Editing Reflections: Pedagogical Project and Emblem of Democratic Possibility

Note to readers: Today, I share as my Tidings column, my introduction to the forthcoming book to be published this fall, Max Stephenson Jr. and Lyusyena Kirakosyan, Eds., RE: Reflections and Explorations: A Form for Deliberative Dialogue (Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance, 2017). I do so, convinced that this second volume in this series is very much in keeping with what we aspire for the Institute to do and simultaneously an evocation of the issues it treats. Graduate students from multiple disciplines and perspectives contribute to the Reflections series each semester, thereby illuminating a range of public and democratic governance challenges from a diversity of points-of-view. This volume’s introductory essay reflects on the weekly Reflections editorial process that yields those articles. As I note below, we began the Reflections series nearly five years ago with an ambitious aim:

I hoped it [the Reflections series] could serve both as a lens into the catholicity and fruitfulness of a major university’s intellectual life, at least as it pertained to democratic politics and governance. Moreover, I hoped it could contribute to a larger social conversation about just such concerns within the university and well beyond its boundaries. I see and saw Reflections, too, as an example of what former Yale University President A. Bartlett Giamatti once labeled the university in its role in cultural life: “a free and ordered space” (Giamatti,1990).  My continuing hope as its editor is that Reflections can offer its contributors a vital and fulfilling opportunity to share their intellectual interests and ambitions in a forum dedicated to the best of democratic probity and sensitivity, and in a context of civility and genuine and sustained engagement. These are ideals certainly, just as they are for the university writ large, but I hope the essays collected here suggest that all involved take them seriously.

My fond hope too is that the essays gathered in the new volume reflect those aims, even as they demonstrate the intellectual vitality and fertile imaginations of their contributors. MOS


Editing Reflections: Pedagogical Project and Emblem of Democratic Possibility

One key goal when the Institute for Policy and Governance launched RE: Reflections and Explorations was to provide the graduate students who write for it a professional editorial experience, since most are at the start of careers that will involve writing as their lingua franca. That editorial responsibility has fallen to me as I work with authors each week during the fall and spring semesters to polish their efforts for publication. I have found myself reflecting on that editorial role and its relationship to the potential for students’ growth as authors, professionals and scholars.

I was fortunate as a graduate student to work with a scholar considered an especially lucid and artful writer who helped me enormously as I developed my own writing capabilities. He proved endlessly patient and wise and willing to explain why he made specific suggestions to improve my prose. And more, he trusted me to edit his drafts, including a redrafting of his most famous book, in an effort, I am sure in retrospect, to help me develop as a writer and intellectual. I have always been grateful and humbled by these opportunities, even as they sensitized me as a young man to how important editing and editors can be in helping writers develop their finest possible work.

In that spirit, what follows are some thoughts on editing as democratic and pedagogical possibility and aspiration. I have sought to organize my treatment of these concerns around the recollections of a number of contributors to the New York Review of Books concerning the role of that journal’s editors’ guidance in their careers as they remembered their work with Robert B. Silvers, who died in March 2017. I was struck, by how similar those writers’ comments on his prodigious efforts were to my editorial aims for this series. While the Review is world renowned and its editor was perhaps unparalleled in his talent and intellectual reach, as an editor his work nevertheless embodied lessons and experience for all of those who would shoulder such responsibilities. I seek to highlight those here with profound respect for Silvers’ towering achievements.

Silvers was the legendary co-editor of The New York Review of Books (NRRB) from its founding in 1963 until 2006, and lone-editor from then until his death. He was 88 when he died and still working long hours at what he called the “paper.” He was fondly remembered in the ensuing weeks by the countless authors and reviewers whose lives he had touched and work he had helped shape. I was particularly interested to learn what those writers valued in his efforts and why. I here share some of those perspectives because they illustrate the goals I have sought to attain as I have worked with graduate student contributors to this series on the wide array of topics and concerns they treat.

In his comments on the role Silvers played in his writing career, professor and author (and now editor of the New York Review of Books) Ian Buruma argued,

My life as a writer owes everything to Bob’s editorship. He had too much respect for writers he trusted to wish to change their individual styles. … But he had an infallible eye for loose thinking. … He made you think harder. There was no room in his “paper” for fuzziness or vague abstractions. He wanted examples, descriptions and concrete thoughts (Buruma, 2017, p.31).

When I read this remembrance, I thought, “just so, I experienced this, too.” My aim as editor in this series has, in consequence, consistently been to be a curious and interested reader who respects contributors’ writing styles, but who always asks that they ensure that what they say is as clear and clean as they can make it. My motive is two-fold as I press for editorial clarity and concision. First, when authors make such efforts, they become better thinkers and more capable of precisely articulating what they wish to contend substantively and why. And, one central aim of graduate education is to produce sophisticated analytical thinkers who can contribute to scholarship in their selected fields or to their chosen professions with equal aplomb. Secondly, to have an impact and to realize their personal goals, authors must share the fruits of those capacities, and lucid writing can do so with power, grace and, at its best, èlan. So, my work on this series is aimed at helping students develop precise thinking and writing in tandem. I do so by asking that they write so all can understand them, and so the joy or quickened pulse that first animated their interest in a topic can shine through.

Fintan O’Toole, the famed Irish columnist, drama critic and literary editor recalled Silvers’ editorial acumen this way:

The great editor is a chimerical creature, combining contrary qualities in one mind: assertive, and self-effacing, commanding and sensitive and infinitely curious and sharply focused, patient and fearfully demanding, wide angle and close-up. Robert Silvers was the greatest editor of our time because he managed these contradictions with a seemingly effortless elegance (O’Toole, 2017, p.35)

I have been editing Reflections for four and one-half years and can attest that this editorial role demands just these contradictory capacities and characteristics and they are ever difficult to balance. In my experience, this series’ authors are wildly different despite the fact that all are graduate students. Some think and write broadly and are deeply interested in the intersections among phenomena, while others cast their intellectual nets more narrowly and work to focus their analyses as much as possible. Some are naturally interested in developing their writing capacities, while others are less so. Some are preternaturally curious about a wide array of concerns, while others have singular and single-minded interests. Some wish to explore broad philosophic frames, while others crave the specificity of particular policy choices. And so on.

As their editor, and as one who wishes to help each develop their intellectual and writing capacities, I seek weekly to discern their interests and direction and to help them attain it. I try to impart key concerns as sensitively and sharply as possible, while working to ensure the highest quality outcome feasible in the time frame available. As O’Toole notes in his paean to how well Silvers balanced these claims, these imperatives can be treacherous and yet, in their evocation, editors can highlight that which is most significant about their shared enterprise with authors, and help the writers realize their own aspirations more fully. This is not merely a technical matter, but ethically tricky ground that demands imagination, empathy, self-awareness and discipline on the part of the editor. To be blunt, the responsibility is humbling.

O’Toole also noted that Silvers sought to edit the Review for a broad, but literate, audience:

He believed that there is such a thing as the general reader, that public life depends on the existence of a common space in which ideas can be shared, absorbed, mulled over, kicked around (O’Toole, 2017, p. 35).

We began the Reflections series with a like aspiration. I hoped it could serve both as a lens into the catholicity and fruitfulness of a major university’s intellectual life, at least as it pertained to democratic politics and governance. Moreover, I hoped it could contribute to a larger social conversation about just such concerns within the university and well beyond its boundaries. I see and saw Reflections, too, as an example of what former Yale University President A. Bartlett Giamatti once labeled the university in its role in cultural life: “a free and ordered space” (Giamatti,1990).  My continuing hope as its editor is that Reflections can offer its contributors a vital and fulfilling opportunity to share their intellectual interests and ambitions in a forum dedicated to the best of democratic probity and sensitivity, and in a context of civility and genuine and sustained engagement. These are ideals certainly, just as they are for the university writ large, but I hope the essays collected here suggest that all involved take them seriously.

O’Toole also observed that Silvers unfailingly exhibited a related attribute in increasingly short supply in our present socially fractious moment, courtesy. I have sought to realize a similar aspiration for this series:

           I always come back in thinking about Bob to his imperturbable courtesy. His good manners were not mere mannerisms. They said something. They were a constant reminder to the rest of us … to remember that it all matters, that the life of a great journal is part of the life of democracy itself (O’Toole, 2017, p.35).

Universities, certainly, should be places in which many may hold diverse perspectives and may be granted leave and space to articulate and defend those as persuasively and vigorously as they can. Such freedom of thought and speech is the sine qua non of inquiry itself and central to the idea and potential of the university. Reflections includes a wide array of perspectives, and my role as editor is to help those offering them present them as cogently as possible. I do not seek to judge what is or is not acceptable against any sort of litmus test other than analytical rigor, clarity and cogency.

Columbia University political scientist and historian of ideas Mark Lilla has suggested The Review from its start

… was a democratic pedagogical project. … Bob was a teacher, one of the greatest I have ever encountered. Many stories have been told of his legendary interventionism—the late-night calls about an obscure sentence, the flood of packages, faxes and later emails with suggested reading. …What the journalists missed, but his authors knew, is that the process of endless refinement was the point. … It was a vocation, in the strict sense, an expression of magnanimity (Lilla, 2017, p.34).

As with the Review’s essays for its authors, I hope that Reflections constitutes a journey for its contributors, and one that encourages them to continue to refine and develop their writing and intellectual capabilities, and to do so in a way that readers may access so that their ideas can become part of broader conversations and potentially thereby influence the evolving views and understanding of those they reach. More, I hope that engagement with Reflections teaches contributors that the life of a scholar is an ever-unfolding process of wonder and refinement in which one is continuously captivated by questions one did not originally even know to ask as an expanding tableau of inquiry unfolds. This is literature and analysis as metaphor for an intellectual life, and for how the same can inform democratic opportunity.

This refinement orientation also embodies a broader philosophic reality: many, if not most of the essential questions that confront humankind are not “answerable” in some finite sense, but instead represent constant preoccupations and approximations as men and women struggle to live justly and to secure freedom for themselves and for others in the face of their own frailties and brokenness. Perhaps writing as metaphor for such processes of endless and ambiguous personal enlightenment and social experiment and approximation is an especially apt mechanism by which graduate scholars can begin practically to address this reality of human existence.

While now under attack by an illiberal trend in social norms and governance, universities, at their best, embody the ideal of democratic possibility as perhaps no other institution can. They are forums and repositories for restless learning and for imagination. They are spaces in which talented individuals can follow their intellectual and moral hunches and explore the antecedents of those notions as well as their likely implications against a wide range of possibly relevant criteria. Indeed, the reach of universities is theoretically only limited by the reach of the human mind.

Finally, we should remind ourselves periodically that today’s graduate students will lead tomorrow’s higher education institutions. What a privilege, then, to offer those individuals opportunities to unleash their imaginations, to engage in the exhilarating passion of discovery and to learn the discipline that freedom and free inquiry demand. My fond hope is that Reflections can continue to play a small role in the realization of these vital goals for those whose work it presents and for the broader society it serves.



Buruma, Ian, (2017) “Robert B. Silvers (1929-2017),” New York Review of Books, May 11, 2017, p. 31.

Giamatti, A. Bartlett, (1990) A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University, New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Lilla, Mark. (2017), “Robert B. Silvers (1929-2017),” New York Review of Books, May 11, 2017, p. 34.

O’Toole, Fintan (2017). “Robert B. Silvers (1929-2017),” New York Review of Books, May 11, 2017, p.34.










The “Beloved Community:” Aspiring to be a Truly Free and Self-Governing Society

As the Institute’s 11th anniversary, July 1, approached, I found myself thinking about the fact that democratic politics and policy-making are ultimately arbitrated by the character, norms, values and beliefs of the people who are entrusted with its practice. That is, the very survival of democratic governance is mediated by the culture in which it is ensconced. Perhaps no one in modern United States history understood that fact more deeply, nor articulated a clearer vision to secure the possibility of social justice and self-governance within that mediating culture, than Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I have had the memorable privilege in recent weeks of interacting with Dr. Virgil Wood, a long-time friend and colleague of King. Wood will serve as a Ridenour Distinguished Faculty Fellow in the School of Public and International Affairs here at Virginia Tech in the coming year. The Institute will help him organize a writing competition for college students on civil rights as well as assist in his efforts to continue developing a national coalition for community change and social justice. Wood routinely asks all with whom he speaks to ponder King’s vision for the United States to become a “beloved community.” As a result of our conversations, I have found myself reading about that construct in King’s writings, and have been much moved by the social and political ideal the concept represents. Here, I reflect briefly on what King’s vision portends for our country’s culture, and for its policy and politics. I also sketch several major trends that have appeared to sideline popular and political interest in such nation-building projects in recent decades.

