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March 30, 2004

what's wrong with the left, and what we can do about it

I've reorganized and expanded my previous comments about how to revitalize the Left and have turned them into a single continuous essay, which begins below. I argue that the left suffers from a lack of positive vision that will probably cost the Democrats the 2004 election--and will certainly deny them a mandate, even if they manage to win. I then propose some alternatives for progressives to consider.

The system isn't tilted against Democrats and liberals

I know a lot of people who think that Republicans play the political game more skillfully and roughly than Democrats do. Republicans also seem to enjoy unfair advantages, such as about $100 million more in cash (in the 2002 cycle), gerrymandered districts, and Fox News. Thus, my friends say, Democrats need the progressive equivalents of Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, and Tom DeLay. They need ideologues with mass audiences, brilliant and ruthless tacticians, and enforcers of party discipline.

I find this vision disturbing, because it would damage an already fragile civic culture. The last thing we need in the face of complex, persistent social problems is simpler and more divisive "messages" from the Left to combat the incessant barrage from the Right.

What's more, I don't think that Democrats can win by playing harder, smarter, or meaner. Some aspects of the system are indeed tilted against them: for instance, Republicans took about 54% of the campaign donations in 2002, leaving Democrats with only 46%, and the gap will surely increase in 2004, when George W. Bush is on the ballot. It is also possible (although not clear to me) that conservatives predominate in the mass media.

However, imagine that liberal leaders were granted two hours of Americans' time, unfiltered and uncensored. Then they couldn't complain that the political process was stacked against them. Instead, they would have to proclaim ideas that Americans might believe and find deeply inspiring. What would those ideas be?

To be sure, progressive leaders could take some fair shots at the incumbent administration, which has bought economic growth at the price of huge deficits that we will have to pay off with interest. Critiques of Republican fiscal policy--plus complaints about ham-handed diplomacy, bad planning in Iraq, missing weapons of mass destruction, Enron, and No Child Left Behind--may even win the 2004 election for the Democrats. That will depend on the dominant news stories between now and next November. But winning an election by criticizing the Bush administration will not build a mandate for truly progressive change.

The Left lacks vision

In my view, Democrats and progressives face much deeper problems than Fox News and Karl Rove--problems that also frustrate the Left in Europe; problems that have produced a long, slow decline over two generations. Their crisis is intellectual, not just tactical. It was painfully evident in the primary campaign, when we heard no serious proposals for such change from anyone on the Democratic side.

Three months ago, it looked as if Bush was a prohibitive favorite to win, so Democrats had the incentive to develop new visions and new directions. They failed to do so. Now it appears that John Kerry can win the presidency if the economy continues to sputter and if he plays conventional hardball politics better than the incumbent. That kind of campaign may win the White House, but it will not generate new policies or broad new ideas; and if Kerry wins, he will have no mandate other than to preserve what is left of FDR's welfare state and the multinational organizations that were founded in the same era.

Political candidates are not the only ones who develop new political visions. In 2004, the most exciting new participants in the political debate have been independent bloggers. But the major bloggers on the Left--people like Josh Marshall, Calpundit's Kevin Drum, and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the Daily Kos--strike me as strictly tactical thinkers. That is, they assume that the goal is to defeat George W. Bush, and they look for ways to score points against him. He is hypocritical one day, misguided the next. I thoroughly agree, yet I don't see any basis for a new direction in American politics. Their strategy is to make the president look bad, elect a replacement, and hope that he comes up with new ideas. If there are more creative leftish thinkers in the "blogosphere," I don't know who they are. This void suggests to me that the Left is weak today because of a lack of tough and creative thinking, not because good "progressive" ideas are being suppressed by the mass media.

Republican ideology--and its flaws

Conservatives win elections today, I believe, not because they play mean or exploit unfair advantages, but because they have broad, coherent, and rather radical principles, which boil down to this: "Families use their discretionary income to buy things that make them happy, to exercise their freedom, and to enrich their spiritual lives if they so choose. Therefore, we should maximize the aggregate disposable income of American families. Government does not create income but tends to waste it, so its size should be minimized."

This position is deeply flawed. Government creates wealth by providing necessary public goods such as universal education, research, and transportation. Moreover, maximizing aggregate wealth doesn't always help most people. The median American family earns only about 20 percent more real income today than in 1970, although our national income, adjusted for inflation, has increased by about nine-fold since then. This is a classic case of growth that doesn't benefit average people.

The Left can say, furthermore, that we should care about the prosperity of future generations, not about short-term growth, and therefore we should not increase the debt by cutting taxes. Some progressives will add that maximizing aggregate wealth is not sustainable, anyway, because human consumption degrades the environment. Nor is rapid growth always compatible with preserving traditional human cultures and cultural diversity.

There are also moral objections to conservative economics, which seems to value only disposable income (in other words, consumption), instead of the safety, availability, and dignity of work. Besides, private goods are not the only important things; nature, science, and art also matter, and they require public support. One can even appeal to the conservative value of hard work. Over time, unregulated capitalism tends to create a class of wealthy and lazy heirs.

Finally, there are political arguments against free-market policies. All wealth circulates through households, but it most of it also passes through corporations. Large firms have great power and are not accountable to citizens unless regulated by the state.

These are sensible criticisms, but they are somewhat at odds with each other, and each appeals to a different set of Democratic constituencies. What's worse, Democrats and progressives no longer believe in the traditional alternatives to markets. Hence, they find themselves in the position of defending old institutions that they are also the first to criticize.

For example, liberals favor increased support for public schools, yet they have been saying for generations that schools are alienating and dehumanizing as well as unfair to vulnerable minorities. They do have plans for school reform, but past reforms have always run aground. They support regulation, yet the most powerful and trenchant criticisms of expert-driven, centralized regulation have come from the Left. They defend the welfare state, yet they have been arguing for 50 years that welfare systems dehumanize "clients." They defend unions, yet unions violate modern progressive values by being hierarchical and disciplined (and often corrupt, to boot).

Democrats are the real conservatives

Thus, at their most effective, today's "progressives" are actually conservatives, staving off radical change and defending old institutions as preferable to the market alternatives promoted by Republicans. Bill Clinton is a progressive hero not because of what he built, but because of the proposals he vetoed.

Today's progressives are not only conservative about New Deal institutions. They are eager to conserve natural ecosystems and minority cultures (especially poor, indigenous ones). They are more fiscally conservative than Republicans. They are also more resistant to scientific innovation: witness their response to genetically engineered crops. They have adopted traditional conservative priorities by objecting to federal power in the areas of law enforcement (the USA Patriot Act) and education (No Child Left Behind). And they are the biggest defenders of institutions, such as public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that promote the high culture of the past.

The same dynamic applies in global affairs. As E.J. Dionne has written, "Our foreign policy debate right now pits radicals against conservatives. Republicans are the radicals. Democrats are the conservatives." Republicans want to remake the world to match abstract ideals; Democrats are concerned about traditional alliances and institutions, unintended consequences, and appropriate limits on national power.

There are certainly some issues on which self-described "conservatives" are more conservative than liberals are. (The public role of religion would be one.) However, I think we should recognize the deep conservatism of the modern Left--in Europe as well as America--for this partly explains the present political situation.

In defense of the Democrats' conservatism

Actually, there are good arguments for conservatism as preached by today's Left. The great English philosopher and parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, taught that we should hesitate to overturn interrelated social systems that have evolved over generations; they embody the experience of the people who have learned to live with them. It is easy to prove that their design is inefficient or inequitable, compared to some chalkboard alternative. But radical changes often go awry.

On these grounds, Burke rightly preferred the Old Regime in France, for all its arbitrary, wasteful, unjust features, to the revolutionary system that fell apart after it had cost millions of lives. Similarly, there are reasons to think that flawed public schools, unions, and welfare programs are better than the radical market alternatives suggested by economic theory. The most consistent and influential Burkean in modern America was a Democrat, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Why this left-conservatism loses elections

The problem with this kind of conservative "progressivism" is not that it is wrong. Rather, it is politically and rhetorically weak, because it lacks a broad, coherent, forward-looking agenda. School systems, unions, and welfare programs are unworthy of more than half-hearted endorsement, yet no political movement can win by half-heartedly defending the recent past.

As long as Democrats held a national majority and controlled the House, their leaders didn't have to develop a coherent, positive philosophy. Instead, they could fight over the spoils of their regular victories. The House (with its 435 independently elected members) rewarded horse-trading and the aggregation of interest groups. But now, with Congress out of the Democrats' control, a comprehensive positive vision is essential for the Left. In the primary, all the Democratic primary candidates invoked a better past (either the sixties or the nineties), criticized the Bush administration for changing America too fast, and struggled to develop compelling visions for the future. Their most radical idea--universal health insurance, has itself been an unfulfilled promise since 1948 (not exactly a novel concept).

