Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II)

(Santa Monica, CA) On Monday, I posted an argument that three traditions of theory and practice provide what we need for a civic theory, which is a theory of what we should do. It is different from a political theory that asks what should be done or how things should be.

I can elaborate by suggesting what it would mean to put the three traditions together, using each to compensate for the limitations of the others.

We might begin with a classic situation for the Bloomington School: a group of people is trying to manage a common-pool resource, which may be as traditional and tangible as a fishery or as current and abstract as protocols for the Internet. They should consider the whole list of design principles enumerated by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues, including clear boundaries, graduated sanctions, shared monitoring, rules congruent with the context, and efficient mechanisms for conflict-resolution.

However, inspired by Habermas, we will elevate one design principle above the rest–participation–and will define it to be basically synonymous with public deliberation. People should deliberate about which of the other principles to employ, and how. This is because deliberation is our best mechanism for deciding what is right and wrong. Further, talking and listening with other people about public matters is an important aspect of the good life for human beings; it enriches our inner lives. While deliberating, people should strive for an ideal speech situation, one that is devoid of coercion and constraint, so that the only power is the power of the best argument.

Now the theory is beginning to sound fully Habermasian, but the Bloomington School puts deliberation in an essential context. After all, it is easier not to attend a discussion in the first place and let others do the work of governance. Thus the very existence of a discussion implies at least a partial prior solution to a free-rider problem. What’s more, the fact that the group has something to manage implies that they have already done some work together. To be sure, they may have taken the resource that they govern from others or exploited others’ labor. The founders of the United States, for example, governed a commonwealth that had been seized from indigenous nations and enriched by enslaved people’s labor. This was fundamentally unjust and evil. Nevertheless, it had taken common action to achieve this dominance; the colonists had to form local governments, create and enroll in militias, and sustain the Continental Army that wrested control from the British Crown. The general point is that a group that is in a position to govern a resource has usually managed to coordinate its members’ work already. Discussion rarely precedes governance; it is more typically a moment in an ongoing process of governance.

Moreover, the norms that allow groups to approach an ideal speech situation–norms like civility, reasonable trust, and openness–are fragile common resources that groups must build and sustain. Almost all real discussions are imperfect, by these criteria: some people are missing because they chose to free-ride, some participants undermine civility and trust in the way they talk, and time usually runs out before consensus can be reached, necessitating a vote. Thus the degree to which groups meet the Habermasian ideal of reasonable discourse depends on how well they have addressed core collective-action problems.

And not everything can be thrown open to discussion. The Bloomington School advises that boundaries must be clear and rules must be congruent with local circumstances and traditions in order for people to coordinate. In theory, boundaries and traditions could be freely discussed. Citizens could deliberate about who should be included in the group and what norms they should hold dear. But since a discussion already requires a reasonably functional group, and forming a group requires boundaries and congruence with local traditions, it is not literally possible to start from a neutral place. Instead, a group with some kind of boundary and set of traditions can consider modifying them in the interests of justice or practicality. They can rebuild their ship at sea, but they cannot start from scratch. The group comes first; then the discussion.

Although moments of explicit deliberation have special normative value, they need not be frequent. Ostrom analyzes a water management regime near Valencia, Spain, that was last deliberated almost six centuries ago and still functions today. Discourse should not be allowed to overshadow other kinds of contribution to the commons; people also contribute with their emotions, their labor, and their bodies.

In this combination of Habermas plus Ostrom, we have the nucleus of a satisfactory theory, but it doesn’t tell us what to do when some other group feels itself fundamentally different and sees no obligation to join a deliberation or share resources fairly. That is when we need the distinctive contributions of nonviolent social movements.They can force changes in the underlying rules and norms that govern a situation. They can force people to deliberate and to cooperate.

However, nonviolent social movements need insights from the schools of Habermas and of Ostrom, for three important reasons.

First, not every nonviolent social movement has desirable or worthy ends. The only way for human beings to test and reconsider whether their own values are worthy is to deliberate with people who do not agree with them (see Habermas).

Second a successful social movement requires people to coordinate their sacrifices, and that happens only when they already belong to, or can create, functional self-governing entities (see Ostrom).

Finally, a social movement cannot move forever. It must pursue a relatively stable or even permanent outcome as its objective. Participants in the Civil Rights Movement did not imagine that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would remove racism from the United States, but they pursued that legislation as a meaningful target during the early 1960s. An objective such as the Civil Rights Act should incorporate good institutional design (see Ostrom) and should allow or even require ongoing deliberation (see Habermas).

This does not mean that citizens are only fully active and responsible when they’re participating in a nonviolent social movement that urges a reform like the Voting Rights Act. But that example does bring out the main dimensions of citizenship, which can be combined in many other ways.

Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need

(Rancho Palos Verdes, CA) Back in 2014, I argued: [Elinor] “Ostrom plus [Jürgen] Habermas is nearly all we need.” I define a good citizen as anyone who seriously asks the question “What should we do?” Citizens face a dizzying variety of hard issues, but underlying them are general categories of problems. As of 2014, I thought these were the two basic categories:

  1. Problems of discourse make our thoughts and conversations go badly, so that we believe or desire the wrong things. Example include our susceptibility to propaganda and our strong tendency to “motivated reasoning,” or picking facts and theories because they yield the results we want.
  2. Problems of collective action cause us to get results that we do not desire, even when we agree about goals and values. An example is the temptation to “free ride” on other people’s contributions, or the tendency of small groups of specialists to dominate even democratic organizations (“The Iron Law of Oligarchy”).

Habermas and the postwar Frankfurt School provide a robust theoretical tradition, linked to practical experimentation, about how to address problems of discourse. Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School provide an equally robust theory/practice tradition about how to address problems of collective action. That was my basis for saying that Ostrom and Habermas nearly sufficed for a civic theory.