King shared, revisited and refined his view of the beloved community on many occasions from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. In a keynote address opening the week-long Montgomery, Alabama Improvement Association Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change on December 3, 1956, for example, King suggested this social ideal implied the death knell for systematic inequality on the basis of race or any other characteristic:

Now it is true, if I may speak figuratively, that old man segregation is on his death-bed. But history has proven that social systems have a great last minute breathing power, and the guardians of a status-quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive. Segregation is still a fact in America. We still confront it in the South in its glaring and conspicuous forms. We still confront it in the North in its hidden and subtle forms. But if Democracy is to live, segregation must die. Segregation is a glaring evil. It is utterly unchristian. It relegates the segregated to the status of a thing rather than elevate him to the status of a person. [1]

In that same speech, King observed:

Finally, if we are to speed up the coming of the new age we must have the moral courage to stand up and protest against injustice wherever we find it. Wherever we find segregation we must have the fortitude to passively resist it. I realize that this will mean suffering and sacrifice. It might even mean going to jail. If such is the case we must be willing to fill up the jail houses of the South. It might even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more honorable. … There is nothing in all the world greater than freedom. It is worth paying for; it is worth losing a job; it is worth going to jail for. I would rather be a free pauper than a rich slave. I would rather die in abject poverty with my convictions than live in inordinate riches with the lack of self-respect. [2]

The beloved community would be constituted by men and women willing to sacrifice their lives if necessary to secure the benefits of freedom and equality for themselves and their fellow citizens. In King’s conception, the singular aspiration for the nation should be political equality and freedom for all, and all should be prepared to work as one to help to ensure that possibility remained genuine for every one of the country’s citizens.

In 1957 King remarked,

Love is creative and redemptive, Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method is bitterness and chaos; the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. [3]

For King, if the aim was a society characterized by social and political equality and freedom, the means to realize and maintain it would be a disciplined love of humanity and the dignity that each individual represents. In his mind, the contrast between how citizens of a democratic nation should behave and humankind’s too frequent and dogged pursuit of avarice and vengeance was complete. In this respect, his vision was surely consonant with that of our nation’s Founders, who also saw humankind as a frail reed on which to predicate self-governance, but who nevertheless sought ways and means to secure just that possibility. King’s ideal married political and religious aspiration into a powerful concept that would support the aims of both in a seamless way. Put differently, in these and many other writings, Martin Luther King developed a construct that coupled individual freedom, social equality and opportunity for all Americans with a tough-minded assessment of just how difficult that would be to attain. Nonetheless, as a minister and theologian, throughout his life he remained deeply convinced that empathetic love could be the galvanizing agent for change. Nelson Mandela would later echo King’s passionate devotion to the ideal of human dignity when, in reflecting on why his 22-years of confinement by the South African apartheid regime had not left him hating his persecutors, he commented:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. [4]

As with Mandela’s respect for humanity, King’s vision was elegant in its apparent simplicity and yet, as he (and Mandela) well knew, it also was supremely challenging to attain in a large and heterogeneous society in which major segments of the population remained unprepared to believe that all people were created equal. Nonetheless, he never wavered in his commitment to the possibility that the ideals of freedom, equality and social justice, encapsulated in the beloved community, could be realized. I have found myself reflecting on King’s undimmed hope as I have pondered several major trends that have shaped our society’s politics and policy-making since his murder in April of 1968:

  • We now are an even more deeply consumerist society than in 1968, abjured daily to believe that our personhood and dignity inhere not in our humanity, but instead in our possessions and perceived material success and how single-mindedly and callously we have pursued the same. Those in poverty or with less opportunities to gain material success are routinely regarded and despised by many Americans as losers, who deserve their circumstances.
  • That same capitalistic individualism has likewise allowed millions to confuse and conflate consumer choice with political freedom, leaving many increasingly unwilling to imagine themselves a part of any collective larger than themselves.
  • In consequence, we are now a people who increasingly find it difficult to share aspirations for our communities and nation as we worry constantly instead about our economic status and our fears for our individual futures.
  • Meanwhile, too, millions of Americans have shown themselves willing to support political leaders who represent neither love in King’s tough-minded terms, nor even comity, and who have won power in large measure by exploiting fear and scapegoating and slandering one group after another.
  • Many Americans now view taxes as claims to be avoided, and many venerate and extol the rich for doing just that. For many, too, the wealthy are to be revered because they are rich, however they acquired that standing.
  • Finally, we are increasingly a society so segregated by class, income and race (ironically, markedly more so now than in King’s lifetime) that many Americans rarely interact with anyone who does not resemble themselves. In such a society, it becomes difficult to imagine the possibility that those quite unlike you might still merit your respect and be your equal in political and social terms.

This brief catalog of trends suggests the broader point of whether many of this nation’s citizens see themselves as pursuing a shared ideal of freedom and self-governance characterized by social and political equality for all Americans; that is, the prospect of the beloved community. Ideals, attained or not, can ennoble and enliven, can lift one’s eyes to something beyond self. It seems to me that any self-governing nation must do this if it is to ensure freedom and possibility for all of its citizens. It strikes me, too, that King’s vision for our society is as appropriate now as when he first articulated it. The beloved community constitutes an expansive view of the possibilities inherent in humankind united in self-governance and in pursuit of justice by a free and equal people. It opens, rather than forecloses possibilities, even as it requires that all people respect the dignity of all.

The United States is now full flush in the midst of an identity crisis wrought by rapid economic and social change. One may hope this nation can recommit itself to a shared aspiration of what it may become. Martin Luther King’s bracing vision surely provides a suitable end for that process for anyone who takes the time to explore the elemental truths it embodies. In so many ways, King’s vision of the beloved community is one for the ages as it reflects fundamental propositions essential for a democratic policy-politics. It seems especially fitting for the Institute, whose remit is to concern itself with just such matters, to be involved in a fresh examination of the power and human possibility that the ideal of the beloved community represents.


[1] King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume 3: Birth of a New Age, December 1955-December 1956, https://swap.stanford.edu/20141218223303/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/papers/vol3/561203.000-Facing_the_Challenge_of_a_New_Age,_annual_address_at_the_first_annual_Institute_on_Nonviolence_and_Social_Change.htm Accessed, June 15, 2017.

[2] King, “Facing the Challenge of a New Age.”

[3] King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Quotes about the ‘Beloved Community,’” We Are the Beloved Community, website. http://www.wearethebelovedcommunity.org/bcquotes.html Accessed June 15, 2017.

[4] Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom (New York: Back Bay Books, 1995), p.622.

Liberal Democracy Confronts a Winter of Discontent

We track major trends with implications for governance here at the Institute and so have been most interested in one of the central puzzles of the 2016 presidential election campaign: the willingness of Donald Trump’s supporters to rationalize, shrug off or ignore his frequent violations of long-standing democratic norms, including his personally scandalous behavior and his refusal to share any information concerning his financial situation. Trump voters continued to support him despite his attacks on war heroes, his open misogyny and clear, if not overt, appeals to racism, and the fact that he was caught on tape bragging about his assaults on women. He also attacked his election opponents with schoolyard-style epithets in an unprecedented undermining of long accepted norms of civility in political campaigns. However strained election contests have become in the past, candidates felt obliged to honor those norms of respect and consideration. Trump ignored all pleas for decorum and civility. Meanwhile, his rhetoric was long on grandiose promises and short on details. His claims were also often ugly, particularly those that scapegoated immigrants for “stealing” American’s jobs and for costing U.S. citizens money for social support services. More, Trump openly and obviously lied, repeatedly, grossly overstating the level of crime in the United States as well as unemployment in the nation. He also assailed the international order the United States had labored with many other Western nations decades to create as “too expensive” and called for pulling back on American commitments to the European Union and Japan and South Korea (among other nations) in the name of his isolationist “America First” position. His supporters routinely explained this behavior as Trump’s effort to “talk straight” and to cut through “political correctness.” It was, in fact, no such thing, but instead an open attack on liberal democracy by exploiting the fears of those whose votes he set out to attract. One need not imagine that all of Trump’s supporters are racists or radical white nationalists to argue nonetheless that he ruthlessly took advantage of three broad and continuing anxieties associated with deeper social and economic trends and realities to gain office:

  • Economic anxiety resulting from ongoing globalization and workplace automation as well as relative wage stagnation, especially among white working class high school-educated voters
  • Ethnic and racial anxiety arising from demographic shifts that have not yet seen whites lose their absolute position of numerical superiority in the population nationally, but that have nonetheless resulted in changes in the mix of demographic groups at state and local levels. Those shifts have raised concerns about the role of “others” in specific communities and it is those fears and perceptions that Trump exploited during the campaign with his scapegoating of immigrants
  • Growing economic inequality between rural and urban populations, as a larger share of the nation’s GDP has come to be produced in the country’s principal metropolitan centers, leaving those residing in other areas feeling worse off in comparative terms and increasingly isolated and resentful.

If these concerns were central to Trump’s appeal for many voters, they were coupled with, and reinforced by, a broader trend in media communications and journalism that has found a major share of such outlets organizing, for some decades now, around specific audiences to secure revenues. Thus, we have the public ratings leader and very profitable Fox News, which has elected to pillory and demonize the Democratic Party and the idea of government in favor of the Republican Party and all things purportedly conservative, while MSNBC has taken a similar stance in favor of progressive causes and the Democratic Party. But, more importantly, this trend has allowed voters to sequester themselves and receive only specific forms of information that reinforce their existing dispositions, biases and norms. Thus, if 41 percent of GOP voters remained fallaciously convinced when responding to an August 2016 survey that former President Obama is not a citizen of the United States because their principal information outlets (and their now President) had often argued the same, they are unlikely to be dissuaded of their error by new information they obtain from the sources that had led them to adopt that view.[1] In addition, many media businesses today gain their audiences not simply from promoting specific ideological valences or beliefs, but also by actively campaigning against American institutions and political actors, irrespective of their stands, so as to garner listener and viewer outrage and thereby ratings and revenues.

These major shifts in media organization and the news industry and ongoing economic and demographic change have been accompanied by a continuing radicalization of the Republican Party, which has chosen not to support Americans dislocated by globalization, but instead to work to deny them health and other benefits and to press for additional tax cuts for the nation’s most wealthy. The upshot of the combined effects of these trends taken together has created an American citizenry that is “increasingly critical of liberal democracy itself.”[2] The percentage of millennials, for example, who believe that it is “essential” to live in a democracy has fallen to just 30 percent in recent polls.[3] Likewise, an October 2016 survey found that 46 percent of Americans responding reported that they had “never had” or had “lost” faith in United States democracy.[4] These beliefs allowed Trump to campaign against an ill-defined “corrupt establishment” and claim that only he could address citizen anxieties. As he did so, he challenged the nation’s most basic democratic norms, and he continues to do so. He also repeatedly warmly embraced Vladimir Putin and his corrupt autocratic government and even held the Russian up as a model of leadership. Trump’s supporters cheered him for doing so.

Trump’s willingness to lie to the public repeatedly concerning immigration and immigrants and crime and his predecessor, among many other matters, points to a politics of social anxiety that

… uses the power of the majority to confront perceived or actual elites in the media, courts, and the civil service; disregards the rights of unpopular minorities; and attacks the institutional roadblocks such as independent courts as illegitimate impediments to the popular will.[5]

President Trump’s continuing attacks on the courts, immigrants and the free press neatly evoke the accuracy and timeliness of this argument.

