Below is a selection of the 10 most read posts at DemocracySpot in 2013. Thanks to all of those who stopped by throughout the year, and happy 2014.
The end of the year is always a reflective time, and recently, I saw a truly inspiring Bill Moyers interview with cultural critic and scholar Henry A. Giroux, whose insightful critique of the state of democracy and reflections on what is possible for its future remind me why I originally wanted to work in public engagement. Though the book discussed in the interview, Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, sets up a rather bleak premise, we at NCDD see our own vision and values in Giroux’s analysis of what democracy could be like – if we work for it. The interview is deep and rich with insight, and we highly recommend that you give it a look.
I’ve pulled out a few key insights that Giroux shares below, but you can watch the full (fairly long) interview on that originally aired on Moyers & Company by clicking here or read the full transcript of the interview here.
The Crisis in Democracy
From the beginning of the exchange, Giroux’s belief in the importance of real democracy comes through loud and clear:
Moyers: There’s a great urgency in your recent books and in the essays you’ve been posting online, a fierce urgency, almost as if you are writing with the doomsday clock ticking. What accounts for that?
Giroux: Well, for me democracy is too important to allow it to be undermined in a way in which every vital institution that matters from the political process to the schools to the inequalities that, to the money being put into politics, I mean, all those things that make a democracy viable are in crisis.
And the problem is the crisis… should be accompanied by a crisis of ideas, [the problem is] that the stories that are being told about democracy are really about the swindle of fulfillment. The swindle of fulfillment is what the reigning elite, in all of their diversity, now tell the American people, if not the rest of the world: that democracy is an excess. [Democracy] doesn’t really matter anymore, that we don’t need social provisions, we don’t need the welfare state, that the survival of the fittest is all that matters, that in fact society should mimic those values in ways that suggest a new narrative.
That narrative, Giroux continues, offers us “the most fraudulent definition of what a democracy should be,” and it is encompassed in “a vicious set of assumptions” which include
…the notion that profit making is the essence of democracy, the notion that economics is divorced from ethics, the notion that the only obligation of citizenship is consumerism, the notion that the welfare state is a pathology, that any form of dependency basically is disreputable and needs to be attacked… How do you get a discourse governing the country that seems to suggest that anything public… [even] public engagement, is a pathology?
Many of us have met resistance or been discouraged in this work because of that discourse of “engagement as pathology.” In many venues civic venues and levels of government, we find those who are skeptical of efforts to involve average people in government and decision making and want to leave things up to experts and professionals instead. This skepticism seems to be based on the internalization of many of our officials and institutions of the “vicious set of assumptions” about democracy the Giroux describes. In far too many cases, especially when it comes to finances, we hear arguments that claim government couldn’t possibly solve difficult problems and involve the public at the same time.
Yet we are involved in this line of work because we know that everyday people working together and forming real relationships is the heart of a robust democracy, and we are committed to helping that work and those relationships thrive. But as Giroux’s “zombie” metaphor suggest, the politics we see today are not those that nurture a healthy civic life:
Moyers: My favorite of your many books is this one, “Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism.” Why that metaphor, “zombie” politics?
Giroux: Because it’s a politics that’s informed by the machinery of social and civil death… The zombie metaphor is a way to sort of suggest that democracy is losing its oxygen… It’s losing its spirit. It’s losing its ability to speak to itself in ways that would span the human spirit and the human possibility for justice and equality…
[Zombie politics are] a death machine because, in my estimation, it does everything it can to kill any vestige of a robust democracy. It turns people into zombies, people who basically are so caught up with surviving that they become like the walking dead, you know, they lose their sense of agency…
This lost sense of agency in our politics and civic life is real. We all know people who explain their non-participation in civic life or public decision making processes because they think that nothing will change, that the system is too corrupt, or otherwise have the general feeling that “participating won’t make a difference, so why bother?” That lost sense of agency – and the lack of visible examples where small groups of average citizens do make a difference – is a big part of what NCDD and our field is working to shift every day as we engage and empower average people.
But it’s more than a lost feeling of agency. There has also been an actual erosion of what we know as democracy in our country.
