Political science

Doing the Lord's Work

Two images of William Jennings Bryan have settled into the public memory, neither of them flattering. One is the fundamentalist mountebank familiar to viewers of Inherit the Wind, with its fictionalized rendering of the Scopes trial. In it, the character based on Bryan proclaims himself “more interested in the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks.” He is, in short, a crowd-pleasing creationist numbskull, and nothing more.

The other portrait of Bryan is less cinematic, but darker. The classic version of it appears in Richard Hofstadter’s classic The American Political Tradition, first published in 1948 and still selling around 10,000 copies each year, according to a forthcoming biography of the historian. Hofstadter sketches the career of Bryan as a populist leader during the economic depression of the 1890s, when he emerged as the Midwest’s fierce and eloquent scourge of the Eastern bankers and industrial monopolies.

Yet this left-leaning Bryan had, in Hofstadter’s account, no meaningful program for change. He was merely a vessel of rage. Incapable of statesmanship, only of high-flown oratory, he was a relic of the agrarian past –- and the prototype of the fascistic demagogues who were discovering their own voices, just as Bryan’s career was reaching its end.

Historians have been challenging these interpretations for decades -– beginning in earnest more than 40 years ago, with the scholarship of Lawrence W. Levine, who is now a professor of history and cultural studies at George Mason University. It was Levine who pointed out that when Bryan denounced evolution, he tended to be thinking more of Nietzsche than of Darwin. And the Nietzsche he feared was not today’s poststructuralist playboy, but the herald of a new age of militaristic brutality.

Still, old caricatures die hard. It may be difficult for the contemporary reader to pick up Michael Kazin’s new book, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Knopf) without imagining that its title contains a snarl and a sneer. Isn’t the rhetoric of evangelical Christianity and anti-elitist sentiment always just a disguise for base motives and cruel intentions? To call someone godly is now, almost by default, to accuse them of hypocrisy.

But Kazin, who is a professor of history at Georgetown University, has a very different story to tell. Revisionist scholarship on Bryan -- the effort to dig beneath the stereotypes and excavate his deeper complexities -- has finally yielded a book that might persuade the general reader to rethink the political role played by “the Great Commoner.”

In an earlier study, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Basic Books, 1995), Kazin described the emergence in the 19th century of an ideology he called “producerism” – a moral understanding of politics as the struggle between those who built the nation’s infrastructure and those who exploited it. (The farmer or the honest businessman was as much a producer as the industrial worker. Likewise, land speculators and liquor dealers were part of the exploitive class, as were bankers and monopolistic scoundrels.)

The producerist ethos remains a strong undercurrent of American politics today. Bryan was its most eloquent spokesman. He wedded it to a powerful (and by Kazin’s account utterly sincere) belief that politics was a matter of following the commandment to love thy neighbor. As a man of his era, Bryan could be obtuse about how to apply that principle: His attitude toward black Americans was paternalistic, on a good day, and he was indifferent, though not hostile, concerning the specific problems facing immigrants. But Kazin points out that there is no sign of nativist malice in Bryan’s public or private communications. Some of his followers indulged in conspiratorial mutterings against the Catholics or the Jews, but Bryan himself did not. At the same time -- canny politician that he was -- he never challenged the growing power of the Klan during the 1920s.

It’s an absorbing book, especially for its picture of Bryan’s following. (He received an incredible amount of mail from them, only about two percent of which, Kazin notes, has survived.) I contacted Kazin to ask a few questions by e-mail.  

Q: By today's standards, Bryan seems like a bundle of contradictions. He was both a fundamentalist Christian and the spokesman for the left wing of the Democratic Party. He embodied a very 19th century notion of "character," but was also exceptionally shrewd about marketing his own personality. For many Americans, he was a beloved elder statesman -- despite losing his two presidential bids and otherwise spending very little time in elected office. How much of that contradictoriness is in Bryan himself, and how much in the eye of the beholder today?

A: Great question! The easiest part to answer is the first: for Bryan and many other reform-minded white Christians, there was no contradiction between their politics and their religion. The “revolution” being made by the Carnegies and Vanderbilts and Rockefellers was destroying the pious republic they knew, or wished to remember (slavery, of course, they forgot about). What Bryan called “applied Christianity” was the natural antidote to the poison of rampant capitalism. The rhetoric of Bellamy, the People’s Party, and the Knights of Labor was full of such notions -– as were the sermons and writings of many Social Gospelers, such as Washington Gladden and Charles Stelzle.

On the character-personality question – I think Warren Susman and many historians he influenced over-dichotomize these two concepts. No serious Christian could favor the latter over the former. Yet, the exigencies of the cultural marketplace and of celebrity culture in particular produced a fascination with the personal lives of the famous. So Bryan, who was as ego-obsessed as any politician, went with the flow, knowing his personality was boosting his political influence. Being a journalist himself, he understood the rules of the emerging game. Do you know Charles Ponce De Leon’s book about celebrity journalism in this period?

Q. Oddly enough, I do, actually. But let's talk about the people to whom Bryan appealed. From digging in the archives, you document that Bryan had a following a loyal following among professionals, and even successful businessmen, who saw themselves as part of the producing class threatened by the plutocratic elite. Was that surprising to discover? Normally you think of populism in that era as the politics of horny-handed toil.

A: As I argued in The Populist Persuasion, when “producerism” became a popular ideal in democratic politics, Americans from many classes were quite happy to embrace it. It thus became an essential contested concept. But among a broad cross-section of people, the critique of finance capital was always stronger in the South and West, where Bryan had his most consistent support, than in places like Philly and NYC.

As for the letters -— I enjoyed that part of the research the most, although it was frustrating as hell to find almost no letters that were written during the campaign of 1908 and only a small number from then until the 1920s. If only WJB or his wife had revealed, somewhere, the criteria they used when dumping all that correspondence! That, at least,would have been a consolation. Of course, if they had kept nearly all of it, I’d still be there in the Manuscript Room at the Library of Congress, tapping away.

Q: I get the impression that Bryan might well have become president if women had been able to vote in 1896 or 1900. How much of his appeal came from expressing the moral and cultural ideals associated with women's "civilizing" role? And how much of it was sex appeal of his rugged personality and magnetic stage presence? 

A: Ah, the counterfactuals! Bryan’s image as a “godly hero” certainly did appeal to many women, as did his eloquence and good looks (the latter, at least while he was in his 30s and early 40s). His support for prohibition and woman suffrage would have appealed to many women as well.

In 1896 and 1900, he carried most of the states where women then had the vote (in the Mountain West). Although that may have been because of his free silver and anti-big money stands, which is probably why most men in those states voted for him. On the other hand, his radical image could have limited his appeal to women elsewhere in the country. Women voters, before the 1960s, tended to vote for safe, conservative candidates.

Q: Another counterfactual.... What if Bryan had won? What sort of president would he have been? The man was great at making speeches; none better. But could he really have cut it as Chief Executive?

A: As president, he probably would have been a divisive figure, perhaps an American Hugo Chavez -— but without the benefit of oil revenues! If he tried to carry out the 1896 platform, there may have been a capital strike against him, which would have brought on another depression. If he hadn’t, the Populists and many left Democrats would have deserted him. The sad fact is that he hadn’t built a strong enough constituency to govern, much less to win the election in the first place.

Q: Finally, a question about the subjective dimension of working on this biography. Any moments of profound disillusionment? Rapt admiration? Sudden epiphany?

A: I wish I had time to pursue this important question at length -- perhaps I’ll write an essay about it someday. But briefly: I started reading all those fan letters and experienced an epiphany. Millions of ordinary people adored this guy and thought he was a prophet! And he was certainly fighting the good fight -– against Mark Hanna and his friends who were initiating the U.S. empire.

I also was impressed by his ability as a speech-writer as well as a performer. He could turn a phrase quite brilliantly. But after a year or so, I had to come to grips with his bigotry against black people and his general inability to overcome his mistrust of urban pols (although he didn’t share the anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism of some of his followers).

The problem was, in the America of a century ago, Bryan would not have been a hero to the white evangelical grassroots if he had been as clever and cosmopolitan a pol as FDR. So I ended up with a historian’s sense of perspective about the limits of the perceptions and achievements of the past. In recent speeches, E.J. Dionne muses that perhaps we should ask “What Would William Jennings Bryan Do?” I’m not sure that’s a useful question. 

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Wheat and Chaff

The wedding announcements in The New York Times are, as all amateur sociologists know, a valuable source of raw data concerning prestige-display behavior among the American elite. But they do not provide the best index of any individual’s social status. Much more reliable in that respect are the obituaries, which provide an estimate of the deceased party’s total accumulated social capital. They may also venture a guess, between the lines, about posterity’s likely verdict on the person.

In the case of John Kenneth Galbraith, who died last week, the Times obituary could scarcely fail to register the man’s prominence. He was an economist, diplomat, Harvard professor, and advisor to JFK. Royalties on his book The Affluent Society (1958) guaranteed that -- as a joke of the day had it -- he was a full member. But the notice also made a point of emphasizing that his reputation was in decline. Venturing with uncertain steps into a characterization of his economic thought, the obituary treated Galbraith as kind of fossil from some distant era, back when Keynsian liberals still roamed the earth.

He was patrician in manner, but an acid-tongued critic of what he once called "the sophisticated and derivative world of the Eastern seaboard." He was convinced that for a society to be not merely affluent but livable (an important distinction now all but lost) it had to put more political and economic power in the hands of people who exercised very little of it. It was always fascinating to watch him debate William F. Buckley -- encounters too suave to call blood sport, but certainly among the memorable moments on public television during the pre-"Yanni at the Acropolis" era. He called Buckley the ideal debating partner: “pleasant, quick in response, invulnerable to insult, and invariably wrong.”

Galbraith’s influence was once strong enough to inspire Congressional hearings to discuss the implications of his book The New Industrial State (1967). Clearly that stature has waned. But Paul Samuelson was on to something when he wrote, “Ken Galbraith, like Thorstein Veblen, will be remembered and read when most of us Nobel Laureates will be buried in footnotes down in dusty library stacks.”

The reference to the author of The Theory of the Leisure Class is very apropos, for a number of reasons. Veblen’s economic thought left a deep mark on Galbraith. That topic has been explored at length by experts, and I dare not bluff it here. But the affinity between them went deeper than the conceptual. Both men grew up in rural areas among ethnic groups that never felt the slightest inferiority vis-a-vis the local establishment. Veblen was a second-generation Norwegian immigrant in Wisconsin. Galbraith, whose family settled in a small town in Canada, absorbed the Scotch principle that it was misplaced politeness not to let a fool know what you thought of him. “Better that he be aware of his reputation,” as Galbraith later wrote, “for this would encourage reticence, which goes well with stupidity.”

Like Veblen, he had a knack for translating satirical intuitions into social-scientific form. But Galbraith also worked the other way around. He could parody the research done by “the best and the brightest,” writing sardonically about what was really at stake in their work.

I’m thinking, in particular, of The McLandress Dimension (1963), a volume that has not received its due. The Times calls it a novel, which only proves that neither of the two obituary writers had read the book. And it gets just two mentions, in passing, in Richard Parker’s otherwise exhaustive biography John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005).

While by no means a major work, The McLandress Dimension deserves better than that. Besides retrieving the book from obscurity, I’ll take a quick look at a strange episode in its afterlife.

The McLandress Dimension, a short collection of articles attributed to one “Mark Epernay,” was published by Houghton Mifflin during the late fall of 1963. At the time, Galbraith was the U.S. ambassador to India. Portions of the book had already appeared in Esquire and Harper’s. One reviewer, who was clearly in on the joke, introduced Mark Epernay as “a gifted young journalist who has specialized in the popularization -- one might almost say the vulgarization -- of what one has learned to call the behavioral sciences.”

The pen name combined an allusion to Mark Twain with a reference to a town in France that Galbraith had come across in a book about the Franco-Prussian war. (Either that, or on the side of a wine crate; he was not consistent on this point.) “The pseudonym was necessary because I was then an ambassador,” recalled Galbraith in a memoir, “and the State Department required its people to submit their writing for review while forbidding them to take compensation for it.... However, it did not seem that this rule need apply to anything written in true anonymity under a false name. Accordingly, I wrote to the then Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, proposing that I forego the clearance and asking if I might keep the money. So difficult was the question or so grave the precedent that my letter was never answered.”

But Epernay was just the foil for Galbraith’s real alter ego -- the famous Herschel McLandress, the former professor of psychiatric measurement at the Harvard Medical School and chief consultant to the Noonan Psychiatric Clinic in Boston. The researcher was a frequent recipient of grants from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and sundry other nonprofit geysers of soft money. His ideas were the subject, as Epernay put it, “of some of the most trenchant debates in recent years at the Christmas meetings of the American Association for Psychometrics.” While his name was not yet a household word, McLandress had an impressive (if top-secret) list of clients among prominent Americans.