If these signs are deeply concerning for the health and continued viability of America’s long stable democracy, it is not immediately clear how they might be overcome. Consider the following current realities of our nation’s politics:

  • The House of Representatives is strongly gerrymandered along party lines and the leaders of the Republican majority in that body have made it clear they are not inclined to challenge President Trump so they can attain their primary agenda of rolling back health insurance for millions of Americans and providing tax reductions to the nation’s most wealthy individuals. Gerrymandering has sharply polarized House members along partisan lines. All members are afraid to stray far from primary voters’ perceptual orthodoxy, however detached from reality those perceptions may be, for fear of losing their electoral base. It is difficult in such circumstances to contemplate working with others across the political aisle.
  • Trump supporters have also proven themselves to be energetically engaged in supporting the President by actively discounting and discountenancing information that contradicts their views of him and of world conditions. Experts have labeled this behavior “identity protective cognition.”[6] Voters today also routinely engage with the views of media sources with which they already agree (confirmation bias) in order to gain their information concerning politics. The phenomena of identity protective cognition and confirmation bias together help to explain why so many Trump supporters were willing simply to ignore his aberrant behavior during the campaign and continue to support him, notwithstanding his often erratic behavior during his brief tenure in the White House.
  • Finally, as noted above, many American voters are already disposed to support a “strong leader” to address their disquiet concerning continuing social and economic change, imagining that a more autocratic chief executive could “set matters right.” This is, of course, precisely what Trump contended in his campaign: that he alone could secure needed change.

These realities suggest that reestablishing conditions in which Americans of all beliefs can reason together to address the shared challenges our society now confronts is unlikely to be easy. In any case, it will not simply be a matter of providing “the facts” to those “others” who do not understand, since so many are already ill disposed to listen to anyone with differing views. This said, in truth, there are few other options available to accomplish the goal of shared democratic deliberation, other than civil conversation, even as so many, including the President, attack that aspiration. In consequence, all of those wishing to counter the current negative trends undermining self-governance and democracy here in America and other liberal democracies must work harder than ever to listen carefully and to share information as clearly and frequently as necessary so all concerned can grapple with the trends now evident. For our part, we here at the Institute will continue to pursue our research and outreach efforts with just such in mind. Indeed, the current trend toward the deconsolidation of democratic governance in the United States provides a compelling reminder of the vital role of universities in our national life. We hope to live up to that challenge here at VTIPG in what are sure to be difficult days and months ahead.


[1] J. D. Durkin,” New Poll Shows that 41% of Republicans Still Don’t Think Obama was Born in the U.S.,” Mediate, August 11, 2016, http://www.mediaite.com/online/new-poll-shows-that-41-of-republicans-still-dont-think-obama-was-born-in-the-u-s/, Accessed March 8, 2017.

[2] Robert S. Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Signs of Deconsolidation,” Journal of Democracy, 28(1), p.5.

[3] Foa and Mounk, “The Signs of Deconsolidation,” p.6.

[4] Foa and Mounk, p.7.

[5] Foa and Mounk, p. 13.

[6] Dan Kahan, “‘Fake News’-enh. ‘Alternate Facts Presidency’-watch out!,” Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, February 20, 2017, http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2017/2/20/fake-news-enh-alternative-facts-presidency-watch-out-talk-su.html , Accessed March 3, 2017.

Revisiting the Central Challenge of Democratic Self-Governance

No academic institute with governance in its title can or should ignore the central issues of democratic self-governance.  So, it is that I have often pointed to the enduring tensions in American politics arising from our continuing collective cultural disposition to distrust political authority, our persistent debate concerning whether and how to draw boundaries between our devotion to the market and its inherent penchant to create inequality, and our desire nonetheless to ensure political equality (including an ongoing debate about just how that term might most appropriately be defined). Since we are a federal nation that also jealously seeks to protect the prerogative of its subnational governments, I have also highlighted the issues that arise from that innate political tension as well. Beyond these concerns, I have contended that our Republic will not long survive without capable leaders devoted to the preservation of citizen civil rights and freedom, nor can it endure if our population does not acknowledge its sovereign responsibility to the commonweal and to self-governance. More, the United States contains a diversity of people with differing religions, ethnicities, native languages and values and mores. That heterogeneity represents a continuing challenge to self-governance, as would-be leaders historically have employed difference as one mechanism by which to foment discord, fear and rage, and ultimately thereby to enervate or undo civil liberties and obtain power. Finally, our regime depends strongly on the capacities of that same citizenry to make informed and deliberative choices at the ballot box and to remain probatively engaged in governmental affairs so as to ensure that its agents remain transparently accountable for their actions and behavior. While this list is hardly exhaustive, it does include many of the central questions that have, and will ever, confront our citizenry as a self-governing people seeking to maximize and protect the freedom of all of its number. All of these concerns at various times and in diverse ways have both shaped policy design possibilities and their implementation realities. In short, they are practical as well as theoretical concerns for the devotee and student of freedom and democracy.

In his book, Arvo Pärt, Paul Hillier, conductor of the Tallis Scholars, addressed the work of that great modern Estonian composer and argued that,

All music emerges from silence, to which sooner or later it must return. At its simplest we may conceive of music as the relationship between sounds and the silence that surrounds them.  … When we create music, we express life. But the source of music is silence, which is the ground of our musical being, the fundamental note of life. How we live depends on our relationship with death; how we make music depends on our relationship with silence.[1]

I cite this passage as I have been reflecting since our national election that it might be said that music relates to silence as self-governance is linked to the virtues and capacity for deliberation of the people who must practice it. Silence anchors music for Hillier, as civic virtue stood as the foundation of democracy for our Founders and Abraham Lincoln. In this respect, in October 2016, I reflected on democracy as an ethical ideal and argued,

Individual beliefs and values drive collective democratic possibility, and for decades now, many of our leaders have invited Americans to devalue their role in self-governance and to regard their neighbor as a prospect, “other” or competitor, and not as a fellow citizen.[2]

Another way to make this point is to say that many, and perhaps an increasing number of Americans, are not charting the balance between democratic freedom and their role in the institutions related to it, in a way that assigns pride of place to the preservation of individual freedom in society. Our nation’s Framers did not assume our country’s citizens would be angels. Indeed, they assumed the reverse, and sought to design our political institutions to stymie those seeking to usurp individual rights and freedom, but they also recognized that citizens would, more or less consistently, have to make reasoned and deliberative choices if they were ultimately, collectively to preserve their freedom. As Alexander Hamilton observed in The Federalist, it was:

            … reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined for their political constitutions on accident and force. ... Happy will it be if our choices should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good.[3]

The issue for the Framers was not that this “happy” circumstance was automatic or inevitable. Rather, it was to be set as a lodestone, and a difficult to reach goal. For present purposes, it is important to recognize that the Founders expected that such deliberative action could result over time only through the considered and prudential action of the body politic. Given this reality, it seems important to ask what the response of so many voters to the demagoguery of Donald Trump says about the current capacity and willingness of a plurality of the American people to reason deliberatively and make choices in the name of the common good and of freedom. As Hamilton also remarked in The Federalist, “Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.” [4]

Here are some examples of Trump’s mendacious and often venal and anti-democratic claims to which many, if not most, of his devotees responded not only with support, but judging by television footage of his rallies, positive gusto:

  • Persistent completely unfounded claims that Hillary Clinton was guilty of breaking many (never articulated) laws and should be locked up;
  • Similar arguments that he (Trump) would jail his opponent if elected;
  • Specious contentions that all of those of the Islamic faith constitute a threat to the security of the United States;
  • Constant repetition of false claims concerning the “hordes” of immigrants entering the United States and attacking Americans and taking jobs so as to scapegoat those groups as the architects of some voters’ social and economic anxieties;
  • Persistent outright lies concerning living conditions in U.S. cities and the nation’s unemployment rate;
  • Attacks on various groups, including those who had been prisoners-of-war, Gold Star family members of the “wrong” ethnic heritage, immigrants, journalists and others, including a sitting Federal judge, so as to “other” and demonize those actors in the eyes of his supporters;
  • An invitation to Russia’s authoritarian leader to interfere in the U.S. election (which that nation apparently did do successfully).

This list suffices to suggest the demagogic character of much of Trump’s campaign.

His behavior has since been rationalized by many, in keeping with the typical inclination in democracies in which the operative legitimating assumption is always that the “people” must have chosen rightly. Some apologists, for example, have argued that Trump used this consistently dishonest and hate-laden rhetoric only to “signal” to his supporters that he was serious about their concerns, a widely cited contention that begs the question it purports to address. Other observers have argued his appointments to government offices would moderate his otherwise frequently recklessly pressed course, a claim his proposed nominations for various national posts has already undermined. Still others have argued flatly that most citizens who voted for Trump were not, evidence to the contrary, animated by his demagoguery. But this contention too neatly sets aside the question of why they chose to support a candidate so obviously willing to sully democratic values and to descend to naked bullying and viciousness. Meanwhile, Trump’s staff has employed variants of Orwellian double-speak to “explain” his rhetoric.

None of these post-facto attempts at justification change the reality that the President-elect of the United States persistently lied to the American public in often openly egregious ways and “othered” his opponents and manifold groups to gain office, employing age-old tried and true demagoguery to do so. That fact, in turn, highlights the question of why a plurality of voters were willing to accept his ugly diatribe and/or set aside his demonizing rhetoric and vote for him anyway, a still more unsettling contention. Their support was obviously imprudent and corrosive of civil liberties for all Americans, whatever the merits of his opponent. Indeed, this issue is not about Hillary Clinton, but about the characteristics and the character of her opponent’s appeals.

In light of Trump’s narrow victory in the Electoral College, most impartial analysts considering the nation’s recent presidential campaign and election are left grasping for explanations for a continuing decline in the character and quality of U.S. political discourse symbolized by the President-elect’s mix of invective and lies, a pattern of behavior he has shown no sign of changing since the election. Humans’ penchant for fear and loathing of those different from themselves has ever provided fertile ground for anti-democratic claims. As a result, demagogues will always present a challenge to self-governance and democracy. Our Founders counted on American civil society as well as institutional safeguards to prevent the usurpation of individual rights, but this election has raised the question of whether sufficient numbers of the U.S. citizenry are equipped or willing any longer to address political questions in anything like a prudential fashion, or whether their fears can be used by those canny enough to sense them to gain power, while undermining the freedoms of all. On the evidence of Trump’s appeal, one must ask the hard question of whether he is a bellwether of worse to come in our politics, or instead represents an aberration. Time and his actions as the nation’s chief executive will tell, as will American voters in coming state and local elections. This will be so, as one may expect that having once seen such tactics succeed, many would-be political leaders at all levels of governance will likely seek to emulate Trump’s demagoguery.

One key role the Institute can play in light of these political trends is to continue to highlight these concerns and to evaluate their implications for self-governance and freedom and to do so as clearly and cogently as we can. We will continue to chart these changes in American politics in our daily work and in our reflections on those efforts as effectively as we can, as partisans, first and foremost, of civil and human rights and the freedom they both protect and represent.


[1] Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, p.1. [2] Max Stephenson Jr., “The Ethical Ideal of Democratic Governance,” Tidings, October 1, 2016, http://tidings.spia.vt.edu/the-ethical-ideal-of-democratic-governance/ [3] Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison. The Federalist Papers, New York: New American Library, 1961, p.33. [4] Hamilton, Jay, Madison, The Federalist Papers, New York: New American Library, 1961, p.34.

The Ethical Ideal of Democratic Governance

This nation’s politics and policymaking cannot and do not exist apart from the beliefs and values of its citizens. For good, and just as often, for ill, a free people will reflect the civic capacities or, to use an old-fashioned word, virtues, of its members in its efforts to realize and sustain its quest for the ethical ideal that is democracy. As it is a major part of our remit here at the Institute, we seek to be as self-consciously reflective as we can be concerning trends in our nation’s democratic institutions, broadly understood, and their implications for the realization of self-governance. In my view, periodically pondering the relative health of the values base of our regime is always appropriate and necessary. Indeed, this commentary is devoted to that ever-salient concern. I here explore briefly the enduring import of the nation’s Civil War for our collective citizenry’s ability to engage all members of the country’s population empathetically, and to ensure that each enjoys their rights and freedom as outlined in the Constitution and in law. Without a prudential citizenry equipped with a sense of its obligation to ensure the civil and human rights of all, freedom cannot be maintained and America’s experiment in self-governance will ultimately not endure. This capacity is not merely a matter of policy, political strategy or administrative process, although these may be more or less helpful or pernicious in supporting the values that will sustain it. Instead, civic bonds are maintained by the enduring beliefs shared by this country’s population that persuade its individual members to respect and to ensure the rights of all other citizens, irrespective of their race, religion, creed or any other characteristic. Such is the test of any would-be self-governing people, whether comprised of one tribe, race or ethnic group, or many. Democratic governance must be rooted in the mutual respect and trust of its sovereign or it will not endure. History teaches that a failure in this fundament, understood as the loss of individual freedom for members of affected populations, will occur in democratic societies (including our own). The salient issue is not whether such will happen, but if it will prove fatal to society’s overall freedom. Whether such a tragedy unfolds is ultimately most deeply a question of cultural capacity and communal self-awareness and not of leadership, policy or political process alone.

