A Message from NCDD Board Chair Martín Carcasson

For the past seven years, I have had the honor of serving on the Board of Directors of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, the last four as the chair. My term is officially over at the end of the year. NCDD serves as an umbrella organization for academics, practitioners, artists, and volunteers committed to improving how we all talk to each other and address our shared problems. They are a network of networks, a bridging organization dedicated to helping individuals, organizations, and communities build capacity for quality democratic engagement.

I still vividly remember my first NCDD conference in San Francisco in 2006. I remember because it was the first time I ever got that wonderful, overwhelming feeling of finding my people. I was passionate about community, democracy, and improving the world, but the world of politics was incredibly frustrating to me, and seemed mostly counterproductive. I had strong views about how things needed to change, but politics did not seem to be a useful route. People seemed to just talk past each other, assume horrible motives for those that disagreed, and while they sometimes won elections and sometimes lost, not much seemed to really change about the issues I cared about. It was a game people loved playing that to me seemed at best a distraction and at worst something that undermined everything democracy requires to function well (trust, mutual respect, the ability to have tough conversations, etc.).

NCDD was a whole other world. People that shared my passions for community and democracy, but recognized that what we were doing wasn’t working. They realized we needed to work together, to bridge differences, and get past simple narratives, but also knew that was not going to be easy. We needed a lot of new ideas, tools, and organizations. They also recognized that we didn’t just need a simple “both sides” or an abstract balance, but deeper explorations of what it would mean to work together across perspectives.

I greatly looked forward to NCDD’s conferences every other year, to learn new tools, meet new people, and engage deeper with others that shared my concerns. I started doing everything I could to get more of my students to attend, and with a lot of help from a lot of people, managed to take groups of 10-25 to conferences in Seattle, Washington DC, and Boston. In 2014, I accepted the call to join the board of directors of NCDD, and in 2016, became the board chair.

I’ll be honest, it has been tougher than I thought. NCDD does incredible work on a very tight and tiny budget. The board is all volunteer, and we survive with essentially three part time employees (sometimes just 2). We spend too much time thinking about money and not enough time thinking about the actual work. It is difficult to fund organizations like NCDD that serve more as a connector and a resource to other individuals and organizations rather than as a direct service provider. We literally spend billions on election campaigns, but struggle to raise hundreds for an organization truly dedicated to make democracy work.

As I exit my role — but still plan to be heavily involved with NCDD moving forward, I very much plan to serve again once I retire from my day job so I can really focus on elevating the organization — I ask you all to consider a NCDD membership (either for yourself or as a gift to a friend you think may be interested in what I’ve described) or consider NCDD in your end of year giving. I know you have a lot of options, and with the pandemic, an incredible amount of immediate needs. NCDD is much more of a long term investment. I truly believe the most pressing issue we have in our communities is the inability to talk with each other and work together on our shared problems. I think it will be difficult to move forward on any issue unless we first make some progress on that. In many ways, the pandemic has shown us that even a global crisis caused more polarization and distrust, rather than sparking the collaborative efforts that we know we are capable of as humans. Even a $10 or $20 donation can make a big difference to NCDD having the resources to help communities across the country build capacity for the kind of engagement democracies need to thrive.
More information about membership is here (https://ncdd.org/community/join), gifting memberships here (https://act.myngp.com/Forms/1424112249932744704), and donations here (https://act.myngp.com/Forms/-8754304382901286912).

Lastly, as I leave the board, I want to thank all the exceptional people I have had the pleasure to work with these past seven years (too many to mention), and I am particularly excited about the incoming chair, Lori Britt, and the strength of the board moving forward. I’ve known Professor Britt since her Ph.D. days at CU-Boulder, when she assisted with CPD events, and have been incredibly impressed with what she has built up at James Madison University. NCDD is in wonderful hands with her, the board, and Courtney Breese’s exceptional leadership as our executive director (who very very much deserves a higher salary and full time job!). We aren’t quite sure when we will all be able to gather together again — and may end up with more of a virtual conference this year — but I do know I can’t wait to gather with my people once again.

Martín Carcasson, Ph.D., is a professor in the Communication Studies department of Colorado State University, and the founder and director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation (CPD, www.cpd.colostate.edu). We thank him for his service to the NCDD network and all he does to help advance efforts for dialogue and deliberation in communities and higher education!

