Consensus and mutual understanding

Groups make decisions through processes of discussion aimed at framing a given problem, outlining the group’s objectives, and arriving at a plan for how to achieve the objectives in an intelligent way. This is true at multiple levels, from neighborhood block associations to corporate executive teams to the President’s cabinet meetings. However, collective decision-making through extended discussion faces more challenges than is generally recognized. Processes of collective deliberation are often haphazard, incomplete, and indeterminate.

What is collective deliberation about? It is often the case that a collaborative group or team has a generally agreed-upon set of goals — let’s say reducing the high school dropout rate in a city or improving morale on the plant floor or deterring North Korean nuclear expansion. The group comes together to develop a strategy and a plan for achieving the goal. Comments are offered about how to think about the problem, what factors may be relevant to bringing the problem about, what interventions might have a positive effect on the problem. After a reasonable range of conversation the group arrives at a strategy for how to proceed.

An idealized version of group problem-solving makes this process both simple and logical. The group canvases the primary facts available about the problem and its causes. The group recognized that there may be multiple goods involved in the situation, so the primary objective needs to be considered in the context of the other valuable goods that are part of the same bundle of activity. The group canvases these various goods as well. The group then canvases the range of interventions that are feasible in the existing situation, along with the costs and benefits of each strategy. Finally, the group arrives at a consensus about which strategy is best, given everything we know about the dynamics of the situation.

But anyone who has been part of a strategy-oriented discussion asking diverse parties to think carefully about a problem that all participants care about will realize that the process is rarely so amenable to simple logical development. Instead, almost every statement offered in the discussion is both ambiguous to some extent and factually contestable. Outcomes are sensitive to differences in the levels of assertiveness of various participants. Opinions are advanced as facts, and there is insufficient effort expended to validate the assumptions that are being made. Outcomes are also sensitive to the order and structure of the agenda for discussion. And finally, discussions need to be summarized; but there are always interpretive choices that need to be made in summarizing a complex discussion. Points need to be assigned priority and cogency; and different scribes will have different judgments about these matters.

Here is a problem of group decision-making that is rarely recognized but seems pervasive in the real world. This is the problem of recurring misunderstandings and ambiguities within the group of the various statements and observations that are made. The parties proceed on the basis of frameworks of assumptions that differ substantially from one person to the next but are never fully exposed. One person asserts that the school day should be lengthened, imagining a Japanese model of high school. Another thinks back to her own high school experience and agrees, thinking that five hours of instruction may well be more effective for learning than four hours. They agree about the statement but they are thinking of very different changes.

The bandwidth of a collective conversation about a complicated problem is simply too narrow to permit ambiguities and factually errors to be tracked down and sorted out. The conversation is invariably incomplete, and often takes shape because of entirely irrelevant factors like who speaks first or most forcefully. It is as if the space of the discussion is in two dimensions, whereas the complexity of the problem under review is in three dimensions.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that participants sometimes have their own agendas and hobby horses that they continually re-inject into the discussion under varying pretexts. As the group fumbles towards possible consensus these fixed points coming from a few participants either need to be ruled out or incorporated — and neither is a fully satisfactory result. If the point is ruled out some participants will believe their inputs are not respected, but if it is incorporated then the consensus has been deformed from a more balanced view of the issue.

A common solution to the problems of group deliberation mentioned here is to assign an expert facilitator or “muse” for the group who is tasked to build up a synthesis of the discussion as it proceeds. But it is evident that the synthesis is underdetermined by the discussion. Some points will be given emphasis over others, and a very different story line could have been reached that leads to different outcomes. This is the Rashomon effect applied to group discussions.

A different solution is to think of group discussion as simply an aid to a single decision maker — a chief executive who listens to the various points of view and then arrives at her own formulation of the problem and a solution strategy. But of course this approach abandons the idea of reaching a group consensus in favor of the simpler problem of an individual reaching his or her own interpretation of the problem and possible solutions based on input from others.

This is a problem for organizations, both formal and informal, because every organization attempts to decide what to do through some kind of exploratory discussion. It is also a problem for the theory of deliberative democracy (link, link).

This suggests that there is an important problem of collective rationality that has not been addressed either by philosophy or management studies: the problem of aggregating beliefs, perceptions, and values held by diverse members of a group onto a coherent statement of the problem, causes, and solutions for the issue under deliberation. We would like to be able to establish processes that lead to rational and effective solutions to problems that incorporate available facts and judgments. Further we would like the outcomes to be non-arbitrary — that is, given an antecedent set of factual and normative beliefs by the participants, we would like to imagine that there is a relatively narrow band of policy solutions that will emerge as the consensus or decision. We have theories of social choice — aggregation of fixed preferences. And we have theories of rational decision-making and planning. But a deliberative group discussion of an important problem is substantially more complex. We need a philosophy of the meeting!

Collapse of Eastern European communisms

An earlier post commented on Tony Judt’s magnificent book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. There I focused on the story he tells of the brutality of the creation of Communist Party dictatorships across Eastern Europe (link). Equally fascinating is his narrative of the abrupt collapse of those states in 1989. In short order the world witnessed the collapse of communism in Poland (June 1989), East Germany (November 1989), Czechoslovakia (November 1989), Bulgaria (November 1989), Romania (December 1989), Hungary (March 1990), and the USSR (December 1991). Most of this narrative occurs in chapter 19.

The sudden collapse of multiple Communist states in a period of roughly a year requires explanation. These were not sham states; they had formidable forced of repression and control; and there were few avenues of public protest available to opponents of the regimes. So their collapse is worth of careful assessment.

There seem to be several crucial ingredients in the sudden collapse of these dictatorships. One is the persistence of an intellectual and practical opposition to Communism and single-party rule in almost all these countries. The brutality of violent repression in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and other countries did not succeed in permanently suppressing opposition based on demands for greater freedom and greater self-determination through political participation. And this was true in the fields of the arts and literature as much as it was in the disciplines of law and politics. Individuals and organizations reemerged at various important junctures to advocate again for political and legal reforms, in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and even the USSR.

