Public Opinion and Social Influence

The presence of homophily is frequently found as a core feature of social networks. The principle that “similarity breeds connection” results in personal networks skewed towards homogeneity along numerous demographic and interpersonal lines (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001).

Festinger argues that homophily is a direct result of social influence: beliefs are only coherent through a process of social comparison and therefore people “tend to move into groups which, in their own judgment, hold opinions which agree with their own” (Festinger, 1954). The problem of embeddedness  – that people’s attempts at purposive action are embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations – is inherent in this argument.

Reviewing the literature on social comparison, Festinger finds that individuals’ beliefs are malleable to social influence because the beliefs of others serve as guideposts in forming one’s own opinion. Foreshadowing Sunstein’s ‘law of group polarization’ (Sunstein, 1999), Festinger argues that this process of forming beliefs through social comparison is a primary driver of what he calls “social quiescence” (Festinger, 1954). This in turn serves as a driver for homophily, as people self-select out of groups unable to reach social quiescence, instead selecting into groups that more appropriately “satisfy their drive for self evaluation.”

Within the political domain, Lazarsfeld pioneered an understanding of public opinion as a process of social influence: a process driven significantly by personal conversations and everyday talk. While earlier understandings took media to be the primary source of political information and influence (Lippmann, 1922), Lazarsfeld suggests a “two-step flow” of communication: ideas and opinions may originate in media, but they flow first to opinion leaders.

What we call public opinion is then formed in a second step when these leaders disseminate information along lines of social influence. Importantly, opinion leaders generally exert greater social power than media, due to the many “psychological advantages” personal contacts have in exerting political influence (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1948). These advantages include trust, conflict avoidance, and “persuasion without conviction,” e.g., the ability to actually take someone to the polls.

Perhaps most interesting for deliberative theory, however, is Lazarsfeld’s argument that “the weight of personal contacts upon opinion lies, paradoxically, in their greater casualness and non-purposiveness in political matters” (Lazarsfeld et al., 1948). In purposive political talk, individuals engage critically and intentionally, mentally prepared with “armor against influence.” Everyday talk, on the hand, catches us unprepared.

The passive exposure that comes from casual conversations presents a pervasive opportunity for powerful personal influence. We again see this argument manifest in Mutz and Mondak’s study of the workplace as a site for cross-cutting political dialogue. Workplaces may have a smaller proportion of political conversations than other settings, but the sheer volume of casual conversations makes workplaces as a key setting for political contact (Mutz, 2002).

Such public-minded talk ceased to be the sole purview of the Greek agorá long ago: when democracy is a way of living, as Dewey writes, even the most seemingly mundane sites of human interaction become critical elements of the deliberative system.


Political Engagement and The Busy Work Day

In ancient Greek philosophy, the role of citizen was both noble and consuming. You couldn’t be a laborer and a citizen, you couldn’t engage in mundane work and be a citizen. Being a citizen was a full-time endeavor, it involved keeping up on the news, participating in your community, and being informed enough to wisely rule over all those non-citizens who actually made the world work.

Our sensibilities have grown a bit more egalitarian – engaged citizenship is no longer the sole purview of gentlemen of leisure. Anyone can be a citizen, and furthermore – everyone has the right and responsibility to engage as in the work of collective rule.

But while I fully support this inclusive vision of citizenship, it does come saddled with the jaunty air of trying to have it all.

Citizenship is hard. It is a full time job. Especially now with our 24-hour news cycles and better connected world, it is literally impossible to stay perfectly informed on every subject – much less spend time thoughtfully debating and reflecting on them.

In Michael Neblo’s book “Deliberative Democracy between Theory and Practice,” I was struck by a statistic mentioned near the end of his analysis: in one survey, he finds that 42% of respondents felt they “didn’t know enough to participate” in a deliberative session. I’m fairly certain I’ve seem similar statistics around voting and jury participation, though I’m afraid I don’t have the wherewithal to track those down right now.

The current challenge of engaged citizenship isn’t just one of apathetic citizens, too unenthused to exercise their rights – it’s one of under-confidence in one’s own ability to learn, think, and engage critically and productively.

Some of this, I feel, comes from the increasing professionalization within the civic space: why muck up the works when people who really know what they’re doing are involved? But I think some this all comes from this “having it all” notion of citizenship.

Of course, I want engaged citizens to be informed and reflective – but perhaps we need a better bar of what it means to be informed. I watch, listen to, and read the news regularly, and yet I often find myself feeling badly that I am not more informed. Unlike an ideal Athenian, I’ve just got other things to do.

But below that over optimistic bar of ideal citizen and above that disconcerting low of fake news, it’s entirely unclear to me just what the informational habits of a good citizen ought to be in a world that is more crazed than ideal.