What the Left needs are new models, new institutional arrangements. The best of these, alas, are still in a nascent, experimental, R&D stage. If that is our problem, then we will get nowhere by playing politics Texas-style.

At best, we are now at the beginning of a long, slow process of developing a workable alternative to laissez-faire economics. In the meantime, I believe that progressives could choose among four options for relatively broad platforms. If they managed to win an election with any of these platforms (which I think is possible), then they would have a mandate for significant change.

More important, these platforms would create some breathing space. While a left-of-center president acts as I describe below, other Americans of both parties can develop truly progressive new ideas. With a progressive in office, the national debt will not rise, nor will voter turnout and trust in government decline so far as to destroy the constituency for social justice.

Idea # 1: Develop the Stewardship Theme

I have argued that Democrats cannot win merely by protecting and defending a hodgepodge of inherited programs. But perhaps they could develop the idea of "stewardship" enough to build a compelling program. Their rhetoric would go like this:

"In the last century, we finally developed a set of humane policies. We said that people didn't have to survive on their own meagre savings or their children's earnings when they could no longer work; we'd give everyone a pension and call it Social Security. We said that you could get some medical care even if you were poor; and we called that Medicaid. We said that not every acre of America could be paved or strip-mined; we'd have national parks.

"At the same time, we also created a set of wasteful and burdensome programs. We now realize that big, centralized, government programs have major drawbacks. However, no one has figured out better approaches than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Unemployment Insurance. Unfortunately, each of these crucial programs is threatened today by changes in demographics and economics, and by mistakes and misplaced priorities since 2000. We Democrats do not intend to expand government programs, but we do promise to protect and preserve the major elements of the system that we created in the last century by being fiscally prudent. Let's not mince words: we're going to have to raise taxes, because we can't balance the budget sufficiently by cutting expenditures. The major entitlement programs absorb most federal domestic spending. We will raise taxes, but only for people in the top 20 percent.

"The same philosophy of conservation and stewardship also compels us to fight for the environment. In addition to strong environmental regulations, we need visionary policies to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. Finally, we want to conserve the best of our traditional communities by controlling sprawl, by promoting sensitive development of older cities, and by supporting the fine arts."

I admit that this is the weakest idea, but it would be the easiest to articulate and would be fully consistent with any of the next three proposals.

Idea # 2 "Bold, Persistent Experimentation"

This was a phrase that Franklin Roosevelt often used. Out of his New Deal experiments came many durable and highly beneficial institutions, from Social Security to the FDIC. Again in our time there are numerous progressive ideas that deserve to be tried on relatively small scales and rigorously assessed.

In the spirit of experimentation, we shouldn't believe it when proponents merely claim that a new approach works. Instead, we should rigorously compare people enrolled in a new program with statistically similar groups who are not. Whenever possible, we should randomly assign people to "treatment" and "control" groups, in order to see the real effects of programs. We should then weed out all the weak projects or ones that are not cost-effective, and spend our limited public money on the few really effective ones.

Many progressives are skeptical of such rigorous evaluation, seeing it as an effort to kill public programs by holding them to impossible standards. Indeed, we are very inconsistent about what we test. Every school in America now has to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" or else risk losing its paltry federal funding. Meanwhile, Congress increased corporate tax subsidies by $178 billion in fiscal 2002-2004, according to Citizens for Tax Justice--without asking any of the beneficiaries to prove that these subsidies had any public value. In short, the only programs that are tested today are low priorities. However, progressives who are committed to experimentation should demand that corporate tax breaks and other conservative priorities pass the same tough tests that liberal programs face.

Meanwhile, they would rigorously test the most promising progressive ideas to find the ones that are worth expanding. In education, they would evaluate small schools that embody powerful community norms. They would also look carefully at service-learning programs: combinations of community service with structured academic learning. For "at-risk" youth, they could test programs that treat them as economic assets and provide them with meaningful work (Youth Build is an example).

In economics, they could try much easier methods of organizing labor, such as recognizing a union as soon as more than fifty percent of a workforce files cards in support of an organizing drive. In poor communities, they could try giving micro-loans to start very small businesses. They could assess a system of universal, publicly funded daycare in some jurisdictions to see how it worked.

They could also try substantial increases in the minimum wage within particular localities, paired with comparable jurisdictions where there is no such increase. This experiment would build on the famous research by David Card and Alan B. Krueger, who found that an increase in the minimum wage did not increase unemployment. Their finding remains controversial and needs to be tested in other contexts.

In the environmental field, there are highly promising approaches to "smart growth" that use combinations of zoning, transportation, and tax policy to concentrate new development near mass transit lines.

Experimenting with these ideas would be consistent with a generally Clintonite fiscal policy of fighting deficits and making the tax code moderately more progressive. Fiscal conservatism is important because government debt is tremendously wasteful and prevents the state from expanding public expenditures if (but only if) we can find programs that really work.

Idea # 3 A strong "good government" program.

There is a substantial bloc of Americans whose primary concern is not with any economic or social issue, but with the process of government. They want our political system to be more democratic, transparent, accountable, civil, and dignified. These are the people who voted for Ross Perot, John McCain, and Bill Bradley, but they did not turn out for Al Gore in 2000. Exit polls showed that George W. Bush attracted 64% of past Perot voters and 59% of McCain supporters, even though Bush's positions on campaign finance reform and balanced budgets were weaker than Al Gore's.

Now that they are in opposition and have no corrupt advantages to protect, Democrats could address these people, saying (in effect):

"We don't know what the best policies are in many areas. We admit that a lot of traditional progressive institutions no longer work well. However, we clearly see that our political system is broken: not just unfair to us, but unfair and unseemly for all citizens. We trust that a fairer and more deliberative process would generate better results.

"Therefore, we favor public financing (or at least free broadcast time) for political candidates and parties. Politicians always circumvent limits on campaign spending, but direct subsidies can make politics accessible to newcomers and increase competition. Public financing is already available in several states and major cities. We want to provide it for federal candidates.

"We also demand fair districting procedures. One of the worst scandals of modern politics is the way parties have drawn electoral districts. There truly is no point to voting if you live in one of the 385 congressional districts where one party is overwhelmingly dominant. What's more, there is never a high-profile debate about federal policy in these districts, and as a result citizens are often woefully uninformed. On the other hand, Iowa's nonpartisan districting commission shows that it is possible to draw fair lines that promote competition.

"Going beyond the campaign system itself, we seek radical tax simplification. A tax system of baroque complexity is inevitably unfair, because it rewards well-placed special interests. Also, it is dangerous to spend money through tax cuts, because then citizens cannot see how much each program is costing their government. Thus we ought to oppose targeted tax breaks in principle. On a revenue-neutral basis, taxes could be dramatically simplified so that the tax form became a single page for everyone. The fairness of the system would improve dramatically if this were done right.

"We also seek alternatives to standard methods of federal regulation. Administrative agencies generate malleable, complex, and inconsistent bodies of law that are always full of loopholes and inefficiencies and impossible to understand. Agencies always get 'captured' by special interests. Fortunately, there are alternatives to rule-making by administrative agencies. Sometimes, Congress can replace an elaborate system of rules with vouchers or other simple payments to consumers. Sometimes, Congress can codify the important parts of a body of existing regulations into a sweeping new statute. And sometimes, administrative agencies can use new methods of rule-making, such as citizen juries or Deliberative Polls. [The overall theme would be a criticism of both regulation and unregulated corporate behavior.]

"In the media area, we could favor aggressive efforts to promote diversity, competition, and localism, including support for low-powered radio; aggressive antitrust enforcement in the media industry; higher subsides for public television and radio; and laws requiring providers of Internet connections to offer neutral services so that their customers may freely explore the World Wide Web and easily post their own material.

"Finally, we could support civic education and voluntary service, to increase the capacity of the next generation to play an active role in politics and community life."

Idea # 4 "Everyone a Creator"

Most classic progressive policies are redistributive; they transfer wealth from the rich to the poor. Redistribution can increase aggregate happiness and opportunity, since an extra dollar makes much more of a difference to a poor person than to a rich one. Also, there is some evidence that equality increases health and longevity (regardless of the total amount of wealth in the society).

Nevertheless, I think that aiming for more redistribution is now politically foolish. While the median household income has only barely outpaced inflation since 1970, it has reached $50,000 for an average household of three people. That is an extraordinary level of affluence by historical and global standards, and it means that more than half of Americans feel capable of managing most aspects of their lives without government assistance. They do need help with retirement and education, but they suspect that other programs will benefit the poor at their expense.

Even some of those who might benefit from redistribution consider it undesirable. It's coercive, it's divisive, it may be economically inefficient, and it makes the recipient feel beholden and dependent.

