should Democrats play constitutional hardball in 2019-20?

In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt use comparative evidence to argue that democracies rely on two “soft guardrails”: constitutional forbearance and mutual toleration.* Forbearance means that political actors refrain from using all the powers that the written text of the constitution affords them. Regimes rarely survive once politicians routinely honor the letter but not the spirit of the rules. Toleration means explicitly acknowledging that the other side has a legitimate place in politics, a right to its views, and a right to govern if it wins elections.

We are perilously close to losing both constraints. This won’t be the first time in our history, but then again, our history has involved major breakdowns, like a Civil War that killed 620,000 Americans.

If Republicans beat expectations in 2018 and 2020, both parties’ behavior is predictable. Republicans will remain behind Trump because their base likes him and because the whole party will be winning under his banner. Democrats will resist as aggressively as possible, but with built-in limitations.

The choices for both sides will become much harder if the Democrats do well in 2018 and then 2020, capturing at least one house of Congress and then maybe the whole federal government. The Republicans’ choices will then be:

  1. The GOP stays Trumpian. This is what their base wants. Their losses will have been concentrated in swing districts and among independent-minded incumbents who tangled with the Trump base. The remaining party will be all-in for Trump. Since this scenario assumes that they lost ground in elections, they will be even more hostile to the political system, the media, and the Democrats, now seen as clearly rigging the system against real Republicans.
  2. Or the GOP turns into a principled conservative party that is skeptical of ambitious government, resistant to both taxation and public debt, and committed to constitutional restraint, including a restrained presidency. It presents that package as attractive to younger and more diverse voters and grows less demographically distinct from the Democrats.

Meanwhile …

  1. The Democrats play what Mark Tushnet calls Constitutional Hardball. Because they lost a Supreme Court seat when the Republicans wouldn’t even consider Merrick Garland, they return the favor and refuse Trump any new appointments. They launch aggressive investigations against Trump, his family, and his cabinet, focusing on potential financial crimes. They lay the predicate for impeachments and then prosecutions. They shut down the government over budget disputes, reckoning that Trump will send undisciplined tweets that will make him look at fault. If a Democratic presidential candidate wins in 2020, they drive through political reforms that advantage them in subsequent elections. In short, they decide not to be rolled, and also that their substantive policy goals require strong action.
  2. Or the Democrats try to restore mid-20th century norms of constitutional forbearance and partisan toleration. That doesn’t mean that they seat Trump’s Supreme Court nominees or refrain from investigations, but they try to follow the traditional procedures. For example, they bring Trump’s nominees up for votes but vote nay, and they make their investigations as focused and as bipartisan as possible. Democrats look to peel off independent-minded Republicans who are uncomfortable with Trump’s style and go out of their way to honor these colleagues.

Game theory is tailor-made for situations in which two players can make independent choices and the result is a single outcome. Here is a guess about how these choices would play out.

Democrats play “Constitutional Hardball” Democrats try to restore cooperative norms
Republicans stay Trumpian Democrats probably win on policy–increasingly so as the demographic trends favor them. Republicans retain 35% of the population that is overwhelmingly white and Christian and increasingly angry. The GOP still dominates some states and regions. Right-wingers give Democrats rationales for using increasingly hardball tactics. Political violence grows. Democrats are corrupted by the lack of legitimate checks. Democrats get rolled on policy. Possibly they expand their electoral power as a result of demographic trends plus a reputation for being responsible (if their forbearance is widely understood as such). Possibly they just look weak, and lose.
Republicans shift to principled conservatism Perhaps the Democrats prevail on policy and grow stronger due to demographics. Or perhaps they further erode confidence in government and thus strengthen principled conservatism, which wins elections and policy battles. The republic is safe. Democrats make incremental progress on policy, but Republicans offer a conservative alternative that sometimes prevails.

This is pretty close to a Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD), with the best option for all being the bottom-right, yet both sides have strong reasons to choose the other course. It’s a little more complicated than a pure PD because it plays out over time. The options and payoffs depend on the precise circumstances of the moment–say, in 2019 with a Democratic House and a narrowly Republican Senate, or in 2021 with (hypothetically) a newly inaugurated Democratic president. But versions of the choices arise at each stage, from congressional primaries today to legislative strategies in 2021.

*See pp. 7-8. However, my comments are based on hearing the authors speak, not having read their whole book yet.

how information relates to power, according to C.V. Wedgewood

C.V. (Veronica) Wedgewood’s The Thirty Years War is almost a century old, but it remains an inexhaustible source of insights. TaNahisi Coates loves it, too: “Take this for whatever it’s worth but she writes better than any historian I’ve ever read. Like all of my favorite writers she paints in all colors. … This is just a thrilling book. Sometimes it’s too pretty, and the details are too on point, but the insights are so thorough and the narrative so gripping that it’s hard to turn away.”