Reputation Mechanisms and the Civics Economy

In my Network Economics class, we’ve been talking about the “sharing economy” (or, arguably, the “so-called sharing economy”). Companies like Uber, AirBnB, even Ebay and the 3rd party seller mechanism of Amazon. While these companies arguably open the door for regulation loopholes and worker exploitation, in their purest, ideal, form, they allow “average people” to benefit from their unused resources: people can make some extra money driving strangers, hosting strangers, or selling miscellaneous items to strangers. In return, other average people can get rides, places to stay, or miscellaneous items.

Personally, I have a lot of questions and skepticism around the “sharing economy,” but that debate isn’t the point of my post today.

One of the core ideas that supports the sharing economy is a reputation system. The sharing economy wouldn’t work without it. It takes trust to get into a stranger’s car, stay in a stranger’s house, or send money to a stranger – and that trust is generated by a reputation system.

These markets are able facilitate exchange between strangers because participants in the system have a reputation – and upholding that reputation is worth more then the temporary gain of ripping someone off.

To be clear, reputation systems aren’t anything new – you trust a bank because it’s FDIC insured, you trust a hotel because it has a certain star-rating, and you trust a company because it, too, has a reputation to maintain in the broader market.

But what’s interesting about the modern reputation systems is that they tend to me much more individual. It is not institutions or brands earning your trust, but real, individual people.

In theory, a service like AirBnB doesn’t even have to be about monetary exchange – with a solid reputation system in place, people could use it as a place to earn and spend hosting credits, or to otherwise barter for a cheap place to stay.

Fundamentally, a reputation system is a way to quickly establish trust between people who wouldn’t otherwise have the personal history required for a trusting relationship.

Regardless of how you feel about the impacts of the sharing economy, I find this particular mechanism fascinating. And, as I am so often inclined to do, that interest immediate makes me wonder: what would this look like in a civic system?

That question could go in a lot of different directions, it it’s interesting to think about how such a system might play out:

A reputation system for good deliberators; where people who listen and provide rational arguments are rated highly while trolls are pushed to the margins.

A reputation system for urban developers; where developers who genuinely listen to community input are rated highlight and those just looking for profit are down rated.

A reputation system for every day, neighborly interactions: don’t know your neighbors but need to borrow a cup of sugar? Find out who in your neighborhood doesn’t mind being asked. …Do people still borrow a cup of sugar from their neighbors? I imagine not because people don’t know their neighbors and don’t know who to ask.

I can imagine other sorts of reputation systems which spill into the sharing economy as it exists today: a reputation system for finding a place to crash or getting a ride from the airport. These systems have the dangerous potential to turn into little more than corporate scheming to evade regulation – but taking primarily as a reputation system with a civic mission, it seems like such organization could have beneficial potential.


Make America Bowl Again

American civil society has really gone downhill since the 1950s. People used to belong to unions, fraternal societies, PTAs, bowling leagues. Now, self-absorbed and disconnected, they instead go bowling alone. Robert Putnam argues that these metrics of social capital – group membership, trust – even informal sociability – are deeply important to the civic health of a society. He presents a reasonable case that there is some correlation between group membership and civic health, finding that the latter correlates to a wide range of educational outcomes (Putnam, 2002) and that, more broadly, “the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions…are indeed powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement” (Putnam, 1995). This is a deeply important topic and Putnam is right to give it careful attention, yet his analysis continually glosses over questions of what qualifies as civic health and who gets to participate in the creation of social capital.

Perhaps most notably, Putnam’s definition of civic health places a heavy emphasis on social and institutional trust. As Putnam argues, social trust is a deeply beneficial good which is strongly correlated with civic engagement. Intuitively, this correlation makes sense – there’s no reason to participate in a process if you don’t trust the outcome, and you probably don’t want to spend your social time with people you don’t trust. Furthermore, potential eroders of social capital may be ameliorated by trust: both adults in a two-parent household cannot possibly be fully civically engaged if they do not periodically entrust someone with caring for their children.

Putnam, however, brings his faith in ‘trust’ as a positive social determinant too far. He takes for granted that social trust is intrinsically good, that it always serves to build better societies. A Burkean, however, would quickly find a critical flaw in this argument. As Cass Sunstein explains, Edmund Burke, the great conservative traditionalist, objects to “passionate movements that start political or social life from the ground up,” arguing that the “spirit of innovation” is the result of “a selfish temper and confined views” (Sunstein, 2009). In other words, Burke trusts past wisdom at expense of current knowledge. While Putnam values trust in current social institutions, Burke warns that these institutions may become corrupt. Trust in a good government may be good; but trust in a bad government can be devastating. Consider also Shanker Satyanath’s work on the rise of the Nazi party in pre-war Germany. It wasn’t a weak civil society which allowed fascism to flourish, rather it was the very traits Putnam praises. Indeed, as Satyanath et al. argue, it was “Germany’s vibrant ‘civic society,’ its dense network of social clubs and associations” which “facilitated the rise of Hitler by bringing more people into contact with his party’s message” (Satyanath, Voigtlaender, & Voth, 2013).

