Empathy and Justice

My remarks at a conference entitled “Empathy …. or Ways of Caring,” Harvard Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, March 15, 2019. (Apologies for some cutting and pasting from previous posts.)

Doris Sommer mentioned that Barack Obama popularized the notion of an “empathy deficit.” In a 2004 interview with Oprah Winfrey, while he was still a State Senator, Obama said:

I often say we’ve got a budget deficit that’s important, we’ve got a trade deficit that’s critical, but what I worry about most is our empathy deficit. When I speak to students, I tell them that one of the most important things we can do is to look through somebody else’s eyes. People like bin Laden are missing that sense of empathy. That’s why they can think of the people in the World Trade Center as abstractions. They can just crash a plane into them and not even consider, “How would I feel if my child were in there?”

Here Obama links empathy to moral judgment. In a 2006 commencement address, he also implies that the level of empathy in a society as a whole is a precondition of social justice. Our “empathy deficit” explains why we accept that “Americans … sleep in the streets and beg for food,” that “inner-city children …. are trapped in dilapidated schools,” and that “innocent people [are] being slaughtered and expelled from their homes half a world away .”[2]

To suggest that this argument is problematic, I would quote then-President Obama in Jerusalem on March 21, 2013:

I — I’m going off script here for a second, but before I — before I came here, I — I met with a — a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons.

I honestly believe that if — if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, I want these kids to succeed. (Applause.) I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do. (Applause.) I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. (Cheers, applause.) I believe that. (Cheers, applause.)

It is not so much the speech as the applause that I find problematic, because I believe that the Israeli electorate supports policies that are unjust, and their political behavior is compatible with a fair amount of actual empathy.

The word “empathy” is a modern coinage. It is not attested before 1895, and it gained its current meaning only in 1946. Many wise people have thought about moral psychology and justice without using this word at all, so we should consider whether it does us any good.*

I’d posit the following definitions:

  • Empathy: Feeling a similar emotion in response to someone else’s emotional state. Your friend is mad at her boss because he treated her unfairly. That makes you mad at her boss. Your anger is probably different in texture and intensity from hers, but it’s the same in kind, an imperfect reproduction of her mental state.
  • Sympathy: Feeling a supportive emotion in response to someone else’s emotional state that is not the same as that person’s original emotion. She is mad at her boss, so you become sorry for her, or committed to fairness, or sad about the state of the world, or nostalgic for better times–but not angry at her boss. Then you are sympathetic. (NB You can be both sympathetic and empathetic if you feel several emotions.)
  • Compassion: A species of the genus sympathy. Another person’s negative emotion causes you to have a specific supportive feeling that is not the same as her emotion: you sincerely wish that her distress would end without blaming her for it.
  • Justice: A situation or decision characterized by fairness, goodness, rightness, etc. (These are contestable ideas and may be in tension with each other.) The English word “just”–like dikaios in classical Greek–can be applied either to a situation or to a person who cares and aims for justice.

There is an old and rich debate about which character traits and subjective states are best suited to pursuing justice. One answer is that you should be a just person, one who tries to decide what is fair or best for all (all things considered), who desires that outcome, and who works to pursue it.

A different response is that we are not well suited to defining and pursuing justice itself. We lack the cognitive and motivational qualities that would allow us to grasp justice and reliably act on it.

Justice is an abstract idea that takes the form of words: it is discursive. According to a mainstream view in contemporary moral psychology, we first form emotional opinions about concrete situations and then we select the ideas that will justify those opinions, post-hoc. Justice doesn’t guide us; it justifies and excuses us.**

In that case, it might be better to cultivate emotions, such as empathy, sympathy, compassion–or loyalty, aversion to harm, or commitment to specific rules–in order to deliver more just outcomes, all things considered.

In her remarks, Marina Amelina noted that developed countries built social welfare systems between ca. 1880 and 1970. That could because their publics became more empathetic. But it also be because less-wealthy people gained power and used it to protect themselves. Equal power plus self-interest might generate justice more reliably than empathy. John Rawls famously modeled justice as the decisions that self-interested parties would make if they were rendered perfectly equal by a Veil of Ignorance that blocked them from knowing their own situations. In the real world, we can approximate the Veil of Ignorance by assuring that everyone has equal rights and powers. This is a clear alternative to the view that justice should be built on empathy.

Paul Bloom and others argue that empathy is particularly unreliable guide to justice, more likely to mislead than to inform. For instance, Donald Trump can make people feel empathy for a small number of individuals whose families were allegedly victimized by undocumented aliens, and then use that emotion to build support for deporting millions of people who have harmed no one. A famous example is Edmund Burke’s outrage at the mistreatment of Marie Antoinette, which obscured any concern for the countless people tortured, executed, or “disappeared” by the ancien regime that she represented. (By the way, I respect Burke–and I don’t think it was fair or smart to execute the Queen–but this passage is still a good example of misplaced empathy.)

