Citizen, Renew Thyself

I tend to think that the most fundamental question in political philosophy is whether we need a state and what sort of thing that is. (In political theory it’s how we got a state and what we should do with it.) Peter Levine recently asked a related question: what should we do when political leaders call for civic renewal?

It’s kind of a confusing question: where do citizen-elected leaders get the authority to ask us to be better citizens? What’s clear is that we frequently ignore such calls: as a candidate in 2007 and 2008, Barack Obama’s calls for citizen action were quickly channeled into the traditional Democratic electoral machine, and today Pope Francis’s calls for the same will have to be channeled through the steering and transmission mechanisms of the Catholic Church. I’d say perhaps we even ought to ignore them, for all the reasons that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” capture. A citizens movement doesn’t have to be leaderless, but the kinds of leaders ensconced at the top of large institutions are not well-suited to be the leaders of civic renewal movements. They can inspire and celebrate such movements, but neither Barack Obama nor Bernie Sanders nor Pope Francis can lead them. Their institutional authority appears to be inimical to the very bottom-up power they’re trying to engender.

Part of the issue here is that I have a strong anti-electoral-politics bias. I worry about the ways that elections serve to blunt citizen action and legitimate state power. I worry about the ways that elections polarize us. I worry about the ways that elections create heroic narratives of individual politicians come to save us. And so I tend to think that civic renewal must de-emphasize the importance of elections and partisanship.

Another issue is money. Peter watched throughout his life as US elections have been swamped by money and he has actively fought against it; I’m a bit younger and it seems that’s always been the case and that the battles were always destined to be losing ones. One can *almost* imagine a civic renewal movement that takes up this problem explicitly and campaigns for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and re-assert some form of campaign finance restrictions… but given the size of the country and the difficulty in amending the constitution, it would (ironically) have to be an extraordinarily well-funded campaign to end well-funded campaigns.

We might instead choose to devote those resources to responding to a specific policy demand, for instance Pope Francis’s call in Laudatio Si’ that we organize and protest for climate change. This is much more exciting for me, in part because of the demand for substantive rather than procedural policy changes, and in part because the focused attention to a political project seems to offer more hope for procedural changes along the way than a procedural project would offer substantive side effects.

In the encyclical itself, Pope Francis mostly calls for dialogue and education, which strikes me as appropriate for his position but inadequate to the need. In public comments he has called for direct, citizen-led action, however, and the encyclical also hints at it as an expression of “social love”:

Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world. Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also “macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones”. That is why the Church set before the world the ideal of a “civilization of love”. Social love is the key to authentic development: “In order to make society more human, more worthy of the human person, love in social life – political, economic and cultural – must be given renewed value, becoming the constant and highest norm for all activity”. In this framework, along with the importance of little everyday gestures, social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society. When we feel that God is calling us to intervene with others in these social dynamics, we should realize that this too is part of our spirituality, which is an exercise of charity and, as such, matures and sanctifies us.

I’ve written at length about the difficulties of importing the Christian conception of caritas into the public sphere, so I won’t belabor that point here. But surely this is divine demand for intervention is an important substantive claim: as more and more religious organizations have realized, the global and international role of faith and religious solidarity means that they cannot be satisfied by the politics of nation-states, and the cross-cutting relationships that faith can make a space for are not necessarily anti-political. Even for people of faith, our treasures do not entirely lie in Heaven: we must organize to be efficacious in particular policy arenas and to be effective this organization will have to both deeply rooted in the specifics of the faith and simultaneously ecumenical.

Organizing for a cause, citizens often learn that political contestation and civic engagement is intrinsically rewarding. But it suffers from the same teleological paradox as other such goods: the telos of an engaged citizenry requires that engagement serve as a meaningful means to some other end. As is often the case, it comes back to Hannah Arendt for me: we must wrestle with our fellow citizens in the public sphere on matters of shared concern to live flourishing lives, yet when we engage we must do so for some other, particular reason.

As terrible as the threat of climate change might be, it gives me some hope that it might force us to rediscover the revolutionary treasure that is often lost in amillenial times.

The Presidential Election

This site isn’t really for partisan cheerleading. I’m a US citizen with policy and party preferences, but I feel that those preferences are somehow irrelevant, especially since my work in political philosophy is mostly oriented towards expanding the definition of  the word ‘politics’ to include more than just voting and partisanship as sports team rivalry. Lately, though, conversations have wended their way toward the presidential race, so I thought I’d take a moment to assure my readers: Barack Obama is going to win.

Look, voting is the weakest form of political accountability I can imagine. If a politician does something wrong, and you want to replace her, in a first-past-the-post system you’ve got to vote for her opponent, who may well be completely unpalatable. That reduces every question, no matter how difficult, to a yes or no. It’s very imprecise, but it’s the best we can do. (The Churchill line applies here: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”) The fundamentals all point to Barack Obama: an unpopular incumbent, a troubled economy, an expensive war, a sense of dissatisfaction with the party in power, not to mention fund-raising totals and demographic trends in old battleground states. And because of that, the US political climate is going to swing its big, imprecise hammer as squarely as possible at the ‘no’ button on election day.