Post Election Community Conversation Reveals Concerns

Days following the election, an online community conversation hosted and facilitated by NCDD member org The Interactivity Foundation, together with IONA Senior Services took place. During this convening,  exploratory questions about our society and the prospect for forming a more perfect union were asked. The outcome is compiled in this article as a list of concerns in various sectors: the elections and health of our democracy, polarization and the role of the media.We look forward to Interactivity Foundations’ decision to further follow this topic in 2021 as part of their #WeavingCommunity Initiative.

Below you  will find the entire resume of key points and for the original post here.


Toward a More Perfect Union? A Community Conversation about the 2020 Election

Toward a More Perfect Union? Exploring the 2020 US Elections
What did the 2020 US elections mean to you? What did they say to you about our prospects for forming a more perfect union? What lessons might we draw for reweaving our society after the elections, revitalizing our democracy, and moving toward a more perfect union?
These were the key questions we explored in a November 5, 2020 online community conversation, convened and facilitated by the Interactivity Foundation in partnership with IONA Senior Services. This was an exploratory discussion, one where participants were asked not only to bring forward their own perspectives, but also to help each other delve into divergent perspectives in a spirit of generosity. You’ll find a summary of some of the key points below. In light of the rich material we discussed, the Interactivity Foundation may move forward with this topic as a new online community conversation series in the new year (watch this space). This Community Conversation was part of the #WeavingCommunity initiativeWhat concerns rose to the surface surrounding the election and about our prospects for forming a more perfect union?

Concerns about elections and the health of our democracy

  • Voter suppression is going on in our country
  • Our electoral process is dysfunctional
  • The election process revealed how weak and fragile our democratic system is
  • The election mechanics actually worked
  • It’s a victory that there was no violence at the polls
  • Locally lots of apparent voter engagement—with lots of participation via early voting
  • It’s an illusion that our democracy is working
  • We have structural problems in our system that weaken our representative democracy
  • We always say, “it’s the most important election” or “democracy hangs in the balance,” but are those just exaggerations?
  • We have governmental leadership with no moral compass—as long as they win, they can do whatever they want—and our democracy can’t survive more of that
  • Another real threat to democracy: politicizing the federal civil service, turning government agencies to partisan purposes
  • People in government should be public servants, not pursuing their own gain

Concerns about polarization

  • We are divided more than ever, with high degrees of polarization and antipathy toward one another
  • The division has become more extreme in the last few years
  • We live in bubbles and don’t understand people outside of our bubble
  • This high degree of polarization threatens our ability to self-govern
  • We have always been polarized, so it’s not worse than before
  • We have powerful myths of a national unity that never existed and we use this to cover up our history of exploitation
  • We mostly ignore divisions because they often only impacted others (if we’re protected by our race or class, we can ignore the history of oppression of targeted groups within our country)
  • We have to remember that America was built on exploiting others
  • If you don’t live in middle class white America, you are more at risk and don’t want to reach out to those who want to keep you down, especially if you’ve been a victim of a hate crime
  • If a major political party has become a party of white nationalism, how can you ask people to come together with them or split the difference by compromise?
  • We have divisions, but most people are reasonable and just trying to get on with their lives
  • Lately it has become riskier to have political discussions across partisan divides—it used to be fun, but now you risk losing relationships if you discuss politics
  • Our divisions are so strong, it is hard to believe we can come together as one nation
  • Our divisions are so fraught, they can’t even have discussions about the election in school
  • We are a country divided on values
  • Our divisions have religious roots, part of the evangelical right taking over the Republican party
  • Religion can also be a source of values that can unite us and help us to bridge divides
  • There’s a strong political movement to disregard facts, evidence, or science, which makes governance lose touch with reality
  • You can’t come together with people who are being dishonest or hateful
  • We have urban-rural divides
  • In urban areas, people often have more experience with diversity and are more accepting of differences
  • Trump and Trumpism seem like both cause and effect—a symptom of a widespread illness in our body politic
  • Some people are behaving like spoiled children

Concerns about the role of media

  • We live in different media bubbles, so we don’t know how others see the world
  • Media shapes reality—we can’t understand the reality perceived by those in the other camp
  • One branch of media presents an “alternate reality” that is not clearly connected to ascertainable facts, which makes it difficult, or nearly impossible, to reason with its devotees
  • One political party regularly attacks the news media and other evidence-based approaches, like science
  • We need to be wary of the outsized role that social media plays in our public discourse
  • Popular media are driven by controversy and sensationalism rather than focusing on what’s essential
  • The news media focuses more on entertainment than on genuinely informing the public
  • We live in a celebrity culture, where everybody wants a chance to be a celebrity, to be popular

How might we move toward a more perfect union?