Unfortunately, not everyone can manage without state assistance, for there are still about 50 million Americans living close to or below the poverty line. Yet they can be helped without resort to more redistribution. Instead, government can strive to increase everyone's opportunities to become creators of wealth.

There could be two parts to this agenda. First, we could strive to lower barriers to entrepreneurship. This is a Republican goal, identified especially with Jack Kemp (who has done good work). The problem is the standard Republican solution, which boils down to tax cuts. Cutting taxes does nothing to increase opportunities for people who don�t have much money to start with.

The Hope Street Group, an organization of business executives, is working on much more serious ideas for expanding real economic opportunity. Equality of opportunity in a high-growth economy" is their slogan; it draws nicely from the right ("high-growth") and the left ("equality"), while subtly disparaging the Green idea that growth itself is bad. "Opportunity" here means a chance to create wealth, to build a business, to develop an idea. There has been a lot of such opportunity in the United States, but we've always left a large segment of our population with little chance to be creative and entrepreneurial, because they've lacked access to capital and education. The Hope Street Group recommends, among other policies, subsidies for low-income home-buyers, much greater transparency in capital markets, and transferability of pensions from one job to another.

While helping more everyone to contribute to the market economy, we could also increase citizens' opportunities to make public goods. To do this, we would encourage public service by expanding (rather than brutally cutting) Americorps; by opening new routes into professions such as teaching and nursing; and by making such professions more desirable and satisfying. Meanwhile, we could increase public contributions to the government itself, for instance by asking citizens to collect GIS data on environmental issues, or by assigning important regulatory issues to citizen juries.

Not all public goods are created in the state sector. For example, the "digital commons" is composed of the protocols, the open-source software, and the free webpages of the Internet--collectively worth billions of dollars. The Internet was built by volunteers, including teenagers and poor immigrants; by nonprofit associations; by the government; by profit-seeking entrepreneurs; and by major corporations. All these players were doing what the University of Minnesota's Harry Boyte calls "public work": they were working together to build an accessible public good. The Internet commons is now in grave danger from several directions (spammers and virus-makers, corporate monopolists, government censors). However, we could use federal law to expand and protect the Internet and other public assets.

Putting all these policies together, we would have a movement whose goal would be to make everyone a creator of wealth.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:52 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

character education

One of the things I like best about my job is the opportunity to move almost daily from one professional context to another. Today, I attended a conference organized by the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS). This is a federal program, buried deep within the bureaucracy of the US Department of Education. It is also an educational program, so most of the people who attended today were teachers, principals, or district supervisors. Federal bureaucrats and educators are two groups with their own distinctive folkways and vocabularies.

OSDFS has responsibility for "character education," which is a national movement. For me, it raises several questions:

  • To what extent is character education driven by the desire to prevent school shootings and other famous atrocities? I don't believe that any general policy can possibly reduce the chances of extremely aberrant behavior. After all, only about 0.0001% of American students slaughter their classmates. So there isn't anything in the general context of American schools that causes this behavior. If character education is expected to prevent extreme acts of violence, it will fail, or the whole problem will disappear--but either way the program will lose support.

  • Do we want kids to internalize norms (such as sexual abstinence, or non-violence, or being polite)? Or do we want them to think critically about ethics--weighing competing values, challenging assumptions, and reasoning with people who hold different moral beliefs? We may want to encourage both good behavior and critical thinking; but these are quite different objectives.

  • What kind of change (and how much change) can we expect from a $25 million federal program?
  • Posted by peterlevine at 6:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 29, 2004

    forecasting the election

    I'm against progonistication. Our job is to decide who should win the election and what he or she should do in office, not who is most likely to win. Nevertheless, near the beginning of a long and very close race, who can resist trying to predict the outcome?

    Many political scientists think that an election involving an incumbent president is a referendum on current economic performance. Everything else--debates and tv spots, scandals and endorsements--is mere atmospherics. But what is the relevant way to measure "economic performance"? Bob Dole claimed yesterday that President Bush has the advantage because "the misery index—the combination of unemployment and inflation—is actually lower now than it was at this point in 1996. And less misery is a good thing for incumbents." But Professor Larry Bartels of Princeton conducted a sophisticated meta-analysis of 48 election models and found that while no single variable can predict an election, the single best predictor is the change in disposable per capita personal income (dpi) over the twelve months prior to the election. The more buying power people have (after taxes), the more they like the powers that be. Figure 1 in this article by Bartels makes the point pretty clearly. It suggests that incumbents need to preside over at least 2% annual growth in real per capita dpi to get more than 50% of the vote. Of course, that 2% figure has a large margin of error and is nothing more than a rule-of-thumb. Moreover, in a year when most states are considered safe for one party or the other, I'm guessing that the only thing that really matters is the change in dpi in "swing" states such as Ohio. If I could find current dpi/capita statistics for Ohio, I'd risk predicting the election outcome. I cannot find those statistics, but I do see that the growth in the nation's real annual dpi over the six months ending this February was just $163 per capita, or 0.6% percent. That is dangerously low for the incumbent.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:48 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 27, 2004

    the Frist speech in historical context

    Yesterday, Senator Frist charged Richard Clarke with perjury, imputing extremely dishonorable motives to this career public servant. If the Senator is correct, which is certainly possible, then he should produce proof and call for Mr. Clarke to be prosecuted for perjury. If he is not correct, then Senator Frist's denunciation reminds me of a famous moment in the US Senate, fifty years ago:

    I am equally troubled that someone would sell a book, trading on their former service as a government insider with access to our nation’s most valuable intelligence, in order to profit from the suffering that this nation endured on September 11, 2001. ... Mr. President, I do not know if Mr. Clarke’s motive for these charges is partisan gain, personal profit, self promotion, or animus because of his failure to win a promotion in the Bush Administration. ... Mr. Clarke has told two entirely different stories under oath. In July 2002, in front of the Congressional Joint Inquiry on the September 11 attacks, Mr. Clarke testified under oath that the Administration actively sought to address the threat posed by al Qaeda during its first seven months in office. Mr. President, it is one thing for Mr. Clarke to dissemble in front of the media. But if he lied under oath to the United States Congress it is a far more serious matter. As I mentioned, the intelligence committee is seeking to have Mr. Clarke’s previous testimony declassified so as to permit an examination of Mr. Clarke's two different accounts. ... Mr Clarke can and will answer for his own conduct – but that is all.  

    Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, March 26, 2004

    The Senator ... , in ... charging three members of the Select Committee with "deliberate deception" and "fraud" ....; in stating to the public press on November 13, 1954, that the chairman of the Select Committee (Mr. Watkins) was guilty of "the most unusual, most cowardly things I've ever heard of" and stating further: "I expected he would be afraid to answer the questions, but didn't think he'd be stupid enough to make a public statement"; and in characterizing the said committee as the "unwitting handmaiden," "involuntary agent" and "attorneys-in-fact" of the Communist Party and in charging that the said committee in writing its report "imitated Communist methods -- that it distorted, misrepresented, and omitted in its effort to manufacture a plausible rationalization" in support of its recommendations to the Senate, which characterizations and charges were contained in a statement released to the press and inserted in the Congressional Record of November 10, 1954, acted contrary to senatorial ethics and tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute, to obstruct the constitutional processes of the Senate, and to impair its dignity; and such conduct is hereby condemned.

    From the resolution to censure Senator Joseph McCarthy, Nov. 9, 1954.

    Nov. 9, 1954 was the end of McCarthyism, because on that day the Senate said that a Member could not make unsubsantiated, personal accusations on the official record, based on secret information allegedly in his possession, without bringing dishonor upon himself and the Senate.

    Posted by peterlevine at 6:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 26, 2004

    a defense of civic education

    James Murphy, a Dartmouth political scientist, wrote an article that was very critical of k-12 civic education in last fall's Education Next. That journal then published a shortened version of my reply to Prof. Murphy in its winter issue. I don't blame the editors for abridging my letter, but I've copied the whole thing here, because it summarizes the empirical evidence in favor of civic ed. (Click "continue reading" for the full letter.)

    In “Tug of War” (Fall 2003), James B. Murphy argues “that the attempt to inculcate civic values in our schools is at best ineffective and often undermines the intrinsic moral purpose of schooling.”

    Murphy’s first argument relies on the empirical claim that civics classes are ineffective, because they do not “foster desirable knowledge, attitudes, and conduct.” He cites “influential research by [Kent] Jennings and Kenneth Langton [which] found that the high-school civics curriculum had little effect on any aspect of civic values.” Here Murphy is referring to a 1968 article that derived its conclusions from asking students just six miscellaneous factual questions. Nevertheless, he claims that “these and other studies have created a lasting professional consensus” that “civics courses in particular appear to have little effect on civic knowledge and even less on civic values.”