Second was the chronic inability of these states to achieve economic success and rising standards of living for their populations. Price riots in Poland in the 1970s and elsewhere signaled a fundamental discontent by consumers and workers who were aware of the living conditions of people living in other parts of non-Communist Europe. Material discontent was a powerful factor in the repeated periods of organized protest that occurred in several of these states prior to 1989. (Remember the joke from Poland in the 1970s — “If they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.”)

And third was the position taken by Mikhail Gorbachev on the use of force to maintain Communist regimes in satellite countries. The use of violence and armed force had sufficed to quell popular movements in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in years past. But when Gorbachev made it credible and irreversible that the USSR would no longer use tanks to reinforce the satellite regimes — for example, in his speech to the United Nations in December 1988 — local parties were suddenly exposed to new realities. Domestic repression was still possible, but it was no longer obvious that it would succeed.

And the results were dramatic. In a period of months the world witnessed the sudden collapse of Communist rule in country after country; and in most instances the transitions were relatively free of large-scale violence. (The public executions of Romania’s Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu on Christmas Day, 1889 were a highly visible exception.)

There seem to be many historical lessons to learn from this short period of history. Particularly sharp are the implications for other single-party dictatorships. So let’s reflect on the behavior of the single-party state in China since the mid-1980s. The Chinese party-state has had several consistent action plans since the 1980s. First, it has focused great effort on economic reform, rising incomes, and improving standards of living for the bulk of its population. In these efforts it has been largely successful — in strong contrast to the USSR and its satellite states. Second, the Chinese government has intensified its ability to control ideology and debate, culminating in the current consolidation of power under President Xi. And third, it used brutal force against the one movement that emerged in 1989 with substantial and broad public involvement, the Democracy Movement. The use of force against demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and other cities in China demonstrated the party’s determination to prevent largescale public mobilization with force if needed.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that China’s leaders have reflected very carefully on the collapse of single-party states in 1989, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. They appear to have settled on a longterm coordinated strategy aimed at preventing the emergence of the particular factors that led to those political catastrophes. They are committed to fulfilling the expectations of the public that the economy will continue to grow and support rising standards of living for the mass of the population. So economic growth has remained a very high priority. Second, they are vigilant in monitoring ideological correctness, suppressing individuals and groups who continue to advocate for universal human rights, democracy, and individual freedoms. And they are unstinting in providing the resources needed by the state organizations through which censorship, political repression, and ideological correctness are maintained. And finally, they appear to be willing to use overwhelming force if necessary to prevent largescale public protests. The regime seems very confident that a pathway of future development that continues to support material improvement for the population while tightly controlling ideas and public discussions of political issues will be successful. And it is hard to see that this calculation is fundamentally incorrect.

Democracy and the politics of intolerance

A democracy allows government to reflect the will of the people. Or does it? Here I would like to understand a bit better the dynamics through which radical right populism has come to have influence, even dominance, in a number of western democracies — even when the percentage of citizens with radical right populist attitudes generally falls below the range of 35% of the electorate.

There are well known bugs in the ways that real democracies work, leading to discrepancies between policy outcomes and public preferences. In the United States, for example, we find:

  • Gerrymandered Congressional districts that favor Republican incumbents
  • Over-representation of rural voters in the composition of the Senate (Utah has as many senators as California)
  • Organized efforts to suppress voting by poor and minority voters
  • The vast influence of corporate and private money in shaping elections and public attitudes
  • An electoral-college system that easily permits the candidate winning fewer votes to nonetheless win the Presidency

So it is evident that the system of electoral democracy institutionalized in the United States is far from a neutral, formal system conveying citizen preferences onto outcomes in a fair and equal way. The rules as well as the choices are objects of contention.

But to understand the ascendancy of the far right in US politics we need to go beyond these defects. We need to understand the processes through which citizens acquire their political attitudes — thereby explaining their likelihood of mobilization for one party or candidate or another. And we need to understand the mechanisms through which elected representatives are pushed to the extreme positions that are favored by only a minority of their own supporters.

First, what are the mechanisms that lead to the formation of political attitudes and beliefs in individual citizens? That is, of course, a huge question. People have religious values, civic values, family values, personal aspirations, bits of historical knowledge, and so on, all of which come into play in a wide range of settings through personal development. And all of these value tags may serve as a basis for mobilization by candidates and parties. That is the rationale for “dog-whistle” politics — to craft messages that resonate with small groups of voters without being noticed by larger groups with different values. So let’s narrow it a bit: what mechanisms exist through which activist organizations and leaders can promote specific hateful beliefs and attitudes within a population with a range of existing attitudes, beliefs, and values? In particular, how can radical-right populist organizations and parties increase the appeal of their programs of intolerance to voters who are not otherwise pre-disposed to the extremes of populism?

Here the potency of appeals to division, intolerance, and hate is of particular relevance. Populism has almost always depended on a simplistic division between “us” and “them”. The rhetoric and themes of nationalism and racism represent powerful tools in the arsenal of populist mobilization, preying upon suspicion, resentment, and mistrust of “others” in order to gain adherents to a party that promises to take advantages away from those others. The right-wing media play an enormous role in promulgating these messages of division and intolerance in many countries. The conspiracy theories and false narratives conveyed by right-wing media and commentators are powerfully persuasive in setting the terms of political consciousness for millions of people. Fox News set the agenda for a large piece of the American electorate. And the experience of having been left out of a fair share of economic advantages leaves some segments of the population particularly vulnerable to these kinds of appeals. Finally, the under-currents of racism and prejudice are of continuing importance in the political and social identities of many citizens — again leaving them vulnerable to appeals that cater to these prejudices. This is how Breitbart News works. (An earlier post treated this factor; link.)

