The Season of Political Irrelevance

It is my considered opinion that the next three months will involve no serious deliberations regarding substantive public policy. Though readership and viewership for such matters will be at its highest, none of the things discussed will be discussed in a way that comports with public reason or with anything like the goal of exchanging reasons and evidence in the search for truth-tracking beliefs. Our best analysts, pundits, and public intellectuals will be busy with horse-race coverage and fact-checking the candidates’ claims. Worse, few of the matters discussed in highly rhetorical fashion, upon which our fellow citizens will be asked to make their determinations, will even be relevant to the public policy matters that ought to concern us most.

Here are the things I suspect we will discuss most:

  • Taxes
  • Jobs and the economy
  • The distribution of income and wealth
  • Globalization and outsourcing

Since none of these are under the control of the presidency, it’s absurd to stage the debates on these matters around the presidential election. And yet we will.

Since this is a highly cynical claim for a democratic political philosopher to make (well, not contentious among professionals) here are the things we ought to be talking about:

  • Climate change
  • Mass incarceration and its causes
  • Immigration
  • Regulatory agency capture by the financial sector
  • The proper size and role of the US military

Notice that all of these policies are administered by agencies under the President’s control. But perhaps even this is undemocratic. Accounts of politics that focus on leaders and the vertical measures of “greatness” are at odds with the pervasive sense of horizontality that ought to guide us in a democracy. Presidents are not the only political actors, nor even the most important: they perch atop the bureaucratic state barely able to steer it, using the reins merely to hold on to their office a bit longer.

Here’s Arendt in Reflections on Violence:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

Still relevant, forty-three years later.

Voice Beyond Recourse and Rights (Workplace Domination Part Four)

I’ve been putting off finishing my series on the Bleeding Hearts/Crooked Timber debates, because Chris Bertram had suggested that there might be a reply to critics. Now he says it might be a while longer, so I’m going to finish up.

In my last post, I suggested that none of the methods proposed by the Crooked Timber bloggers could actually guarantee “voice” instead of merely reciprocal power. Most of their proposed solutions, like workplace regulations, offer only rights and institutional recourse. But “voice” is special, and especially central to our conceptions of positive, active liberty: in the political sphere we contrast the ability to seek redress of rights-infractions in a court of law with the ability to protest and deliberate about what rights we should have and how our society should be organized. Even voting for representatives isn’t enough to guarantee “voice” if the choice offered to citizens forecloses some options they would like to consider, as Kenneth Arrow has proven it must.

Following Jim Bohman and Hannah Arendt, I’d suggest that the ultimate source of “voice” lies in issue selection, the capacity to initiate deliberation rather than simply responding to choices offered by bureaucrats. Neither unions nor regulators can offer this opportunity: as they grow in size and complexity, it becomes more and more difficult for an ordinary worker to offer a unique solution and to have that opinion heard. This is why Arendt called bureaucracy “the rule of No Man,” critically echoing the self-satisfied pronouncements of the Federalists that democracy requires “the rule of laws, and not the rule of men.” Perhaps I cannot be dominated (arbitrarily interfered with) by a law, a rule, or a procedure, but neither can I exercise the important human capacity to engage fully in the constitution of our shared world.

How, then, can we guarantee voice? I have three suggestions: the No Asshole Rule, Workplace Democracy, and Syndicalism.

The No Asshole Rule is a book by Richard Sutton that I often recommend. It’s a great mix of Harvard Business Review cases studies and common sense advice, but the punchline is simple: assholes are bad for business, so identify them, put them on notice, and if they don’t shape up, get rid of them. (This is precisely the kind of soft evaluation that strict union rules make impossible.)

Workplace Democracy: Have you ever thought that your workplace was overly political, too dominated by gossip and loyalties? Well, you were wrong: the truth is, your workplace is not political enough. Workers can and have deliberated and voted on matters as diverse as pay and management, workplace safety, and hiring and firing. Of course, as an introvert I know that this can seem a daunting task: too many meetings, too much social coordination, too many opportunities for status and exclusion games. It’s exhausting, and I can readily see the ways in which the ultimate recourse to group decision-making removes many of the safeguards supplied by constitional provisions that guarantee procedural justice. But if you want voice, this is how to get it. If you don’t like the idea of workplace democracy, then perhaps these objections point to a problem with voice.

