outline of a session on civic agency

This morning, I enjoyed working with an impressive group of Rwandan professionals (academics, clinicians and others). The outline of the session could work for other groups and is “open source”–available for anyone to borrow.

I open with my formula that a good citizen is someone who seriously asks “What should we do?” I have probably overdone this refrain–it’s in video form here and here–but I see value in it. Imposing the discipline of this question blocks the cheap path of discussing what should be done (by someone else). It forces us to notice which groups we belong to and how they work. And it emphasizes the value dimension (“should”), which is often evaded in a culture dominated by science and technical expertise.

So I ask people to talk about a range of issues that matter to them and try to impose the discipline of discussing only what we should do about each one.

I then argue that in order to ask, “What should we do?” we must belong to one or more functional groups that offer agency to their members. (I don’t see a clear maximum size to such groups, but responsiveness certainly becomes problematic at large scales.)

I usually ask about the groups that people belong to or have joined in the past that enable their members to ask the citizen’s fundamental question.

Groups address an enormous range of issues, from putting on an entertaining show to challenging the patriarchy. Any group will also face three categories of internal problems–challenges to its own survival and functioning that arise more or less regardless of the issues it addresses. I present these categories one at a time, and we talk about examples (and solutions) that have arisen in people’s experience. The categories are:

  1. Problems of collective action: how to get people to contribute attention, energy, and resources to the group rather than free-ride or drain value from it. Note that these problems arise even in groups that pay their employees and require and assess their performance. Even then, degrees of contribution still depend on the norms of the group. A relevant concept here is “social capital,” which I would define as the rules and practices that allow groups of people to function well together.
  2. Problems of discourse: how to make wise decisions about the “should” part of “What should we do?” in the face of disagreement and moral uncertainty. People disagree about values. In fact, premature consensus is a threat to wisdom. But how can we disagree in ways that prevent manipulation, misinformation, balkanization, faction, etc.? (Rwandans are a little unwilling to talk about deep disagreements, for reasons I understand, and I didn’t push the matter.)
  3. Problems of the we versus the them. Any group needs boundaries, or it cannot function, but how should it relate to those who don’t belong? What if a dominant group doesn’t want your kind to join it? Groups commonly face ethical questions about how to treat outsiders as well as strategic questions about how to force their way in when they are excluded from where they want to be.

See also: what should we do?what if something is not your problem?; and Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.

Bologna, Santiago de Cali, and Tulsa win Cities of Service’ first Engaged Cities Award

I enjoyed serving on the selection committee for Cities of Service’s inaugural Engaged Cities Award and reading many superb applications. The winners were announced today. From the announcement:

  • Bologna, Italy: Realizing that bureaucracy was hindering citizens’ ability to improve their city, Bologna adopted new regulations allowing residents to partner with the city to revitalize public spaces. The new regulations spurred the city to establish district laboratories, where city staff connected with residents to develop their ideas and co-design initiatives. The labs engaged thousands of residents and resulted in more than 400 citizen-led initiatives, including turning an abandoned market into a concert hall for hundreds of local musicians to play and converting a former parking garage into a full-service bike station run by a resident cooperative.
  • Santiago de Cali, Colombia: To combat a high level of violence, especially between neighbors, Santiago de Cali created local councils, made up of citizens in 15 city districts. The councils designed and implemented more than 200 community initiatives, including the rehabilitation of a number of public spaces that had been used for drug activity, dance classes for at-risk youth, and soccer tournaments involving local youth and former gang members. The citizen-led initiatives benefitted more than 15,000 residents, building trust and reducing conflict in their communities.
  • Tulsa, Oklahoma: Tulsa had hundreds of data sets that could help them grow per capita income, increase population, reduce violent crime, and address other challenges. But they did not have the capacity to analyze the data for insights it might provide. The city created teams of city staff, citizens, and nonprofit partners to examine city data and help the city address more than a dozen public problems. The teams have proposed a number of solutions, including a better method for prioritizing street repairs, a tool for citizens to collect much-needed blight data, and more.

Even as national politics is dysfunctional or repugnant in many countries, cities are hotbeds of innovation and are often simply well governed. This is a truth increasingly acknowledged–most recently by Jim and Deb Fallows in Our Towns–but it is both encouraging and interesting.