But I now think there is a third general category:

  1. Problems of identity and exclusion arise when some people simply won’t deliberate or collaborate with other people because they regard the latter as fundamentally different and inferior. Relatedly, sometimes people feel that they themselves don’t deserve to deliberate or collaborate because they are inferior.

The theoretical resources of Habermas and Ostrom are not sufficient for that third category, and we can learn more from theorists and practitioners of nonviolent social movements. That is the tradition that tells us what to do about problems of identity and exclusion if we choose to take violence off the table.

Therefore, I now believe that Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need–assuming that each name is synecdoche for a whole tradition of theory and practice.

Ostrom Habermas Gandhi
Fundamental problem People fail to achieve what would be good for them collectively People manipulate other people by influencing their opinions and goals. People fail to view others (or themselves) as fully human
Exemplary case of the problem We destroy an environmental asset by failing to work together Government or corporate propaganda distorts our authentic values One national or ethnic group exploits another
Characteristic starting point People know what they want but can’t get it People don’t know what they want or want the wrong things Some people won’t recognize other people
Essential behavior of a citizen Working together to make or preserve something. Talking and listening about controversial values. Using nonviolent sacrifice to compel change
Instead of homo economicus (the individual who maximizes material self-interest) we need … Homo faber (the person as a maker) Homo sapiens (the person as a reasoner) or homo politicus (the participant in public assemblies). A Satyagrahi (the person as a bearer of soul force)
Role of the state It is a set of nested and overlapping associations, not fundamentally different from other associations (firms, nonprofits, etc.) Citizens form public opinion, which should guide the state, which makes law. The state should be radically distinct from other sectors A target of demands
Modernity is … A threat to local and traditional ways of cooperating, but we can use science to assist people in solving their own problems A process of enlightenment that liberates people, but it goes wrong when states and markets “colonize” the private domain (for Gandhi) an imperialist imposition, undermining swaraj
Main interdisciplinary combination Game theory plus observations of indigenous problem-solving Normative philosophy (mainly achieved through critical readings of past philosophers) plus system-level sociology. Critical theology plus military strategy

the New Social Movements of the seventies, eighties, and today

(Oxford, OH) By the 1980s, a large literature distinguished the “New Social Movements” from older strands of politics. Jürgen Habermas chose to list the following New Social Movements then active in Germany: “the anti-nuclear and environmental movements,” “the peace movement”; “the citizens’ action movement”; the “alternative” movement that included urban squatters and new rural communities; movements of “minorities (the elderly, homosexuals, disabled people, etc)”; support groups and youth sects; “religious fundamentalism”; the “tax protest movement”; “school protests” by parent associations; “resistance to modernist reforms”; and “the women’s movement” (1981, p. 34).

Some of these might be classified with the left, and others (notably, tax protests and religious fundamentalism), with the right. In retrospect, it is debatable whether they formed a meaningful category or could be distinguished sharply from the “Old” social movements, such as labor unionism and civil rights in the USA.

My view is that these movements did represent a new stage of politics in the wealthy democracies. That stage has passed, however, as new problems have come to the fore and as the social movements of ca. 1968-1985 have become institutionalized in the nonprofit sector, thus losing their emancipatory role. These changes mean that it’s important to compare our time with the 1970s and early 1980s and to envision productive combinations of the Old and New Social Movement forms.

One way to summarize the story is that zero-sum struggles over scarce goods and basic rights (civil, political, and economic) were essential to politics up until the 1960s. However, changes in the political economy of the richest nations and the most advanced US states had moved those struggles into the background by ca. 1970. Strong economic growth made possible the elimination of absolute poverty in countries like the Federal Republic of Germany. Thanks to labor’s unusually high share of income, the power of unions and parties, and the disruptions of World War II, working people exercised considerable political power through the state. That meant that even as pre-tax incomes became unusually equal, incomes after taxes and welfare payments grew even more equal. Also, thanks to constitutional reforms, most citizens could count on fairly equal legal rights.

“Income Inequality in Germany Measured by the GINI-Coefficient” (Top line is before redistribution; bottom line is after. Zero would be complete equality.)

At the time, many American liberals and European social democrats felt that the success of the democratic welfare state should simply be consolidated. The emerging neoliberal movement of Thatcher and Reagan argued that the welfare state was inefficient and illiberal and needed to be rolled back; their ideas gained momentum with the stagflation of the 1970s. But thinkers like Habermas, Offe, Mansbridge, Beck and (in a different vein) Foucault adopted more positive views of the New Social Movements.

Writing in 1985, Offe observed that European capital and labor had reached a postwar agreement.Unionized, private-sector employment would deliver prosperity, and workers would be free to develop identities, interests, and memberships during their youth and student years, their growing leisure time, and their lengthy retirements. The issues for politics were growth, economic distribution and security. These were contested within narrow constraints (for instance, everyone was a Keynesian) and not expected to occupy much public attention.

The New Social Movements then arose when people critically assessed the patterns that prevailed in the domains that were supposed to be left private, such as childhood, marriage, church, and nature. Activists demanded large-scale change in these domains, but not via direct state action, because they opposed “manipulation, control, dependence, bureaucratization, regulation, etc.” (Offe, 1985, p. 829).

Offe argued that “middle-class radicals” played a disproportionate role in these New Movements. Traditionally, workers and the poor had struggled against bourgeois notions of propriety and normality. However, the organized post-War working class had traded cultural conventionality for prosperity, leaving affluent students, public sector workers, and professionals to demand room for “alternative” ways of life (pp. 823-5).