Empathy can also substitute for justice, as the transcript from Jerusalem that I quoted earlier suggests. You congratulate yourself for feeling some version of a suffering person’s emotion and excuse yourself from fixing the problem.

Compassion may be better than empathy. Instead of feeling the same emotion as the other person, you feel a combination of beneficence and equanimity that may be a more reliable guide to acting well. But it’s possible that compassion only clears the deck for reasoning about what you should actually do.

Other candidates for emotional states that might be more reliable than empathy include solidarity, responsiveness, openness, and intellectual humility.

For its part, justice can be emotional. You can feel a powerful urge to make the world more just. That is helpful insofar as the feeling motivates you and insofar as people obtain genuine insights from our emotions; but it is dangerous because the emotion of desiring justice can be misplaced. You can feel great about improving the world when you are actually harming it.

In the end, I think we must wrestle with these questions:

  1. Can we human beings reason explicitly about justice in ways that improve upon our strictly affective reactions to particular situations? Can we put into words what is good or fair, and why, and make ourselves accountable for that position? Or is this always special-pleading, mere rhetorical justification for what we have already decided based on our emotions?
  2. Does an improvement in social justice indicate an improvement in empathy?
  3. If we should cultivate an emotional stance toward others as a buttress of—or an alternative to—justice, should that stance be empathy, or rather compassion, responsiveness, solidarity, humility, or something else?

*Buddhism is perhaps most widely associated with the virtue that Obama calls “empathy”—in his terms, “the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us” (Northwestern Commencement speech). But Emily McRae notes that “empathy” has no direct translation in Sanskrit or other languages that have been used to express the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Key words from that tradition are better translated as “compassion” and “sympathetic joy.” McRae derives a theory of empathy from Buddhist texts, but she focuses on phrases like “exchanging self and other” rather than any single word that corresponds to “empathy.” McRae, “Empathy, Compassion, and ‘Exchanging Self and Other’ in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Ethics” in Heidi Maibom , ed., The Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy (Routledge, 2017).

**Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion(New York: Vintage, 2012), pp. 27-51; Ann Swidler, Talk of Love: How Culture Matters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2001); pp. 147-8; Leslie Paul Thiele, The Heart of Judgment: Practical Wisdom, Neuroscience, and Narrative Cambridge University Press, 2006) and Jesse Graham, Brian A. Nosek, Brian A., Jonathan Haidt, Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, & Peter H. Ditto, “Mapping the Moral Domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 101, no. 2  (2011)., p. 368)

See also: empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; empathy: good or bad?; “Empathy” is a new word. Do we need it?; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy

President Obama on how he discusses policy with Republicans

Jonathan Chait’s entire interview with the president is fascinating. It offers Obama’s perspective on his own presidency, which is not the objective reality, but it is full of insights.

For instance, Chait asks, “So it’s January 27, 2009, and you hear Boehner say he is against the stimulus. I’ve heard complaints from Republicans about what you’re like in these meetings. They say you’re didactic and you lecture. In a situation like that, are you trying to discuss Keynesian theory and saying, ‘Do you believe in stimulus?’ At what level is the discussion held?”

Obama first responds, “You know, the truth of the matter is, it’s hard for me to characterize myself. You’re probably better off talking to some staff members who sit in on these meetings.” He’s right about that: none of us can objectively assess how we appear in interactions with others, especially in tense and difficult situations. No one would accuse this president of being unprepared, uninformed, or intentionally offensive, but it’s possible that his professorial manner alienates some people who read him as acting superior. As he acknowledges, he’s not the one to judge that.

He does, however, review his good relationships with Republicans in the Illinois legislature. He believes his problem with Republicans in Washington is strategic rather than personal: they decided to block his entire agenda in 2009, both to reverse their electoral losses and to appease their base.

Then he gives a window into how the conversations would actually unfold:

Look, typically what would happen, certainly at the outset, it would be that I would say, “We’ve got a big problem: We’re losing 800,000 jobs a month. Every economist I’ve talked to, including Republican economists, thinks that we need to do a big stimulus, and I’m willing to work with you to figure out how this package looks.”

Note the combination of a policy argument–which could be considered didactic, although it’s also correct–followed by an invitation to discuss.

And typically, what you’d get would be, “Well, Mr. President, I’m not sure that this big spending approach is the right one, and families are tightening their belts right now, and I don’t hear a lot of my constituents saying that they want a bunch of big bureaucracies taking their hard-earned tax money and wasting it on a bunch of make-work projects around the country. So we think that government’s got to do that same thing that families do.” So you kind of hit that ideological wall. I’m sure that after about four or five of those sessions, at some point, I might say, “Look, guys, we have a history here dating back to the Great Depression,” and I might at that point try to introduce some strong policy arguments. What I can say unequivocally is that there has never been a time in which I did not say, “Look, you tell me how you want to do this. Give me a sense of how you want to approach it.”

