Monday, May 25, 2020

The Right and wrong way to teach civics

John C. Calhoun: A well-educated citizen

Hope Essay #7 (Others: #1; #2; #3; #4; #5; #6)

My favorite joke about a person whose civics education has been neglected is to say that they can't name three of the nine justices on the Supreme Court but they can name five of the Three Stooges. 

I may not be far off. I just Googled “civic ignorance” and got 7,270,000 hits. Even better, "Americans’ historical ignorance" gets you 22,400,000 hits. Try “lie witness news” if you want to laugh about it (until you cry!).  Americans seem to know next to nothing about democracy, the particular democratic system that rules them, or their national history. Read this bit from hit number 1 of the 22 million (as of May 18, 2020) on historical ignorance:

A survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that “more Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’ than could identify the Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” “more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place,” and “half of the respondents believed the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 were before the American Revolution.”


In 2012, former Supreme Court justice David Souter seemed to predict the rise of Donald Trump and the end of democracy. The cause? Civic ignorance. Ignorant Americans would give total power to a tyrant who would tell them something like Only I can fix it. “That is the way democracy dies,” he said. “And if something is not done to improve the level of civic knowledge, that is what you should worry about at night.”  But civic and historical ignorance is nothing new, and neither is our national lament about it. There was hand wringing during the First World War when a sampling of High School graduates could identify only 33 percent of the names, dates and events that school teachers thought good American citizens should know. During World War II, the eminent American historian Allen Nevins fretted that the Greatest Generation’s lack of historical understanding imperiled the war effort—our soldiers hadn’t learned enough about American democracy to understand what they were fighting for.  Yet somehow, these ignoramuses managed to make the world safe for democracy and defeat fascism. 

So, should we stop fretting about historical and civic ignorance? Maybe. But I think there is a grain of truth in those 30 million lamentations about citizenship education. Democracy may or may not be in greater peril now than in the past and today’s citizens may be more or less fit for self-government than previous generations of the poorly educated, but democracy now and in the past, here and everywhere else, is fragile and imperfect. If there is one thing we have been dangerously wrong about it is the notion that once a people adopt a system of democratic government they never give it up. That sentiment has led citizens to take democracy for granted, as just a given—to assume it doesn’t need our love and care, much less our defense against enemies, who seem to be growing. Or worse, they think it is not necessarily any better than other kinds of government, and is not worth defending. 

Not only is lack of education not the greatest threat to democracy, but the arrogance of the learned may be a greater threat than the ignorance of the uneducated. I keep reading things that suggest people with more education are worse citizens. They are more likely to be “political hobbyists,” whose social media posts contribute to polarization according to Eitan Hersh’s research (Hersh, 6). They are more resistant to facts that contradict their beliefs, according to research by Brendan Nyhan.

And consider those great American statesmen who owned slaves. I consider them to have been the worst citizens the USA ever produced, yet they were some of the best educated people in world history—people like John C. Calhoun, whose Yale law degree didn’t lead him to the conclusion that slavery was incompatible with America’s Constitutional system of government. On the contrary, he constructed an elaborate theoretical justification of slavery.  In 1962, President Kennedy said to a group of Nobel laureates at a White House dinner: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Our genius third presidents read so many books during his long life that his collection became the Library of Congress after he died. But the fellow who penned the phrase “all men are created equal” was a slave-owner who claimed to oppose slavery while owing 600 slaves. And all that reading didn’t stop him from writing these horrifying racist sentiments or fathering children with a woman he owned.

So, just conveying more knowledge about history, government, or the Constitution will not on its own produce good citizens and preserve democracy. The Phillips family who founded the school where I teach spoke about the importance of teaching both knowledge and goodness when they founded educational institutions in Exeter and Andover around the time of American independence. There are many worthwhile human characteristics that we might include under the heading of goodness, like kindness and generosity; but producing the next generation of wealthy philanthropists—something Exeter and Andover are pretty good at, I think—will not save democracy.  Maybe quite the opposite. So, what kind of goodness makes good citizens and how do you teach that?

I don’t claim to have the final undisputed answer to that question. One reason I write this blog is to try to figure out what I think about things like this and reconcile conflicting ideas that I hold—and discover rational bases for hope.