  • We need democratic reform to make policy responsive and accountable to the broad public will
  • If government responds to the public will and does good things to improve people’s lives, then polarization will lessen and people will have greater trust in government
  • The election of a new government is a start—but we need to update our constitution to bolster our democracy and make it more representative of the popular will
  • We need leadership from the top to advocate unity with our political opponents
  • We should celebrate genuine public servants—those truly acting in the public interest (not their private interests)
  • We need to restore or embody greater civility at all levels of governance and society
  • We need to find opportunities for conversation with people from the other side (it’s not important to agree, but to talk with people with whom we disagree)
  • We need to teach the value of having discussions across our divides
  • We need to learn how to listen first to each other—not to talk first, but to listen first to others
  • We need to get past labels and attend to the substance of what people are saying
  • We need to strive to find the good in what opponents say or do
  • We need to recognize the universal needs that we share: we are all equally human
  • We need to find shared values to connect across differences
  • It’s not a matter of having the right facts, it’s about finding shared values to connect better with others
  • It’s best to avoid direct confrontation on hot issues—seek conversations about values
  • We need to be honest with one another and truthful in our words and actions—we can’t just rely on happy talk and fake politeness
  • We need to recognize that people on the other side are not all the same and are not all so hostile
  • We should educate our children for a civic spirit that is bigger than our divisions, whether this starts in our families, in community organizations, or within schools
  • We should raise the next generation to be more open to diversity—including diversity of viewpoints
  • We need education to help make us antiracist
  • We need to flip the media from entertainment to education
  • We need education for media literacy
  • We should change our media diet—to expose ourselves to different sides
  • We need to reform or disband social media, because it just aggravates divisions and spreads disinformation
  • What if we come together as one—to fight fascism?
  • Time can heal us

You can find the original version on The Interactivity Foundation site at www.interactivityfoundation.org/toward-a-more-perfect-union-a-community-conversation-about-the-2020-election/.

In Class Group Discussions Effects Beyond the Classroom

This story comes to us from the Interactivity Foundation an NCDD sponsor member. In ( this piece) Discussion Groups Weaving Social Connections we follow Greg Johnson, a Computer Science major that struggles with a stuttering condition. He begins his  journey towards fulfilling the requirement of his course load while tackling on his interpersonal communication skills knowing support would keep him on track. To ensure his success,  a speech specialist from his Universities Learning Team began to work with Greg and classmates on ways to assist him in his communication but, what he and his group found was an added victory.

Read the story below and visit the original post here.


Discussion Groups Weaving Social Connections

Discussion groups can foster social bonds that are critical for student success

Greg Johnson was a Computer Science major with a problem. He had a rather severe stuttering condition. Normally this wasn’t an issue in his CS classes, but Greg was required to take a small group communication class. The class had a heavy discussion focus. Greg petitioned his advisor to substitute another communications class that didn’t require group discussions.

“Let’s see if we can make this work,” responded Greg’s advisor. “One of the complaints about IT professionals is that they don’t work well with others. But I’m going to see what our Learning Services Unit can do to help.”

When Greg met with the Learning Services Unit, they worked out a plan with the communication instructor. Greg would be assigned to a discussion group who would agree to work with him on his stuttering issue. An intern in the Learning Services Unit was a Speech Pathology major and she joined the class and was placed in Greg’s group. Throughout the semester a specialist met with Greg’s group to show them how they could help Greg. Greg also met with the specialist privately.

As the semester progressed, Greg was able to better manage the speed of talking with the help of finger signals from his group. Each of his group also practiced breathing regulation with him. The comradery of the group also helped him reduce his anxiety. The group also was very mindful not to intervene when he was struggling with a word. But perhaps the greatest benefit of all was that Greg finally had friends on campus to socialize with. Up until that semester, he was a loner who was embarrassed by his stuttering.

Discussion groups can play an important role beyond just the classroom experience. In Greg’s case, they were a support group that was helpful in reducing his stuttering. Discussion groups can also become relationship groups, building social bonds that are critical for student success and retention.

Rather than thinking of discussions as simply an academic activity, faculty should also think about how these groups can benefit students in other ways. Discussion groups can create student enrichment opportunities in ways that traditional lecture-based classes cannot.

* * *

“Stuttering is painful. In Sunday school, I’d try to read my lessons, and the children behind me were falling on the floor with laughter.” – James Earl Jones (An actor with one of the most famous voices in show business )


This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear Wednesday afternoons. 