See also: engaging citizens in cities“A Tale of Two Cities”: comparing the best and worst cities for civic engagementthe rise of urban citizenship; and A New Model for Citizen Engagement.

the Kenya Youth Manifesto

The Kenya Youth Manifesto is great. It’s the product of an elaborate deliberative process involving Kenyans between the ages of 18 and 35 (a cohort that represents 57 percent of the electorate). The Manifesto offers 52 pages of detailed recommendations. I’m sure it has specifically Kenyan underpinnings that I have missed, but from my perspective, it looks pragmatic rather than revolutionary, concerned with participation and voice as well as economic outcomes, attuned to issues like gender and disability, and consistent with Amartya Sen’s “capabilities approach.”

In his foreword, Willice Okoth Onyango depicts “youth as a distinct but heterogeneous population group.” He sounds like Sen when he calls for “build[ing] the capabilities and expand[ing] the choices of young people by enhancing their access to and participation in all dimensions of society.” And he calls for “young people and their representative associations” to be included “at all stages of the policy development and implementation process.”

Any group that writes a manifesto must avoid recommending policies that are simply unaffordable, settling for minor tweaks, demanding blatantly obvious reforms, neglecting the most obvious reforms in the interest of being original, setting vague targets, setting overly narrow or short-term targets, advocating elaborate processes (such as new commissions or research studies), ignoring process altogether, placing all the demands on target authorities, promising to solve all problems themselves, simplifying complex issues, or offering too much wonky detail. This sea is full of shoals. I think the Kenyan youth navigate just about as well as can be done.

Their product is more like a party manifesto (what Americans call a “platform”) than, say, the Communist Manifesto, which offered a compelling new social vision. The Kenya Youth Manifesto couldn’t simply be implemented, because it would need various kinds of scarce resources–not only money but also political capital. I know far too little about Kenyan social issues to be able to assess the recommendations. But it’s an impressive product that’s worth imitating elsewhere.

what does it mean to say democracy is in retreat?

According to Freedom House, “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—came under attack around the world.”

This statement deserves unpacking if we want to understand in what ways democracy (or “freedom”) is declining worldwide. The statement combines several ideals that may not fit neatly together in practice. It’s not obvious why Freedom House mentions some rights instead of others. For example, if the key concept is “democracy,” we might look for equality of voice, power, and status. Finally, the statement never defines the alternative to democracy: what is gaining at the expense of the basket of values that Freedom House endorses.

I think what’s gaining is authoritarianism, meaning a system that relies on the arbitrary will of leaders. It is a government by rulers without (many) rules. An authoritarian leader can say “Do this” and can evade any explanation other than, “Because I said so.” Authoritarian leaders typically undermine precisely the values that Freedom House lists: fair elections, minority rights, a free press, and rule of law.

The opposite of authoritarianism is “non-domination,” in Philip Pettit’s influential sense. A system without domination is one in which, although citizens must follow rules and face restrictions, nobody can simply tell anyone else what to do. Pettit argues that non-domination was the core value in the long tradition of civic republicanism that began in antiquity and flourished in the Italian city states, the English Revolution, and the American founding. His framework suggests a spectrum that runs from an absence of domination (republicanism) to pervasive domination (authoritarianism).

Evidence like the material I collected recently shows that republican institutions are in decline in many countries. Republicanism is in retreat.

Within the republican tradition, there is room for debate about democratic processes. Do democratic institutions (such as popular voting) prevent domination or create opportunities for majorities to dominate? There is also room for debate about liberal rights. For example, do property rights prevent or enable domination?

I’ll leave liberal rights aside for this post, although they are important. If we focus on democratic participation (lively debate, mobilized citizens, and a strong scope for elections), then we can view it as theoretically distinct from republicanism. Below, republicanism is on the horizontal axis; democracy on the vertical. Quadrant A stands for a system in which the people rule, yet majorities or popularly elected leaders dictate results without having to justify themselves. B is a society with equal voice and power, where everything is open to debate and no one can dominate anyone else. C is classic authoritarianism: no rules, no voice. And D is a system in which the government is limited and rule-guided and obligated to explain itself, but the people don’t have much of a voice. (Austria-Hungary in 1890?)

It is then an empirical question whether democratic processes tend to accompany republican safeguards. Is B common? Is it even possible?

In the V-Dem database, in 2016, for nations that held elections at all, there was a correlation of 0.4 between the degree to which the executive branch honors constitutional constraints and the degree to which free elections were held without intimidation.

There was a stronger correlation between respect for the constitution and robust public discussion (.53). (This means that that “large numbers of non-elite groups as well as ordinary people … discuss major policies among themselves, in the media, in associations or neighborhoods, or in the streets”).

I show here the correlation between respect for the constitution and whether the government consults with a broad range of stakeholders before making decisions (0.6).