Here’s an example. Wedgewood asks how dynastic politics–births and marriages–could have been so influential. The Hapsburg Empire, for example, was the greatest power in Europe and it formed because of royal weddings. “The dynasty was, with few exceptions, more important in European diplomacy than the nation. Royal marriages were the rivets of international policy and the personal will of the sovereign or the interests of the family its motive forces. For all practical purposes France and Spain are misleading terms for the dynasties of Bourbon and Hapsburg.”

(Wedgewood doesn’t mention the Ottomans, but they were also a family, not a people. The Ottoman Empire was proudly multinational, not Turkish, and it was defined by the fact that the Sultan was the lineal descendant of Osman I [1258-1326]. In Topkapi, marriages weren’t relevant, but it mattered which heir obtained the throne.)

How could the fates of millions be determined by who married whom in a few families?Wedgewood thinks the reason is information:

This is an interesting explanatory thesis. Perhaps it could be restated thus: Everyone has political interests. But in order to act on their interests, people need information and the ability to coordinate. Without information, the peasants and most of the middle class were rendered powerless ca. 1600. That left the great aristocrats to govern, and they could best understand and use their own relationships to shape the world. (They presumably had poor information about things like economics and demographics.) Their relationships were transparent to the masses–for example, everyone knew when the king got married–so the most likely point for popular involvement was in supporting or blocking a dynastic union.

This thesis also raises questions about our own time. Today, we have information by the gibibyte. What we lack is the ability to focus attention on the important stuff. It’s easier to grasp Donald Trump’s marital and extramarital relations than to follow how HHS is undermining Obamacare. One dominant man holds extraordinary power–and celebrity–in China, Russia, India, Turkey, and many other countries. It’s conceivable that the 21st century will look more like the 16th than the 20th in this respect.

Nicole Doerr, Political Translation: How Social Movement Democracies Survive

A century ago, Robert Michels observed what he called the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” at work in the socialist and revolutionary labor parties and movements of Europe. He argued that these groups provided “the best field of observation” for the problem of oligarchy, because they were committed in principle to equality and democracy (p. 11). If even they turned into oligarchies, it was “probable that this cruel game will continue without end” (p. 408).

This was the pattern he observed:

Democracy is inconceivable without organization. [But] Organization implies the tendency to oligarchy. In every organization, whether it be a political party, a professional union, or any other association of the kind, the aristocratic tendency manifests itself very clearly. … As a result of organization, every party or professional union becomes divided into a minority of directors and a majority of directed. … All power thus proceeds in a natural cycle: issuing from the people, it ends by raising itself above the people (pp. 21, 32, 38).

Since about 2003, the University of Copenhagen Sociologist Nicole Doerr has been observing the successors of Michels’ socialist and revolutionary movements–the heterogeneous leftist organizations that have come together in contexts like the European Social Forum, the US Social Forum, and a low-income city in California. She observes many of the same specific dynamics that struck Michels, and she adds new ones.

For example, experienced, professional organizers tend to know one another and give each other much more attention than they give to newcomers (pp. 33-34). Representatives of “New Left” organizations that demand loose, horizontal interactions appear to union organizers to be “arrogant and upper-class” (p. 32). Questions that matter to marginalized people–such as whether the location of the next meeting will be accessible to them–get tabled as irrelevant (p. 56). Despite strong leftist convictions, leaders reveal unconscious bias against people unlike them, such as women from Turkey and Eastern Europe (pp. 54-5). Decisions laboriously reached in earlier meetings become sacrosanct, even though newcomers have reasons to object to them. The need to translate for–or to speak more slowly to–linguistic minorities is perceived as a mere nuisance (p. 39). Gatherings tend to grow more “ideologically homogeneous” over time (p. 54), as those who don’t agree drop out.

But Doerr also contributes a fascinating positive finding. She first noticed that a multilingual meeting was more equitable and deliberative than meetings in which translation was unnecessary (p. 25). That seemed paradoxical. One would assume that if some participants require simultaneous translation, a layer of inequality will be added.

But then she started noticing the translators. Although they were easily dismissed as providing a mere technical support service–and one that inconvenienced the speakers of the dominant languages–they also became involved in advocating for inclusion. They were professionally resistant to entering the discussion of substance, since their job was to translate for others. But they were also professionally committed to making sure that the people they served could be heard. Thus they often intervened on matters of process.

The translators suddenly took center stage when they went on strike during a Paris gathering, with the terse announcement, “we translators now collectively interrupt our linguistic service” (p. 42). Their demand was to change the list of official speakers so that more immigrants were included. They quickly prevailed, thanks to their leverage over the entire meeting.