 

American exceptionalism, revisited

“We are unique among militaries,” [Acting defense secretary Christopher] Milley said in a Nov. 12 speech at the new National Museum of the United States Army. “We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or a religion. We take an oath to the Constitution.”

This claim is very easy to fact-check. It takes seconds to find these examples:

  • Germany: “I swear to loyally serve the Federal Republic of Germany and to courageously defend the right and the liberty of the German people, so help me God.”
  • France: “I swear to fulfill my duties well and faithfully, to observe the duties and the reserve they impose on me. I will strictly comply with the orders received with respect for the human person and the law. I promise to demonstrate dedication to the public good, righteousness, dignity, prudence and impartiality. I undertake to make only legitimate use of the force and powers entrusted to me and not to reveal or use anything that will be brought to my attention during the exercise of my functions” (for reservists).
  • Israel: “I swear and obligate myself on my word of honor to remain loyal to the State of Israel, its laws and its legitimate administration and to devote all of my strength, and even to sacrifice my life, in the defence of the homeland and the freedom of Israel.”
  • Finland: “Everywhere and in every situation, whether in peace or war, I will defend the inviolability of my fatherland, its legal system of government and the legal authority of the realm. If I perceive or gain knowledge of activity to overthrow the legal authority or to subvert the system of government of the country, I will report it to the authorities without delay.” (excerpt)
  • Switzerland: “I swear to serve the Swiss Confederation with all my might; to courageously defend the rights and freedom of the Swiss people; to fulfill my duty, at the cost of my life if necessary; to remain faithful to my troops and to my comrades; to respect the rules of the law of nations in time of war.”
  • China: “I pledge to be loyal to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, safeguard the authority of the Constitution, fulfill the legal responsibilities of my position, be loyal to the Motherland, be loyal to the people, show the utmost respect for my duty, pursue public affairs with integrity, accept the supervision of the people, and to work for a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful!” (This is for the Central Military Commission, not for regular officers, to my knowledge).

I am fascinated by the tendency to assume that good things about the USA are unique in the world. My favorite example was when a judge told me and my peers on a jury pool that we should be proud to live in the only country that provides a right to trial-by-jury (overlooking about 50 others).

One interpretation is that this is just harmless enthusiasm. Instead of saying, “Yay, America!” people say, “Only in America!”, meaning the same thing.

Another interpretation is xenophobia. To assume that all other other militaries of the world (including our NATO partners) swear oaths to a “king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator” is to hold a very dark view of the world beyond our borders.

I suppose Mr. Milley’s claim could be partially defended on technical grounds. Many oaths mention the country or law, not the constitution, per se. Canadian and British officers swear oaths to the Queen, although that’s a way of expressing loyalty to a constitutional democracy. The oath to uphold the constitution of the PRC is a bit hollow, given one-party control. Then again, what about Germany, Israel, France, etc., etc.?

My own theory is anxiety. If Americans do something wise (like requiring our soldiers to swear to uphold our constitution)–and so do many other countries–then comparative questions naturally arise. How do various countries manage their civilian-military relations? How seriously do their commanders-in-chief take their oaths? Sometimes, the USA looks good in comparative perspective; but sometimes it does not look good at all. And deep down, I think a lot of Americans are conscious of relative decline compared to the competition. One way to avoid facing that anxiety is to proclaim, “Only in America!” and refrain from looking overseas at all.

I’d like to see the question of American exceptionalism become more empirical and less ideological. In what respects is the USA unique? That is a question that can be answered. Students, civil servants, judges, and all Americans should have the courage to ask it seriously and see what they find.

See also only in America!; American exceptionalism and anxieties about American exceptionalism.

on civic renewal on the threshold of 2021

Here is a recording of “The Promise of Civic Renewal to Revive our Democracy” on Dec. 10, 2020. It was the final event in the “Let’s Talk about Our Democracy” series, hosted by Mass Humanities. I talked with Program Officer Jennifer Hall-Witt about reviving our democracy, focusing on the role that ordinary citizens can play in fostering more deliberative, collaborative, and engaged communities. This conversation was based on We Are the Ones We have been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America, but we discussed ways in which the situation and my views have changed since that 2013 book.

(Incidentally, I will deliver the final manuscript of my next book, What Should We Do? at the end of this month. It is meant to complement, not replace, We Are the Ones–adopting a more theoretical and global perspective, whereas We Are the One applies the framework specifically to the USA in our time. But that means that the specific strategies of We Are the Ones need to evolve.)