The work that defined his career was his discovery of “the McLandress Coefficient” – a unit of measurement defined, in laymen’s terms, as “the arithmetic mean or average of intervals of time during which a subject’s thoughts centered on some substantive phenomenon other than his own personality.”

The exact means of calculating the “McL-C,” as it was abbreviated, involved psychometric techniques rather too arcane for a reporter to discuss. But a rough estimate could be made based on how long any given person talked without using the first-person singular pronoun. This could be determined “by means of a recording stopwatch carried unobtrusively in the researcher’s jacket pocket.”

A low coefficient -- anything under, say, one minute -- “implies a close and diligent concern by the individual for matters pertaining to his own personality.” Not surprisingly, people in show business tended to fall into this range.

Writers had a somewhat higher score, though not by a lot. Epernay noted that Gore Vidal had a rating of 12.5 minutes. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Vidal responded, ““I find this ... one finds this odd.”

What drew the most attention were the coefficients for various political figures. Nikita Khrushchev had the same coefficient as Elizabeth Taylor – three minutes. Martin Luther King clocked in at four hours. Charles de Gaulle was found to have the very impressive rating of 7 hours, 30 minutes. (Further studies revealed this figure to be somewhat misleading, because the general did not make any distinction between France and himself.) At the other extreme was Richard Nixon, whose thoughts never directed beyond himself for more than three seconds.

Epernay enjoyed his role as Boswell to the great psychometrician. Later articles discussed the other areas of McLandress’s research. He worked out an exact formula for calculating the Maximum Prestige Horizon of people in different professions. He developed the “third-dimensional departure” for acknowledging the merits of both sides in any controversial topic while carefully avoiding any form of extremism. (This had been mastered, noted Epernay, by “the more scholarly Democrats.”)

And McLandress reduced the size of the State Department by creating a fully automated foreign policy -- using computers to extrapolate the appropriate response to any new situation, based on established precedent. “Few things more clearly mark the amateur in diplomacy,” the reporter explained, “than his inability to see that even the change from the wrong policy to the right policy involves the admission of previous error and hence is damaging to national prestige.”

One piece in the book covered the life and work of someone who has played a considerable role in the development of the modern Republican Party, though neither Galbraith nor Epernay could have known that at the time.

The figure in question was Allston C. Wheat, “one of the best tennis players ever graduated from Cornell” as well as a very successful “wholesaler of ethical drugs, antibiotics, and rubber sundries in Philadelphia.” Upon retirement, Wheat threw himself into he writings of Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Barry Goldwater, among others. His studies left Wheat sorely concerned about the menace of creeping socialism in America. As well he might be. Certain developments in the American educational system particularly raised his ire. Wheat raised the alarm against that insidious subversive indoctrination in collectivist ideology known as “team sports.”

“Every healthy able-bodied young American is encouraged to participate in organized athletic events,” Wheat noted in a widely-circulated pamphlet. This was the first step in brainwashing them. For an emphasis on “team spirit” undermines  good, old-fashioned, dog-eat-dog American individualism. “The team,” he warned, “is the social group which always comes first.... If you are looking for the real advance guard for modern Communism, you should go to the field-houses and the football stadiums.”

The tendency of the Kennedys to play touch football at family gatherings proved that “they are collectivist to the core.” And then there was the clincher: “Liberals have never liked golf.”

Wheat’s dark suspicions had a solid historical basis. “In 1867,” Epernay pointed out in a footnote, “the first rules for college football were drawn up in Princeton, New Jersey. That was the year of the publication of Das Kapital.... Basketball was invented in 1891 and the Socialist Labor Party ran its first candidate for President in the following year.” Coincidence? Don’t be gullible. As the saying has it, there’s no “I” in “team.”

The goal of Wheat’s movement, the Campaign for Athletic Individualism, was to ensure that young people’s McLandress Coefficients were low enough to keep America free. Today, Wheat has been forgotten. No doubt about it, however: His legacy grows.

In many ways,The McLandress Dimension was in many ways a product of its moment -- that is, Camelot, the early 60s, a time of heavy traffic on the wonky crossroads where social science and public policy meet.

Books like Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers were showing that the American social hierarchy, while in transition, was very much in place. A celebrity culture in the arts, politics, and academe was emerging to rival the one based in Hollywood. The sort of left-liberal who read Galbraith with approval could assume that the McCarthyist worldview belonged in the dustbin of history.

The McLandress Dimension satirized all these things -- but in a genial way. It said, in effect: “Let’s not be too serious about these things. That would be stupid.”

So Galbraith’s timing was good. But it was also, in a way, terrible. Articles about the book started appearing in early December -- meaning they had been written at least a few weeks earlier, before the assassination of the president. There was a lightheartedness that must have been jarring. Most of the reviewers played along with the gag. One magazine sent a telegram to the embassy in India, asking Galbraith, “Are you Mark Epernay?” He cabled back, ”Who’s Mark Epernay?”

But the season for that kind of high spirits was over. If Herschell McLandress was the embodiment of the number-crunching technocratic mentality in 1963, his place in the public eye was soon taken by Robert McNamara. Such “extremists in defense of liberty” as Allston Wheat were trounced during the 1964 presidential campaign -- only to emerge from it stronger and more determined than ever. Galbraith’s serious writings were a major influence on the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration. But that consummation that was also, with hindsight, a swan’s song.

As for The McLandress Dimension itself, the writings of Mark Epernay found a place in the bibliographies of books on Galbraith. But they were ignored even by people writing on the development of his thought. I recently did a search to find out if anyone ever cited the work of Herschel McLandress in a scholarly article, perhaps as an inside joke. Alas, no. All that turns up in JSTOR, for example, is a brief mention Galbraith’s book in an analysis of the humorous literature on Richard Nixon. (There is, incidentally, rather a lot of it.)

And yet the story does not quite end there.

In 1967, the Dial Press issued Report from Iron Mountain: On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace, which the publisher claimed was in fact a secret government document. The topic was the socio-economic implications of global peace. It was prepared, according to the introduction, by a group of prominent but unnamed social scientists. The prose was leaden, full of the jargon and gaseous syntax of think-tank documents.

The challenge facing the Iron Mountain group, it seemed, was to explore any adverse side-effects of dismantling the warfare state. The difficulties were enormous. Military expenditures were basic to the economy, they noted. Threat from an external enemy fostered social cohesion. And the Army was, after all, a good place for potentially violent young men.

It would be necessary to find a way to preserve all the useful aspects of war preparation, and to contain all the problems it helped solve. A considerable amount of social restructuring would be required should the Cold War end. The think tank proposed various options that leaders might want to keep in mind. It could prove necessary to sponsor new forms of extremely violent entertainment, introduce slavery, and concoct a plausible story about the threat of extraterrestrial invasion.

This was, of course, a satire on the “crackpot realism” (as C. Wright Mills once termed it) of the Rand Institute and the like. It was concocted by Leonard Lewin, a humor writer, and Victor Navasky, the editor of The Nation. But the parody was so good as to be almost seamless. It proposed the most extreme ideas in an incredibly plodding fashion. And the scenarios were only marginally more deranged-sounding than anything mooted by Herman Kahn, the strategist of winnable thermonuclear war.

Serious journals devoted articles to debating the authenticity of the document. One prominent sociologist wrote a long article suggesting that it was so close to the real thing that one might as well take it seriously. At one point, people in the White House were reportedly making inquiries to determine whether Report from Iron Mountain might not be the real thing.

In the midst of all this, Herschel McLandress, who had retreated into silence for almost four years, suddenly returned to public life. In an article appearing in The Washington Post, the great psychometrician confirmed that Report from Iron Mountain was exactly what it claimed to be. He had been part of the working group involved in the initial brainstorming. He chided whoever was responsible for leaking the document. By no means were Americans ready to face the horrors of peace. He did not challenge any of the report’s conclusions. “My reservations,” McLandress stated, “relate only to the wisdom of releasing it to an obviously unconditioned public.”

Writing from behind his persona, Galbraith turned in a credible impression of social-science punditry at its most pompous. (You can read the entire review here.) It must have been very funny if you knew what was going on. And presumably some people did remember that McLandress was himself a figment of the imagination.

But not everyone did. Over time, Report from Iron Mountain became required reading for conspiracy theorists -- who, by the 1990s, were quite sure it was a blueprint for the New World Order. After all, hadn’t a reviewer vouched for its authenticity in The Washington Post?

And what did Galbraith think of all this? I have to.... One has to wonder.

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

We, the People...

For better and for worse, the American reception of contemporary French thought has often followed a script that frames everything in terms of generational shifts. Lately, that has usually meant baby-boomer narcissism -- as if the youngsters of '68 don't have enough cultural mirrors already. Someone like Bernard-Henri Lévy, the roving playboy philosopher, lends himself to such branding without reserve. Most of his thinking is adequately summed up by a thumbnail biography -- something like,  "BHL was a young Maoist radical in 1968, but then he denounced totalitarianism, and started wearing his shirts unbuttoned, and the French left has never recovered."

Nor are American academics altogether immune to such prepackaged blendings of theory and lifestyle. Hey, you -- the Foucauldian with the leather jacket that doesn't fit anymore....Yeah, well, you're complicit too.

But there are thinkers who don't really follow the standard scripts very well, and Pierre Rosanvallon is one them. Democracy Past and Future, the selection of his writings just published by Columbia University Press, provides a long overdue introduction to a figure who defies both sound bites and the familiar academic division of labor. Born in 1948, he spent much of the 1970s as a sort of thinker-in-residence for a major trade union, the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, for which he organized seminars and conferences seeking to create a non-Marxist "second left" within the Socialist Party. He emerged as a theoretical voice of the autogestion (self-management) movement. His continuing work on the problem of democracy was honored in 2001 when he became a professor at the Collège de France, where Rosanvallon lectures on the field he calls "the philosophical history of the political."

Rosanvallon has written about the welfare state. Still, he isn't really engaged in political science. He closely studies classical works in political philosophy -- but in a way that doesn't quite seem like intellectual history, since he's trying to use the ideas as much as analyze them. He has published a study of the emergence of universal suffrage that draws on social history. Yet his overall project -- that of defining the essence of democracy -- is quite distinct from that of most social historians. At the same time (and making things all the more complicated) he doesn't do the kind of normative political philosophy one now associates with John Rawls or Jurgen Habermas.

Intrigued by a short intellectual autobiography that Rosanvallon presented at a conference a few years ago, I was glad to see the Columbia volume, which offers a thoughtful cross-section of texts from the past three decades. The editor, Samuel Moyn, is an assistant professor of history at Columbia. He answered my questions on Rosanvallon by e-mail.

Q:Rosanvallon is of the same generation as BHL. They sometimes get lumped together. Is that inevitable? Is it misleading?

A: They are really figures of a different caliber and significance, though you are right to suggest that they lived through the same pivotal moment. Even when he first emerged, Bernard-Henri Lévy faced doubts that he mattered, and a suspicion that he had fabricated his own success through media savvy. One famous thinker asked whether the "new philosophy" that BHL championed was either new or philosophy; and Cornelius Castoriadis attacked BHL and others as "diversionists." Yet BHL drew on some of the same figures Rosanvallon did -- Claude Lefort for example -- in formulating his critique of Stalinist totalitarianism. But Lefort, like Castoriadis and Rosanvallon himself, regretted the trivialization that BHL's meteoric rise to prominence involved.

So the issue is what the reduction of the era to the "new philosophy" risks missing. In retrospect, there is a great tragedy in the fact that BHL and others constructed the "antitotalitarian moment" (as that pivotal era in the late 1970s is called) in a way that gave the impression that a sententious "ethics" and moral vigilance were the simple solution to the failures of utopian politics. And of course BHL managed to convince some people -- though chiefly in this country, if the reception of his recent book is any evidence -- that he incarnated the very "French intellectual" whose past excesses he often denounced.

In the process, other visions of the past and future of the left were ignored. The reception was garbled -- but it is always possible to undo old mistakes. I see the philosophy of democracy Rosanvallon is developing as neither specifically French nor of a past era. At the same time, the goal is not to substitute a true philosopher for a false guru. The point is to use foreign thinkers who are challenging to come to grips with homegrown difficulties.

Q:Rosanvallon's work doesn't fit very well into some of the familiar disciplinary grids. One advantage of being at the Collège de France is that you get to name your own field, which he calls "the philosophical history of the political." But where would he belong in terms of the academic terrain here?

A: You're right. It's plausible to see him as a trespasser across the various disciplinary boundaries. If that fact makes his work of potential interest to a great many people -- in philosophy, politics, sociology, and history -- it also means that readers might have to struggle to see that the protocols of their own disciplines may not exhaust all possible ways of studying their questions.

