Foucault’s spiritual exercises

Here is Michel Foucault’s definition of “spirituality”:

… I think we could call “spirituality” the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth. We will call “spirituality” then the set of these researches, practices, and experiences, which may be purifications, ascetic exercises, renunciations, conversions of looking, modifications of existence, etc., which are, not for knowledge but for the subject, for the subject’s very being, the price to be paid for access to the truth. Let’s say that spirituality, as it appears in the West at least, has three characteristics.

[1] Spirituality postulates that the truth is never given to the subject by right. … It postulates that for the subject to have right of access to the truth he must be changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself. … It follows that from this point of view there can be no truth without a conversion or a transformation of the subject.

[2] Eros [the subject’s attraction to the truth, or the truth’s movement to the subject] and askesis [labor] are, I think, the two major forms in Western spirituality for conceptualizing the modalities by which the subject must be transformed in order finally to become capable of truth.

[3] The truth enlightens the subject; the truth gives beatitude to the subject; the truth gives the subject tranquility of the soul. In short, in the truth and in access to the truth, there is something that fulfills the subject himself, which fulfills or transfigures his very being.

Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Lectures at the College de France 1981-2, translated by Graham Burchell (Palgrave, 2005), pp. 15-16

Foucault distinguishes spirituality from philosophy: “the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and which attempts to determine the conditions and limits of the subject’s access to the truth” (p. 15).

Although philosophy and spirituality are different, all the Greek and Roman philosophers–except (Foucault thinks) Aristotle–believed that a person could not have access to the truth without first being transformed into a better self. Therefore, all the classical philosophers argued for spirituality, as defined above. More than that, they combined their philosophical arguments with spiritual instruction, because they saw the two as inseparable.

One of the main topics that a self was supposed to understand was justice. To understand justice required improving oneself. In turn, learning about justice made a person better. “Consequently, taking care of oneself and being concerned with justice amount to the same thing” (p. 72, here interpreting Plato).

These presuppositions of ancient philosophy and spirituality contrast with two prevalent modern traditions. First:

  • Science is that set of methods and institutions (such as labs, PhD programs, and peer-review) that allow us to know nature without having to improve the self first. A scientist “can recognize the truth and have access to it in himself and solely through his activity of knowing, without anything else being demanded of him and without him having to change or alter his being as subject” (p. 17). In turn, science generates knowledge that may not improve anyone spiritually. Nature is precisely the realm that is independent of our spiritual condition. If some scientists prepare themselves mentally to do their jobs or gain tranquility from what they discover about nature, those are incidental facts about them as people. Spiritual preparation may not be necessary, and it certainly isn’t sufficient. Science is about methods, techniques, instruments, rules, and norms that prevent the self from influencing knowledge. And science pursues truth without flinching even when the results are morally problematic.

I would add another tradition as a contrast with ancient spirituality, although I am not sure Foucault would agree:

  • Liberalism is the political tradition that seeks to base good government on well-designed institutions (rights, checks-and-balances, elections and other mechanisms of accountability) so that good government need not depend on the moral excellence of either leaders or the people. Good institutional design is a more secure basis for justice than human excellence. Further, in a well-designed polity, we can leave people alone in their private lives instead of badgering them to transform themselves. Thus liberalism is compatible with freedom as autonomy and with diverse understandings of the good life.

According to Foucault, classical spiritual traditions lived on in Christianity. Spirituality ran into trouble with the rise of scholasticism, which made the study of God into a kind of science. Drawing on Aristotle, medieval scholastics provided methods for understanding God and nature that did not depend upon spiritual self-improvement. They left methods of self-improvement to non-scholars, a division that continues today.

I struggle to decide where Foucault stands himself. Does he give detailed lectures about Greco-Roman spiritual traditions because he believes that modern science and governance are bad and he wants us to return to a better way? Does he describe these Hellenistic traditions dispassionately, as a contribution to truth that may not improve us or himself? (In other words, is he a scientist of the past?) Or does he seek to liberate us from spirituality and science by demonstrating the historical contingency of both? If we shed spirituality and science, what are we left with?

