looking for deliberative moments

It’s not so unusual to enter a discussion without having a firm view of what should be done (perhaps without even having focused on the agenda), to listen and speak for a while, and finally to reach a collective decision that wasn’t predictable in advance. Before the discussion begins, some of the participants may know what they want, but others are unsure or flexible, and the conversation forms or shifts the consensus.

However, it is not easy to find recordings or transcriptions of such processes. I spent part of the last long weekend reading the minutes of US school boards and city councils, scanning the translated transcripts of 50 village assemblies in southern India, dipping into legislative records from several countries, and even searching for archives of email exchanges within organizations that have come to light due to leaks or lawsuits. I found brief moments in which a few people seemed to be listening to make up their minds, but no sustained examples of that phenomenon.

My belief in the existence of deliberation might seem naive, except that I have experienced it many times–even in the past few months–and nobody seems surprised when it happens. I think we are used to it, but recorded examples are scarce.

Two reasons occur to me, and they may have some significance for political theory.

One is a kind of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for deliberation. Once you record a conversation and make it publicly available for public review, the tenor shifts. Participants know that they are speaking to an audience composed of people who are not part of the conversation, not accountable for the decisions, and not able to reply in time to affect the outcome. Participants begin articulating positions and reasons that strangers can assess later, instead of trying to decide what to do. Thus the presence of an observer shifts the phenomenon, especially if the observer is an anonymous audience in the future.

The other reason involves the typical function of official meetings. As I scan town council minutes, legislative records, and transcripts of Indian village assemblies, I see people talking under tight time pressure in order to convey specific positions. For instance:

[Member of the] Public: You have read that street lights are going to be fixed. When are you going to install?

Male (Officer): We have passed resolution, made a budget and allotted the work. Very soon we will do it.

Public: We need ration shop at Pappanaickenpatti. There are more than 300 cards in our town. Every time we have to come all the way from our village. By the time we reach the shop, all the items will be sold out. We request you to consider our petition. We are very badly in need of separate ration shop at our village. We are ready to construct a building for this purpose.

Male (Officer): We will discuss with the civil supplies officer and let you know. (source)

Or:

[Board of Trustees] President Raymond remarked she was impressed by the commitment to distance and blended learning by the District through the creation of the Department because it illustrated the learning models were ones the District was interested in fully developing and not just using during the current school year.

Trustee Taylor wondered if the vision was to have a single platform for all distance learning in the District.

Ms. Anderson cautioned it was important the District not make any major shifts at the present time related to the changing of learning platforms since the current model was very fragile. She would like to focus more on developing best practices for the platforms currently being used, due to the current strain teachers and students were under, and then look at creating more of a sustainable model in the future.

(source)

I think these people are doing valid public work. They are putting concerns, questions, directives, and commitments on the record. Before and after these recorded moments, the same individuals may have had many conversations in which they tried to learn about the situation and about other people’s views. The public event may also spur later discussions in their community.

These transcripts do not make me cynical about deliberative democracy. I imagine that the same people listen and learn. But deliberation is very rare during the moments that are captured on the public record.

This is a challenge for me because I am helping to develop methods for modeling deliberative conversations, and I am not finding a lot of material to analyze. I am especially interested in the regular decision-making processes of governments and other organizations. Yes, I also like citizens’ forums or “minipublics”–venues where representative people are convened to discuss public questions. I even co-edited a Handbook about them! But I think they are atypical, which means that evidence derived from them would not generalize well. (Besides, Indian village councils are minipublics, and they sound a lot like US public meetings.)

If you have suggestions for transcripts or videos that I could model, I would be grateful. In any case, I think our theories of democracy should take account of this pattern. Although we imagine that deliberation should occur in legislatures and town meetings, this is unlikely. A public meeting is a moment in a larger stream of discourse. Its function is to memorialize a set of positions and reasons, while the learning and the change take place elsewhere.

The post looking for deliberative moments appeared first on Peter Levine.