But it is not as if there have not been significant interventions in the past -- from Max Weber for example, or Michel Foucault in living memory  -- that were recognized as doing something relevant to lots of different existing inquiries. In fact, that point suggests that it may miss the point to try to locate such figures on disciplinary maps that are ordinarily so useful. If I had to sum up briefly what Rosanvallon is doing as an intellectual project, I would say that the tradition of which he's a part -- which includes his teacher Lefort as well as some colleagues like Marcel Gauchet and others -- is trying to replace Marxism with a convincing alternative social theory.

Most people write about Marxism as a political program, and of course any alternative to it will also have programmatic implications. But Marxism exercised such appeal because it was also an explanatory theory, one that claimed, by fusing the disciplines, to make a chaotic modern history -- and perhaps history as a whole -- intelligible. Its collapse, as Lefort's own teacher Maurice Merleau-Ponty clearly saw, threatened to leave confusion in its wake, unless some alternative to it is available. (Recall Merleau-Ponty's famous proclamation: "Marxism is not a philosophy of history; it is the philosophy of history, and to renounce it is to dig the grave of reason in history.")

Rosanvallon seems to move about the disciplines because, along with others in the same school, he has been trying to put together a total social theory that would integrate all the aspects of experience into a convincing story. They call the new overall framework they propose "the political," and Rosanvallon personally has focused on making sense of democratic modernity in all its facets. Almost no one I know about in the Anglo-American world has taken up so ambitious and forbidding a transdisciplinary task, but it is a highly important project.

Q:As the title of your collection neatly sums up, Rosanvallon's definitive preoccupation is democracy. But he's not just giving two cheers for it, or drawing up calls for more of it. Nor is his approach, so far as I can tell, either descriptive nor prescriptive. So what does that leave left for a philosopher to do?

A: At the core of his conception of democracy, there is a definitive problem: The new modern sovereign (the "people" who now rule) is impossible to identify or locate with any assurance. Democracy is undoubtedly a liberatory event -- a happy tale of the death of kings. But it must also face the sadly intractable problem of what it means to replace them.

Of course, the history of political theory contains many proposals for discovering the general will. Yet empirical political scientists have long insisted that "the people" do not preexist the procedures chosen for knowing their will. In different words, "the people" is not a naturally occurring object. Rosanvallon's work is, in one way or another, always about this central modern paradox: If, as the U.S. Constitution for instance says, "We the people" are now in charge, it is nevertheless true that we the people have never existed together in one place, living at one time, speaking with one voice. Who, then, is to finally say who "we" are?

The point may seem either abstract or trivial. But the power of Rosanvallon's work comes from his documentation of the ways -- sometimes blatant and sometimes subtle -- that much of the course and many of the dilemmas of modern history can be read through the lens of this paradox. For example, the large options in politics can also be understood as rival answers to the impossible quandary or permanent enigma of the new ruler's identity. Individual politicians claim special access to the popular will either because they might somehow channel what everyone wants or because they think that a rational elite possesses ways of knowing what the elusive sovereign would or should want. Democracy has also been the story, of course, of competing interpretations of what processes or devices are most likely to lead to results approximating the sovereign will.

Recently, Rosanvallon has begun to add to this central story by suggesting that there have always been -- and increasingly now are -- lots of ways outside electoral representation that the people can manifest their will, during the same era that the very idea that there exists a coherent people with a single will has entered a profound crisis.

One of the more potent implications of Rosanvallon's premise that there is no right answer to the question of the people's identity is that political study has to be conceptual but also historical. Basic concepts like the people might suggest a range of possible ways for the sovereign will to be interpreted, but only historical study can uncover the rich variety of actual responses to the difficulty.

The point, Rosanvallon thinks, is especially relevant to political theorists, who often believe they can, simply by thinking hard about what democracy must mean, finally emerge with its true model, whether based on a hypothetical contract, an ideal of deliberation, or something else. But the premise also means that democracy's most basic question is not going to go away, even if there are better and worse responses.

Q:Now to consider the relationship between Rosanvallon's work and political reality "on the ground" right now. Let's start with a domestic topic: the debate over immigration. Or more accurately, the debate over the status of people who are now part of the U.S. economy, but are effectively outside the polity. I'm not asking "what would Rosanvallon do?" here, but rather wondering: Does his work shed any light on the situation? What kinds of questions or points would Rosanvallonists (assuming there are any) be likely to raise in the discussion?

A: It's fair to ask how such an approach might help in analyzing contemporary problems. But his approach always insists on restoring the burning issues of the day to a long historical perspective, and on relating them to democracy's foundational difficulties. Without pretending to guess what Rosanvallon might say about America's recent debate, I might offer a couple of suggestions about how his analysis might begin.

The controversy over immigrants is so passionate, this approach might begin by arguing, not simply because of economic and logistical concerns but also because it reopens (though it was never closed!) the question of the identity of the people in a democracy. The challenge immigrants pose, after all, is not one of inclusion simply in a cultural sense, as Samuel Huntington recently contended, but also and more deeply in a conceptual sense.

In a fascinating chapter of his longest work, on the history of suffrage, Rosanvallon takes up the history of French colonialism, including its immigrant aftermath. There he connects different historical experiences of immigrant inclusion to the conceptual question of what the criteria for exclusion are, arguing that if democracies do not come to a clear resolution about who is inside and outside their polity, they will vacillate between two unsatisfactory syndromes. One is the "liberal" response of taking mere presence on the ground as a proxy for citizenship, falsely converting a political problem into one of future social integration. The other is the "conservative" response of of conceptualizing exclusion, having failed to resolve its meaning politically, in the false terms of cultural, religious, or even racial heterogeneity. Both responses avoid the real issue of the political boundaries of the people.

But Rosanvallon's more recent work allows for another way of looking at the immigration debate. In a new book coming out in French in the fall entitled "Counterdemocracy," whose findings are sketched in a preliminary and summary fashion in the fascinating postscript to the English-language collection, Rosanvallon tries to understand the proliferation of ways that popular expression occurs outside the classical parliamentary conception of representation. There, he notes that immigration is one of several issues around which historically "the people" have manifested their search for extraparliamentary voice.

For Rosanvallon, the point here is not so much to condemn populist backlash, as if it would help much simply to decry the breakdown of congressional lawmaking under pressure. Rather, one might have to begin by contemplating the historical emergence of a new form of democracy -- what he calls unpolitical democracy -- that often crystallizes today around such a hot-button topic as the status of immigrants. This reframing doesn't solve the problem but might help see that its details turn out to be implicated in a general transformation of how democracy works.

Q:OK, now on to foreign policy. In some circles, the invasion of Iraq was justified as antitotalitarianism in action, and as the first stage a process of building democracy. (Such are the beauty and inspiration of high ideals.) Does Rosanvallon's work lend itself to support for "regime change" via military means? Has he written anything about "nation building"?

A: This is a very important question. I write in my introduction to the collection about the contemporary uses of antitotalitarianism, and I do so mainly to make criticize the recent drift in uses of that concept.

Of course, when the critique of totalitarianism activated a generation, it was the Soviet Union above all that drew their fire. But their critique was always understood to have its most salient implications for the imagination of reform at home, and especially for the renewal of the left. This is what has changed recently, in works of those "liberal hawks," like Peter Beinart and Paul Berman, who made themselves apologists for the invasion of Iraq in the name of antitotalitarian values. Not only did they eviscerate the theoretical substance on which the earlier critique of totalitarianism drew -- from the work of philosophers like Hannah Arendt and Claude Lefort among others -- but they wholly externalized the totalitarian threat so that their critique of it no longer had any connection to a democratic program. It became purely a rhetoric for the overthrow of enemies rather than a program for the creation or reform of democracies. In the updated approach, what democracy is does not count as a problem.

It is clear that this ideological development, with all of its real-world consequences, has spelled the end of the antitotalitarian coalition that came together across borders, uniting the European left (Eastern and Western) with American liberalism, thirty years ago. That the attempt to update it and externalize that project had failed became obvious even before the Iraq adventure came to grief -- the project garnered too few allies internationally.

Now it is perfectly true that the dissolution of this consensus leaves open the problem of how democrats should think about foreign policy, once spreading it evangelistically has been unmasked as delusional or imperialistic. A few passages in the collection suggest that Rosanvallon thinks the way to democratize the world is through democratization of existing democracies -- the reinvigoration of troubled democracies is prior to the project of their externalization and duplication. Clearly this response will not satisfy anyone who believes that the main problem in the world is democracy's failure to take root everywhere, rather than its profound difficulties where it already is. But clarifying the history and present of democracy inside is of undoubted relevance to its future outside.

Q:There are some very striking passages in the book that discuss the seeming eclipse of the political now. More is involved than the withdrawl from civic participation into a privatized existence. (At the same time, that's certainly part of it.) Does Rosanvallon provide an account of how this hollowing-out of democracy has come to pass? Can it be reversed? And would its reversal necessarily be a good thing?

A: One of the most typical responses to the apparent rise of political apathy in recent decades has been nostalgia for some prior society -- classical republics or early America are often cited -- that are supposed to have featured robust civic engagement. The fashion of "republicanism" in political theory, from Arendt to Michael Sandel or Quentin Skinner, is a good example. But Rosanvallon observes that the deep explanation for what is happening is a collapse of the model of democracy based on a powerful will.

The suggestion here is that the will of the people is not simply hard to locate or identify; its very existence as the foundation of democratic politics has become hard to credit anymore. The challenge is to respond by taking this transformation as the starting point of the analysis. And there appears to be no return to what has been lost.

But in his new work, anticipated in the postscript, Rosanvallon shows that the diagnosis may be faulty anyway. What is really happening, he suggests, is not apathy towards or retreat from politics in a simple sense, but the rise of new forms of democracy -- or counterdemocracy -- outside the familiar model of participation and involvement. New forms seeking expression have multiplied, through an explosion of devices, even if they may seem an affront to politics as it has ordinarily been conceptualized.

Rosanvallon's current theory is devoted to the project of putting the multiplication of representative mechanisms -- ones that do not fit on existing diagrams of power -- into one picture. But the goal, he says, is not just to make sense of them but also to find a way for analysis to lead to reform. As one of Rosanvallon's countrymen and predecessors, Alexis de Tocqueville, might have put it: Democracy still requires a new political science, one that can take it by the hand and help to sanctify its striving.

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

For further reading: Professor Moyn is co-author (with Andrew Jainhill of the University of California at Berkeley) of an extensive analysis of the sources and inner tensions of Rosanvallon's thought on democracy, available online.  And in an essay appearing on the Open Democracy Webs ite in 2004, Rosanvallon reflected on globalization, terrorism, and the war in Iraq.

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

Euston.... We Have a Problem

Tomorrow night at a church in London, there will be a gathering of several hundred people to celebrate the launch of "The Euston Manifesto" -- a short document in which one sector of the British and American left declares itself to be in favor of pluralist and secular democracy, and against blowing people up for the glory of Allah.

The Eustonians also support open-source software. (I have read the document a few times now but am still not sure how that one got in there. It seems like an afterthought.)

More to the point, the Eustonians promise not to ask too many questions -- nor any really embarrassing ones -- about how we got into Iraq. The important thing, now, is that it all end well. Which is to say, that the occupation help build a new Iraq: a place of secular, pluralist democracy, where people do not blow each other up for the glory of Allah.

Suppose that a civic-minded person -- a secular humanist, let's say, and one fond of Linux -- takes a closer look at the manifesto. Such a reader will expect the document to discuss the question of means and ends. This might be addressed on the ethical plane, at some level of abstraction. Or it might be handled with a wonky attention to policy detail. In any case, the presumed reader (who is nothing if not well-meaning) will certainly want to know how Eustonian principles are to be realized in the real world. In the case of Iraq, for example, there is the problem of getting from the absolutely disastrous status quo to the brilliant future, so hailed.

Many of the signatories of the manifesto are, or until recently were, some variety or other of Marxist. Its main author, for example, is Norman Geras, a professor emeritus of government at the University of Manchester. His work includes Literature of Revolution, a volume of astute essays on Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. (Full disclosure: Geras and I once belonged to the same worldwide revolutionary socialist organization, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, and probably both choke up a little when singing “The Red Flag”).

Surely, then, the Euston Manifesto will bear at least some resemblance to the one written by a certain unemployed German doctor of philosophy in 1848? That is, it can be expected to provide a long-term strategic conception of how the world reached its current situation (“The history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggles”). And it will identify the forces in society that have emerged to transform it (“Workers of the world unite!”). And from this rigorous conceptual structure, the document can then deduce some appropriate shorter-term tactics. In The Communist Manifesto, for example, Marx and Engels pointed to universal suffrage and a progressive income tax as mighty strides forward towards the destruction of capitalism.