Syndicalism: This term has a long and variegated history, but syndicalism basically just means worker ownership of the firm. The real problem with instituting no asshole rules and more democratic procedures in the workplace is that it pits workers against shareholders. Yet there are already corporate forms, like partnerships, where workers participate in decision-making because they are part-owners of the company. If they make good decisions, they receive dividends; if they make bad decisions, they may have to give up some of their salary or even go out of business.

Of course, part of the special history of syndicalism is the forceful expropriation of currently existing physical plant and machinery by the workers. But pacifist syndicalism is also possible, and many community development corporations are organized in basically this way. The real problem for syndicalism is how to allocate savings and manage reinvestment: a successful industry will produce profits in excess of what should be reinvested in the same industry. If those profits are invested in another industry, the workers in the first industry becomes owners of the capital and physical plant used by workers in the second industry. This problem is probably insurmountable: savings equals investment and investment creates inequality. That’s probably okay because investment also produces increased productivity, i.e. a bigger pie to divide less evenly.

One solution is to conclude that it is better to forgo voice in the workplace and simply to advocate for a generous welfare state and a Basic Income Guarantee so that each worker has adequate exit options. This is what Tyler Cowen and Matt Yglesias conclude, and I can’t help thinking that their critics at Crooked Timber were unwilling to recognize that they might have good reason for coming to that conclusion because the critics are so excited to paint libertarians as heartless.

Another solution is to advocate for “property-owning democracy,” fully cognizant that this may create a smaller savings rate and leave future generations worse off, as Rawls did. But if this is your stance, you shouldn’t be satisfied with regulations and unions: you should advocate for a fuller reorganization of the political economy beyond simple workplace antagonism. This the Crooked Timber bloggers have not done.

Consider the Bathroom Break (Workplace Domination Part Three)

The virtue of the Crooked Timber bloggers’ objections to the Bleeding Heart Libertarians’ line is that it implicitly suggests the difference between liberal and republican conceptions of freedom. Libertarians have usually substituted theories of interference and coercion for a full-blown theory of domination. When Chris Bertram stopped by, he suggested that they wanted to avoid this theoretical debate, but I think it impoverishes the conversation a bit. I’ve written about this at length in the past, but for the purposes of navigating the Bleeding Hearts/Crooked Timber debates on workplace domination, here’s a quick primer on interference, coercion, and domination.

In the comments to my first post, Daniel Levine asked:

“Why, exactly, do you need the distinction between actual productivity-enhancing rules and dominating ones? If your target is domination, it doesn’t seem to matter if the domination enhances productivity, for two reasons.

1. Productivity is, at best, an indirect good for most workers (it may be more directly beneficial for academic workers, since we tend to be abnormally non-alienated from our work).

2. The fact that domination is “good for me” in terms of some of my interests does not generally make it any less domination or much less morally problematic. Part of the core insight, I think, of Pettit, is that domination is about whether my situation is responsive to my own agency and conception of my good, not just whether it maximizes my own interests.”

There’s a debate in the literature about this: one way of defining domination is as arbitrary interference. Arbitrariness generally means “choosing or not choosing at pleasure,” and this is the sense that I believe is correct. Philip Pettit has offered a defense of a stricter, more substantive sense of arbitrariness as “failure to track people’s interests according to their ideas,” but I think this is unworkable at the level of the firm. Certainly, in society as a whole we must avoid arbitrary interference with a person that is not in keeping with their conception of the good, but at the level of the firm it is appropriate to require that all workers set aside their conflicting conceptions of the good and join, for at least as long as they are on shift, with other workers whose efforts are bent toward a common good envisioned by the firm. I would argue that we should also set aside (or translate) our individualistic conceptions of the good when we enter the public sphere and act as citizens, but this is a long debate that is far afield.

Consider the bathroom break: on my view, an “arbitrary” interference would involve some non-principled way of awarding bathroom breaks, like the sweatshop practice of asking permission from pit bosses, who can play favorites or simply deny all requests. In such contexts, it is very demeaning to be denied the right to engage in basic bodily functions. You’ve got to pee when you’ve got to pee.