New Webinar: Presidential Inaugurations and Why They Matter

Our recent Civics in Real Life materials have focused on aspects of the presidential election and the path towards inauguration. At the request of teachers, and as part of our new ongoing webinar series connecting civics topics to current events or required instruction, we will be doing an Inauguration Day webinar in January!

Join us on January 13th at 3pm (an in-service day for most districts, but this WILL be recorded!) for our second webinar,Presidential Inaugurations & Why They Matter. In this webinar, Associate Director of the Lou Frey Institute Dr. Terri Fine will discuss the constitutional and political reasons why presidential inaugurations matter. What is the meaning of this significant event, and how does the inauguration set the tone for the new president’s first months in office? Dr. Fine will provide some useful resources and discuss ways to integrate this topic into your classroom instruction. Click on the flyer to register, and please share!

why express a dissent?

One of the things people do in meetings and other discussions is to express dissenting opinions even though they know they will not be persuasive. They say some version of, “For the record, I think …”

For the purpose of this post, I’ll exclude situations in which these statements are really meant for an external audience, such as the broader public or future members of the same group. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes once wrote that a judicial dissent is “an appeal … to the intelligence of a future day, when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting judge believes the court to have been betrayed.” Here I will focus on statements that are only heard by the rest of the group in real time, when there is no chance of persuading the others–for instance, after the decision has been made.

As it happens, I almost never make such statements. Perhaps because of the privileged or comfortable role I usually play in discussions, I usually feel it would be unhelpful to express dissents unless I can persuade. Otherwise, I keep any concerns to myself. And I think that is right.

However, I would sometimes defend the expression of dissent even when it’s not pragmatically effective–even when it cannot change opinions. I think it navigates usefully among the three options that Albert O. Hirschman identified for people who disagree with a group to which they belong: “exit,” “voice,” or “loyalty.

In Hirschman’s great book, “exit” means leaving the group or the institution, thus preserving your freedom and possibly disciplining the group by removing your contributions to it. “Voice” means trying to persuade the group to change. And “loyalty” means going along with the group because it has sufficient value to you.

To express a dissent is a little different from all three. It’s a version of loyalty, but with a dollop of resistance. It’s a use of one’s voice, but not “voice” in the sense of attempting to persuade. And it involves exiting–not from the group, but from the decision.

I would compare what Tommie Shelby has called “impure dissent.” He interprets rap artists who write intentionally offensive lyrics (including violent and misogynistic ideas) as saying: I do not endorse the racist society that I must belong to. I have no hope for revolutionary change. I cannot exit. My voice will not persuade white people (or perhaps anyone) to reform this society. I am going to do what the system allows, such as selling my music for money. Yet my lyrics express my dissent. They express that I do not endorse what I am part of.

Shelby contrasts “voice as influence, which is aimed at altering the status quo, with voice as symbolic expression, which is not primarily concerned with its impact on those in power.” For him, objective injustice provides an ethical justification for the symbolic expression in rap. Rappers’ impure dissent is justified because they are oppressed.

I agree with his argument and would generalize it to some people who are not oppressed. Expressing symbolic dissent without exiting may be appropriate for anyone who is simply outvoted. Of course, you can do this in a polite way if you are not oppressed. You can avoid burning bridges. In essence, you are making a contribution to the group by not leaving it, but you are asking for that contribution to be recognized. And you are retaining self-respect by clarifying that your will is not reflected in this particular collective decision.

To do this too much or too easily can be self-indulgent and can put unreasonable burdens on the group. But sometimes symbolic dissent enriches the group by clarifying that its members are demonstrating loyalty despite disagreements, by setting a precedent for other people to disagree and differ, or by simply informing everyone that some members are unhappy.

More generally, I believe that we do many productive and appropriate things when we talk in groups, and making proposals with reasons is only one of those things. Many of our speech-acts are ways of keeping the group together so that it has enough social capital to act, thereby making the discussion worthwhile in the first place. I would classify symbolic dissent as one kind of speech that may–when used appropriately–contribute to the maintenance of a group that can then do what its members decide.

See also: do we deliberate to reach consensus? (with an example from Italian fascism); du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; and the question of sacrifice in politics

All Are Welcome at NCDD

First of all, thank you to everyone in this community for sticking with the work in a tough year.

