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.

what makes conversation go well (a network model)

I’m looking forward to presenting later today at NULab’s first annual conference, on the theme: “Keeping the Public Sphere Open.”

I think of the “public sphere” as all the venues where people come together to share experiences, emotions, and reasons in order to form public opinion. In turn, public opinion should then influence institutions; that makes the society democratic.

An open public sphere, as in the title of the conference, is one that permits and appropriately responds to every person’s ideas; no idea or person is blocked. The state can threaten the openness of the public sphere by censoring ideas or blocking individuals from participating. The marketplace can threaten the openness of the public sphere when, for instance, ISPs charge more money for some content, or when private donors flood the airwaves with campaign commercials. Thus, to preserve an open public sphere, we need policies like a strong First Amendment, net neutrality, and campaign finance reform.

But openness is not enough. The conversations within any public sphere can go well or badly. Along with several colleagues, I have been thinking about deliberation in the following way:

  1. People hold ideas prior to a conversation that we can think of as networks. Each idea may be connected to each other idea by reasons. The person’s network has content (what the ideas say) and also a form. For instance, someone might arrange all of her ideas around one central node, or might hold a set of disconnected principles.
  2. When we talk, we share portions of our existing networks, one node or one reason at a time.
  3. Interaction with other people may cause us to change our network. We can adopt ideas that other people disclose, see new connections or doubt that connections really hold, think of new ideas on our own, or even adopt contrary ideas. In any case, our personal networks are subject to change.
  4. The discussion itself can be modeled as one network to which the various participants have contributed nodes and links.

If we could develop a valid and reliable way of modeling an individual’s private network with respect to a given topic before a conversation, and then we put individuals in dialogue and modeled their interactions, I would predict that: 1) the formal properties of their networks before the discussion would influence the quality of the discussion, 2) the quality of the discussion would be related to changes in their personal networks, 3) an individual’s networks would tend to look formally similar even when the topic changed (e.g., some people would be prone to thinking about most topics in a centralized or in a scattered way), and 4) a given issue would tend to produce formally similar networks for diverse individuals (e.g., the abortion debate and a budget discussion would generate different-looking networks regardless of the participants).

There then follow a whole set of questions about what a good conversation looks like and how people should structure and change their thoughts.

See also: it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedtracking change in a group that discusses issuesnetwork dynamics in conversation; and assessing a discussion.

New Papers Published: FixMyStreet and the World’s Largest Participatory Budgeting


Voting in Rio Grande do Sul’s Participatory Budgeting  (picture by Anderson Lopes)

Here are two new published papers that my colleagues Jon Mellon, Fredrik Sjoberg and myself have been working on.

The first, The Effect of Bureaucratic Responsiveness on Citizen Participation, published in Public Administration Review, is – to our knowledge – the first study to quantitatively assess at the individual level the often-assumed effect of government responsiveness on citizen engagement. It also describes an example of how the data provided through digital platforms may be leveraged to better understand participatory behavior. This is the fruit of a research collaboration with MySociety, to whom we are extremely thankful.

Below is the abstract:

What effect does bureaucratic responsiveness have on citizen participation? Since the 1940s, attitudinal measures of perceived efficacy have been used to explain participation. The authors develop a “calculus of participation” that incorporates objective efficacy—the extent to which an individual’s participation actually has an impact—and test the model against behavioral data from the online application Fix My Street (n = 399,364). A successful first experience using Fix My Street is associated with a 57 percent increase in the probability of an individual submitting a second report, and the experience of bureaucratic responsiveness to the first report submitted has predictive power over all future report submissions. The findings highlight the importance of responsiveness for fostering an active citizenry while demonstrating the value of incidentally collected data to examine participatory behavior at the individual level.

An earlier, ungated version of the paper can be found here.

The second paper, Does Online Voting Change the Outcome? Evidence from a Multi-mode Public Policy Referendum, has just been published in Electoral Studies. In an earlier JITP paper (ungated here) looking at Rio Grande do Sul State’s Participatory Budgeting – the world’s largest – we show that, when compared to offline voting, online voting tends to attract participants who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users. Yet, one question remained: does the inclusion of new participants in the process with a different profile change the outcomes of the process (i.e. which projects are selected)? Below is the abstract of the paper.

Do online and offline voters differ in terms of policy preferences? The growth of Internet voting in recent years has opened up new channels of participation. Whether or not political outcomes change as a consequence of new modes of voting is an open question. Here we analyze all the votes cast both offline (n = 5.7 million) and online (n = 1.3 million) and compare the actual vote choices in a public policy referendum, the world’s largest participatory budgeting process, in Rio Grande do Sul in June 2014. In addition to examining aggregate outcomes, we also conducted two surveys to better understand the demographic profiles of who chooses to vote online and offline. We find that policy preferences of online and offline voters are no different, even though our data suggest important demographic differences between offline and online voters.