Yet things are a bit different on an assembly line, where if one person leaves the whole line has to stop. In general, the most non-arbitrary way to deal with this is to have a few extra relief workers available to swap places so that a worker with an urgent need can quickly head to the bathroom. A factory with such a system is simply more productive than one without it, but if everyone needs a break at once, someone may have to wait: this is not domination.

There are definitely domination violations in the sanitation arena, and these are policed by OSHA, which has pretty specific rules about bathrooms and sanitation. Yet they have never enforced a quantitative standard (i.e. four breaks per shift, at least one relief worker per twenty employees) because different industries and different people have different needs.

Instead, OSHA have chosen the famously legalistic “reasonableness” standard. And they actually cite and levy fines very infrequently, either because infractions are few and far between or because their enforcement is quite lax. Evidence suggests that former, but so does basic economics: this kind of domination is simply not productivity-enhancing.

Of course, even bathroom breaks are not always a matter of dignity: a traditional assembly line worker dealing with intestinal issues is going to seriously hamper the functioning of that assembly line, so it’s better for the company to let that worker call in sick (for pay, to avoid people showing up when they shouldn’t) and have replacements available. By way of analogy, consider that long haul buses don’t usually have bathrooms on them, so you have to wait until the next stop, which may be a few hours away. You’re not being “dominated” in that sense, it’s just that onboard bathrooms are too expensive. This may not correspond directly to a persons’ “interests according to their ideas.” Somebody with a chronic condition (IBS, say) might object that this prevents them from taking certain kinds of jobs. The ADA standard of “reasonable accommodation” seems pretty appropriate here: it’s a vague principle, but in practice and through judicial and agency interpretations it gets fleshed out in a pragmatic way that is aligned towards overall productivity.

Despite this slight departure, Pettit and I agree that “constitutional provision” is generally superior to “reciprocal power,” and indeed the Crooked Timber bloggers depend on this to be the case to defend voice over exit. The easiest way to enact “reciprocal power” is grant both worker and manager equal power to destroy the bond that joins them: managers command, but workers can quit. Thus, the manager can arbitrarily interfere with the worker, but the worker can do likewise by leaving, forcing the employer to search for new employees. No one enforces a “you can’t quit because your manager won’t sleep with you” rule, so (if the power is truly reciprocal) no one would need to enforce a “you can’t fire him because your worker won’t sleep with you” rule.

Of course, the power relations between workers and employers aren’t generally reciprocal! But this is not to say that they never are or cannot be: some high skill, high demand workers can negotiate these issues without help. It’s even possible to imagine some employees who have more power than their employers: consider doctors and lawyers, for instance, who we rarely speak of as “dominated” by their patients and clients.

What makes those professions powerful enough to escape arbitrary interference? One word: exit. Though the Crooked Timber bloggers contest this, I believe that generous unemployment benefits or a basic income guarantee are adequate to supply a kind of reciprocity. Part of this is tied to the “full employment” question: if there is a reserve army of unemployed than the protesting worker does not really have reciprocal power. BUT! The basic income guarantee militates in favor of full employment, which the CT bloggers gloss over in their analysis.

But that doesn’t mean that exit is sufficient. A firm made non-dominating merely by exit options and reciprocal power is one where only constant vigilance and threats deter resurgence of domination. In that sense, this would be a civil “war of all-against-all,” a Rawlsian modus vivendi. Both firms and employees should want more than that, and not just because of domination concerns.

The imposition of procedural rationality in the workplace limits both employer and employee arbitrariness in a way that benefits both. The principled restriction is that both are motivated by the same goal, of engaging in productive work. Most arbitrary interference is at odds with this goal. This is akin to “constitutional provision.”

What I mean by “constitutional provision” is a set of procedures for preventing arbitrary domination rather than for redressing it after the fact. (Rights not revenge.) In the political setting where a constitution limits the activities of the executive and legislative branches, we can say that the legislature is less free to make certain arbitrary interventions into the lives of its citizens. In the same way, constitutional provision in the workplace limits the range of restrictions that employers can place on employees.

Firms are an important part of the republic, and a republic that focuses on non-domination is going to want to prevent domination within the firm. One way to achieve this goal is to couple restrictions on the scope of arbitrary interference within the firm with adequate exit options. But none of this will grant “voice” alone. OSHA doesn’t give an employee “voice,” it gives employees recourse and an opportunity for reprisal after domination has taken place.