A common criticism of the president is that he’s too cerebral; he doesn’t know how to appeal to self-interest and make a deal. He offers three responses to that charge.

First, Republicans did not think it was in their self-interest to negotiate at all. “During the health-care debate, you know, there was a point in time where, after having had multiple negotiations with [Iowa senator Chuck] Grassley … in exasperation I finally just said …, ‘Is there any form of health-care reform that you can support?’ and he shrugged and looked a little sheepish and said, ‘Probably not.'”

Second, Obama insists that he did work the phones. “It’s interesting, in 2011, when the left had really gotten irritated with me because of the budget negotiations, there was always this contrast between Obama and LBJ, who really worked Congress. But I tell you, those two weeks, that was full LBJ. I think [White House photographer] Pete Souza has a picture series of every meeting and phone call that I was making during the course of that, which is actually pretty fun to see.”


The president calling a Member of Congress on March 19, 2010

Third, a 21st century president just doesn’t have the bargaining tools that were available to an LBJ, not to mention an Abe Lincoln. “And one of the things that’s changed from the Johnson era obviously is I don’t have a postmaster job. … Good-government reforms have hamstrung an administration, which I think is for the most part for the best. But it means that what you’re really saying to them is, ‘This is the right thing to do and I’ll come to your fund-raiser in Podunk and I will make sure that I’ve got your back.'”

I’d add that not only patronage but the whole legislative process has changed in ways that reduce a president’s ability to deal transactionally with Members of Congress. Just to name one change, Congress now sends relatively few bills to the president, and they tend to be omnibus compromises that he more or less has to sign. Thus he can’t use a targeted veto threat to get a Member’s vote. Johnson received about eight times more bills from Congress than Obama gets.

The president is good at understanding and addressing differences of principle. For instance, “[Former congressman] Bart Stupak was a very sincere, pro-life legislator and a Democrat, a really good man who worked really hard with me to try to get to yes and ended up getting there, working along with Sister Carol [Keehan], the head of the Catholic hospitals, despite strong opposition from the Catholic bishops. So in some cases there really were legitimate difficulties, substantive issues that had to be worked through.”

The president has not been as successful at winning zero-sum negotiations, but I have often felt that he’s played a weak hand pretty well.

Krugman evolves

In today’s column, Paul Krugman defends president Obama as “an extremely consequential president, doing more to advance the progressive agenda than anyone since L.B.J.” Krugman challenges “the persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor.” He rejects the premise that a “sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions.” Obama’s achievements, Krugman says, “have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality.” And that, Krugman argues, is the only way change happens in our system.

Between 2008 and 2010, I wrote a dozen posts and a Huffington Post piece defending President Obama against Krugman’s persistent critiques from the left. Then Krugman argued that we were in serious trouble because we had been “governed by people with the wrong ideas.” Obama should have challenged Republicans’ ideas with much stronger and more effective rhetoric in order to change public opinion. Instead, the president compromised on his progressive stance, and therefore Americans did not understand their options. Communication was everything for Krugman in those days. One column alone included these phrases: “What Mr. Obama should have said… Mr. Obama could and should be hammering Republicans… There were no catchy slogans, no clear statements of principle.” The president “has the bully pulpit,” but it will be worthless unless he “can find it within himself … to actually take a stand.”

Now Krugman says that it has never worked to try to shift public opinion dramatically to achieve radical policy. “Even F.D.R., who rode the depths of the Great Depression to a huge majority, had to be politically pragmatic, working not just with special interest groups but also with Southern racists.”

I absolutely do not blame Krugman for changing his mind. I am not calling him on an inconsistency here. He is doing what any intelligent person should do: intently studying the unfolding of history and forming and revising his opinions. My views have also changed since 2008, and if they hadn’t, I would be ashamed of my pig-headedness. I call attention to Krugman’s evolved views because they provide a kind of evidence in favor of one view of American politics. A Nobel-laureate economist with a very sharp eye for politics has tried out a couple of hypotheses, and the accumulated evidence as of 2016 leads him to endorse the strategies of Barack Obama ca. 2008-10.

the State of the Union’s peroration on citizenship

The President concluded his final State of the Union address with a rousing statement about citizenship. That was appropriate, because he has done the same thing in almost all of his most important speeches, including the 2004 Democratic Convention speech that launched his national career, his kickoff address announcing his candidacy for president in 2007, and both inaugural addresses. For the record, I past below the fold an anthology of Barack Obama’s strongest statements on the theme of citizenship (1988-2016), culminating with last night’s SOTU. I will be especially interested to hear what he says on this topic once he is out of the Oval Office and beginning the career of nongovernmental citizenship that he hinted at last night.