The extent to which these findings are transferable to other PB processes that combine online and offline voting remains an empirical question. In the meantime, nonetheless, these findings suggest a more nuanced view of the potential effects of digital channels as a supplementary means of engagement in participatory processes. I hope to share an ungated version of the paper in the coming days.

assessing the congressional town meeting protests, 2009 and 2017

In 2009, when Democratic House members went home to discuss the Affordable Care Act with their constituents, they faced disruptive questions and protests, often from people loosely affiliated with the Tea Party. The protesters cited such supposed evils as Death Panels. This year, when Republican House members go home to discuss repealing the same legislation, they face disruptive questions and protests from supporters of the ACA. In at least one case, a Member of Congress decried the Death Panels that are supposedly now in existence and was hooted down as a liar by his constituents. In both 2009 and 2017, many Members of Congress have decided not to hold so-called Town Meetings at all because of the prospect of protests that would be covered on mass media.









I was prone to lament the protests in 2009 but welcome them in 2017. That sounds like hypocrisy, but the comparison is more complicated. First, the same behavior can be appropriate or inappropriate depending on its purpose and content. Making such distinctions requires judgment, but judgment is essential in politics and is not merely a form of bias. In other words, the right judgment may be that the protests of 2017 are helpful even though those of 2009 were harmful. One reason may be that the protesters of 2017 are speaking truth, and those of 2009 were repeating lies. I acknowledge that’s a simplification, but it may be roughly correct.

Second, if we treat a political act (such as organizing or disrupting a public meeting) as a general category, without reference to its purpose or outcome, we still must weigh several values. Disrupting a meeting is bad for civility but may enhance free speech and agency. Only a purist about civil dialogue would automatically oppose any form of disruption.

I took a somewhat unusual position in ’09. I argued that deliberation–i.e., genuinely listening and being open to changing one’s mind–plays an important role in a democracy. When protesters shut down events sponsored by Democrats, or when Democrats stopped holding open meetings in fear of protests, deliberation suffered. This was a shame because we are all badly limited, morally and cognitively, and we need opportunities to hear from the other side.

However, I said then, a major cause of the disruption was the design of these events. In a truly deliberative event, such as a classic New England Town Meeting, the participants make a collective decision that is not pre-determined by the organizer. To make such a discussion go well requires rules that give people and arguments equal time and organize the debate. An event that is billed as a “Town Meeting” is a fake deliberation if the politician-organizer has already made up his or her mind and just wants to persuade the audience. Giving members of the public a chance to react for a minute at the mic. is a recipe for angry responses. Such meetings are so predictably bad that they provide frequent moments of comedy on Parks & Rec:

The solution would be to reserve events that are billed as deliberative for genuine deliberations. Citizens would be invited to discuss and design solutions, and the organizers would be open to any outcomes. An example is our successful recent experiment with a Citizens Initiative Review in Massachusetts.

When, on the other hand, a representative already holds a position on an issue and wants to persuade the public, she or he is entitled to screen the audience, to talk only through the media, or otherwise to control the format. At the same time, opponents are entitled to exercise their rights of assembly and petition to argue the opposite position. If the politician chooses to speak in an open room, then she should expect disruptions. If the politician screens the audience, she should expect people outside with signs.

Several additional issues arise for me:

  1. What should matter to protesters is winning. You win if you get more than 50% of the public to support you actively, e.g., by voting in 2018. A protest that may inspire your side and even encourage more participation may also alienate the undecided. Everyone involved in a social movement should read Bayard Rustin’s 1965 article “From Protest to Politics” to remember the difference between moral purity and political effectiveness. Perhaps “What would the median voter think about this?” is not the only important question, but it is always one question to consider explicitly.
  2. The number of people who are present at these events is trivially small in a nation of almost 320 million. The protests matter because they are covered by mass and social media. Controversy and outrage are profitable for media companies. That means that moments of disruption will receive disproportionate attention, and most moments of actual dialogue will be lost. An effective protest may have at least two mediated audiences: supporters whom it inspires, and opponents whom it outrages. They will see the same event in different media contexts. Smart political activists think their way through to the media coverage in all channels.
  3. Listening is a political virtue, even if it’s not the only virtue. Speaking out of turn at a meeting, or drowning out the main speaker, may be the right thing to do. It allows other people to hear you and it honors your right to a voice. But it does have a cost: the audience can’t hear the person you have drowned out or preempted. It’s appropriate to reduce that cost by (for example) interrupting briefly and then yielding back the floor.
  4. Politicians who appear at open public meetings before hostile audiences to defend their settled positions are not strictly deliberating. They have made up their minds and they seek to use their influence to affect public opinion. However, by physically appearing before their critics, they demonstrate vulnerability. As Danielle Allen argues in Talking to Strangers, democracy requires vulnerability. It is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for valuable interactions between people who are strong and weak. Therefore, Republican Members of Congress who continue to face protesters in open meetings deserve some credit–which takes nothing away from the protesters who challenge them.
  5. A protest is a moment of potential, but only if the protesters find other ways of acting together politically. In turn, that requires members of the protest movement to form durable relationships and to develop and extend their skills, usually in the context of organizations to which they belong. In a very important recent interview, Marshall Ganz says, “Many Democrats confuse messaging with educating, marketing with organizing. They think it is all about branding when it is really about relational work. You engage people with each other, creating collective capacity. That’s how you sustain and grow and get leadership.”

Ideals of Inclusion in Deliberation

The 23-page article, Ideals of Inclusion in Deliberation, was written by Christopher Karpowitz and Chad Raphael, and published in the Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 12: Iss. 2. In the article, Karpowitz and Raphael, build off of previous research they performed regarding inclusivity within democratic deliberation.

They propose four ideals of inclusion summarized in the abstract, “These principles of inclusion depend not only on the goals of a deliberation, but also on its level of empowerment in the political system, and its openness to all who want to participate. Holistic and open deliberations can most legitimately incorporate and decide for the people as a whole if they are open to all who want to participate and affirmatively recruit perspectives that would be underrepresented otherwise. Chicago Community Policing beat meetings offer an example. Holistic and restricted forums (such as the latter stages of some participatory budgeting processes) should recruit stratified random samples of the demos, but must also ensure that problems of tokenism are overcome by including a critical mass of the least powerful perspectives, so that their views can be aired and heard more fully and effectively. Forums that aim to improve relations between social sectors and peoples should provide open access for all who are affected by the issues (relational and open), if possible, or recruit a stratified random sample of all affected, when necessary (relational and restricted). In either case, proportional representation of the least advantaged perspectives is necessary. However, when deliberation focuses on relations between a disempowered group and the rest of society, or between unequal peoples, it is often most legitimate to over-sample the least powerful and even to create opportunities for the disempowered to deliberate among themselves so that their perspectives can be adequately represented in small and large group discussions. We illustrate this discussion with examples of atypical Deliberative Polls on Australia’s reconciliation with its indigenous community and the Roma ethnic minority in Europe.”

Read an excerpt of the article below and find the PDF available for download on the Journal of Public Deliberation site here.

From the article…

Tensions between equality and equity occur at every stage of public deliberation in civic forums, but perhaps nowhere more than with respect to the question of inclusion. Given that deliberative theory is premised on the idea of free and equal citizens exchanging reasons and making decisions together, an abiding concern from both critics and champions of deliberative approaches has centered around whether background inequalities harm disadvantaged groups at various points in the deliberative process (Young, 2000). Such harm may occur prior to any reasons being exchanged at all when inequalities shape who is able to show up to deliberate in the first place. As Gutmann and Thompson put it, “When power is distributed unequally and when money substantially affects who has access to the deliberative forum, the results of deliberation in practice are likely to reflect these inequalities, and therefore lead, in many cases, to unjust outcomes” (2004, p. 48).

A common response to such concerns has been to focus on the representativeness of the deliberating group, making sure that forums are a microcosm of some larger population, whether international, national, or local. One strategy for maximizing inclusion is to open the forum to all who want to participate, while making special efforts to recruit a critical mass of people who would likely be under-represented otherwise (Leighninger, 2012). A second approach, which some deliberative theorists prefer, involves using random sampling to create a deliberating body that looks like the larger group being sampled in as many ways as possible, while giving each member of a population an equal probability of being invited to participate (Barber, 1984; Carson & Martin, 1999; Fishkin, 2009; Gastil, 2008).

Either approach prompts a critical question: who or what exactly needs to be represented inclusively? Many theorists of deliberation have argued that all who are affected by a decision should be represented in discussions (e.g., Cohen, 1989; Dryzek, 2000; Habermas, 1996), while recognizing that in an increasingly interconnected world, it is difficult to draw boundaries around those who are and are not touched in some way by an issue or a decision about it (Fung, 2013; Goodin, 2008). Thus, a deliberation’s legitimacy depends, first, on the justifications for defining who is affected by the issues on the agenda (Karpowitz & Raphael, 2014). Assuming that one has defined those boundaries appropriately, it makes sense to think of the population of all affected by a decision as a collection of perspective bearers most relevant to the issue under deliberation.