The Vuslat Foundation and Generous Listening

The Vuslat Foundation has opened a public website as generouslistening.org. At the Tisch College of Civic Life, we are one of their partners, as you can tell from the description of a conference that we co-organized and held at Tufts last year (a symposium on “Generous Listening in Organizations“); a blog post by my colleague James Fisher about Quaker dialogues in West Africa; and other references on their site.

The Foundation also does much work on their own or with other partners, including remarkable support-groups for women displaced by the earthquakes in Southeast Turkey in 2023.

I come to this partnership as someone who has studied political deliberation–for instance, as a co-editor (with John Gastil) of the Deliberative Democracy Handbook. SInce the late 1900s, public deliberation has been a movement of theorists and practitioners, but it is rooted in much older ideas about politics that have typically emphasized speech, communication, persuasion, and rhetoric–as both virtues and threats.

The Vuslat Foundation has helped me to shift my focus from one side of the exchange to the other–from speaking to listening. Of course, these acts always go together (even when they are metaphors for written speech, signs, or gestures). It is hardly a novel insight that communication requires at least two people. But I have benefitted from thinking more about the listening side.

First, there’s an ethical imperative. Listening well (“generously,” in the language that the Vuslat Foundation has developed) is an important virtue. Using one’s voice well is also virtuous, and sometimes even obligatory, but the need to be a good listener seems especially compelling.

Second, we can think about listening holistically. One aspect is listening to other people in deliberations, but we also listen to ourselves, to animals, waves, or the wind, to human soundscapes, to near-silence, perhaps to the divine, and to those who are long dead. I have found it useful to think of civic listening as just one kind of listening.

Third, I am taken by the “interactionist” theory of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, which has helped me make sense of some of my own data–in forthcoming articles. To summarize their model crudely, imagine two or more people discussing what to do. When individuals speak, they tend to use motivated reasoning: inventing justifications for what they already want to believe, sometimes for bad reasons, such as self-interested bias. But when they listen to other people offer reasons, they are relatively good at assessing whether these points are valid, and they may change their minds. Mercier and Sperber offer an evolutionary explanation that suggests that highly social and verbal primates would develop the ability to make arguments to advance their own interests, but also the ability to assess others’ arguments in order to make good collective judgments.

Mercier and Sperber never suggest that listening always goes well. We can certainly listen selectively and exhibit bad motives when we select whom and what to listen to. But their theory suggests that we can improve individual skills and conditions for listening–perhaps more easily than we can improve speaking.

Finally, listening has spiritual (or at least psychotherapeutic) benefits that have been recognized and developed in many traditions. Although we can also gain spiritually from communicating well, the listening side is especially relevant to meditative practices of all kinds.

See also: how intuitions relate to reasons: a social approach; an agenda for R&D for democracy; “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”; ‘every thing that lives is holy’: Blake’s radical relativism; “The Listeners“; “Midlife“.

lessons from the Virginia social studies controversy

In Politico, James Traub offers a deeply reported account of the recent conflict over standards in Virginia, entitled “Virginia Went to War Over History and Students Actually Came Out on Top.”

Standards are official guidelines about what must be taught in public schools. They may influence enforceable policies, such as which textbooks are purchased and what is covered on exams, and hence the experience of students and teachers. Standards for history and civics often provoke the most intense debates, because they address the nature of our society. Although I had no involvement in the Virginia episode, I have been deeply engaged in other efforts to write frameworks and model standards for social studies, and Traub’s account rings true to me.

A very brief summary: under former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, the Virginia state department of education drafted new state social studies standards. Before these standards could be reviewed by the state board, Northam was succeeded by Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, whose campaign emphasized his opposition to “woke culture” and “critical race theory.” Youngkin named a new superintendent of public instruction and a majority of members of the school board. With those appointees in place, the state paused and then dramatically rewrote the draft standards, with input from strong conservatives.