I think that it is crucial for our field to reflect on and take seriously what Giroux is saying here about what he calls “casino capitalism” – our very economic system – as an active threat to democracy. He warns that this casino capitalism
…doesn’t just believe it can control the economy. It believes that it can govern all of social life. That’s different.
That means it has to have its tentacles into every aspect of everyday life. Everything from the way schools are run to the way prisons are outsourced to the way the financial services are run to the way in which people have access to health care, it’s an all-encompassing, it seems to me, political, cultural, educational apparatus.
And it basically has nothing to do with expanding the meaning and the substance of democracy itself.
[Casino capitalism] believes that social bonds not driven by market values are basically bonds that we should find despicable….we have an economic system that in fact has caused a crisis in democracy. What we haven’t addressed is the underlying consensus that informs that crisis.
In my opinion, Giroux is right: the drive to treat more and more sectors of society as markets that must create ever higher profits has encroached on so many venues of civic and political life that it has pushed the public out of spaces that are essential for real democratic governance. So we are left with a zombie democracy, complete with “people” – that is, corporations – that don’t have souls and can’t feel pain, but can and do hold more sway in our elections and government policy than flesh and blood citizens. And this creates a vicious cycle that feeds the real and perceived loss of civic agency.
One of the challenges of overcoming the “machinery of social and civic death” that Giroux lays out is the challenge of finding ways to “develop cultural apparatuses that can offer a new vocabulary for people, where questions of freedom and justice and the problems that we’re facing can be analyzed in ways that reach mass audiences in accessible language.”
In many ways, this challenge lands squarely in our lap as a individuals and as a professional field. The way I see it, a field like ours has unique potential to initiate momentum that can reverse this shift and, in a way, raise politics from the “undead” and keep our democracy from being completely bought out by casino capitalism. But this won’t happen by accident, we have to intentionally decide to shift that momentum.
The work of dialogue, deliberation, and public engagement is about connecting people to each other and their visions for their communities in real ways. Much of it is an outgrowth of the humanistic values and spirit of democracy, what Giroux calls “the human possibility for justice and equality.”
And in the coming year, it seems more important to me than ever that we reflect on how to make questions of justice, freedom, and equality more central in our work.
This may force us to struggle with concepts of neutrality and norms of professionalism that animate parts of our field, as talk of justice, freedom, and equality often naturally tend toward advocacy. But in my opinion, we should be struggling with ourselves about what it means for professionals in roles and work such as ours to also advocate for democracy itself, because if something doesn’t change, we may not have much of a genuine democracy left to work for. Only by continuing to ask ourselves tough questions can we find productive ways of imagining what it might look like for our field to play a role in staving off a zombie apocalypse for our democracy.
These questions, in Giroux’s mind, are posed by the actual state of affairs we are in.
We have to acknowledge the realities that bear down on us, but it seems to me that if we really want to live in a world and be alive with compassion and justice, then we need educated hope. We need a hope that recognizes the problems and doesn’t romanticize them, and also recognizes the need for vision, for social organizations, for strategies. We need institutions that provide the formative culture that give voice to those visions and those ideas.
Giroux adds that what is missing now ”…are those alternative public spheres, those cultural formations – what I call a formative culture – that can bring people together and give those ideas, embody them in both a sense of hope, of vision and the organizations and strategies that would be necessary… to reconstruct a sense of where politics can go.”
I believe that NCDD and the many practitioners, organizations, and indeed the movement that we represent can be thought of as the kind of formative culture that Giroux describes, and that we are capable of building the kind of institutions he calls for – those that can help people work through questions of justice, freedom, and democracy in our society in a way that is accessible, that will give loud voice to visions for a better future, and that can reconstruct a sense of where politics can go.
Though we clearly have a long way to go, I think that we still have reason to keep a firm grasp on this “educated hope” – hope that recognizes challenges and takes them seriously, but that feeds the growth of visions and strategies to create the changes we need.
As we transition into 2014, I invite you to reflect with me on how we can make this work more about developing strategies for confronting and overcoming the real threats to democracy posed by zombie politics and casino capitalism. I also invite you to share in the hope that we can actually do it.
