serve at all.)

Allocating enough money matters, and the Biden spending bills are helping with that. But as long as Congress is a poor deliberative body, and as long as federal agencies are sclerotic and distant, the money will not be spent very well. Cash alone will not maximize social or environmental outcomes, and it definitely will not raise public support for government. Nothing alienates more than an unresponsive bureaucracy, even it sends you a check.

What we need now is a large, energetic, youthful, and diverse movement that wants to transform government to be more effective, wise, and responsive. That movement would not negate the insights of leftwing anti-institutionalism or of public choice theory, but it would treat those ideas as diagnoses and would look for cures.

Source: Downs, Anthony, An Economic Theory of Democracy (Addison Wesley 1957). See also the Green New Deal and civic renewal; using federal spending to strengthen democracy; putting the civic back in civil service; on the Deep State, the administrative state, and the civil service.

Maria Avila, Building Collective Leadership for Culture Change, book cover

Maria Avila et al., Building Collective Leadership for Culture Change: Stories of Relational Organizing on Campus and Beyond

Maria Avila is a great community organizer in the tradition of the Industrial Areas Foundation. I often assign her writing to introduce students to principles and strategies for organizing. For instance, this fall, our undergraduates read chapters of her Transformative Civic Engagement Through Community Organizing.

Her latest book is Building Collective Leadership for Culture Change: Stories of Relational Organizing on Campus and Beyond (Cornell University Press, 2023), which she wrote with contributions from Aixle Aman Rivera, Joanna B. Perez, Alan P. Knoerr, Kathleen Tornow Chai, and Philip A. Vieira and a foreword by George J. Sánchez.

This book reflects Maria’s turn to organizing in and from academia. After working in organizations in Chicago and Ciudad Juarez and organizing intensively in neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Albuquerque, she earned a PhD and held positions at Cal State Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) and Occidental College. She says she has used “parts of [the IAF organizing] model to guide my work” in academic jobs “and throughout my doctoral and postdoctoral research” (p. 34). Building Collective Leadership is about being “a civically engaged scholar and organizer,” one who “work[s] with others to create a more democratic, collaborative culture in academic institutions where I work, and in the communities with which I partner (p. 52).”

The model that Maria employs has five very practical components (pp. 38-9).

She starts by “conducting relational one-on-one meetings with people I think might be interested in my work, to learn about people’s self-interest through sharing personal and/or professional stories.”

One-on-one meetings are fundamental to the IAF approach and have a particular character. They are two-way conversations that explore connections between the discussants’ personal values and interests and shared or public issues. These meetings create relationships that are assets for public work. They are not simply friendly and private, nor are they transactional–trying to get another person to do or agree to something. They are the first step in deciding together what we should do.

Maria then invites people who have resonated to her work to join “projects I am working on, based on their interests.” She creates spaces where these people can share their “personal and professional stories,” make and execute plans, and reflect. She educates others about the organizing methods that she has learned and has helped to develop, and she organizes discussions (based on readings) about relevant methods, such as “participatory research in action, narrative inquiry, community organizing, and civically engaged scholarship.”

Building Collective Leadership describes such processes at generally increasing scales. Chapters 1 and 2 are mostly about Maria’s own background and research. In chapter 3, she and her colleagues Kathleen Tornow Chai and Enrique Ortega describe one-on-one interviews and intensive group discussions within CSUDH’s College of Health, Human Services, and Nursing, which shifted the culture of that academic unit.

In chapter 4, Aixle Aman Rivera and Ray López-Chang discuss a partnership involving Maria and a Los Angeles Unified School Board district that changed its office culture and daily practices. In chapter 5, the focus shifts to regional organizing across Southern California and a project to build an intercollegiate chapter of the national network known as Imagining America, which emphasizes the humanities and arts. Chapter 6 describes a particular Imagining America research project that connected CSUDH to student-led and community-based groups. Chapter 7 discusses a reform of the curriculum at CSUDH, when civic engagement was built into the General Education requirements. Importantly, this effort involved community partners from the start.

The book reflects many voices, sometimes in the form of co-authored narratives and sometimes as explicit dialogues among participants. Quite a few of the contributors use the opportunity to criticize prevailing norms and systems of US higher education. For example, CSUDH professor Joanna B. Perez contrasts her “parents’ teachings of humility, community, and service” to “the egocentric and competitive nature of academia” (p. 188). Maria aspires to act “in a relational and hopefully more humane way than what the competitive and siloed academic culture tends to allow” (p. 223).