OK, so the proposals might not work out as planned.... Hindsight is 20-20. But a manifesto -- to be worth anyone’s time, let alone signature -- will, of course, be concrete. At the event in London tomorrow night, the comrades will rally. Surely they would never settle for broad and bland appeals to high ideals, rendered in language slightly less inspiring than the Cub Scout oath?

Well, judge for yourself. “The Euston Manifesto” was actually unveiled in April, when it was first published online. It is has an official Web site. The inspiration for it had come during a meeting at a pub near the Euston stop on the London Underground. (Hence the name.) The document has been debated and denounced at great and redundant length in the left-wing blogosphere. So the fact that the event this week in London is being described by the Eustonians as a “launch” is puzzling, at least at first. But when you realize what a rhetorical drubbing the manifesto has taken, the need for a public gathering is easier to understand. The Eustonians want to show that their heads are bloody but unbowed, etc.

The most cogent arguments against the manifesto have already been made. In April, Marc Mulholand, a historian who is a fellow at Oxford University, presented a series of pointed criticisms at his blog that seemed to take the Eustonian principles more seriously than the manifesto itself did. “Why should we expect pluralist states to foster the spread of democratic government?” he asked. “How can we audit their contribution to this universal ideal? What mechanisms ensure the coincidence of state real politick and liberal internationalism?”

And D.D. Guttenplan -- the London correspondent for “The Nation” and producer of a documentary called Edward Said: The Last Interview -- weighed in with an article in The Guardian accusing the Eustonians of, in effect, staging a historical reenactment of battle scenes from the Cold War.

In passing, Guttenplan wrote of the manifesto that “every word in it is a lie” – a bit of hyperbole with historical overtones probably lost on his British readers. (In a memorable denunciation -- and one that prompted a lawsuit -- of sometime Communist sympathizer Lillian Hellman’s work, Mary McCarthy said: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”) Guttenplan tells me that he now considers his remark “a bit intemperate” yet still calls the manifesto “that bastard child of senescent sociology and the laptop bombardiers.”

Mulholand performed a kind of immanent critique of the Eustonians’ liberal-humanitarian proclamations. That is, he held their rhetoric up against their concepts -- and found the manifesto wanting no matter how you looked at it.

For Guttenplan, the manifesto makes more sense as a case of political bait-and-switch. “The political glue holding these folks together,” he told me, “was a kind of Zionism that dare not speak its name, in which anti-Semitism was the only racism worth getting excited about, and opposition to any kind of practical pressure on Israel or its UK supporters/defenders the only program that got these folks up from their laptops.  Personally I find that both sneaky and, as my late mother would say, bad for the Jews.” (Complex irony alert! Guttenplan himself is Jewish.)

The liberal-internationalist case for military intervention in Iraq has recently been hashed out at length -- and in all of its disconcertingly belated moral passion and geopolitical irrelevance -- by the contributors to A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, published last year by the University of California Press. The editor of that volume, Thomas Cushman, is a professor of sociology at Wellesley College, and a member of the editorial board of the online journal Democratiya -- as is Norman Geras, who drafted the Euston Manifesto.

Many of the contributions to the book and the journal are intelligently argued. They are worth the attention even -- and perhaps especially -- of someone opposed to the war. For a whole wing of the left, of course, to admit that one’s opponents might be capable of arguments (rather than rationalizations) is already a sign of apostasy. But I’ll take my chances. After all, you can only listen to Noam Chomsky blame every problem in the world on American corporations just so many times. It’s good to stretch your mental legs every so often, and go wandering off to see how people think on the other side of the barricades.

That said, reading the Euston Manifesto has proven remarkably unrewarding -- even downright irritating. It is not a matter of profound disagreements. (I am, broadly speaking, in favor of pluralist and secular democracy, and against blowing people up for the glory of Allah.) But the Eustonians seem to be issuing blank moral checks for whatever excellent adventures George Bush and Tony Blair decide to undertake.

They call for supporting the reconstruction of Iraq “rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.” The systematic campaign of disinformation and phony diplomacy engineered over the course of two years preceding the invasion, then, is to be forgotten. It’s hard to imagine a more explicit call for intellectual irresponsibility. Or, for that matter, a less adequate metaphorical image. Anyone upset by “the rubble of the arguments over intervention” is definitely facing the wrong crater.

The Eustonians seem also perfectly indifferent to the cumulative damage being done to the very fiber of democracy itself. This summer’s issue of Bookforum contains a few poems by Guantanamo Bay detainees -- part of a much larger body confiscated by the military. As a lawyer for the detainees notes, a poem containing the line “Forgive me, my dear wife” was immediately classified as an attempt to communicate with the outside.

It is hard to imagine that this sort of thing really advances the Global War on Terror, or whatever we’re calling it now. But it is not without consequences. It destroys what it pretends to protect.

As I was musing over all of this, a friend pointed out a conspicuous absence from the list of signatories to the manifesto: Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University. His book The Intellectuals and the Flag, published earlier this year by Columbia University Press, defends the idea of left-wing American patriotism with a frank interest “in the necessary task of defeating the jihadist enemy.”

This would seem to put him in the Eustonian camp, yet he did not endorse the manifesto. Why not? I contacted him by e-mail to ask. “I recognize a shoddy piece of intellectual patchwork when I see one,” Gitlin responded.

He cites a passage referring to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as “a liberation of the Iraqi people." A fine thing, to be sure. The sight of a humiliated dictator is good for the soul. “But the resulting carnage is scarcely worthy of the term ‘liberation,’” Gitlin told me. “I'm leery of the euphemism.”

Humanitarian interventionism needs an element of realist calculation. “The duty of ‘intervention and rescue’ when a state commits appalling atrocities,” he continued, “must be tempered by a hard-headed assessment of what is attainable and what are the reasonably foreseeable results of intervention. The document is cavalier about the ease of riding to the rescue. So while I support the lion's and lioness's share of the document's principles, I find it disturbingly, well, utopian. It lacks a sense of the tragic. I have not foregone the forced innocence of the anti-American left only to sign up with another variety of rigid, forced innocence.”

But in the final analysis, there was something else bothersome about the manifesto -- something I couldn’t quite put a finger on, for a while. A vague dissatisfaction, a feeling of blurry inconsequentiality....

Then it suddenly came into focus: The manifesto did not seem like the product of a real movement, nor the founding document of a new organization – nor anything, really, but a proclamation of dissatisfaction by people in an Internet-based transatlantic social network.

I dropped Norman Geras a line, asking about the virtuality of the phenomenon. Aren’t the Eustonians doomed to a kind of perpetual and constitutive blogginess?

“It's true that the manifesto is not seen by us as the rallying point for a particular organization,” Geras wrote back. “But it is seen as a rallying point nonetheless - as a focus for debate on the liberal-left, and for initiatives that might follow from that. The focus for debate part has already happened: there's been an enormous response to the manifesto and not only on the internet, but with significant press coverage as well. The venue for the launch meeting had to be changed because we ran out of tickets so fast for the original venue. So this isn't just a ‘virtual’ affair.”

The question from Lenin’s pamphlet comes up: What is to be done? “I'm not going to try to predict where or how far it will go,” says Geras. “One step at a time. But we already have more than 1,500 signatories and that means a lot of people in touch with us and interested in what the manifesto is saying. After the launch, we'll see what we want to do next in the way of forums, conferences, campaigns.”

Perhaps frustration with the document is misplaced? Something better might yet emerge -- once well-meaning people see the limits of the good intentions they have endorsed. You never know. But for now, with only the text to go by, it is hard to shake a suspicion that the Euston Manifesto owes less to Marx than to MySpace.

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

Divided Mind

George Scialabba is an essayist and critic working at Harvard University who has just published a volume of selected pieces under the title Divided Mind, issued by a small press in Boston called Arrowsmith. The publisher does not have a Web site. You cannot, as yet, get Divided Mind through Amazon, though it is said to be available in a few Cambridge bookstores. This may be the future of underground publishing: Small editions, zero publicity, and you have to know the secret password to get a copy. (I'll give contact information for the press at the end of this column, for anyone willing to put a check in the mail the old-fashioned way.)

In any case, it is about time someone brought out a collection of Scialabba's work. That it's only happening now (15 years after the National Book Critics Circle gave him its first award for excellence in reviewing) is a sign that things are not quite right in the world of belles lettres. He writes in what William Hazlitt -- the patron saint of generalist essayists -- called the "the familiar style," and he is sometimes disarmingly explicit about the difficulties, even the pain, he experiences in trying to resolve cultural contradictions. That is no way to create the aura of mystery and mastery so crucial for awesome intellectual authority.

Scialabba has his admirers, even so, and one of the pleasant surprises of Divided Mind is the set of comments on the back. "I am one of the many readers who stay on the lookout for George Scialabba's byline," writes Richard Rorty. "He cuts to the core of the ethical and political dilemmas he discusses." The novelist Norman Rush lauds Scialabba's prose itself for "bring[ing] the review-essay to a high state of development, incorporating elements of memoir and skillfully deploying the wide range of literary and historical references he commands." And there is a blurb from Christopher Hitchens praising his "eloquence and modesty" --  though perhaps that is just a gesture of relief that Scialabba has not reprinted his candid reassessment of Hitch,  post-9/11.

One passage early in the collection gives a roll call of exemplary figures practicing a certain kind of writing. It includes Randolph Bourne, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others. "Their primary training and frame of reference," Scialabba writes, "were the humanities, usually literature or philosophy, and they habitually, even if only implicitly, employed values and ideals derived from the humanities to criticize contemporary politics.... Their 'specialty' lay not in unearthing generally unavailable facts, but in penetrating especially deeply into the shared culture, in grasping and articulating its contemporary moral/political relevance with special originality and force."

The interesting thing about this passage -- aside from its apt self-portrait of the author -- is the uncertain meaning of that slashmark in the phrase "contemporary moral/political relevance." Does it serve as the equivalent of an equals sign? I doubt that. But it suggests that the relationship is both close and problematic.

We sometimes say that a dog "worries" a bone, meaning he chews it with persistent attention; and in that sense, Divided Mind is a worried book, gnawing with a passion on the "moral/political" problems that go with holding an egalitarian outlook. Scialabba is a man of the left. If you can imagine a blend of Richard Rorty's skeptical pragmatism and Noam Chomsky's geopolitical worldview -- and it's a bit of a stretch to reconcile them, though somehow he does this -- then you have a reasonable sense of Scialabba's own politics. In short, it is the belief that life would be better, both in the United States and elsewhere, with more economic equality, a stronger sense of the common good, and the end of that narcissistic entitlement fostered by the American military-industrial complex.

A certain amount of gloominess goes with holding these principles without believing that History is on the long march to their fulfillment. But there is another complicating element in Divided Mind. It is summed in a passage from the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, from 1930 -- though you might find the same thought formulated by a dozen other conservative thinkers.

"The most radical division it is possible to make of humanity," Ortega y Gasset declares, "is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves."

Something in Ortega y Gasset's statement must have struck a chord with Scialabba. He quotes it in two essays. "Is this a valid distinction?" he asks. "Yes, I believe it is...." But the idea bothers him; it stimulates none of the usual self-congratulatory pleasures of snobbery. The division of humanity into two categories -- the noble and "the masses" -- lends itself to anti-democratic sentiments, if not the most violently reactionary sort of politics.

At the very least, it undermines the will to make egalitarian changes. Yet it is also very hard to gainsay the truth of it. How, then, to resolve the tension? Divided Mind is a series of efforts -- provisional, personal, and ultimately unfinished -- to work out an answer.

At this point it bears mentioning that Scialabba's reflections do not follow the protocols of any particular academic discipline. He took his undergraduate degree at Harvard (Class of 1969) and has read his way through a canon or two; but his thinking is not, as the saying now goes, "professionalized." He is a writer who works at Harvard -- but not in the way that statement would normally suggest.

"After spells as a substitute teacher and Welfare Department social worker," he told me recently in an e-mail exchange, "I was, for 25 years, the manager or superintendent of a mid-sized academic office building, which housed Harvard's Center for International Affairs and several regional (East Asian, Russian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, etc) research centers. I gave directions to visitors, scheduled the seminar rooms, got offices painted, carpets installed, shelves built, windows washed, keys made, bills paid. I flirted with graduate students and staff assistants, schmoozed with junior faculty, and saw, heard, overheard, and occasionally got to know a lot of famous and near-famous academics."

As day jobs go, it was conducive to writing. "I had a typewriter and a copy machine," he says, "a good library nearby, and didn't come home every night tired or fretting about office politics." When the "homely mid-sized edifice" was replaced with "a vast, two-building complex housing the political science and history departments as well," the daily grind changed as well: "I'm now part of a large staff, and most of my days are spent staring at a flickering screen."