These results are consistent with the hypothesis that elections and a strong public sphere help to check arbitrary power. Perhaps limited governments are forced to permit elections, to consult with stakeholders, and to accept robust deliberation.

There are no examples in the world today of strongly rule-guided governments that don’t deliberate at all, nor are there any governments that consult and deliberate widely but pay no attention to constitutional safeguards.

However, the correlations are far from lockstep. Countries do fall in all of the four quadrants, albeit not deeply into A or D. If your values are strongly republican, democratic methods seem to be helpful–but they won’t get you all the way to non-domination. And if your values are strictly democratic, republicanism may get somewhat in your way.

watching democratic cultures decline

Yesterday, I offered some evidence that broad public deliberation declines when authoritarianism rises. I used data Varieties of Democracy, which asks 2,800 experts questions about specific countries in specific years.

For this purpose, I’ll define “authoritarianism” as a system that relies on the arbitrary will of leaders. It’s a system of rulers without many rules. Its opposite, then, is “republicanism” in Philip Pettit’s sense: a system in which nobody can be told what to do without a justification. Many variables in the V-Dem database relate to authoritarianism, but I’ve selected two: (1) whether the executive branch respects the constitution of its country, and (2) whether elections are held without intimidation. I chose this election-related variable because regular and fair elections provide a check on arbitrary rule, and also because a typical tactic of an autocrat is to interfere with elections.

Pettit, citing Quentin Skinner, emphasizes that “one of the central themes” of the civic republican tradition is “belief in dialogical reason.” The connection between republicanism and deliberation is not definitional. In other words, you could imagine an authoritarian state that encourages deliberation or a genuine republic that is weak on deliberation. But republicanism and deliberation have often been connected because one way to make decisions non-arbitrary is to encourage discussion of them.

V-Dem offers two measures of deliberation: 1) to what extent do “large numbers of non-elite groups as well as ordinary people … discuss major policies among themselves, in the media, in associations or neighborhoods, or in the streets”?; and 2) to what extent do leaders consult a wide range of stakeholders? Along with the two measures of authoritarianism, we have four variables whose relationships interest me.

In Turkey, for example, all four measures have fallen since 2010. The fair elections variable began to decline first; then the other three fell in tandem.

The pattern is less pronounced but similar in Poland since 2011.

In the Philippines, election intimidation has not grown worse, but the other three variables have taken a dive since 2012.

In Venezuela, it’s been steadily downhill since 2000.

Brazil’s elections got a little worse first (starting at a high baseline), and then everything plunged after 2015.

Russia has seen fairly steady declines from a lower baseline.

And the US saw declines before 2016 in elections and in public dialogue that may presage rising state authoritarianism in 2017 and ’18 (not shown yet).

authoritarianism and deliberative democracy

The Varieties of Democracy project asks 2,800 experts many questions about specific countries in specific years. One question is “When important policy changes are being considered, how wide and how independent are public deliberations?” The scale ranges from zero (“Public deliberation is never, or almost never allowed”) to 5 (“Large numbers of non-elite groups as well as ordinary people tend to discuss major policies among themselves, in the media, in associations or neighborhoods, or in the streets. Grass-roots deliberation is common and unconstrained”).

Below is a graph that shows the change in public deliberation (so measured) since 2000 for eight countries that I see as increasingly authoritarian. My choice of these countries is subjective. (Why not the Central African Republic, which Freedom House names as the single-biggest “backslider” on democracy in the world? Because I don’t know much about the CAR.) But of the countries that I selected in advance to serve as examples of growing authoritarianism, all but one showed declines in the V-Dem measure of broad public deliberation.

This pattern may seem self-evident or even tautological. Perhaps countries that are tending toward authoritarianism see less deliberation because authoritarianism is the opposite of deliberation. But I find the graph at least somewhat meaningful. At the core of authoritarianism is a reliance on powerful leaders who disdain constitutional limits. It’s possible for authoritarians to run a state even while “large numbers of people … discuss major policies among themselves, in the media, in associations or neighborhoods, or in the streets.” Some authoritarian states even choose to expand deliberative fora. For example, China’s Communist Party is implementing deliberative processes, which it probably sees as devices for blunting criticism and improving satisfaction with its deeply undemocratic regime (He & Warren 2017). Caroline W. Lee (2015) has argued that small-scale deliberation co-opts resistance in the USA, and Cristina Lafont (2017) worries that creating ideal deliberative fora can delegitimize regular democratic processes.

So the question arises whether authoritarianism is really contrary to deliberation at all. One might even suspect that the biggest threats to deliberation arise in mass capitalist societies, where corporate and partisan propaganda drown out reasoned conversation on poorly designed platforms, like Twitter.