    Murphy concedes that this picture has been complicated by Richard Niemi and Jane Junn’s book Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn (1998). As Murphy summarizes their argument, Niemi and Junn “found that, although the civics curriculum had much less effect on civic knowledge and values than did the home environment, civics courses did make some difference. … However, as with earlier studies, Niemi and Junn found that civics courses had virtually no effect on attitudes.”

    In fact, Niemi and Junn write that “the evidence points strongly in the direction of course effects” on students’ attitudes as well as knowledge. They analyzed the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Civics Assessment, which asked only two questions about values or attitudes. Thus the authors recognize that they have little data on attitudes, but there is certainly no basis for skepticism about the effects of courses. On the contrary, courses seem to raise students’ scores on the only two attitudes that were measured: confidence in government and belief in the value of elections. “The magnitude of the differences is substantial.”

    Niemi and Junn further cite an extensive body of program evaluations, studies of instruction at all levels, and cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses—all produced after Jennings and Langton’s work of the late sixties, and all arguing that civics classes do help to make young people into knowledgeable, engaged, and/or concerned citizens.

    More recently, Judith Torney-Purta’s analysis of the IEA Civics Assessment (given to 90,000 14-year-olds in 28 countries) found that civics instruction correlates with improved civics knowledge, skills, and attitudes, controlling for demographic factors. Likewise, according to The Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Generational Portrait (a survey of Americans conducted in 2002), students who reported that their teachers led discussions of politics and government were more involved in their communities and more attentive to the news than other students, again controlling for other measured factors.

    In his discussion of knowledge and attitudes, Murphy omits another outcome: behavior. A large literature shows that knowledge is not only good in itself; it is also a necessary precondition of political engagement (voting and other forms of participation). Thus gains in civic knowledge probably lead to higher levels of civic involvement.

    All this evidence suggests that, on average, civics and government classes have positive effects. That is an important finding, since civics and social studies courses are being cut, especially at the early grades. One could add that typical civics classes are not as effective as they ought to be, since textbooks and teacher education are considered weak. Thus there is a potential for civic instruction to produce considerably better outcomes than we see today, without utopian change.

    Furthermore, Murphy limits his discussion to government and history classes or their close equivalents. There is considerable evidence that other forms of school-based civic education generate lasting changes in attitudes and values as well as knowledge and skills. These include moderated discussions of current events and issues; combinations of community service with academic work (“service-learning”); extracurricular activities (especially student government and school newspapers); appropriate student participation in school governance; and simulations of trials, elections, legislatures, and diplomatic relations.

    Earlier this year, many of the most distinguished empirical researchers from political science, psychology, and education considered evidence from program evaluations and massive datasets and concluded that formal instruction in US government, history, or democracy is an effective way to increase students’ skills and knowledge. This was one of the conclusions of the Civic Mission of Schools Report, written by more than 50 experts and issued jointly by Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement). James Murphy is entitled to dissent from this document, but he has no business claiming that the “lasting consensus” is on his side.

    The Civic Mission of Schools also casts doubt on Murphy’s second major argument against civic education. The proper goal of schools, he says, is to inculcate intellectual skills and virtues, such as “perseverance, thoroughness, accuracy, intellectual honesty, intellectual courage, and intellectual impartiality.” He claims that there is no consensus about the content or purposes of civic education; costly battles always break out when schools try to teach political knowledge, habits, and skills. Besides, Murphy argues, it is risky to teach history or government for the purpose of generating a particular kind of citizen. “The academic pursuit of knowledge will be corrupted if truth-seeking is subordinated to some civic agenda.”

    To be sure, there are important and principled disagreements about precisely what and how students should be taught history and government and what makes a good citizen. We should welcome such arguments as part of a discussion of our nation’s purposes and values. At the same time, there is an enormous amount of common ground, as evidenced by the detailed recommendations in the Civic Mission of Schools report. This report was written and endorsed by self-identified liberal and conservative scholars and representatives of such diverse groups as the Heritage Foundation, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the National Education Association.

    James Murphy advances an interesting position about the purposes of education and reminds us of the potential tension between teaching the truth and trying to make the right kinds of citizens. However, his reading of the empirical literature is inaccurate and incomplete, and he overlooks a broad consensus on goals. There is much more basis for optimism about civics than he admits.

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:01 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 25, 2004

    Richard Clarke, from an ethical perspective

    For those concerned with moral philosophy and ethics, this is the most interesting part of yesterday's historic testimony:

    JAMES R. THOMPSON, COMMISSION MEMBER: Mr. Clarke, in this background briefing, as Senator Kerrey has now described it, for the press in August of 2002, you intended to mislead the press, did you not?

    RICHARD CLARKE, FORMER NATIONAL COORDINATOR FOR COUNTERTERRORISM: No. I think there is a very fine line that anyone who's been in the White House, in any administration, can tell you about. And that is when you are special assistant to the president and you're asked to explain something that is potentially embarrassing to the administration, because the administration didn't do enough or didn't do it in a timely manner and is taking political heat for it, as was the case there, you have a choice. Actually, I think you have three choices. You can resign rather than do it. I chose not to do that. Second choice is...

    THOMPSON: Why was that, Mr. Clarke? You finally resigned because you were frustrated.

    CLARKE: I was, at that time, at the request of the president, preparing a national strategy to defend America's cyberspace, something which I thought then and think now is vitally important. I thought that completing that strategy was a lot more important than whether or not I had to provide emphasis in one place or other while discussing the facts on this particular news story. The second choice one has, Governor, is whether or not to say things that are untruthful. And no one in the Bush White House asked me to say things that were untruthful, and I would not have said them. In any event, the third choice that one has is to put the best face you can for the administration on the facts as they were, and that is what I did. I think that is what most people in the White House in any administration do when they're asked to explain something that is embarrassing to the administration.

    THOMPSON: But you will admit that what you said in August of 2002 is inconsistent with what you say in your book?

    CLARKE: No, I don't think it's inconsistent at all. I think, as I said in your last round of questioning, Governor, that it's really a matter here of emphasis and tone. I mean, what you're suggesting, perhaps, is that as special assistant to the president of the United States when asked to give a press backgrounder I should spend my time in that press backgrounder criticizing him. I think that's somewhat of an unrealistic thing to expect.

    THOMPSON: Well, what it suggests to me is that there is one standard of candor and morality for White House special assistants and another standard of candor and morality for the rest of America.

    CLARKE: I don't get that.

    CLARKE: I don't think it's a question of morality at all. I think it's a question of politics.

    THOMPSON: Well, I... (APPLAUSE [apparently for CLARKE])

    THOMPSON: I'm not a Washington insider. I've never been a special assistant in the White House. I'm from the Midwest. So I think I'll leave it there.

    In my opinion, what Clarke said in August 2002 was intended to mislead the press, because it contradicts what he is now saying under oath. Moreover, the choice between spinning a news story for your employer and resigning your job is certainly a "moral" one, just as Gov. Thompson claims. However, ...

    it is not necessarily an easy moral choice. Under particular circumstances, it could be the right thing to do to make somewhat misleading public statements in order to retain one's job and to push for better policies. Officials need to take into consideration all of the consequences of their actions, weighing the value of candor against other values.

    We can simplify the moral complexity of our lives by staying out of institutions that require us to be less than fully candid. Indeed, I doubt that I would ever want to serve in the executive branch, especially in agencies concerned with national security, because they require constant moral compromise. However, we do need such institutions, and we need good people to serve in them.

    Richard Clarke provids a good example of a legitimate moral compromise when he decribes his reluctance to wait until Al Qaida had been proved guilty before bombing its bases: "If people wanted to further study who was guilty of attacking the Cole, .... I thought fine. If you want to have that kind standard and you want to have that kind of process, fine. Then let's separate that and let's bomb Afghanistan anyway and not tie the two together." This is a glimpse of Realpolitik, and who can complain about it?

    Service in an institution precludes moral purity, but it definitely requires moral judgment. When Clarke calls his decision to spin the news "political" and not "moral," he may mean that he made a moral decision to continue serving in the Bush Administration, and that role required him to compromise his morals in other ways. Gov. Thompson tries to depict this choice as alien to Midwestern values. In Illinois, he implies, a person's word is his word. I agree that the moral balancing required of a bureaucrat is alien to most Americans (including many who live inside the Capital Beltway). But that is because most Americans, unfortunately, are not in the position to make political decisions. All who do possess public power--including governors of Illinois, by the way--face similar dilemmas.

    None of what I have written here exonerates Richard Clarke. For one thing, in his 2002 comments, he may have gone beyond merely putting the "emphasis" in the wrong place; he may have lied. There are actions that cannot be justified just because they promote good ends--and outright lying is usually one. Furthermore, Clarke may have made the wrong choice in continuing in the White House; and his reasons may have been less honorable than he claims. (Instead of choosing to remain in the government because of the importance of the cybersecurity issue, he may have held onto his job because it was exciting and powerful.) So my point is not to defend this man, but to suggest that the moral evaluation of officials is a complex matter.