I’ve been writing these essays during the great pandemic and global lock-down of the spring of 2020, which happens to coincide with a one-term sabbatical.   In his essay "One Hour to Think," E.B. White considers the practice of setting aside time "in the slim hope that if only we were idle, perhaps we might grow thoughtful."  I've grown thoughtful enough, I suppose, though in a most un-systematic way.  I seem to be proving White's conclusion that productive thinking tends to be "an accidental sprout that appears unexpectedly on the vine of one's daily routine and that can be cultivated if one catches it soon enough and tends it with some kindliness and patience" (White, 110).

I expected to sit down and write one essay about hope and politics and be done with it, but have encountered a seemingly endless number of thought-sprouts, as I read, write, follow the news, and go about my daily routine.  These weeks of idleness have led to eight blog posts about hope, democracy and citizenship, and in the place on my laptop where I draft these things, another 8000-plus words with more accidental sprouts than I may ever get around to cultivating.  "Democracy," White says, "is harder to explain and propound" than other systems of government. Or, per Danielle Allen, it's "intellectually hard"  (White, 113; Taylor, 1).   But I think it's worth the time and effort and it involves things like trying to figure out why we we should love democracy in spite of its many flaws; the role of protest and compromise in democratic politics; the relative importance of leaders, followers, and just plain citizens; the function of sacrifice, empathy, humility, solidarity and coalition-building; lessons from various movements like labor, Civil Rights and anti-communism; how private schools boost or harm democracy; the tension between truth and social justice; politics and democracy at the various levels of government, from local to national to global;  dissent, patriotism and deliberation; progress, inevitability, contingency; groupthink and thinking in groups; human nature and it's suitability for self government. 

I've thought a lot about these things and read what others have thought.  I may write something about them, too.

Hope Essays: #1; #2; #3; #4; #5; #6.


Eitan Hersh, Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change (New York: Scribner, 2020).

Astra Taylor, Democracy May not Exist, but We'll Miss it When It's Gone (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019).

E.B. White, On Democracy, ed. Martha White (New York: Harper Collins, 2019).

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Teaching the truth about hope

Mountaintop removal: "The course of things was set."
Hope Essay #6 (Others: #1; #2; #3; #4; #5; #7)

At the nation’s founding, many prominent statesmen called for universal education—not to prepare children for work, but to prepare them to be participating citizens of a republican government. “If the common people are ignorant and vicious,” Benjamin Rush said, “a republican nation can never long be free.” In a republican government, the people are sovereign.

Are the common people of America ignorant and vicious and incapable of self-government today? And if so, what hope is there for the future of our republic?

Should we blame the schools for the character of the citizenry? Rush seemed to think that education was the key to making Americans fit for self-government. Thomas Jefferson had that same hope, so he  submitted legislation to the Virginia legislature. The anti-tax sentiment that led Virginians to reject Jefferson’s proposal to fund public education is a feature of our political culture that is still with us, and still limits spending on education, especially in the former slave states, most of which didn’t establish public schools until Reconstruction. (Taylor, 440).

It’s not clear to me, though, that spending more money would do much to turn the schools into great academies of citizenship. I teach at a private high school that spends (hold onto your hat) about $100,000 per year per pupil annually. We have no civics requirement. Students read novels and poems and write a lot of essays reflecting on the events of their brief lives in four years of English class, but the history requirement is just two years, only one of which covers the United States. The other year deals with the rest of the world.  Over time, enrollment statistics show that students are taking fewer history electives, probably so can fit more math and science electives into their schedule because that's what they are told impresses college admissions officers. Everyone must get to calculus by 12th grade! Don’t get me wrong. Our students are well educated, and many of them do go on to public service. And there are lots of optional opportunities for students who want to get a political education, like our Washington Intern Program. But the required curriculum seems geared toward other ends than producing well-informed citizens.

Even within the two-year history requirement, I’ve seen an erosion of focus on citizenship. When I first started teaching there in 1997, the American history teachers would spend a full week on the US Constitution every fall. Students read the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and anti-federalist essays and talked about whether the advocates or the critics had the better argument. Some classes would even assign the Articles of Confederation—and then talk about whether the new frame of government was really better than what it replaced. Some of us even played Constitution Jeopardy with our classes. This wasn’t the equivalent of, say, a year’s civics course, but it was a good solid week of instruction that sent a message about the importance of democratic process. That approach has since been abandoned, and now most of my colleagues probably spend a day on the Constitution. There’s a lot of US history to cover in three trimesters—and since I got there in 1997, Father Time has continued to add more items we SHOULD cover—two impeachments, an election decided by the Supreme Court, the obliteration of the World Trade Towers, the nation’s longest war, the first black president, and a reality TV presidency (featuring a sustained attack on reality). And we never get more days to cover this stuff.  But this is just one very exclusive private school in New Hampshire.