NCDD’s staff and board have been talking a lot over the last nine months of the pandemic about what this year has shown us about this network’s necessity in the world, and where we can most support you all. It’s been encouraging to see that much of what we’ve always offered – news and resources, and opportunities to connect and collaborate – are still highly valued and needed, especially when times are tough.

There are also some areas we can work on – expanding our network, for one, in an inclusive way to welcome everyone who is committed to helping their communities have better conversations. It doesn’t matter whether you are a professional doing this work as your career, or a volunteer doing this to better your own community – all are welcome at NCDD.

And, there are some real opportunities for NCDD’s community of practice to embrace. The opportunity to look at how privilege shows up in our work and to address it, and to increase community access to dialogue and deliberation opportunities. This year has brought both of these opportunities to the forefront and it’s time to address them. There is plenty more for us to work towards together, and to discuss this and more, we will be announcing a call for early January. More on that soon.

But today, I’m reaching out to let you know that NCDD is launching an effort to boost our membership as we continue our end of year fundraising. This starts today with new options for membership and opportunities to invite others in.

First, NCDD has decided to make a few adjustments to our membership levels. For individuals, we have added a “pay-what-you-can” option to the membership form. This allows us to remove the primary barrier to membership and welcome everyone in.

For our organizational members, we’ve expanded our membership levels to better reflect the reality of many of our small organizations working on a limited budget. Those with budgets under $150,000 a year now have lower priced options.

Finally, we’ve launched a gift-a-membership option! That means two things: First, that members of our community have the option to invite others in with a gift of a year’s membership. And second, that you can gift a membership to those who need a subsidized member rate. These gifts are offered at a special reduced rate!

As 2020 comes to a close, we hope you will renew your commitment to the work by renewing or gifting a membership today! As always, membership and donations are tax-deductible!

Thank you for all you do to keep this community of practice vibrant. Here’s to getting through 2020, and to the work ahead in 2021!

freedom of the will or freedom from the will? (comparing Harry Frankfurt and Buddhism)

In a famous paper,* Harry Frankfurt argued that we have freedom of action if our desires match our behavior. I want a chocolate chip cookie; I eat the cookie; thus I demonstrate free action.

But we have freedom of the will insofar as we can control the desires we have. I want the chocolate chip cookie, but I wish that I did not. If I can influence my own desire for cookies, I demonstrate freedom of the will.

Thus the ability to have second-order volitions (desires about desires) is the trait that we value as moral freedom–it is what people have tried to express by describing human beings as metaphysically free. “A person enjoys freedom of the will [if] he is free to want what he wants to want.”

For Frankfurt, the difference between free, morally responsible agents (“persons”) and all other actors (“wantons”) is not that persons can control their desires; it is that they can form desires about those desires. In contrast, “The essential characteristic of a wanton is that he does not care about his will.”

Although Frankfurt does not use the language of identity in this paper, he offers an implicit theory of it. We are the coherent structure of our own desires, and if our desires fail to cohere, our identity is at risk. He imagines a person who has conflicting second-order desires that prevent him from preferring some of his first-order desires over others. Frankfurt doesn’t offer a concrete example, but perhaps this person wishes that he were more conservative and also wishes that he were more radical, and he cannot resolve that difference. In that case, the person would be torn every time he saw a tweet by AOC. “This condition, if it is so severe that it prevents him from identifying himself in a sufficiently decisive way with any of his conflicting first-order desires, destroys him as a person.” He becomes a “helpless bystander to the forces that move him.”

This is strong language, and I’m inclined to interpret Frankfurt’s theory as a matter of degree. We are more or less free to the degree that our first-, second- (and even third- and fourth-) degree volitions cohere and are consistent with our actions. Nobody has 100% freedom of the will.

Frankfurt says his position is compatible with determinism. That is, even if our minds are caused in the same way that other complex objects (computers, forests, stock market prices) are caused, we have free will to the extent that we form effective second-order desires. He even entertains the possibility that whether we have free will or not is determined. For instance, some kinds of parenting develop a capacity for second-order volitions and some don’t, but we don’t chose our parents. (This is my illustration, not his).

Now consider a certain tradition in Buddhism, which I derive mainly from US academics like Owen Flanagan, Mark Siderits, Bryan Van Norden, and Emily McRae and the classical Asian texts they quote.

Buddhism is a deterministic philosophy: all of our thoughts result from ordinary causes, just like the causes of the weather. (That is the doctrine of Dependent Origination.) We have desires without wanting them. Some of these desires are undesirable, and we can use mental techniques to marginalize or neutralize them.