These critical reactions fuel the desire for change. Speaking for myself, I think that higher education deserves criticism. But I also observe that people who effectively use relational organizing methods within institutions, such as universities or government agencies, often demonstrate underlying care, affection, and loyalty for those institutions and their people (including their leaders). In the terms defined by Albert O. Hirschman, they opt to use “voice” rather than “exit” because they are loyal. The missions, histories, and particular roles of entities like a Cal. State public university inspire them.

I say this because I think that community organizing is effective when there is some alignment between the organizer and the institution. When that is completely absent, it is better to organize outside the institution.

If you are a socialist, you should not take a job at a bank, thinking that it has a lot of money and you can organize from within to distribute the money to the people. You will be endlessly frustrated. You would be better off organizing pressure on the bank from outside–from governments, unions, or social movements–or possibly trying to build some kind of cooperative alternative to a bank that can compete with it effectively. Likewise, if you are a true libertarian, you should probably not become a civil servant, unless you are willing to treat your job as Ron Swanson does and gain your personal satisfaction elsewhere.

(To complicate the advice of the previous paragraph, I acknowledge that you might be a little bit of a socialist or a mild libertarian and still think that you can be helpful working for a bank or a government program. Or you might feel you have no choice: there is nowhere to work except at organizations you despise. But in the latter case, you should try to get out of this bind as soon as possible.)

If you do basically appreciate an institution, such as a university, then organizing within it will sometimes be frustrating and will sometimes fail, but it can be deeply satisfying. You will be able to use mission statements and official policies as resources, since you want to reduce the gap between public promises and actual performance. You will find some programs, funding streams, offices, and positions that are useful for your cause. You should be able to identify allies, since other employees (and students) will be drawn to the organization for similar reasons as yours. One-on-one interviews can reveal such shared motivations. If you’re fortunate, your work will be rewarded by colleagues and even supervisors, since you are fundamentally committed to their common purpose. I think it’s OK to acknowledge your love for an institution that you critically engage.

To be an effective organizer, you do not need positional power: the ability to tell subordinates what to do. Aman Rivera and López-Chang note that their purported positional power as city officials was often illusory, anyway (p. 109). (On the other hand, if you happen to hold a high office, Maria’s methods can still be useful for you). You do need hope, relationships, and good strategies. Building Collective Leadership exemplifies all three.

‘every thing that lives is holy’: Blake’s radical relativism

Perhaps each species has a different “umwelt,” a unique enveloping environment that is experienced and influenced by the organism’s sensory organs and nervous system. In that case, reality is not one connected thing, but rather everything that you can I could possibly experience and describe, plus the many other universes that are “enacted” (Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991) by other species–those known and unknown to us, existent and yet to be.

Reflecting on such radical unknowability may have spiritual implications, which have been explored in different ways by Dogen (1200-1253 CE), Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others. (See “thinking both sides of the limits of human cognition.”)

William Blake presents a relevant discussion in his Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793). Oothoon–a female figure, described as “the soft soul of America”–invokes the radical diversity of animal experiences, “as different as their forms and as their joys.” She implies that the consciousness of the chicken, pigeon and bee are fundamentally different. She uses such examples to pose a question about our own consciousness:

Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave, and why her spires 
Love to curl round the bones of death; and ask the rav’nous snake 
Where she gets poison; and the wing’d eagle why he loves the sun 
And then tell me the thoughts of man, that have been hid of old.

Blake, Selected Poems, Penguin Classics (p. 63). 

I am not sure whether she is inviting us to imagine the experience of eagles and worms, or whether she assumes this would be impossible. Later, she exclaims, “How can one joy absorb another? are not different joys / Holy, eternal, infinite! and each joy is a Love” (p. 65).

This is a plea for appreciating fundamental diversity. She uses it to ask the person she loves, Theotormon, to accept her for who she is.

Blake had been exploring arguments for empathy. In his poem The French Revolution (1791), the pro-republican Duke of Orleans says to his reactionary peers:

But go, merciless man! enter into the infinite labyrinth of another's brain 
Ere thou measure the circle that he shall run. Go, thou cold recluse, into the fires
Of another's high flaming rich bosom, and return unconsum'd, and write laws.
If thou canst not do this, doubt thy theories, learn to consider all men as thy equals,
Thy brethren, and not as thy foot or thy hand, unless thou first fearest to hurt them.

Blake may not endorse Orleans’ belief that one can actually enter others’ brains. I am not sure whether he thinks such radical empathy is virtuous or impossible. Either premise could be the basis for appreciating everyone’s uniqueness.

Bromion is a (very bad) male character in the Daughters of Albion. He replies to Oothoon by acknowledging that there are many

... trees[,] beasts and birds unknown: 
Unknown, not unpercievd, spread in the infinite microscope, 
In places yet unvisited by the voyager and in worlds 
Over another kind of seas, and in atmospheres unknown (p. 64). 