Let’s consider two paradigm cases of voice: an employee identifies favoritism, productivity-reducing arbitrary interference from a manager, and then brings attention to the manager’s superiors. This kind of voice benefits both the firm and the employee, but it requires that the employer create a protected channel of communication. If the only person the effected employees can complain to is the manager engaging in favoritism, the employees will be silenced by fear of reprisals. In this case, voice is aligned with the principle of productive collaboration rather than domination, and arbitrary interference results in lost productivity.

Now consider a productivity-reducing use of voice: employees protest automation because fewer workers will be needed to supply the same product. (I’ve recently been having this conversation with fellow academics about Coursera.) In aggregate, the world is better off if the same product (a car or an education) can be produced more cheaply. It doesn’t matter if the mission of a firm is to make widgets or mold young minds: ifa better technique comes along that uses fewer workers, than those workers can do something else. (Belief to the contrary is known as the “lump of labor” fallacy, but in any case these concerns are dispatched by the Basic Income Guarantee and full employment.) An effective exercise of employees’ voice in such a context would make the commonwealth poorer in order to serve the advantage of a few. Employees can certainly exercises voice in such circumstances, but the outcome of that exercise should be in favor of productivity gains. A firm that makes automation decisions does not dominate its employees, because the decision is guided by the principle of productivity, any more than an employee with a better job offer dominates his employer.

The CT bloggers argue that unions are a necessary component of such exercises of voice. Certainly one way to create a protected channel of communication is through a union representative or employee inclusion program. But this is not a necessary consequence of unions, and in fact union members are less likely to report that they have a meaningful role in decision-making than non-union members.

Of course, unions can enable voice: contract negotiations can become a space where labor and capital constructively engage with each other regarding all aspects of the firm. It’s just that they don’t tend to do that; large union bureaucracies don’t guarantee workplace democracy. They can supply other goods, like solidarity, opportunities for civic engagement, and protection from exploitation in our actually existing world of injustice. But in this sense they serve the “reciprocal power” goal by allowing periodic renegotiation and protection from reprisal. Yet a firm that is restricted by full employment considerations in the labor market and that enacts its own procedural approach to personnel matters will be able to prevent many forms of non-productive arbitrary interference with employees without a union.

Meanwhile, unions do enable one obvious form of interference: they enable the majority of workers in a shop to dictate working conditions and extract dues from the minority of workers. Even though closed shops are unconstitutional, agency shops that require non-union members to work under the collectively bargained contract and to pay dues for that privilege, which dues can then be spent on lobbying and advertising that does not conform to the some members of the minority’s “interests according to their own ideas.”

Is this domination? On my view, it is not, because it fails to be arbitrary: so long as the union does in fact work in a principled (non-arbitrary) way to advance the actual interests of the employee. But of course, there is no guarantee that this will take place. There is even risk of the arbitrary interference being reversed, and a particularly powerful union making unreasonable demands on a firm! Arguably, the public unions that have survived our long period of anti-union sentiment do just that, only the “firm” in this case is the republic itself: just remember that the only union that Scott Walker didn’t attack was the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, for whom citizens’ rights are simply “conditions of employment.”

Anarchy, the Black Bloc, and Gandhian “Non-Violence”

Let me start with a correction. Anarchy isn’t really as interesting as you think it is. In fact, Anarchy is Boring:

Figuring out how to run a sustainable anarchist household (that values time spent washing the dishes and time spent making money as a computer programmer equally) isn’t as headline-grabbing as a downtown smashup. But Seattle has dozens of functional anarchist organizations—or anarchish organizations. Some of them operate in an anarchist way (consensus decision making, a focus on mutual aid instead of competition) but don’t call themselves anarchistic. And even the ones that do are constantly debating how to strive for anarchist ideals within the current economic and political system. (Give me two anarchists, and I will give you a debate on what “real” anarchism means.)

The beauty of that post (read the whole thing!) is that it emphasizes the banal public work that anarchists are constantly engaged in, building civic capacities and consensual organizations and common-pool resources. Shorn of all the rhetoric and utopianism, anarchists are just ordinary people who think that authority requires certain kinds of participation in order to be legitimate. But that’s an old idea.

The problem with the utopian anarchism in the article is Graeber’s speculative optimism: “gradually figuring out new ways of organizing everyday life which will, eventually, make currently existing forms of power seem stupid and beside the point.”