At the US Social Forum in Atlanta, there were again linguistic translators. But by now, Doerr had begun using the term more broadly. Translators are people who enter a discussion without having substantive views of their own but with the goal of making sure that certain specific people, vulnerable to being ignored, are heard and understood. One of the activists in Atlanta “often intervened when established NGO staffers working on immigration reform had trouble not only understanding the language but also the content and importance of demands by undocumented immigrants.” She told Doerr, “What we did for the US Social Forum was translation … But it’s not just about linguistic translation. It’s also about emotion. It’s a translation of space, of class, of gender” (p. 59).

These translators–linguistic or otherwise–emerge for Doerr as a “third voice within deliberation” (p. 10), neither participants nor facilitators.

She recognizes that they have the power to advance their own interests (pp. 47-9). In the words of the old Italian pun, “traduttore, traditore” (translator = traitor). Their value is dependent on their motivations.  Doerr devotes a chapter to a California example in which bilingual elected officials favored their self-interests: “translation had turned into representation and domination” (p. 97). In meetings at city hall, these officials “repeatedly interrupted, disciplined, marginalized, and implicitly stigmatized residents,” especially those who spoke in Spanish.

But then a grassroots organizing group created community forums and invited the same city leaders to participate on its turf. Volunteer translators played essential roles in designing these forums, in preparing the city officials to be respectful at the meetings (pp. 102-3), and then intervening to demand that specific questions be answered (p. 110). While literally translating between Spanish and English, the organizers also explained technical matters in understandable terms. Although the votes at these community forums had no legal force, the city council made some concessions in response.

I’d like to emphasize four larger themes:

First, we are used to a dichotomy between direct and representative democracy. But translators (linguistic or otherwise) complicate that. They represent individuals in order to permit direct participation.

Second, the beneficial cases in Doer’s book depend on organized power. The translators in Paris struck, withholding their services all at once. The community organizers in the US case engaged sufficient numbers of voters that they could compel city officials to attend their meetings. It’s not just the act of translating that matters; it’s the translators’ connection to organizations. (At this point, Michels would ask how organized translators can avoid becoming a new oligarchy.)

Third, translators sometimes escape notice; their influence is unseen because all they seem to be doing is translating someone else’s words (p. 126). I imagine that listeners literally look at the original speakers, not the translators. This invisibility can be problematic if translators misuse their power. But it’s also a strategic asset, because they can get away with influencing the powerful when others would fail.

Finally, these acts of translation are classic examples of “public work,” in my friend Harry Boyte’s sense: “self-organized efforts by a mix of people who create goods, material or symbolic, whose civic value is determined through an ongoing process of deliberation” (Boyte and Scarnatti, p. 78.). Thinking of political translation as a form of work is helpful because it brings out the translators’ professional commitments and values and the craft-like skills that they contribute to make democracy work better.


  • Boyte, Harry C. & Scarnati, Blase. 2014. “Transforming Higher Education in a Larger Context: The Civic Politics of Public Work,” in Peter Levine and Karol Edward Soltan, eds., Civic Studies: Approaches to the Emerging Field. American Association of Colleges & Universities, 2014
  • Doerr, Nicole. 2018. Political Translation: How Social Movement Democracies Survive Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Michels, Robert. 1915. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul. New York: Heart’s International Library

come work at CIRCLE (and two other great jobs involving civic engagement)

We are hiring a researcher for the CIRCLE team, which I supervise.

Researcher – Tisch College  (18001131)

The Researcher will work with CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), a research-based think tank that studies how young people in the United States develop knowledge, skills and dispositions for effective democratic engagement. CIRCLE’s work covers a broad range of disciplines and fields, from K-12 civic education, youth voting, youth organizing, youth and civic media, to community characteristics that promote civic development. CIRCLE currently works on major initiatives in partnership with organizations that focus on low-income youth. Although CIRCLE studies civic development and engagement of all youth, the central focus of its work is on expanding access to civic learning and engagement opportunities especially for marginalized youth from various backgrounds. CIRCLE is an influential force and a premier source of information —facts, trends, assessments, and practices—related to youth civic engagement. CIRCLE reaches both academic and practitioners audiences through both academic and popular media, including a large number of features in major news outlets. Founded in 2001, CIRCLE has been part of Tisch College since 2008 and CIRCLE staff are fully integrated into the organizational life of Tisch College and Tufts University, offering CIRCLE staff a number of opportunities to develop skills in and outside of research.

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life prepares students in all fields of study for lifetimes of active citizenship, promotes new knowledge in the field, educates Tufts students and beyond for a life of active citizenship, and applies our research to evidence-based practice in our programs, community partnerships, and advocacy efforts. Tisch College’s work is central to Tufts University’s mission. Tisch College offers several opportunities to engage Tufts students in meaningful community building and other civic and political experiences, explore personal commitments to civic participation, and take on active and effective roles in public life and to engage faculty in expanded active citizenship research and teaching. Tisch College also seeks to influence higher education in the US and abroad to embrace active citizenship mainly through its work via Institute for Democracy in Higher Education.