Let’s next consider the institutional mechanisms through which activist advocacy can be turned into disproportionate effects in legislation. Suppose Representative Smith has been elected on the Republican ticket in a close contest over his Democrat opponent with 51% of the vote. And suppose his constituency includes 15% extreme right voters, 20% moderate right voters, and 16% conservative-leaning independents. Why does Smith go on to support the agenda of the far right, who are after all only less than a third of his own supporters in his district? This results from a mechanism that political scientists seem to understand; it involves the dynamics of the primary system. The extreme right is highly activated, while the center is significantly less so. A candidate who moves to the center is in danger of losing his seat in the next primary to a far-right candidate who can depend upon the support of his or her activist base to defeat Smith. So the 15% of extreme-right voters determine the behavior of the representative. (McAdam and Kloos consider these dynamics in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America; link.)

Gerrymandering plays an important role in these dynamics as well. Smith doesn’t have to moderate his policy choices out of concern that he will lose the general election to a more moderate Democrat, because the Republican legislature in his state has ensured that this is a safe seat for the candidate chosen by the party.

So here we are — in a nation governed by an extreme-right party in control of both House and Senate, with a President espousing xenophobic and anti-immigrant intentions and a budget that severely cuts back on the social safety net, and dozens of state governments dominated by the same forces. And yet the President is profoundly unpopular, confidence in Congress is at an abysmal low point, and the majority of Americans favor a more progressive set of policies on women’s health, health policy, immigration, and international security than the governing party is proposing. How did democratic processes bring us to this paradoxical point?

In 1991 political scientist Sam Popkin published a short book called The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. The title captures Popkin’s central hypothesis: that voters make choices on the basis of rational assessment of available evidence. What he adds to this old theory of democratic behavior is the proviso that often the principle of reasoning in question is what he calls “low-information rationality”. Unlike traditional rational-choice theories of political behavior, Popkin proposes to make use of empirical results from cognitive psychology — insights into how real people make practical decisions of importance. It is striking how much the environment of political behavior has changed since Popkin’s reflections in the 1980s and 1990s. “Most Americans watch some network television news and scan newspapers several times every week” (25). In a 2015 New Yorker piece on the populism of Donald Trump Evan Osnos quotes Popkin again — but this time in a way that emphasizes emotions rather than evidence-based rationality (link). The passage is worth quoting:

“The more complicated the problem, the simpler the demands become,” Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego, told me. “When people get frustrated and irritated, they want to cut the Gordian knot.”

Trump has succeeded in unleashing an old gene in American politics—the crude tribalism that Richard Hofstadter named “the paranoid style”—and, over the summer, it replicated like a runaway mutation. Whenever Americans have confronted the reshuffling of status and influence—the Great Migration, the end of Jim Crow, the end of a white majority—we succumb to the anti-democratic politics of absolutism, of a “conflict between absolute good and absolute evil,” in which, Hofstadter wrote, “the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do.” Trump was born to the part. “I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win,” he wrote, in “The Art of the Deal.” “Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.” Trump, who long ago mastered the behavioral nudges that could herd the public into his casinos and onto his golf courses, looked so playful when he gave out Lindsey Graham’s cell-phone number that it was easy to miss just how malicious a gesture it truly was. It expressed the knowledge that, with a single utterance, he could subject an enemy to that most savage weapon of all: us. (link)

The gist is pretty clear: populism is not primarily about rational consideration of costs and benefits, but rather the political emotions of mistrust, intolerance, and fear.

Deliberative democracy and the age of social media

Several earlier posts have focused on the theory of deliberative democracy (link, link, link). The notion is that political decision-making can be improved by finding mechanisms for permitting citizens to have extended opportunities for discussion and debate over policies and goals. The idea appeals to liberal democratic theorists in the tradition of Rousseau — the idea that people’s political preferences and values can become richer and more adequate through reasoned discussion in a conversation of equals, and political decisions will be improved through such a process. This idea doesn’t quite equate to the wisdom of the crowd; rather, individuals become wiser through their interactions with other thoughtful and deliberative people, and the crowd’s opinions improve as a result.

Here is the definition of deliberative democracy offered by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson in Why Deliberative Democracy? (2004):

Most fundamentally, deliberative democracy affirms the need to justify decisions made by citizens and their representatives. Both are expected to justify the laws they would impose on one another. In a democracy, leaders should therefore give reasons for their decisions, and respond to the reasons that citizens give in return… The reasons that deliberative democracy asks citizens and their representatives to give should appeal to principles that individuals who are trying to find fair terms of cooperation cannot reasonably reject. (3)

All political reasoning inherently involves an intermingling of goals, principles, and facts. What do we want to achieve? What moral principles do we respect as constraints on political choices? How do we think about the causal properties of the natural and social world in which we live? Political disagreement can derive from disagreements in each of these dimensions; deliberation in principle is expected to help citizens to narrow the range of disagreements they have about goals, principles, and facts. And traditional theorists of deliberative democracy, from the pre-Socratics to Gutmann, Thompson, or Fishkin, believe that it is possible for people of good will to come to realize that the beliefs and assumptions they bring to the debate may need adjustment.

But something important has changed since the 1990s when a lot of discussions of deliberative democracy took place. This is the workings of social media — blogs, comments, Twitter discussions, Facebook communities. Here we have millions of people interacting with each other and debating issues — but we don’t seem to have a surge of better or more informed thinking about the hard issues. On the one hand, we might hope that the vast bandwidth of debate and discussion of issues, involving enormous numbers of the world’s citizens, would have the effect of deepening the public’s understanding of complex issues and policies. And on the other hand, we seem to have the evidence of continuing superficial thinking about issues, hardening of ideological positions, and reflexive habits of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. The Internet seems to lead as often to a hardening and narrowing of attitudes as it does to a broadening and deepening of people’s thinking about the serious issues we face.