Then the board, despite its Youngkin majority, rejected the new draft as biased and error-prone. It stepped in and painstakingly revised the document in ways that satisfied all of its members (including those who had been appointed by Northam) and drew support from outside groups viewed as both liberal and conservative. Traub writes, “The six-month debate was an absolutely terrible experience for everyone involved, yet the standards the board finally approved achieved something almost miraculous: something close to unity.”

As an example of the results, the state board coalesced around this language in the new standards document:

The standards provide an unflinching and fact-based coverage of world, United States, and Virginia history. Students will study the horrors of wars and genocide, including the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing campaigns that have occurred throughout history and continue today. They will better understand the abhorrent treatment of Indigenous peoples, the indelible stain of slavery, segregation, and racism in the United States and around the world, and the inhumanity and deprivations of totalitarian and communist regimes. Students also will study inspirational moments … 

For me, these are the most important general lessons from the controversy.

First, although people bring prior political views into debates about what should be taught, our opinions are highly diverse (not simply left or right), and most of us want students to encounter and assess ideas that we personally do not endorse. Philosophical diversity is valuable because even those of us who want students to encounter a wide range of views may have implicit biases that can be challenged in a discussion. When serious participants who are ideologically diverse try to write good standards or guidelines together, they need not polarize into two camps, or even take predictable positions as individuals.

Debates about content are nuanced and often involve the appropriate balance between social and political history, leaders and popular movements, compelling stories and complexities, and domestic and international affairs. These questions do not necessarily have liberal or conservative answers.

Second, the hot debates are not only about which topics and ideas should be “covered” but also about how to teach. Should all students be required to learn some information, whether it interests them or not? Or should students have a lot of choice about which topics to investigate? Should students encounter highly charged topics–at all ages, only as older teenagers, or at all? Specifically, should public schools confront students with ideas that challenge their sense that they belong and are valued in the school? Does it matter which students are so challenged? Should the emphasis be on skills or knowledge, on theory or practice, and on discourse or action?

Again, these debates do not line up so that there is a right and a left camp. For myself: I believe that all students should be required to confront some information about our past that many will find uncomfortable and that relatively few students would seek out if they could drive all the questions in their classrooms. This position would seem to align me with pedagogical conservatives, except that the same points are being made most forcefully by progressives. For example, The 1619 Project is all about conveying facts deemed essential.

As many have noted, the new Florida African American History Standards basically suggest that no one supported slavery. Florida students must learn “how the members of the Continental Congress made attempts to end or limit slavery” and “how slavery increased … in spite of the desire of the Continental Congress to end the importation of slaves.” Florida students will study white people who were abolitionists, but no one who actually defended slavery. John C. Calhoun is never mentioned, let alone assigned as an author to read. Florida students are supposed to “recognize” the title of Dred Scott as a “landmark Supreme Court case” but do not have to read that decision, which declared that people of African descent could never be US citizens.

I would require students to read racist texts (no “de-platforming” Sen. Calhoun or Chief Justice Taney) and learn specific information. Ron DeSantis defends omitting that information and has ordered that “A person should not be instructed that he or she must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions, in which he or she played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” In partial contrast, the new Virginia standards say: “Students should be exposed to the facts of our past in a content-rich and engaging way, even when those facts are uncomfortable.”

Since these issues have many dimensions and nuances, it should not be surprising to find views shared across political differences. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is generally considered conservative. Commenting on the draft Virginia standards, their reviewers said, “The Dred Scott decision is not noted by name in any of the U.S. history course standards. Its enormous impact should at the least be mentioned here in what is (presumably) the high school course.” Likewise, they criticized the omission of McCarthyism, which “led to the violation of Americans’ rights.” I find myself perfectly aligned with this feedback despite being generally quite liberal as a voter.

Third, even when people’s views are diverse, nuanced, and unpredictable, there can be political advantages to presenting differences as polarized and defining the stakes so that a majority will agree with your own side. Glenn Youngkin waged a campaign against “woke” ideology in public schools. From the opposite end of the spectrum, someone went to a lot of trouble to create a popular meme about innocuous books that the DeSantis administration had allegedly banned, when the state had banned no books.