Habermas drew a distinction between System and Lifeworld. A System is governed by instrumental rationality: it treats individuals as means to a given end. Both state bureaucracies and capitalist markets are Systems. As a democratic socialist, Habermas favored a relatively large state bureaucracy controlled by a popularly elected legislature. But both governmental and market Systems were problematic when they extended into the Lifeworld composed of authentic human relationships. Thus, even as a welfare state like the Federal Republic of Germany neared success at the “old” goals of eliminating poverty and narrowing gaps of wealth and power, it risked colonizing the Lifeworld by turning everyone into a consumer and an employee, employer, or welfare client and then regulating their behavior accordingly. Habermas wrote in 1981:

Precisely these roles are the target of protest. Alternative praxis is opposed to the profit-oriented instrumentalization of professional labor, the market-dependent mobilization of labor, the extension of competitiveness and performance pressure into elementary school. It is also directed against the process whereby services, relations and time become monetary values, against the consumerist redefinition of private life spheres and personal life styles. Furthermore, the clients’ relation to public service agencies is intended to be broken and restructured according to the participatory model of self-help organizations (p. 36).

He proposed, “at least cursorily,” that all the New Social Movements represented “resistance to tendencies to colonize the lifeworld (p. 35). That was true, he thought, of the conservative movements as well as the radical ones. To apply his thinking to the US context, we might say: Whether you moved to Vermont to go back to nature or to New Hampshire to live free or die, you were opting out of systems seen as instrumental. Habermas concluded that even if the New Social Movements were “unrealistic,” they offered symbols of resistance to the “colonization of the life-world” (p. 37). 

For both Habermas and Offe, the New Social Movements were different from the Old because they no longer addressed issues that could be resolved with money or rights. Instead, these movements asked “how to defend or reinstate endangered life styles, or how to put reformed life styles into practice” (Habermas, p. 33).

One could debate whether feminism and gay liberation were really “life style” movements as opposed to struggles for basic equality (thus continuous with the “Old” social movements), but they certainly highlighted informal, interpersonal, and attitudinal issues more than older movements had. Habermas observed that “High value is placed on the particular, the provincial, small social spaces, decentralized forms of interaction and de-specialized activities, simple interaction and non-differentiated public spheres. This is all intended to promote the revitalization of buried possibilities for expression and communication. Resistance to reformist intervention also belongs here” (p. 36).

Similarly, Jenny Mansbridge observed that during the ferment of the late 1960s and 1970s, small groups “appeared everywhere like fragile bubbles.” These groups shared certain features. Decisions were made in face-to-face meetings, after much discussion, when someone expressed the consensus of the group. There were no formal distinctions among participants or offices. And there was a strong norm against making self-interested statements. Face-to-face, consensual democracy was meant as an alternative to what Mansbridge called “adversary democracy,” which presumes that interests conflict and that decisions must always have winners and losers (Mansbridge, 1983).

Foucault, meanwhile, regarded the welfare state as a particularly efficient and all-encompassing instrument of “discipline.” Not only was he supportive of the New Social Movements, but this great radical “was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete. He especially saw in neoliberalism a ‘much less bureaucratic’ and ‘much less disciplinarian’ form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state. He seemed to imagine a neoliberalism that wouldn’t project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state” (Zamora, 2014).

Ulrich Beck, evidently drawing on Habermas, offered the perspective that the core social problem had shifted from the distribution of wealth and power to the distribution of risk. Human beings had always faced risks, but new dangers (e.g., nuclear power plants melting down, chemicals in one’s food) were harder to diagnose and prevent, less a matter of individuals’ negligence than outputs of Habermasian Systems, and not necessarily correlated with wealth. “Risk positions are not class positions,” he wrote, because people with money may sometimes face more risk, and risk can spread contagiously (Beck 1986; English translation 1992, pp. 39, 44). This is one reason that Offe’s middle-class radicals were so prominent in the New Social Movements, all of which were “environmentalist” in the broadest sense of that term.

It is important to note that in the other half of Europe, movements were also struggling against a System–in their case, the single-headed System of state communism. Like the Western New Social Movements, they built up alternative spaces meant to be authentic (“Living in Truth”) and voluntary. “The mainstream of the [Polish] opposition was deliberately and profoundly anti-political,” writes Aleksander Smolar. “Faced with the strategic choice described by Adam Michnik in his letter from prison, the answer of the opposition was clear. The objective was not to defeat the ruling power but to progressively liberate society from its control” (Smolar, 2009) by building a better alternative in civil society.

Four decades later, the basic achievements of the welfare state seem fragile, its objective of ending absolute poverty receding. That breathes some new life into the “Old” social movements’ objective or demanding redistribution from the state. In that light, Occupy Wall Street represents an interesting development. Its modes of interaction come straight from the New Social Movements. So does its refusal to make highly concrete demands on institutions. Offe wrote, “Movements are incapable of negotiating because they do not have anything to offer in return for any concessions made to their demands. … Movements are also unwilling to negotiate because they often consider their central concern of such high and universal priority that no part of it can be meaningfully sacrificed” (Offe, pp. 830-1). I think there was some of that spirit in Occupy. On the other hand, Occupy’s evocation of “The 99%” made it universalistic in a way reminiscent of the Old Left instead of the New Social Movements, and it returned to questions of economic redistribution. It pursued an Old Left agenda in New Social Movement form–not successfully as such, but perhaps subject to improvement.

Meanwhile, the norms that distinguished the “New” social movements have found lasting and quasi-secure places within institutions, particularly in nonprofits and universities. Many people who work full-time for service-learning centers, community development corporations, youth programs, and other NGOs combat explicit and implicit biases, prize authentic local communities and traditions, emphasize dialog and deliberation, work in (or emulate) voluntary associations, try to create zones of consensus and relational ethics, and stay clear of both state bureaucracies and corporations. Many a young graduate of these programs wants to start an urban agriculture nonprofit or develop curricular materials, but would never think of working for the government or running for office.

I’ve previously described these programs as the home of the most authentically conservative politics in the US today, if “conservative” means localism, sustainability, deference to indigenous traditions, humility and skepticism about expertise, and a resistance to state power.