Writing about community organizing in 1988

Community organizing reveals the “internal productive capacities, both in terms of money and people, that already exist in communities.”  It “enables people to break their crippling isolation from each other, to reshape their mutual values and expectations and rediscover the possibilities of acting collaboratively—the prerequisites of any successful self-help initiative.” For organizers, the process “teaches as nothing else does the beauty and strength of everyday people.”

Launching his candidacy in Springfield, IL on February 10, 2007

“And after a time, I came to understand that our cherished rights of liberty and equality depend on the active participation of an awakened electorate. (Cheers.)” …

That’s why this campaign can’t only be about me. It must be about us. It must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle of your hopes and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy and your advice to push us forward when we’re doing right and let us know when we’re not.

This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change. (Cheers.) …

That is our purpose here today. That is why I’m in this race, not just to hold an office but to gather with you to transform a nation. (Cheers.) …

I want us to take up the unfinished business of perfecting our Union and building a better America. (Cheers.) And if you will join with me in this improbable quest, if you feel destiny calling and see, as I see, the future of endless possibilities stretching out before us, if you sense, as I sense, that the time is now to shake off our slumber and slough off our fears and make good on the debt we owe past and future generations, then I am ready to take up the cause and march with you and work with you. (Cheers.) Today, together, we can finish the work that needs to be done and usher in a new birth of freedom on this earth. …

3/19/2007 CNN, Larry King Live, answering a question about Michelle Obama:

“She’s very interested in getting young people involved civically. She ran one of these AmeriCorps programs, called “Public Allies” in Chicago that helped young people connect with public service work and get leadership training. And so, she’s really big on encouraging people to get involved in their communities. And I think that’s something that she would be likely to continue if she were in the White House.

12/05/2007, Mt. Vernon, IA “Obama Issues Call to Serve, Vows to Make National Service Important Cause of His Presidency”

[as a community organizer] I found that you could do your part to see that – in the words of Dr. King – it “bends toward justice.” In church basements and around kitchen tables, block by block, we brought the community together, registered new voters, fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity.

Eventually, I realized I wasn’t just helping other people. Through service, I found a community that embraced me; a church to belong to; citizenship that was meaningful; the direction I’d been seeking. Through service, I found that my own improbable story fit into a larger American story.”

From a transcript: “I have no doubt that in the face of impossible odds people who love their country can change it. But I hold no illusions that one man or woman can do this alone. That’s why my campaign has called nearly 400,000 Americans to a common purpose. That’s why I’m reaching out to Democrats, and also to Independents and Republicans. And that is why I won’t just ask for your vote as a candidate; I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency.”

06/30/2008, Independence, MO, Remarks of Senator Barack Obama:

“In spite of this absence of leadership from Washington, I have seen a new generation of Americans begin to take up the call. I meet them everywhere I go, young people involved in the project of American renewal; not only those who have signed up to fight for our country in distant lands, but those who are fighting for a better America here at home, by teaching in underserved schools, or caring for the sick in understaffed hospitals, or promoting more sustainable energy policies in their local communities.

I believe one of the tasks of the next Administration is to ensure that this movement towards service grows and sustains itself in the years to come. We should expand AmeriCorps and grow the Peace Corps. We should encourage national service by making it part of the requirement for a new college assistance program, even as we strengthen the benefits for those whose sense of duty has already led them to serve in our military.

We must remember, though, that true patriotism cannot be forced or legislated with a mere set of government programs. Instead, it must reside in the hearts of our people, and cultivated in the heart of our culture, and nurtured in the hearts of our children.

As we begin our fourth century as a nation, it is easy to take the extraordinary nature of America for granted. But it is our responsibility as Americans and as parents to instill that history in our children, both at home and at school. The loss of quality civic education from so many of our classrooms has left too many young Americans without the most basic knowledge of who our forefathers are, or what they did, or the significance of the founding documents that bear their names. Too many children are ignorant of the sheer effort, the risks and sacrifices made by previous generations, to ensure that this country survived war and depression; through the great struggles for civil, and social, and worker’s rights.

And it is up to us to teach our children a lesson that those of us in politics too often forget: that patriotism involves not only defending this country against external threat, but also working constantly to make America a better place for future generations.”