Actual misinformation is unacceptable, but I’ll mention a closer case. Florida did not pass a bill labeled “Don’t Say Gay.” That name was affixed by Democrats and liberals who criticized the law. The relevant provision says, “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

I am not sure that the label “Don’t Say Gay” is false, but it simplifies the law in order to drive opposition to it. This mode of political debate is not necessarily wrong or bad. I oppose the actual Florida law and understand why liberals would mobilize people against it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues chose Birmingham, AL as their target in 1963 because they knew they could draw a clear contrast with the racist outgoing police commissioner. King wrote that a nonviolent campaign

seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. … I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

In short, dramatizing differences with one’s political opponent is a legitimate move in a free society. However, onlookers should be aware when this strategy is being used and should assess whether the goals are appropriate, and whether any collateral damage is necessary to accomplish the goals. They should also ask whether rhetoric has strayed from divisiveness into downright falsehood.

Ron DeSantis does not have to wage a rhetorical war against liberal educators; he could choose to deliberate with them, as the Virginia board did. Voters should recognize the choice to polarize an issue for what it is. They should not assume that it is inevitable. The Virginia case shows that another outcome is possible (although not automatically preferable) — people with diverse opinions can come to agreement.

Although politicians can be tempted to polarize, official bodies such as state boards can be equally inclined to present consensus even when they have not quite accomplished it. Above, I quoted the Virginia standards’ aspiration to “provide an unflinching and fact-based coverage” of history, but anyone may each assess whether they offer that. In my personal opinion, the list of “principles” on p. 4 is mildly problematic, presenting the debate between socialism and market economies as closed when I would ask students to think about it for themselves. But I don’t believe that this list matters much. In my view, the presentation of slavery and Black American “accomplishments” in the body of the Virginia standards is appropriate. Overall, the standards seem to take a both/and approach, genuinely including both the crimes and the successes of US history.

The whole document is quite short and general, which is itself a choice, leaving a lot for teachers to decide (for better and worse). Any major commercial textbook series would be compatible with these standards, which means that in many classrooms, the textbook will determine the content. In fact, the most important policy question may be who should decide what is taught–students, teachers, parents, local authorities, state authorities, or publishers? Because of its generality, the Virginia document may actually represent a delegation to the publishers.

See also: two dimensions of debate about civics; “Teaching Honest History:” a conversation with Randi Weingarten and Marcia Chatelain; the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education; what Americans think about teaching controversy in schools; a conversation with Danielle Allen about civic education; etc.

using federal spending to strengthen democracy

The federal government is authorized to spend an additional $2 trillion over the next 10 years through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. I support many of the priorities in these laws.

But government spending should be democratic–at several levels. Operating in a democratic way is consistent with justice and is most likely to be sustainable, because people will feel relatively supportive of government programs that engage them. This is the version of social democracy or Great Society liberalism that I can get behind.

What does spending money democratically mean? First, a fairly elected, deliberative legislature should allocate the funds into large categories. That pretty much happened with these bills (acknowledging many imperfections).

Then the federal agencies and state and local governments that administer the funds should engage relevant communities in deciding how to spend the money in detail and should form partnerships with groups (which may not be federal grantees) to accomplish the intended outcomes of the spending. Finally, the funds should allow many people to be hired and given a voice in the programs–including those who do the blue-collar work.

Spending on public transportation is a good example. The White House says there will be “$89.9 billion in guaranteed funding for public transit over the next five years — the largest Federal investment in public transit in history.” This investment has potential benefits for climate, racial equity, and convenience and quality of life.

States and cities will receive portions of this money. They should give their communities appropriate voice in deciding what and where to build. They should form partnerships with community groups whose goals align (e.g., community development corporations that can build dense housing near the transit). And they should employ workers–often via contracts with businesses–who have a say and who see pathways to influential Green careers.