I don’t know, but I enjoy the moments in the lectures when Foucault interacts with his audience. For instance, here he demonstrates concern:

[Is there] another room you can use? Yes? And are those people there because they cannot get into the other room or because they prefer to be there? I am sorry that the conditions are so bad, I can do nothing about it and as far as possible I would like to avoid you suffering too much. Okay, earlier, while talking about these techniques of the self and their existence prior to Platonic reflection on the epimeleia heautou [care of oneself], it came to mind, and I forgot to mention it to you, that there is a text … (p. 65)

And here he is playing with his audience:

I was saying that it seemed to me that at a certain moment … the link was broken, definitively I think, between access to the truth, which becomes the autonomous development of knowledge (connaissance), and the requirement of the subject’s trans- formation of himself and of his being. When I say “I think it was definitively broken,” I don’t need to tell you that I don’t believe any such thing, and that what is interesting is precisely that the links were not broken abruptly as if by the slice of a knife (pp. 25-6).

Foucault respected and learned from his colleague Pierre Hadot, a great scholar of Hellenistic thought. Hadot emphasized that the Hellenistic thinkers did not write systematic treatises. They were teachers who worked with students or other audiences in concrete circumstances.

Philosophy in antiquity was a spiritual exercise. … Whether we have to do with dialogues as in the case of Plato, class notes as in the case of Aristotle, treatises like those of Plotinus, or commentaries like those of Proclus, a philosopher’s works cannot be interpreted without taking into consideration the concrete situation which gave birth to them. They are the products of a philosophical school, in the most concrete sense of the term, in which a master forms his disciples, trying to guide them to self-transformation and -realization. Thus, the written work is a reflection of pedagogical, pyschagogic, and methodological preoccupations.

Although every written work is a monologue, the philosophical work is always implicitly a dialogue. The dimension of the possible interlocutor is always present within it. This explains the incoherencies and contradictions which modern historians discover with astonishment in the works of ancient philosophers.

Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, translated by Michael Chase (Blackwell 1995), pp. 104-5

Foucault’s concrete situation was rather unusual. As a holder of a chair in the College de France, he was required only to conduct his own research and report the results annually in a series of lectures–free, public, and uncredited. Because he was an academic superstar, he gave these lectures to a packed lecture hall and overflow areas, with ranks of tape-recorders piled on the desk before him. The audience could not literally discuss with him, but he could address them in a dialogic way.

Here is Foucault’s description of Epictetus:

unlike Seneca, [Epictetus] is a teacher by profession [and] he really does have a school. He opens a school which is called “school” and in which he has students. And, of course, among his students there are a number, no doubt a considerable number, of young people who come to be trained. … It should not be thought that the care of the self, as principal axis of the art of life, was reserved for adults. But alongside this, intertwined with this training of young people, we can say that in Epictetus’s school there is also what could be called, employing an unjust metaphor no doubt, an open shop: an open shop for adults. And in fact adults come to his school to hear his teaching for one day, for a few days or for some time. Here also, in the social world evoked in the Discourses, you see, for example, a town inspector passing through, a sort of tax procurer if you like. He is an Epicurean who comes to consult Epictetus and ask him questions. There is a man sent to Rome by his town who, passing through Asia Minor to Rome, stops to ask Epictetus questions and get advice on how he can best accomplish his mission. Moreover, Epictetus by no means disregards this clientele, or these adult interlocutors, since he advises his own students, young people therefore, to find prominent people in their town and to shake them up a bit by saying: Tell me then, how do you live? Do you really take proper care of yourselves? (p. 90)

I think Foucault’s own role is similar. And that makes him–not a scientist of history–but a practitioner and provider of spiritual exercises.

See also Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); does focusing philosophy on how to live broaden or narrow it?;  Hannah Arendt and philosophy as a way of life; Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life; science, UFOs, and the diminishment of humankind; notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds.