New forms of organizing our lives are not a priori impossible, and in fact that’s the goal we should all be working towards, but it hasn’t happened yet, right? And experiments often (usually, even) fail; that’s why they’re experiments. So in the meantime what do we do about the institutions that are illegitimate but for which there is not yet an alternative? Comply pragmatically? Attack? Disobey in order to demonstrate the violence in the system? Anarchists face a tremendous challenge in the existence and general acceptance of the forms of power they oppose. Not all of them opt to deal with that primarily through novel forms of household budgeting.

Robert Paul Wolff captures the “pragmatic compliance” attitude best in his classic In Defense of Anarchism:

In a sense, we might characterize the anarchist as a man without a country, for despite the ties which bind him to the land of his childhood, he stands in precisely the same moral relationship to “his” government as he does to the government of any other country in which he might happen to be staying for a time. When I take a vacation in Great Britain, I obey its laws, both because of prudential self-interest and because of the obvious moral considerations concerning the value of order, the general good consequences of preserving a system of property, and so forth. On my return to the United States, I have a sense of reentering my country, and if I think about the matter at all, I imagine myself to stand in a different and more intimate relation to American laws. They have been promulgated by my government, and I therefore have a special obligation to obey them. But the anarchist tells me that my feeling is purely sentimental and has no objective moral basis. All authority is equally illegitimate, although of course not therefore equally worthy or unworthy of support, and my obedience to American laws, if I am to be morally autonomous, must proceed from the same considerations which determine me abroad.

But there are other versions. Occupy is one. I’m personally a big fan of Elinor Ostrom’s work on common-pool resource management. But it’s not clear that any of the extant forms of anarchist organization scale beyond relatively small communities of mutual recognition, and it’s not clear that the kinds of social norms that actually work to enforce anarchist forms of organization are any more compatible with autonomy than the ones that ground state and market coercions. I look to Arendt’s account of wards and soviets for one such scaling model, but I’m not particularly enthusiastic about it given the history.

If Wolff is right, then the basic anarchist insight that legitimate authority requires participatory self-governance to be akin to the basic democratic insight and the basic liberal insight, which is why he is ultimately a democratic socialist in his politics and only a philosophical anarchist. (I do think there are adequate responses to Wolff’s specific issues with legitimate political obligations, though.)

I’m quite fond of the anarchists I know in person: we agree on a lot and we work on projects together as needed. I just call myself something different and have less interest in the kind of anti-capitalist end-state speculations that motivate some anarchist folks. Even liberals see value in non-state-centric engagement and institutional experimentation, or they ought to.

But it is striking how many folks (including me) are turned off by what we perceive as Black Bloc-style “propaganda of the deed” but keep coming back to anarchist practices and theorists under other names: civic engagement, small-r republicanism, temporary autonomous zones, etc.

Chris Hedges gave voice to that frustration here:

The Black Bloc movement is infected with a deeply disturbing hypermasculinity. This hypermasculinity, I expect, is its primary appeal. It taps into the lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings. It offers the godlike power that comes with mob violence. Marching as a uniformed mass, all dressed in black to become part of an anonymous bloc, faces covered, temporarily overcomes alienation, feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness and loneliness. It imparts to those in the mob a sense of comradeship. It permits an inchoate rage to be unleashed on any target. Pity, compassion and tenderness are banished for the intoxication of power. It is the same sickness that fuels the swarms of police who pepper-spray and beat peaceful demonstrators. It is the sickness of soldiers in war. It turns human beings into beasts.

And David Graeber responded here. He is characteristically loquacious, but makes three major points.

First, that the Black Bloc is not ideologically unitary:

Black Bloc is a tactic, not a group. It is a tactic where activists don masks and black clothing (originally leather jackets in Germany, later, hoodies in America), as a gesture of anonymity, solidarity, and to indicate to others that they are prepared, if the situation calls for it, for militant action. The very nature of the tactic belies the accusation that they are trying to hijack a movement and endanger others. One of the ideas of having a Black Bloc is that everyone who comes to a protest should know where the people likely to engage in militant action are, and thus easily be able to avoid it if that’s what they wish to do.