Giroux leaves us with a vision for what is needed for that change: “The real changes are going to come in creating movements that are longstanding, that are organized, that basically take questions of governance and policy seriously and begin to spread out and become international. That is going to have to happen.”
Here’s to making it happen. Happy New Year.
It is with heavy hearts that we join the team at Public Agenda and the broader engagement community in mourning the loss of Deborah Wadsworth. Our condolences go out to Deborah’s family and friends. You can read the announcement that the PA team released below or find the original post here.
We are saddened to report that Public Agenda’s Deborah Wadsworth, who led our organization between 1999 and 2003 and served on our board after her retirement, died on December 24, 2013.
As many of you know, Deborah was a woman of astonishing warmth, intelligence, integrity, and commitment. In fact, her contributions to our work began even before she joined Public Agenda. As a program officer at the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation in the 1990s, Deborah introduced Public Agenda founder Daniel Yankelovich to Kettering Foundation President David Mathews, setting in motion an institutional partnership that has endured for decades, bolstering our common mission of engaging citizens in addressing national and local challenges.
Mitchel Wallerstein, Chairman of the Public Agenda Board of Directors, wished to share the following regarding Deborah:
I am deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and fellow board member, Deborah Wadsworth. I know that Deborah made a long and valiant struggle against her illness, and I was actually much encouraged that her health had improved the last time that I saw her at a Public Agenda board meeting. I will miss greatly her wisdom, her intelligence and her humor. Deborah played a vital role in building and sustaining Public Agenda, and her passing is indeed a loss for the entire organization. I offer my sincere condolences to her family and friends and to all who had the privilege of knowing her.
Chair, Executive Committee of the Board of Directors
We will announce details about a New York City memorial service for Deborah when they are available. In the meantime, we invite those of you who knew and worked with Deborah over the years to share your remembrances and condolences in the comments section by clicking here.
Having a refined understanding of what leads people to participate is one of the main concerns of those working with citizen engagement. But particularly when it comes to participatory democracy, that understanding is only partial and, most often, the cliché “more research is needed” is definitely applicable. This is so for a number of reasons, four of which are worth noting here.
- The “participatory” label is applied to greatly varied initiatives, raising obvious methodological challenges for comparative research and cumulative learning. For instance, while both participatory budgeting and online petitions can be roughly categorized as “participatory” processes, they are entirely different in terms of fundamental aspects such as their goals, institutional design and expected impact on decision-making.
- The fact that many participatory initiatives are conceived as “pilots” or one-off events gives researchers little time to understand the phenomenon, come up with sound research questions, and test different hypotheses over time. The “pilotitis” syndrome in the tech4accountability space is a good example of this.
- When designing and implementing participatory processes, in the face of budget constraints the first victims are documentation, evaluation and research. Apart from a few exceptions, this leads to a scarcity of data and basic information that undermines even the most heroic “archaeological” efforts of retrospective research and evaluation (a far from ideal approach).
- The semantic extravaganza that currently plagues the field of citizen engagement, technology and open government makes cumulative learning all the more difficult.
Precisely for the opposite reasons, our knowledge of electoral participation is in better shape. First, despite the differences between elections, comparative work is relatively easy, which is attested by the high number of cross-country studies in the field. Second, the fact that elections (for the most part) are repeated regularly and following a similar design enables the refinement of hypotheses and research questions over time, and specific time-related analysis (see an example here [PDF]). Third, when compared to the funds allocated to research in participatory initiatives, the relative amount of resources channeled into electoral studies and voting behavior is significantly higher. Here I am not referring to academic work only but also to the substantial resources invested by the private sector and parties towards a better understanding of elections and voting behavior. This includes a growing body of knowledge generated by get-out-the-vote (GOTV) research, with fascinating experimental evidence from interventions that seek to increase participation in elections (e.g. door-to-door campaigns, telemarketing, e-mail). Add to that the wealth of electoral data that is available worldwide (in machine-readable formats) and you have some pretty good knowledge to tap into. Finally, both conceptually and terminologically, the field of electoral studies is much more consistent than the field of citizen engagement which, in the long run, tends to drastically impact how knowledge of a subject evolves.