So it is worth reflecting on what implications are presented to our ideas about democracy by the availability of the infrastructure of social media. It was observed during the months of the Arab Spring that Twitter and other social media platforms played a role in mobilization of groups of people sharing an interest in reform. And Guobin Yang describes the role that the Internet has played in some areas of popular activism in China (link). This is a little different from the theory of deliberative democracy, however, since mobilization is different from deliberative value-formation. The key question remains unanswered: can the quality of thinking and deliberation of the public be improved through the use of social media? Can the public come to a better understanding of issues like climate change, health care reform, and rising economic inequalities through the debates and discussions that occur on social media? Can our democracy be improved through the tools of Twitter, Facebook, or Google? So far the evidence is not encouraging; it is hard to find evidence suggesting a convergence of political or social attitudes deriving from massive use of social media. And the most dramatic recent example of change in public attitudes, the sudden rise in public acceptance of single-sex marriage, does not seem to have much of a connection from social media.

Here is a very interesting report by the Pew Foundation on the political segmentation of the world of Twitter (link). The heart of their findings is that Twitter discussions of politics commonly segment into largely distinct groups of individuals and websites (link).

Conversations on Twitter create networks with identifiable contours as people reply to and mention one another in their tweets. These conversational structures differ, depending on the subject and the people driving the conversation. Six structures are regularly observed: divided, unified, fragmented, clustered, and inward and outward hub and spoke structures. These are created as individuals choose whom to reply to or mention in their Twitter messages and the structures tell a story about the nature of the conversation.

If a topic is political, it is common to see two separate, polarized crowds take shape. They form two distinct discussion groups that mostly do not interact with each other. Frequently these are recognizably liberal or conservative groups. The participants within each separate group commonly mention very different collections of website URLs and use distinct hashtags and words. The split is clearly evident in many highly controversial discussions: people in clusters that we identified as liberal used URLs for mainstream news websites, while groups we identified as conservative used links to conservative news websites and commentary sources. At the center of each group are discussion leaders, the prominent people who are widely replied to or mentioned in the discussion. In polarized discussions, each group links to a different set of influential people or organizations that can be found at the center of each conversation cluster.

And here is the authors’ reason for thinking that the clustering of Twitter conversations is important:

Social media is increasingly home to civil society, the place where knowledge sharing, public discussions, debates, and disputes are carried out. As the new public square, social media conversations are as important to document as any other large public gathering. Network maps of public social media discussions in services like Twitter can provide insights into the role social media plays in our society. These maps are like aerial photographs of a crowd, showing the rough size and composition of a population. These maps can be augmented with on the ground interviews with crowd participants, collecting their words and interests. Insights from network analysis and visualization can complement survey or focus group research methods and can enhance sentiment analysis of the text of messages like tweets.

Here are examples of “polarized crowds” and “tight crowds”:

There is a great deal of research underway on the network graphs that can be identified within social media populations. But an early takeaway seems to be that segmentation rather than convergence appears to be the most common pattern. This seems to run contrary to the goals of deliberative democracy. Rather than exposing themselves to challenging ideas from people and sources in the other community, people tend to stay in their own circle.

So this is how social media seem to work if left to their own devices. Are there promising examples of more intentional uses of social media to engage the public in deeper conversations about the issues of the day? Certainly there are political organizations across the spectrum that are making large efforts to use social media as a platform for their messages and values. But this is not exactly “deliberative”. What is more intriguing is whether there are foundations and non-profit organizations that have specifically focused on creating a more deliberative social media community that can help build a broader consensus about difficult policy choices. And so far I haven’t been able to find good examples of this kind of effort.

(Josh Cohen’s discussion of Rousseau’s political philosophy is interesting in the context of fresh thinking about deliberation and democracy; link. And Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright’s collection of articles on democratic innovation, Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (The Real Utopias Project) (v. 4), is a very good contribution as well.)

Underinvesting in the public good

There are quite a few investments in social programs that would have spectacular return on investment, but that in fact remain unfunded or underfunded. I am thinking here of things like broadened preschool programs, enhanced dropout prevention programs, regional economic development efforts, and prison re-entry programs. Why are these spectacular opportunities so dramatically under-exploited in the United States and other nations?

One line of answer derives from a public choice perspective: the gains that follow from the investment represent public goods, and public goods are typically under-provided. But that doesn’t really answer the question, because it is governments that are underinvesting, not uncoordinated groups of independent agents. And governments are supposed to make investments to promote the public good.

Another plausible answer is that the citizens who are primarily served by most of the examples provided above are poor and disenfranchised; so the fact that they would benefit from the program doesn’t motivate the politically powerful to adopt the policy.

There is also a powerful influence of political ideology at work here. Conservative ideas about what a good society looks like, how social change occurs, and the role of government all militate against substantial public investment in programs and activities like those mentioned above. These conservative political beliefs are undergirded by a white-hot activism against taxes that makes it all but impossible to gain support in legislative bodies for programs like these — no matter what the return on investment is.

Failure to achieve these kinds of social gains through public investment might seem like a very basic element of injustice within our society. But it also looks like strong evidence of system failure: the political and economic system fail to bring about as much public good as is possible in the circumstances. The polity is stuck somewhere on the low shoulders of the climb towards maximum public benefit for minimum overall investment. It is analogous to the situation in private economic space where there are substantial obstacles to the flow of investment, leaving substantial possible sources of gain untapped. It is s situation of massive collective inefficiency, quite the contrary of Adam Smith’s view of the happy outcomes of the hidden hand and the market mechanism.

This last point brings us back to the public goods aspect of the problem. A legislature that designs a policy or program aimed at capturing the gains mentioned here may succeed in its goal and yet find that the gains accrue to someone else — the public at large or another political party. The gains are separated from the investment, leaving the investment entity with no rational incentive to make the investment after all.