Furthermore, despite his protestations to the contrary, Putnam’s grim picture of the United States as a once-great civic utopia is deeply misaligned with realities of race, class, and gender. While tracing the tragic decline of civic engagement, Putnam pays little attention to inequities in access to engagement. He should be deeply alarmed to find that people without college experience – nearly half the population, in which people of color are strongly over-represented – are virtually shut out from civic life (Godsay, Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kiesa, & and Levine, 2012), a disparity which likely indicates structural barriers rather than apathy or narcissism. This oversight may affect Putnam’s analysis in two dimensions. First, standard survey measures of “civic engagement” do not always capture the many ways in which poor people support their communities (Godsay et al., 2012). While Putnam sees a decline in positive responses to the General Social Survey question of “How often do you spend a social evening with a neighbor?” (Putnam, 1995), Godsay et al. find that acts of “neighboring,” such as sheltering and feeding other community members, were common among non-college youth. Such civic acts may not register as “social evenings,” and therefore may artificially deflate survey responses. But perhaps the most striking finding of Godsay et al. is that non-college youth did engage in civic life when given the opportunity (Godsay et al., 2012). It was not the case, as Putnam fears, that “deep-seated technological trends are radically ‘privatizing’ or ‘individualizing’ our use of leisure time” (Putnam, 1995). Indeed, the greatest barrier to the civic engagement of this segment of the population was something Putnam hadn’t even considered: they had never even been given opportunities to engage.

Putnam takes for granted that engagement in civil society is a right which all residents have the full capability to exercise. ‘Capability’ here can be understood in Martha Nussbaum’s sense of ‘substantial freedoms;’ capabilities “are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment” (Nussbaum, 2011). A person may have the ability to eat, but they don’t have the capability unless they have food. Similarly, civic scholars may agree that all people have the ability to engage as productive and valued members of civil society – but all people do not have this capability until they are all equally welcomed, encouraged, and celebrated for their contributions. In other words, what Putnam sees as a decline in civil society may have more to do with the broader context; rather than a problem of apathy, the increasing professionalization of civil society may undermine some citizen’s capabilities – may rob them of the knowledge that they, too, can contribute to the shared task of governing. This effect can be seen in people’s doubt of their own civic ability. In one survey, for example, Michael Neblo finds that 42% of Americans felt they “didn’t know enough to participate” in a deliberative session (Neblo, 2015).

None of this is to say that Putnam doesn’t make good points. Whether due to poor survey measures, disparities in civic capabilities, or even changes in mobility, family structure, or technology we should all be concerned with continually building a strong civil society. But Putnam is too quick to bemoan the past, to turn back the clock to a time when women stayed in the home and we all ate at segregated lunch counters. The Elks Lodge may have once been a great bastion of society, but now it’s a dingy reminder of a time when white men smoked cigars and congratulated themselves for saving the world. Perhaps, like Burke, we should put some trust in the wisdom of the past, but we would be blind to follow Putnam in putting that trust in the present. We shouldn’t be shaming people for not participating in survey-ready forms of engagement; we should be reminding them that governance is a shared activity; that we have a right and responsibility to engage; and that resistance is a worthy civic undertaking. But most of all, we need to convince people – perhaps, even, to convince ourselves – that our perspectives, actions, and voices matter. Our engagement matters.

Godsay, S., Kawashima-Ginsberg, K., Kiesa, A., & and Levine, P. (2012). “That’s not democracy,” How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life.

Neblo, M. A. (2015). Deliberative Democracy Between Theory and Practice: Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating capabilities: Harvard University Press.

Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of democracy, 6(1), 65-78.

Putnam, R. D. (2002). Community-based social capital and educational performance. Making good citizens: Education and civil society.

Satyanath, S., Voigtlaender, N., & Voth, H.-J. (2013). Bowling for fascism: social capital and the rise of the Nazi Party. Retrieved from

Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Going to extremes: How like minds unite and divide: Oxford University Press.



Economics and Deliberation

I have been doing some initial work around epistemic networks – conceptual networks which model the way an individual reasons. Considered in this way, deliberation is more than a dyadic exchange between individuals, it is a networked exchange of ideas. The core idea here is that the structure of such networks could have implications for deliberation – potentially affecting whether someone makes a good deliberator or whether two or more people are able to deliberate at all.