This approach is inconsistent with libertarian conservatism, which opposes the spending in the first place. It is also inconsistent with technocratic progressivism, which views community engagement with deep skepticism. Doesn’t “engagement” mean NIMBY groups that block valuable projects in their neighborhoods, well-resourced companies that grab government contracts, and process-driven delays that dilute the benefits for both environment and racial equity?

The truth is, public engagement must be done well. A one-time public meeting in which citizens line up at the microphone to yell at public officials–that is a recipe for disaster. A worthwhile process takes planning and money. It requires training and technical support for the federal civil servants, local public employees, and activists who are involved. Since no single training program can accomplish very much, success requires building experienced bodies of employees who have run processes before and have learned to do them better.

We have not tried this approach for many decades in the USA–not since the Great Society, which tried various experiments in community engagement under the heading of “Maximum Feasible Participation” (with mixed success).

Reagan depicted government as the problem, although federal outlays per capita, adjusted for inflation, rose rapidly during Reagan’s term and only stabilized under Clinton. Also, despite a rhetorical commitment to hiring contractors instead of career civil servants, the civil service actually grew in that era. However, I think that federal capacity for public engagement shrank, outside of certain notable programs. More importantly, Congress launched or redesigned very few social programs after the late 1960s. That means that most federal money has flowed into well worn channels, offering limited opportunities for deliberation about what and how to spend.

Then, when the Obama Administration got a chance to allocate a substantial amount of new money in the 2009 stimulus, the progressive technocratic approach clearly won out. Efficiency was the by-word. Funds went to “shovel-ready” projects that were seen as offering the quickest return, or to initiatives informed by behavioral economics that were supposed to “nudge” people without them even being aware, or to competitions (like “Race to the Top”) that were meant to leverage non-federal funds. There was no sense that the public would be involved in defining and solving national problems along with the federal government.

Democratic spending is the path not taken, at least not since ca. 1965. We should find out whether it can produce sustainable, popular, and fair social outcomes in ways that we have not seen in my lifetime. That requires:

  • Setting aside tiny but real percentages of the federal funds for democratic and deliberative processes and for the training and technical assistance that they require. I am not sure to what extent those purposes are authorized under current law. If it is impossible to spend federal funds this way, then philanthropy should step up.
  • Considering new rules, such as offering special grants to communities that can demonstrate that they have reached agreement about priorities across traditional lines of difference, such as race, partisanship, or urban/suburban/rural divides. I’d be especially interested in agreements that bridge distant communities, such as coal towns and East Coast cities.
  • Intellectual leadership: influential people should articulate the value of public engagement. In the Obama Administration, the president did that, albeit somewhat vaguely. No members of his cabinet and hardly any liberal public intellectuals backed him up. The stimulus package and Obamacare came across as strictly technocratic and were assessed only for their outcomes (while democratic culture waned). We need more effective voices to defend democracy this time.

When David Meyers of The Fulcrum asked me yesterday to comment on the fact that the public identifies “the government” as the biggest problem facing us today, I replied that the most promising solution is to spend money democratically. My reply was rooted in the best traditions of the New Deal and Great Society (as I see them), but it’s a fairly marginal view today. It’s an alternative to three prevalent assumptions: that democracy is mostly a matter of fair electoral processes, that activated citizens are often a nuisance, and that protecting democracy means uplifting some kind of political center. I think we must exercise power to improve the world, but do so in ways that empower our full diversity of people in their roles as citizens.

See also: the Green New Deal and civic renewal; the new manipulative politics: behavioral economics, microtargeting, and the choice confronting Organizing for Action; Democrats as technocrats; Hillary Clinton on spending for infrastructure; the long march through institutions–for civic renewal; the big lessons of Obamacare; empowering citizens to make sure the stimulus is well spent; etc.

assigning students to write cases

I think of a “teaching case” as a true story that culminates in a difficult decision that has confronted an individual or group. The decision is typically difficult because of conflicting values, incomplete information, and unpredictable outcomes. A teaching case is useful as a prompt for discussion and to teach the disposition of acting wisely under uncertainty, or phronesis. I especially like cases in which groups must decide collectively, because those stories allow attention to the dynamics of group decision-making. Here is a selection of such “civic” cases: https://sites.tufts.edu/civicstudies/case-studies/

This semester, I have been co-teaching a course with Jennifer Howe Peace, who has extensive experience not only leading discussions based on teaching cases but also assigning students to write such cases. We did just that this fall. Each of our students selected a real-world situation, conducted research, wrote a 2-3 page case about it, and led a discussion.