So far, the view seems similar to Frankfurt’s. But in Buddhism, all desire is problematic. It has an intrinsic connection to suffering. That means that even if some desires are worse than others, we are wise to reduce desire per se.

Furthermore, we have no identity. (That is the doctrine of No Self). We are only a stream of specific feelings and beliefs. Wisdom comes from recognizing that there is no stable entity beneath that stream, and certainly nothing there that should concern us.

Frankfurt does not spell out practical or spiritual implications. To apply a distinction from Pierre Hadot, he is an academic or a scholastic philosopher, not a practitioner of Philosophy as a Way of Life. But his theory could imply that we should reflect as self-consciously as we can about our own desires. When we experience a bad desire, we should acknowledge that it partly defines our identity, so we had better get rid of it. A good way to counter bad desires is to give oneself reasons against them. Reasoning is also our way of knowing which desires are bad in the first place. For instance, if you feel a sexual desire, that partly defines you unless you decide that it is immoral and renounce it. A moral exemplar is someone who looks deeply and uncompromisingly into herself for the purpose of self-improvement.

In contrast, the advice from Buddhism is not to dwell on the desires that arise for us. Do not embrace them or cling to them, but also do invest emotion in denouncing or shunning them. Name them, acknowledge them, and try to set them aside, recognizing that their origins are natural (for everything that happens = nature), and we are not responsible for them (because we don’t cause anything), but we are better off without them.

Compassion functions differently from other first-order volitions in Buddhism. Because compassion is the desire for others to suffer less, it is not strictly a form of will. Spending more time and affect on compassion thus reduces our will, overall.

You could say that Buddhism recommends a second-order volition to be a more compassionate person. But Buddhism does not see us as persons. Therefore, an alternative interpretation is that Buddhism simply recommends compassion. Buddhism encourages you to practice or habituate yourself to compassion rather than reflecting abstractly on whether your identity is compassionate.

As long as we consider examples like wanting to eat chocolate chip cookies, this issue feels harmless or even amusing. But once we start thinking about serious personal vices, like envy and lust–or real social injustices, like sexism or racism–the stakes rise. Then it becomes a compelling question whether we should exercise freedom of the will by relentlessly critiquing our own desires or else freedom from the will by putting all our desires (apart from compassion) to the side.

*Frankfurt H.G. (1971). Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan. 14, 1971), pp. 5-20. See also Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); Foucault’s spiritual exercises; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; the grammar of the four Noble Truths; Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized; how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives), how do we perceive an identity?, etc.

Survey of young adults further exposes the challenges for US democracy. But addressing them could be an opportunity to reimagine democracy.

I just came across the recently published data from the GenForward project in the United States, a nationally representative survey of over 3,000 young adults aged 18-36 conducted by political scientist Cathy Cohen at the University of Chicago. The new data on race, young adults, and the 2020 elections paints a challenging picture of how young adults in the country perceive institutions and democracy. For those who think the recent election outcome put democracy back on track, these results reveal important challenges, but also opportunities.

  1. Negative enthusiasm takes the lead in young voters’ motivations

Prior to the election, in an interview with the Washington Post, Donald Trump  asserted that “Negative enthusiasm doesn’t win races. Positive enthusiasm, meaning ‘they like somebody’ is how elections are won.” But judging from the survey, negative enthusiasm was determinant in young voters’ choices: 64% of respondents said they would vote for Joe Biden precisely because they disliked the other candidate. There are significant differences across the profiles of respondents: for instance, only 28% of white respondents indicated that they would vote for Biden because they were enthusiastic about the candidate, while this number reaches 47% for black respondents.  

While these numbers can be disheartening, one could say they just show democracy at work, with young adults sanctioning the incumbent at the ballots. Add to that the polarized nature of elections, and the results are hardly surprising. But could this also reveal something more worrisome, particularly in the long-term? After all, research shows that voting is a rather habit-forming behavior: a citizen who votes today is more likely to vote in the future, and an 18- year-old who votes for a certain party now is likely to be voting for the same party when he turns 81. Does antagonistic voting behavior follow the same pattern? If it does, what signal does it send to parties? And what does it mean for the future of US democracy if such adversarial behavior crystalizes in the long-term?

  1. Perception of elite capture and de facto disenfranchisement 

Overall, 83% of respondents agreed (strongly or somewhat) with the statement that “the government is run by a few big interests, looking out for themselves and their friends.”