About 90 percent of Americans get their history and civics education in public schools.  Around the time Exeter history teachers abandoned their Constitution week, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind education reform bill, which emphasized math and reading, apparently at the expense of every other subject, including history, social studies, and civics. The pressure to give children a head start in these subjects has gotten to the point where some toddlers are learning to read before they are toilet trained (Julian, 38).  The decline of civics education has not been lost on some of us and lately there has been a vigorous debate about whether or not the public schools are teaching enough civics, much lamenting about the political ignorance of graduates, and no consensus about what should be done.  Some of the debates are ideological struggles over the content of existing history and civics courses. Should Texas students be told that the defenders of the Alamo were “heroic”? That slavery was the singular cause of the Civil War? Let’s count the number of references to George Washington vs. Martin Luther King. Who should get more mentions?

(An aside. I am plowing through Taylor Branch’s long history of the Civil Rights Movement and just happened to be reading about the the March on Washington.  Here's what he concluded about King's "I Have a Dream" speech: “The emotional command of his oratory gave King authority to reinterpret the core intuition of democratic justice. More than his words, the timbre of his voice projected him across the racial divide and planted him as a new founding father.” You can bet that today's American electorate would be bitterly divided over whether or not we should consider King to be one of the “founding fathers.”)

Similar hand-wringing goes on about undergraduate training. A couple of years ago, an Exeter alumnus, Thomas Ehrlich, spoke in the assembly hall about citizenship education at the college level. His book, Education for Democracy argues that “American higher education pays relatively little attention to undergraduate political learning” (Ehrlich, 4).  Enrollment in college humanities classes and majors is declining as students, insecure about their economic future, increasingly opt for majors like business and STEM that they think will prepare them for good jobs. Conservatives may see that as a positive trend, since increasingly, they believe, undergraduate education in the humanities has become an exercise in ideological brainwashing. That may explain the explosive growth in conservative Christian colleges and Universities  at a time when many small liberal arts colleges have been failing even before the devastating blow of the pandemic lock-down. 

Some think the problem is less what we teach than how we teach it. Do our schools prepare students for taking an active role in democratic governance? Do they include students in decision making? Do we encourage them to disagree with teachers and administrators, or are students required to passively follow orders during the school day? Do schools tend to foster free thinking or “groupthink”? Are we cultivating authoritarian personalities or liberal democratic citizenship? The answers to these questions may be more important than how much time we spend on the Constitution or the nuts and bolts of government functioning.

We live in a diverse nation where every community has autonomy in determining how schoolchildren will be educated so it is impossible to generalize about the quality and content of the “nation’s schools.” What seems pretty certain, though, is that they are radically unequal, in terms of how well they are funded and what is taught in them and how it is taught. Affluent public school systems and the tonier private schools, like Phillips Exeter Academy, are probably less authoritarian than the public schools in working-class neighborhoods and parochial schools in red states. But even at Exeter with its radically student-centered pedagogy, there is a tendency toward group-think and social enforcement of a certain left-of-center political orthodoxy. Somehow, Exeter attracts an overwhelmingly liberal faculty and a largely liberal student body, and most conservatives mostly keep their views to themselves. As Americans increasingly find themselves living in ideologically homogeneous communities, the schools in those places increasingly reflect the general political consensus of the neighborhood and so increasingly, school children encounter fewer people with different views (Bishop). People who study such things tell us ideologically homogeneous environments weaken attitudes of tolerance and lead to political extremism and “the demonization of legitimate political difference”—a kind of political tribalism (Hess and McAvoy, 26).  In one tribe, those who disagree with us are narrow-minded bigots; in the other, they are godless "libtards."