More pertinent to understanding what drives him as a writer, I think, are certain facts about his background that the reader glimpses in various brief references throughout his essays. The son of working-class Italian-American parents, he was once a member of the ascetic and conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei. In adolescence, he thought he might have a religious vocation. The critical intelligence of his critical writings is now unmistakably secular and modernist. He shows no sign of nostalgia for the faith now lost to him. But the extreme dislocation implied in leaving one life for another gives an additional resonance to the title of his collection of essays.

"For several hundred years," he told me, "a small minority of Italian/French/Spanish adolescent peasant or working-class boys -- usually the sternly repressed or (like me) libido-deficient ones -- have been devout, well-behaved, studious. Depending on their abilities and on what sort of priest they're most in contact with, they join a diocese or a religious order. Among the latter, the bright ones become Jesuits; the more modestly gifted or mystically inclined become Franciscans. I grew up among Franciscans and at first planned to become one, but I just couldn't resist going to college -- intellectual concupiscence, I guess."

Instead, he was drawn into Opus Dei -- a group trying, as he puts it, "to make a new kind of religious vocation possible, combining the traditional virtues and spiritual exercises with a professional or business career."

He recalls being "tremendously enthusiastic for the first couple of years, trying very hard, though fruitlessly, to recruit my fellow Catholic undergraduates at Harvard in the late 1960s. It was a strain, being a divine secret agent and trying at the same time to survive academically before the blessed advent of grade inflation. But the reward -- an eternity of happiness in heaven!"

The group permitted him to read secular authors, the better to understand and condemn their heresies.

"Then," he says, "Satan went to work on me. As I studied European history and thought, my conviction gradually grew that the Church had, for the most part, been on the wrong side. Catholic philosophy was wrong; Catholic politics were authoritarian....On one occasion, just after I had read Dostoevsky's parable of the Grand Inquisitor, I was rebuked for my intellectual waywardness by a priestly superior with, I fancied, a striking physical resemblance to the terrifying prelate in Ivan's fable. The hair stood up on the back of my neck."

The departure was painful. The new world he discovered on the other side of his crossing "wasn't in the slightest degree an original discovery," he says. "I simply bought the now-traditional narrative of modernity, hook, line and sinker. I still do, pretty much." But he was not quite ready to plunge without reserve into the counterculture of the time -- sex, drugs, rock and roll.

"I was, to an unusual degree, living in my head rather than my body," he says about the 1970s. "I had emerged from Opus Dei with virtually no friends, a conscious tendency to identify my life course with the trajectory of modernity, and an unconscious need to be a saint, apostle, missionary. And I had inherited from my working-class Italian family no middle-class expectations, ambitions, social skills, ego structures."

Instead, he says, "I read a lot and seethed with indignation at all forms of irrational authority or even conventional respectability. So I didn't take any constructive steps, like becoming a revolutionary or a radical academic.... In those days, it wasn't quite so weird not to be ascending some career ladder."

So he settled into a job that left him with time to think and write. And to deal with the possibility of eternal damnation -- something that can occasionally bedevil one part of the mind, even while the secular and modernist half retains its disbelief.

Somewhere in my study is a hefty folder containing, if not George Scialabba's complete oeuvre, then at least the bulk of it. After several years of reading and admiring his essays, I can testify that Divided Mind is a well-edited selection covering many of his abiding concerns. It ought to be interest to anyone interested in the "fourth genre," as the essay is sometimes called. (The other three -- poetry, drama, and fiction -- get all the glory.)

As noted, the publisher seems to be avoiding crass commercialism (not to mention convenience to the reader) by keeping Divided Mind out of the usual online bookselling venues. You can order it from the address below for $13, however. That price includes shipping and handling.

11 Chestnut Street
Medford, MA  02155

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

Legitimation Crisis

Imagine that there is a reactionary and theocratic regime somewhere in the world -- one that routinely violates human rights, censors newspapers, harasses labor unionists, and punishes women for “sex outside of marriage” (even when they committed that "crime" by being the victims of rape). Suppose the regime does all this, and more, while enjoying friendly relations with the United States. Not so hard to picture, I'm afraid, realpolitik being what it is. We used to give big fat foreign-aid checks to the Taliban, remember.

But let's go further. Let's imagine that (in spite of everything) there are eloquent and courageous critics of the status quo within the country who fight to get a hearing. They organize, they demonstrate, they publish; they exploit every opportunity available to put forward an alternative vision of their society. The dissidents find that their fellow citizens, especially young people, are interested in what they have to say. They also often find themselves, no surprise, in prison.

Furthermore, let's picture the ranks of that opposition as filled with eloquent and well-read academics and intellectuals -- men and women who turned out, hard questions already formulated, whenever Jurgen Habermas or Antonio Negri showed up to give a lecture.

Courageous, committed, and smart.... What's not to like? Wouldn’t their peers in the United States want to do everything they could to support the dissidents? Wouldn’t there be solidarity groups, and teach-ins, and militant slogans hailing their cause as urgent and just?

Okay, now suppose that all of the above were true -- except for the part about the regime having U.S. support. Suppose, rather, the thugs in charge were full of anti-imperialist sentiment, ready to denounce most of the evil in the world as an American export....

You probably see where this is going.  

“In hundreds of conversations I’ve had with Iranian intellectuals, journalists, and human rights activists in recent years, I invariably encounter exasperation,” writes Danny Postel in Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism, a recent addition to the Prickly Paradigm pamphlet series distributed by the University of Chicago Press. “Why, they ask, is the American Left so indifferent to the struggle taking place in Iran? Why can’t the Iranian movement get the attention of so-called progressives and solidarity activists here? Why is it mainly neoconservatives who express interest in the Iranian struggle?”

Postel, a senior editor of the online magazine openDemocracy, sees the Iranian situation as a crucial test of whether soi-disant American “progressives” can think outside the logic that treats solidarity as something one extends only to people being hurt by client-states of the U.S. government.

“Of course we should be steadfast in opposition to any U.S. military intervention in Iran,” he writes; “that’s the easy part. But it’s not the end of the discussion. Iran is, as the Iranian anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini puts it, ‘a state at war with itself.’ Progressives everywhere should take sides in that war and actively support the forces of democracy, feminism, pluralism, human rights, and freedom of expression.”

Postel’s title is a nod to Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading “Lolita” in Tehran, of course -- but also to Habermas’s work of social analysis from the book from the early 1970s, Legitimation Crisis. The role that recent European critical theory has played in Iran is a topic revisited by Postel in the booklet’s four sections -- one of them being a reflection on Michel Foucault’s journalistic writings on the Iranian Revolution, and his failure to discuss it after the clerical dictatorship was established. The highlight of the book is an extensive interview with the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo that deserves the widest possible audience. (Fortunately it is also available online.)

Habermas’s concept of “legitimation crisis” refers to periods when, as his translator sums it up, “the ‘organizational principle’ of a society does not permit the resolution of problems that are critical for its continued existence.” That notion may apply to Iran now. The viability of a regime has gone seriously into question when it feels threatened, not just by war clouds on the horizon, but by its own young people’s interest in studying philosophy.

But after reading this short book, I had to wonder if there might be another legitimation crisis under way – one affecting American scholars and activists who see themselves as progressives, who thrill to that oft-repeated demand to "speak truth to power." An unwillingness to extend support to the Iranian opposition puts into question any claim to internationalism, solidarity against oppression, or defense of intellectual freedom.

I sent Danny Postel a few questions by e-mail. Here’s a transcript of the exchange.

Q: You contend that the American left has shown an unseemly reticence about supporting oppositional movements in Iran: human-rights activists, feminists, journalists critical of the theocracy, etc. You say that there has been a double standard at work -- a tendency to express solidarity with movements if, but only if, the regimes they oppose are American client states. Is that something you've done yourself, in the past? If so, what made you question that tendency?

A: I came of age politically in large measure through the Central America solidarity movement of the 1980s. As I say in the book, our solidarity with struggles for justice in places like El Salvador was simultaneously a struggle against U.S. policies in the region -- namely, its support for death squads and murderous regimes. So there was a confluence between what we were against and what we were for: it was all of a piece.

But in a case like Iran, being against U.S. aggression and military intervention -- which we should indeed oppose, and strenuously -- doesn’t necessarily tell us how to think about the internal situation in Iran, or logically lead to a position of solidarity with the kinds of oppositional movements you mention. There’s no direct or obvious link, in other words, between what we’re against and what we’re for with respect to Iran. Most leftists are better at thinking about the first half of that equation, and tend to get confused (or sometimes worse) when it comes to the second half.

So yes, my political consciousness was very much formed within that paradigm, the framework of anti-imperialism. In the 1980s I was definitely less than enthusiastic about the idea, for example, of supporting dissident movements in Eastern Europe. I never sympathized with, and indeed was appalled by, the Soviet empire. Somehow, though, the prospect of standing in solidarity with those resisting it from inside just didn’t stir me.

In retrospect I’m self-critical about that. I now think people like Mary Kaldor (from Helsinki Citizens Assembly)  and Joanne Landy (of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy) -- among others on the Left -- were spot on in simultaneously opposing U.S. militarism and supporting democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Eastern Europe. I retroactively stand with them and wish I had been with them at the time.

Realizing that I got it wrong on that front is partly why Iran is important to me. Though I don’t discuss it much in the book, the parallels between Eastern Europe and Iran are manifold -- many of the philosophers and political thinkers who inspired Eastern European dissidents loom large for Iranian dissidents today (Arendt, Popper, Berlin). But the more direct reason for my engagement with Iran is personal: two close Iranian friends, over the course of countless conversations and e-mail exchanges, convinced me that something truly remarkable was happening in Iran, both politically and intellectually. The more I read and explored, the more I was hooked. And I’ve been asked to get involved, for example in the Committee for Academic and Intellectual Freedom of the I nternational Society for Iranian Studies, through which I’ve made more friends. Some of my friends in Iran have been jailed. So my involvement in the issue has become very personal.

My book is an attempt to engage the Left in an argument about Iran. We -- myself included -- have gotten a lot of things wrong. I desperately want us to get Iran right.

Q:  So how do you account for the persistence of the blindspot? Is it intellectual laziness? A preference for moral simplicity? At the same time, isn’t the desire to avoid saying anything that could be useful to the neocons at least somewhat understandable?

A:  One doesn’t want to generalize: There are different reasons in the cases of different people. I would say that each of the factors you mention plays a part. In some cases it’s one more than the others; in many cases it’s a combination.

Yes, I do think the desire to avoid saying things that could be useful to the neocons is somewhat understandable. But it can also be a cop-out. It was actually more understandable back in 2002-5, when the neocons were endlessly frothing on about their support for democracy and human rights in Iran and it wasn’t as clear to the naked eye how bogus those claims were. Over the last year, however, there’s been a palpable and significant, though largely unnoticed, shift in neocon rhetoric about Iran. They rarely talk about democracy and human rights anymore. They now frame their stance in the terms of Iran as a security threat, with a rotating focus on (depending on the month) Tehran’s nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah, or its role in Iraq. And they’ve ratcheted up the threatening rhetoric, many of them explicitly calling for a military attack.

That puts them at direct odds with the democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Iran, who are unequivocally opposed to any U.S. attack on their country. With the outbreak of the Israel/Hezbollah/Lebanon war in July-August, several neocons came out of the closet, if you will, as supporters of a war on Iran, calling, in the pages of The Weekly Standard and elsewhere, for the bombing to begin. Since that time there’s been virtual silence from the neocons about democracy and human rights in Iran. How can they claim to support either, when democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Iran stand diametrically opposed to them on the question of attacking Iran?

That lie is up. What is now blindingly clear to the naked eye, for anyone who cares to look, is that the neocon agenda vis-à-vis Iran has never been about democracy or human rights. What the neocons want in Tehran is a pro-U.S. and pro-Israeli regime; whether it’s a democratic one or not is an entirely secondary matter to them. And Iranian dissidents know this, which is why they want nothing to do with the neocons. Note that the funds the State Department earmarked last year for democracy promotion in Iran met with a resounding thud among dissidents, who see right through the neocons and their agenda.

This is not only a critique of the neocons, though; it’s also a challenge to those on the Left who have bought into the neocons’ Big Lie about being the bosom buddies of Iran’s dissidents. Due to intellectual laziness, a preference for moral simplicity, existential bad faith, or some combination thereof, lots of leftists have opted out of even expressing moral support, let alone standing in active solidarity with, Iranian dissidents, often on the specious grounds that the latter are on the CIA’s payroll or are cozy with the neocons. Utter and complete tripe. Perhaps, as I say, understandable in the past, when it wasn’t as transparent what empty hogwash the neocons’ posturing was. But now that the neocons’ real cards are on the table and their pretense of solidarity with Iranian dissidents has been shattered, the Left can no longer use the neocons as an avoidance mechanism.