I recommend this pedagogy for teaching the following essential civic skills:

  1. Identifying decisions worthy of discussion. Actual groups often overlook or evade decisions that they should discuss and spend time on matters that don’t require deliberation. (See “a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups.”) Writing a case means choosing a topic that should be discussed.
  2. Identifying the tradeoffs and other difficulties, such as incomplete information and unpredictability.
  3. Identifying who is in a position to make which choices. It is a costly distraction to ask what someone should do if they can’t do it. A good written case centers on one or more protagonists who are able to choose.
  4. Deciding when to start and end the story. This side of the Big Bang, every story has emerged from many previous ones. The web of human interaction has no beginning. The choice of when to start a written story frames it for readers; it is an act of judgment. (For instance, does the story of the USA begin in 1492, 1619, 1776, 1789 …?) Writing a case teaches the skill and ethics of picking beginnings and endings well.
  5. Eliciting interest and attention. A well-written case makes its readers interested. Getting people’s attention is a basic civic skill.

See also: A Festival of Cases, June 24; three new cases for learning how to organize and make collective change; practical lessons from classic cases of civil disobedience; Levinson and Fay, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics; Bent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesis;

civic leverage

The illustration with this post illustrates an idea from my book What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life, but it is not included in the book (because I just thought of it.)

The circle labeled “institutional design” refers to a process of establishing rules, norms, membership criteria, etc. for any group. Unless an institution evolves from its predecessors, it is usually designed by a single founder or a small leadership team. An inchoate collection of people cannot design an institution from scratch. Only once the design is reasonably effective will many human beings be able to coordinate their behavior sufficiently to accomplish anything worth discussing. The options for designs include democratic processes, market mechanisms, strong leaders, bureaucratic structures, and many more.

From a civic perspective, a good institution is one that encompasses some variety of perspectives and values and that enables its members to express their contrasting views in ways that inform the whole. The circle labeled “conversation about values” can mean a deliberative democracy, but it can take many other forms as well. For instance, although the Catholic Church does not purport to be a democracy, it is a rich platform for discussion and debate. Conversations about values increase the chances that a group will make wise choices and allow individuals to exercise voice and agency, which is part of a good life.

When people in a functioning group discuss values, they may motivate themselves to make sacrifices (the third circle in the diagram). Even an ordinary voluntary association asks people to spend time attending its meetings. A movement that confronts violent repression may ask its participants to put their lives at extreme risk. The degree of contribution varies, but some level is inevitable. “Organization is sacrifice,” as WEB DuBois once wrote.

Sacrifice can affect the original institutional design. For instance, an ordinary voluntary association will wax or wane depending on who gives time and money, and how much. A social movement may change the fundamental structure of the government itself.

This cycle must occur at a human scale. It’s about discussion, relationships, and individuals’ impact on groups. Participants must know one another. The maximum number of people who can engage together is not clear, but it is much less than the eight billion people who share our earth today. Thus the limitation of this cycle is its size in comparison to the scale of our problems.

The answer must be leverage–smallish groups affecting much larger groups by influencing governments, markets, corporations, or media-producers.

Leverage affords power, but it is problematic because it is unidimensional: some people affect others without knowing them or hearing from them. I think we must accept the moral disadvantage of leverage, but we can mitigate it by expecting the people who exercise power over others to do so as members of groups that are somewhat diverse and porous (or connected to other groups) and that go through the cycle of institutional design, conversation about values, sacrifice, and re-design. That process increases the odds that they will be wise in their treatment of strangers.