09/12/2008 New York, NY:

Every American can give back to their communities and help their fellow citizens through service,” said Senator Obama. “Many Americans serve their nation through military service. Others serve by volunteering in schools, shelters, churches, hospitals, and disaster relief efforts. Still more are firefighters, teachers, or police officers. As a young man, I served as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where I learned ways to create opportunities for other people to achieve their dreams. Our nation faces serious challenges in its neighborhoods and schools, and we must empower Americans with the resources they need to give back and improve their communities. I am proud to support this legislation and I commend Chairman Kennedy for his continued leadership in opening doors for public service opportunities.

04/29/2009 Town Hall Meeting, Arnold, MO:

We’re living through extraordinary times. We didn’t ask for all the challenges that we face, but we’re determined to answer the call to meet them. That’s the spirit I see everywhere I go. That’s the spirit we need to sustain, because the answer to our problems will ultimately be found in the character of the American people. We need soldiers and diplomats, scientists, teachers, workers, entrepreneurs. We need your service. We need your active citizenship.

01/21/2009 Remarks by the President in Welcoming Senior Staff and Cabinet Secretaries to the White House:

Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that’s why, as of today, I’m directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans — scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs — because the way to solve the problem of our time is — the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.

 Memorandum issued the first day in office (2009) “Transparency and Open Government.”

Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. … Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information. …Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.

Accepting the Democratic nomination in 2012

But we also believe in something called citizenship — (cheers, applause) — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.


We don’t think the government can solve all of our problems, but we don’t think the government is the source of all of our problems — (cheers, applause) — any more than our welfare recipients or corporations or unions or immigrants or gays or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles — (cheers, applause) — because — because America, we understand that this democracy is ours.

We, the people — (cheers) — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense. (Cheers, applause.)

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together — (cheers, applause) — through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. (Cheers, applause.) My fellow citizens — you were the change. (Cheers, applause.)

State of the Union Address, 2014

Tonight, this chamber speaks with one voice to the people we represent: it is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong. …

After all, that’s the spirit that has always moved this nation forward.  It’s the spirit of citizenship – the recognition that through hard work and responsibility, we can pursue our individual dreams, but still come together as one American family to make sure the next generation can pursue its dreams as well.

Citizenship means standing up for everyone’s right to vote.  Last year, part of the Voting Rights Act was weakened.  But conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are working together to strengthen it; and the bipartisan commission I appointed last year has offered reforms so that no one has to wait more than a half hour to vote.  Let’s support these efforts.  It should be the power of our vote, not the size of our bank account, that drives our democracy.

Citizenship means standing up for the lives that gun violence steals from us each day.  I have seen the courage of parents, students, pastors, and police officers all over this country who say “we are not afraid,” and I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook.

Citizenship demands a sense of common cause; participation in the hard work of self-government; an obligation to serve to our communities.  And I know this chamber agrees that few Americans give more to their country than our diplomats and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces.

State of the Union Address, 2016

But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.

So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day. …

I see them everywhere I travel in this incredible country of ours. I see you. I know you’re there. You’re the reason why I have such incredible confidence in our future. Because I see your quiet, sturdy citizenship all the time.

missing the civic empowerment messages of a Pope and a President

Michelle Boorstein compares the enthusiastic responses to Pope Francis in 2015 and Barack Obama in 2008 and collects several explanations for both:

  1. People have “an undeniable, sweeping affinity, a gut reaction to a new leader to whom we attach huge expectations …,  even though most Americans don’t know much about Francis.”
  2. “Does the pope’s all-embracing commentary, which seems to exclude no one, have particular resonance in an increasingly diverse country?”
  3. Does “Francis offer people hope of rescue with his confident proclamations about what needs to be done to fix the world? Cartoonists and graffiti artists have often drawn him as a caped superhero.”
  4. “Francis is an accessible father figure at the helm of one of the world’s largest organizations.”
  5. “People love the blank slate.”

Let me suggest an alternative. Both the president and the Pope talk explicitly about how we, active citizens, can and must address problems. These two men may have been caricatured as caped superheroes, but they are as clear as one can be that they are not the solutions to our problems; we are.

This was the main theme of Obama’s Springfield speech announcing his candidacy in 2007, an important note in his Grant Park speech on Election Night 2008, and a recurrent topic throughout the campaign. When he accepted the Democratic nomination in 2012, he put it concisely: “As citizens,” Obama said, “we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.” I have collected many more similar quotes here.

As for the Holy Father, he said recently, “the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.”

I believe that people hear and are moved by these invocations of their power, agency, and responsibility. They do not treat Obama and the Pope as blank slates or as accessible personalities; they feel moved to take action.

Meanwhile, the press completely ignores these leaders’ talk of civic engagement. That theme was never covered in the 2008 presidential campaign, and no one mentions it when they cover the Pope. Obama’s critics especially misunderstand his civic appeal, thinking that it is narcissistic. (“We are the ones we have been waiting for” is literally misheard as “I am the one you have been waiting for”). And we see basically patronizing explanations of why these leaders strike a chord.