These results may seem surprising, but how do they fit with reality? Let’s take, for instance, the US Congress. While only 3% of the US population is made up of millionaires, in Congress they are a majority. And while workers make up more than half (52%) of the US population, they are only 2% in Congress. Is this exclusive club of Congress an exception in American politics? Unfortunately not. When looking at all levels of US government, politicians from working class backgrounds are less than a tenth of all elected officials. 

Some might argue that these disparities are not necessarily problematic, as elected individuals can act on behalf of broader interests. But as the saying goes, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Similar to most representative systems around the world, US policymaking is systematically biased towards the interests of the wealthier. So, while it may be depressing that 83% of young adults feel the government is run by a few big interests, it is understandable in the face of a governmental model that is, unfortunately, by the rich and for the rich. This discredit of representative institutions is reinforced by another result of the survey: 75% of young Americans agree (strongly or somewhat) with the statement “The leaders in government care very little about people like me”, revealing a sense of political alienation.  

4) Between discredit and revolution 

Young adults were also asked about the most effective way to drive real change in the country. And their responses tell us a lot about how they currently perceive traditional democratic institutions and their capacity to address collective issues. First, only 16% of respondents answered that real change can be achieved by voting in national elections. In other words, the overwhelming majority of young adults in the US reject the notion of voting in presidential elections as the ultimate democratic practice in the country. 

Second, 22% of respondents find that voting in state and local elections is the most effective way to bring about change. One can only speculate on the reasons for this, but here are a few potential explanations that come to mind. In socioeconomic terms, sub-national institutions are slightly more representative than national ones. This, at least hypothetically, should make these institutions marginally more responsive to larger constituencies. Also, given that most of the participatory institutions that allow citizens to impact decision-making in the US are at the sub-national level (e.g. referendums, initiatives), citizens may perceive state level institutions as being more responsive. Finally, the recent protagonism of some state  governments in the response to the Covid-19 crisis might also play a part in these views. 

Third,  38% of responses on the most effective ways to create real change in the US mention unconventional (non-electoral) forms of public participation, including categories such as protests, boycotts and social media campaigns. This is the same proportion as answers mentioning voting in elections, presidential and subnational, combined. Most strikingly, the third-most selected means to bring about change is “revolution” (14%). While the term revolution is not clearly defined here, this result certainly shows an eagerness for structural change in the way American democracy works, rather than milder reforms that are unlikely to alter the status quo. If we add revolution to the list of non-electoral forms of participation, these represent a total of 52% of survey responses. 

In short, the majority of young Americans between 18 and 36 years old, a sizable part of the electorate, finds that the best way to effect real change in the US lies outside typical democratic institutions. Even the much celebrated “return to [pre-2016] normalcy” following the recent election result is unlikely to reverse this picture on its own. After all, it was this very political normalcy of recent decades, characterized by inequality and poor responsiveness, that led to the situation that now affects US democracy. 

Not indifferent to the fact that a return to the pre-2016 era is unlikely to be sustainable, there are now a number of proposals on the table for how American democracy could be strengthened. These include, for instance, the Protecting our Democracy Act, the six strategies put forward by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, and the implementation of proportional voting, most effectively defended in Lee Drutman’s recent book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.

While most of the proposed reforms are well-intended and likely to produce positive results, they are unlikely to address the fundamental issue of unequal responsiveness that affects liberal democracies nowadays. Furthermore, given the context of polarization and distrust, any democratic reforms undertaken by political elites alone are bound to have their legitimacy questioned by a large part of the population. What the numbers of the GenSurvey reveal, above all, is a sense of disenfranchisement and a belief that public decisions are taken by “few big interests, looking out for themselves and their friends.” 

Citizens will be wary of any attempts to change the rules of the game, but particularly if these changes are defined by those who benefit the most from the current rules. Thus, efforts to rebuild the foundations of modern democracy, be it in the US or elsewhere, are unlikely to be sustainable if citizens are not effectively included in the process. In that case, why not constitute a large citizens’ assembly on democratic reform, to be subsequently validated through the popular vote? Or, as suggested by Archon Fung, why not empower ordinary citizens to make recommendations to Congress and the administration on how to address democratic issues?

The modalities for citizen involvement in this process are multiple. And while some models may be more feasible than others, one thing is certain: tokenistic approaches to citizen participation in democratic reforms are equally doomed to fail. Addressing the challenges highlighted by this survey will require more than politics as usual. But this can also be an opportunity for Americans to collectively reimagine the democracy they want. 

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