So why the hubbub? In part, it’s because the grand structuralist explanation is remarkably depressing and makes us feel impotent and irrelevant: none of what I’ve said touches on the candidates, their policy preferences, popularity, or appeal to voters as individuals; nor does it reflect the competing volunteer organizations, get-out-the-vote drives, and grass-roots campaigns. I suppose fundraising totals do, in part, reflect voter preferences for individual candidates, but the big money is predictive and party-oriented, it says, “I’m not giving you this money so that you can win, I’m giving it to you because you will win and I want you to owe me a favor.”

The other reason for hubbub is that the media are devoted to a conflict narrative, and they’re intensely afraid of losing the appearance of impartiality. Because presidential elections are big business, there are a lot of people with a financial incentive to muddy the waters: party operatives who get paid on a weekly basis out of that massive pool of fundraising, media outlets with ad-space to sell, and op-editorialists who need conflict to generate interest. This supplies a motivation to make the election look close, to emphasize national polling numbers and short-term trends and bumps rather than the electoral math, the long-term trends, and the well-established patterns of bumps and counter-bumps.

Now take a look at’s recent roundup of the state betting markets (scroll to the bottom) on intrade. Intrade shows the same thing as Obama winning in the electoral college by about 80 electoral votes. That’s not just people spitballing: betting markets reflect actual investments from greedy folks who are trying to make money by predicting outcomes. When the ordinary voter changes her mind about who she wants to vote for, that change of heart may or may not find its way into the polling data. But if an investor on intrade changes her mind about who’s going to win, she sells her shares, hopefully before everyone else realizes the same thing and the price drops precipitously.

Of course, markets aren’t crystal balls, nor are they perfectly rational, and political betting markets are subject to all sorts of potential manipulation. But at the end of the contract, somebody gets paid, so there’s a strong incentive for smart greedy folks to seek out and utilize the best information to undercut potential manipulation. Saying you support a candidate, even voting for that candidate, is free, and if you’re in the right business, it can actually pay quite well. Putting your money where your ballot is separates the foolhardy from the brave, the preferences from the predictions.

Here is how the bettors are expecting the swing states to break:

Obama gets: Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia
McCain gets: Florida, Missouri

Maybe this is good news to you, maybe it’s bad news. For my part, it suggests that we might right now be overinvested as a culture in national and presidential politics. The really interesting questions are a little closer to home, a lot less overdetermined, and a lot more likely to be impacted by the efforts of a few passionate individuals who can tear their attention away from the spectacle. So if these assurances mean you can start worrying about other things now, great! We can all still get together in November and watch the Super Bowl election returns.

Politics and Celebrity

Peter Levine offers an imaginary speech by Barack Obama, responding to the charge of celebrity:

“Modern celebrity culture is a terrible thing. I can hardly believe that my daughters, growing up two generations after the height of the women’s movement, should be exposed to relentless news about someone who happens to be thin, blond, rich, deliberately uneducated past high school, without any apparent interest in a regular job, and who intentionally acts dim and vapid in order to appear attractive. I sometimes feel as if we have slipped 50 years backward. […]

“I recognize that my family and I are in some danger of being sucked into the celebrity culture. By definition, the presidential nominee of a major party is famous. In today’s climate, becoming famous means that suddenly the public is interested in our personal lives. I was never a celebrity until I ran for president. It is exciting for us, but also troubling. At some fundamental level, it feels wrong. […]

“The government cannot ban or censor celebrity culture. It can support local civic engagement, education, and arts as alternatives. And our leaders can speak out against the culture. In this, I would gladly join my Republican opponent.”

It’s a good speech, though in reading it I found myself thinking mostly about why it would fail. People don’t like to be chastised for their recreational choices, when they feel most entitled and least beholden to moral demands. There’s a tremendous industry of professionals devoted to supplying their desired quota of drama and intrusive coverage of the celebrities, and that industry has a self-image and profits to defend.

The downside of celebrity culture is its exclusivity, which I think Peter Levine has dispatched handily in other postings. Though there is something radically egalitarian about putting average people through the celebrity gauntlet in various reality shows, there’s also something disappointing about the great influence that even minor notoriety and fame can grant. We don’t care about just anyone’s opinions, just as we don’t care about just anyone’s infidelities or weight issues.

Those who have been selected for attention gain a kind of capital they can spend politically, and that puts truly deliberative processes at risk. Kevin Powell is one example of this, but then, so is Sean Tevis. Even as we convince ourselves that we’re ‘keeping it real’ by attending to the real lives of some few stars and celebrities, we’re really raising those few above the mass, granting them respect and distinction in the name of equality. Celebrity culture has the strange capacity to twist the horizontal until it is vertical, such that we look at elites and see only leveling and authenticity. That’s a problem, and I doubt very much that a celebrity, even a scholar-cum-celebrity like Senator Obama, can solve it.

Worse yet, I’m not sure that he should. Celebrity culture is just the latest attempt to narrow the field of our attentions to see one thing clearly. We’re lucky, in some ways, that we now attend to the minutia of social life rather than the divine image or the natural world. This keeps us attuned to the needs and accomplishments of our fellow human beings and receptive to cruelty and bad judgment, whereas previously we seem to have organized our world around the divine or in superstitious attempts to garner scientific knowledge from aesthetic depictions of nature. At the end of the day, the majority of the gossip that celebrities both snark at and depend on is true, and that much truth is a major achievement, especially when it is regularly reported and sourced and fact-checked in a competitive environment of professionals seeking to get it first and get it right. And as we’ve seen repeatedly, gossip muckraking can easily become political whistleblowing in the right context, even as it also risks destroying the distinction between the two completely.