See also how to respond to a leader’s call for civic renewal; the encyclical Laudato Si and the power of peoples to organize; and Taking the President Seriously About Citizenship.

Citizen, Renew Thyself

I tend to think that the most fundamental question in political philosophy is whether we need a state and what sort of thing that is. (In political theory it’s how we got a state and what we should do with it.) Peter Levine recently asked a related question: what should we do when political leaders call for civic renewal?

It’s kind of a confusing question: where do citizen-elected leaders get the authority to ask us to be better citizens? What’s clear is that we frequently ignore such calls: as a candidate in 2007 and 2008, Barack Obama’s calls for citizen action were quickly channeled into the traditional Democratic electoral machine, and today Pope Francis’s calls for the same will have to be channeled through the steering and transmission mechanisms of the Catholic Church. I’d say perhaps we even ought to ignore them, for all the reasons that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” capture. A citizens movement doesn’t have to be leaderless, but the kinds of leaders ensconced at the top of large institutions are not well-suited to be the leaders of civic renewal movements. They can inspire and celebrate such movements, but neither Barack Obama nor Bernie Sanders nor Pope Francis can lead them. Their institutional authority appears to be inimical to the very bottom-up power they’re trying to engender.

Part of the issue here is that I have a strong anti-electoral-politics bias. I worry about the ways that elections serve to blunt citizen action and legitimate state power. I worry about the ways that elections polarize us. I worry about the ways that elections create heroic narratives of individual politicians come to save us. And so I tend to think that civic renewal must de-emphasize the importance of elections and partisanship.

Another issue is money. Peter watched throughout his life as US elections have been swamped by money and he has actively fought against it; I’m a bit younger and it seems that’s always been the case and that the battles were always destined to be losing ones. One can *almost* imagine a civic renewal movement that takes up this problem explicitly and campaigns for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and re-assert some form of campaign finance restrictions… but given the size of the country and the difficulty in amending the constitution, it would (ironically) have to be an extraordinarily well-funded campaign to end well-funded campaigns.

We might instead choose to devote those resources to responding to a specific policy demand, for instance Pope Francis’s call in Laudatio Si’ that we organize and protest for climate change. This is much more exciting for me, in part because of the demand for substantive rather than procedural policy changes, and in part because the focused attention to a political project seems to offer more hope for procedural changes along the way than a procedural project would offer substantive side effects.

In the encyclical itself, Pope Francis mostly calls for dialogue and education, which strikes me as appropriate for his position but inadequate to the need. In public comments he has called for direct, citizen-led action, however, and the encyclical also hints at it as an expression of “social love”:

Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world. Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also “macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones”. That is why the Church set before the world the ideal of a “civilization of love”. Social love is the key to authentic development: “In order to make society more human, more worthy of the human person, love in social life – political, economic and cultural – must be given renewed value, becoming the constant and highest norm for all activity”. In this framework, along with the importance of little everyday gestures, social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society. When we feel that God is calling us to intervene with others in these social dynamics, we should realize that this too is part of our spirituality, which is an exercise of charity and, as such, matures and sanctifies us.

I’ve written at length about the difficulties of importing the Christian conception of caritas into the public sphere, so I won’t belabor that point here. But surely this is divine demand for intervention is an important substantive claim: as more and more religious organizations have realized, the global and international role of faith and religious solidarity means that they cannot be satisfied by the politics of nation-states, and the cross-cutting relationships that faith can make a space for are not necessarily anti-political. Even for people of faith, our treasures do not entirely lie in Heaven: we must organize to be efficacious in particular policy arenas and to be effective this organization will have to both deeply rooted in the specifics of the faith and simultaneously ecumenical.

Organizing for a cause, citizens often learn that political contestation and civic engagement is intrinsically rewarding. But it suffers from the same teleological paradox as other such goods: the telos of an engaged citizenry requires that engagement serve as a meaningful means to some other end. As is often the case, it comes back to Hannah Arendt for me: we must wrestle with our fellow citizens in the public sphere on matters of shared concern to live flourishing lives, yet when we engage we must do so for some other, particular reason.

As terrible as the threat of climate change might be, it gives me some hope that it might force us to rediscover the revolutionary treasure that is often lost in amillenial times.

Obama faces the new organizers

Peter Dreier has a great piece on President Obama’s background as a community organizer. The priceless photograph above comes from Dreier’s article. I also explore this aspect of the president’s past in We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, pp. 152-161.

Dreier writes, “But Obama seemed to abandon his affinity for organizing soon after he entered the White House. He tried to be a consensus-builder, eschewing conflict, even with those in Congress and in corporate boardrooms who pledged not only to defeat his policy agenda but also to undermine his legitimacy as president.”