The Researcher, in collaboration with a broad array of professionals, contributes to the development and execution of all phases of research & evaluation projects and technical assistance activities, including survey design, implementation, data preparation, analysis, data visualization and report preparation. The Researcher will work on multiple projects simultaneously and support CIRCLE’s overall operation, and will support management of project timelines and deliverables.

Basic Requirements:

  • 3 years of related experience.
  • Bachelor’s degree or demonstrated competencies in relevant skills.
  • Proficiency using a statistical software package such as: SPSS, SAS, or STATA, and Microsoft Office Suite.
  • Keen attention to details and ability to manage multiple project deliverables and timelines.
  • Passion for using research to achieve equity in civic learning opportunities through systemic changes.
  • Demonstrated ability to manage complex projects.
  • Knowledge of logic models, research design, statistical analysis (multivariate statistics), and qualitative and quantitative research methods.
  • Experience with graphic software, and in developing and maintaining data management systems.
  • Effective verbal, written and interpersonal skills.
  • Demonstrated ability to work on several projects simultaneously and meet demanding timelines.
  • Compose accurate and clearly written reports and documents.
  • Work independently within basic guidelines and parameters.
  • Gather and analyze available data and draw logical conclusions.
  • Establish and maintain effective collaborative working team relationships.
  • Engage in proactive problem solving and critical thinking/analysis.
  • Engage with diverse stakeholders of varied educational and professional backgrounds and perspectives.

Preferred Qualifications:

  • Expertise with data visualization software and/or website management.
  • Direct experience with community engagement through community organizing, national service, etc..
  • Direct experience with young people in diverse communities.

Apply here.

And here are two other good jobs:

Democracy Research & Writing Associate, Small Planet Institute

12 Eliot St., Cambridge, MA (In Harvard Sq. across from the Kennedy School)
Compensation: modest, based on qualifications
Hours: 8-10/week, flexible.

Description: The Associate will work collaboratively with author-and-institute principal Frances Moore Lappé to contribute to developing the Institute’s Democracy & Dignity Project, a messaging initiative building on her new book, coauthored with Adam Eichen, Daring Democracy.

Responsibilities include:

  1. keeping Lappé up to date on, and critically evaluating, developments in the Democracy Movement as well and in the ongoing assaults on democracy.
  2. helping to frame messages for, and assisting in the production of, op-eds, blogs, videos and radio interviews that challenge inaccurate frames and generate empowering ones. 3) becoming familiar with arguments in critical new books and other resources, brainstorming and researching specific topics, helping to shape arguments, and providing fact-checking and feedback on drafts.

Apply HERE

Graduate Research Assistant for a Project Involving Arts and Community

The Pao Arts Research Collaborative is a community-based research project looking at the relationship between arts, culture, and gentrification in Chinatown. Using the new Pao Arts Center as the field site, this research is looking at whether arts and culture helps to support and sustain social networks and social cohesion in a rapidly shifting neighborhood impacted by development and displacement.

We are looking for a graduate research assistant interested in working on this project. The research assistant will have the opportunity to be involved in a variety of research tasks including conducting the literature review, doing data entry, developing a survey, conducting qualitative interviews and performing qualitative and quantitative data analysis. There may also be opportunities for participating in manuscript writing in the future. We are looking for a research assistant who can work 5-8 hours/week and provide at least a 6 month commitment.

We are looking for someone who is interested in working on community health in Chinatown, is interested in community-based participatory research, is organized, flexible, and detail-oriented, and has either quantitative or qualitative research skills. Applicants should have completed an introductory research methods course in their respective field.

This research is a collaboration between the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, Tufts University Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, Tisch College of Civic Life and the Drama Department at Tufts University. This research is funded by Art Place America.

I am involved, but please send a resume and letter of inquiry to Carolyn Rubin ( .

what does youth civic engagement have to do with inequality?

In lieu of a blog post here today, this is a piece I wrote for the W.T. Grant Foundation’s website. It begins:

My colleagues and I at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) have been studying youth civic engagement since 2001. We’ve looked at many forms of engagement that sustain democracies and communities—from voting and volunteering to protest and participation in social movements. Our current work looks closely at whether young adults’ engagement in their local communities can reduce inequality in outcomes on the basis of economic standing.


media literacy and the social discovery of reality

If you’re concerned about media education in the current fraught moment, you should read danah boyd’s “You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You?” and Renee Hobbs’ response in Medium.

In my crude summary: danah boyd surveys some media literacy programs and sees a simplistic set of assumptions about the way media does–and should–work in our world. Hobbs replies that the actual field of media literacy education, which she has labored skillfully to build, welcomes complexity and diversity of views and nurtures sophisticated programs that boyd has overlooked. Hobbs also wonders why boyd selects media literacy education as her target instead of big media companies that are making money by degrading the public sphere.