One view is that the New Social Movements were conservative (in this sense) from the start, and that was always bad news. The left, wrote Todd Gitlin in 1993, is the tradition of explicitly universalistic values, whether those are liberal, Marxist, or Christian-inflected (e.g., in the Civil Rights Movement). “Universal human emancipation,” he argued, is the core of all authentically revolutionary and reformist politics. Its enemy is the kind of conservatism embodied in the New Social Movements and in many of today’s NGOs. Yes, progressive movements must address injustices related to sexuality, gender and color–not merely economics–but always in the explicit pursuit of a common good.

A related critique is that the New Social Movements have depicted “the oppressed [as] innocent selves defined by the wrongs done to them” and have demanded protection. Once former participants in New Social Movements take up roles inside institutions, they start to manage and administer fairness, understood as a set of rules and regulations that protect the disadvantaged (see Bickford 1997 for a useful summary of a position that she doesn’t hold). In contrast, real social movements emancipate.

In 1985, Offe judged that the New Social Movements held a “presently marginal, though highly visible power position.” The question was whether they would “transcend” that situation, which would require forming alliances. They could align with the traditional institutional left (socialist parties and unions), or with traditionalist conservative movements. Or the traditional conservatives and the institutional left might unite to marginalize the New Social Movements. Offe thought all three scenarios were possible

Right now, the nascent movement of resistance to Trump–and kindred developments in countries like Hungary–again look “marginal, though highly visible.” These movements are defending fundamental and universal rights in a way that was typical of the Old Social Movements. They draw on the New Social Movements for some of their modes of political engagement, but they are beginning to connect to political parties and campaigns. So far their rhetoric is mostly defensive, which was typical of the New Social Movements as a whole. Offe observed that the “positive aspects” of these movements were “mostly articulated in negative logical and grammatical forms, as indicated by key words such as ‘never,’ ‘ nowhere,’ ‘end,’ ‘stop,’ frieze,’ ‘ban.’ etc.” (Offe, p. 830).

We will see whether today’s incipient movements begin to develop more expansive positive agendas and shift from merely opposing Trump (and his like) to envisioning and demanding a substantially different political economy and a new social contract. That would also require alliances, I think, with what remains of the institutionalized left, including the Democratic Party.

See also: what is a social movement?;  what activist movements will look like in the Trump eraquestions for the social movement post FergusonHabermas and critical theory (a primer); and perspectives on identity politics.


  • Beck, Ulrich. Risk society: Towards a New Modernity. Vol. 17. Sage, 1992.
  • Bickford, Susan, “Anti-Anti-Identity Politics: Feminism, Democracy, and the Complexities of Citizenship,” Hypatia, vol. 12, no. 4 (1997).
  • Gitlin, Todd, “The Left, Lost in the Politics of Identity,” Harper’s Magazine, 1993
  • Habermas, Jürgen, “New Social Movements,” Telos, September 21, vol. 1981, no. 49 (1981) pp. 33-37
  • Mansbridge, Jane J. Beyond Adversary Democracy. University of Chicago Press, 1983.
  • Offe, Claus, “New Social Movements: Challenging the Boundaries of Institutional Politics,” Social Research, vol. 52, no. 1 (Winter 1985), pp. 817-68.
  • Smolar, Aleksander. “Toward ‘Self-Limiting Revolution’: Poland, 1970-1989.” in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garten Ash, eds., Civil Resistance and Power: The Experience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • Zamora, Daniel, “Can we Criticize Foucault?The Jacobin, December 2014.

what is a social movement?

Social movements are at the heart of politics right now. Drawing loosely on work by Charles Tilly, Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, Frencesca Polletta, Jennifer Earl, and others, I would define a social movement using five criteria (listed below). Note that this is a value-neutral definition. It could fit a fascist movement as well as a progressive one, and it doesn’t imply that social movements are preferable to other phenomena, such as political parties. It is merely intended to categorize a set of phenomena so that we can study them.

1. A social movement consists of many autonomous groups and individuals

Movements are polycentric rather than hierarchical or centralized. A single organization can adopt the feel and spirit of a movement by empowering separate groups internally, but it is only an actual movement if those groups are autonomous and collaborate voluntarily.

2. It persists over numerous episodes and campaigns

The marches over the Edmund Pettus Bridge were episodes. The struggle for the Voting Rights Act was a campaign. The Civil Rights Movement consisted of thousands of episodes and several campaigns.

3. It makes demands on holders of power

The power-holders may be governments, firms, media entities, universities, or any other institutions. If people make no demands on any institutions, I wouldn’t define them as participants in a social movement. They might form an important grouping, such as a spiritual revival or a self-help network, but it would not be a social movement.

Just as important, a social movement makes demands on holders of power rather than trying to supplant them. A political party seeks offices. A revolutionary cadre strives to overthrow and replace the state. An established labor union negotiates contracts with a firm. None of these meet the definition of a social movement, which stands apart from the institution and makes demands on it. I acknowledge that a broad-based social movement can encompass elements that act like parties, revolutionary cadres, or collective bargainers. The Civil Rights Movement encompassed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), the Black Panther Party, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; but it was a movement because it wasn’t defined by any of those groups.

4. It supports its demands by displaying WUNC

Tilly observes that social movements don’t just express demands; they back them up with four assets that command attention: worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. For example, the women’s marches after Trump’s Inauguration demonstrated that millions of people cared (numbers), that they were willing to travel to Washington or stand outside in the streets of their hometowns (commitment), that they were unified (pink pussycat hats, marching on the same day), and that they were worthy. Worthiness can mean respectability: for instance, “We are middle-class women (with some men) who are pillars of our communities, not the kinds of people who usually make trouble.” But worthiness need not mean respectability. Sometimes, highly oppressed groups claim the worthiness that comes from suffering.