Meanwhile, all students seem to fear the future. The privileged and mostly affluent students that I teach are anxious about college admissions and the prospects of starting their work lives under a mountain of debt. Less privileged young people fear different things. In her study of 100 working class young adults, Jennifer Silva draws a heart-rending picture of a swath of the population that has been let down by every institution they have encountered, from the family, to schools, to work places. Silva writes that their experience has been
characterized by low expectations of work, wariness toward romantic commitment, widespread distrust of social institutions, profound isolation from others, and an overriding focus on their emotions and psychic health. Rather than turn to politics to address the obstacles standing in the way of a secure adult life, the majority of the men and women I interviewed crafted deeply personal coming of age stories, grounding their adult identities in recovering from their painful pasts—whether addictions, childhood abuse, family trauma, or abandonment—and forging an emancipated, transformed, and adult self (Silva, 10).
These folks are neither equipped nor inclined to be able to put much time and effort into thinking about their duties as citizens and and who can blame them?  In a way, they are just the most American of Americans, a people who have always leaned toward individualism and mistrust of institutions, and who tend to conflate collective action with conspiracy rather than see it as a path toward bettering their lives. I wish everyone would read Silva’s book. Instead, readers have gobbled up J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, in which the narrator pulls himself up by his bootstraps and argues that collective solutions can’t solve the problems of the people he left behind in the heartland—they just need to stop blaming the economy and re-discover personal responsibility. Vance’s memoir, in the great tradition of American uplift narratives, from Ben Franklin to Horatio Alger and from Booker T. Washington to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, really struck a nerve and spent two years on the best-seller list. Oprah, of course, endorsed it. Vance was mentored at Yale Law School by Tiger Mom/law professor Amy Chua who famously gave a harrowing account of what parents need to do to raise successful children in the modern economy (somehow, Vance miraculously succeeded without such parenting). When Chua’s book hit the best-seller list and the front pages of the nation’s press, it made us lesser parents of Gen. Zs and Millennials feel guilty, lazy and pathetic. (Not everyone agrees with Chua’s prescriptions for child rearing  or Vance’s diagnosis of cultural decline in Appalachia.  I prefer Joe Bageant’s hilarious and insightful reflection, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War.  See also, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Hochschild).

The problems Vance describes among the family and friends and neighbors he left behind are not unique to Appalachian Kentucky and Ohio, but are common to all the places in our country that got hollowed out by the giant sucking sound that was the background music of Bill Clinton’s free trade utopian fantasy, in which every young person would get a college degree and go to work in a lab coat, making oodles of money selling high-value-added products to the poor slobs who got stuck manufacturing the cars and cheap plastic toys we could all now afford in abundance. Somehow the economy didn’t develop in that way, in spite of the certainty of the smartest people, educated in the best universities, and their elegantly simple, mathematically provable theory of comparative advantage.   Instead, Americans abandoned by the New Economy got something called “deaths of despair.”  According to sociologists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, this epidemic of despair has caused more deaths annually in recent years from things like suicide and drug overdose than the numbers some of the higher estimates are predicting from COVID 19.  These deaths—not COVID 19—were responsible for the first decline in the life expectancy of Americans since the Pandemic of 1918.

If the founding fathers gave schools the mission of educating democrats, Clinton seems to have changed the mission when he embraced free trade (NAFTA, etc.) and declared (over and over): “In today's knowledge-based economy, what you earn depends on what you learn.” Thomas Frank sums up Clinton’s message for young people: “You get what you deserve and what you deserve is defined by how you did in school” (Frank, 69).  I see a direct line from Clinton's comments about education to the popularity of the Hunger Games franchise. Childhood has become a high-stakes period of preparation to succeed in a relentlessly competitive globalized economy and those movies represent an exaggerated and entertaining, but scary version of the New Childhood. And forget about collective, political solutions—the economy is like physics or the laws of nature that can't be change.  But the Self is infinitely adapable and resilient, to use a buzz word of the New Childhood.

But the schools don't seem to be fulfilling their new mission, according to Silva’s subjects, who say the education system is not preparing them for the kinds of jobs Clinton promised would materialize after he sent blue-collar manufacturing jobs overseas and said that “we have to better educate our people to compete” (Frank 69).  The people Silva interviewed “expressed profound feelings of anger toward the school system, which they believe betrayed its implicit promise to prepare them for the future” (Silva, 87).  They feel the same about other institutions that have let them down and have concluded that they just can’t rely on outside help or collective solutions to their problems. They are completely alone, “dependent on outside help only at their peril” (Silva, 83). Neither families, public schools, colleges, nor political parties can be relied on. Silver more recently interviewed working class young people in a post-industrial city in Pennsylvania, two-thirds of whom told her they don’t bother to vote. “Whoever they want to win is gonna win, and it’s all a matter of who has more money,” said one. Essentially, they think, America’s vaunted democracy is a sham, and only a sucker would waste their time on it. Yet they tend to believe in the notion of meritocracy (Silva, 106). So they put their efforts where they will do more good, on the Self. As one of interviewee puts it: “I am a big self-help reader” (Silva, 88).