From at least the occasion of the Gettysburg Address until his assassination in April 1865, President Abraham Lincoln took multiple occasions to think ahead to the Civil War’s end and to call on all Americans to realize they constituted one nation and one people. He realized that if each side, the citizens of the North and the South, did not accept the other and move forward together with a dedication to the common weal of all, the conflict would result in wounds that might take generations to heal, if indeed, they ever were to mend. At Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, for example, as he memorialized the tens of thousands who died in that terrible battle, the President observed:


It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[1]

In his speech, Lincoln alluded to the still unfinished war, but he also looked ahead to the reemergence of the American nation and to the renewal and revival of the ideals and aspirations on which the United States was founded. He did not flinch from acknowledging the horrors that Gettysburg represented, but he was already envisioning a time that the nation would again be one, and its unified people, now including African Americans, could once more be the acknowledged sovereign guarantors of the freedom of all the nation’s citizens, as the country’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution had outlined.

Again, on March 4, 1865, just weeks before the end of the Civil War and his untimely death, Lincoln used the occasion of his second inaugural address to call on all Americans to recognize that the only path forward was unity and that there could be no vengeance or continuing “side-taking” or retribution at the conflict’s end. As he put the question in rhetoric that has resonated widely and deeply since:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.[2]

We now know that Lincoln’s murder, together with the advent of vengeful Radical Republicanism and Southern state leaders who would not accept defeat, would together prevent the realization of his fond hope and aspiration of national reconciliation. Those malignant social forces, and the political bargain struck in 1876 that elevated Republican Rutherford B. Hayes (who did not win the popular vote) to the Presidency at the price of the withdrawal of national troops from the South, opened the way for Southern Democrats to install the systematic de jure and de facto segregation and denial of African Americans’ civil rights, dubbed the Jim Crow era, that endured until the 1960s. As historian James Kloppenberg has summarized this ugly turn:

As it happened whatever loose knitting bound the sections together in the aftermath of the Civil War occurred through a process of repressing memories of slavery’s cruelty, forgetting visions of racial equality, and imposing a new regime premised on old white supremacist assumptions almost as widely shared after the 1880s, by whites throughout the United States, as they had been in the south in the 1850s. The result forestalled the further progress of democracy in America for almost a century.[3]

We know, too, how culturally incomplete the project of undoing that systematic repression of the civil rights of selected Americans remains, and how raw appeals to race and racial discrimination can still mobilize shares of our country’s citizens to the polls. Americans of voting age are also aware of how elected leaders of both of our major parties have cynically used race as a polarizing device whenever they believed it would redound to their electoral advantage to do so. And, finally, the country’s citizenry today surely is aware of the role that race is playing in our current Presidential race in which, far from calling for national unity, one candidate seeks to mobilize citizens on the basis of the twin axes of fear and hatred, and promises to torture thousands and to deny millions their human and civil rights if elected.

In this respect, it is easy to contend that our nation has never mended the wounds inflicted by the Civil War and the South’s unwillingness to give up in practice the racial enmity that lent its “peculiar institution” its animus and engine. To these ongoing challenges to self-governance, however, our nation has elected to add another: a devotion to dog-eat-dog capitalism and individualism—first unleashed with full-throttled fury following the Civil War as industrialization proceeded apace—coupled with the claim that market institutions can substitute for self-governance and its accompanying need for a citizenry possessed of empathetic imagination and devotion to the common good. Formally since 1981, with Ronald Reagan’s election to the Presidency, and arguably for nearly a decade prior, this nation has embraced a governing philosophy that suggests that all difficulties that confront our political economy are the product of democratic institutions, and these must be curtailed and displaced whenever and wherever possible by markets and capitalist values. The result has been a persistent political call for the enervation or replacement of civic virtue in favor of an atomistic individualism lent energy by a naked and wholesale pursuit of self-interest and consumer goods.

So it is that we stand as a nation today simultaneously as the arbiters of an incomplete realization of the democratic ethical ideal, and as proselytizers of an ideology that corrodes, rather than assists efforts to realize Lincoln’s great unifying aspiration. It is difficult to say whether this election will constitute a major crossroads in this country’s experiment in self-governance, as now appears to be the case. What is easier to conclude is that the road the nation has taken for several decades in pursuit of untrammeled capitalism as the would-be arbiter of all social claims, has done nothing to mend the deep and abiding wounds created by the Civil War and reopened by Jim Crow, and has done much to tear them open afresh and thereby to threaten the entire noble project launched by the Constitution.

Individual beliefs and values drive collective democratic possibility, and for decades now, many of our leaders have invited Americans to devalue their role in self-governance and to regard their neighbor as a prospect, “other” or competitor, and not as a fellow citizen. Lincoln warned against such a path. Our role here at the Institute, too, is to seek to be as discerning and sensitive a protector of democratic possibility as Lincoln proved to be. If we can but partly fulfill that aspiration, we will have played a role in this nation’s ongoing project to secure the ethical ideal that is democratic self-governance.



[1] Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address,” November 19, 1863, available from: Abraham Lincoln Online, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm Accessed September 13, 2016.

[2] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1865, available from: Bartleby.com, http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres32.html Accessed September 13, 2016.

[3] James Kloppenberg, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, p.700.

Marking a Milestone Amidst Deep Disquietude

            The Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance (VTIPG) will celebrate its tenth anniversary on July 1, 2016. That milestone is notable for its own sake, but also because VTIPG has generally thrived in an often inauspicious environment. For these past 10 years, many Institute faculty and affiliated faculty and staff, college and university leaders and others have worked diligently to realize VTIPG’s broad mission to explore policy and governance concerns at all scales of analysis. We have garnered nearly $22 million in grants and contracts during this period, and seen 27 Institute-affiliated Ph.D. students and 24 Master’s degree students complete their work. At least three times that number of graduate students from multiple colleges and disciplines have shared their insights and often remarkable talents in our Community Voices program and our RE: Reflections and Explorations series. Indeed, that commentary series became the source for the Institute’s first published book under its own imprimatur earlier this year.

            We have also been privileged to work with faculty and staff from every college at the university and to have hosted several visiting scholars from India, Russia, China and South Korea. More, a wide array of guests and speakers, representing a diversity of perspectives, have shared their insights on democratic policy, processes and politics with Institute audiences. Those guests have included, among many others, two Gandhi Peace Prize winners, the director of a major health system and the current Director of the American Enterprise Institute. Withal, our primary focus has been to explore policies and concerns and their effects on the nation’s (and the globe’s) most vulnerable populations, including its poor, its drug addicted, its mentally ill, its children, its disabled and its veterans.

            It has been an exhilarating, productive and immensely rewarding journey to date, but as I write, American governance stands at a crossroads. For that reason, it seems appropriate not only to thank sincerely and deeply all of those who have worked to move VTIPG forward in its first decade, but also to focus on the major elements of the cultural, economic and social environment that are determining the character and possibilities of our nation’s current policy-making and governance and that have brought it to its present difficult pass.

            I outline a share of the trends shaping the United States political landscape in recent decades, with brief comments on each, below. Most are interrelated, and together they have wrought a major challenge to the sustainability of American self-governance and democratic politics, and have brought the U.S. to a moral crisis. I count the following trends as especially significant:

  • The continuing and rapid globalization of trade, transport and communications that have reshaped virtually every dimension of daily life in the United States. These massive shifts have caused widespread economic dislocation and change and have subjected the American economy to stiffened competition in almost every realm of production. Many industries, including a strong share of furniture production, textiles and appliance manufacturing, have relocated to other nations in recent decades seeking lower wage rates. Since these companies were concentrated in delimited geographies in the country, the impact of their loss has been acute for those communities that relied most deeply on them. Virginia’s Southside, for example, has been hit hard by globalization and its accompanying offshoring of many of that region’s previously regnant industries. The political challenge this rapid change has wrought is often manifest as anger and confusion among those citizens affected, since these shifts often have been both swift—typically occurring within the space of a single generation—and unsparing. Corporate leaders making the choices that have afflicted these swathes of the population have justified them as efforts to assure their firms’ shareholders higher profits or improved competitive position. But, however rationalized, they have left entire communities and their populations economically and socially bereft. Many Institute projects in our first decade have addressed first-hand the consequences for individuals and communities of the rapid onslaught of these changes.
  • The advent of neoliberalism as the nation’s dominant philosophy and frame for social organization and governance. Proponents of this view have long sought to maximize the role of markets in the nation’s political economy, to minimize the role of democratic institutions and to embrace unfettered individual choice and responsibility as the axiom for virtually all social, economic and political decision-making. This public philosophy’s trajectory to ascendancy paralleled Ronald Reagan’s rise to California’s governorship in 1966 and to the American presidency in 1981, but it antedated both of those events as an ideology, and was concisely captured in Reagan’s First Inaugural declaration that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” This broad and ongoing trend has been accompanied by a hard right ideological turn in the nation’s Republican Party during the last several decades. Libertarians and Ayn Rand enthusiasts as well as neoliberals and Tea Party and evangelical Protestants aligned with the GOP now constitute its most significant voting blocs, and none welcomes compromise with others of different points-of-view, while all see government institutions as anathema to personal freedom (a perspective antithetical to democratic possibility) and unworthy of individual and social trust. Neoliberalism has also provided arguments for a continuing upward redistribution of wealth in society, even as Republican Party leaders espousing this philosophy have attacked trade unions and unionism as an undue brake on the energy and entrepreneurialism of capitalists in American society. The consequence of this inclination has been a rapid and continuing decline in the role of organized labor as a force in the American political economy. This trend has exacerbated the relative wage stagnation that high school or less educated workers have experienced since the early 1970s, since there is no economic or social counterweight to firms’ proclivity to maximize profits.
  • Neoliberalism is also recreating the American university (and many universities across the world) by redefining the forms of knowledge perceived as socially legitimate and by commodifying learning as that for which the market is perceived to have an immediate need. This trend, coupled with a continuing decline in state support for higher education, has placed enormous pressure on public universities and the research organizations within them, such as VTIPG, to produce “useful” research that aligns with short-term imperatives and market requirements. In the process, the broader roles that universities and social inquiry have long played in the personal development of students as citizens, and in serving as “transmission belts of culture” are now under persistent political attack and in growing peril.
  • Continued and deepening consumerism. The nation has developed an entertainment and coarsely evanescent culture that frequently celebrates boorish and “famous” individuals simply because they are well-known. Consumerism enshrines and encourages personal preferences of the moment, which can and are expected to change quickly. Moreover, this orientation subtly reinforces individualism, and suggests implicitly and anti-democratically that only those with means are valuable assets in society. Consumerism has also eclipsed the role of the citizen for many Americans, who have come to see politics as they see all else: as transactional. Millions of Americans now believe they owe nothing to anyone beyond themselves, except as they may wish to define those obligations at any given moment. This view implies a society comprised of atomistic individuals with few or no ties to others unless those connections are perceived as immediately consumable or personally useful. The logical end result of this deepening trend, if it continues, will be a citizenry that no longer views the bonds amongst its members as elemental to democracy, and that is incapable of the empathy necessary to sustain such an understanding and the governance institutions that require it.
  • The growth of an ever more specialized and splintered broadcast and internet media. The revenues and ratings of these entities depend on “eyeballs or ears,” and their purveyors therefore continually search for ways to engage fickle and impatient consumers whose average attention spans have declined markedly in recent decades. In many cases, including the rise of the conservative entertainment industry, this has led to persistent anti-government bombast aimed at ensuring that listeners and viewers remain outraged and therefore tuned in, whether or not those claims bear any relationship to reality.
  • The rapid decline in citizens’ belief in government efficacy at all levels, leading to a continued and widespread deterioration in voter political awareness, engagement and understanding. The result is a deepening crisis of legitimacy in our country’s governance institutions, which are the target of daily and often cynical and misleading claims by neoliberal marketization advocates.
  • The rise of the "campaign consultant” industry, whose reason for existence and lone measure of success is candidate victory. The growth of this profession has created a new form of electoral politics in which, under these individuals’ guidance, those running for office ceaselessly position themselves with specific segments of voters, guided by the mantra that only winning matters. Political candidates and their views are now incessantly “spun” by their “handlers” for electoral gain amidst relentless polling and focus group meetings aimed at eliciting voter preferences. The result has been ever more carefully crafted and increasingly cynically derived position statements and political advertisements among candidates and office holders alike that have spawned an equally contemptuous response from many citizens. The legitimacy of governance comes the cropper in this sad game.