WUNC serves as a standard for evaluating the credibility of would-be movements. For example, does holding a sign on the Boston Common demonstrate enough commitment?

5. It imposes limits on itself

Social movements often adopt and attempt to enforce limits on themselves: “We will not run for office or endorse any parties.” “We will negotiate with companies but not form our own businesses.” “We denounce terrorism.” “We call for a new nation but will not commit treason against the existing state.”

No particular form of self-limitation is definitive of social movements. For instance, there are violent and even terroristic social movements; thus nonviolence is not a condition. But it is highly characteristic–perhaps even definitive–of social movements that they choose some limitations that they enforce on their own members. I would propose a functional explanation of this tendency. Coordinating the behavior of many autonomous groups and individuals is extraordinarily difficult. Movements are easily destroyed by internal disagreements or by escalation to a point where they lose their support. Successful movements avoid escalation by choosing limits and economize on the topics that are open to discussion. For instance, if the movement eschews electoral politics, then it needn’t decide who should run for which office. If it renounces violence, it needn’t debate which targets to hit with which weapons.

Thus a social movement can say: “We are [a set of groups] who want [demands] from [institutions], who demonstrate WUNC [in particular ways] and who eschew [certain tactics or ends.]”

Civic Deserts and our present crisis

My colleagues Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Felicia Sullivan have published an article in The Conversation that I believe supports an important diagnosis of the 2016 election and our current crisis. Their article is entitled “Study: 60 percent of rural millennials lack access to a political life.” They find that a majority of rural youth live in areas that they call “Civic Deserts,” which are “characterized by a dearth of opportunities for civic and political learning and engagement” and a lack of “youth programming, culture and arts organizations and religious congregations.”

Young people in these areas are less civically and politically engaged than other youth. They do not belong to groups and they rarely take civic actions, like voting and volunteering. “During the 2016 presidential election, young people who live in Civic Deserts were less likely to vote compared to others with more civic resources.”

But if they did vote, “they were slightly more likely to choose Trump than those with better access to civic resources.” To illustrate that point: young urban Whites who lived in areas with many civic organizations voted for Trump at a rate of 17 percent. Young Whites who lived in Civic Deserts—which could be rural, suburban or urban—voted for Trump at more than twice that rate: 39 percent.

A person could prefer Trump over Clinton in the November election for a variety of plausible reasons. For instance, if you think that abortion is murder, that is a reason to pull the lever for Trump/Pence instead of Clinton/Kaine. But to like Trump—to appreciate his rhetoric and leadership—is a different matter.

I have argued that few people who belong to functional voluntary groups will appreciate Trump. In almost any kind of voluntary association (whether an evangelical church, a Farmworkers’ local, a business coalition, or a lending circle) leaders typically emerge who demonstrate two virtues: inclusiveness and accountability.

No matter how unified the group, it will encompass some diversity. Members normally expect their leaders to hold the group together by using words and taking actions that include, rather than exclude. Groups do sometimes expel or deliberately alienate members–but only in extremis. The normal goal is to hold the group together.

And members expect their leaders to deliver. If the pastor says the church is going to build a new playground slide, then a new slide had better appear reasonably soon, or the pastor will be blamed. If the informal leader of a social circle promises to organize a gathering but fails to set a date, her stock as a leader will fall.

Donald Trump exhibits neither virtue. He is happy to exclude and he is utterly unaccountable. Indeed, I believe many of his fans don’t really expect him to deliver. For them, he is like a droll uncle sitting beside them on the couch, watching O’Reilly, and making remarks that reflect their feelings. When he says he’s going to drain the swamp, they take that to mean that he endorses their values and despises the lobbyists and politicians whom they despise, not that he will actually pass ethics reforms. I posit that this attitude reflects a lack of satisfying experiences with voluntary associations in which the leaders are inclusive and accountable. And that is an increasingly common situation given the steep decline in organizations like unions and churches.


Thus I consider the decline in membership—especially among working class Whites—a fundamental cause of Trump.

As evidence, I cite my colleagues’ new finding that White Millennials who live in Civic Deserts voted for Trump. I’d also cite a recent conversation with a self-described Southern conservative evangelical pastor, who told me that he despises Trump because the president’s leadership style violates everything he believes about how to hold a community together.

I’d also cite Hannah Arendt’s argument that loneliness is a precondition of totalitarianism. For her “isolation” means being alone, but “loneliness” means having no felt capacity to control the world in conjunction with other human beings:

Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together, ‘acting in concert’ (Burke); isolated men are powerless by definition. …

In isolation, man remains in contact with the world as the human artifice; only when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one’s own to the common world, is destroyed, isolation becomes altogether unbearable…

Isolation then becomes loneliness. … Totalitarian domination … bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man (The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 474-5).

Donald Trump is no totalitarian, but the mechanism is similar. When individuals learn from hard experience that they stand alone in a harsh world, they are prone to follow leaders who simply echo their private thoughts and make them feel part of a unified mass.

See also the hollowing out of US democracyto beat Trump, invest in organizing and the “civic state of the union”

new project on the socio-emotional impact of civic engagement

(New York City) People can gain satisfaction, empathy, purpose, insight, and a host of other socio-emotional or psycho-social benefits from taking part in civic life. Also, if they demonstrate psychological maturity or even excellence, it can help them to be responsible civic actors. On the other hand, they can pay a psychosocial price from acting politically. I am haunted by Doug McAdam’s findings, in his great book Freedom Summer, about the longterm human costs of participating in the voter registration drives in Mississippi. Whether psychosocial development and civic engagement benefit each other depends on how we design those experiences, and in doing so, we must be attentive to the varying experiences of people who stand in different places with respect to the social issues (such as racism) that are at stake.