They have a point. Government does seem to be controlled by moneyed interests and to be largely resistant to majority rule.  According to a famous study by two political scientists, when you look at the policy preferences of the majority of American voters, corporations, the wealthy, and Congress, there is a close correlation among the last three and very little between the first and last. So really, why bother? Why not just stock up on the self-help books and do your best to succeed, or at least survive, in the world you were born into?  And should a teacher really be filling students with idealistic notions about the obligations of citizenship in a sham democracy, distracting them from the difficult-enough job of preparing to make a living?

Silva’s subjects face a dilemma. The worst of their problems have roots in public policy decisions made by the people who did politics in the past and those problems could be mitigated by different decisions in the future that will be made by the people who are doing politics now. As Pericles put it, “just because you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean that politics won’t take an interest in you.”   But a weighing of costs and benefits, it seems on the surface of things, would find that the marginal utility of those people’s next hour of life will always be greater if they spend it on self-improvement, friendships, family, career, even hobbies and entertainments. The control you have is more direct, the outcome is more likely. That’s why the uplifting literature of self-help books and success memoirs are so popular. So who will make those future policies?

The cost-benefit analysis for people with gobs of money seems to point in a different direction, if the study I mentioned in a previous essay is anything close to indicative.  Who wouldn’t conclude that time spent earning a 22,000 percent return on an investment is time well spent? So Yeats might be wrong. The passion of the “worst” is not a matter of conviction and neither is the apathy of the “best.” It’s about incentives and cost-benefit analysis. For most of us the incentive is an unlikely outcome way down the road. For a few, the outcome is more likely and more immediate. Statistics, in fact, show a consistent correlation between income and voter participation rates. The less affluent you are the less likely to vote. 

Writing this makes me feel more despair than hope. When despair and hopelessness start to win out over hope and a sense of possibility, it makes me inclined to see my work as a teacher as just a job, a way to make a living, to earn a paycheck. I am writing this during a sabbatical granted by my employer, on the assumption, I guess, that a period of reading and reflecting on what I teach will make me a better teacher. Sometimes during these weeks, which happen to coincide with the social isolation of the pandemic response, the things that I’m reading—especially Silva’s book and the daily newspapers—and my reflections here encourage more despair than hope. Teaching in the American system of education, made up of public and private schools, religious and secular, rich and poor, does more to maintain the status quo and increase inequality and undermine democracy than to bring about the future that I might hope for—a future where democracy is improved to the extent that it can solve the most significant problems we face collectively. This in turn, makes me want to just quietly make my way to retirement, plugging away, sitting quietly in the back rows at faculty meetings, grading the papers, and escaping at every chance to our Northcountry home to tend my garden and cultivate a good life for my self and my family.

I’m often haunted by a passage I read in For Common Things, a book Exeter alumnus Jedidiah Purdy wrote toward the end of the Clinton presidency, when the triumph of the New Economy seemed complete. Purdy ran into an old friend from Harvard who had gone to work facilitating mountain top removal coal mining projects in Purdy’s beloved hill country of West Virginia. Such projects, Purdy writes, remove as much as 500 vertical feet from a mountain and leave the landscape and surrounding communities devastated. This friend was not an evil man—he understood the negative consequences of his work and seemed to have some qualms about doing it. But he cited the logic of global capitalism, the mandates of “The Market,” and the growing legions that these gods were leaving behind. If he didn’t do his job, someone else would. “The course of things was set. While he couldn’t say that he endorsed it, he saw no reason to be on the losing side.” (Purdy, 93-95)

No one wants to be on the losing side. Thus, schools emphasize calculus, bookstore shelves sag under the weight of self-help books, psych meds are prescribed and therapies multiply; homes are improved. It’s all geared to helping individuals tend their own little garden plots and get on the winning side, even while the space on that side shrinks. But it’s something to hope for, nonetheless. Purdy’s friend and Silva’s subjects didn’t lack hope. They just lacked hope in collective solutions.