Leftists should be arguing not that we might say things that the neocons could put to nefarious ends but, on the contrary, that neocon pronouncements about Iran are fraudulent and toxic. The neocons are hardly in a position to employ anyone’s arguments about human rights and democracy in Iran when they themselves have forfeited that turf. Indeed it’s not the neocons but rather liberals and leftists opposed to attacking Iran who turn out to be on the same page with Iranian dissidents on this Mother of All Issues. It is we who stand in solidarity with Iranian human rights activists and student protesters and dissident intellectuals, not the Bush administration or the American Enterprise Institute.

I intend this point to be both disabusing, on the negative side, and a call to arms, on the negation of the negation side, if you will: Iranian dissidents are actively seeking the support of global civil society for their struggle. Not the support of the Pentagon or the neocons or foreign governments, but of writers, intellectuals, and human rights activists. We ignore their message at both their peril and our own.

Q:  Intellectual life in Iran sounds much livelier than one would expect under a theocracy -- if also no less precarious. If you could ensure that every American academic knew about at least one or two of the serious debates taking place there, what would they be? If there were a Tehran Review of Books (maybe there is one?) what would be the recent headlines?

A: The Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo speaks poignantly to this question in our dialogue. Citing Sartre’s line, “We were never more free than under the German occupation,” Jahanbegloo observes: “By this Sartre understands that each gesture had the weight of a commitment during the Vichy period in France. I always repeat this phrase in relation to Iran. It sounds very paradoxical, but ‘We have never been more free than under the Islamic Republic’. By this I mean that the day Iran is democratic, Iranian intellectuals will put less effort into struggling for the idea of democracy and for liberal values.”

Habermas was struck by this on his visit to Iran in 2002. A young Iranian political scientist told him that, despite the many constraints and problems in Iran there is, as Habermas paraphrased him, “at least a political public realm with passionate debates.” There really is that palpable sense of vitality in Iranian intellectual life, a feeling that debates about democracy and secularism are deeply consequential in a way that they aren’t here. And yes, the element of precariousness looms large. In a dark irony, within weeks of Jahanbegloo making that observation, he was arrested and spent four months behind bars .

Iranian intellectuals are constantly navigating the Islamic Republic’s red lines: magazines and journals are routinely shut down; scholars and journalists are in and out of prison -- or worse. But as Jahanbegloo’s Sartrean observation suggests, that precariousness plays a huge role in giving Iranian intellectual life its vibrancy and sense of urgency.    

There is, as it happens, something like a Tehran Review of Books — it’s called Jahan-e-ketab, which would translate World of Books. And there’s an intellectual journal called Goft-o-gu ( Dialogue). And fancy this: Iran’s leading reformist newspaper, Shargh, had on its staff (until the government banned it in September) a full-time “Theoretical Editor.” Imagine an American newspaper -- not a quarterly journal or a monthly or weekly magazine, but a mass-circulation daily newspaper -- having a “theoretical” section! That alone speaks volumes about Iranian intellectual culture.

What you find in the pages of Jahan-e-ketab and Goft-o-gu and the late Shargh and a philosophical journal like Kiyan, before it too was banned in 2001, are debates about things like modernity ( tajadod in Persian, a huge theme in Iran) and secularism; liberalism and democratic theory; feminism and human rights; universalism and value pluralism. A recent issue of Goft-o-gu, for example, featured an essay on Foucault’s concept of “governmentality,” and another arguing against the tendency to blame outsiders for Iran’s problems (what the historian Ervand Abrahamian once cleverly called “The Paranoid Style in Iranian Politics”). There are also intense discussions going on among religious intellectuals about things like the separation of religion and the state; whether Islam can be synthesized with universal human rights; and the proper place of faith in public life.    

If you were to compare the tables of contents of Iran’s leading journals of critical thought with their counterparts in the West, the similarities would be striking, particularly in terms of the thinkers around whom the debates tend to revolve: Kant (of whose writings there have been more translations into Persian than into any other language over the last decade), Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Arendt, Popper, Isaiah Berlin. Interestingly, these ideas often serve as the nodal points for secular and religious debates alike. Akbar Ganji, one of Iran’s leading dissidents, is currently abroad assembling a book of conversations he’s conducting with the likes of Habermas, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, Charles Taylor, Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen, Robert Bellah, and Nancy Fraser, among others. There you have it.

Q: You note that the oppositional movements in Iran are emphatically not asking for support from the U.S. government -- let alone military action. At the same time, it sounds as if some intellectuals and activists there, finding no solidarity among their peers on the left abroad, end up warming somewhat to the American neoconservatives, who at least pay attention to them. How is that contradiction playing itself out?

A: The Iranian journalist Afshin Molavi speaks to this when he observes : “I know far too many Iranian leftists who have gone neo-con as a result of their feeling of abandonment by the American and European left. I wish they had not gone that route.”

But as I said earlier, things have changed on this front. Afshin wrote those lines in June 2005. That was much more the case then than it is now. The neocons have thoroughly squandered any sympathetic vibration they might have enjoyed with Iranian dissidents in the past. Their adoption of a belligerent and bellicose stance toward Iran has severed any pretense of standing in solidarity with progressive forces in Iran. Indeed that bellicosity has served to make the situation for Iranian dissidents and human rights activists dramatically more perilous.

Every threatening pronouncement from Washington strengthens the hand of the most reactionary and repressive forces in Iran and puts the opposition in ever more dire straits. The irony is that Ahmadinejad is actually on the defensive at home, facing growing disenchantment — but, as Ali Ansari and many others have pointed out, the hawks in Washington are tossing him a lifeline. The neocons are Ahmadinejad’s best friends, and are doing massive damage to the cause of democracy and human rights in Iran.

For these reasons, sympathy for the neocons among Iranian dissidents is nil. But that doesn’t translate into an automatic love fest with the western Left. Progressives in the west have to make an effort to connect up with our Iranian counterparts, to enter into a dialogue with them.

Q:  Is there anything specific that oppositional intellectuals in Iran need now, in particular, from any Americans who are in solidarity with them?   

A:  The number one thing we can -- and must -- do here is to prevent the U.S. government from taking any military action against Iran. That is the Mother of All Issues right now. It’s the sine qua non for any solidarity with dissident intellectuals and human rights activists; the minute the first bomb is dropped the democratic struggle in Iran will be derailed for the foreseeable future, maybe for decades. That message has to be articulated as emphatically as possible over and over until Bush and Cheney leave office.

I’ve long believed a U.S. military attack on Iran to be highly unlikely, and I still think the chances are against it -- but the signals emanating from Washington over the last several weeks have me thoroughly worried. Let’s just say we should prepare for the worst and be on offense rather than defense. We can't wait until it’s too late. There’s a preponderance of arguments against military action on Iran. In fact it’s disturbing that it’s even being discussed. But among the myriad arguments one can offer -- the most obvious being the humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophe it would unquestionably produce -- one of the most important, it seems to me, is that the democratic struggle in Iran would be dismantled by it.

It’s already in serious peril just by virtue of the threatening storm currently gathering momentum in Washington. This is the Present Danger, if you will: even if the current maneuvering is actually posturing calculated to bulldoze Tehran, which many suspect it to be (and let’s hope they’re right), it’s an extremely hazardous game with potentially cataclysmic consequences and has to be brought to an end immediately.

It would be highly useful for antiwar activists in the west to know what democratic dissidents, human rights activists, women’s rights activists, and liberal intellectuals in Iran have to say on the issue of a US attack on their country. Most antiwar activists in the west would be hard pressed to even name an Iranian dissident, let alone rehearse their arguments. I’d like to see that change.

Antiwar activists and progressive intellectuals in the west should know, and be prepared to say extemporaneously in public debate, what the likes of Shirin Ebadi , Akbar Ganji , Emadeddin Baghi , Abdollah Momeni , and Ramin Jahanbegloo think — most pressingly, what they think of a US military attack on Iran, but also what they think about the human rights situation in Iran, the nature of the Islamic Republic, and what members of global civil society can do to support them. Indeed we should be in conversation with them, and with many other Iranian progressives — writing articles about them, inviting them to speak at our universities, learning as much as we can about them. To use something of an old-fashioned formulation, we should make their struggle ours.

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Party in the Streets

During the first administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (or so goes a story now making the rounds of American progressives), the president met with a group of citizens who urged him to seize the moment. Surely it was time for serious reforms: The Depression made it impossible to continue with business as usual. Just what measures the visitors to the Oval Office proposed -- well, that is not clear, at least from the versions I have heard. Perhaps they wanted laws to regulate banking, or to protect the right of labor unions to organize, or to provide income help for the aged. Maybe all of the above.

The president listened with interest and evident sympathy. As the meeting drew to a close, Roosevelt thanked his guests, expressing agreement with all they had suggested. “So now,” he told them on their way out the door, “go out there and make me do it.”

This is less a historical narrative, strictly speaking, than an edifying tale. Its lesson is simple. Even with wise and trustworthy leadership holding power -- perhaps especially then -- you must be ready to apply pressure from below. (The moral here is not especially partisan, by the way. One can easily imagine conservative activists spurring one another on with more or less the same story, with Ronald Reagan assuming the star role.)

I recalled this anecdote on Saturday after meeting Michael T. Heaney, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida. He stopped by for a visit after spending the afternoon collecting data at the antiwar demonstration here in Washington.

For the past few years, Heaney has been collaborating with Fabio Rojas,  an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University, on a study of the turnout at major national antiwar protests. With the help of research assistants, they have done surveys of some 3,550 randomly selected demonstrators. (That figure includes the 350 surveys gathered this weekend.) Their research has already yielded two published papers, available here and here, with more now in the works.

We’ll go over some of their findings in a moment. But a remark that Heaney made in conversation resonated with that fable about the New Deal era, and it provides a context for understanding the work he and Rojas have been doing.

“Political scientists are good at analyzing how established institutions function,” he said. “We have the tools for that, and the tools work really well. But there is very strong resistance to studying informal organizations or to recognizing them as part of the political landscape.”

In the course of thinking over their research, Rojas and Heaney have improvised a concept they call “the party in the street” -- that segment of a political party that, to borrow FDR’s (possibly apocryphal) injunction, gets out there and pushes.

Party affiliation was only one of the questions asked during the survey, which also gathered information about a demonstrator’s age, gender, ethnicity, zip code, membership in non-political organizations, and how he or she heard about the protest. (The form allowed responders to remain anonymous.)

“We attended or sent proxies to all major protests during a one-year period, from August 2004 until September 2005,” Heaney told me, “and we’ve coded all those surveys. We’ve also collected surveys at other demonstrations since then, including roughly a thousand responses just in 2007.”

The researchers attended demonstrations sponsored by each of the two major coalitions organizing them, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER). The two coalitions have been at odds with one another for years, but worked together to organize the September 2005 protest in Washington before going their separate ways again. “We couldn’t have planned this,” as Heaney puts it, “but now we have data from each stage – when the two coalitions were in conflict, when they worked together, and then again after they parted.”

During the September 2005 activities, Rojas and Heaney gathered information both from those  who attended a large open-air protest and from the thousand or so people who stuck around to lobby members of Congress two days later.

Their survey data also cover demonstrations in the months before and after the midterm elections in November, though most of those results remain to be processed.

“I’ve been shocked at how few academics have paid attention to the antiwar movement,” Heaney told me. “When we first went out to do a survey at a demonstration, I sort of expected to find other political scientists doing research too. But apart from a couple of people in sociology, there doesn’t seem to be much else happening so far.”

I asked if they had met with much suspicion in the course of their research -- people refusing to take the survey for fear of being, well, surveilled.

“No,” he said, “the response rate has been very high. There hasn’t been much paranoia. The temper isn’t like it was after 9/11. People don’t feel as much like the government is out to get them. And fear on the part of the police has gone down too. Now they don’t seem as concerned that a protest is going to turn into a terrorist act.”

The survey results from demonstrations in 2004 and 2005 showed that “40% of activists within the antiwar movement describe themselves as Democrats, 39% identify as independents (i.e. they list no party affiliation), 20% claim membership in a third party, and only 2% belong to the Republican party.”

Some of their findings confirm things one might predict from a simple deduction. Protestors who identified as members of the Democratic Party were more likely to stay in town to lobby their members of Congress than those who didn’t, for example.

Likewise, the researchers found that Democratic members of Congress “are more likely to meet with antiwar lobbyists than are Republicans, other things being equal.... Members of Congress who had previously expressed high levels of support for antiwar positions were more likely to meet with lobbyists than those whose support had been weak or nonexistent.”

Other results were more interesting. Protestors who belonged to “at least one civic, community, labor, or political organization” proved to be 17 percent more likely to lobby. People who turned out for the demonstration after being contacted by an organization were 13 percent more likely to lobby – while those who found about the event only through the mass media were 16 percent less likely to go to Capitol Hill.