Some policy leaders have recognized this systemic problem and have turned to an innovative possible solution, social impact bonds (link). Here is how the Center for American Progress explains this idea.

A social impact bond, or SIB, is an innovative financial tool that enables government agencies to pay for programs that deliver results. In a SIB agreement, the government sets a specific, measurable outcome that it wants achieved in a population and promises to pay an external organization—sometimes called an intermediary—if and only if the organization accomplishes the outcome. SIBs are one example of what the Obama administration calls “Pay for Success” financing. (link)

Essentially the idea is to try to find a way of privatizing the public gains in question, so that private investors have an incentive to bring them about.

This is an interesting idea, but it doesn’t really solve the fundamental problem: society’s inability to make rational investment in its own wellbeing. It seems more like a way of shifting risks of program success or failure from the state agency to the private entity. Here is a McKinsey discussion of the concept (link), and here is a more skeptical piece in the Economist (link).

Basic social institutions and democratic equality

We would like to think that it is possible for a society to embody basic institutions that work to preserve and enhance the wellbeing of all members of society in a fair way. We want social institutions to be beneficent (producing good outcomes for everyone), and we want them to be fair (treating all individuals and groups with equal consideration; creating comparable opportunities for everyone).  There is a particularly fundamental component of liberal optimism that holds that the institutions of a market-based democracy accomplish both goals.  Economic liberals maintain that the economic institutions of the market create efficient allocations of resources across activities, permitting the highest level of average wellbeing. Free public education permits all persons to develop their talents. And the political institutions of electoral democracy permit all groups to express and defend their interests in the arena of government and law.

But social critics cast doubt on all parts of this story, based on the role played by social inequalities within both sets of institutions. The market embodies and reproduces a set of economic inequalities that result in grave inequalities of wellbeing for different groups. Economic and social inequalities influence the quality of education available to young people. And electoral democracy permits the grossly disproportionate influence of wealth holders relative to other groups in society.  So instead of reducing inequalities among citizens, these basic institutions seem to amplify them.

If we look at the fundamentals of social life in the United States we are forced to recognize a number of unpalatable realities: extensive and increasing inequalities of income, wealth, education, health, and quality of life; persistent racial inequalities; a growing indifference among the affluent and powerful to the poverty and deprivation of others; and a political system that is rapidly approaching the asymptote of oligarchy. It is difficult to be optimistic about our political future if we are particularly concerned about equality and opportunity for all; the politics of our time seem to be taking us further and further from these ideals.

So how should progressives think about a better future for our country and our world? What institutional arrangements might do a better job of ensuring greater economic justice and political legitimacy in the next fifty years in this country and other democracies of western Europe and North America?

Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson’s recent collection, Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond contains an excellent range of reflections on this set of problems, centered around the idea of a property-owning democracy that is articulated within John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. A range of talented contributors provide essays on different aspects and implications of the theory of property-owning democracy. The contributions by O’Neill and Williamson are especially good, and the volume is a major contribution to political theory for the 21st century.

Here is one of Rawls’s early statements of the idea of a property-owning democracy in A Theory of Justice:

In property-owning democracy, … the aim is to realize in the basic institutions the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal.  To do this, those institutions must, from the outset, put in the hands of citizens generally, and not only of a few, sufficient productive means for them to be fully cooperating members of society on a footing of equality. (140)

One thing that is striking about the discussions that recur throughout the essays in this volume is the important relationship they seem to have to Thomas Piketty’s arguments about rising inequalities in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty presents rising inequality as almost unavoidable; whereas the advocates for a property-owning democracy offer a vision of the future in which inequalities of assets are narrowed. The dissonance disappears, however, when we consider the possibility that the institutional arrangements of POD are in fact a powerful antidote to the economic imperatives identified by Piketty. And in fact the editors anticipate this possibility in their paraphrase of Rawls’s reasons for preferring POD over welfare state capitalism:

Because capital is concentrated in private hands under welfare state capitalism, it will be difficult if not impossible to provide to call “the fair value of the political liberties”; that is to say, capitalist interests and the rich will have vastly more influence over the political process than other citizens, a condition which violates the requirement of equal political liberties. Second, Rawls suggests at points that welfare state capitalism produces a politics that tends to undermine the possibility of tax transfers sufficiently large to correct for the inequalities generated by market processes.(3)

These comments suggest that Rawls had an astute understanding of the ways that wealth and power and influence are connected; so he believed that a more equal prior distribution of assets is crucial for a just society.

The primary aim of this public activity is not to maximize economic growth (or to maximize utility) but rather to ensure that capital is widely distributed and that no group is allowed to dominate economic life; but Rawls also assumes that the economy needs to be successful in terms of conventional measures (i.e., by providing full employment, and lifting the living standards of the least well off over time). (4)

The editors make a point that is very incisive with respect to rising economic inequalities.

The concentration of capital and the emergence of finance as a driving sector of capitalism has generated not only instability and crisis; it also has led to extraordinary political power for private financial interests, with banking interest taking control in shaping not only policies immediately affecting that sector but economic (and thereby social) policy in general. (6)

In other words, attention to the idea of a property-owning democracy is in fact a very substantive rebuttal to the processes identified in Piketty’s analysis of the tendencies of capital in the modern economy. As the editors put the point, the idea of a property-owning democracy provides a rich basis for the political programs of progressive movements in contemporary politics (5).

Two questions arise with respect to any political philosophy: is the end-state that it describes a genuinely desirable outcome; and is there a feasible path by which we can get from here to there? One might argue that POD is an appealing end-state; and yet it is an outcome that is virtually impossible to achieve within modern political and economic institutions. (Here is an earlier discussion of this idea; link.) These contributors give at least a moderate level of reason to believe that a progressive foundation for democratic action is available that may provide an effective counterweight to the conservative rhetoric that has dominated the scene for decades.