Indeed, Obama’s consensus-building contrasts with the confrontational style of community organizing that he employed on occasion in Chicago in the 1980s and that he faced recently when he met a group of young leaders in the White House. As movingly recalled by Phillip Agnew, the White House meeting was a frank exchange between “a community in active struggle against state sanctioned killing, violence and repression” (on one side) and the leader of that very state, the former community organizer turned POTUS (on the other). Agnew concludes:

We walked out of that meeting unbought and unbowed. We held no punches. There was no code-switching or bootlicking; no concessions, politicking or posturing. The movement got this meeting. Unrest earned this invite, and we can’t stop.

If we don’t get what we came for, we will shut it down. President Obama knows that and we know it. No meeting can stop that.

I’d only complicate the contrast in one way. Obama was trained in confrontational tactics but also in relational organizing. Frank C. Pierson, who is an Industrial Areas Foundation organizer in Durham, NC, says that the IAF network’s “relational culture is characterized by positive valuation of relationships themselves as well as the capacity for collaborative action they generate.  Relationships tested in the crucible of public action when sustained over time can forge lasting political friendships within, between and outside IAF organizations.” Scott Reed, the executive director of the PICO organizing network, told me recently that he and his colleagues strive “to develop relational capital.” The veteran organizer Gerald Taylor recalls the reason that a Maryland IAF affiliate called BUILD defeated the NRA:

Thousands of people were talked with and listened to. Questions about the nature of community and the relative merits of a law that was not perfect were discussed. In short, people were taken seriously as citizens.

BUILD members met with Senator Paul Sarbanes, who asked them their “demands.” “‘None,’ they responded, to the senator’s amazement. ‘We came here to find out what your interests are: Why you ran for this office and what you hope to achieve.”

Relational organizers do not value all relationships equally, but they treat the development of a new relationship as an asset even if it involves an adversary. This is why the relational approach is sometimes called “broad-based” (as opposed to “issue-based”) organizing. Obama likewise observed in 2007 that “politics” usually means shouting matches on TV. But “when politics gets local, when the person talking to you is your neighbor standing on your front porch, things change.” In that speech, he called for “dialogues” in every community on Iraq, health care, and climate change.

Note that the diagram that a younger Barack Obama is drawing on the chalkboard (above) is a relationship map. It shows problematic relationships among banks, utilities, and other powerful entities; but if he applied relational organizing techniques, he was about to add citizen groups to the same diagram. After all, he wrote at length as a young organizer about the “internal productive capacities, both in terms of money and people, that already exist in communities.” He was, in fact, a practitioner of Asset Based Community Development, which emphasizes the power and resources already present in marginalized neighborhoods.

Confrontation is not incompatible with relationship-building or a positive assessment of community assets. Any robust movement will combine these approaches and will debate the relative importance of each at every moment. I believe that confrontation is necessary and helpful at the current juncture. But I think that Obama has used something of a mix himself, as president. And when he has elected to build consensus, that too comes from his experience as a community organizer.

*Frances Moore Lappe, “Politics for a Troubled Planet” (1993), pp. 175-6

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the Left between Obama and Hillary Clinton

Let’s define “the Left” as thinkers and organizational leaders who are open to voting for Democratic candidates but generally critical of the party, holding more radical policy objectives than elected Democrats do.

The Left has had plenty of reason to criticize the Obama Administration: the president does not fully share its the goals and priorities. I have tended to defend the administration, both because my objectives are closer to the President’s and also because I think he has consistently accomplished more than they have given him credit for. I detect a tendency to overestimate the importance of presidential rhetoric (Obama’s being relatively moderate) while overlooking concrete and tangible victories for poor people. (See, e.g., “Obama Cares. Look at the Numbers” by But the president and his appointees have also at times given unnecessary offense to the Left; and the Left is entitled to be critical of an administration that is not actually Leftist.

Now the Obama Administration has just two years to run, and the overwhelming favorite to lead the Democratic Party is Hillary Clinton. She is her own person and should not be automatically equated with her husband. But I believe that both the Clinton presidency and Hillary Clinton’s own record in the Senate and the State Department suggest that she would stand at least somewhat to the right of Barack Obama. I have therefore always found Clinton nostalgia among members of the Left very strange and discomfiting. You can criticize the current president from the Left, but it seems completely mistaken to prefer his Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Opinion is beginning to shift. For instance, from 2009 until a few months ago, Paul Krugman was generally a strong critic of the president. I yield to Krugman on all economic matters but argued (e.g., in the Huffington Post, 2010) that his political analysis was off. In any case, it interests me he seems to have revised his estimation. For instance,

One explanation may simply be that more data is in. It was unclear ca. 2010–and seemed unlikely–that the Obama Administration was advancing progressive policy goals, but now we can see that progress was made. In that case, Paul Krugman’s change of tone is the result of having more information.