            Taken together, these trends have created a polity whose distribution of wealth is now the most skewed in favor of the most-wealthy individuals (those in the top 1 percent of the nation’s income distribution) that it has been in 100 years. Globalization and neoliberalism have together created a climate of fear of social and economic dislocation and relative decline among millions of citizens. These individuals have been encouraged by many political leaders to blame government and self-governance for their situations, and millions have done so. Meanwhile, those officials pressing this claim have simultaneously and ironically supported policies that have exacerbated the social and economic conditions of these citizens by refusing to use government in meaningful ways to assist them as they confront changing social and economic realities. More, those same leaders continue to call for reduced regulation of capitalists, despite the fact that just such action played a critical role in creating the conditions that resulted in the deep financial crisis of 2008. Indeed, on purely ideological grounds, Republicans continue to seek to remove all of the efforts put in place following that Great Recession to regulate the banking and financial sector more effectively to prevent future catastrophes.

            All of these developments suggest a polity in political crisis, and our society may be fairly so described. That fact is symbolized by the imminent nomination for the Presidency by the Republican party of an unqualified race-baiting and nativist demagogue. Should Donald Trump win the presidency in November 2016, the United States will follow several European and many East-Asian nations into de facto authoritarianism. This crisis is as much moral as economic or political. That is, the coming general election is hardly simply a choice of candidates on purely partisan grounds. It is instead shaping up as as a test of whether the American people are interested any longer in governing themselves under the rule of law.

            For this profound reason, it is surely an important time to be a student of democratic politics and to work with colleagues also dedicated to such concerns. The nation’s present difficult predicament and the trends underpinning it suggest afresh why research centers such as VTIPG are necessary in our culture, and how their efforts can illuminate both democratic possibility and fragility for the nation’s citizens. America now stands at a difficult juncture, and the nation needs vital minds, caring hearts and thoughtful students and scholars seeking to help it discern its course as its population charts its path forward. My fond hope on this milestone anniversary, with abiding thanks to all who have helped us come this far, is that the Institute continues to play a role in just that process for many years to come.

Reflections on the Roots of Democratic Leadership

It appears axiomatic to argue that leadership is important in organizations, in policymaking and policy implementation, and in democratic politics more generally. Indeed, shelves of books have been published providing guidance and supposed “easy steps” to secure “leadership results” for individuals working in all three sectors of our political economy. However, just what constitutes effective civic and public leadership, especially for change—a question of great moment to those of us working at the Institute—remains a contested proposition. If there is a tendency, not to say a consensus, concerning this question in the literature on leadership, it likely would be to view “transformative leadership” and its close brethren of servant leadership and adaptive leadership as appropriate lodestones.[1] These approaches all share a normative frame or assumption set that often goes unstated, but that nonetheless presumes that leaders will behave with ethical and moral probity, that they will seek to inspire those with whom they work to develop their own capacities and that they will consistently act unselfishly. This vision of leadership emerged in the Post-World War II period and, as is perhaps obvious, it asks a great deal of those who seek to realize it. It also posits that virtually anyone can be a leader and, correspondingly, that leadership can be developed.

Nevertheless, most people do not have to think very long about their experiences to recall one or more individuals who have used leadership roles to aggrandize themselves, or who have actively harmed others so as to maintain a socially or organizationally preeminent or privileged status. Some do so artfully, and bob and weave in institutional or partisan politics to attain personal power and ascendancy because their egos demand it; scholars have dubbed these individuals, often well perceived because of their ability to feign empathy, “pseudo-transformational” leaders. No part of what they do is undertaken for anyone’s sake except their own, but they are supremely clever about hiding that fact and appearing to act with concern for others. Other people seek power precisely because it lends them the capacity to wield it. This sort of individual is often feted in our celebrity-drunk culture, and the 1980s witnessed a variant of this propensity when pundits and business analysts created a virtual cult in praise of “The Tough-Minded, Downsizing CEO.”

In short, even if the academic field of leadership may be said broadly to espouse an ennobling idea of the leader, it does not follow that all leaders will so behave, or that popular or social aspirations associated with such leadership will always or often be attained or embraced, even by those who devoutly seek them. Indeed, as Joshua Rothman has recently observed, a book by Stanford University’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, Leadership ‘BS,’ has identified,

… five virtues that are almost universally praised by popular leadership writers—modesty, authenticity, truthfulness, trustworthiness and selflessness— and [Pfeffer contends] most real world leaders ignore these virtues. (If anything, they tend to be narcissistic, back-stabbing, self-promoting shape-shifters)[2]

In this view, the entire field of leadership studies today is Orwellian in that it serves only, or at least principally, to obscure the depravity and cruelty of which humans are capable in their pursuit of status, prestige and personal power (however fleeting that perceived standing may actually prove) by convincing others of their high motives and genuine fealty to empathy and other-regardingness, while behaving in exactly antithetical ways. There is a reason, one supposes, that Dante, in his Divine Comedy, reserved a special place in the Inferno for those who, as leaders, deliberately misled others or preyed on them selfishly to accrue or maintain personal power or wealth.

As the academic debate concerning what should constitute leadership and how it is actually manifest rages, public and civic organizations (the Institute’s primary concern), whether domestic or international in character, must nevertheless seek to realize their aims. Likewise, communities must organize to address their shared challenges. None of these entities are likely to lead themselves, and so the question of how to equip individuals for such roles is a deeply practical one.

As I have noted previously, the Institute has, for some years now, hosted an interdisciplinary group of graduate students and faculty, members of a close-knit intellectual community from multiple colleges, called Community Voices, which seeks to investigate the question of democratic leadership and social change. The group meets weekly during the school year to discuss scholarship relevant to these concerns, with the aim of identifying ways and means by which to engage populations at diverse analytical scales in crafting their common futures. Community Voices invites guests who have worked in civic and public leadership roles to campus several times a year to speak. Visitors also participate in roundtable discussions regarding their experiences and share those, too, with students who conduct interviews with them for the Institute’s podcast series, Trustees Without Borders. The talks, dialogue and podcasts constitute a living archive on issues of leadership and change in democratic societies, and this summer the Institute will publish the first book of essays using this record as an empirical foundation.[3]

The question of how individuals may lead democratically is one of the central ongoing interests of the Community Voices team. That is, the group is exploring how leaders may honor the dignity and agency of citizens in democracies or in democratizing contexts and nonetheless play the sense-making roles so often assigned them by those with whom they work. This is an endlessly complicated concern mediated by a wide array of factors that together suggest it is situated at the nexus of structure and agency, and that it may evolve dynamically in time. Moreover, broader cultural, social, economic and political conditions may make the resolution of this dialectic “sticky” for considerable periods. This orientation raises the vexing question of how to join disparate sources and forms of knowledge while dignifying all in the exchange, since democratic freedom ultimately arises from social devotion to the liberty of the individual.

Given this enduring puzzle, and on the basis of the experiences and insights shared by some 31 Community Voices guests to date, I have concluded that while the intentions of public and civic leaders may not be determinative in the varying contexts in which they find themselves working in democracies or democratizing polities, it is nevertheless critical that they approach their roles and responsibilities seeking to listen actively to those with whom they work, so as to help to identify paths that serve those individuals’ best interests. This orientation should be foremost in leaders’ minds as they go about addressing their responsibilities. This concern is age old and a reminder that democracies may founder when demagogues are able to exploit those they serve, whether by appeals to prejudices or emotions, or by means of false claims and subterfuge. As it happens, this question is especially salient in the West’s mature democracies, as Donald Trump commands a lead in the race for the Republican party’s presidential nomination in the United States, and a number of very similar authoritarian and nativist leaders have emerged in Europe as well. All of these individuals are appealing to the fears and emotions of the populations of their respective nations in ways likely only to undermine self-governance and freedom.

In short, while there remains much to learn and explore about the always vital question of democratic leadership, my engagement with Community Voices suggests to me that it makes sense to expose future public and civic leaders to transformative and ethical conceptions of leadership, and even to proselytize for these as potential ideals toward which each should strive in their future professional and political roles. It also appears prudent to warn them of the ways in which leaders and followers alike will almost certainly compromise such leadership, so as to ensure they are able to address the enormous complexities and challenges their roles will evidence.

While Pfeffer is surely correct that leaders may fall short of fully and consistently realizing the normative claims of current leadership theory, it seems short-sighted to fail to offer individuals a sense of the “democratic possible” simply because it will not always be realized. One should not, in this critical domain, advise would-be leaders to jettison their highest aims, when retaining them as iconic claims represents a far more appropriate social aspiration. Indeed, it seems willfully ignorant not to acknowledge how often democracy falls short of its ideals, but it appears more reckless not to maintain those hopes as social ambitions. The consequences of failing to do so are potentially too high for democratic legitimacy and freedom. Would-be democratic leaders must employ ideals to guide their practice, but also must be deeply aware of the frailties of humankind as they contemplate their roles and responsibilities. They require an ethical integrity and emotional and intellectual toughness born of a keen sense of the realities in which they shall work coupled with an abiding devotion to the preservation of human dignity and freedom. Those involved with Community Voices at the Institute will continue to explore the many facets of this vital democratic imperative.

Sincerely, Max Stephenson Jr.


[1] Burns, James MacGregor. Leadership. Harper Classics, 2010; Greenleaf, Robert K. Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2002; Heifetz, Ronald A. Leadership without Easy Answers. Cambridge: Harvard (Belknap) University Press, 1998.

[2] Rothman, Joshua, “Shut up and Sit Down: Why the Leadership Industry Rules,” The New Yorker, February 29, 2016, 64-69 at 68, Jeffrey Pfeffer, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. New York: Harper Business, 2015.

[3] Forthcoming: Stephenson, Max Jr. and Lyusyena Kirakosyan, Eds., Social and Political Imaginaries, Cultural Claims and Community Change. Blacksburg, VA: Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance, 2016. The archive of Community Voices talks may be found here: http://communityvoices.info/past-speakers/

Policy for youth from troubled families: what sort of society do we wish to be?

            The Institute’s faculty has long researched or been involved in child support programs of one sort or another, including carrying out studies of foster care policy implementation. So, I was more than a little curious when I learned of a book that chronicled the troubled childhood and rise to fame of country music singer-songwriter, Jimmy Wayne. Wayne published his autobiography, Walk to Beautiful, to critical acclaim and wide success in 2014. Indeed, the volume was a New York Times bestseller. I had never heard of Wayne before learning of his book and I knew nothing of his music, but I was intrigued by his account and the ways in which he had interacted with the foster care system in his native state of North Carolina during his journey to adulthood. I therefore read his book with deep interest.

            His story reminded me of the poverty and human misery chronicled in another book published in 1996, Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt. Both evidenced the dramatic arc that captures an audience’s attention and empathy. Jimmy Wayne’s difficult life has been the subject of a television movie, and Angela’s Ashes was the basis of a Hollywood feature film.

            Wayne’s father abandoned his wife and child when he was born and the singer therefore never knew his dad, although he lived only miles away. The songwriter’s mother was bipolar and never truly assumed responsibility for her four children by two different fathers. She frequently abandoned the children for protracted periods, either leaving them with relatives, who offered them nothing, or to fend for themselves as homeless urchins or to become wards of the state. To rid herself of the responsibility of caring for her daughter, Wayne’s mother pressed the girl (the singer’s older sister) to marry at 14. While on the lam with her then husband, who had shot and permanently disabled the wife of her oldest son in an altercation, she abandoned Jimmy in Pensacola, Florida with just enough money (which he had earned himself) for a bus ticket home to Gaston and without food or any additional funds. This occurred following three weeks of living in a car that had left the child filthy and completely unkempt. Wayne’s mother did not indicate when or whether she might return as she left her 11-year old son in Florida, but simply told him to seek out his sister when he arrived in North Carolina. On another occasion, Wayne’s mother was sent to the state penitentiary for aggravated assault when she stabbed her lover in the chest.