Second, that the rhetoric of cancer that Hedges uses promotes police-on-activist and activist-on-activist violence:

this is precisely the sort of language and argument that, historically, has been invoked by those encouraging one group of people to physically attack, ethnically cleanse, or exterminate another—in fact, the sort of language and argument that is almost never invoked in any other circumstance. After all, if a group is made up exclusively of violent fanatics who cannot be reasoned with, intent on our destruction, what else can we really do? This is the language of violence in its purest form. Far more than “fuck the police.” To see this kind of language employed by someone who claims to be speaking in the name of non-violence is genuinely extraordinary. I recognize that you’ve managed to find certain peculiar fringe elements in anarchism saying some pretty extreme things, it’s not hard to do, especially since such people are much easier to find on the internet than in real life, but it would be difficult to come up with any “Black Bloc anarchist” making a statement as extreme as this.

Even if you did not intend this statement as a call to violence, which I suspect you did not, how can you honestly believe that many will not read it as such?

And third, that Gandhian non-violence is frequently used ahistorically as a purity test, but that Gandhi’s actual rhetoric and tactics were much less perfectly non-violent than people now pretend:

Over the course of the next 40 years, Gandhi and his movement were regularly denounced in the media, just as non-violent anarchists are also always denounced in the media, as a mere front for more violent, terroristic elements, with whom he was said to be secretly collaborating. He was regularly challenged to prove his non-violent credentials by assisting the authorities in suppressing such elements. Here Gandhi remained resolute. It is always morally superior, he insisted, to oppose injustice through non-violent means than through violent means. However, to oppose injustice through violent means is still morally superior to not doing anything to oppose injustice at all.

And Gandhi was talking about people who were blowing up trains, or assassinating government officials. Not damaging windows or spray-painting rude things about the police.

Certainly he’s right about this: in many ways, the canonization of Gandhi and Martin Luther King have served to create an artificial standard of non-violence that no social movement can ever really achieve and that neither the Civil Rights movement nor the Indian independence movement actually achieved. Plus, if violent repression by the police goes unmentioned in the media but activist violence becomes a regular topic of debate, then it will appear that the only violence is coming from the activists. So long as the Black Bloc seeks anonymity, we cannot know how long they pursued pacifism nor what justifications they might have for changing their minds.

On the one hand, if Occupy is to achieve its goals, it must work today to create the myth that now plagues Gandhi’s and King’s hagiographies. On the other hand, Hedges’ piece could mean that it has already failed or that it will take much more than a single “Spring” to achieve its goals, at least in the US. (On the other other hand, Montreal’s student movements look to have achieved success using similar tactics alongside more traditional solidarities between students and labor organizations.)

Reason & Rallying

Blame it on REM

I had the pleasure and discomfort of attending parts of the Reason Rally on Saturday, a march on Washington by atheists, agnostics, and heathens. It was cold, rainy, and frequently quite boring. I mostly went to see Bad Religion, but I enjoyed Eddie Izzard’s routine and Cristina Rad, who responds to theists this way: “You can keep your personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I have a personal relationship with reality.”

But I also found myself disappointed by how much it sounded like a meeting of milquetoast liberalism, and wondering, again, why atheism needs to be a social movement.

It’s popular to quote the study showing that atheists are distrusted about as much as rapists. But this study doesn’t quite pass the smell test: the average atheist is a well-educated white male with plenty of status and more than our fair share of trust.  Asking about atheists without context produces ungrounded evaluations. My students and colleagues don’t treat me like they’d treat a rapist, even though they know I’m an atheist. They treat me like a college professor.

Of course, I had a harder time as an atheist teen, and indeed we see a steady stream of outrageous news about the mistreatment of young atheists as a part of the overall attention to bullying. I suspect, however, that such young atheists face intersecting oppressions as women or homosexuals, or are partly being punished for otherwise transgressing gender norms. First and foremost an atheist teen will tend to be seen as effeminate or tomboyish: as too thoughtful for a man, as too argumentative for a woman. So I’m not convinced that atheist teens as a group have it worse than gay and lesbian teens, even though those groups rate higher than atheists on “trust.” A gay teen atheist might disagree, but in a social setting where all difference is violently bullied, how can we be sure what’s cued the mistrust?