See also du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence; a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups; both detailed institutional analysis and holistic critique;  a template for analyzing an institutionComplexities of Civic Life, etc.

dialogue and de-radicalization

Some people argue that the deep problem with US democracy is polarization. I have some doubts about that thesis.* However, let’s assume it contains at least some truth. One possible remedy is direct: recruit people from opposite sides of our political divide to engage in dialogue so that they develop empathy and perhaps discover some common ground.

This remedy implies a moral equivalence between the ends of the spectrum, which I cannot endorse at a time when one end is flirting with fascism. It may imply a bias toward the political center. And it asks people who are targeted by hate to participate in encounters that may be difficult or even dangerous for them. I appreciated Stanford Prof. Hakeem Jefferson’s response to an experiment that brought representative Americans together across ideological divides:

Fair enough, but then how should we go about de-radicalizing people? In a report for the Democracy Fund, Andrew Blum assembles evidence from international sources that support eight types of intervention:

  1. Assistance to individuals who want to exit from violent-extremist groups
  2. Targeted outreach to individuals who are at risk of extremism
  3. Voluntary codes of conduct for political and community leaders and media figures
  4. Intergroup engagement
  5. Setting norms against violence in existing groups
  6. Peace education
  7. Documenting and tracking acts of political violence
  8. Improving police-community relations

Number 4 on this list encompasses dialogues between people who hold strongly opposing views. Thus dialogue is one of several strategies for de-radicalization that have empirical support. Blum argues that many of these approaches should be combined in a coordinated way, and he offers examples of communities, like Medellin and Oakland, that have done so.

Similarly, john a. powell argues that dialogue (or more precisely, “bridging”) is a remedy for toxic polarization, but only if the process attends to deep inequalities. People should not be asked to talk under conditions of oppression.

We should address all forms of violent political extremism. In the USA today, I think a large majority of the people who would meet a neutral definition of violent extremists would be right-wingers, but if there are left-wing extremists (or centrist ones), they need attention, too.

I encountered both sources cited above at an excellent meeting of the Kettering Foundation. See Andrew Blum (2021) The Costs of Political Violence in the United States: The Benefits of Investing in Communities, Democracy Fund; and john a. powell, Overcoming Toxic Polarization: Lessons in Effective Bridging, 40(2) Law & Ineq. 247 (2022), DOI: https://doi.org/10.24926/25730037.645.

*class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; affective polarization is symmetrical; the “America in One Room” experiment etc.

a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups

I few days ago, I proposed that Jane Mansbridge’s great book Beyond Adversary Democracy can suggest practical tools that would assist democratic groups as they make decisions. Such tools should be tested and revised, based on experience in the field.

As a first step, I provide this flowchart (above). The first step is to conduct a survey. The questionnaire would have to be carefully designed, but it could be customized easily for other organizations. Members of the group would be asked what they care about, their attitudes about process, and their social identities and roles within the organization. The survey would yield data that could then inform how the group makes decisions about each issue that the respondents mention.

introducing Habermas

This is a 29-minute video lecture* in which I introduce the core ideas of the great German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas. I made it for our current Introduction to Civic Studies course, but it’s available for anyone to use. It also summarizes the beginning of chapter 4 of my recent book, What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life. In the book, I proceed to raise numerous critiques of Habermas, all of which have some validity, although I continue to find his framework useful.

*New version posted on 9/29, with better audio.

An agenda for R&D for democracy

In The American Political Science Review, Henry Farrell, Hugo Mercier, and Melissa Schwartzberg (2022) challenge two influential views.

One view paints a “despairing picture” of democratic reasoning. It assembles evidence that individuals demonstrate “ignorance and incompetence” about political matters, while groups “invariably” suffer from “conformity,” “affective polarization,” “the rejection of countervailing arguments from nongroup members, and backfire effects.”

