Civic Variations on the Fact, Value, Strategy Distinction

When civic studies scholars write about civics and citizens, as Peter Levine does today, we will usually mention the following trinity: facts, values, and strategies. Here’s Levine:

The citizen is committed to affecting the world. Some important phenomena may be beyond her grasp, so that she sees them but sees no way of changing them. But she is drawn to levers she can pull, handles she can grab onto. To choose an action, she combines value-judgments, factual beliefs, and tactical predictions into a single thought: “It is good for me to do this.”

Citizens seek facts and work with beliefs;  they orient their efforts with regard to values and judgments; and they develop and use strategies, tactics, and reliable predictions to achieve those values in light of the facts as they understand them.

There is much that this trinity illuminates about citizenship, but it can be contested too. The fact/value dichotomy is frequently challenged, and “strategic” thinking is often criticized for its instrumentalism. In general, the terms are discrete. So consider some alternatives:

  1. We could speak in terms of means, ends, and constraints. Many things called “facts” are really tendentious or irrelevant. But action always proceeds against the backdrop of other events and interests, against some opposition, or with some set of finite allies and collaborators. The simple means-ends dichotomy embraces the instrumental critique while acknowledging that new means may be discovered or alternative ends may come to light.
  2. We could use the language of needs assessment or SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.) “Constraints” are largely understood in terms of limits. Perhaps we should instead think in terms of “needs and assets” to capture the ways in which some of the things I mentioned as constraints are actually enabling. What’s more, a lot of a citizen’s work will require very careful, step-by-step organization and capacity-building. We often find ourselves in the middle of a project, taking as our main goal developing a new asset or bridging a gap between our current and desired capacities. SWOT analysis, and other rubrics like it, bring this to the fore: it recognizes that citizens are often operating with uncertainty that may yield an opportunity but threatens to harm them or impede their goals.
  3. “Leftists” of various stripes might prefer the language of solidarity, ideology, critique, and mobilization. If we understand the basic structures of our world as oppressive, especially if we think that they are organized by various forms of gendered, racist, and class-based domination–as well as an international dimension of colonial cultural privilege, or a preference for certain kinds of able bodies–then we will be especially cautious about “facts” and “values” which are themselves part of what is being contested as ideological–deceptive, dominating, and produced in order to preserve certain kinds of hierarchies and dominations. Citizens using this approach will tend to prefer strategies of exposure, including the mobilization of bodies in protest and solidarity, to pierce the ideology that preserves and legtimates those hierarchies. The goal will not be to win particular conflicts–since these are too easily reversed–except when this serves to undermine the systematic oppression diagnosed through ideological critique.
  4. Citizens living traditional or conservative lifestyles may think of themselves less as activists and more as preservationists or stewards of worldview in decline in the modern world. Thus, the lens through which they view their citizenship will privilege terms like stability and respect for history; resistance to or avoidance of corruption and temptation; reverence for certain values, communities, and sacred institutions. Facts are well-established and have survived the test of time; values can never be merely individual but are the product of a community’s mutual commitment; strategies are not tactical choices–is a funeral a “strategy”?–but understood in terms of the community’s practices, rituals, and traditions.

Obviously, each of these sets of distinctions (call them paradigms) is itself value-laden and rooted in some set of beliefs about the facts. I’ll note that my preferred paradigm is a mixture of #1 and #2, following Rachel Maddow, though I draw from each as it seems appropriate or as my audience requires.

What strikes me as particularly important is that each of these paradigms indicates a particular strategy. When I dither, as I often do, between these paradigms, I do so primarily because I wonder which metapolitical view of the world–which schematic of the effective levers and knobs of citizenship–is really correct.

Peter Levine always seems to work hard to accommodate conservative voices in his own paradigm. I’ve long suspected that he is motivated by the belief that many of our fellow citizens will answer best to that description, and that the solutions to our problems are most likely to be found in collaborating with our more conservative neighbors, which makes it important to find ways to accommodate oneself to them.

But this is most often at odds with that technocratic view of activism which seeks to steer the levers of bureaucracy that I find attractive: there, it’s more important to speak the language of the state and the market in order to be heard. Yet there’s a real risk that when you ignore your neighbors in favor of trying to make those larger institutions listen to you, you will both go unheard and find yourself corrupted by too-long attention to the state’s and the market’s values and worldview.