So why cast atheists as victims? Why the mobilization about “coming out of the religious closet”? Recent work by Robert Putnam and David Campbell suggests an answer:

[R]eligion’s influence on U.S. politics has hit a high-water mark, especially on the right. Yet at the same time, its role in Americans’ personal lives is ebbing. As religion and politics have become entangled, many Americans, especially younger ones, have pulled away from religion. And that correlation turns out to be causal, not coincidental.

By using religion to justify their politics, theologically conservative Republicans have conveyed the message to young liberals that they must reject religion in order to reject that politics. Putnam and Campbell show that a lot of the growth in atheism has been traced directly to the growth of politically partisan religion, which is partly why the cause is taken up by the young with such force in the Millennial generation:

The best evidence indicates that this dramatic generational shift is primarily in reaction to the religious right. Politically moderate and progressive Americans have a general allergy to the mingling of religion and party politics. And millennials are even more sensitive to it, partly because many of them are liberal (especially on the touchstone issue of gay rights) and partly because they have only known a world in which religion and the right are intertwined. To them, “religion” means “Republican,” “intolerant,” and “homophobic.” Since those traits do not represent their views, they do not see themselves — or wish to be seen by their peers — as religious.

That’s why a lot of the talk at the Rally yesterday sounded like banal moderate liberalism: increasingly for this generation, that’s what it means to be an atheist. Once upon a time, God was being used on both sides of these arguments. But today, it’s hard for progressive theists to be heard and understood as both progressive and theists, and young people have decided that if they must choose between those two identities, they’d rather be progressive. If you’re in favor of gay marriage, and you look around the world and see that all the objections to gay marriage come from religion, you conclude that you have to chuck God. The same thing for environmentalism, feminism, and the Occupy movement: God has too often appeared publicly on the wrong sides of these debates, and it’s hurting the brand.

I know a lot of wonderful, caring theistic activists who are smart, committed, and reasonable. But as we’ve grown older these theists have either grown more disillusioned with their faith or more disillusioned with their youthful activism. Clearly there was once a way to make those things compatible, and just as clearly something has changed in the larger culture that’s pointing out an inconsistency in the psychic lives of individual citizens.

Theists are increasingly recognizing that the humanists were right: you can be Good without God; and worse, you can be Bad with God. When your co-religionists are Success-Theology, Federalist-Society, Dominionist-Ideology Social Conservatives, you’ve got to acknowledge that faith isn’t sufficient for like-mindedness. But once you decide that faith is irrelevant to the things you thought you cared about, neither necessary nor sufficient for commitment to a political cause or civic engagement with fellow citizens on matters of fundamental concern, where do you go from there? If you’re older, you make it work and ignore the inconsistencies. If you’re a young person, you don’t think you ought to have to stomach that kind of inconsistency. So you don’t:

Consider the growth in the number of people whom sociologists call “nones,” those who report no religious affiliation. Historically, this category made up a constant 5-7 percent of the American population, even during the 1960s, when religious attendance dropped. In the early 1990s, however, just as the God gap widened in politics, the percentage of nones began to shoot up. By the mid-1990s, nones made up 12 percent of the population. By 2011, they were 19 percent. In demographic terms, this shift was huge. To put the figures in context, in the two decades between the early 1970s and the early 1990s, the heyday of evangelicalism, the fraction of the population that was evangelical grew by only about five percentage points. The percentage of nones grew twice as much in the last two decades and is still climbing. Moreover, the rise is heavily concentrated among people under 30, the so-called millennial generation. To be sure, the young are always less religiously observant than their elders; people tend to become more religious when they get married, have children, and put down roots in a community (demographers call this the life-cycle effect). Yet 20-somethings in 2012 are much more likely to reject all religious affiliation than their parents and grandparents were when they were young — 33 percent today, compared with 12 percent in the 1970s.

One-third of all young people have rejected religion because it has been co-opted by the Republican Party. I’m not particularly excited about that, as it doesn’t seem to lead to the world I want, where religion doesn’t play an important role in politics. I don’t care enough about atheism to want people to join me at it, but I care enough about public reason to wish we could have more of the discussions that matter without bad biblical exegesis, Christianist dog whistles, and silly claims about the incommensurability of secular and religious reasons.

One-third of all young people have rejected religion because it has been co-opted by the Republican Party. I’m not particularly worried about that, but theists probably should be. So, theists: what are you going to do about it?