I’m no danah boyd, and I’m no Renee Hobbs, but I recognize the appeal of both perspectives from my own work in different fields, such as service-learning, civic education, and deliberative democracy. There’s a role for the relatively detached critic who raises basic questions, but also for the field-builder who tries to create networks that enable experimentation and debate.

In the case of media literacy, I can offer my own view of the philosophical issues at stake, for what that’s worth. I don’t know to what extent people working in the field agree or disagree with the following ten theses. As I present them, I’ll use climate change as an example. Climate scientists make strong claims about truth, professional reporters must decide how to cover their claims, educators must decide whether climate change is a fact or rather a topic for debate, and the public is deeply polarized about all of the above.

  1. Truth claims are social. At least, that is true of claims like “human beings are causing the globe to warm by burning carbon.” No individual can have a justified true belief about the global climate, all by herself. No one can read all the secondary literature, let alone check all the analyses in that literature, let alone reanalyze all the data, let alone collect all the data, let alone create the methods and instruments needed to collect the data, let alone train all the scientists, let alone pay for all of that. We can each check some other people’s work, abstracting it from the rest of science. But we must leave most of the edifice unchecked. When people tell you they have “looked into” climate science and found it either true or false, they are exaggerating their personal expertise.
  2. Institutions require trust. An individual must trust the scientific enterprise as a whole in order to believe its specific results or even to take them seriously. Trust is directed at people, institutions, or social processes, not at facts. Many institutions do not merit trust.
  3. Social institutions represent power. For example, scientific labs, universities, and newspapers are funded, staffed, and managed. The human beings who manage them are exercising power. Most other people do not have the same power or equivalent degrees, titles, educational pedigrees, access to information, etc. Thus we are asked to trust people who have power over us. That is easier for someone like me–a colleague of climate scientists who works in a Boston-area research university–than for someone far away and in a different cultural setting.
  4. Truth is deeply intertwined with values. We really are warming the globe by burning carbon. But if that implies that we must regulate economic activity–even at the expense of liberty–it becomes a value-claim. Also, we know that we are warming the climate because we have invested in certain kinds of research. Motivating those investments are concerns about the globe as a whole and about the long-term aggregate welfare of people plus other species. If your concerns were different, you wouldn’t spend the money to collect the data that has produced these facts.
  5. Politics is about values and power. When we disagree about values or about who has power (or both) we are engaged in politics. Thus politics is necessarily involved in topics like climate change.
  6. Ideology is an unavoidable tool for managing complexity and uncertainty. The word “ideology” has different meanings in different circles, but if we mean fairly general heuristics that allow individuals to make sense of the world, then we all depend on it. Ideology is unavoidable. And it tends to merge causal theories, value-claims, and identities.
  7. Some values are better than others. I’ve said (see #4) that climate science depends on values. But the underlying values of climate science are good ones. We should be concerned about all human beings, about other species, about natural systems as intrinsic goods, and about the long-term. If we were only interested in the short-term wealth of US citizens, we wouldn’t care about climate change, but that would be a worse moral stance. Values are contestable, but our responsibility is to choose the best values.
  8. Truth can be socially discovered, not just socially constructed. Knowledge emerges from human institutions, like laboratories and newspapers. Change the people and the way they work together, and you will probably get different results. That is a causal claim. For some, it implies skepticism. But people do obtain justified true beliefs–for example, that we are heating the globe by burning carbon. This is not socially constructed knowledge; it is socially discovered. The discovery requires cooperation, just as it takes a bunch of sailors to reach a destination by sea. But their ship can actually find a new place, not merely “construct” one.
  9. Institutions for discovering truth are scarce and fragile. Behavioral science has uncovered an immense number of human cognitive and motivational limitations, many rooted in our biological origins as hunter-gatherers. We are ill-equipped to make sense of large-scale phenomena and are unlikely to care about issues that affect other people far away. Yet we have built institutions like universities and newspapers. These are highly problematic and fallible entities, with long records of errors and abuse. They are also miraculous achievements that defy the prediction that homo sapiens will never want to discover truths or succeed in that effort.
  10. Media literacy thus means exhibiting the right mixture of trust, support, skepticism, and critique. It’s possible for people to trust a given institution, such as a newspaper, too much. And it’s possible for them to trust it too little. Trust is an emotion that is related to personal identity, but it ought to be informed by good values and rigorous knowledge as well.