Modernity and Despair: What Should We Hope For?

I’m giving a short talk in Boston today, at the conference Frontiers of Democracy. Here are some of the points I’m hoping to mention:

The modern world produces a certain kind of despair and helplessness because the primary sources of hope are technological development and the institutional efforts of technocrats. The best hope of progress is always elsewhere: the Supreme Court, Silicon Valley, the Justice Department. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been waiting with quite a bit of excitement to see whether one man–Justice Kennedy–will decide to legalize same sex marriage. Looking around, we see lots of progress but no role for ourselves in achieving them. I care a lot about same sex marriage, but I can’t point to a single thing I’ve done to bring it about: it has seemed inevitable for most of my life, even when Democratic politicians passed laws outlawing it and campaigned against it.

This is because of modernity’s structuralist bias: problems are most easily parse-able as the result of systematic factors, and thus only large-scale statist solutions seem adequate to respond to them. In this sense we live in the world imagined by Max Weber: progress is achieved by professionals, through the slow boring of hard boards. Bureaucratic solutions are the norm, and even social movements must have their solutions instantiated in bureaucratic institutions to truly count themselves successful. It’s not enough to march or protest: your marches and protests have to lead to new policies, new laws, or new spending. Politics seems like it is reducible to a fight to steer the large organizations that make up our world.

We seem to understand people in aggregate but not individually. The emphasis is on “seem” because these aggregates are often vague, self-fulfilling, or ignore vital ceteris paribus problems. Vox recently suggested that there are 16 plausible explanations for the plummeting crime rate, all but a few of which are not only outside of my power to effect, but most of which are even outside of the power of the police department to effect.

There are similar stories to tell about the difficulty in identifying the causes of economic growth and the levers of macroeconomic success and stability. Yet at the same time pollsters can seemingly predict elections with frightening accuracy on the basis of comparatively small samples, and the Federal Reserve can seemingly nudge growth and inflation. Most of the explanations I know, as a scholar, are systematic explanations. Systems and generalizable knowledge go hand-in-hand: experts produce this knowledge and thereby prove their worth. Scientific progress becomes the model of social and political progress.

Civic renewal proposes a radically different view of progress.  On the civic view, developments that exclude us–that render us passive in our own well-being–are not progressive ones. “We” must work together to achieve our hoped for goals, or else, first, they won’t be progressive, and, second, they won’t be sustainable. Policies that are made without engaging citizens threaten to be corrupted by those exclusions either in the first instance or over time as citizens assume that the matter is settled and begin to ignore it. “Nothing for us without us” becomes a democratic slogan, with the understanding that we don’t believe it’s enough for policies to be made and enforced in our interest if they don’t engage us.

The new movements around race and police brutality that began in Ferguson have skillfully combined systematic analysis with personal action, digital mobilization on social media and protest organization. Yet this is not a generalizable lesson: these same techniques have failed to mobilize citizen engagement on a mass scale on environmental issues, finance-sector malfeasance, economic inequality, or free and fair trade.

I worry that other successes, like participatory budgeting or community-led efforts at school integration, are too small-scale and bound up with state institutions and the logic of bureaucracy and governmentality to supply the foundational insights of civics.

This kind of “progressivism” encompasses even conservative civics: front porch conservatives and Sam’s Club conservatives. Modernity is just as much a threat to their ideal lives, and not just because of the way that the modern scientific worldview undermines their metaphysical and moral commitments. Still, civics has a lot to learn from conservatives in this respect: symbolic commitments are at the heart of the solidarity required for co-creation. Here also we see a human-scale politics, around the question of the display of Confederate flags, the naming of streets and respresentation of our community’s heroes and villains.

Instead of a general science of action, it is seems to me that civics can—at best—offer a unified set of participatory values alongside subject-specific and regional knowledge, and case studies of sometimes-viable strategies.

Finally, we should hope that the civic renewal movement grows large enough to encompass lively debate, disagreement, and faction on issues of focus, strategy, and the push-and-pull of partisan identity. This is how the unity of our values will become a foundation for a living community.