The contemporary antiwar movement has a “distinctly bimodal” distribution with respect to age. In other words, there are two significant cohorts, one between the ages of 18 and 27, the other between 46 and 67, “with relatively fewer participants outside these ranges.”

Each birthday added “about 1 percent to an individual’s willingness to lobby when all other variables are held at their means or modes,” report Heaney and Rojas in a paper for the journal American Politics Research. “We did not find that sex, race, or occupational prestige make a difference in an individual’s propensity to lobby.”

In conversation, Heaney also mentioned a provisional finding that they are now double-checking. “The single strongest predictor of lobbying was whether an individual had been involved in the movement against the Vietnam War.”

It was while attending a demonstration outside the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004 that Heaney came up with an expression that has somewhat complicated the reception of this research among his colleagues. The city’s labor unions had turned out a large and obstreperous crowd to express displeasure with the president.  The crowd was overwhelmingly likely to vote for Democratic candidates, but Heaney was struck by the thought that it was a very different gathering from the one he expected would assemble before long at a Democratic national convention.

“I thought: this is more like a festival,” he told me. “It’s the Democratic Party. But it’s also the party having a party...in the street.”

This phrase – “the party in the street” – had a special overtone for Heaney as a political scientists, given one familiar schema used in analyzing American politics. In his profession, it is common to speak of a major party as having three important sectors: “the party in government,” “the party in the electorate,” and “the party as organization.”

The idea that mass movements might constitute a fourth sector of the party – with the Christian Right, for example, being a component of the Republican “party in the street” – might seem self-evident in some ways. But not so for political scientists, it seems. “We met a lot of resistance to the idea of the ‘party in the street,’” Heaney told me, “and to the idea that [it might apply] to the Republicans as well.” The paper in which Heaney and Rojas first referred to “the party in the street” ended up going to three different journals -- with substantial revisions along the way – before it was accepted for publication in American Politics Research.

Speaking of the antiwar protests as manifestations of the Democratic “party in the street” will also meet resistance from many activists. (A catchphrase of the hard left is that the Democratic Party is “the graveyard of mass movements.”) And according to their own surveys, Heaney and Rojas find that just over one fifth of demonstrators see themselves as clearly outside its ranks.

But that still leaves the majority of antiwar activists as either identifying themselves as Democrats or at least willing to vote for the party. “Like it or not,” write Heaney and Rojas, “their moral and political struggles are within or against the Democratic Party; it actions and inactions construct opportunities for and barriers to the achievement of their issue-specific policy goals.” (Though Heaney and Rojas don’t quote Richard Hofstadter, their analysis implicitly accepts the historian’s famous aphorism that American third parties “are like bees: they sting once and die.”)

“We do not claim,” they take care to note, “that the party in the street has equal standing with the party in government, the party in the electorate, or the party as organization. We are not asserting that the formal party organization is coordinating these activities. The party in the street lacks the stability possessed by other parts of the party because it is not supported by enduring institutions. Furthermore, it is small relative to other parts of the party and at times may be virtually nonexistent.”

As Heaney elaborated when we met, a great deal of the organizing work of the antiwar “party” is conducted by e-mail – a situation that makes it much easier for groups with a small staff to reach a large audience. But that also makes for somewhat shallow or episodic involvement in the movement on the part of many participants. An important area for study by political scientists might be the relationship between the emerging zone of activist organizations and the informal networks of campaign consultants, lobbyists, financial contributors, and activists” shaping the agenda of other sectors of political parties. “If they remain well organized and attract enthusiastic young activists,” write Rojas and Heaney, “then the mainstream political party is unable to ignore them for long.” 

Studying the antiwar movement has not exhausted the attention of either scholar. Heaney is working on a book about Medicare, while Rojas is the author of From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline, forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. But now they have an abundance of data to analyze, and expect to finish four more papers over the next few months. In addition to crunching more than three years’ worth of survey data, Heaney and Rojas have been examining the antiwar movement’s publications online and observing in person how protests are organized.

I scribbled down working titles and thumbnail descriptions of the papers in progress as Heaney discussed them. So here, briefly, is an early report on some research you may hear pundits refer to knowingly some months from now....

“Mobilizing the Antiwar Movement” will analyze how organizations get people to turn out and which kinds of groups are most successful at it. “Network Dynamics of the Antiwar Movement” will consider how different groups interact at events and how those interactions have changed over time. “Leaders and Followers in the Antiwar Movement” will examine the survey data gathered at large protests, comparing and contrasting it with information about activists who participate in smaller workshops or training exercises for committed activists.

Finally, “Coalition Dissolution in the Antiwar Movement” will look at tensions within the organizing efforts. “There has been some work in sociology on coalition building,” as Heaney explained, “but there’s been almost none on how they fall apart.”

It’s worth repeating that all of this work on the antiwar “party in the street” could just as well inspire research on the relationship between conservative movements and the Republican Party. Perhaps someone will eventually write a paper called “Coalition Dissolution in the Christian Right.” I say that purely in the interests of scholarship, of course, and with no gloating at the prospect whatsoever.


Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

Mess o' Mobilizations

A few months back, Intellectual Affairs reported on the work of a couple of social scientists who were studying the contemporary antiwar movement. They have been showing up at the national demonstrations over the past several years and – with the help of assistants instructed in a method of random sampling – conducting surveys of the participants. The data so harvested was then coded and fed into a computer, and the responses cross-correlated in order to find any patterns hidden in the data.

The methodology was all very orthodox and unremarkable, unlike some things we’ve discussed around here lately. But one of the researchers, Michael T. Heaney, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida, explained that the project involved a departure from some of norms of his field. Political scientists have tended to be interested in studying established institutions, rather than the more informal or fluid networks that sustain protest movements.

His collaborator, Fabio Rojas, is an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University – so their effort to understand the polling results had the benefit of cross-disciplinary collaboration, and could draw on models from recent work on social movements and network analysis. Nowadays you can often spot a paper by a sociologist at five paces, just because of the spiderweb-like graphics. Those are the maps of social networks, with the strength of connection between the nodes indicated by more or less heavy lines.

Heaney and Rojas have kept on gathering their surveys and crunching their numbers, and they recently presented a new paper on their work at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Chicago. The title, “Coalition Dissolution and Network Dynamics in the American Antiwar Movement,” seems straightforward enough – and the abstract explains that their focus was on the rather difficult relationship between United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), the two main coalitions organizing national protests.

So far, so good. The topic is rather familiar to me – deriving, as it ultimately does, from certain important disagreements between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea. (See Monty Python, 1979.) But my effort to follow the paper soon ran up against a single curious and unfamiliar term: “mesomobilization.”

You could decrypt this etymologically, if course, as “intermediate mobilization” or something of the sort. But doing so did not cause a concept to spring instantly to mind. And since they were addressing colleagues (all of whom probably had strong and definite ideas about mesomobilization) it wasn’t as if the authors had to define their terms. So I broke down and asked Heaney for a gloss.

“Mesomobilization,” he wrote back, “is the process through which social movement leaders mobilize other organizations to do the direct work of bringing individual participants to a protest. In that sense mesomobilization is one level 'above' micromobilization (i.e., bringing out the actual bodies).”

In other words, an organization (a labor union or whatever) does the micromobilizing when it gets its members and supporters to become involved in some activity (a demonstration, political campaign, etc.) A coalition enables different organizations to collaborate when they share a common agenda. This is “mesomobilizing” – that is, mediating and connecting the different activist cohorts.

That distinction corresponds to very different sorts of functions. “Micromobilizing groups play a critical role in contacting people and shaping they way they understand issues and the efficacy of political action,” as Heaney explained. But mesomobilizers – that is, coalitions – provide “an overall conceptual framework for events that links the demands and grievances of myriad groups together.” (The mesomobilizers also buy advertising and get the parade permits and so forth.) “Effective mesomobilization is necessary to make large-scale events possible,” says Heaney, “especially in highly decentralized fields, like peace and antiwar movements.”

The paper delivered at APSA looks at how relations between the two biggest antiwar mesomobilizers have affected participation in the national demonstrations. The differences between ANSWER and UFPJ are in part ideological. The rhetorical style of ANSWER normally runs to denunciations of American imperialism and its running dogs. (I exaggerate, but just barely.) UFPJ is by contrast the “moderate flank” of the antiwar movement, and not prone to tackling all injustice on the planet in the course of one protest. As Heaney and Rojas put it, UFPJ argues that “in order to build the broadest coalition possible, it should focus on the one issue about which the largest number of organizations can agree: ending the war in Iraq.”

The groups have a long, complicated history of mutual antagonism that in some ways actually predates even the present organizations. Comparable fault-lines emerged between similar coalitions organizing in 1990 and '91 against the first Gulf War. But UFPJ and ANSWER did manage to mesomobilize together at various points between 2003 and 2005. This honeymoon has been over for a couple of years now, for reasons nobody can quite agree upon – even as public disapproval of president’s handling of the war rose from 53 percent in September 2005 (when the UFPJ-ANWER alliance ended) to 58 percnet in March 2007.

What this meant for Heaney and Rojas was that they had data from the different phases of the coalitions’ relationship. They had gathered surveys from people attending demonstrations that UFPJ and ANSWER organized together, and from people attending demonstrations the groups had scheduled in competition with each other. (They also interviewed leading members of each coalition and gathered material from their listservs.)

The researchers framed a few hypotheses about contrasts that would probably be reflected in their data set. “We expected that participants in the UFPJ demonstrations would have a stronger connection with mainstream political institutions and a weaker connection to the antiwar movement,” they write. “We expected, given ANSWER’s preference for outsider political tactics, that its participants would be more likely to have engaged in civil disobedience in the past, while UFPJ would be more likely to have engaged in civil disobedience in the past.”

They also anticipated finding significant demographic differences between each coalition’s constituency. “Given the relative prominence of women as leaders in UFPJ,” they say, “we expected that it would be more likely to attract women than would ANSWER. Given that ANSWER explicitly frames its identity as attempting to ‘end racism,’ we expected that individuals with non-white racial and ethnic backgrounds would be disproportionately drawn to ANSWER. Further, given the relatively radical orientation of ANSWER, we hypothesized that it would more greatly appeal to young people and the working class. In contrast, we expected UFPJ to appeal to individuals with higher incomes and college educations.”

These predictions were not, for the most part, all that counterintuitive. And so it is interesting to learn that very few of them squared with the data.

People who showed up at demonstrations under the influence of UFPJ’s mesomobilizing framework were “significantly more likely to say they considered themselves to be members of the Democratic Party (54.1 percent) than ANSWER attendees (46.9 percent).” There might be a few Republicans mobilized by either coalition, but most non-Democrats in either case would probably identify as independents or supporters of third parties.And they tended to come for different reasons: “Participants at the ANSWER rally were significantly more likely to cite a policy-specific reason for their attendance (such as stopping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), while participants at the UFPJ rally were more likely to cite a personal reason for their attendance (such as the death of a friend or a family member).”

But in terms of important distinctions, that was really about it. There was no difference in degree of political involvement, or experience with civil disobedience, or previous attendance at antiwar protests. Nor was there a demographic split: “Despite the stereotypes that many people have of the two coalitions,” write Rojas and Heaney, “they are equally likely to attract the participation of women and men, whites and non-whites, the young the old, those with and without college degrees, and people from various economic strata.”

The paper also considers how the parting of the ways between ANSWER and UFPJ influenced their mesomobilizing capacities -- that is, what effect it had on the networks of organizations making up each coalition.

The various spider-webs of organizational interaction did change a bit. ANSWER began to work more closely with another coalition pledged to denouncing American imperialism and its running dogs. United for Peace and Justice came under stronger influence by MoveOn – a group “much more closely allied with the Democratic Party than either UFPJ or ANSWER” and taking “a more conservative approach to ending the war.” (Or not ending it, I suppose, though that is a topic for another day.)

The researchers conclude that the conflict between the groups has not really been the zero-sum game one might have expected – if only because public disapproval of the president has won a hearing for each of them.

“To some extent,” write Heaney and Rojas, “ANSWER and UFPJ are vying for the attention, energies, and resources of the same supporters. But to a larger extent, both groups are more urgently attempting to reach out to a mass public that has remained largely quiescent throughout the entire U.S.-Iraq conflict....If public opinion were trending in favor of the president, or even remaining stable, the conflict might have been more detrimental to the movement as its base of support shrank.”

Such are the points in the paper catching one layman’s eye, at least. You can read it for yourself here. Heaney and Rojas are discussing their work this week at Orgtheory – a group blog devoted to what Alexis de Tocqueville calls, in its epigraph, “the science of association.”

Scott McLemee
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Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

Teach Only What You Know

About two weeks before the 2004 presidential election, one of the students in a government class that I was teaching raised his hand and demanded to know who I was supporting for president. I paused for a moment, somewhat taken back by the stridency of the student’s request. Noticing my reaction, he offered some background, explaining that he was not the only one in the class who had this question. We had, after all, been talking about the election during nearly every session, and my reticence with regard to what seemed to the students to be a crucial point was a source of confusion.