See also: the Pew climate change survey and the state of sciencemini-conference on Facts, Values, and Strategies (which led to a special issue of The Good Society, now in production); why we miseducate children to think of values as opinions; a media literacy education articlethe history of civics and news literacy educationis all truth scientific truth?don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalisticCivic Science; pseudoscience and the No True Scotsman fallacythe press loses its leverage; and generational change and the state of the press.

the Massachusetts Civics Bill #MAcivicsforall

The Massachusetts legislature is considering S. 2306, An Act to Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement. According to the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition‘s summary, the bill:

  • Requires that all public schools teach American history and civics education.
  • Promotes comprehensive, project-based civic education integrated into existing curricula and focused on local communities, reflecting best practices for high-quality civic learning.
  • Authorizes funding necessary to support implementation through the Civics Project Fund.
  • Encourages voting and other vital forms of participation alongside important political learning outcomes through the High School Voter Challenge and Edward Moore Kennedy and Edward William Brooke III Civics Challenge.
  • Maintains local control and classroom decision-making.

Here is an article in Commonwealth Magazine by Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and me, defending the bill. Information about a “lobby day” and how to write your representative is here.

the first “civic ed” bill: 1642

The Massachusetts legislature is considering S. 2306, a bill to enhance civic education. I’m for this legislation. Questions about whether the Commonwealth should require civics–or, indeed, any subject–led me to wonder when civics was first mandated in Massachusetts. I think the answer is 1642:

Forasmuch as the good education of children is of singular behoof and benefit to any Common-wealth; and whereas many parents & masters are too indulgent and negligent of their duty in that kind. It is therfore ordered that the Select men of every town, in the severall precincts and quarters where they dwell, shall have a vigilant eye over their brethren & neighbours, to see, first that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families as not to indeavour to teach by themselves or others, their children & apprentices so much learning as may enable them perfectly to read the English tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes: upon penaltie of twentie shillings for each neglect therin.

There was a high-stakes test. All “children or apprentices” had to learn “some short orthodox catechism without book, that they may be able to answer unto the questions that shall be propounded to them out of such catechism by their parents or masters or any of the Select men when they shall call them to a tryall of what they have learned of this kind.”

And there were accountability mechanisms. In addition to the “twentie shilling” fine for local leaders who failed to ensure successful educational outcomes for all their communities’ youth, there was also a plan to be followed when “children and servants bec[a]me rude, stubborn & unruly.” First, the responsible selectmen would be admonished. Next, “the said Select men with the help of two Magistrates, or the next County court for that Shire, shall take such children or apprentices from them & place them with some masters for years (boyes till they come to twenty one, and girls eighteen years of age compleat) which will more strictly look unto, and force them to submit unto government according to the rules of this order, if by fair means and former instructions they will not be drawn into it.”

The 1642 act required religious as well as civil instruction, which we wouldn’t endorse under the US Constitution. It included a large dose of what we might call character education, career preparation, and/or social-emotional development, under the heading of preparation for “some honest lawful calling, labour or employment, either in husbandry, or some other trade profitable for themselves.”

I’m not saying that the Massachusetts School Law of 1642 is what we need today. It’s wise to innovate. But there is certainly precedent for requiring civics: 375 years of precedent, in fact.

notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King

Gandhi offers a fully developed metaphysics and epistemology–original even though it is grounded in classical Indian thought. For Martin Luther King, Protestant theology provides a core theory of human nature, but King navigates his way through debates in modern Protestantism and offers his own synthesis and draws political implications. Even for non-Hindus and non-Protestants, some premises that both of these authors share may be persuasive.

For Gandhi, there are truths–for example, about the good life and the just society–but they exceed any individual’s comprehension. Almost everyone (perhaps literally everyone[1]) contributes valuable insights by observing the world from her own limited and fallible perspective.

The golden rule of conduct, therefore, is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we  shall see Truth in fragment and from different angles of vision. Conscience is not the same thing for all. Whilst, therefore, it is a good guide for individual conduct, imposition of that conduct upon all will be an insufferable interference with everybody’s freedom of conscience.
Q. With regard to your Satyagraha doctrine, so far as I understand it, it involves the pursuit of Truth and in  that pursuit you invite suffering on yourself and do not cause violence to anybody else.
A. Yes, sir.
Q. However honestly a man may strive in his search for Truth, his notions of Truth may be different from the notions of others. Who then is to determine the Truth?
A. The individual himself would determine that.
Q. Different individuals would have different views as to Truth. Would that not lead to confusion? …
A. That is why the non-violence part was a necessary corollary. Without that there would be confusion and  worse.[2]

According to Bhikhu Parek, Gandhi believes that “rational discussion and persuasion” are the “best way to resolve conflict.”[3] However, these methods depend on well-motivated reasoners who are able to overcome our species’ deep cognitive and ethical limitations. Under ordinary circumstances, reasoning is likely to fail, because we are mired in our own interests and not rational enough to be persuaded by arguments. Violence is therefore tempting but intrinsically problematic. The violent actor assumes that she is right, even though we are all inevitably wrong. Violence also threatens to erase the insights of the target by silencing or even eliminating her, or it may force her to do something without being sincere. On the other hand, voluntary sacrifice can touch the other person’s heart without negating her freedom.