Guest post by Elizabeth Anderson on race in American politics

Elizabeth Anderson is John Dewey Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author most recently of The Imperative of Integration. This contribution extends a question posed in a recent post on the conservative war on poor people (link). Thanks for contributing, Liz!

American Conservative Politics and the Long Shadow of Slavery

Elizabeth Anderson

An “outright Marxist!”  That’s what Rafael Cruz, Senator Ted Cruz’s father, declared of President Obama on the campaign trail in April 2013.  His accusation is common on the right.  Google “Obama Marxist” and you will get about 4.95 million results.  “Obama communist” yields 40 million.  It’s a strange charge against a man who vigorously supported the bail-out of Wall Street banks as a Senator, and expanded it to other major firms as President.  Yet the charge is nothing new.  Conservatives have long accused anyone to their left of communism or fellow-traveling.  Rick Perlstein traces this practice back to the 1950s.

In fact, it goes back a century before.  George Fitzhugh, author of the famous proslavery tract Cannibals All! wrote a letter to William Lloyd Garrison in 1856 declaring that “every theoretical abolitionist at the North is a Socialist or Communist.”  J. H. Thornwell, one of the most distinguished ministers of the antebellum South, delivered a sermon in 1850 on “The Rights and Duties of Masters,” in which he characterized the conflict over slavery as one in which slaveholders, Christians, and the “friends of order and regulated freedom” stood together against “abolitionists, atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, [and] jacobins” who were united on the other side.

This fact about the origins of one aspect of conservative rhetoric opens a window to the larger structure of American conservative thought.  Consider Romney’s notorious 47% speech:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president . . . who are dependent upon government . . . who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing . . . . These are people who pay no income tax . . . . I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

This was spoken by a presidential candidate who supported the Wall Street bailouts, who did not complain about massive state subsidies to wealthy farmers or the oil and coal industries, and who paid 14.1% of his income in federal taxes—less than the 15.3% effective payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare that falls on wage workers, over and above the income tax.  Counting state and local taxes, which are highly regressive, we have good reason to believe that the 47% he resents pay substantially higher total tax rates than the top 1%.

Romney, however, knew his audience. Tax breaks and subsidies for better-off whites are not what most conservatives oppose.  Their core objection is “free stuff” thought to disproportionately benefit blacks, Latinos, immigrants, and other traditionally subordinated groups.  As Lee Atwater explained, the Republican party’s “Southern Strategy” for winning white voters is all about opposing policies that disproportionately help blacks and promoting policies that disproportionately hurt them:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N-ger, n-ger, n-ger.” By 1968 you can’t say “n-ger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

While conservatives, even those belonging to or sympathetic to the Tea Party, support Social Security and Medicare, they condemn programs such as means-tested welfare, which are perceived as disproportionately benefiting blacks and Latinos, whom they see as undeserving.  A key driver of public opinion on domestic policy in the U.S. is racial resentment: in particular, the idea that blacks are too lazy to take responsibility for their lives but want to live off the hard-earned wealth of whites, either through crime or the public dole.

My current research on abolitionism and the struggle for free labor finds that this idea has been a deep theme of American conservative opinion since before the Civil War.  Although in the antebellum era, racists typically supposed that blacks were incapable of taking care of themselves, while today they are thought to be willfully refusing to do so, the complaints about black behavior are remarkably similar.  In response to an emancipation petition submitted to the Virginia legislature, hundreds of citizens submitted proslavery petitions in 1795.  Echoing other petitions, this one from the free whites of Lunenberg County worried that emancipation would bring

Want, Poverty, Distress and ruin to the free Citizen; the Horrors of all the rapes, Robberies, Murders, and Outrages, which an innumerable Host of unprincipled, unpropertied, vindictive and remorseless Banditte are capable of perpetrating; Neglect, famine and Death to the abandoned black Infant, and superannuated Parent; inevitable Bankruptcy to the revenue; Desperation and revolt to the disappointed, oppressed Citizen; and sure and final ruin to this once happy, free, and flourishing Country . . . .

Thomas Dew, in his 1832 article “Abolition of Negro Slavery,” predicted that abolition would lead blacks to idleness, drunkenness, destitution, and thence to crime.  William Harper predicted in Cotton is King, an 1860 compendium of proslavery thought, that emancipation would reduce blacks to paupers and lead them “from petty to greater crimes, until all life and property would be rendered insecure,” and that if they got the vote, they “would be used by unprincipled politicians” to advance dangerous schemes.

White conservatives saw their fears confirmed during Reconstruction.  This cartoon reveals their view of the Freedman’s Bureau, described as “an agency to keep the Negro in idleness at the expense of the white man:

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Then it was the Freedman’s Bureau.  Today it is food stamps, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

Not only the content, but the style and emotional register of conservative politics have been constant.  The hysteria, apocalyptic sensibility, and intransigence of Tea Party conservatives on full display in the recent government shutdown crisis (complete with a confederate flag) mirrors that of the South in the run-up to the Civil War through the Reconstruction Era.  American conservatism continues to operate under the long shadow of slavery and its legacy.

Polarization

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Suppose a country had come to the brink of financial catastrophe because the two parties in its legislature were unable to find compromises in the public interest. Suppose further that the discourse in that country had evolved towards a highly toxic and hateful stream of anathemas by one party against the other. And suppose that one party projects an unprecedented amount of vitriol and hatred towards the leader of the other party, the president of the country. How would we describe this state of affairs? And what hypotheses might we consider to explain how this state of affairs came to be?

First, description. This seems like a society on the brink of political breakdown. It is riven by hard hatreds, with almost no strands of civility and shared values to hold it together. One side portrays the other in extreme terms, with few voices that insist on the basic decency of the other party. (There is one maverick voice, perhaps, who breaks ranks with the extremists of his party, and who expresses a decent respect for his political foes. He is accused of being too soft — perhaps a secret ally of the opposition.)