    In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt writes, "For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same." Clarke supported the incumbent government of the United States, so he was responsible for what it did. Yet the government of the United States deserves support, and support sometimes requires obedience--at least the provisional obedience of people inside the administration itself. Politics is not a nursery; it's strictly for grown-ups. I thought Clarke's apology yesterday fully acknowledged that that's what he is--a responsible adult in a complex moral role, accountable for the totality of his actions.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:23 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 24, 2004

    the limitations of analytic moral philosophy

    Analytic philosophy is the dominant tradition in the English-speaking world today, and I belong to it. (I was trained in the rival tradition known as "continental" philosophy, but have moved over; see this post for the distinction.) It recently occurred to me that analytic moral philosophy really is "analytical"; it takes views, values, and positions from outside of modern philosophy and analyzes them to see whether they are internally consistent, whether they match our intuitions about a range of cases, whether they agree with various other plausible views, and so on. Virtually all modern analytic philosophers endorse some form of what John Rawls called "reflective equilibrium". They think that we should go back and forth between intuitions (which we obtain from outside of philosophy) and philosophical arguments, trying to make each conform to the other. If our intuitions are inconsistent, we should change our intuitions; but if our philosophical arguments are counter-intuitive, we should change our arguments.

    Until at least 1900, philosophers were in the business of generating new moral views and positions. Indeed, modern analytical philosophers often analyze the views of long-dead theorists, but they do not develop new moral views of their own. Animal rights is one of the few examples of a moral or political doctrine that arose from philosophical inquiry, in this case, Peter Singer's. In general, philosophers don't possess a method for creating or discovering moral positions, whereas they do have a toolbox for analyzing positions that are, so to speak, "exogenous" to philosophy.

    Analysis is useful, but it is not the only kind of relatively abstract and general moral thought that we need. In fact, I tend to agree with Bernard Williams that analysis reduces our confidence in received moral ideas, but “our major problem now is that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can.” (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, 1985, p. 117).

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:38 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 23, 2004

    new ideas on the left?

    (written in Syracuse, NY:) I think that the left desperately needs new policy ideas and new philosophical foundations--and so far both are notably absent in the 2004 campaign. For a long time, I have been worried that the Democratic nominee (whoever he might be) would run an essentially "conservative" campaign, promising to be a better steward of old Democratic institutions: Social Security, Medicare, labor unions, "progressive" public schools, and the United Nations. Unfortunately, these institutions don't just need increased funding; they also need to be fundamentally rethought. So far, we have heard no serious proposals for such change from anyone on the Democratic side. Three months ago, it looked as if Bush was a prohibitive favorite to win, so Democrats had the incentive to develop new visions and new directions. They failed to do so. Now it appears that John Kerry can win the presidency if the economy continues to sputter and if he plays conventional hardball politics better than the incumbent. That kind of campaign may win the White House, but it will not generate new policies or broad new ideas; and if Kerry wins, he will have no mandate other than to preserve what is left of FDR's welfare state and the multinational organizations that were founded in the same era.

    Political candidates are not the only ones who develop new political visions. In 2004, the most exciting new participants in the political debate have been independent bloggers. But the major bloggers on the left--people like Josh Marshall, Calpundit's Kevin Drum, and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos--strike me as strictly tactical thinkers. That is, they assume that the goal is to defeat George W. Bush, and they look for ways to score points against him. He is hypocritical one day, misguided the next. I thoroughly agree, yet I don't see any basis for a new direction in American politics. Their strategy is to make the president look bad, elect a replacement, and hope that he comes up with new ideas. If there are more creative leftish thinkers in the "blogosphere," I don't know who they are. This void suggests to me that the left is weak today because of a lack of tough and creative thinking, not because good "progressive" ideas are being suppressed by the mass media.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:53 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 22, 2004

    teenagers talk politics

    (Written in Syracuse, NY:) ABC News/Weekly Reader recently polled Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 about their political views. This is from the ABCNews.com report:

    "First, [the poll] finds less political discussion than you might expect: Fewer than half of teens, 47 percent, say they've talked about politics and the 2004 election with their parents. Hardly more, 54 percent of teens, have covered it in class at school."

    (By the way, if 47 percent of high schoolers really discussed politics, that is a higher rate than has ever been found among incoming college freshmen, going back to 1967. However, I don't think that discussion is really more common this year than ever before; I just think this poll question generated a lot of affirmative answers.)

    The ABC report continues:

    Discussing politics "makes a big difference. Among kids who've discussed the election with their parents, more than three-quarters are interested in it, and even more — nine in 10 — plan on voting all or most of the time when they're old enough. Kids who haven't discussed the election with their parents are much less interested in it (46 percent) and less likely to plan to vote. Having class discussions about politics boosts interest and anticipated participation in elections as well — but the effect is not quite as great as having discussed it at home."

    We wouldn't claim, on the basis of this poll, that discussion "boosts" interest. Perhaps those who are already interested in politics are the ones who end up in classes where elections are discussed. However, other studies have shown that discussion of politics does increase political interest; this poll lends that hypothesis some additional support.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:20 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 18, 2004

    on giving solicited advice

    I think many people deeply want to be asked for advice. This is a way to influence the world, to put one’s own stamp on things, to express oneself, to gain standing and self-respect-- all without coercing or bribing people.

    Hannah Arendt argued that “politics”--debating policies with other people--was not just necessary; it was a positive good. “In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.” To have beliefs is to be fully human. Yet unless we argue publicly for our positions, Arendt said, we can possess only shadowy, inarticulate views. For Arendt, the paradigm of “politics” was a competitive struggle to get one’s opinions endorsed by the community. I think that answering a request for advice is an even better way to express oneself and find oneself.

    I realize that we sometimes ask people for advice for dubious reasons. For example, we might ask a potential funder in order to glean information about how to win a grant, or we might ask a professor in order to flatter him and get a better grade. These are more or less corrupted forms of dialogue. But there are also many occasions in which both the soliciting and the giving of advice is genuine.

    At the risk of sounding like a self-help book, I think there are ways to encourage people to ask you for advice:

  • When asked, give thoughtful advice.

  • Do not oversell what you know. Be very quick to admit ignorance.

  • Rarely give unsolicited advice. Indeed, don’t talk much at all when there’s limited time for other people to speak.

  • Show up and listen. That way, you will know what’s going on, and also you will be there to be asked.
  • Posted by peterlevine at 11:05 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    The Jane Addams School for Democracy

    The Jane Addams School in St. Paul, MN is important to me. In the summer of 2001 (when it was 102 degrees in the Twin Cities), I visited the school. As on most nights, there were scores if not hundreds of people present: mostly college students and neighborhood residents. The majority of people who live in St. Paul's West Side are new immigrants and refugees (Somalis, Hmong, and Latin Americans). I observed a staff meeting and then participated in a project, the "Hmong Circle." We tutored Hmong immigrants to take the Federal citizenship test, and in return they told us about Hmong culture. I was so impressed with the buoyant, democratic, creative spirit of the place that I decided I wanted to start something similar in Maryland. When I found partners with similar motivations, we created the Prince George's Information Commons.

    People from the University of Minnesota, the College of St. Catharine's, and the neighborhood created the Jane Addams School in 1996, after talking at length about how a "settlement house" might function in our era. More than a century earlier, Addams had founded Hull House settlement, moving with several other highly-educated, American-born women into an immigrant ghetto and sharing their knowledge and networks while also learning from the immigrants. The Jane Addams School in St. Paul is a modern equivalent.

    I quote: "The mission of Jane Addams School is to free and cultivate the talents, cultures, and interests of people of diverse backgrounds and traditions in order to add their energy and wisdom to the common public wealth of all. The soul of this work is the relationships we build as we engage in learning and collaborative action. The values of the Jane Addams School are: Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner. We honor all cultures. Citizenship means making contributions to the community. Adults and children learn together. Changes can happen when people work together."

    As I mentioned yesterday, I'm at a conference on "public work," which is the idea that politics includes collaborative efforts by citizens to create public goods--to improve the world. Most of the people at the conference are practitioners who conduct concrete projects inspired by the public work idea. Many conduct Public Achievement (PA) programs, of which the Jane Addams School is an example. In PA, young people select public problems to address with the help of college-student coaches. The young people drive these projects, but they are taught to value their own creative capacity. PA has been established in scores or hundreds of schools in the United States and seven other countries.