The other view holds that deliberating groups are wiser than individuals because they can pool intelligence and combine perspectives.

Farrell, Mercier & Schwartzberg argue that both theories generalize too much. Some democratic processes work out well; some do not. They cite recent “interactionist” research in psychology. “Instead of looking to the (supposedly invariant) cognitive limitations of ordinary citizens as skeptics do, an interactionist approach suggests that we should investigate the social context of decisions—how groups are structured—to understand when group identity and social pressure can distort or swamp problem solving [or not].”

Farrell and his colleagues use Elinor Ostrom as a model or inspiration for this agenda. Ostrom did not emphasize the main question of deliberative democratic theory, which is something like this: How should we debate and reach conclusions about contested matters, such as public policies? Instead, she asked how people should coordinate their individual behavior to achieve outcomes that they all endorse. Whereas democratic processes involve reasoning and discussion, many of the examples that interested Ostrom were about quiet work, e.g., digging irrigation canals or editing Wikipedia articles. Still, she confronted a similar situation to the one that Farrell et al. describe in democratic theory today.

When Ostrom got started, a dominant view held that individuals cannot coordinate effectively without external compulsion: the “tragedy of the commons” problem, articulated most famously by Garrett Hardin. Mancur Olson (1971) argued that sometimes voluntary coordination succeeds, and the key variable is the size of the group. Small voluntary groups can function; large ones cannot. Ostrom absorbed that claim as part of a much more ambitious research agenda. She strove to identify aspects of groups that vary and then explored which variables affect the quality of outcomes. The size of groups turned out to be relatively insignificant, not even appearing on her list of “design principles.”

If I may say so, I adopt a very similar position to Farrell and colleagues in my new book, What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life (2022). I summarize Ostrom’s agenda in chapter 3 and then turn to deliberative processes. Like Farrell and colleagues, I argue that we should approach deliberative democracy much as Ostrom addressed coordination. We should experiment and test which specific conditions make discussions go well. I argue that Ostrom’s school of political economy should pay more attention to deliberation about values, because that is a necessary activity of groups. (In many of Ostrom’s cases, there is no dispute about values.) I also discuss nonviolent social movements, but that is a different topic.

When the argument is stated as in Farrell, Mercier & Schwartzberg, I anticipate two difficult but fruitful questions.

First, how should we identify successes and failures so that we can decide which democratic processes work? After all, people often disagree about what constitutes a success. One option is to use obvious cases of failure, when everyone would regard the outcome as suboptimal. We can ask why that happened. But this approach shifts the research away from debates about principles and goals toward purely instrumental problems, like how to preserve common resources, which Ostrom and her many colleagues already studied. The more controversial the topic becomes, the less we already know about how to structure conversations about it–although I would cite literature that Farrell et al. don’t mention, such as work by John Gastil, Archon Fung, Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger, Celina Su, and others. These authors have identified variables that affect conversational quality, such as the method of recruiting or admitting participants, the nature of the facilitation, and the stakes of the discussion. Still, the problem of identifying success remains. (They do mention essential work by Michael Neblo et al.)

Second, what should be done with the findings? This research has implications for the design of governments and other big institutions. The US Constitution already requires jury trials; the Constitution of India requires every village to have an empowered annual meeting. Knowing more about the conditions that make discussions go well can help us to understand whether such provisions are optimal and what other rights and institutions we should add.

But I think the main audience will be civil society. Voluntary groups–including those that seek to influence governments–are best positioned to experiment with formats for discussion. They have more flexibility than governments, they can change more easily, and their sheer number and variety creates more opportunities.

Sources: Farrell, H., Mercier, H., & Schwartzberg, M. (2022). Analytical Democratic Theory: A Microfoundational Approach. American Political Science Review, 1-6; Ostrom, Elinor (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, Olson, Mancur (1991), The Logic of Collective Action, Harvard University Press. See also: don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic; how political talk relates to its context; this is what deliberative democracy looks like; why study real-life deliberation?; the legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School; etc.