What are perspectives and why should we focus on representing them inclusively? In deliberation, participants should be open to reconsidering their beliefs, values, interests, and policy preferences, none of which can be assumed to be simple expressions of their ascriptive characteristics (such as ethnicity, sex, income, or sexual orientation). A perspective involves a structural location in society, which can, of course, be closely connected to social identities of various kinds, but in emphasizing perspectives, we seek to avoid essentializing those identities. Perspectives exist prior to deliberation and enrich discussion as they endure during deliberation. Iris Marion Young (2000) defines perspectives as the accumulated “experience, history, and social knowledge” derived from individuals’ locations in social groups (p. 136). However, as Young makes clear, perspectives do not determine the content of any individual’s beliefs, interests, or opinions. One’s perspective consists, instead, “in a set of questions, kinds of experience, and assumptions with which reasoning begins, rather than the conclusion drawn” (p. 137). In this sense, African-Americans can be said to share a perspective on public life that stems from their common experience of being perceived as black in America. Public forums about racism, income, policing, and many other issues would obviously want to be inclusive and representative of African-Americans without assuming that all black participants will agree on a set of shared interests or values, much less public policies. Similarly, a forum on free speech in schools should aim to include and represent students, who share a similar structural location with respect to the issue, even though they will not necessarily agree with each other about the specific rules, boundaries, and policies that might be proposed in a given school (for further discussion of perspectives, see Karpowitz & Raphael, 2014).

Perspectives are critical to the question of inclusion because a given perspective cannot be easily adopted by someone whose life experiences have occurred in a different social location than that occupied by the holder of that perspective or who has not shared the same set of experiences, history, and social knowledge. Mansbridge argues, for example, that the “vicarious portrayal of the experience of others by those who have not themselves had those experiences is often not enough to promote effective deliberation” (1999, p. 635). Of course, empathy is an important potential outcome of deliberative exchange, but such empathy is less likely if those with a given set of life experiences and perspectives are not present in the discussion. For example, a deliberative forum about contemporary immigration policy would likely be incomplete if it did not include the perspectives of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States from countries like Mexico or children born in the United States to parents who are undocumented. Asking that those immigrant perspectives be fully captured by, say, individuals who immigrated legally from Europe as adults is likely asking for an imaginative and empathetic leap that will be too much for even the best-intentioned deliberator.

An effective deliberative system should ensure that all relevant perspective holders are heard, and our specific focus is on how the least powerful perspective bearers can be included in civic forums. As Mansbridge (1999) has argued in relation to legislatures, a critical mass of more disadvantaged perspectives may be helpful for several distinct reasons. First, when disempowered perspective holders are present, their voices are more likely to be heard, and the stock of arguments, experiences, reasons, and evidence from disempowered perspectives is likely to be larger. Second, and relatedly, a critical mass may bolster the courage of the disempowered to offer minority viewpoints, and hearing those viewpoints from more than one deliberator may push others – both members of the disempowered group and those who are comparatively more empowered – to take those ideas seriously. Third, in many forums the giving and receiving of reasons occurs not only in large plenary sessions, but also (and crucially) in small break-out sessions and discussion groups, both formal and informal. A critical mass thus increases the likelihood that disempowered perspectives are heard throughout the forum. Fourth, when a greater diversity of disempowered viewpoints is present, no one deliberator is forced to be a token who represents the whole of her social group, a fact that works against an oversimplified, stereotyped, or essentialized view of who the disadvantaged are and what they want.

This is an excerpt of the article, which can be downloaded in full from the Journal of Public Deliberation here.

About the Journal of Public Deliberation
Journal of Public DeliberationSpearheaded by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium in collaboration with the International Association of Public Participation, the principal objective of Journal of Public Deliberation (JPD) is to synthesize the research, opinion, projects, experiments and experiences of academics and practitioners in the emerging multi-disciplinary field and political movement called by some “deliberative democracy.” By doing this, we hope to help improve future research endeavors in this field and aid in the transformation of modern representative democracy into a more citizen friendly form.

Follow the Deliberative Democracy Consortium on Twitter: @delibdem

Follow the International Association of Public Participation [US] on Twitter: @IAP2USA

Resource Link: www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd/vol12/iss2/art3/

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.