Bromion then poses a series of questions about whether there are different wars, sorrows, and joys for these creatures. I think his answer is No:

And is there not one law for both the lion and the ox? 
And is there not eternal fire, and eternal chains? 
To bind the phantoms of existence from eternal life? (p. 65)

Here Bromion explicitly contradicts an aphorism from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” (1790)– “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression” (p. 58)–which makes me suspect that Blake is against Bromion’s view.

The third speaker in The Daughters of Albion is Theotormon. He asks Oothoon to share what she knows of the world, “so that [he] might traverse times & spaces far remote.” But he is not sure what this will do for him:

Where goest thou O thought! to what remote land is thy flight? 
If thou returnest to the present moment of affliction 
Wilt thou bring comforts on thy wings, and dews and honey and balm; 
Or poison From the desart wilds, from the eyes of the envier?’ (p. 64). 

Theotormon is worried that empathy might cause envy or other harms. But Oothoon is sure that any experience of a consciousness other than one’s own is beneficial. She concludes the poem: “Arise and drink your bliss, for every thing that lives is holy!’ (p. 68). Theotormon sits silently while the other daughters of Albion “echo back her sighs.”

See also: civility, humility, tolerance, empathy, or what?; compassion, not sympathy; Gillray and Blake; and “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”

Activism and Objectivity in Political Research

I agree with the main argument of Michael L. Frazer’s “Activism and Objectivity in Political Research (Perspectives on Politics 2023, 21(4), 2023, pp. 1258-1269). Objectivity is usually a red herring. What we need is “active engagement with inconvenient evidence.” Frazer uses the word “evidence” to encompass both empirical data and conceptual or normative arguments. Evidence is inconvenient if it complicates or challenges our prior beliefs.

As Frazer argues, engagement with inconvenient evidence strengthens both research and activism. Therefore, the valuable question is not whether activist academics should or can be objective, but how any kind of thinker should engage with inconvenient evidence.

People who are both scholars and committed activists have the advantage that they know what they stand for, which can help them recognize which evidence they should wrestle with because it’s inconvenient. However, their engaged stance may make them resistant to such evidence. In contrast, a highly detached scholar may be less aware of implicit assumptions that need to be challenged, yet more comfortable exploring diverse views. I happen to value both kinds of colleagues.

I would add that scholars can be activists in many different ways. For example, I have served on about 30 non-academic boards or committees that make collective decisions. Sometimes in these deliberations, I present inconvenient evidence. This can be my particular contribution as an academic–someone who has the time and scope to explore a range of ideas. On the other hand, sometimes I hold back because I am sensitive to group dynamics and I believe that the organization has value even if I can’t completely endorse its current theory-of-change. Besides, tact is a virtue.

Sometimes I refrain from publicly expressing views that would challenge the public stance of a group to which I belong. On the other hand, involvement with a group may make me aware of current assumptions that I then want to study critically. In such cases, being an activist scholar actually promotes my engagement with inconvenient evidence. But I may choose the slower and quieter medium of academic scholarship or a seminar room to explore complications, so that I don’t disrupt the immediate needs of a group. Exiting and publicly disagreeing always remain options.

Belonging to groups involves literal accountability. I could be removed from a committee. A fiduciary board assesses staff and makes decisions about personnel and budget. Speech in this context has tangible implications and raises many ethical considerations.

The situation is very different if one’s activism consists mainly of addressing public audiences as an individual writer or speaker. Forcefully saying simple things may attract the most attention, but fame is a lure and temptation. I often wish that public intellectuals would be more humble and less certain.

We may also be hired to play a role within an organization, whether that is an academic entity like a university or a nonprofit or government agency. Then we are responsible for the effects of our public speech on our colleagues and students or clients. The organization may need to engage with inconvenient evidence, but introducing difficult ideas may not be timely or appropriate for a given employee. For instance, when you have positional authority over someone else, it can be wise to hold back one’s skeptical thoughts.

I would start with a view much like Frazer’s–and I appreciate his literature review–but I would then explore what “engagement with inconvenient evidence” means for people who play various roles in various social contexts. Often the genuine virtue of intellectual humility is in tension with other valid needs, and the question is how to negotiate those tradeoffs. To make matters even more complicated, many of us play multiple roles, and we fall on continua rather than within discrete categories. For instance, one may be more or less open to inconvenient evidence of various types while spending various amounts of one’s time and energy performing various functions in settings as diverse as a department meeting, a lecture room, a team writing a grant proposal, a community meeting, a political campaign, and a protest action. Both the ethical and epistemic issues are quite diverse and hard.