But this is partly an empirical question, and I do see evidence of a negative correlation between authoritarianism and deliberative values. Above I showed that countries well known for turning more authoritarian are also seeing less public deliberation. Below are two graphs showing a different relationship–between leaders’ respect for the constitution and the government’s tendency to consult a wide range of stakeholders. Again the source is V-Dem data, but unfortunately from 2006.

I take respect for the constitution as an inverse measure of authoritarianism, and consultation as a sign that a government wants to deliberate. The correlation is pretty clear. Most countries fall on a line between North Korea and Germany. India’s government consults more than China’s does. Neither respects its own constitution more than the other, but the Indian constitution is much better on civil liberties. The US is a circle between those two countries but a little higher up.

The next graph shows the same y-axis (respect for the constitution) plotted against the degree to which politicians respect counter-arguments. A high score on that measure means that they generally feel compelled to give explanations when they are challenged. Again, the line is defined by North Korea and Germany. On this plot, China is an outlier, showing decent respect for its own constitution but reluctance to consult diverse stakeholders.

Much more analysis could be done (and it would be better to use more recent data than 2006). Still, this seems to be evidence of a correlation–in practice, if not in theory–between respect for constitutional restraints and deliberative values. One reason may be that political leaders tend to model deliberation in societies where they also respect limits, and they fail to do so when they turn authoritarian. Or it could be that when publics are organized and motivated to demand discussion, they also block authoritarianism.

Sources: Baogang He  & Mark E. Warren “Authoritarian Deliberation in China,” Daedalus, 146, 3, 155-166; Caroline W. Lee, Do-It-Yourself Democracy: The Rise of the Public Engagement Industry New York: Oxford University Press, 2015; Cristina Lafont, “Can Democracy be Deliberative & Participatory? The Democratic Case for Political Uses of Mini-Publics,” Daedalus 2017 146:3, 85-105.

republican values in Uganda

Twice in 2017 (for family reasons), we visited Uganda with stops in Dubai. I posted a longer reflection on the two societies last February and would stand by those observations after a second visit. Having just returned, I would like to emphasize a point about Uganda’s being a genuine republic–and what that word means.

Uganda’s parliament recently voted to amend the constitution so that President Yoweri Museveni can run for a sixth term (while extending MPs’ terms from five to seven years). These are probably bad decisions–not that anyone would ask my opinion–but the debate reflects Uganda’s genuine republicanism.

Here I follow Philip Pettit in understanding a republic as a system without arbitrary command. In a republic, no citizen can tell another citizen “Because I said so.” To make a society a republic, neither equality nor freedom (in the sense of private choice) must necessarily be maximized. Instead, domination–anyone’s ability to dictate what others do–must be minimized. This ideal can be accomplished by a combination of rule of law, democratically accountable institutions, certain kinds of actual equality, and a civic culture in which dominating behavior is shunned and the respectful exchange of reasons is prized.

Note that this ideal has deep African roots. In exploring the value of consensus in traditional African societies, Kwasi Wiredu emphasizes that it doesn’t mean agreement. “It suffices that all parties are able to feel that adequate account has been taken of their points of view in any proposed scheme of future action or coexistence.” In a republic, some win and some lose–and some may even lose quite consistently–but everyone’s opinions are owed consideration and a response.

Uganda ranks 125th in the world in economic equality. It is also deeply poor, which means that everyone except the elite is very badly off. The UNDP estimates that “70.3 percent of the population …. are multidimensionally poor while an additional 20.6 percent live near multidimensional poverty.” This means that very few Ugandans have cooking fuel, toilets, water or electricity that comes near their homes, a floor, any accumulated assets, or any support for their children’s education. (The government spends $2.12 per student per year on education.)

The effects of deep poverty on both political voice and actual freedom cannot be overstated. You’re not free (in most senses of the word) if your survival depends on constant physical labor, good luck, and fair treatment by those who have more than you. Meanwhile, Uganda has a problematic democracy, dominated by the majority NRM party and its president and afflicted by corruption. These are real challenges, and being a republic doesn’t compensate for them.

Yet Uganda is a republic. The constitution guarantees right to citizens. The overwhelmingly powerful NRM can amend the constitution in its own interest but still feels compelled to offer citizens reasons for its actions. Courts still review the process. Citizens still respond with very active criticism. The press is full of passionate, concerned, critical voices. There’s huge turnout at MPs’ public meetings in their constituencies. Although preserving abstract, procedural rights would seem remote on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–a luxury or “First World Problem”–Ugandans take changes to their constitution personally.