Gandhi also believes that we ought to perform actions that are intrinsically meritorious without being concerned about their outcomes, which lie beyond our control. As Krishna teaches in the Baghavad Gita, “Motive should never be in the fruits of action.” Actions must be sincere in order to have value, and sincerity requires commitment by the heart and mind together. Unlike a typical action that is taken to achieve an end beyond the direct control of the actor, sacrifice remains connected to the person who sacrifices. For example, if I choose not to eat, that remains my will until the end of my fast. If my refusal to eat causes you to change your behavior, that may be good (assuming that my cause was right), but I am responsible only for forgoing the food, not for your behavior. I thus escape the pitfall of attaching my happiness and meaning to an end beyond my control.

Like Gandhi, King holds that violence “is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. … It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.” Nonviolence is “the ultimate form of persuasion,” where the word “ultimate” means both the most powerful form and the one to try last, after arguments have failed.[4] King also shares with Gandhi a theory of the human soul as both rational and affective, a recognition of the limitations of human understanding, and the ideal of a transcendent truth that we can only approach together. He says that he found in Hegel the idea that “truth is the whole,” which is roughly analogous to Gandhi’s remarks about Brahman, the universal soul.[5]

However, King’s framework is Protestant rather than classically Indian, so his metaphysics is somewhat different. Human beings are made in God’s image and are granted freedom, but we are also fallen. God is personal, an actual character who loves us and can work with us. King says that personalism “is my basic philosophy,” the foundation of his faith in an active personal God and “the metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.” People have dignity and worth not because they are good but because of divine grace. King says that he agrees with Reinhold Niebuhr about “the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence,” contrary to a “great segment of Protestant liberalism” that is too optimistic about human nature. “While I still believed in man’s potential for good, Niebuhr made me realize his potential for evil as well.” King ultimately came to believe that Niebuhr had “overemphasized the corruption of human nature” because he had “overlooked” the power of divine grace to work with communities of people; yet King retained a sharp awareness of sin and evil.[6]

Agape–disinterested love–is the answer for King. It serves to explain the nature and will of God, our relationship to God, and our obligation to other people. It is not “sentimental” and it does not ignore sin. Instead, King defines nonviolent resistance as “a very stern love that would organize itself into collective action to right a wrong by taking on suffering.”[7] The combination of organization and collective action, love, and nonviolent sacrifice is essential.

These philosophical and theological positions cannot both be completely right, because they conflict at points. For instance, King’s God is personal whereas Gandhi’s divine is abstract. Gandhi acknowledges that God is love but attributes that view to Christianity and endorses it in the context of saying that “the human mind is a limited thing and you have to labour under limitations when you think of a being or entity who is beyond the power of man to grasp.”[8] Christians contribute the partial insight that God is love; for Gandhi himself, God is Truth.

Nevertheless, the overlapping premises of these two philosophies seem plausible even in secular contexts and are compatible with behavioral science.[9] People really are cognitively and ethically limited when we think and act alone, but we are capable of reasoning better when we come together in groups that are organized to bring out the best in us. We really do make better decisions when we preserve alternative views instead of violently suppressing them. Yet we cannot expect the best conclusions to emerge from deliberation alone; change aso requires organized sacrifice.

[1] That is Parek’s reading.  Gandhi: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 54.
[2] These quotations come from several articles in the newspaper Young India, but they were combined by Nirmal Kumar Bose in his Selections from Gandhi (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1948), pp, 66-67, which carries a very strong endorsement from Gandhi. Thus I treat them as a coherent argument that Gandhi approved.
[3] Parek, p. 51
[4] King, Stride Toward Freedom, Kindle locations 2850 and 2892.
[5] King, location 1355; cf. Nicholas F. Gier, The Virtue of Nonviolence: From Gautama to Gandhi (Albany: SUNY Press, 2004), pp. 40-1
[6] King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1355, 1327
[7] King, “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” originally published in Ebony magazine,1959, in Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream: Writing and Speeches that Changed the World, edited by James M. Washington, (Glenview, IL, Harper Collins, 1992), p. 44.
[8] Bose, 4.
[9] Christopher Beem relates Niebuhr’s theological commitment to human limitations to the findings of modern psychology and draws political implications in Democratic Humility: Reinhold Niebuhr, Neuroscience, and America’s Political Crisis (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015).