Therefore, I am pleased to share this news:

Tisch College is launching a new initiative in Social-Emotional Learning and Civic Engagement thanks to a generous gift from David T. Zussman, A53, J80P, and his family through the Zussman Fund for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). The gift will support Tufts faculty’s integration of social-emotional learning into their teaching, and will promote related research and education across the University through frequent collaboration with the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT). A key aim is to encourage all Tufts students—undergraduate, graduate, and professional—to develop their social-emotional skills through civic experiences in and out of the classroom. The initiative will also generate new knowledge for the benefit of other institutions.

More at the link.

on the Deep State, the administrative state, and the civil service

The last few days have seen several prominent articles about “the Deep State”: by David Remnick in the New Yorker, Marc Ambinder in The Washington Post, Julie Hirschfeld Davis in the New York Times, and Kevin Williamson in The National Review, among others. I’d been thinking of writing myself, and I think we need some definitions:

  • The Civil Service: a body of government employees who are protected against political patronage and dismissal without cause in return for embracing norms of nonpartisanship, public service, and professionalism.
  • The Administrative State: government agencies that make and enforce rules and regulations (in contrast to statutes enacted by legislatures) and/or directly manage public resources, such as land.
  • The National Security Apparatus: military and spy agencies as well as police agencies concerned with terrorism, foreign espionage, and subversion.
  • Bureaucracy: any large organization divided into specialized offices, each requiring appropriate training and having defined roles and responsibilities, the whole being organized hierarchically and aimed at achieving some predefined or externally defined end or purpose.
  • The Deep State: a group of people within any or all of the above who collude secretly to pursue their own shared agenda, which may reflect their self-interest or an ideological interest contrary to the goals of elected leaders.

Some observations based on those definitions:

Most of the above definitely exist. Whether the (or a) Deep State exists is a matter of conjecture. One reason that the answer is not obvious is that the National Security Apparatus is cloaked in considerable secrecy. But secrecy is necessary for the existence of such an apparatus at all, and is not indefensible. There are many things we would like our government to know yet not publicly disclose. State secrecy is a problem for a democracy but not necessarily an avoidable one.

If there is a Deep State, it would form within one or more bureaucracies yet would subvert them. That is because bureaucracies constrain their employees to carry out defined tasks, but people who collude for their own agendas are evading such constraints.

The Deep State could exist within the National Security Apparatus, the domestic civic service, or both. Americans in a large swath of the center-left and left tend to be critical of US foreign policy but supportive of regulation and the welfare state. Some of them have feared secret agendas in the National Security Apparatus while viewing officials in the domestic welfare and regulatory agencies as dedicated civil servants. Americans in a large swath of the right have been more supportive of foreign policy than of domestic policy, so they have been prone to see soldiers, police officers, and spies as public servants, and other federal employees as uncontrollable bureaucrats. However, the hard right has also been critical of foreign policy, so there have been Deep State narratives on the right at least since the McCarthy Era. Some on the hard left see the domestic policy apparatus as basically a Deep State devoted to disciplining the poor, but I hear less of that than I used to 20 years ago.

To the extent that we have a genuine civil service, it is designed to push back against elected officials and political appointees. That is not sign of a conspiracy but evidence that popular sovereignty conflicts with such values as scientific rigor and legal consistency. The civil service has a checks-and-balances relationship with elected politicians.

Finally, we do have a problem with the Administrative State, but it is not a conspiracy or anything wrong with the people who work in it. Theodore Lowi was a very fine political scientist whose death on Feb. 17 didn’t get enough attention. Lowi argued that liberals built the regulatory and administrative agencies to enact demanding values for which they had received popular support. But the agencies that liberals created do not have legitimacy to make value-judgments themselves. In lieu of making explicit value-judgments, they claim to make their decisions based on science, efficiency, precedent, or stakeholder negotiation. But they actually make value judgments every day. This creates a crisis of legitimacy that threatens the liberal project.

Another way to make Lowi’s argument is to note that the Administrative State is not envisioned in our Constitution (nor is a permanent National Security Apparatus). Agencies are widely understood as parts of the executive branch or as arms of Congress. (They even employ their own judges, which makes them resemble the judicial branch.) I think a better interpretation is that they represent a fourth branch altogether, which has developed since 1900. It should embody certain norms, such as impartiality, rigor, and predictability, and it should be designed to push and pull with the branches that reflect popular will (Congress and the presidency), deliberation (Congress), discretion and flexibility (the presidency), and law (the judiciary). We should expect tension between the president and the administrative agencies and improve our means of resolving those tensions.

As long as we do not regard the Administrative State as a branch with its own norms and standing, we should expect constant crises of legitimacy, because the existence of this branch has never been recognized by the American people. This is not to defend or rationalize Stephen K. Bannon’s attack on the administrative state. But there is a deeper and longer-term problem that will require attention sooner or later.

See also:  the Citizens United decision and the inadequate sociology of the US Constitutionthe public interest and why it matters;  problems with “stakeholders”; and on government versus governance, or the rule of law versus pragmatism.

microgenetic, ontogenetic, and sociogenetic civic learning

At a Center for Ethics & Education conference last week in Kansas City, I learned from Larry Nucci about an important taxonomy. In my summary:

  • Microgenetic learning means obtaining particular knowledge, skills, concepts, values, etc. through particular experiences. A student doesn’t know about Abe Lincoln, reads a book about him, and knows and remembers the president’s story. That is an example of microgenetic learning. We often measure it with assessments before and after lessons or courses. However, it happens at more precise moments, so it’s possible to zero in on the learning events and understand the learning mechanisms.
  • Ontogenetic learning means becoming something different. A small child doesn’t know how to read but becomes literate, a reader. An undergrad doesn’t know much about medicine but ultimately turns into a skilled, practicing physician. Typically, the timescale of ontogenesis is longer than that of microgenesis, but that’s not the essential difference. In theory, ontogenetic change could happen suddenly, as perhaps for Paul on the road to Damascus. The definition is a change in who the person is, not just what he or she knows.
  • Sociogenetic learning is change at the level of a community or society. A community is oral and becomes literate, or pagan and becomes Christian, or analog and becomes digital. Such changes imply that different ontogenetic learning outcomes will become possible, valued, and typical. For instance, a Roman pagan ca. 100 BC couldn’t learn to be a Christian, but his descendants three centuries later could and even had to become Christians. That implied some new microgenetic experiences, like reading scripture and listening to sermons.