Putting the US Constitution in its Place: A Broader Agenda for Civic Education

I put a draft chapter on in case anyone is interested in commenting. It is for a forthcoming volume edited by Carol McNamara about American citizenship.

The abstract:

Almost all American students are required to study the formal structure of the US government, and most perform fairly well on concrete, factual questions about the Constitution. But there is much more for competent citizens to learn. After I explore some valid reasons to include the Constitution in required curricula, I argue that the document provides a poor framework for civics as a whole, giving students a distorted view of the social world and failing to motivate them for ethical civic engagement. I conclude with a sketch of a curriculum in which the US Constitution has a place, but a fairly modest one.

Here is an excerpt:

… the Constitution is a distorting lens through which to view the social and political world. It is, after all, a charter for the federal government of the United States, albeit one that protects the rights of the states, associations, and individuals. It has much to say about the three official branches of the national government. It also mentions certain other institutions that seemed important to its 18th-century authors, such as the armed forces, militias, and privateers (“letters of marque”); religion and the press; lawyers (“Assistance of Counsel”); and associations and public assemblies. It does not mention any of the following components of our 21st-century system: political parties and lobbies; unions and organized professions (other than the law); permanent regulatory and national security agencies and the civil service; for-profit and nonprofit corporations and capital markets; or broadcast and digital media and the Internet.

Courts strive to apply constitutional principles to these modern institutions by expanding 18th-century categories. For instance, publicly traded, general-purpose corporations—which became common in the 19th century—are treated as examples of “associations” under the First Amendment.* I lack the competence to assess such rulings, but I think that the Constitution is problematic as a curricular framework. A curriculum based on that text will leave scarce time for analyzing most of the institutions that actually structure our lives, because they are unmentioned in the document.

While studying the First Amendment, students might be invited to think about the types of associations, religions, and equivalents of “the press” that exist in our time. But that is an odd and constraining way to investigate the structure and functions of Facebook, the Democratic Party, Sunni Islam, The Washington Post and its parent holding company, Black Lives Matter, the National Rifle Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and General Motors, to name just a few “associations.” A course on how our society works would go deeply into those organizations and give much less time to the question of how the US Constitution applies to them.

And another:

A heavy emphasis on the Constitution also implies a causal theory that is sometimes made explicit in k-12 classrooms. Students may take away the thesis that our society can be explained by the Constitution and the founders’ vision. The world we observe around is the one the founders “framed” for us.

That thesis is, at best, contestable. The organizations, norms, and systems of the United Kingdom and the United States today are in many ways similar, despite the fact that the USA has an idiosyncratic (some would say, “exceptional”) written constitution, whereas the British constitution is unwritten and has very different components: a monarch, an established church, a cabinet that is part of Parliament, and parliamentary sovereignty. Meanwhile, both the USA and the UK function very differently from the same countries a century ago. The reason is not that they have changed their constitutions profoundly but rather that urbanization and then suburbanization, industrialization and then deindustrialization, capitalism and then the welfare state, immigration and internal migrations, technology and global capital markets have transformed these two societies—more or less in parallel. The causal impact of the US Constitution on the USA seems limited.

*“Corporations and other associations, like individuals, contribute to the ‘discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas’ that the First Amendment seeks to foster.” Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U. S. 1 (2010), quoting Bellotti, 435 U. S., at 783. See also: on teaching the US Constitution; the Citizens United decision and the inadequate sociology of the US Constitution; liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitution; is our constitutional order doomed?; and how to teach the constitution of cyberspace.

some highlights from the new CIRCLE survey

CIRCLE’s new survey of 2,232 young citizens (ages 18-29) is out. Among the findings:

  • “83% say they believe young people have the power to change the country, 60% feel like they’re part of a movement that will vote to express its views, and 79% of young people say the COVID-19 pandemic has helped them realize that politics impact their everyday lives.”
  • They support Biden over Trump by 58%-24%, “a staggering 34-point margin. But 18% of youth say they would like to vote for another candidate. Asian youth (78%) and Black youth (73%) are the most likely to support Biden. Meanwhile, almost three quarters of youth who support Trump (72%) are White.”
  • 27% of young people (ages 18-24) say they have attended a march or demonstration, a remarkable increase from when we asked the question [of] the same age group before the 2016 and 2018 elections (5% and 16%, respectively).”
  • For all youth, the top issues are environment and climate change (13%), racism (12%) and healthcare (12%). For Black youth, the priorities are racism (22%), policing of communities of color (15%), and healthcare (11%).
  • All measured forms of political engagement are up compared to 2018 (admittedly, not a presidential year). For instance, half say that they have tried to convince someone else to vote–which is a lot of viral marketing for the election.

Much more information is on the CIRCLE page.

PLEASE Contribute to the Florida K-12 Civics Standards Review


Good morning friends. This post is a reminder that the Florida K-12 Civics Standards are open for review (and the memo on this is available here: Civics Review dps-2020-48 (1)). If you want to have input on what kids should do and should know throughout the grade levels, please please please take part in the review.

Civics Review

Public input is encouraged through an online survey platform accessible at  This online platform provides all stakeholders with open access to participate in the review process until August 5, 2020. Stakeholders are required to provide user information before providing input.

You will have the opportunity to state whether the standards should be eliminated, revised, moved, or kept as is, and you may leave your own comments as well.

If you have any questions, please contact Michael DiPierro, Director of Standards, at or 850-245-9773.

Please take part in this important process. Civics is at the heart of the social studies, and let’s keep Florida’s strong civics heart beating, as a national leader in civics education.



diversity, humility, curiosity

I recently heard about a conversation in which someone invoked the idea of a “voodoo doll,” and another in which someone said that the Chinese character for crisis also means “opportunity.”

These phrases rest on falsehoods. Sticking needles into effigies to harm real enemies derives from Western European folklore. A widow was “accused, tried and drowned at London Bridge, England, for piercing a puppet, made in the victim’s likeness, with nails, towards the end of the 10th century” (Armitage 2015, p. 88). In white popular culture in the early 1900s, such practices were attributed to Haitian religion as part of a fearful, contemptuous, and hateful depiction of Haiti–the only country with a successful slave revolt–and of Black people in general.

John F. Kennedy popularized the idea that the Chinese character for crisis also means opportunity. This is false and may perpetuate stereotypes of Asian “wisdom” as paradoxical, antique, and unscientific. A similar example is the remark attributed to Zhou Enlai that it was too early to tell whether the French Revolution was a good thing. That sounds sagacious and mysterious until you find out that he was referring to the French uprisings of 1968, less than a decade before he spoke. It actually was too early to tell.

We shouldn’t say these things, because they are wrong and they reinforce harmful stereotypes. In fact, if anything is racist, it is to depict a religion constructed by enslaved and self-liberated people under immense duress as a malevolent form of magic, characterized by enchanted dolls and walking undead that are familiar tropes in European folklore.

Yet I do not think that the best outcome is to erect warning signs around such topics. We don’t want someone to use these phrases, get corrected, and resolve never to talk about Haiti or about Chinese characters again.

Instead, we should strive for a combination of humility (knowing what we don’t know) and curiosity (striving to learn more).

For instance, the family of syncretic religions that includes Vodou, Santeria, Candomble Jeje, and others is an important topic of study. These religions are components of our social world, interesting in their own right and significant in the history of the African diaspora. To understand a phenomenon like the astounding growth of Pentecostalism in Brazil, it might be important to have some awareness of Brazilian syncretism, which Pentecostals depict as their main enemy. Fear of Haiti and its successful revolution has been important in American politics–and that, too, is valuable to understand.

To study syncretism raises general issues that might have existential significance for people from other religious backgrounds. For instance, the question “What is a religion?” is pressing for all human beings. One answer is: a system of belief defined by certain abstract tenets that are matters of faith rather than reason and that are incompatible with other systems. That definition does not apply to Vodou or explain how someone can be both Catholic and syncretic, as many people are. So maybe we should rethink what a religion is, in general.