Here is how the point is put in a recent piece in the Washington Post:

Today there is a New Confederacy, an insurgent political force that has captured the Republican Party and is taking up where the Old Confederacy left off in its efforts to bring down the federal government. (link)

Consider this map of the distribution and density of slaveholding in the South that Abraham Lincoln found very useful in the run-up to the Civil War; link.

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Compare this to a map presented by Richard Florida in the Atlantic (link):
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There is a pretty strong alignment between the two maps.

So where does the extremism come from? There is a fairly direct hypothesis that comes to mind: racism and racial resentment. We are facing a real inversion of the white-black power relation that this country has so often embraced. Perhaps this is just very hard for the president’s opponents to accept. Perhaps it creates a curdling sense of resentment that is difficult to handle. This is certainly the impression created by the recent incident involving the waving of a confederate flag in front of the White House, an act not so different from a cross-burning in front of the home of a black family. And in fact, there is a pretty striking correlation between the heart of this anti-government activism and the distribution of slaveholding in the United States before the Civil War that is revealed in the two maps above.

Another possibility is that it’s really and truly about ideology. The right really hates the president because they think he advocates an extreme left set of policies. The problem with this idea is that the President is in fact quite moderate and centrist. The health care reforms he spearheaded were themselves advocated by conservative think tanks only a few years earlier; the President’s agenda has not given much attention to poverty; and the President has avoided serious efforts at redistribution through more progressive taxation. So in fact the President represents the center, not the left, on most economic policies.

So where do these trends seem to be taking us? I used the word “polarization” to describe the situation, but perhaps that is not quite accurate. The percentage of the electorate represented by the extremist faction is small — nothing like a plurality, let alone majority, of the population. So the extremism in our politics is being driven by a fairly small segment of our society. Because of the extreme degree of gerrymandering that exists in many Congressional districts, though, these legislators are secure in their home districts. So we can’t have a lot of hope in the idea that their own electorates will turn them out.

Maybe this society will cycle back to a more moderate set of voices and values. Maybe the public will express its displeasure with the extremist voices, and like good political entrepreneurs they will adapt. Maybe. But we don’t seem to see the signs of thaw yet.

Purposive social change

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How can citizens strive to bring about significant social change?

So many of the changes we have witnessed in the past forty years have happened to us, not by us. Supreme Court decisions have changed the rules of voting and university admissions, blind economic forces have created new patterns of inequality and new distributions of opportunities, inner cities have gradually deteriorated as places to live and develop. Some of these changes have represented the efforts of a few powerful actors — Supreme Court justices, the Koch brothers, or CEOs of major companies. But few of these seem to be the product of social movements for change, where ordinary people have a common goal and succeed in bringing about a change in the conditions that they object to. So we are forced to ask the question: can social advocacy and mobilization bring about progressive social change?

We do have a few examples of enduring changes brought about by purposive social mobilization. Arguably it was activism and advocacy about gay rights that brought about the gradual changes of social values that have created new configurations of marriages and families in America and a few other countries. The demise of the Jim Crow system of the South resulted from the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of activists and ordinary people for racial justice. The Vietnam War probably came to an earlier end than it otherwise might have because of the militancy and activism of many college-age students.

But it is worth posing the question today: are there opportunities for social groups and mobilizations to help craft a better and more democratic society in our current circumstances?

Take Detroit, the metro region where I live. We face massive social ills: school systems that fail more than half the students they serve, large gaps in health status by race, persistent segregation, crushing levels of youth unemployment, and high rates of violence. And we have activist organizations that mobilize many strong people who are committed to helping the region progress in these areas. I think of ACCESS, Southwest Solutions, New Detroit, the NAACP, Focus:Hope, the Detroit Urban League, City Year Detroit, Youthville, and literally hundreds of other social justice organizations that are wholly committed to making a difference. These organizations want to attack the structural forms of injustice and inequality we face, and they want to improve the quality of life for the disadvantaged groups of the region, including especially children and young people. But let’s pose the question, how much effect can these organizations really have? And what are the strategies that can have the greatest effect?

What is most evident in examining these groups and their strategies is that they aim at gradual, incremental change at a local or regional level. And it is credible that each group may be somewhat successful in achieving its progressive goals. More kids will stay in high school, more adults will get job training, there will be a degree of improvement in the availability of free health clinics. The harder question is this: do these effects succeed in bending the arc of our city’s progress? Do they actually lay the ground for higher quality of life for the majority of our population? Or are they simply small successes in an overall worsening social reality?

It is possible that the social problems we face break into a couple of fairly different kinds of challenges that are more or less amenable to amelioration through citizen mobilization. There are social problems that are essentially the effect of entropy and neglect. A neighborhood may slowly slide into decline for a few random reasons, and its decline may be halted by a concerted effort by a group of concerned citizens. So the concerned citizens can push off the brownian motion of slow urban decay. But other social problems derive from something more intentional: a structural and strategic use of power by one group that disadvantages another group.

Perhaps fracking is a good example of the kind of process where powerful interests oppose change: energy companies have the resources needed to reach agreements with vulnerable land holders in an area, and before you know it, the county is fundamentally changed by polluted water, heavy trucks, small earthquakes, and irreversible property rights that make it impossible for others to limit the practice. Here again mobilization is possible. But the opponent has a great deal of power in politics, law, and media, and the challenge is a difficult one. The table is tilted towards the energy company.