These reasons should be sufficient to capture the interest of those who work with citizen engagement. While the extent to which the knowledge from the field of electoral participation can be transferred to non-electoral participation remains an open question, it should at least provide citizen engagement researchers with cues and insights that are very much worth considering.
This is why I was particularly interested in an article from a recently published book, The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy (Princeton). Entitled “Rethinking Why People Vote: Voting as Dynamic Social Expression”, the article is written by Todd Rogers, Craig Fox and Alan Berger. Taking a behavioralist stance, the authors start by questioning the usefulness of the rationalist models in explaining voting behavior:
“In these [rationalist] models citizens are seen as weighing the anticipated trouble they must go through in order to cast their votes, against the likelihood that their vote will improve the outcome of an election times the magnitude of that improvement. Of course, these models are problematic because the likelihood of casting in the deciding vote is often hopelessly small. In a typical state or national election, a person faces a higher probability of being struck by a car on the way to his or her polling location than of casting the deciding vote.”
Following on from the fact that traditional models cannot fully explain why and under which conditions citizens vote, the authors develop a framework that considers voting as a “self-expressive voting behavior that is influenced by events occurring before and after the actual moment of casting a vote.” To support their claims, throughout the article the authors build upon existing evidence from GOTV campaigns and other behavioral research. Besides providing a solid overview of the literature in the field, the authors express compelling arguments for mobilizing electoral participation. Below are a few excerpts from the article with some of the main takeaways:
- Mode of contact: the more personal it is, the more effective it is
“Initial experimental research found that a nonpartisan face-to-face canvassing effort had a 5-8 percentage point mobilizing effect in an uncontested midterm elections in 1998 (Gerber and Green 2000) compared to less than a 1 percentage point mobilizing effect for live phone calls and mailings. More than three dozen subsequent experiments have overwhelmingly supported the original finding (…)”
“Dozens of experiments have examined the effectiveness of GOTV messages delivered by the telephone. Several general findings emerge, all of which are consistent with the broad conclusion that the more personal a GOTV strategy, the more effective. (…) the most effective calls are conducted in an unhurried, “chatty manner.”
“The least personal and the least effective GOTV communication channels entail one way communications. (…) written pieces encouraging people vote that are mailed directly to households have consistently been shown to produce a mall, but positive, increase in turnout.”
- Voting is affected by events before and after the decision
“One means to facilitate the performance of a socially desirable behavior is to ask people to predict whether they will perform the behavior in the future. In order to present oneself in a favorable light or because of wishful thinking or both, people are generally biased to answer in the affirmative. Moreover, a number of studies have found that people are more likely to follow through on a behavior after they predicted that they will do so (….) Emerging social-networking technologies provide new opportunities for citizens to commit to each other that they will turnout in a given election. These tools facilitate making one’s commitments public, and they also allow for subsequently accountability following an election (…) Asking people to form a specific if-then plan of action, or implementation intention, reduces the cognitive costs of having to remember to pursue an action that one intends to perform. Research shows that when people articulate the how, when and where of their plan to implement an intended behavior, they are more likely to follow through.”
(Not coincidentally, as noted by Sasha Issenberg in his book The Victory Lab, during the 2010 US presidential election millions of democrats received an email reminding them that they had “made a commitment to vote in this election” and that “the time has come to make good on that commitment. Think about when you’ll cast your vote and how you’ll get there.”)
“ (…) holding a person publicly accountable for whether or not she voted may increase her tendency to do so. (…) Studies have found that when people are merely made aware that their behavior will be publicly known, they become more likely to behaving in ways that are consistent with how they believe others think they should behave. (…) At least, at one point Italy exposed those who failed to vote by posting the names of nonvoters outside of local town halls.”
(On the accountability issue, also read this fascinating study [PDF] by Gerber, Green & Larimer)
- Following the herd: affinitive and belonging needs
“People are strongly motivated to maintain feelings of belonging with others and to affiliate with others. (…) Other GOTV strategies that can increase turnout by serving social needs could involve encouraging people to go to their polling place in groups (i.e., a buddy system), hosting after-voting parties on election day, or encouraging people to talk about voting with their friends, to name a few.”