            Perhaps predictably, this “family” lived in squalor and moved often and its households, such as they were, were routinely filled with drifters, grifters and drug users. When left to his uncle’s “care” during one of his mother’s periodic disappearances, Wayne, then in middle school, was consigned to live in a long vacant and derelict mobile home without heat or other utilities during the winter and was expected to earn any food he might obtain. His uncle took no interest in him and assumed no responsibility for him. Wayne’s grandfather (his mother’s father) treated him the same way. Regardless of who was nominally caring for Wayne, he often went hungry except for meals he obtained at school.

            Moreover, his mother routinely physically abused the boy, and her drunken spouse beat him mercilessly and without provocation and just missed shooting him in the head by inches during one such binge. Ironically, at one point, his mother was not content simply to abandon her child for weeks or months to “kin,” but went further and arranged, perversely, to blame him for her then husband’s obvious illness and asked the court formally to allow her to “give up” the 12-year old to the state because he was a menace to her spouse. The judge agreed to place Wayne in a group home. Despite the lie that sent him there, it seems clear in the songwriter’s narrative that his experience at the facility and thereafter, while parlous and too often sad, gave him opportunities to overcome the tragedy that had marked his previous years.

            I was struck by Wayne’s story not only for its own sake as a lens into the realities and brutality of poverty and of the implications of irresponsible parenting, but also for what it reveals about our current policy dialogue and assumptions concerning child welfare and foster care particularly. I share three brief reflections on these issues here.

            First, Wayne’s book and experience reveals the brutishness and inaccuracy of our culture’s now dominant stereotypic conception of poverty and the poor. Ronald Reagan popularized an enduring view of the poor in the early 1980s as lazy, dependent on public largesse and largely African-American. In contrast and much closer to reality than Reagan’s assertions ever were, Wayne’s family was white and many of his relatives, including his sister, worked in textile mills for very low wages. More, his mother was mentally ill and was never treated for that condition appropriately. Wayne’s description makes clear that whatever else may be said of her character, his mother did not possess the resources from a government or anywhere else to sit in a comfortable living room and watch television and eat chocolates as Reagan had argued was regularly true of the impoverished.

            Indeed, Wayne’s experience illustrates the fallacy of Reagan’s depiction, and provides a compelling and empirically accurate portrayal of the wild variety of conditions in which the poor seek to survive. In any case, no child should be left homeless or in the hands of “blood kin” or anyone else who regularly ensures they are treated as detritus and worse. As an innocent youth, Wayne did not deserve to be abandoned more than 800 miles from his “home” by his mother in the middle of the night with nothing but a bus ticket, or to be left homeless or to be compelled by an adult in his family to live in conditions not fit for habitation.

            This point raises a second policy concern illustrated by Wayne’s experience. The North Carolina foster care system regularly returned the youngster to his mother whenever she requested and permitted her to leave him with relatives for prolonged periods, including her stint in prison. The youth’s case workers apparently either did not check on him or were too over burdened to learn of the abuse he daily suffered from these supposed “loved ones,” including his mother. But the disposition to favor relatives over group homes or foster placement as a matter of policy is deeply ingrained in child support agencies across the United States. As a result, caseworkers are regularly enjoined to turn over every rock to find a relative, any relative, with whom to place children in peril, rather than to entrust them to group homes or foster care.

            That is, legislative and agency leaders do not inquire very deeply into whether such “kin” placements make sense or are in the best interests of the affected youths, as they clearly were not in Wayne’s case. Instead, these organizations’ assignment policies are too often without subtlety or nuance and therefore often fail to grapple with the realities confronting the children they purport to help. Lawmakers and the citizenry alike appear to be uncomfortable acknowledging that parents and relatives can be denizens of darkness, and rather than account for that possibility, simply wish it away. Wayne’s experience suggests that not all foster care providers are faultless either, but that fact only underscores my point. By failing to address the realities confronting these youths we often heedlessly and needlessly expose them to additional horrors in the name of our own psychological ease and comfort. We would prefer to pretend collectively that all kin are interested, capable and caring, rather than address the fact that many are not. In this sense, this policy predilection and our grotesque popular caricature of poverty are joined at the hip; both are wildly misleading.

            Finally, Wayne’s experience reveals just how difficult it is for our society to provide any sort of safety net in the name of the preservation or furtherance of human dignity. Youth support social workers are routinely asked to handle far too many cases while our criminal justice system is geared overwhelmingly to punishment and not to prevention. Wayne’s book raises the question of how any American child could have been permitted to live in such deplorable and dangerous conditions, and returned to them as a matter of policy on multiple occasions. We pride ourselves as a citizenry on our willingness to care for our own, but routinely we fail to secure that result for our nation’s youth, as many of our leaders daily disparage the institutions charged with helping to secure that result. We cannot have it both ways and not expect to wreak havoc and injustice in many lives. The larger questions Wayne’s experience raise are not whether we should celebrate his luck, pluck and success, but how many other individuals have not been so fortunate, and how we should collectively work to stanch the social bleeding their lives and lost opportunities represent. Here at the Institute we will strive to continue to make those human costs apparent and to help to identify ways society may effectively and equitably address them.

On Directions: New and Old

            The traditional rationale for creating a research outfit, such as the Institute for Policy and Governance (VTIPG) at a major university such as Virginia Tech, has long been that these entities provide a locus for faculty and students to address compelling concerns in their fields of interest. Land Grant higher education institutions, of which Virginia Tech is one, have sought to produce new or basic knowledge through research and to provide findings and understanding that citizens may use in their everyday pursuits. VTIPG was created for these purposes as well, and in our nearly decade-long existence our associated faculty, students and staff have offered findings and insights to researchers and policy-makers at all scales, while also working with government agencies and nonprofit organizations dealing with the challenges of public policy implementation. That is, we are daily involved in inquiry concerning policy and governance issues internationally, nationally and locally, and we are engaged each day in working with individuals wishing to apply that knowledge in their professional settings.

            As a part of our commitment to engage with all interested stakeholders across the university and beyond, the Institute began in January 2013 to offer graduate students the opportunity to share the fruits of their ongoing investigations into policy and governance-related concerns in an online essay series dubbed, RE: Reflections and Explorations. That effort, which continues as I write, publishes students’ articles each week of the semester across the academic year.

            Late last year, as I considered the growing corpus of thoughtful essays produced for the initiative, I hit on the idea of editing a series of volumes based on those efforts, both to highlight the excellent work of the University’s graduate students in multiple programs across six colleges in the policy and governance domain, and as a way of showcasing the vitality of the VTIPG intellectual community. As I mused, I contacted Lyusyena Kirakosyan, now an affiliated research faculty member of the Institute, who first proposed the series as a PhD student, and asked if she would help me co-edit the first volume. She kindly agreed and we organized and edited a collection of 56 Reflections essays entitled, RE: Reflections and Explorations: Essays on Politics, Public Policy and Governance. The Institute published the volume in early August and it is available electronically through the Virginia Tech libraries and the VTIPG website to anyone anywhere in the world.

            As I wrote in the introduction for the book, I believe this collection and series serve participating students and the Institute in multiple ways. First, I hope that they give each author opportunities to develop their capacities as well as to obtain insights into their own strengths, weaknesses and proclivities as writers:

As writing of virtually any sort is at once a demanding, exhaustive and exhilarating enterprise, one of my goals for Reflections at its inception was that its participants could gain a glimpse of the ardor, discipline and labor it takes to produce and polish writing for public consumption, and begin to develop their own voices. As editor, I have challenged those who have written for the series to produce clear, concise prose in their own mode of expression. When successful, this process of editorial give-and-take can result in important opportunities for intellectual growth and learning. In a way, this to-and-fro between editor and authors can be viewed as an important mentoring opportunity as students work to realize or refine their own authorial identities. As such, this process surely embodies the educational mission of the Institute and university.[1]

            Second, I argued in the introduction that the Reflections articles have treated a dizzying array of topics germane to VTIPG’s mission and to students’ evolving research interests:

That fact reflects the ongoing realization of a central founding aspiration of this initiative, that students would take ownership of it and use it to share their evolving views and research on pertinent matters. To date they have surely done so, and we sample only the first fruits—the 2013-2014 year—of their work here. To the extent that the series reflects student curiosity and zeal for sharing their discoveries, it may be said to have grown naturally from and reflect the research mission of the Institute and the university. Perhaps more deeply, it also suggests the most basic rationale for creating and sustaining higher education institutions in free societies: to open possibilities for vigorous minds to quest for deeper understanding of phenomena that engage them, irrespective of their domain or expected utilitarian portent.[2]

            Finally, I suggested the volume and series represent opportunities for participating students to learn to write for broader audiences and to view their involvement and contributions as

… an organic metaphor of the sometimes messy, sometimes fretful and sometimes uneasy process of the gestation of ideas at universities. In truth, ideas know no boundaries of department or discipline and they recognize no sovereign as their lone owners or claimants. Rather, they are the product of fertile minds in conversation encouraged to consider possibilities freely and openly. In this sense, this series revels in and represents the catholicity of perspective characteristic of the university of which it is a small part. To the extent it has played this role, it mirrors and encourages the essence of free inquiry in a modest but notable way.[3]

            In these ways then, this new series embodies the aims of the Institute and of Virginia Tech, and of major research universities of which our own is an exemplar. The series also provides an example of how higher education institutions endeavor to serve their communities by encouraging students to exercise their imaginations on behalf of inquiry aimed at the betterment of society. This aim is surely as old as the idea of the university, but it is refreshed daily by the minds and energy of those privileged so to serve. The Institute is proud to continue to play a role in furthering this ideal in this way. Our Reflections book series is new, but the aspirations for universities and their students it embodies are as old as those institutions themselves. We are, I think, in very good company.


[1] Max Stephenson Jr. “Musing on RE: Reflections and Explorations: The Passionate Quest for Discovery Also Demands Responsibility,” in RE: Reflections and Explorations: Essays on Politics, Public Policy and Governance, Blacksburg, VA: Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance, 2015, xiv. Available at: http://www.ipg.vt.edu/Reflections/Documents/RE_Ebook_PDF.pdf  Accessed September 6, 2015.

[2] Stephenson, RE: Reflections, 2015, xiv.

[3] Stephenson, RE: Reflections, 2015, xvii.

The Vagaries of Changing Popular Perspectives for Politics and Vulnerable Groups

            We often say here at the Institute that we disproportionately serve “vulnerable” populations. By this term we mean to convey that VTIPG and affiliated faculty and staff often are involved in seeking to help devise ways to implement, to evaluate or to research public programs aimed at assisting marginalized populations in our society or internationally. In the United States such groups historically have included, among others, those with mental illness, former prisoners, individuals with disabilities, those living in poverty, Native Americans, and/or those of ethnicities or race, religion or sexual preferences that place them in a minority status. Interestingly, these same categories apply internationally too. That is, historically, these populations have often been the objects of hatred, ridicule and discrimination and of successful attempts to enact those inclinations formally into law wherever they reside. In the U.S., for example, Jim Crow laws notoriously legalized Southern state populations’ continued systematic discrimination against African Americans, despite the Civil War and changes in the Constitution and national laws following that conflict aimed at preventing that result. Native Americans were forced to give up their lands and, in especially cruel “schools,” were beaten into relinquishing their “barbaric” customs and languages. Japanese, Latino and Chinese immigrants have likewise been the subjects of formalized and systemic discrimination. Many other groups, including Polish and Irish Americans, have been the targets of social hatred at various points in our nation’s history. Popular support for the discriminatory beliefs underpinning such actions was displayed dramatically during the Civil Rights era across the South, and has been seen since then in several states via continuing support for laws with discriminatory intent against immigrants, the poor and African Americans. Democracy is not an automatic guarantor of minority rights.             Internationally, Hitler vilified Jews and enacted his twisted perspective into law. The Nazi regime assumed a similar stance toward those with disabilities and a number of other groups. The government in Myanmar is currently doing all in its power to discriminate against the Rohingya population in that nation. There are many current additional examples around the globe of such choices and of their attendant consequence of robbing individuals of their basic human rights. In all cases, these decisions are justified to and by the majorities supporting them on the basis of arguments that those targeted are somehow “unworthy” or “less than” and therefore merit contempt.