See also: making our models explicit; analytical moral philosophy as a way of life; du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; Civically Engaged Research in Political Science; Henry Milner, Participant/Observer: An Unconventional Life in Politics and Academia

"Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge" Ieshia Evans stands in front of a line of police in Baton Rouge 2016. Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

nonviolence in a time of political unrest

The next few years will indicate whether American history has entered a phase of political unrest or instability. This development is not inevitable–and it’s certainly not desirable–but now is the time to plan, educate, organize, and train for it.

To be sure, there has always been political violence in the USA, often focused on the most vulnerable Americans. However, a substantial increase in the scale and scope of political violence would challenge our already fragile constitutional order and pose dangers for the rest of the world. We will know that we are in that situation if the daily news often includes reports of violent clashes, dubious arrests and prosecutions, threats, firings or resignations connected to politics, and occasional assassinations and politically-motivated mass murders.

I believe we need broad-based nonviolent social movements to get us through any unrest and ideally to bring us to a better place. Such movements will generate protest actions, some of which will involve reported violence–if only as a result of hostile responses by other groups or police. Thus we should be striving for a high ratio of nonviolence to violence.

Just in the last few days, I have heard confident statements that nonviolence doesn’t work and that violence is always necessary for achieving rights. This is false. Nonviolent struggles have a much better record of success. In any case, Americans must understand nonviolent strategies, so that they at least have this option.

On Dec. 1, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the Poor People’s Campaign, which he was organizing at the time, “is a search for an alternative to riots. This is kind of a last, desperate demand for the nation to respond to nonviolence.” Here he used the prospect of social unrest to demand change. But he did not believe that violent strategies would actually benefit Black people or poor people. He saw violence as lose/lose. Although he warned privileged people that they would pay a price if violence prevailed, he never advocated it, partly because he thought it would harm disadvantaged people as much or more than anyone else.

In his final book, King expressed strong doubts that violence could generate “any concrete improvement” and defended nonviolence “as the most potent weapon.” This book was Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Since the 1950s, “chaos” had been King’s word for the fruits of violence. For instance, in a lecture at Brandeis, he had forecast “an endless rain of meaningless chaos” unless nonviolence prevailed. Those words sound prophetic today.

Most of the political violence in the USA is coming from the hard right. According to Rachel Kleinfeld, the Global Terrorism Database identified more than 50 violent attacks by the extreme right in the USA in 2019, versus about 5 attacks from the extreme left. However, that disparity is a recent phenomenon, not a long-term one, and there is much potential for violence on all sides (including the middle). Kleinfeld’s fig. 2 (below) shows that Republicans are somewhat more favorable to political violence than Democrats are. But support has risen rapidly on both sides–albeit from very low baseline–and the partisan gap is small. This graph makes me worry that almost any group can rapidly shift to supporting violence.

As we navigate the next several years, it will be helpful to track the level and extent of unrest so that we can tell what we are dealing with. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) is helpful for this purpose. Its raw data include brief and–to my eye–balanced summaries of each event that they track. Here is my summary of all US events from their global database*:

US data from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED)

ACLED includes nonviolent protests. Although we should monitor them, I generally assume that they are good rather than dangerous. I would be happy to see the “grand total” in the table above rise, as long as peaceful protests represent a larger share. (Note that the rate of nonviolent protest has halved since 2020.)

Perceptions are important. In What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life, I discuss Black Lives Matter (BLM) as a major nonviolent social movement, citing evidence from Erica Chenoweth and others that violence was extraordinarily rare in BLM events and was prevented by careful planning and training. Indeed, BLM was less violent than the classical Civil Rights Movement had been. However, BLM has been widely reported as violent. Even some supporters perceive it as violent and justify it as such. This impression then contributes to a general sense that our times are violent, which may motivate tit-for-tat responses.

Nonviolence needs forthright and even passionate advocacy, as well as much painstaking training and organizing work.

Nonviolence relates to and complements other necessary strategies, such as civic education, dialogue and deliberation, political reform, defense of civil rights, voter registration, and the efforts to enhance “social cohesion” that Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) has mapped (see below). However, nonviolence is a category of its own that needs special attention today.

Photo: “Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge” by Jonathan Bachman, showing Ieshia Evans. See also: the case for (and against) nonviolence; Rev. James Lawson, Jr on Revolutionary Nonviolence; preparing for a possible Trump victory; introduction to Gandhi

*The suicide bombing noted here took place in Nashville on December 25, 2020, when “a man detonated a bomb inside a recreational vehicle,” injuring 31. The grenade attack occurred in Pittsburgh on Jan. 3, 2021, with unknown perpetrators and motives and no injuries. Most of the incidents categorized as “sexual violence” are rapes of prisoners by corrections or police officers, which are understandably treated as political acts, although the motives may vary.