Likewise, it is worthwhile to understand more about Chinese writing. In addition to its intrinsic significance, this topic also raises questions that generalize to other contexts. For example, the word ji, misleadingly translated as “opportunity,” is polysemous: it has a whole family of loosely related meanings. Many English words are polysemous, too. What should we make of polysemy in general?

Also, the claim that the Chinese character for crisis means opportunity is an example–in this case, a spurious example–of arguing from etymology. People make etymological arguments all the time. I, for example, have noted that the roots of “citizen” and “political” are Latin and Greek words related to the city (civitas and polis). They share a history with the words “urbane” and “civilized,” which also distinguish cities from the inferior countryside. But do we get any guidance for today by understanding what ancient Greeks and Romans meant by these words? How, in general, should we think about original meanings, given that languages and societies change?

In short, let us turn mistakes into quests for more and better knowledge. That means encouraging further forays into fraught topics instead of warning people away from them. When we err, as we all do, we should respond by learning, not by apologizing and turning away. Incidentally, this means keeping the focus on the original topic of conversation (e.g., Haitian religion), not on our feelings about being corrected. I take the main problem with “white fragility” to be a tendency to distort conversations by directing attention to the question of how the white person feels.

My thesis is that cultural diversity requires humility plus curiosity. I would acknowledge two challenges to this thesis–not to discourage curiosity but to remind us what to be careful of.

First, by digging more deeply into fraught topics, we may make additional mistakes. I wrote above that the Haitian Revolution was the only successful revolt of enslaved people. Arguably, that is a false statement. In an earlier draft, I wrote that white people depicted Vodou as “black magic,” thereby repeating a racist trope in my own voice. It can be safer to erect warning signs around such issues than to compound our initial mistakes with more. I think we should take this risk but be appropriately careful about it. Humility should not diminish with added knowledge.

Second, knowledge confers power. To understand more about other peoples and cultures can allow you to profit from them or even dominate them. Often in durable cases of imperialism, the conquerors learned about, and even admired, the people whom they controlled.

For instance, I am not sure that Britain would have been motivated to dominate India, or capable of doing so, if some British people had not become learned and appreciative about India. A classic case is Rudyard Kipling. His first language was Hindi, he knew a lot about India, he disparaged racist stereotypes about Indians, and he believed that Britain should rule India just because it was a magnificent civilization. In stark contrast, Donald Trump displays ignorance and contempt for almost the whole world. One result is a reluctance to use US military power overseas. Trump has arguably been less imperialistic than his predecessors because he is more ignorant. This is a warning about curiosity.

Leaving aside literal imperialism, we might also worry about profiting from knowledge about other cultures. One could imagine a privileged American who starts with an idea about voodoo dolls, is corrected, learns more about Haitian syncretism, and makes money by writing about it or by importing and selling real Haitian art. Although I would defend cultural appropriation in many circumstances (and I disagree that profit is a mark of sin), one should at least be mindful about monetizing other people’s experiences.

These are caveats, but I don’t think they rebut the basic presumption that we should address ignorance by learning more–with curiosity born of humility and guided by ethics.

Source: Armitage, Natalie, “European and African Figural Ritual Magic: The Beginnings of the Voodoo Doll Myth,” in Armitage & Ceri Houlbrook, editors, The Materiality of Magic: An Artifactual Investigation into Ritual Practices and Popular Beliefs, Oxbow Books, 2015, pp. 85–102.) See also: is everyone religious?; Kipling: understanding and control; what is cultural appropriation?; and when is cultural appropriation good or bad?.

Civics in Real Life Updates

Good morning, friends in Civics! Have you been keeping up with our Civics in Real Life materials? The most recent two CRL readings concern natural law and the social contract and consent of the governed. You can check out these and other readings over at Florida Citizen!