These levels of learning can relate in many complex ways. For instance, people can learn specific skills for civic engagement that help them to become activists, and as activists they can change what their society values. Then microgenesis -> ontogenesis -> sociogenesis. Probably more common is the reverse pattern: a society starts to value something, it establishes a new standard of success, and that leads schools to assign new lessons.

This diagram from Saxe 2012 illustrates the various possible pathways.

In fields like literacy and STEM education, which have received heavy investment, scholars have given attention to all three domains. However, I perceive a trend toward the microgenetic level in those fields. It’s increasingly common to apply Learning Sciences and Cognitive Sciences to understand how child A learns skill B at time C. If that trend comes to dominate, there will be need for a critique. We’ll be at risk of missing the forest for the trees and–especially–overlooking what people should learn ontogenically to produce a good society.

In civics, which is underfunded and understudied, most of the research is ontogenetic. It’s most common to use surveys to determine whether children or young adults have become good citizens of one kind or another, and then ask whether civics courses, democratic school climates, or other large influences are related to those outcomes. Practitioners and scholars are certainly interested in microgenetic questions, but that research is scattered and limited, mostly for lack of resources.

Meanwhile, there is a robust debate about sociogenetic changes in civic life. Scholars and pundits debate how the American polity and political culture have changed, what that means for citizens, and how our polity compares to others. Just as an example, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone offers a sociogenetic thesis: it’s about how Americans have come to engage more individualistically and less collaboratively since the 1960s. The underlying reasons include changes in technology and the economy (not shifts in civic education).

The sociogenetic debate about citizenship still tends to be somewhat disconnected from microgenetic and ontogenetic research. I didn’t know this vocabulary when Jim Youniss and I edited the volume Engaging Young People in Civic Life, but our explicit goal was to connect debates about civic education to debates about changes in civic life. We thought that developmental psychologists tended to assume that civic life was historically constant, and political scientists and sociologists tended to view civic education as historically constant. However, regimes and modes of education change, and these changes affect each other. It’s even possible for kids to gain skills through microgenetic civic learning that enable them to change what the society values.

Ultimately, we need civic education research that combines the microgenetic, ontogenetic, and sociogenetic levels and yields practical advice for practitioners, policymakers, and advocates.

Figure from Saxe, G. (2012). Cultural development of mathematical ideas: Papua New Guinea studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. My main source is Larry Nucci (2016) Recovering the role of reasoning in moral education to address inequity and social justice, Journal of Moral Education, 45:3, 291-307, DOI: 10.1080/03057240.2016.1167027

hearing the faint music of democracy

Democracy has many inherent flaws. This is just the start of a comprehensive list:

  1. Majority tyranny: the many may oppress the few.
  2. Free-riding: it doesn’t pay to be informed or active when you can let others engage instead.
  3. Propaganda: it works.
  4.  Motivated reasoning: people pick information to reinforce existing beliefs.
  5. Boundary problems: many political issues are about who belongs within a given polity, so how can a polity legitimately decide where to draw that line?
  6. The Iron Law of Oligarchy: even in organizations fundamentally committed to equality, a few come to dominate because bureaucracy rewards specialized expertise.
  7. The privileged position of business: because communities need investment, capital will be advantaged even if businesses don’t actively lobby.

Most of these issues have been understood for centuries, yet the scholarly evidence for them accumulates. Then along comes an actual fiasco like the 2016 election, and it’s tempting to give up on the whole idea. Democracy seems to be that system that places a racist fool in the White House.

Yet people have constructed rather remarkable “patches” to keep democracy going. Just for instance, it seems implausible that many citizens would purchase and consume a daily source of fairly independent and well-sourced news that focuses on matters of public importance. But for about a century, most Americans did buy a metropolitan newspaper every day, and the proceeds funded shoe-leather journalism. The newspaper’s financial model worked because people paid for classified ads, comics, and sports as well as news, but they saw the daily headlines on the front page. Although the model was profitable–hence sustainable–it couldn’t have existed without the dedication of the people we call “the press”: professional reporters, editors, publishers, journalism educators (k-16), and some newspaper owners, who were motivated in part by the public interest.

That’s just one example. I would add broad-based political parties, civil rights organizations, public-interest lobbies, responsive government agencies, civic education courses, civic forums, community organizing efforts, the DREAMer movement, and many more.

Why have people worked so hard to create and sustain these efforts, when the flaws of democracy seem intrinsic and intractable? They’ve heard the democratic music as well as the everyday prose.

The music is there if you listen for it. Whitman heard it: “Though it is no doubt important who is elected governor, mayor, or legislator, (and full of dismay when incompetent or vile ones get elected, as they sometimes do,) there are other, quieter contingencies, infinitely more important.” Alexander Hamilton, in most ways so unlike Whitman, heard similar chords. He started the Federalist Papers asking whether we can live together by “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” These authors saw republican self-rule not only as a way of making decisions by choice but also as a path to cultural and spiritual development. For Whitman, it meant being able to stand up “without humiliation, and equal with the rest” and starting that “grand experiment of development, whose end, (perhaps requiring several generations,) may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman.”