            Historically, too, the Bible was filled with examples of discrimination against those with mental or physical disabilities. The New Testament repeatedly highlights the bitter rage that Jesus Christ reportedly unleashed when he dared challenge those prevailing beliefs. In short, systemic discrimination against unpopular minorities is not new. It has gone on for centuries, both here and abroad, and the prevailing justification has ever been rooted in “othering” arguments.

            That fact is worth recalling, as is the reality that few now believe that those who are blind or those coping with mental illness do so because they or their parents were being punished by God for some terrible behavior or evil and are in that state as a result. But people once made sense of these elements of the human condition on the basis of such claims. Understanding that fact is crucial. In a democracy, the public philosophy is ultimately driven by what the people at large believe and are willing to enshrine in law and in their behavior. Three recent events and their ensuing policy controversies reveal how quickly public attitudes can change, but also how difficult it can be to secure widespread, long-lived and deep seated shifts in prevailing popular beliefs notwithstanding.

            The first example is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in a landmark case this past week that all of the nation’s states must permit same-sex couples to wed. Despite multiple decisions in the lower courts that had come to a similar conclusion, 13 states had not yet granted the right of civil union to same-sex couples and the Court’s decision requires that they do so. But this outcome, justified on the basis of a reading of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is being sharply criticized by religious groups that believe God ordained matrimony only for men and women, and/or that sexual preference is a choice and that people evincing different sexual orientations need not be so. None of the 2016 GOP presidential candidates, reflecting their reading of the attitudes of the population that votes in their party’s early primaries, endorsed the Court’s decision and many denounced it. They took this stance despite the fact that national majority opinion clearly favored this outcome. The candidates’ public statements doubtless reflected an electoral calculus, but they also suggest the deeper point that while they are now in the minority in calling for actively limiting state sanctioned marriage on the basis of sexuality, they are free to continue to embrace those views and to proselytize for them among those willing to countenance the continued deprivation of what the majority now views as a basic civil right. And the many churches that hold such views may also continue to teach and press them and need not permit same-sex marriages to occur under their auspices. Meanwhile, at least one judge, in Alabama, has elected not to issue ANY marriage licenses as a protest against the high court’s decision. The broader point is that despite a rapid shift in national public opinion and the legal conferral of this civil right to a new class of people, many Americans (but now a minority of the citizenry) will continue to discriminate against members of this population on the basis of their identity. Same sex-individuals may now wed as a legal and civil right, but many people will see and treat them as “less than” on the basis of the belief that their identity is, as one evangelical minister in Dallas, Texas put it in a sermon recently, “An affront in the Face of Almighty God.”1

            A second recent example of how difficult changing the prevailing imaginaries regarding vulnerable populations can be has arisen from the recent tragic murder of nine African Americans during a Bible study group at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. The alleged killer Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white racist extremist, was depicted in photos wrapped in a Confederate battle flag accompanied by hate-filled rhetoric. That discovery soon occasioned a firestorm of criticism of the fact that South Carolina still flies that flag on its capital grounds. Moreover, it has been flown and venerated elsewhere by many in the South, including, officially, in Alabama, on the basis of a belief in the “heritage” it represents. Once again, no active GOP presidential candidate called for South Carolina to remove its flag in the aftermath of Roof’s suspected hate crime, until that state’s Republican governor did so. Now, many GOP officials are calling for the standard’s removal across the South and such may occur. While that is so, it is not clear that the many citizens willing to honor a flag that historically represents treason and the preservation of slavery as somehow the symbol of a romanticized vision of honor will suddenly change their perspectives, despite formal regime action. In short, while official government law or policy may soon no longer endorse this symbol of enmity and violent conflict in many Southern states, that is not to say that many residents of the region will soon change their beliefs. If such a broad shift does occur, it is likely to take time despite the pain inflicted on those African Americans meanwhile, who overwhelmingly view the flag as a sign of willful and continuing social degradation.

            A final example of a recent event with policy implications for vulnerable populations, in this case the poor, once again involved a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The high court recently declared once more that the nation’s Access to Healthcare Act was constitutional in a second defeat for those who have sought to roll back the law, which has secured health care insurance for millions who had previously not enjoyed it. Opponents have argued that the statute represents national government overreach and deprives individuals of their freedom of choice. In this view, public provision of a benefit to the poor represents not a needed support, but a limitation of their freedom to choose, even though that “choice” would likely mean no or less comprehensive health coverage. The Court has now twice endorsed the law as constitutional, and in so doing earned the ire of GOP leaders and presidential candidates who have endorsed a deeply individualistic and neoliberal public philosophy. As I write this, it is unclear how strongly Republican leaders will continue to fight the law on the basis of these ideological arguments, but it seems likely that the battle over defining the role for government support, of the vulnerable especially, is not yet over.

            What unites these cases is how complex and layered the public imaginary may be in political terms and how “sticky” the current views of specific population groups may be. These three cases are also joined by the fact that policies aimed squarely at assisting disadvantaged populations have created furor with at least some groups, long accustomed to claiming the privilege of defining the “place” of those individuals even when those views resulted in the formal sanctioning of social discrimination against those populations. Majoritarianism does not insure justice, particularly when one realizes that what constitutes justice is itself constructed on the basis of social values and assumptions. Each of these incidents and their aftermaths highlight that signal reality. Finally, in its efforts to ensure that minorities of all sorts in its midst are guaranteed their rights to believe what they wish, the nation will continue to witness ongoing conflict concerning how the vulnerable are to be treated, even when majority opinion shifts and supports a new view of those populations. Ironically, such social change often finds the national government seeking to protect the rights of the previously dominant group, who had often perpetrated what is now viewed as injustice in the past. Whatever the vagaries of this fraught social process, the Institute will remain in the fray, seeking both to help illuminate the portent of the choices in play and to realize fully such policies as presently exist to dignify and support the nation’s and globe’s vulnerable people.


Rachel Zoll, “Conservative Churches Confront new Reality on Gay Marriage,” U.S News & World Report, June 28, 2015, http://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2015/06/28/conservative-churches-confront-new-reality-on-gay-marriage

Illustrating The Critical Importance of Framing Assumptions for Policy Analysis

            It is commonplace in the policy analysis academic literature to read articles in which scholars express concern that their careful inquiry into how public programs might be better designed or implemented more effectively is routinely ignored or simply set aside. One major reason why that occurs is that lawmakers are unwilling to embrace evidence and steps that contradict their basic orientation or frame toward the domain under consideration. This results in a deep reticence to challenge that perspective, typically built on basic values and beliefs. The Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance (VTIPG) experience in several areas of policy research can be used to illustrate this fundamental and enduring dilemma.

            VTIPG has long been active in research in a number of policy domains that serve or reach vulnerable populations. These include TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), foster care, early childhood education and post-incarceration social reintegration. In each of these areas, policy action is framed by assumptions that often define and even dictate what steps elected leaders are willing to consider within them, irrespective of the evidence with which those leaders are presented. For example, programs that serve the poor are routinely subject to lawmakers’ assumption that many who qualify will “take advantage” of them, whatever their level of poverty, or that individuals receiving such benefits are otherwise not “truly worthy” of such assistance.

            Likewise, legislators, especially GOP lawmakers, often assume that such initiatives will undermine citizens’ willingness to work and thereby breed dependence on the public fisc. Governmental aid to the impoverished is routinely vilified in partisan squabbles and in Republican campaigns on just such grounds. This orientation makes it relatively easy (and common) for such leaders to argue that programs aimed at assisting the poor should be reduced or eliminated. Given their collective devotion to this assumption, persuading them to consider data that might suggest that their view does not hold in whole or in part is often very difficult. In short, as a practical matter, legislators are likely to evaluate policy analyses and evidence in light of their existing framing assumptions. Those shape their policy predilection and the range of possible actions they are likely to perceive as credible, even before any systematic examination or exploration of options has taken place.

            If many lawmakers often assume that poor and hungry constituents are not genuinely worthy or will be harmed and become “dependent” by alleviation of their situation, many public officials similarly presume that a relative’s home is the right place for a child who cannot remain with one or more of his or her biological parents for whatever reason. In this view, second or third cousins, separated by time, territory and any previous engagement, or a troubled but “eligible” grandparent, per se represent a “better” option than placement with a willing but unrelated individual or family. This frame partly results from lawmakers’ belief (empirically not always true) that a so-called “family” placement will be less expensive, but principally it is the consequence of an a priori view that a “blood” relative as responsible party is somehow better for the child. It is simply received wisdom. In a similar way, exploratory studies that might suggest placement outside of family members (of whatever stripe) for a whole host of reasons are unlikely even to be requested or explored (or funded). Obviously, these governing framing assumptions may, and often do, foreclose alternatives that might result in better care and outcomes for the affected youths than those selected. In this case, it is difficult to know how high the opportunity costs of lawmakers “already knowing the answer” actually are.

            It has long been known that children afforded high quality educational programs early in their lives are likely to perform better when they enter school and to continue to reach higher levels of achievement in later years than they would otherwise attain. Pre-schoolers exposed to well-designed educational opportunities led by highly qualified professionals are also more likely to be appropriately socialized for school thereafter. Recent brain research has also pointed to how much youngsters can gain from such curricula, both cognitively and socially.

            Nonetheless, lawmakers are often reticent to fund such efforts because skeptical that these children need more than “babysitting.” In fact, licensed educational programs for pre-school teachers and effective professional educators offering them surely imply higher costs than “babysitting” (a typical low wage starting post for pre-teens and teens). To the extent that lawmakers cannot see past this common view that all pre-K youngsters require is someone to watch them, they are unlikely to hear and consider seriously contrary evidence and claims, however thoroughly and carefully collected and argued. As with the examples above, what many legislators “already know” about early childhood needs strongly shapes their willingness and capacity to consider contrary contentions. Many policy analyses have suggested that the opportunity costs of this assumption when it prevails are virtually incalculable.

            Finally, Institute faculty members have worked to improve the design and implementation of prison release and reintegration programs. Many lawmakers frame this policy area as a tension between punishment and social forgiveness, and that view often finds those officials unwilling to provide much besides very limited support to help those previously incarcerated reintegrate into society. Viewed through this frame, ex-convicts deserve little and must somehow continue to compensate for their previous acts (irrespective of their time served) with limited public assistance. This perspective often sharply limits both the amount and character of aid that former inmates receive as they seek to find housing and employment and begin new lives following their release. That reality too often places them at increased risk to recidivate as they struggle unsuccessfully with the constraints in which they are expected to function.

            In short, as a practical matter, many lawmakers approach policy questions and public programs with framing assumptions that already sharply circumscribe what is possible, irrespective of what more nuanced or objective studies might suggest would prove appropriate courses of action. Policy analyses, however well crafted and professionally undertaken, can only inform those who wish to listen and consider carefully those arguments and findings. In many policy domains, unfortunately, and for reasons that often have no relationship to the accuracy or credibility of such investigations, too often careful evaluation and assessment either are unheeded or unimplemented or both. For those interested in ensuring public policy and program effectiveness, including VTIPG faculty and staff, this situation represents a continuing and difficult reality.

On Narrative Captivity

            As we begin this new year I would like to use this column to address a major trend in our politics that presently affects all of the populations the Institute researches, rather than treat a concern specific to any one policy or programmatic domain. I seek to highlight a direction in our nation’s politics that affects all we do at VTIPG, and which systemically and systematically further disadvantages the vulnerable population groups in our country whom we seek disproportionately to serve. This development also raises deeper issues concerning democratic agency and efficacy that should disturb all interested in policy, politics and freedom in our polity.

            My December 15, 2014 Soundings commentary described the tragic 1871 massacre of thousands in Paris, orchestrated by the French government, on the basis of a regime-invented narrative that demonized the victims. Here is how I characterized what occurred:

This moral outrage was markedly sad on its face, but it is still more deeply ironic and unsettling, as Merriman (John Merriman, the book’s author) makes clear, when one understands that its perpetrators soon accepted the Commune’s aims as their own policy and direction. In short, the killings were purposeless and predicated on a fear built of a constructed and imagined foe and a persistent drum beat of supposed nefariousness that never existed. The Commune’s members and aims bore little resemblance to the lurid portrait that “justified” the regime’s actions.1

            We often assume that what has been labeled “perception management” politics began with President Ronald Reagan’s administration (1981-1989), or perhaps with Richard Nixon’s vigorous use of successful Madison Avenue advertising strategies to package his 1968 presidential campaign. But the tragic example of France in 1871 suggests that governments have long invented narratives to justify their actions to their populations. Such stories are perhaps most vital for democratic regimes whose hold on power rests on providing explanations that citizenries find compelling and that resonate with their basic understandings or ways in which they view the world.