Consent of the Governed
con crl

Natural Law and the Social Contract

We hope that you find this, and others in the series, useful!

Check out the new series here. 

As a reminder, our topics so far have addressed

The Food and Drug Administration
the fda crl

Judicial Review
judicial review crl

The Appointment Process
the appt process crl


National Institutes of Health.

Government Task Forces.
task forces
The 2020 Censuscensuscrl
Unemployment InsuranceUI

The Defense Production Act

Essential Workers


The First Amendment1st amndcrl

Government Power


Nongovernmental OrganizationsNGO

Propaganda and Symbolism


The National Guard




Primary Sources

primary sources

Federalism in Action


The Preamble in Action

Executive Orders

the Common Good,

and Public Health and the Social Contract.

We hope that you will find these useful. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact us at anytime! And don’t forget, you can find the ‘Civics in Real Life’ resource on the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship website here. Be sure also to check out Civics360 for videos and readings that explore additional civics concepts and ideas within a more traditional framework!

Update on LFI/FJCC Staff Transitions

Without a doubt, it is the people that make an organization what it is. And we here at the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship at the Lou Frey Institute would not be what we are today without the hard work of the staff here. It is with that note that we wish our wonderful Professional Development director and all around fantastic civics educator, Peggy Renihan, the best of luck as she transitions to a new position in Bay County.

Peggy has worked at the Lou Frey Institute for more than a decade. In many ways, she IS the face of the Institute and FJCC in certain parts of the state. Her approach to both relationship building and working with teachers and districts, especially but not exclusively in the northern part of Florida, is one that will not be duplicated.

We wish we could keep her, and we envy Bay County for getting someone with such incredible talents and expertise. Peggy, thank you so much for all that you have done, for civics, for the Center and the Institute, and for your family here. You are appreciated beyond words, and our community will not be the same without you.


the significance of the progressive primary victories

Representative Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, appears to have lost a primary to Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal:

This is part of a significant trend: relatively conservative incumbent Democrats in relatively safe Democratic states and districts are falling to more progressive newcomers, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.-14), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.-07), and Marie Newman (IL-3). These insurgents are more diverse and younger than the incumbents. To be sure, a majority of progressive primary challengers have lost, but the net shift is toward a larger bloc within the Democratic caucus.

We should now see assertive progressive caucuses grow in the US House and in many city councils and state legislatures–mirror-images of the House Freedom Caucus on the right. They should and will help to maintain and expand Democratic Party control of as many legislative chambers as possible, while acting as the sharp, leading edge of Democratic majorities. (Jamelle Bouie made this argument in the New York Times.)

The country is becoming more diverse, and people of color tilt heavily toward the Democratic Party. As a result, the Democrats are about to cease being a white-majority party, although many of their national leaders still are white, especially in the Senate.

In 2016, half of the voting delegates at the Democratic National Convention were people of color. These delegates were not appointed as a gesture to symbolic representation or diversity. They were elected by their own power bases. When a party that elects these delegates wins national elections, white dominance is at risk. That is potentially a shift of global significance, bookending 1492 and 1619.

But the party’s leadership must represent its own electorate better. A 58% white Democratic House caucus is a bit too white for a 54% white party, and the party is getting more diverse. The main opportunities to diversify the caucus are districts with Black or Latino majorities. (The Senate represents a bigger problem.)

If you’re not as far as left some of the progressive insurgents, I still think you should welcome their voices in government. The national deliberation is enriched by their ideas, experiences, and agendas. A legislature that excludes such perspectives lacks legitimacy.

What if you were a Bernie voter in 2020? Do a few primary victories offer a disappointing consolation prize? I think not. Electing progressive Democrats in left-leaning districts was always a more promising strategy.

I’ll acknowledge that if you are a democratic socialist, you should have voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. He is, after all, a socialist. I didn’t vote for him because my political philosophy–for whatever that’s worth–does not fully align with his. At the same time, if you are a democratic socialist, you would have fundamental reasons not to expect the Sanders campaign to carry your agenda forward. You should be primarily interested in the path that AOC, Jamaal Bowman, and others represent.