“(…) studies showed that the motivation to vote significantly increased when participants heard a message that emphasized high expected turnout as opposed to low expected turnout. For example, in the New Jersey study, 77% of the participants who heard the high-turnout script reported being “absolutely certain” that they would vote, compared to 71% of those who heard the low-turnout script. This research also found that moderate and infrequent voters were strongly affected by the turnout information.”
- Voting as an expression of identity
“(….) citizens can derive value from voting through what the act displays about their identities. People are willing to go to great lengths, and pay great costs, to express that they are a particular kind of person. (….) Experimenters asked participants to complete a fifteen-minute survey that related to an election that was to occur the following week. After completing the survey, the experimenter reviewed the results and reported to participants what their responses indicated. Participants were, in fact, randomly assigned to one of two conditions. Participants in the first condition were labeled as being “above-average citizens[s] … who [are] very likely to vote,” whereas participants in the second condition were labeled as being “average citizen[s] … with an average likelihood of voting. (….) These identity labels proved to have substantial impact on turnout, with 87% of “above average” participants voting versus 75% of “average” participants voting.”
For those working with participatory governance, the question that remains is the extent to which each of these lessons is applicable to non-electoral forms of participation. The differences between electoral and non-electoral forms of participation may cause these techniques to generate very different results. One difference relates to public awareness about participation opportunities. While it would be safe to say that during an important election the majority of citizens are aware of it, the opposite is true for most existing participatory events, where generally only a minority is aware of their existence. In this case, it is unclear whether the impact of mobilization campaigns would be more or less significant when awareness about an event is low. Furthermore, if the act of voting may be automatically linked to a sense of civic duty, would that still hold true for less typical forms of participation (e.g. signing an online petition, attending a community meeting)?
The answer to this “transferability” question is an empirical one, and one that is yet to be answered. The good news is that while experiments that generate this kind of knowledge are normally resource intensive, the costs of experimentation are driven down when it comes to technology-mediated citizen participation. The use of A/B testing during the Obama campaign is a good example. Below is an excellent account by Dan Siroker on how they conducted online experiments during the presidential campaign.
Bringing similar experiments to other realms of digital participation is the next logical step for those working in the field. Some organizations have already started to take this seriously . The issue is whether others, including governments and donors, will do the same.
I am on a winter vacation and not blogging, but two op-eds of mine have been published this week:
- “What [the] bipartisan budget agreement suggests for future of American democracy,” Fox News online, Dec. 20. Excerpts:
High school students still read in textbooks about how the legislature is designed to work, and how government depends on the consent of the governed. But Congress passes virtually no bills, and almost all adults seem to despise the government. …
This is compounded by another problem. At times in our history, we have seen people distrust the national government but trust one another. That combination encourages populist reform proposals like term limits, referenda, and campaign finance reform that increase the people’s control over the government. However, today we are living in a time when Americans trust “the people” almost as little as they trust the government in Washington….
If you grow up not trusting the government and not trusting your fellow Americans, you will not admire the political system, but you will also be unmoved by proposals to reform it by empowering the people. That combination is a recipe for cynicism and withdrawal. Unless we want to live in that environment of distrust and suffer its consequences for many decades to come, we must change the situation quickly. …
- “Closing the Civic Achievement Gap in an Increasingly Diverse Country,” The HuffingtonPost’s “Black Voices” section (Dec. 26). Excerpt:
In schools that serve low-income and minority students, kids are less likely to experience interactive civic education, meaning discussion of current events, participation in school governance and school media, field trips and simulations, such as mock trials. In schools that serve economically diverse students, those who are headed to college tend to get most of these interactive experiences. And in schools that serve several different racial groups in significant proportions, discussions of current events are particularly rare.
In principle, good group decisions stem from shared understanding and shared understanding comes from reading off the same page.
Practical Tip: For every group meeting, have on hand the ability to write words in front of the group. Markers and a flip chart work well or you might use a laptop and projector. There are many creative ways.