    Public work challenges some forms of modern conservatism, because it suggests that markets don't give us satisfactory communities and institutions; we must work politically to make the world livable. Nor can we create public goods in standard corporate jobs. But public work is also a powerful critique of mainstream "liberal" ideology. If you listen, for instance, to Al Gore during the 2000 campaign or to John Edwards in 2004, you will hear that ordinary Americans are victimized by powerful elites and need the assistance of government officials and civil lawyers. There's very little sense that Americans have political capacities that could be unleashed through better federal policy. I would like to hear Democrats borrow the conservative argument that government elites are condescending and that bureaucracies are deadening--but not stop there. If we need to work together to solve public problems, what can government do to help?

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:57 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 17, 2004

    the frozen north

    I'm at the University of Minnesota for a conference on public work and higher education. The schedule precludes blogging for today, but I hope to be able to file a report tomorrow.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:59 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 16, 2004

    what does it mean to be "civic"?

    I spend most of my time in and around groups and institutions that have explicitly “civic” goals: CIRCLE, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the National Commission for Civic Renewal, the Kettering Foundation, and the National Alliance for Civic Education—to name just five. Civic rhetoric seems to be spreading and deepening. But what does it mean to be “civic” today?

    Good citizens care about issues and debates—often passionately. They want to save unborn children or to defend women’s reproductive freedom, to rescue the environment or to promote growth, to achieve world peace or to punish America’s enemies. These are matters of life and death, so naturally we want our positions to win, and we are entitled to fight for public support.

    But a civic attitude begins when we notice that a great democracy is always engaged in such debates. It matters not only which side wins each round, but also what happens to the nation’s public life over the long term. Are most people inclined to participate in discussions and decisions (at least within their neighborhoods and schools), or are many citizens completely alienated or excluded? Do young people grow up with the necessary skills and knowledge to allow them to participate, if they so choose?

    Do we seriously consider a broad range of positions? Do good arguments and reasons count, or has politics become just a clash of money and power? Can we achieve progress on the goals that we happen to share, or have our disagreements become so sharp and personal that we cannot ever cooperate?

    Being civic means asking these questions. It is compatible with fighting hard for a position—even a radical one—but it requires avoiding collateral damage to the civic infrastructure. It asks us to worry about long-term civic health, not just immediate tactical victory. And it obliges us to care about our public institutions, not just particular policies.

    More specifically, being civic means keeping the following principles in mind:

    1. We should choose styles of engagement that expand participation. Politics, political debate, and social action have become considerably less popular over time. According to National Election Study data, Americans are about half as likely as they were 30 years ago to talk about public affairs, to follow serious news, and to attend local meetings. One reason, I am convinced, is that politics is optional. Most other voluntary activities (shopping, dining out, tourism) promise polite and harmonious interactions. But all forms of “politics”—from neighborhood meetings to televised debates—tend to be uncomfortable, so many people avoid them.

    Politics cannot be consistently civil: sometimes it is necessary to challenge the powerful and generate anger. Since politics is our main way of addressing deep disagreements in a diverse society, it will not always be a friendly business. And even if we would like most people at a neighborhood meeting to be polite to one another, everyone (even the local lunatic) has a right to participate. So civility is not a realistic standard. Nevertheless, if we are concerned about our long-term civic health, then we should strive to make politics as amicable and welcoming as possible. Often, harsh rhetoric wins points in the short term but also drives people out of public life altogether—a good example of collateral damage.

    2. Arguments should be about ideas, not about people.
    A great way to win a political debate is to show that one’s opponent is hypocritical or selfish. But some people hold wise and generous positions for selfish reasons (to get reelected, for example), while others have altruistic motives for espousing foolish ideas. Thus making personal accusations very rarely advances public understanding. Maybe every Democratic incumbent wants to seize more of your income to spend it on programs that will help him stay in office, and maybe every Republican just wants to cut taxes for his wealthy friends. Nevertheless, some federal programs and some tax cuts are good policy. It is a logical mistake (the ad hominem fallacy) to oppose an idea just because the person who espouses it happens to be flawed.

    Besides, it is always possible to charge an opponent with bad motives, yet we can never tell if the accusation is true. We cannot even be sure how pure our own motives are, so how can we possibly know why George W. Bush favors a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage or what John Kerry hopes will happen in Iraq? We can, however, decide whether the amendment is good and what we should do in Iraq.

    Everyone can learn to assess the merits of a policy, but only insiders really know the characters of powerful politicians. So a political process that revolves around motives and personalities gives tremendous authority to anonymous officials and the famous reporters who know them, to kiss-and-tell autobiographers, black-sheep relatives, and former White House conseglieri. Because personalized politics makes a few well-placed insiders into the only experts, it is profoundly elitist.

    Personal attacks are effective, so they encourage politicians and parties to try to bring down their enemies, rather than win a mandate for their ideas. Neither liberalism nor conservatism has recently developed a popular governing vision, and one reason is that partisans have found it too easy to knock each other’s knights off their white horses. Think of Jim Wright, Newt Gingrich, Robert Bork, and many other political ghosts (living and dead) who can testify to the power of the personal attack.

    As charges and counter-charges accumulate, politics begins to look generally unseemly, even though politicians are probably not as unprincipled as their opponents imply. Under such circumstances, many people tune the whole business out. Meanwhile, personal attacks keep good people from taking leadership roles out of fear that someone will charge them—falsely, but irrefutably—with hypocrisy or selfishness.

    3. We should see politics as creative, not just a zero-sum game: People across the political spectrum demand that certain groups give up something of value. They argue that the rich should be taxed more heavily to pay for education for the poor, or that welfare recipients should be denied their checks, or that incumbent politicians should be kicked out of office.

    Probably at least some of these arguments are valid. But whatever you think about these proposals, they are not all there is to politics. Governments, parties, and local civic organizations don’t just move existing goods, rights, jobs, and powers from some interests to others; they also make new goods. Think what happens when we start a neighborhood watch, teach a community to eat healthy foods, generate trust or mutual understanding through sustained dialogue, or reinvent a government agency to make it work better.

    It might seem that making new goods is a workable strategy only for the rich and powerful; the poor need help at someone else’s expense. But when poor people simply demand subsidies or rights, they almost never get what they want. It is only when they are able to build institutions of their own that they acquire enough power to win at zero-sum politics. The African-American church is perhaps the best example.

    Sometimes, zero-sum messages are a good way to mobilize citizens by making them angry and giving them a political outlet. Generating anger can get citizens to the polls or persuade them to open their wallets for a cause. But such mobilization is almost always followed by defeat, discouragement, and burnout. Activists who stay involved for the long haul are the ones who have learned how to collaborate—even with some of their supposed enemies—to create new durable institutions. As Lewis A. Friedland and Carmen Sirianni show in their book Civic Innovation in America, lifelong activists do not assume that they can only make progress by defeating someone. They take pride in the institutions and programs that they have built together.

    5. Truth-telling is a civic obligation, even when it’s a tactical nuisance. [This section needs some fleshing-out with examples, but the point is clear enough.]

    6. We should avoid rampant partisanship. The word “civic” sounds almost synonymous with “non-partisan.” In classic civic republican thought, from Aristotle to Rousseau, parties were always seen as evidence of faction and strife, their appearance proof that civic virtue had waned. To be a good citizen was to serve the nation and to apply honest principles. Service to a party required disloyalty to the broader community; and arguments among parties indicated that at least one side was not being honest and principled.

    It is clear today that parties and partisan competition are valuable. We citizens lack the time, information, and inclination to form opinions about the proposals and personal merits of every candidate on the ballot. Party endorsements tell us that candidates are at least minimally qualified and that they belong to one of the major political ideologies of the day, from which we can choose. If anything, it helps if the major parties differ rather starkly in their ideologies, so that we can choose clearly.

    Moreover, we need institutions that have long-term, national horizons, that do no simply try to win the next election at any cost to their reputations, but that build over time. Parties fit the bill, better at least than candidates and political consultants. And we need parties to compete avidly for power, because competition keeps the powerful honest.

    Notwithstanding these arguments for parties, civic-minded citizens think that Washington is too partisan. And they have a point. The problem is not that there are stark differences in philosophy or a fierce competition over how to govern the country; if anything, the debate may be too blurred. The problem is rather that parties and interest groups fight over matters that are not connected to their philosophies or their visions for the future.

    In Federalist 60, James Madison criticized Pensylvania's “Council of Censors” (which had met in 1783 and 1784) as overly partisan. He wrote: “Throughout the continuance of the council, it was split into two fixed and violent parties. … In all questions, however unimportant in themselves, or unconnected with each other, the same names stand invariably contrasted on their opposite columns. Every unbiased observer may infer ... that, unfortunately, passion, not reason, must have presided over their decisions. When men exercise their reason coolly and freely on a variety of distinct questions, they inevitably fall into different opinions on some of them. When they are governed by a common passion, their opinions, if they are so to be called, will be the same.”