I’ve found a lot of interesting overlaps between this work and concepts I am learning in my Network Economics course. To be clear, ‘economics’ is about a lot more than money – some of us would even argue that it isn’t about money at all.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines economics as dealing with “the production, distribution, consumption, and transfer of wealth,” but – critically – the word ‘wealth’ is left undefined here. At it’s broadest, then, economics is fundamentally about how people create and share things which they value.

Hayek argues that the brilliance of the free market is that a market’s equilibrium price is a simple, one-dimensional heuristic which elegantly captures complex interactions between different people’s resources and desires. While one may disagree with his argument on a number of grounds – meeting this market ideal, for example, relies on all participants having perfect knowledge – the very basis of his argument highlights that people have different needs and values. Price, or more generally money, is simply a convenient stand-in for more complex dynamics.

A key problem here is that not all values are remotely comparable. Perhaps price serves as a reasonable moderator for the supply and demand of products, but then how does one leverage this heuristic for things which are ‘priceless;’ for things which ‘money can’t buy?’ Clearly there are other levers of value which aren’t captured in this simple heuristic.

Perhaps, then, to consider deliberation in economics terms, it is worth first asking what worth is produced, distributed, consumed, or transferred through the process of deliberation.

In considering deliberation, one could consider the value individual participants might derive: you learn new things, you meet new people, you obtain pleasure from participating in the democratic process. All of these examples are real products of value which deliberators receive, yet it all sounds a little hand-ravingly optimistic. “People will be good citizens because they’ll enjoy being good citizens” doesn’t strike me as a particularly compelling argument.

One can also argue that a person derives more concretely utilitarian benefits from participating in public deliberation. If you have an opinion on what the community should do about your neighborhood park, there is a direct value in stating that view and rallying others to agreement. This, again, is a real value which deliberation can provide, but it starts to feel a little grimly utilitarian: deliberation as a pathway for manipulation isn’t exactly what I’m going for either.

I could also appeal to the collective benefit of deliberation. Indeed, one the most striking things about deliberation is that it creates a value which was not there before and which could not have come into existence otherwise. Deliberation is a space for “co-creation” for working together in ways which lead to emergent solutions. This is perhaps the highest benefit of deliberation – as diverse perspectives and experiences allow a group to develop better solutions to collective problems than the could have otherwise devised.

Yet, this too, is perhaps not enough value to indicate why a person should participate in deliberation. Given solely this collective framework, it is arguable best to free ride and let others undertake the hard work of find solutions.

Ultimately, I think, the true value of deliberation comes from some combination of the above. It leads to better solutions and outcomes, creating a public good, but it also leads to individual value. And that value isn’t simply the joy of meeting someone new or the utility derived from getting your way.

Deliberation fundamentally changes you.

It changes the way you think and the way you reason in subtle but powerful ways. I sometimes think of learning as a process of sand accumulating on a beach – each new wave brings something with it, but not everything really sticks; some just washes back out to sea. Each new wave also changes the detailed contours of the beach; in ways that are effected by past contours and with repercussions that will last through future contours.

Living is a process of becoming; a processes of continually becoming who you are. Deliberation helps us solve problems and has the potential for tremendous public good; but ultimately the true value derived from deliberation is that we co-create ourselves. We learn who were are in an emergent, evolving way; and that learning isn’t an individualistic, solely-guided experience – it is a process that is fundamentally shaped by the people and context around you.

Without deliberation, without the process of learning, growing and co-creating with others, we would be nothing – just hollow shells, emptily fulfilling utilitarian functions. The value in deliberation is that we truly come to be.


You’re Probably Wrong: Group Polarization and Going to Extremes

In Going to Extremes, Cass Sunstein paints a grim picture. Men are prone to a variety of serious failings, and those failings only intensify through the processes of groups. Bolstering his argument, Sunstein points to numerous studies that have revealed humanity’s flaws. Stanley Milgram, for example, demonstrated that a majority of recruited participants could be convinced to administer what they thought were dangerously high shocks to an actor who responded with increasingly dramatic expressions of pain. “What Milgram revealed,” Sunstein writes, “is that the heuristic – in favor of obedience of apparently trusted authorities – does not always work well. In real-world cases, it leads to terrible moral errors” (Sunstein, 2009).

Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment similarly seems to reveal humanity’s darkness. Healthy, average participants were randomly assigned to serve as ‘prison guards’ or ‘inmates.’ Within days, the guards displayed “growing cruelty, aggression, and dehumanization,” while the prisoners – after an initial attempt at uprising – were crushed; becoming “subdued and ‘zombie-like’” (Sunstein, 2009). The simulation had grown so dire and grotesque that the experiment had to be ended early. After just 5 days. Sunstein summarizes the lessons learned from this dark look into human nature:

In pointing to the apparent normality of those involved in Nazi war crimes, Zimbardo gives a social science twist to Hannah Arendt’s claims about the ‘banality of evil.’ And in explaining what makes atrocities possible, Zimbardo places a large emphasis on deindividualization – a process by which both perpetrators and victims become essentially anonymous and are thereby transformed into a type or a role. (Sunstein, 2009)

For Sunstein, these studies highlight a deeper challenge. Human beings are embedded in a social context, and that context serves as a significant driver of individual actions and opinions. Hearing friends express a view makes a person socially inclined to express the same view. Deliberating groups tend towards extremism in the direction of the pre-deliberation median because nobody wants to take the social risk of expressing an unpopular view. College students playing prison guards give each other permission – or may even encourage each other – to act in increasingly horrific ways. We each take our cues from the social context we’re embedded in; a problematic heuristic because the signals we receive are so often morally or factually wrong.

This presents a potentially paralyzing conundrum: if your own perceptions and opinions are merely a product of your social environment, how can you ever know what is truly good or right? Sunstein offers a small prescription of hope, arguing that “many human beings are able to resist situational pressures and to engage in forms of heroism. Even when group polarization is under way, some people, some of the time, will hold fast to their convictions and stay where they are, especially if group members go in destructive or violent directions” (Sunstein, 2009). Sunstein further argues that the policy prescription of ‘checks and balances’ serves as a bulwark against polarization. Indeed, “the institutions of our Constitution reflect an implicit fear of polarization, creating a range of checks on potentially ill-considered judgments.” For example, the constitution explicitly denies the president’s power to declare war, thus ensuring that a single person can not “do so without sufficient deliberation and debate among diverse people” (Sunstein, 2009).

It is reasonable to think that checks and balances provides some protection against polarization, yet the idea of deliberation “among diverse people” is laughable coming from an era when ‘diversity’ consisted entirely of the diversity between straight, white, property-owning men in cities and straight, white, property-owning men in rural areas. This narrow notion of diversity points to a significant oversight in Sunstein’s work: he puts a lot of attention on political diversity while giving very little thought to other forms of diversity. For example, Sunstein notes that “confident people are more prone to polarization” but he gives little attention to the constant social admonishment women receive for not being confident enough (Kay & Shipman, 2014). Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that groups with higher numbers of women perform better at a range of tasks than equal or male-dominated groups (Woolley, Chabris, Pentland, Hashmi, & Malone, 2010). This isn’t because women are smarter or better, but because women are more likely to be socialized for group problem-solving. Indeed, Woolley et al. find their result to be “largely mediated by social sensitivity,” a skill which the women in their study displayed more strongly than men. Woolley et al. further argue that “groups, like individuals, do have characteristic levels of intelligence.” People socialized for group processes, then, tend to make groups smarter while individuals socialized with the destructive features of toxic masculinity – such as over confidence in their individual perspective and brash confrontation with any form of dissent – make for less productive groups. We don’t need individualistic heroes who “hold fast to their convictions” no matter what; we need thoughtful collaborators ensure that a variety of voices are heard.

Rather than reveal the risks of deliberation, these anecdotes highlight exactly why group deliberation is needed. Sunstein argues that the Stanford Prison Experiment exposes the ‘banality of evil,’ but Arendt didn’t mean this phrase the way Sunstein interprets it: that humanity’s evil is mundane. Rather, as Arendt writes, evil “possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’ (Arendt, 1963).” Evil, in its empty banality, cannot survive the rigors of reasoned thought and debate; it thrives when these habits are suppressed, when there is mere lip service hollowly lauding diversity. This is exactly why Bernard Manin argues for the normalization of debate as an essential feature of deliberation (Manin, 2005). As a political ideal, debate, isn’t about finding out whether you and I agree; it is about considering all possible reasons, all possible perspectives, and then co-creating solutions which none of us could have accomplished on our own. That is, as Dewey calls it (Dewey & Rogers, 2012), the essence of democracy as a way of living.


Thanks to Joshua Miller for the Arendt quote
Arendt, H. (July 24, 1963). [Letter to Gershom Scholem].

Dewey, J., & Rogers, M. L. (2012). The public and its problems: An essay in political inquiry: Penn State Press.

Kay, K., & Shipman, C. (2014). The confidence gap. The Atlantic, 14, 1-18.

Manin, B. (2005). Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather Than Discussion. Paper presented at the Program in Ethics and Public Affairs Seminar, Princeton University.

Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Going to extremes: How like minds unite and divide: Oxford University Press.

Woolley, A. W., Chabris, C. F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N., & Malone, T. W. (2010). Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. Science, 330(6004), 686-688. doi:10.1126/science.1193147



The Slow Work of Co-Creation

For my Social Network class, I’ve been reading a lot about processes of homophily and group polarization. A lot of the literature is discouraging.

People tend to self-sort into like-minded groups, groups tend to gravitate towards the pre-deliberation mean, and people tend to disregard or deride information they see as coming from a different group. It’s all a whole lot less idyllic than one might hope.

More generally, the problem is that people, on average don’t do what is best for them or for society at large. It makes it extremely difficult to develop and implement policy solutions when those solutions – while potentially addressing some problems – cascaded into other problems you hadn’t quite anticipated.

Consider a fundamental challenge of urban planning: there is currently deep inequity between communities which is realized, in part, through unequal resources and disparate access. One way to ameliorate this rift to to provide services to communities which didn’t previously enjoy that service. For example, building public transportation in these communities should be to their benefit.

And it is, except –

Public transportation leads to gentrification and rising home prices – the people who should have benefited from the public transportation move out of the community and do not then benefit from the transportation. In the best case scenario, a home owner can profit from the rising housing costs – cashing out to settle elsewhere. Renters, unfortunately, don’t have such luxury and may simply be forced out of their property owners convert to condos sell the land.

Either scenarios is not particularly satisfying; particularly considering that the pre-transport residents – home owners or note – were probably exposed to toxic near-highway pollutants and may just have moved to a different location where their health exposures were equally bad.

These frustratingly inter-connected problems seem nearly impossible to solve. It’s like policy wack-a-mole; if you build public transportation you then need a condo-conversion ordinance, and each potential solution reveals new and challenging needs.

But I think this is okay.

In The Task of Utopia, Erin McKenna argues that it’s damaging to think of utopia as this fixed, static thing: gather enough knowledge, enact enough policy solutions, and we can figure out how to solve the problem forever.

But life is not really as easy as all that – nor should it be. Utopia isn’t an end-state, it’s a process. A slow, tiresome, frustratingly complex process.

There are no easy solutions, but that doesn’t mean we’re left with nothing but to throw our hands up in despair. It means we have to talk together, work together, and search together – slowly, continually co-creating the world around us.


What is a Civic Game?

This past weekend, I joined my civic collaborators Joshua Miller and Daniel Levine in launching the first (hopefully annual) Civic Games Contest. This is something we have been talking about for a long time – trying to tap into the inherently civic nature of games to reach something beyond a mere ‘gamification’ of civics.

Promoting the contest has proven to be an interesting challenge, though, because in my head gaming and civics are so indelibly interrelated that a ‘civics games contest’ seems obvious – indeed, it’s almost surprising there hasn’t been one already. Yet, I struggle to articulate this connection to others.

In our call for submissions we call out three specific ways in which a game’s themes might be civic:

  • Personal: having moral integrity, taking responsibility for one’s actions, reflecting on one’s personal morality
  • Communal: openness to dialogue, communal service (e.g., charitable work, helping neighbors), involvement in community organizations (e.g., religious institutions, social clubs)
  • Political: engagement with or challenge to formal political structures (e.g., advocacy, protest, running for office, voting, revolution)

While all three of those are certainly civic themes, the connection between gaming and civics goes deeper than these examples. In his own blog post, Miller writes, “civics is fundamentally about finding ways for people [to take] an ownership-stake in their shared world.”

I am inclined to agree with that framing. Dewey writes that democracy is a way of living; a way of engaging deeply in the shared endeavor of living together. That is what civics is all about.

In theory, the task of designing effective, positive institutions could be left to experts. There are good reasons for such an approach: experts certainly have, well, expertise, and – as Walter Lippmann strongly points out – people only have so much bandwidth and interest. We can’t all be an expert in everything.

But to turn everything over to mere experts, divorced from the knowledge and experience of the people, invites catastrophic failure. James C. Scott has some of the strongest arguments against the dangers of a totalitarian state fixated on regulating everything and unrelentingly shutting out the public voice – but perhaps that framing is enough to give you an idea of the risks.

Our society is fundamentally just that – our society. It is our role and our duty as citizens to continually co-create it; together. It will not always be easy; in fact it will always be hard. But that’s what it means to live democratically.

You may ask, however, what does this all have to do with games?


While any type of game could be civic, the connection is perhaps most clearly seen with roleplaying games (RPGs and LARPs). These games are fundamentally about co-creating a shared world. Whether characters are cooperative or antagonistic, players work together to tell and discover the story. The experience is emergent – something is created which didn’t exist before; the unique product of a shared endeavor.