In this world, how do we prepare tomorrow’s youth for citizenship? Or do we even try? I said at the end of the fourth essay in this series, I’m not optimistic about the political future but I do think I have enough hope to sustain a few more years of teaching history and politics in a way that is geared toward preparing my students to be good democratic citizens (the subject of my next essay on the hope theme). Or maybe, as my brother would say, it has nothing to do with hope at all, but just a prescription for acting that is inherently good and a determination to follow it regardless of whether there is any possibility of having an impact.

Hope Essays: #1; #2; #3; #4; #5; #6


Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart

Thomas Ehrlich et al., Education for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement.

Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

 Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education

Kate Julian, "Childhood in an Anxious Age and the Crisis of Modern Parenting," The Atlantic, May  2020, 28-41.

Jennifer M. Silva, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty.

Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Sustaining hope in the face of defeat

Hope Essay #5 (others: #1; #2; #3; #4; #6; #7)

So, the future is dark and the unexpected is bound to happen. Democracy could be rejuvenated, or it could be destroyed, or just further degraded by polarization, rising inequality, and degradation of the people. The enemies of democracy seem to have endless resources and, as Yeats said, “passionate intensity.” Is it reasonable to hope that defenders of democracy, justice and good policy will get together, fight back and win? Or do they truly “lack all conviction”?

In my first essay in this series I referred to an ongoing conversation I have with my brother, Tommy, who thinks that “hope” is a counter-productive emotion. We then had a sustained back-and-forth in the comments at the end of the previous essay (#4) about whether hope is more likely to promote action or stifle it. He’s got a point. False hope can delude us and lead to despair and surrender and, well, hopelessness.

A hard, rational assessment may in fact lead us to conclude that there really IS no hope, that the political system just doesn’t work and nothing we do will have an impact.

Here’s the pessimistic side of my hard assessment of American democracy in 2020. The education system isn’t preparing students well for democratic citizenship as pressure builds to prepare them for a career in an economy with shrinking opportunity. The culture of schools is authoritarian, not democratic. Civics classes have been cut out of the high school curriculum. Do the people graduating from the nation’s schools even know how the system works? Are they getting the message that they can have an impact? In the workplace, where most of us spend most of our time, workers are increasingly disempowered and pitted against each other. As unions have declined to insignificance, hopes for “workplace democracy” have been killed, and working class voters have been demobilized and the act of crossing picket lines has lost its stigma. If not in school or on the job, where do most people get to learn about and practice democratic engagement? Citizens are increasingly withdrawing from engagement in public life as the demands of private life increase. That includes the burdens of child rearing but also the lure of entertainments and social media, which are engineered to be addictive.  Even good people who are obsessed with “following the news” and are outraged by the sins of Donald Trump are not really engaging in meaningful political activity, but are “political hobbyists” who treat politics as just another, more compelling, entertainment—the mother of all reality TV shows, staring The Donald. Finally, the electorate is increasingly polarized and so evenly divided that it seems impossible to arrive at majority support and enactment of legislation that will solve our most pressing problems. We can’t even have a civil political conversation, much less deliberation, coalition building, or compromise.

If our hard assessment offers no rational basis to hope that collective action and politics can do us any good then what do we do? Reason would suggest three options. First, make the best of things in your personal life and try to ignore politics. Don’t even bother to vote. A great number of Americans currently seem to be taking this option. Second, migrate to a place with a better political system. Just leave. Third, work outside of the system and try to overthrow it. This might include anything from joining an armed revolution to marching down Main Street without a permit from city council.

In her great book on citizenship, Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen points out that African Americans who left the South and migrated North in the “Great Migration” of the 20th Century were taking option number two (all-told, 6 million black folks migrated out of the States of the former confederacy where they were barred from voting, to Northern states, where they became a voting block that could not be ignored). Also, starting in 1954, some of those who stayed behind in the South took option number three, seeking to overthrow the system of Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement in the South through civil disobedience. (See Allen, xvii-xviii). I would add that Booker T. Washington was advising black people to take option number one during the Jim Crow era, and most of them probably did.