So let’s consider a really hard problem: mobilizing a largescale social movement to reinstate the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Civil rights organizations around the country believe that the Supreme Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act when it invalidated Section 5 of the act that lists specific jurisdictions with a prior history of discrimination in voting regulations and requires them to gain approval from the courts in advance of any changes in their voting rules. The Congress is free to reestablish such a clause based on contemporary facts. But it is generally believed to be impossible to get such a bill through Congress. So what would it take to create a mass-based social movement that pressured the House and Senate to do so? And how decisive do we imagine the power of a few wealthy and conservative political foundations would be in blocking such an effort?

The obstacles facing largescale collective action by ordinary people are quite high: the difficulty and cost of creating national or state organizations to coordinate mobilization, the power possessed by elite interests committed to the status quo, and the tendency of social movements to fracture over goals and tactics, to name a few. And yet it would appear that only mass collective action will suffice to begin to change some of the structures of our society that are most damaging for the most disadvantaged groups in our society.

Why a war on poor people?

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American conservatives for the past several decades have shown a remarkable hostility to poor people in our country. The recent effort to slash the SNAP food stamp program in the House (link); the astounding refusal of 26 Republican governors to expand Medicaid coverage in their states — depriving millions of poor people from access to Medicaid health coverage (link); and the general legislative indifference to a rising poverty rate in the United States — all this suggests something beyond ideology or neglect.

The indifference to low-income and uninsured people in their states of conservative governors and legislators in Texas, Florida, and other states is almost incomprehensible. Here is a piece in Bustle that reviews some of the facts about expanding Medicaid coverage:

In total, 26 states have rejected the expansion, including the state of Mississippi, which has the highest rate of uninsured poor people in the country. Sixty-eight percent of uninsured single mothers live in the states that rejected the expansion, as do 60 percent of the nation’s uninsured working poor. (link)

These attitudes and legislative efforts didn’t begin yesterday. They extend back at least to the Reagan administration in the early 1980s. Here is Lou Cannon describing the Reagan years and the Reagan administration’s attitude towards poverty:

Despite the sea of happy children’s faces that graced the “feel-good” commercials, poverty exploded in the inner cities of America during the Reagan years, claiming children as its principal victims. The reason for this suffering was that programs targeted to low-income families, such as AFDC, were cut back far more than programs such as Social Security. As a result of cuts in such targeted programs-including school lunches and subsidized housing-federal benefit programs for households with incomes of less than $10,000 a year declined nearly 8% during the Reagan first term while federal aid for households with more than $40,000 income was almost unchanged. Source: The Role of a Lifetime, by Lou Cannon, p. 516-17, Jul 2, 1991

Most shameful, many would feel, is the attempt to reduce food assistance in a time of rising poverty and deprivation. It’s hard to see how a government or party could justify taking food assistance away from hungry adults and children, especially in a time of rising poverty. And yet this is precisely the effort we have witnessed in the past several months in revisions to the farm bill in the House of Representatives. In a recent post Dave Johnson debunks the myths and falsehoods underlying conservative attacks on the food stamp program in the House revision of the farm bill (link).

This tenor of our politics indicates an overt hostility and animus towards poor people. How is it possible to explain this part of contemporary politics on the right? What can account for this persistent and unblinking hostility towards poor people?

One piece of the puzzle seems to come down to ideology and a passionate and unquestioning faith in “the market”. If you are poor in a market system, this ideology implies you’ve done something wrong; you aren’t productive; you don’t deserve a better quality of life. You are probably a drug addict, a welfare queen, a slacker. (Remember “slackers” from the 2012 Presidential campaign?)

Another element here seems to have something to do with social distance. Segments of society with whom one has not contact may be easier to treat impersonally and cruelly. How many conservative legislators or governors have actually spent time with poor people, with the working poor, and with poor children? But without exposure to one’s fellow citizens in many different life circumstances, it is hard to acquire the inner qualities of compassion and caring that make one sensitive to the facts about poverty.

A crucial thread here seems to be a familiar American narrative around race. The language of welfare reform, abuse of food stamps, and the inner city is interwoven with racial assumptions and stereotypes. Joan Walsh’s recent column in Salon (link) does a good job of connecting the dots between conservative rhetoric in the past thirty years and racism.  She quotes a particularly prophetic passage from Lee Atwater in 1982 that basically lays out the transition from overtly racist language to coded language couched in terms of “big government”.

Finally, it seems unavoidable that some of this hostility derives from a fairly straightforward conflict of group interests. In order to create programs and economic opportunities that would significantly reduce poverty, it takes government spending — on income and food support, on education, on housing allowances, and on public amenities for low-income people. Government spending requires taxation; and taxation reduces the income and wealth of households at the top of the ladder. So there is a fairly obvious connection between an anti-poverty legislative agenda and the material interests of the privileged in our economy.

These are a few hypotheses about where the animus to the poor comes from. But there is an equally important puzzle about the political passivity of the poor. It is puzzling to consider why the millions of people who are the subject of this hostility do not create a potent electoral block that can force significant changes on our political discourse. Why are poor people in Texas, Florida, and other non-adopting states not voicing their opposition to the governors and legislators who are sacrificing their health to a political ideology in the current struggles over Medicaid expansion?

Two factors seem to be relevant in explaining the political powerlessness of the poor. One is the gerrymandering that has reached an exact science in many state legislatures in recent years, with unassailable majorities for the incumbent party. This means that poor people have little chance of defeating conservative candidates in congressional elections. And second are the resurgent efforts that the Supreme Court enabled last summer to create ever-more onerous voting requirements, once again giving every appearance of serving the purpose of limiting voter participation by poor and minority groups. So conservative incumbents feel largely immune from the political interests that they dis-serve.

This topic hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves in studies of American politics. One exception is the work of Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. In Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Failthey offer a powerful interpretation of the challenge of bringing poverty into politics.

Most poor people are “working poor” and are not homeless. But there are hundreds of thousands of homeless people in the United States, and their living conditions are horrible. Here is a powerful and humanizing album that captures some of the situation of homeless people in America. Give US Your Poor is worth listening to.

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