These games remind us of our collective power and our individual agency. They teach us how to be citizens.

Of, course, for the contest, we’re looking for something more than a game which is civic in the way that all games are civic – but rather, a game which is self-conscious in it’s civic-ness. A game that not only builds the capacity of players to fulfill their role of citizen, but one which overtly brings this preparation to the surface.

Too often, we neglect our agency in the realm of civic engagement. We genuinely prefer to put our power into the hands of experts because we doubt our ability to see, understand, or solve our collective challenges.

A civic game, then, is one which actively seeks to support citizen players with relevant facts, values, or strategies – helping them to see or experience an injustice they hadn’t fully recognized before or empowering them as citizens: actors fully capable of having a collective impact on the world around them.


Political Friendship and Tolerant Gladiators

“The ideal citizens,” Huckfeldt writes, “…are those individuals who are able to occupy the roles of tolerant gladiators – combatants with the capacity to recognize and respect the rights and responsibilities of their political adversaries” (Huckfeldt, Mendez, & Osborn, 2004). While this image of powerful citizens locked in gentlemanly conflict is perhaps more startling than most, it fits well within the broader normative framework of deliberation. Citizens and theorists looking to design ideal democratic systems are quickly confronted by two powerful countervailing forces: diversity, it appears, is both significantly beneficial and, unfortunately, difficult to achieve. Huckfeldt’s tolerant gladiator offers a potential poultice for this problem – a path which allows equally for vigorous debate and the highest cordiality. Citizenship, under this definition, is a Socratic sport; you spar with your strongest arguments, but only in service to the higher calling of Truth.

In perhaps less colorful terms, Mutz describes the role of deliberative citizen as requiring restraint. People should certainly engage in ‘cross-cutting’ political dialogue, but they should not engage with the full-hearted gusto suggested by Huckfeldt. Instead, “discussants must at times refrain from saying all they could say in the interests of smooth social interaction” (Mutz, 2002). While Huckfeldt envisions impassioned debates where participants – whether ultimately agreeing or not – are brought closer together through the experience of discussion, Mutz concedes softly that for social lives to function discussants must “agree to disagree.”

This view is supported by Mutz’s empirical work on deliberation. If, as she finds, the beneficial impact of exposure to cross-cutting views comes primarily from familiarizing participants with “legitimate rationales for opposing viewpoints,” then a good deliberator should not be an outspoken gladiator, but rather a respectful listener. Danielle Allen similarly argues that ideal citizens must share a sense of ‘democratic friendship’ (Allen, 2009). Just as Mutz finds that the social constraint of workplaces creates an ideal setting for cross-cutting political dialogue (Mutz & Mondak, 2006), Allen argues that similar constraints face society as a whole. On the micro-level, we may self-sort into homophilous neighborhoods and institutions, but on the macro-level we are all just as stuck with each other as coworkers. Citizens don’t have to like everyone they interact with, but they do have to extend basic courtesy and respect, forging bonds of ‘democratic friendship’ analogous to the friendship they find with colleagues.

While Mutz finds that exposure to diverse perspectives does not play a significant role in deepening a person’s knowledge of their own position, Huckfeldt finds the opposite: political conversations do “enhance the capacity of citizens to provide reasons for their support of a particular candidate” (Huckfeldt et al., 2004). Furthermore, political diversity does not create a paralyzing ambivalence but rather reduces the potential for extreme polarization. Citizens exposed to heterogeneous messages are “more likely to develop an attitude toward the candidate that incorporates positive and negative assessments.” Ultimately, such exposure may reduce “enthusiasm for the campaign” but does not depress turnout or “encourage people to back away from their commitments as citizens.”

Here we see the justification for Huckfeldt’s tolerant gladiators. If political debate serves to sharpen our own understanding, then we owe it to our interlocutors to press them on their positions; to find the holes in their armor and encourage refinement of beliefs. The process of debate makes us all better – thus allowing tolerant combatants to walk away as friends. Furthermore, such collegial confrontation may also increase the potential for citizens to find better solutions. In his work, Page argues that diversity serves an instrumental benefit: the right perspective can make a problem easy (Page, 2008). Thus any group seeking solutions to an ever-changing array of complex problems would do well to consider diverse perspectives; to find the perspective that makes the current problem easy. However, the mere presence of diversity may not be enough. Diverse perspectives must be brought to the surface and critically considered through the spirited debate of tolerant gladiators. As Bernard Manin argues, “diversity of views is not a sufficient condition for deliberation because it may fail to bring into contact opposing views. It is the opposition of views and reasons that is necessary for deliberation, not just their diversity” (Manin, 2005). If citizens follow Mutz’s path of sitting in silence rather than risking confrontation, diverse perspectives – even if present – may not be adequately considered.