I’ve written elsewhere about James C. Scott’s argument that parliamentary democracies never make significant changes that benefit most of us unless they are threatened by the disorder of extra-legal and even violent protests that option number three includes, like the wildcat strikes, sit-ins, and riots of the 1930s and 1960s (Two Cheers for Anarchism, 7-22). My own research on black history in the early decades of the 20th century suggests that some Southern white leaders were motivated to support anti-lynching legislation to prevent black Southerners from taking option number two, because the region’s economy was threatened by the out-migration of the workforce. Thus, even those who give up on politics and democratic governance and take options two and three, may have a positive impact on public policy. Most people, however, (myself included) are not going to join the revolution, risk a prison sentence, or pack up and move to another country. They are faced with two options: political engagement, or political withdrawal. As someone who teeters on the line between those two things, and who has engaged with politics more as entertainment than activity, I would like to see if I can find some rational basis to hope for progress toward a better future, through politics—legal, collective action.

The end of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy presents a good time for me to work this out, since I was more involved in his two campaigns for president than any other. And I’m not alone. Sanders’ presidential campaigns seem to have engaged a lot of people like me. Record numbers of working class people made small cash donations and  his grass roots canvassing operation engaged more volunteers than any of his rivals.  Many say that the Sanders campaign was their first foray into active political engagement. Whether disappointed supporters will react with cynicism and despair, and retreat into political hobbyism or disengagement or find the will to stay involved in politics depends on how we manage our sense of hope and whether our hope for a Sanders presidency can be redirected into hope for something else. It would help if we had approached the campaign in the first place with a hard assessment of Sanders’ chances of winning and realistic hopes about what his candidacy could accomplish.

In a recent Atlantic article, Elaine Godfrey describes the despair of another supporter after Sanders withdrew from the primaries and endorsed Joe Biden:

For loyal fans of political candidates, the feeling associated with the end of a campaign is a specific strain of disappointment: It’s the grief over lost potential, the heartbreak of an unfulfilled vision. But for Sanders supporters like [Andrew] Bauer, that disappointment seems to register as something much more profound. These voters are mourning not only his departure from the race but the loss of something much bigger: hope.

It was a particularly bitter pill, given that just a few weeks early, after Nevada, Sanders seemed destined to win the nomination. When moderate rivals staged a mass exodus from the primary and rushed to endorse Biden it seemed to confirm Sanders’ frequent claims that the system—and the Democratic Party—is rigged against us.

But our hopes were not realistic if we thought that any specific policy advocated by Sanders was likely to be enacted in the short term, even if he became president. Andrew Bauer, the voter profiled in this article supported Sanders because he hoped Medicare for All would be enacted. But as Godfrey rightly points out: “even if Sanders had been elected president, it’s not at all likely that Democrats would have been able or even willing to pass such sweeping changes to America’s health-care system.”

If Bauer now withdraws from politics, as he seems inclined to do (either not voting or voting for a third party candidate who stands no chance of winning), according to Godfrey, then Sanders’ campaigns will indeed have been a failure. Labor organizer Jane McAlevey suggests that presidential campaigns might have a tendency to have this effect because they focus so intensely on the short term goal of electing one specific candidate rather than a long term goal of organizing people for a cause that will persist through ups and downs, victories and defeats. When the election is over and the candidate has lost, there is nothing left to fight for.

Yet McAlevey, also says that the core of organizing is raising expectations and that this was one of Sanders’ great accomplishments (See Ezra Klein podcast @ 54:00).  “If someone doesn’t think they deserve more, they’re not going to fight for more,” she said. This dynamic is particularly evident in labor organizing. Workers need to be persuaded that they deserve a living wage for a full week’s work; they deserve paid sick leave; they deserve health insurance. If they don’t think so, they won’t fight for those things and they won’t join the union. One unexpected and fortuitous outcome of the pandemic quarantine might be to reveal to some of the lowest paid workers in our economy, who have been deemed essential, that they deserve these things and would be justified in organizing collectively to demand them.