Although socialist thought is vast and varied and mostly beyond my personal knowledge, I have never heard of a socialist theorist or strategist who believed that capitalists would back down in response to an individual politician who won a majority vote in a national election. Just because actual socialism would cost the ruling class trillions of dollars, they would be expected to resist it with all their power. That is why socialist strategists have often emphasized strong unions linked to a broad-based left party with internal democracy and ideological discipline (a hard pair of principles to combine), plus a left version of the mass media. Once you build that combination, you have a chance at a more-than-symbolic political campaign.

Michael Walzer writes:

Socialist politicians usually emerge from powerful social movements like the old labor movement or from political parties like the Labour Party in the United Kingdom or the Social Democrats in Germany. Sanders does not come out of, nor has he done anything to build, a significant social movement. That wouldn’t be an easy task in the United States today; in any case, it hasn’t been his task. He has, moreover, never been a member of a political party—not even of the Democratic Party whose nomination he is now seeking. He has never attempted to create a democratic socialist caucus within the party. For all the enthusiasm he has generated, he has no organized, cohesive social or political force behind his candidacy. If he were elected, it is hard to see how he could enact any part of his announced program.

One response is that Sanders is not a socialist in a significant sense, and therefore socialist theory would accept that he could have won the election. He just needed to play his cards a bit differently and receive more help from people like me (and millions of others) who resisted him.

As I once noted, Sanders’ platform is less radical than Harry Truman’s was in 1948. In that sense, Sanders stands in the mainstream of the 20th century Democratic Party. Richard Wright puts Bernie Sanders in the tradition of Victorian moralizing socialists, like William Dean Howells (who voted Republican) or Frances Willard. This is a highly mainstream American tradition, and Bernie’s only difference is the “socialist” brand. To explain socialism, Sanders sometimes cites Denmark, which the Heritage Foundation ranks very high on measures of business freedom, investment freedom, and property rights. I like Denmark’s social contract but would describe it as liberal.

Sanders has never passed any socialist legislation but is part of Chuck Schumer’s leadership team in the Senate. In the 115th Congress, Sanders and, e.g, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) agreed on 90% of their votes–all their rare divergences relating to Trump’s executive branch appointments, plus H.R. 2430, “a bill to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act,” and H.R. 3364; “A bill to … counter aggression by the Governments of Iran, the Russian Federation, and North Korea.” You could argue that if Sanders is a socialist, so is Merkley and most of the Democratic caucus.

Although Sanders made major economic proposals, they had little chance of passage, which made him sort of a notional or symbolic socialist. Yes, if Bernie had won in a landslide–carried to the White House by a wave of grassroots enthusiasm and activism for the substance of his agenda–he could have passed his bills. But the primary campaign showed no evidence of a dramatically new electorate. A capable Democratic administration pressured skillfully from a growing leftwing caucus can do much more.

See also three views of the Democratic Party when democracy is at risk; Bernie Sanders runs on the 1948 Democratic Party Platform; and democracy is coming to the USA

Civic Saturday Fellowship Deadline Extended Until July 3rd

Citizen University announced they are extending the deadline for their Civic Saturday Fellowship application for one more week until Friday, July 3rd.

“The Civic Saturday Fellowship prepares motivated, local leaders (or, as we like to say, civic catalysts!) to start their own Civic Saturday gatherings in their home communities. In this nine-month fellowship, civic catalysts will attend the Civic Seminary, a three-day training in Seattle with Citizen University staff, and return home ready to create lasting impact in the civic life of their communities.” You can read more in the announcement below and find the original information on the CU site here.

Civic Saturday Fellowship Program

All around the country, we are facing a crisis in civic life – people are becoming more socially isolated, disconnected from a sense of common purpose, and cynical about their own ability to affect change. Enter Civic Saturday: a gathering that brings communities together to cultivate a sense of shared civic purpose and moral clarity. At Civic Saturday share a meaningful communal experience, and leave inspired to become more powerful, responsible citizens.