If we’re smart, we’ll focus on the prose: the catalog of serious and enduring flaws that beset democracy. But if we’re wise, we’ll also hear the music, and that will keep us working on a new generation of solutions.

the question of sacrifice in politics

Elizabeth Eckford attempting to enter Little Rock School on 4th September, 1957

(Atlanta, en route to Starkville, MS) Sacrifice can be a political act; often politics requires it. Sacrifice would be unnecessary in an ideal society and pointless in a completely static one; but in an unjust society that is subject to change, it is both necessary and powerful. Social movements are fueled by sacrifice. However, sacrifice also presents risks that we must learn to contain.

I’ll consider two cases in this post. Gandhi pledged in 1932 to starve himself to death over an issue related to untouchability. Black parents sent their children to segregated Little Rock schools in 1957 in the face of mob violence. These were acts of sacrifice in the sense that people voluntarily risked something of great value to achieve a political end.

The Gandhi example is fraught. He originally swore to starve in order to prevent Dalits from receiving separate representatives in an all-India legislature. The most charitable interpretation of this rather perplexing stance is nationalist: he wanted everyone to vote simply as an Indian. The great Dalit leader Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar insisted on separate representation for the so-called Untouchables to prevent them from being dominated by caste Hindus. When he visited the literally starving Gandhi in prison, they negotiated a compromise involving a temporary set-aside of seats for Dalilt. Ambedkar wanted that provision to last for ten years “to stabilise opinion” Gandhi countered:

Five years or my life. Tell your followers that is what Gandhi says and plead my case before them, and if they do not accept this from you surely they do not deserve to be called your followers. My life is in your pocket. I may be a despicable creature, but when the truth speaks through me I am invincible. You have a perfect right to demand cent percent security by statutory safeguards, but from my fiery bed, I beg of you not to insist upon that right. I am here today to ask for a reprieve for my caste Hindu brethren.

Gandhi used a threat to end his own life (and thereby produce an enormous emotional upheaval in the subcontinent) in order to limit a provision intended to help the least advantaged Indians. Soon, the Mahatma converted his fast into an attack on the very principle of Untouchability, but he still used a threat to sacrifice himself to defeat Ambedkar, who was never persuaded on the merits yet found Gandhi politically “invincible.”

The Little Rock school desegregation campaign is far more attractive, yet Hannah Arendt famously disapproved of it. Partly, that was because she interpreted US racial conflict from the perspective of a formerly assimilated German Jew who had concluded that Jews would never be accepted in Europe; thus she leaned toward separatism rather than integration. She also misunderstood race and racism in the US. But most importantly, her republican political ideals caused her to overlook the value of sacrifice.

In a republic, citizens are both rulers and ruled (to use Aristotle’s definition). They make joint, binding decisions about life-and-death matters after airing their differences in public fora. Sometimes, a citizen must pay a high price—for instance, being drafted and then killed in a battle for the republic. But that is not a “sacrifice” in the sense of an individual, voluntary act. It’s the outcome of a joint decision made through law.

A core republican idea is “non-domination.” No citizen may just tell any other citizen what to do. Citizens are governed by general laws that must be defended with general arguments. Therefore, the paradigmatic examples of sacrifice for Christians—God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac; God sacrificing His only-begotten son for love of the world—are not models for republican politics.

People are either citizens of a given republic or not. Arendt strongly opposed statelessness because it made refugees into citizens of nowhere. She thought that children and adolescents were not citizens because they couldn’t rule. In “Reflections on Little Rock,” she describes schooling as preparation for “future citizenship.” Because children are not current but future citizens, to ask them to act politically is to expect them to be ruled without ruling.

However, the most startling part of the whole business was the Federal decision to start integration in, of all places, the public schools. It certainly did not require too much imagination to see that this was to burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve. I think no one will find it easy to forget the photograph reproduced in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, showing a Negro girl, accompanied by a white friend of her father, walking away from school, persecuted and followed into bodily proximity by a jeering and grimacing mob of youngsters. The girl, obviously was asked to be a hero–that is, something neither her absent father nor the equally absent representatives of the NAACP felt called upon to be. It will be hard for the white youngsters, or at least those among them who outgrow their present brutality, to live down this photograph which exposes so mercilessly their juvenile delinquency. The picture looked to me like a fantastic caricature of progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it. Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change or improve the world?” And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the schoolyards?

Arendt didn’t use the word “sacrifice” in this passage because it was not yet part of her vocabulary. Ralph Ellison took her to task on that point in an interview with Robert Penn Warren:

That’s right – you’re forgetting sacrifice, and the idea of sacrifice is very deeply inbred in Negroes. This is the thing – my mother always said I don’t know what’s going to happen to us if you young Negroes don’t do so-and-so-and-so. The command went out and it still goes out. You’re supposed to be somebody, and it’s in relationship to the group. This is part of the American Negro experience, and this also means that the idea of sacrifice is always right there. This is where Hannah Arendt is way off in left base in her reflections on Little Rock. She has no conception of what goes on in the parents who send their kids through these lines. The kid is supposed to be able to go through the line – he’s a Negro, and he’s supposed to have mastered those tensions, and if he gets hurt then this is one more sacrifice.

To her credit, Arendt wrote to Ellison, “It is precisely the ideal of sacrifice that I didn’t understand.”

Danielle Allen, in Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education, rightly makes the dispute between Arendt and Ellison a central issue for democratic theory. Allen argues that sacrifice is a characteristic political act, because even belonging to a community requires giving things up, and changing it usually carries a higher price. Although formally we all sacrifice by belonging to a community, the actual level of sacrifice always differs very unfairly. Unequal sacrifice is thus a fundamental reality; it calls for specific responses, such as acknowledgement and recompense.

I agree; political theory must address and encompass sacrifice. Acts of sacrifice also have specific cultural and religious resonances, different in each tradition, and these are resources for the world’s oppressed people. The trouble is that sacrifice is also coercive and can overwhelm deliberation. As with many aspects of politics, what we need is balance.