There is general agreement that Sanders’ candidacy had a lasting effect on the Democratic Party. Issues like the $15 minimum wage, college for all, and a serious upgrade to Obamacare have been adopted by the mainstream of the party. In accepting Bernie’s endorsement, Joe Biden said he planned to adopt some of Sanders’ policy ideas

But as John Nicols writes, “the greatest accomplishment of the Sanders campaign has less to do with moving good ideas out of the ‘radical’ category and into the mainstream and more to do with inspiring the people who will carry those ideas forward.” This was implied in Sanders’ campaign slogan this year: “Not Me, Us.” Sanders said over and over that he was hoping to inspire a movement, not just win an election.  Indeed, after his 2016 campaign ended, a number of organizations, like Our Revolution, have continued, and Sanders-oriented candidates have been inspired to run for office at the local level.  And the people inspired by the campaigns happen to be younger voters who represent the future of the Democratic Party and the nation. So, while the hope for a Sanders’ presidency has been dashed, other hopes have been realized; still others are on the table. If we approached the campaign with a flexible and realistic sense of hope, we don’t have to be inconsolably disappointed. Maybe we need to let go of specific hopes, and embrace vague ones: I’m working for a better future, though I can’t be certain about how that will come about or just what my efforts will do to bring it about.

On the other hand, McAlevey calls on political organizers to pair their “hard assessment” with a “credible plan to win,” which, she argues, the Sanders campaign never did.  His expectations of winning by increasing the turnout of young voters, she says, was not a credible plan. Nor, in my opinion, does Mr. Bauer now have a credible plan for getting Medicare For All enacted. He says that in November he is either going to write in Bernie Sanders or vote for the Green Party. That strikes me as an act of hopelessness and despair rather than a well-thought-out step toward a preferred outcome. Even Noam Chomsky agrees with me on this.  He thinks a Biden presidency would be less destructive than another four years of Trump and would be more susceptible to pressure from the left. On the day he accepted Sanders’ endorsement, Biden announced his support for two Sanders-esque policies: one would reduce the age to qualify for Medicare from 65 to 60; the other would forgive student debt for some lower-income families.

Sanders himself has not given up on the system’s susceptibility to collective action by working class Americans. He continues to be in contact with supporters and is hatching plans to continue fighting for progressive causes. A former student of mine just told me that the Sanders campaign has engaged him to work on their ongoing effort to unionize Amazon warehouse workers. It sounded like a credible plan and gives me more hope than anything else I’ve heard recently. It seems fitting to give Bernie the last word on hope on this page. In his Atlantic article , Nichols notes that Sanders, who “ran plenty of losing campaigns” before and after he was elected Mayor of Burlington Vermont in 1981, told him:

We have to break down this psychological barrier where people think, I don’t have a PhD in economics or in health care. I just don’t know everything. We have got to break that down and make people understand that if you have a heart full of compassion, if you understand what’s going on in the world, if you believe in justice, you can run, you should run, and you can win. And if you don’t know everything about everything, well, join the club. Nobody does. But it is terribly important to break down that barrier where people think, Oh, the only people who could run for office are people who are politically connected, people whose daddy or mommy was a big political fundraiser or politician. We got to break that down and I think, as you’ve indicated, we are making real progress. I get all over the country and I get tremendous satisfaction out of going to some rally and somebody comes up and says, “Bernie, I ran for school board and I won.” “I’m on the city council and I won.” That is fantastic. That is part of the political revolution, absolutely.’
 Other Hope Essays: #1; #2; #3; #4; #6

A note on hope essays: Writing this series of essays keeps complicating my thoughts about hope and it's relation to politics, collective action, citizenship, and history.  I originally thought I would write one blog entry about hope and the presidential primaries on New Year's Day, and it just keeps expanding.  What I thought was going to be a sixth and potentially final essay keeps getting longer and longer.  It may be a while before I figure out how to trim that down or break it into smaller entries and start posting again.  Initially, I was planning to write about glimmers of hope peeking out under four mountains of despair, those being:.  

Undemocratic education.

The decline of unions and workplace democracy

Privatization and atomization.


A lot of the sense of hope I am able to salvage from among the ruins of American democracy include classics scholar Danielle Allen, labor organizer Jane McAlevey, and political educators Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy.  And there are many others also.  

I hope to be done with something soon!

Postscript, June 25, 2020: Instead of the above, I ended up writing about whether the protests sparked by George Floyd's death will bring positive progress or not instead of most of the items listed above. In one entry I suggested that it might give hope to Sanders supporters like Andrew Bauer. Then I read this NYT column by Ross Douthat, that framed the protests as the "second defeat" of Sanders.  I think this link also takes you to a reader comment that pushes back against Douthat.