    Madison's description would apply not only to Washington, DC in 2004, but also to the "blogosphere." Many prominent blogs are designed to score points, day in and day out, against an opposing party or ideology.

    These are five rules to guide the behavior of individual citizens. But it is equally important to think about the structures and institutions within which individuals act. I have said, for example, that we should pay attention to reasons and arguments, and not speculate about the hidden (probably selfish) motives of our leaders. But this is an unreasonable demand if politicians raise money from the very interests that they regulate. Rather than ask citizens to believe that money has no influence, we need to clean up the system.

    There are many other ways in which flawed institutions can make a civic approach naïve. For example, to have a reasonable chance of winning, today’s campaigns must target the most likely voters, and not waste their resources on young people and other unlikely participants. As a result, no one makes an effort to mobilize great masses of citizens. A system that revolved around parties might do a better job.

    Similarly, many nonprofit groups now raise their funds through bulk-mail appeals that seem to work best if they deliver an inflammatory message to a friendly mailing list. Civil society would be more inclusive and less polarized if nonprofit groups were built the old-fashioned way, as coalitions of local chapters. Changes in the tax structure could encourage nonprofits to reorganize themselves this way.

    A civic spirit thus pushes us to think about changes in procedures and institutions. (That is why organizations with “civic” in their name tend to be concerned about process, not about particular policies.) Unfortunately, as soon as we start debating reform proposals, reasonable people disagree—partly because of differences in their underlying political ideologies. For instance, conservatives sincerely oppose campaign-finance reform that requires new federal regulations, just as liberals sincerely welcome legal limits.

    We need to debate the merits of reforms, without bogging down in partisan strife. One final rule should help:

    6. Institutions should be designed to work well for the ages, not to get the results we want tomorrow. We might suspect that calls for reform are always just indirect ways for partisans to advance their everyday interests. Some liberals, for instance, call for campaign-finance reform because they predict that making politicians less beholden to corporate donors will result in liberal legislation. Meanwhile, some conservatives advocate term-limits and federalism because they believe that incumbent federal politicians usually drift to the left once they become caught in Washington’s “iron triangle” of career politicians, lobbyists, and regulators.

    In practice, however, it is very difficult to predict the impact of political reform. Republicans suspected that the system of full public financing for presidential campaigns that was enacted after Nixon fell would benefit Democrats, yet Ronald Reagan prospered under it.

    Then, in the early 1990’s, liberals and Democrats championed easier voter registration laws, in the name of inclusion and democracy. They also thought that the new registrants would be poor and would vote for them. Participation did rise, but at least half the new voters turned out to be Republicans.

    The Law of Unintended Consequences applies, and it is good news. It means that we cannot safely manipulate the political system to get the results we want—so we might as well consider any proposed change on its merits.

    The founders of our Republic often guessed wrong about the future. Their wisdom was not foresight. Rather, they were wise enough to know that they could not predict the future, so they had to create institutions that would work well under a variety of unpredictable circumstances. If we follow their example, we can debate how to reform our political institutions to encourage and reward civic behavior.

    Posted by peterlevine at 1:41 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    March 15, 2004

    new article

    The winter issue of the National Civic Review contains an article by me on The Civic Mission of Schools. It's a short summary of the major arguments about civic education, meant for people who are into good government, community development, and civic renewal.

    Posted by peterlevine at 1:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 12, 2004

    Media Coverage of WMD

    Susan Moeller has written an excellent paper about press coverage of weapons of mass destruction. (Short version; long version.) It's based on detailed analysis of major US and British news reporting during both the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations. Moeller finds: "Poor coverage of WMD resulted less from political bias on the part of journalists, editors, and producers than from tired journalistic conventions."

    More specifically, she argues that:

  • In the "inverted pyramid" style, an announcement by a major figure is reported in the lead, and critics are quoted much lower down. This convention allows the administration to dominate news coverage, even when critics are more credible.
  • The White House has consistently set the agenda, determining what issues are prominent at any given time. When administration officials are not talking about WMDs, there is little coverage. Furthermore, heavy reliance on quotations allows officials to slip highly controversial and weighted terms (such as "terrorist state") into news stories.
  • National security issues involving highly technical matters are especially subject to distortion, because reporters have few well-informed sources other than political officials. Nevertheless, reporters need to rely less on off-the-record comments and be more alert to spin.
  • The press personalizes issues, treating Saddam or Osama bin Laden as the problem and speculating about their personal motives. This approach overlooks the role of scientists, bureaucrats, international rules, and popular opinion overseas.
  • Journalists are uncomfortable reporting uncertainty, e.g., that we don't know whether al Qaeda has chemical weapons. Instead, they often report statistics, even if those are irrelevant or uncertain. (This is also my experience in the much less important field of youth voting, where reporters always try to say how many young people voted, even though our only sources are polls, which are inaccurate.)
  • The US media covers the world from the US, with decreasing space and attention to foreign perspectives. This means that WMDs are described as potential threats to the US, when often the gravest dangers are in places like South Asia. Since neither administration wanted to emphasize the threat from WMD's stored in Russia, this story was underplayed, compared to stories about Iraq
  • The worst stories were filed by reporters who covered WMDs as part of US politics (e.g., as the subject of fights between Powell and Rumsfeld, or between the President and the Democrats); when reporters used anonymous sources; and when they signed "nondisclosure agreements" in order to get access to the Iraq battlefield.
  • (These are not necessarily the points that Moeller emphasizes most, but they struck me as especially insightful

    Posted by peterlevine at 8:48 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    March 11, 2004

    the politics of obesity

    On Monday, I was with 45 high school kids, talking about the causes of obesity. Then the Centers for Disease Control announced that excessive body weight will soon be the leading cause of death in the US; and the House of Representatives passed legislation to shield fast-food restaurants from being sued for causing obesity. (This is the so-called "Cheeseburger Bill.")

    I have never made a serious study of nutrition, the politics of food, or body-image and gender. But I can report that the minority adolescents in our project mostly think of obesity in psychological terms. They ask: Do we have enough will-power? Do we know enough about nutrition? Do we have appropriate body-image? What are the effects of the entertainment media on our health?

    Meanwhile, some research shows that our geographical environment affects our body weight. Connected sidewalks help by encouraging exercise; convenient grocery stores increase the odds that people will cook vegetables; and so on. In our project, we are drawing kids' attention to these factors instead of the strictly psychological ones. Originally, this was simply because we wanted to teach geography--and you can't make maps of body-image or TV ads. However, I'm starting to think that we are making a radical move. Our project will locate the cause of weight gain outside of kids' heads and bodies, in the local community--and it will suggest that adolescents can understand and change where they live. In other words, this approach could be very empowering.

    I have the same ambivalent view of the "Cheeseburger Bill" as Calpundit. He says:

    On the one hand, I don't think much of using civil damage suits aimed at a specific industry as a way of changing social policy. Down that road lies madness.

    But at the same time, I also don't think much of Congress exempting specific industries from the civil justice system. That can lead to some madness of its own.

    Those in favor of the "Cheeseburger Bill" say that we should be personally responsible for our behavior; eating too much is our own fault, and suing McDonald's is a cop-out. I disagree in part: a rapid increase in the obesity rate is a social problem with political solutions. However, I agree that lawsuits aren't the right response. There are much more constructive, positive, participatory responses to obesity. For example, a community can work to make its streets safe and walkable, to identify and publicize existing assets, and to provide new food and exercise options.

    In the areas around Hyattsville, MD, there are no full basketball courts. This is a political issue (the authorities don't want young Black men hanging around, so they don't build courts); and it may affect adolescents' body weight. It shows the limits of conservative arguments. You can't exercise if there are no sidewalks, no basketball courts, and no grassy spaces. If the only place that lets you hang out at 10 pm is McDonalds, then you're going to eat a lot of fries. Still, that doesn't mean that lawyers will ever solve the problem by suing McDonalds on behalf of the American people. Communities have the power to take their fate into their own hands.

    This is a rambling post, badly in need of reorganization; but let me add a quick summary. There are not just two ways of thinking about obesity: either individuals are responsible for what they eat, or huge corporations are responsible (and deserve to be sued). Instead, we can take responsibility as communities. This third choice is more productive and realistic than either of the others.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:40 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    March 10, 2004

    social studies classes are highly traditional

    Social studies education is a battleground in the Culture Wars, with some critics charging that schools teach subversive and anti-American versions of history, while others accuse mainstream teachers of papering over injustice. Almost never is this debate anchored in any empirical evidence about what actually occurs in typical classrooms. Instead, critics site news stories about radical or reactionary teachers in particular schools, or they quote controversial education professors and assume that average teachers think the same way.