Meanwhile, we are beginning to see signs that Hillary Clinton will tangle with the Left. According to the Amy Chozick in the New York Times, “Without discussing her 2016 plans, she has talked to friends and donors in business about how to tackle income inequality without alienating businesses or castigating the wealthy. That message would likely be less populist and more pro-growth, less about inversions and more about corporate tax reform, less about raising the minimum wage and more long-term job creation, said two people with firsthand knowledge of the discussions.”

Months ago, Ben White wrote in Politico:

“The darkest secret in the big money world of the Republican coastal elite is that the most palatable alternative to a nominee such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky would be Clinton, a familiar face on Wall Street following her tenure as a New York senator with relatively moderate views on taxation and financial regulation.  … ‘If it turns out to be Jeb versus Hillary we would love that and either outcome would be fine,’ one top Republican-leaning Wall Street lawyer said over lunch in midtown Manhattan last week. ‘We could live with either one. Jeb versus Joe Biden would also be fine. It’s Rand Paul or Ted Cruz versus someone like Elizabeth Warren that would be everybody’s worst nightmare.’ … Most top GOP fundraisers and donors on Wall Street won’t say this kind of thing on the record for fear of heavy blowback from party officials, as well as supporters of Cruz and Rand Paul. Few want to acknowledge publicly that the Democratic front-runner fills them with less dread than some Republican 2016 hopefuls.  …

And the Left is beginning to get openly restive. According to Alexandra Jaffe in The Hill,  “’[A] Clinton presidency undos [sic] all our progress and returns the financial interests to even more prominence than they currently have,’ Melissa Byrne, an activist with the Occupy Wall Street movement, said in a November 2013 email.” The same article quotes the political consultant Mike Lux, who says, “I also came to know how close she was to the pro-Wall Street forces inside the administration and out, and the downsides on foreign policy are all very real. So I will hesitate for a long time before jumping into her campaign.”

How will the Left respond to the Clinton campaign, especially considering that she is very popular among voters who consider themselves progressive and is the first woman to have a serious shot at the presidency? How will the Left manage if four years of a conservative Democrat follow eight years of a moderate Democrat? And how will the Left describe and use the legacy of Barack Obama in years to come?

I am not interested in these questions because of the potential impact on two individuals, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I am concerned about the condition of the Left as a countervailing force in American politics. The near future will be a difficult time.

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my Fox News piece on ObamaCare

In lieu of a substantive post here today, I’ll link to my own op-ed (on the somewhat unlikely venue of FoxNews.com), entitled “ObamaCare and America’s youth — why lessons of 2014 will last a lifetime.” I argue that the big question is what ideological conclusion the Millennials draw from ObamaCare, because their fundamental political orientation will be set in their youth. If the Millennials decide that Obamacare was a fiasco, they’ll move right. If they conclude that it worked as designed, it will boost the technocratic center-left of Clinton and Obama. But they could decide that it was a tool for citizen groups to increase coverage and cut costs–a participatory democratic lesson. That would require that we tell a different story about ObamaCare and that we strengthen the actual participatory elements of the Act.

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the president and the humanities

At a General Electric plant in Milwaukee last month, President Obama seemed to disparage one of the disciplines of the humanities:

“I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” the president said. “Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree. I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying, you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education, as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.”

After receiving a critical email from University of Texas art historian Ann Collins Johns, the president replied to her with a hand-written apology, shown below. It’s a polite and disarming note. I suspect the president immediately regretted his comment about art history and was looking for a chance to address it.

Especially given his note, I do not want to add criticism of the president, personally. However, the administration’s educational policy does favor the applied sciences and engineering over the humanities. Moreover, in his note, the president reinforces the idea that the humanities are basically about appreciating the higher things of life; they are aesthetic disciplines. He writes, “As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.”

One sees this equation of the humanities with beauty all the time. Just last week, in the Atlantic, Olga Khazan cited Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Paul Cézanne as examples of geniuses in “the humanities.” Very few people seem to understand that the humanities are scholarly disciplines aimed at understanding a wide range of human phenomena. They are not about making or appreciating beauty. (See my post on “what are the humanities?”)

I do believe that you can often enjoy a work of art much more if you understand it as the solution to problems of its own time. This is something that art historians can teach you. I have made this argument in relation to Memling and to the city of Venice, among other examples on this blog. Thus the president probably did come to enjoy art more when he studied art history. However, enjoyment is not the purpose of the discipline; we do not call it “art appreciation.” As long as people believe that the humanities are about enhancing pleasure, they will not consider them an important investment in tough economic times.

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