The Civic Saturday Fellowship prepares motivated, local leaders (or, as we like to say, civic catalysts!) to start their own Civic Saturday gatherings in their home communities. In this nine-month fellowship, civic catalysts will attend the Civic Seminary, a three-day training in Seattle with Citizen University staff, and return home ready to create lasting impact in the civic life of their communities.

Applications Open Now!

Applications are now open for the Civic Saturday Fellowship Fall sessions! The Fellowship begins with the Civic Seminary, a three-day training, then continues as you organize your own Civic Saturday gatherings in the following months. Apply now for Fall sessions: September 15-18 or October 20-23, 2020.

2020 Fellowship Informational Packet
Application Submission Form

Deadline extended!

Priority Deadline: June 19, 2020
Regular Deadline: June 26, 2020 – extended to July 3, 2020

Informational Webinar

Watch the pre-recorded Informational Webinar from June 3, 2020.

You can find the original version of this announcement on Citizen University’s site at

more data on police interactions by race

We reported on June 17:

Sixty-eight percent of African Americans say they know someone who has been unfairly stopped, searched, questioned, physically threatened or abused by the police, and 43 percent say they personally have had this experience—with 22 percent saying the mistreatment occurred within the past year alone, according to survey results from Tufts University’s Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth and Civic Engagement.

According to the KFF Health Tracking Poll for June, 2020, about 30% of Black adults say they have “experienced unfair treatment in interactions with police” within the past year. Forty-one percent of Black adults “say they have been stopped or detained by police because of their racial or ethnic background,” and “about one in five Black adults (21%)–including 30% of Black men–say they have been a victim of police violence due to their racial background.”

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ most recent (2015) Police-Public Contact Survey, 19.8% of African Americans age 16+ had some contact with the police in the past year. This number is the total of several specific types of contact that are asked in the survey, such as riding in a car that was stopped by the police or reporting a crime, among others. The total rate of contact was down by six percentage points compared to 2011.

In the BJS survey, whites were three percentage points more likely than African Americans to report any contact with the police but were also more likely to initiate the contact. Of those who reported that they had been stopped on the street by police, two thirds of whites (67.8%) but only half of Blacks (50.1%) said that the reason for the stop was legitimate.

Of Blacks who said that they had contacted the police, 90.7% said the police behaved properly and 83.6% said they were satisfied by the outcome–very similar rates to whites. The survey implies that 2.7 million African Americans initiated contact with the police in 2015, of whom about 2.3 million were satisfied. This is a fact with some political significance in discussions of defunding the police. At the same time, 3.3% of Blacks and 1.3% of whites reported that the police had used force against them in 2015.

A significant limitation involves the samples of all these surveys. Our survey excludes people in prisons or jails. So does the BJS survey, which also excludes “homeless persons.” I am not sure about the sample of the KFF survey, but it is conducted predominantly by random-digit dialing, which would miss institutionalized people and homeless people. Rates of discriminatory contact would likely be higher if institutionalized and homeless people were included.

The statistics from these three surveys are not strictly comparable. The populations, samples, dates, and questions vary. Still, careful comparisons are interesting. BJS finds that 19.8% of Blacks reported any contact with the police in 2015, and many of those contacts were perceived as legitimate. We find that 22% of Blacks experienced discriminatory treatment by the police in 2020. There could certainly be measurement errors or biases in either survey. Or the rate of discriminatory treatment could have risen in 2020 as a result of mass protests. I would also suspect that some forms of discriminatory treatment do not occur during events that people identify as “contacts.” If a police officer yells at you while driving by but doesn’t stop, that could be an act of discrimination but not a contact.

See also: Two-thirds of African Americans know someone mistreated by police, and 22% report mistreatment in past year; on the phrase: Abolish the police!; insights on police reform from Elinor Ostrom and social choice theory; and science, law, and microagressions.