When people make comments, paraphrase them on the chart or the screen. The words don’t need to be perfect, but representative of the view expressed.
When it seems like the group is agreeing to something, write words to represent the agreement. Make sure everyone understands and accepts the representative words.
Writing public words that represent viewpoints and agreements is a learned skill and requires focused effort. When done well it leads to shared understanding and individual empowerment — two key building blocks of good group decisions.
2013 was an incredible year for NCDD and for our community.
We started off the year by intensely engaging our members around how the D&D community can respond to crises like the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting (explore the Hackpad series here). Soon after that, we announced the two projects that won our member-selected Catalyst Awards (in hindsight, we realized we had actually run our first Participatory Budgeting process, having had members develop the contending projects in teams and then vote for the winners!).
We ran two mini regional events — one at Tufts in July and one at the Univ of Virginia in November thanks to Lucas Cioffi and Nancy Gansneder, and we secured a great space for next year’s national conference and are seeing buzz building around that event already!
We bumped up our “virtual” events this year as well, getting in the habit of offering a high-quality and well-attended Confab Call or Tech Tuesday almost every month (archived recordings here). We also experimented with informal “coffee hour” calls, which our Board plans to continue in 2014 in a different format, having Board member run monthly Coffee Hours on a topic of interest to them and our community.
We spent a good deal of time this year on collaborative projects with other leaders in the field — projects we felt were well worth our investment of time due to their potential to move our field forward. NCDD continues to serve on the core team of Creating Community Solutions, the “dialogue part” of HHS’s national dialogue on mental health. We have continued our work with the Orton-led Community Matters partnership, building resources on civic infrastructure with key leaders in our and related fields. And we have become part of the amazing community that is convened regularly by the Kettering Foundation, and you’ll be hearing more and more about our exciting work with them during 2014.
We also played a leading role in the Text Talk & Act experiment that melded the fun and convenience of texting with the irreplaceable value of face-to-face dialogue. And we supported projects to develop a comprehensive open database of case studies (Participedia.net), to develop and promote new local laws that “make participation legal again,” to run the first online unconference on online facilitation, and to offer the top-notch Dialogue, Deliberation & Public Engagement certificate program.
We’ve grown to 1,900 members this year, and to 33,000 subscribers on our e-updates. And we scrapped our not-nearly-good-enough members network and replaced it with a gorgeous Google map and super-useful online directory of our members.
We also launched the Dialogue Storytelling Tool this year in partnership with the Kettering Foundation and Participedia, to help our members report on their dialogue and deliberation projects and events, and let NCDD do the work of spreading the word.
We doubled or tripled the usefulness and quality of our community blog by hiring Roshan Bliss as our lead blogger, and saw more and more NCDD members post their own news and resources on the site as well. And of course we maintained the tools you rely on that keep our community vibrant and connected, like our listservs and social media spaces.
Our small staff and our amazing Board and volunteers do our best to support this vital community’s work, and I think 2013 may have been our best year yet in this regard.
Does all this make you want to support NCDD with an end-of-year gift? We need your support to keep this work going strong — so please think of us as you consider end-of-year donations. It’s extremely easy to donate to NCDD using the short form that’s up at www.ncdd.org/donate. NCDD is a tax exempt 501(c)(3) organization, so your donations are fully tax deductible.
Interesting paper by Yuen Yuen Ang, Political Scientist at the University of Michigan:
Authoritarian states restrain online activism not only through repression and censorship, but also by indirectly weakening the ability of netizens to self-govern and constructively engage the state. I demonstrate this argument by comparing I-Paid-A-Bribe (IPAB) — a crowd-sourcing platform that collects anonymous reports of petty bribery — in India and China. Whereas IPAB originated and has thrived in India, a copycat effort in China fizzled out within months. Contrary to those who attribute China’s failed outcome to repression, I find that even before authorities shut down IPAB, the sites were already plagued by internal organizational problems that were comparatively absent in India. The study tempers expectations about the revolutionary effects of new media in mobilizing contention and checking corruption in the absence of a strong civil society.
And a brief video with Yuen Yuen