In turn, powerful Ugandans address their fellow countrypeople as citizens. That word is common in the pronouncements of politicians, clergy, and experts. Even President Museveni feels compelled (or moved?) to address his people as citizens. While we were there, he wrote a column in New Vision, one of the newspapers that struck me as more friendly to his government. It is a somewhat digressive piece, rather like an impromptu speech after a meal, that begins with his retelling a local folk tale. He writes, “I want to inform the reader that when I read the Nyabihoko story, I was reminded of what I normally observe from the helicopter the People of Uganda provided me as President for quick travel.” He then begins to discuss various waterways in the country. But notice that he feels the need to justify his helicopter and to thank The People for it. He doesn’t have a right to a helicopter because he is the president; he needs it and feels obliged to explain why he uses one.

Uganda’s republicanism is especially notable in contrast to Dubai, where human development is dramatically higher and most people enjoy considerable actual freedom in the form of an ability to choose what to do. Moreover, the dominant cultural style is that of mass consumer capitalism, which involves treating the customer or client respectfully and not saying, “Because I said so.” A visitor with cash–a mizungu, in East African parlance–could more easily dominate people in Uganda than in Dubai, because Ugandans very badly need a customer or a tip, whereas a shopkeeper in Dubai can wait for the next person on line. Still, underlying the whole system in Dubai is “domination” in Pettit’s sense: the Ruler can decide which freedoms to permit and owes no justification.

What to make of a combination of republican norms, deep poverty, and one-party dominance? One view would be this is not really a republic. Too many Ugandans are too economically vulnerable to be able to escape everyday domination, and the NRM has too many seats (293 out of 426) for its political power to be constrained. I’d be inclined to say, instead, that Uganda faces deep economic and political challenges but still has a genuine republic, and that is an achievement for which Ugandans deserve full credit.

See also: do we live in a republic or a democracy? avoiding arbitrary command and Dubai, Uganda, and today’s global political economy.

people trust authoritarian governments most

(Philadelphia) This Edelman international poll shows that trust in government is low in most countries and declining almost everywhere. But five important countries stand out as exceptions. People trust the world’s largest single-party state, an absolute monarchy, a country in which one party has governed since 1959, a democracy with a very strong elected leader whom critics call authoritarian–and Indonesia, where a government chosen recently in a competitive election actually seems to be trusted.

I arrived at this graph from a piece by Ethan Zuckerman, who notes, “Depressingly, there is a discernible, if weak, correlation (R2=0.162) between more open societies and low scores on Edelman’s trust metric.”

I don’t think we have long-term historical data on this question, but the pattern that Ethan notes is what I would imagine for the 1930s, when the European democracies were fraying and authoritarianism was on the rise. I didn’t expect to see it in my lifetime.

Note also that the US actually scores above the OECD democracies on trust in government, surpassing states that (in my opinion) are governed in a more trustworthy fashion. This chart indicates that we can’t explain distrust in the USA by focusing on specifically American traits, events, or leaders: the pattern is global.

the public supports women’s rights in US foreign policy

We released a new survey today that finds strong support for gender equity as a foreign policy goal. For instance,

  • 85% rated the rights of women and girls as a very high priority.
  • 74% agreed that the U.S. government should actively work to promote human rights in other countries.
  • When given a choice among the rights that the U.S. should promote, 51% ranked women’s rights as first or second, second only to “free and open elections” and ahead of freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the rights of workers and unions.
  • Two-thirds agreed that more participation by women would make the world more peaceful.
  • Most respondents would support women’s rights overseas even if that meant less consumer choice from international trade, fewer exports, or more disagreement with America’s friends and allies.

Click for more detail from this survey of 1,000 Americans conducted in early September 2017 by the Department of Political Science and the Tisch College of Civic Life. Credit to my colleagues Professor Richard Eichenberg in the Political Science Department, Dr. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Noorya Hayat of CIRCLE, and student Anna Jacobson.

working on civic education in Ukraine

(Kyiv, Ukraine) I am here for just a few days, working with Ukrainian civic educators and my American colleagues at Street Law, Inc. I’ve served on Street Law’s board for more than a decade, but this is my first time directly helping with a project. Ukraine’s plans to revamp democratic education in their primary and secondary schools seem highly promising, and I’m pleased to be able to participate. This effort also connects to another project I’ve done with Ukrainian colleagues since 2014: the European Institute of Civic Studies (which is aimed at adults). Finally, it’s nice to be back in this handsome city as the leaves turn yellow and the air is cool and damp.