Despite his protests, I refused to answer, and quickly moved to the topic of the day. Later on, however, I had some time to consider the exchange. And the more that I thought about the student’s question, the more pleased I became. This was, I thought, one of the best evaluations that I had ever received. Here was real evidence that I was doing my job!

Here’s why: My students should not be able to tell, at least from what I say in class, who I prefer to sit in the oval office. For one thing, this would be a form of “bait and switch,” since nothing about the sharing of my political opinions appears in the catalogue that the students presumably consult before paying their money and scheduling my course.

More to the point, however, is that I am not qualified to teach students about who should be elected. In fact, I am no more qualified to tell people who they should vote for than I am to teach a class in quantum mechanics. I have colleagues over in the physics department who are qualified to offer a course in the latter subject; none of us has the same credibility when it comes to the former. Indeed, in an important way, this blanket incompetence is a part of the class lesson -- particularly, though not exclusively, in a class on American government. It is an implicit argument for democracy, or at least democratic equality. It is also, however, an argument about education.

If professors, or anybody else for that matter, actually "knew" who the president should be, then voting, especially by those who did not know, would be unnecessary, and probably counterproductive. This is easy to illustrate by considering the following example: Suppose that I feel ill, and would like to know what I might do to feel better. One approach would be to poll my friends, asking each of them what I should do. But suppose that among my friends was a medical doctor. Would it not make sense to follow her advice, eschewing the opinions of the rest of my friends? Now, what if I were on a deserted island, with no trained medical professionals available? Then, I might as well seek out the advice of friends, summing their opinions. When we are all equally ignorant, we might as well vote.

Most Americans seem to intuitively grasp this notion, and have gradually moved our political system away from any form of “rule by the experts.” The best example of this may be found within the evolution of our electoral system for choosing the president. .If one reads carefully through the Constitution, one finds that the document does not call for the popular election of the president. Instead, state legislatures are charged with appointing presidential electors (the real voters) in any manner which they see fit.

By practice, though not amendment, Americans have reformed this process. Indeed, fairly quickly, legislative appointment was replaced by the popular election of presidential electors. The reason why elections like the one in 2000 -- in which the electoral and popular votes do not reach the same outcome -- are so disturbing is because most Americans think that they do, and should, select the president. No one stands up for an independent board of electors, because scarcely anyone believes that a qualified electoral elite exists. Again, where there are no experts, let’s let everyone have their say. This should serve as a reminder -- particularly to my colleagues in the academy -- about equality. We are all equally entitled to our opinion on electoral matters. That is why we vote.

This understanding has implications for the classroom that extend beyond politics. What we know, we should teach. We ought to keep our opinions to ourselves. This is an important point to keep mind as we read polls, including a recent one by the Zogby organization, that suggest that the public thinks that political bias among academics is a real problem. The public might well have a valid point.

Too much is made of the fact that the views expressed by these academics seem at best out of the mainstream, and at worst dangerously radical. One would, after all, expect those who have dedicated themselves to the careful study of a subject to know more than most about their area of expertise. And those who know should not be bound by -- or be expected to teach about -- the opinions of those who do not know, even if those opinions are held by a majority of people.

This leads to the real objection that ought to be lodged against those who bring their political opinions into the classroom: Do they know what they are talking about? In the classroom, a basic distinction ought to be maintained between knowledge and opinion. To return to my earlier example, I “know” how the mechanics of the electoral system work. I have an opinion about who should be elected using this system. Therefore, I should teach only the former; not because I might offend the delicate political sensibilities of my students, but rather because this distinction between knowledge and opinion is fundamental to any academic endeavor.

Ideally, what scholars seek -- indeed what every educated person hopes to attain, however partially -- is to replace opinion with knowledge. Through both what and how we teach, instructors inspire in their students a sense of both what is known, and how much remains to be discovered. This is what the philosopher Socrates meant when he argued that the first step in the educational process is "to know what we do not know." By becoming aware of how little we know, we are motivated to learn.

The sin committed by any teacher who spouts his or her political views in the classroom is, therefore, not political, but academic. By feigning certainty where there is only opinion, they encourage ignorance in their students. Teachers are free to hold and express (outside of the classroom) any opinions that they wish. What they must not do (in the classroom) is to pretend to know more than they do.

As the writer G. K. Chesterton wisely observed, "It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong." This type of bigotry does not serve our students or our democratic system. Avoiding it is not always easy, but it is our job.

Paul A. Sracic
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Paul A. Sracic is a professor and chair of the political science department at Youngstown State University.

The Election Challenge for Campuses

Although we have a long way to go until the end of primary season, the turnout of younger voters has been high so far. As one of many watching CNN, and waiting patiently for our turn to weigh in, I’m impressed with those crowds of cheering college students bobbing their candidate signage. High school and college students are out in force for most all of the candidates (particularly Paul, McCain as of late, and Obama), although the youth vote leans Democratic at this moment. Journalists witness their passion as we do, with surprise and delight. For researchers who have spent our
academic careers puzzling over elections, public opinion, and political communication, it simply couldn’t be a more promising start to an election year. Time will tell whether the so-called “youth vote” will sustain, build, or diminish come November. But at this point, thanks to the lack of an incumbent, some interesting candidates, YouTube, and the new structure of the primary season, scholars of political behavior and those who want to promote student engagement have many positive developments to scrutinize.

Public Service and Elections

Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when college students were a force in both electoral politics and the shape of political culture, campuses became quieter, although certainly not silent. We have seen compelling moments of intense student political activity since then, during election campaigns and in response to American policies abroad. Students made impressive showings on campuses across the nation in the 1980s, for example, protesting U.S. involvement in Central America or pleading with their administrative leaders to re-examine investment in South African apartheid. But there is no question that campuses are quieter than they once were, with regard to national electoral politics.

This is not to say students have been apolitical. Identity politics is an important and legitimate form of political engagement, and students have participated with vigor in critical and celebratory campus efforts related to race, gender, and sexuality. And conservative and liberal students have both been admirably outspoken on matters of free speech across the nation. Students do look outward, contrary to the oft-heard complaint that they are self-obsessed or egomaniacally pre-professional. In fact, anyone who has spent significant time on campuses in the past few years knows that there has been a tremendous awakening of interest in community, with students volunteering in great numbers to support K-12 programs, environmental efforts, faith-based organizations, HIV-prevention, anti-poverty initiatives, and more. This earnest collective effort, which these days tends to start in high schools -- has now become a central aspect of campus life: Sororities, fraternities, sports teams, honor societies, and whole classes can be found tutoring, cleaning up communities, and flexing their muscles as citizens in the very best sense of that world.

We watch this student heavy-lifting in public service with respect and awe. I recall a far less impressive set of undergraduate years: My fellow students and I spent many more hours playing Frisbee with bandana-sporting dogs on the quad than we did mingling with neighbors outside the campus gates. The altruism and generosity of our students are precious, and should be encouraged and admired. But those of us who study American politics worry that all the student public service we see might not quite take the turn from humanitarianism toward electoral politics. Shouldn’t these civic tendencies somehow lead to campaign participation, voting, and policy debate, in order to have the greatest effects?

Among students, sitting aside the tremendous surge of interest in public service and the public good, is an ambivalence or even distaste for conventional politics. In my experience, with the exception of some political science majors and a few others who somehow find their way to electoral politics, what the Democrats and Republicans (local, state, or national) are up to is a real bore. In general, students find “public policy” to be mind-numbing, once they find out what it really involves: hearings, complex budget maneuvering, extended debate, long periods of inactivity, professional lobbyists, tabled bills, and often, watered-down legislation.

And we in political science don’t help much. While the texture of everyday life in the United States is determined largely by state and local governments -- so vital in taxation, public health, education, and crime control -- state and local politics research is viewed as among the less “sexy” areas of expertise in political science. A typical college or university American political science curriculum is dominated by courses on the presidency, Congress, the courts, or national media, public opinion, elections, and political behavior. We do a poor job of bringing state and local politics to our students through the curriculum, and so it is no surprise that what government does feels very far away. It is something that happens in Washington, and affects them in some abstract way that they are told matters, but feel only slightly.

What we see, then, is an odd bifurcation in students’ sense of citizenship. They feel a deep sense of belonging through their community service: They’ve worked in the soup kitchens, tutored struggling elementary school kids, cleaned up parks, and aided staff in grim mental health centers. But this activity composes only one aspect of citizenship. Commitment to place -- being a caring member of a community -- is a critical dimension of American citizenship, but so are political knowledge, the exercise of rights, and pro-active engagement in conventional elections and governance.

Can we move our students from their current understanding of citizenship as belonging and local engagement, and take them to a more complex (and, granted, often dull) form of citizenry? Can we link their local public service, humanitarianism, and intense feelings of global citizenship (even if often Starbucks-inspired) to American electoral politics -- the “meat and potatoes” arena from where U.S. domestic and foreign policy actually emerge?

We can do all these things, but only if we have students paying attention in big numbers, as we may well have in 2008. It takes work on our part and theirs, and not only through political science courses.

Making the Most of 2008

Again, it’s a long year ahead with an extraordinarily fluid political environment and many twists and turns to come. But in the meantime, I have been reflecting the sorts of venues that enable us to work best on enduring aspects of citizenship, including forging those local-national politics links with our students. Professors and administrators should do the usual things: pursue candidates to speak on campus, encourage voter registration and “get out the vote” drives, and talk with students about the election where we can. In addition, though, we must structure the discussion on campus for the longer term.

I have failed as often as I have succeeded in my attempts to focus students constructively on national campaigns. So, let me close with some rules of thumb that might be helpful in using Election 2008 most effectively:

1. Don’t organize any election event without students leading and organizing. I am embarrassed to admit how many election-oriented forums I have organized or tried to organize, with refreshments, that resulted either in non-events or in a panels of my distinguished colleagues outnumbering students in big empty lecture halls. Even on the most frenzied October election season evenings, our students are still pulled in many different directions, so don’t count on them coming to a forum even if you’ve lined up your leading campus experts and famous authors.

2. Use current media advertising as a starting point for discussion. One of the best and most enjoyable ways to discuss elections with students is to show them what’s being aired, for their critique and to spur debates. While our students are on the Internet always, they don’t sit down and watch broadcast television in real time very often, so they
likely are missing the advertisements that most Americans see each evening. A format for student discussion that enables them to see what other (particularly older) voters see, works. And it’s a fine moment to pursue that ever-elusive “media literacy” we hope our students leave college with. Although Web sites like YouTube are for younger Americans,
the abundance of both official campaign advertisements and political films by amateurs are a welcome bonanza for the scholarly analysis of public opinion formation and political rhetoric.

3. Polls may often be dubious and annoying, but they do engage. The reason we see so many “horse-race” polls during election years is that this quantitative discourse has become -- for better or worse -- the way media (and therefore voters) engage elections. The polls shape our discourse because we follow the journalistic lead: We too want to know who is ahead, and strategize the expectations game along with the pundits. Polls -- or a census is more likely -- of dorm floors, students waiting in bank or bank lines, and in classes, are inevitably and chronically exciting. Use them for good, and don’t worry too much. I find that students in the minority on our campuses are typically fairly vocal and proud, so I haven’t seen much of what political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann calls the “spiral of silence” (fear of isolation due to the expression of a minority opinion).

4. Capture the energy, prepare for the letdown. Even if you use Election 2008 as a teaching moment, inside the classroom or out, and achieve tremendous student engagement and passionate display, it will end in a big thud after Election Day. I have counseled many students out of post-election depression, even when their candidates won. There is a way to -- during the height of the excitement of October -- start funneling the passion into experiences that will make our students truly great citizens for the long term. Think about bringing local and state officials -- legislative staffers are particularly good at this, and are thrilled to speak on campus -- to speak with students about how the local and national politics are connected, or about the way majorities and minorities, after elections are over, shape the nature of public policy.

5. Think about talk. While we discuss the campaigns and policies of our favored candidates, we should -- without dampening discussion -- try to push our students to argue better and more effectively. This is exceedingly difficult, especially as the election get heated and students have invested time and hard work in particular campaigns. The more involved they are in a campaign, the less they want to listen to debate. But the campaign is a time when the “culture of argument” is vibrant, and we need to consider how to keep it going long after the election is over. We now have so many fine scholarly works on the pedagogy of controversy, on what makes for meaningful political discussion, and on how to teach argument. It is best to read these works before the onslaught of the fall campaigns, and to keep the enduring nature of political talk in mind, as we help our students evolve into even better citizens than we are.

Susan Herbst
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Susan Herbst is executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer of the University System of Georgia. She is also professor of public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.


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