See also the relationship between justice and peace; the central role of sacrifice in social movements; how the Montgomery Bus Boycott used and created social capital; prophesy as a form of political rhetoric; and the need to consider evil in politics.

new Civic Studies major at Tufts

Yesterday, the Tufts Faculty of Arts & Sciences approved our proposal for a new major in Civic Studies, the first in the world. It will begin next fall, and I’ll co-teach the new introductory course with my colleagues Erin Kelly (Philosophy) and Yannis Evrigenis (Political Science). Here are the relevant portions of the proposal that passed yesterday:

Curriculum Proposal: Civic Studies

“We see before us an emerging civic politics, along with an emerging intellectual community, a field, and a discipline. Its work is to understand and strengthen civic politics, civic initiatives, civic capacity, civic society and civic culture.…and to contribute to an emerging global movement of civic renewal.” — Harry Boyte, Stephen Elkin, Peter Levine, Jane Mansbridge, Elinor Ostrom, Karol So?tan, and Rogers Smith, “Framing Statement for Civic Studies,” 2007

Civic Studies is an interdisciplinary field of study that focuses on critical reflection, ethical thinking, and action for social change, within and between societies. People who think and act together to improve society must address problems of collective action (how to get members to work together) and deliberation (how to reason together about contested values). They must understand how power is organized and how it operates within and between societies. They must grapple with social conflict, violence, and other obstacles to peaceful cooperation. They will consider questions of justice and fairness when social tensions arise, and they must confront questions about appropriate relationships to outsiders of all types. This includes examining alternative ethical, political, and theological frameworks to encourage comparative reflection about different ways in which people live together in society.

The focus on civil society contrasts with state-centric approaches. It includes the study of collective action in social spheres that, while organized, may not be institutionalized or otherwise sanctioned by the state, and it highlights the perspective of individual and group agents.  Thus civic studies considers phenomena that are central to other disciplines—governments, law, markets, societies, cultures, and networks—but from the distinctive perspective of civic agents, that is, individuals and groups who think together and act cooperatively. It includes principles and vantage points civic agents may use to evaluate existing social norms, institutions, governments, and ideologies. In these and other ways, Civic Studies brings critical scrutiny to status quo norms of social order.

Civic Studies is more than citizenship studies. Civic agents include citizens, disenfranchised or colonized groups, temporary residents, undocumented migrants, refugees, and members of other societies acting across borders. Civic Studies engages with the importance of a society’s criteria of membership, as well as the logic and dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, hierarchy and subordination, across social groups. It subjects social dynamics to empirical study and normative evaluation, with the aim of understanding how to challenge unjust inequalities and to enhance just forms of social inclusion.

Normative reflection, ethical analysis, empirical understanding, historical perspective, and the development of practical skills are all important to the study of social and political conflict, and for developing cooperative strategies to enable positive social change. Civic Studies brings those modes of learning together to deepen our understanding of social criticism and action for social change as well as the circumstances that give rise to a need for it. The major’s classroom and experiential learning requirements would enable students to explore the theory and practice of critical reflection and just social change.

A Peace and Justice Studies track within the Civic Studies major provides a special focus within Civic Studies for learning about the causes and effects of violence, and for developing nonviolent strategies for conflict resolution and just social transformation. A minor in Peace and Justice Studies is also available to students who are particularly interested in studying violence and alternatives to it.

In sum, a major in Civic Studies [will] continue from the Tufts Peace and Justice Studies major the following core commitments: a combination of classroom-based and experiential learning; normative analysis and critical scrutiny of claims about justice; an explicit focus on conflict and possibilities for resolving it, and the development of skills useful in nonprofits, governments, community groups, and social movements. We believe the intellectual content of Civic Studies is exciting and the curriculum distinctive, highlighting strengths of Tufts University.

The proposed requirements for the Civic Studies major are 11 courses distributed as follows:

  1. CVS 0010—Introduction to Civic Studies
  2. Thinking about Justice: two courses in political theory, philosophy, or social theory devoted to normative questions about the nature and content of justice. Courses must be selected from an approved list. [Examples are listed in the proposal. E.g., PS 41: Western Political Thought I and II; REL 43: Asian Religions; HIST 129: Black Political Thought in the 20th century]
  3. Social Conflict and Violence: Two courses to enhance an empirical understanding of the historical, political, and social origins of conflict and violence. Courses must be selected from an approved list. [Among others: SOC 94: Sociology of Violence; PS 138-01: Political Violence in State and Society; PSY 136: Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination]
  4. Civic Action and Social Movements: Two courses dealing with the historical, ethical, and social origins of organized movements for social change. Courses must be selected from an approved list. [Among others: CH 109: Community Action and Social Movements in Public Health; ANTH 0146: Global Feminisms]
  5. Civic Skills: two courses that focus on civic skills or civic practices, e.g., dialogue and deliberation, ethical reasoning, emotional intelligence, conflict-mediation and peacemaking, community-based research, communication and media-making, public art, community organizing, evaluating nonprofits, or financing social enterprises. [Among others: UEP 194: Technology, Media, and the City; ELS 193: Social Entrepreneurship, Policy, and Systems Change; VISC 145/AMER 94, which is a course taught in state prison]
  6. CVS 099: A required internship. This includes a weekly 2.5 hour class with graded assignments and a final project. (3 SHUs)
  7. CVS 190: A capstone seminar taught by a CVS affiliated faculty member.(3 SHUs)

Total: 11 courses