While these two visions of citizen responsibility may seem to conflict, there may be room in democracy for both. Consider Lynn Sanders’ thoughtful warning against deliberation:

If we assume that deliberation cannot proceed without the realization of mutual respect, and deliberation appears to be proceeding, we may even mistakenly decide that conditions of mutual respect have been achieved by deliberators. In this way, taking deliberation as a signal of democratic practice paradoxically works undemocratically, discrediting on seemingly democratic grounds the views of those who are less likely to present their arguments in ways that we recognized as characteristically deliberative. In our political culture, these citizens are likely to be those who are already underrepresented in formal political institutions and who are systematically materially disadvantaged, namely women; racial minorities, especially Blacks; and poorer people. (Sanders, 1997)

This is a particularly sharp criticism for debate-centric deliberation. Not everyone wants to be a gladiator, and not everyone is trained or welcomed equally to the task. If we begin by falsely assuming the absence of power, rigorous debate may easily have the effect of silencing the diverse perspectives it is intended to awake. Perhaps, then, political friendship must precede gladiatorial combat. The fiercely tolerant exchange envisioned by Huckfeldt may indeed be the political ideal, but it cannot succeed as long as some voices are systematically silenced. The ideal citizen, then, must learn to navigate the social structures in which political debate is embedded. They must at times refrain from speaking in order to truly hear the other side, but they ought to cultivate tolerant gladiators through these political friendships. After all, if political friends never advance to tolerant gladiators, if they ultimately both sit in silence to avoid uncomfortable confrontation, then they have merely succeeded in a facade of social harmony; no deliberation or real exchange of ideas is ever achieved.


Allen, D. (2009). Talking to strangers: Anxieties of citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education: University of Chicago Press.

Huckfeldt, R., Mendez, J. M., & Osborn, T. (2004). Disagreement, ambivalence, and engagement: The political consequences of heterogeneous networks. Political Psychology, 25(1), 65-95.

Manin, B. (2005). Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather Than Discussion. Paper presented at the Program in Ethics and Public Affairs Seminar, Princeton University.

Mutz, D. C. (2002). Cross-cutting social networks: Testing democratic theory in practice. American Political Science Review, 96(01), 111-126.

Mutz, D. C., & Mondak, J. J. (2006). The Workplace as a Context for Cross‐Cutting Political Discourse. Journal of politics, 68(1), 140-155.

Page, S. E. (2008). The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies: Princeton University Press.

Sanders, L. M. (1997). Against Deliberation. Political Theory, 25(3), 347-376.



The Road Ahead

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about democratic…resiliency, for lack of a better term.

Perhaps this is a bit melodramatic, but it seems like we are well on our way to a constitutional crisis. Our president has repeatedly taken a stance against the judicial system, threatening the division of powers. Before taking office, aides to our then president-elect had numerous conversations with senior Russian intelligence officials. That doesn’t seem so good.

Arguably, not all of this is wildly unprecedented – Andrew Jackson, for example, had his share of acrimony with the court. But past experience isn’t a perfect proxy – as the Atlantic points out, “Jackson criticized [Chief Justice] Marshall on constitutional, rather than political, terms, and he ultimately required Congress and the states to acknowledge the Supreme Court’s authority to interpret the Constitution, rather than threaten to disregard it.” So perhaps such a comparison isn’t meaningful after all.

Part of the challenge, it seems, is that we are a relatively young country. We’ve experienced less than 250 years and only 45 presidents. That’s actually not a whole lot of experience to draw on.

FiveThirtyEight recently published an article, 14 Versions Of Trump’s Presidency, From #MAGA To Impeachment, whose rough content you may be able to infer from the title. But what’s missing from most of their scenarios is a sense of what civil society will look like during or following the Trump presidency.

We entered 2017 as a country deeply, deeply divided. While congressional Republicans are showing signs of distancing themselves – or even attacking – President Trump, it doesn’t necessarily follow that our country will become united in disapproval of the current administration.

Indeed, current Republican back-stepping seems to fit more neatly into an establishment / anti-establishment narrative. Some of the #NeverTrump-ers are still holding on, but their disapproval doesn’t necessarily signal broader, bipartisan disapproval.

I want to know where we go from here – I want to see how we heal our wounds and become a country less divided. I don’t want our democracy to become little more than a ping-pong rally between divergent ways of view the world and our country.

I think our democracy will survive this, but the next several years will not be an easy path. Indeed, we have much work to do.