    Today, CIRCLE and the Council for Excellence in Government released some actual poll results. When 15-25-year-olds were asked to choose one or two themes that were emphasized the most in middle and high school classes, they answered as follows:

    45% -- The Constitution or the US system of government and how it works
    30% -- Great American heroes and the virtues of the American system of government
    25% -- Wars and military battles
    11% -- Problems facing the country today
    9% -- Racism and other forms of injustice in the American system
    5% -- Other, all of the above, or don’t know

    I'm a fairly neutral party in this debate; besides, I don't think that empirical data can ever settle an argument about what themes should be emphasized in social studies. However, I challenge conservative critics to stop attacking schools for teaching a leftist version of history, because there's no evidence that this is happening. Leftist critics have more to complain about.

    There's a lot more information, including detailed statistical analysis, here.

    Posted by peterlevine at 12:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 9, 2004

    rap + written "art" poetry = ?

    I'm wondering what would happen if one tried to combine the rhythm of rap with some of the conventions of written poetry. (This is a naive question; there may be very obvious answers and lots of great examples.) As I understand it, rap lines usually contain four strongly accented syllables. There may also be any number of unaccented syllables, but each line takes an equal amount of time to say. That means that lines with many syllables go very quickly; but the four accented beats occur at a regular rate. Rhyme alerts listeners to the end of each line. Rap is sung/spoken against a digital beat, and the combination of that beat, the changing speed of the words, and the regular occurance of strong accents makes for an interesting form of syncopation. Rap doesn't work especially well on paper, because it's too hard to tell which syllables should be accented, and there's no background beat.

    In contrast, it's hard to hear the length of a line in most modern written poetry. Even if rhymes are used, they tend to be subtle (off-rhymes or slant rhymes) and they are often concealed by enjambment. In conventional forms like iambic pentameter, each line has the same number of syllables, but a varying number of accents. In free verse, the number of syllables varies, but the reader still perceives each line as a meaningful unit. Information about line breaks is transmitted best on paper; it may be lost in speech. (Poetry in which line breaks are completely unimportant is simply prose.)

    I don't really listen to rap, but I understand that it's a vital cultural phenomenon with tremedous energy and potential. I do read some contemporary "art" poetry, and I deeply admire a portion of what I read. I would probably like even more of it if I understood it better and worked harder at it. Written verse is valuable if only because silent, slow, careful reading of distilled language is good for the mind. Besides, "art" poetry connects to a wonderful heritage of writing as old as Sappho. Yet I suspect that as a whole body of work, current written poetry is not really going anywhere.

    So could written verse draw inspiration from rap prosody? If rap performers could be persuaded to write some silent verse, they would contribute their energy and experience to the form. The technical trick would be to signal strong accents and line-speed--two aspects of language that ordinary writing does not automatically convey. I wonder if it would be possible to use subtle typographic clues, like slightly larger print for the accented syllables.

    Posted by peterlevine at 7:48 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

    March 8, 2004


    I just spent a whole day with 45 high school students, eight college students, and eight colleagues, talking intensively about the causes of obesity in Prince George's County, MD, and planning a map-making project that will take us all spring. I have overall responsibility for the project, and this first day felt like a constant crisis, starting at 7 am. The tables we ordered didn't seem to be there; we didn't have recorders for some of the focus groups; we thought we'd lost a kid; the pizzas didn't show up; sleet began to fall while the kids were outside learning how to use Global Positioning devices; and on and on. Actually, all the problems were solved and no damage was done. Once we go over the audiotape, videotape, written notes, and the maps that the kids made, I think we'll find that it was a rich and highly informative day--a window into the lives of these young people. (Or perhaps a better metaphor would be a mirror, to show the kids what they are like as a group.) But for today, I'm too tired to think straight.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    March 5, 2004

    youth-led research

    Last fall, CIRCLE issued a call for groups of young people (adolescents, or people 20-25 who haven't attended college) to study youth civic engagement, possibly in partnership with adult mentors. CIRCLE has the funds to support a few such projects. We are looking for genuine, high-quality research that really emerges from young people. We closed the competition some weeks ago and deliberated today about 75 applications.

    Meanwhile, a different group of colleagues and I are in the last stages of planning our own youth-led research project--a study of geographical factors in our community that may influence healthy eating and exercise. Next Monday, 35 high school students will come to the University to discuss these issues and help us begin planning a series of mapping exercises that they will conduct. I have been spending a lot of my time working on issues like: how to rent a school bus, how much pizza to order, and where to get tape recorders with mikes.

    It's clear that our work is far from state-of-the-art. We adults have done too much of the planning before the kids arrive on Monday. However, I don't know whether any of the true youth-led projects generate excellent research. There is presumably a tradeoff between research quality and youth leadership. To get both at once would take time; you would need cadres of young people and an infrastructure for serving them (regular classes, meeting places, community partners, etc.). So I hope that we are at least on the road to doing work like that proposed by the best applicants to CIRCLE.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:39 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    March 4, 2004


    Straussians are back in the news--and all over blogs--because of the controversy surrounding the President's Council on Bioethics. The Council's chair, Leon Kass, was influenced by the late Leo Strauss. Two of its members have just been replaced--possibly for dubious ideological reasons. I'm not going to comment on that controversy, since I don't know the facts. I do enjoy the renewed attention to Straussianism, because it allows me to follow the postings of various young folks who are under Strauss's influence. See, for example, the collection of links after Jacob Levy's post, or this guide to "How to Spot a Straussian.."

    Strauss is generally seen as a cultural conservative. However, his form of writing is indirect. He doesn't say what his personal views are; instead, he "reads" classic authors of the past. He explains that great philosophers are always in peril because of the unpopularity of their views, so they write "esoterically"--with coded or hidden messages. Strauss rarely (if ever) says what the messages of these past authors are. If, however, you apply Strauss' interpretative methods to his own writing, you find some evidence that he is actually endorsing a profound moral skepticism, akin to Nietzsche's philosophical position. It so happens that Nietzsche used the same methods of encoding secret messages in his own writing, and explicitly described himself as an esoteric author. Thus I have argued that Strauss was the opposite of a cultural conservative. He was a God-is-dead Nietzschean.

    Then the sociological question becomes: Which Straussians (proteges of Leo Strauss) are in on this game? My guess is, not many. One can actually do very interesting work as a Straussian minus the esoteric nihilism. Strauss drew our attention to the perilous position of critical thinkers in most, if not all, societies, and thus invited us to read the classics for hidden messages. This can be a productive approach. He also took some hard and effective shots at modern liberalism. I doubt that he favored straightforward conservatism as the alternative. But I do think he identified some of the deepest problems with liberalism, especially its tendency to support moral relativism as a moral absolute (a position that comes very close to self-refutation). Since Strauss, there has been a sophisticated and wide-ranging discussion of that issue, so he hardly had the last word. But he introduced an important topic.

    Finally, Straussians make useful colleagues because they are relentlessly opposed to political correctness and are willing to be "elitists." When we carelessly repeat nostrums like "the people's right to know," it's great to have a Straussian around to say, "That's complete nonsense." They are excellent prods to actual thinking--which may have been Leo Strauss' only goal in the first place.

    Posted by peterlevine at 11:06 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    March 3, 2004

    young voters in Super Tuesday

    CIRCLE folks were up late last night and early this morning crunching turnout figures for the 2004 primaries (and 2000, for comparison). We've posted a new fact sheet with all the information you could ask for. In short, turnout was relatively low yesterday for all age groups, probably because the last rounds of Kerry v Edwards just weren't that exciting. Under-30 voters accounted for about 10 percent of the turnout in this primary season, the same as in 2000 (but much lower than their share of the population). Since overall turnout was down, fewer young people cast votes in Democratic primaries this year than in 2000. I don't think this means anything about the state of youth politics--it has more to do with the contingencies and rhythms of this particular campaign season. We may still see a big increase in youth voting in November.

    Posted by peterlevine at 4:13 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    March 2, 2004

    a caution about the "commons"

    "Commons" are various types of resources that are either owned by no one (e.g., the oceans and the Internet), or owned jointly by some community. There are many advantages to commons. They can be free, diverse, communitarian, egalitarian, creative, and democratic. We can cite examples of commons that meet each of these criteria. But chances are, the various goods that we expect from commons will conflict in actual cases. For example, there are highly communitarian commons in which everyone knows everyone else; strong social pressures ensure that all contribute genuine goods to the common pool. These commons are communitarian, but not free or diverse. Then there are extremely libertarian commons, like the Internet, in which diversity, creativity, and freedom are rife, but many people free-ride or pollute the common pool with spam and viruses; and trust is low. There are commons that are democratic in the sense that everyone has an equal vote on policies the affect the whole, but if such votes are binding, then there may not be much individual liberty. I am not convinced that there are commons that meet all the desirable criteria at once.

    These are familiar tensions that we see in the design of all institutions. I believe it is important to acknowledge them when we champion the commons, or else it will look like a panacea when it is not.

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:10 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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