            In one sense none of this is new. We are all motivated by the ways we choose to understand the world. Our frames define how we make sense of our relationships and events around us. It is also clear that humans use narrative as their primary mode of articulating their epistemic understanding; that is, as the via media to connect what befalls them and their sensibilities as they seek to understand their worlds. If how we make sense of events outside ourselves is elemental and typically expressed as a story, it follows that those who would sell us things in the marketplace or seek our support in democratic politics would bend every effort to understand those motifs and concerns and to influence or even create them and persuade us to their preferred vision, whenever possible. In the first case, the result is profit and potential riches, while in the other success results in political power.

            But the French government’s “explanation” of its massacre and our current carefully orchestrated mediatized politics illustrate something categorically different from simply appealing to people’s existing concerns and ways of knowing to mobilize their interest and support. Both suggest deliberate efforts by those creating them to develop stories directed to the anxieties and fears of the masses and thereby to garner their support. In 1871, the French government created a horrific image of the Commune’s supporters to justify their slaughter and appeal to the broader French population’s fears of tyranny and revolution to legitimate its actions. Today, an entire industry of pollsters, advocates and political professionals earn millions by crafting narratives designed to resonate with the emotions and fears of members of the electorate, and these, like their 1871 forebear, often evidence little or no relationship to reality and may or may not be joined to efforts actually to assist the populations being mobilized.

            Examples of our now ubiquitous perception management politics abound. Perhaps the most ironic recent example of partisan success in such efforts was the GOP’s smashing victory in midterm national elections in November 2014, built on factually false claims that President Barack Obama and his party were responsible for the country’s difficult economic situation and had been ineffective in addressing it. While the assertions were not true, they were adroitly chosen and each was effective in convincing many citizens to vote Republican in a low turnout election in a period of abiding collective economic anxiety.

            The danger in our leaders’ increasingly institutionalized and ever more sophisticated capacity to craft narratives designed to manage perceptions by appealing to citizen fears, prejudices and dominant stereotypes to garner and retain power is clear. In principle, our government officials should always seek what is best for the polity as a whole and recognize and protect the rights of all as they do so. In practice, history suggests how unlikely such is to occur on a sustained basis. So, one is thrown back on the hope and the argument that voters themselves will be prudent and protect themselves from manipulation or “management.” But recent decades have found Americans knowing less and less about their governments and the wellsprings of the trends and concerns those entities must address. In short, they are ripe for the efforts of “perception managers” for hire, people who work not for the common good, but to secure the interests and power of those who pay them, whether inside or outside of government. It is important to underscore that these individuals and organizations are not merely campaign consultants or firms, but now also people with responsibility for public decision-making at the highest levels, informing all dimensions of policy and programmatic action.

            What all of this means for our democracy is that our candidates and public leaders now possess the means to seek to manipulate the electorate’s perceptions by appealing to dominant narratives and fears, and they now systematically work to do so daily. We have seen the results of such activities in our recent politics at all levels, with the exploitation of voter’s deep-seated fears of global economic change and terrorism resulting in the adoption of torture during the George W. Bush administration, the scapegoating of immigrants in the current Congress for a share of the nation’s economic challenges and our country’s justification of a sharp reduction of citizen civil liberties. Many other examples might be cited. The primary consequence of this inclination and capacity is an electorate often purposefully and consciously whipped into frenzied action to obtain and ensure power for those “managing” it, and to serve specific interests in so doing.

            The ongoing institutionalization of this “perception management” turn in our politics has implications for the vulnerable populations the Institute routinely serves, and for the polity as a whole. The poor and the incarcerated, for example, populations with which the Institute works, are frequent targets of widespread and culturally derived social discrimination. As a result, they are often (and by many, increasingly) simply scapegoated in our politics and dubbed the sole architects of the conditions they confront. The outcome is inadequate public support to do more than, at best, palliate their situations. The second, and broader democratic significance of this phenomenon, given the relative level of political ignorance or indifference now characteristic of a large share of the population, is a rising likelihood of elite manipulation of the citizenry for its own purposes, whether or not those serve a broader population. Madison Avenue has long sought to find ways to appeal to Americans to part with their money. We have now institutionalized a similar perception management capacity in our campaign politics and governance, and its effects increasingly are mediated not by any calculus of the common good by its users, but by what its partisans may successfully persuade the electorate to support, whether democratic in character and result or not. The potential for the usurpation of freedom this quickening movement toward a narratively captive population represents is deeply concerning.


1 http://www.ee.unirel.vt.edu/index.php/outreach-policy/

The Myth of Leadership as Control

            No part of our work here at the Institute is untouched by the successes or failures of leadership. This is true for the policies and programs of the governments and foundations on which we rely to fund our work, and for the efficacy of our own and our university’s efforts. It is easy to assert that leadership matters and simply point to lived daily realities and events as evidence. This said, it is far more difficult to describe, and still thornier to explain, how and why leaders are important and what it is precisely they do that daily appears so consequential.

            In their efforts to grapple with this phenomenon, so widely noted, but still, in truth, so poorly understood, generations of scholars have come to take for granted that individuals dubbed “leaders” are likely to exhibit a range of traits long associated with leadership. More recent analysts have agreed, but also have contended that knowing that fact is hardly sufficient to ensure these people’s success or failure as leaders because the contexts they confront are also profoundly important in shaping outcomes. More, researchers have argued that while some characteristics do appear to be aligned with successful leaders, knowing that fact does not provide much assistance in helping individuals develop leadership capabilities, since traits are extremely difficult to develop and change. Leaders’ personalities and capacities matter, but these are always exercised in contexts, and those scenarios and the factors shaping them play powerful roles in how or whether a leader succeeds or fails.

            Nevertheless, as axiomatic as these arguments may be to scholars, that fact has apparently never reached many of America’s citizens or the pundits who daily offer arguments that are predicated on a view that leadership is simply about traits and that the “right” characteristics will allow leaders authoritatively to control events. The results of such expectations and claims are as routinely distorting as they are factually inaccurate. I have been watching with interest as many columnists and commentators, joined by those with partisan reasons for offering similar assertions, have recently argued that President Barack Obama is not exerting sufficient leadership in our nation’s foreign policy. Indeed, recently columnist Roger Cohen of The New York Times eloquently described the world as unraveling and blamed America’s President (and to be fair, its population partly, too) for that sad pass:

The nation’s leader mockingly derided his own “wan, diffident, professorial” approach to the world, implying he was none of these things, even if he gave that appearance. He set objectives for which he had no plan. He made commitments he did not keep. In the way of the world these things were noticed. Enemies probed. Allies were neglected, until they were needed to face the decapitators who talked of a Caliphate and called themselves a state. Words like “strength” and “resolve” returned to the leader’s vocabulary. But the world was already adrift, unmoored by the retreat of its ordering power. The rulebook had been ripped up (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/16/opinion/roger-cohen-the-great- unraveling.html).

            However subtly and implicitly, this column assigned Obama a major share of responsibility for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tyranny, Iraq’s political fratricide, Syria’s civil war, ISIS’ inhumanity and much more. If only, Cohen implied, the President had taken a stronger hand and offered a visionary and purportedly non-existent plan, all of these situations would have been different. What is lost in this sort of thinking is recognition that many, if not most of the concerns outlined had little or nothing to do with whether America’s chief executive gave “firm” speeches or promised “planned and vigorous military interventions,” or other imagined fixes for the extraordinarily complex issues named. That is, these contexts and challenges did not arise as a result of the Obama administration’s foreign policy alone or principally, or from the President’s deliberative decision style, nor would alternate rhetoric or presumably more robust (but unarticulated) plans make them go away. They were and are the product of many forces far beyond the reach of the United States’ president’s power to control them. In short, while one may certainly criticize the President and his advisors for their efforts, it is both typical of our nation’s governance conversation and wildly misleading to contend that either he or the United States could (or perhaps should) control all of the events to which Cohen pointed. And yet, such conceptions of leadership persist and dominate our public dialogue. Political pundits suggest again and again that one may with aplomb decontextualize leadership and imagine that leaders can control events over which they possess no authority and still less capacity to determine outcomes.

            As I have argued previously, there are at least two basic reasons for the persistence of this mythology of leadership as capacity to assure complete control of circumstances. The first inheres in people’s deep desire to make sense of careening events and to settle on simplified rationales that “explain” them. Blaming the symbolic leader—the President—for world disorder provides a convenient way to make sense of the otherwise unfathomable: “If only he had done so and so we would not be in this situation; he should control these things so I can feel less fearful.”

            I am convinced that a second reason for the persistence of this view of leaders as super beings who should be able to command all events and situations to protect those they serve inheres in democratic governance, which empowers and permits citizens to make such claims, rather than address the complexities that attend reality. Democratic populations descend to sloganeering as governance, and scapegoating and blame casting as substitutes for civic dialogue and hard thinking because they can. That fact is unlikely to change in our current politics as it inheres in democracy itself.

            The challenge, therefore, may be to use education to help our nation’s next generations of citizens understand the true character of what leaders and leadership can and cannot do, and assume a rightful share of responsibility for what that fact means for self-governance. Accepting complexity and admitting an inability to control all events and peoples is surely humbling. But it is just as surely the path to more reasoned governance and a much more prudent national understanding of the realities and possibilities of leadership.

            We daily play a small role in addressing this compelling need here at the Institute as we pursue our research and engagement efforts. In particular, our Community Voices series provides interested graduate students multiple and multivalent opportunities to consider the challenges and vicissitudes of community leadership and social change as they interact with individuals who have accepted such responsibility in both domestic and international settings. Alone, Institute affiliated faculty are hardly likely to change how Americans understand leadership, but we can work with a share of this nation’s future leaders and help them to consider this central concern deeply and to carry their knowledge forward into their professional roles and responsibilities. Such is the privilege, responsibility and power that inhere in higher education.

On the Challenge of Studying the Confluence of Policy and Governance

            We live in a time of economic uncertainty and political acrimony, brought on in no small measure by slow real income increases for many Americans for forty years, by continuing relatively high unemployment in the wake of the recession of the end of the last decade and by the growth of anti-government populism that has attended those conditions. These trends were quickened by ongoing economic globalization that has allowed capitalist firms to be active across nations, and by neo-liberalism that has called for weakening governments' capacities to respond just as the force of these economic changes hit their zenith. In addition, consumerism has gained an unprecedented hold in most western nations and American society during the roughly four decades that neoliberalism has held policy sway. Finally, U.S. public policy of the 2001-2008 period—inspired by neoliberalism’s emphasis on the market, by supply-side economics and by a vigorous nationalism following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.—resulted in huge current accounts deficits in the national budget and a ballooning federal debt. These fiscal consequences arose from the prosecution of two debt-financed wars that cost upwards of $2 trillion, even as federal income taxes were reduced for most Americans (disproportionately for the most wealthy). The upshot of these policy choices as they have interacted with the broader trends within which they were taken, and apart from their specific budgetary impacts, has been rapidly rising economic inequality amidst declining real income growth for millions of Americans and a deep and rancorous partisan debate concerning how best to proceed for the future.

            This fraught political and policy context illustrates the significance of the central point of this commentary. The faculty and staff at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance (VTIPG) have been charged by our university to study the confluence of policy-making and governance. This imperative demands that we consider overarching trends in the nation’s economy, politics and society and seek to understand their relationships to how the nation’s governmental leaders behave and rationalize their actions in order to chart their implications for the people they serve and for the democratic health of the polity. Since the nation’s political leaders do not operate in a vacuum, but in reaction to their sense of what concerns and will move and mobilize citizens, we seek to understand Americans’ changing attitudes and perceptions of governance concerns as well.

            One example of a major political trend we are now examining in these terms—a reaction to the difficult policy and governance scenario outlined above—is a libertarian movement within the Republican Party in the U.S. that has sought to blame past foreign, tax and defense policy choices and costs on the current presidential administration particularly and on overweening government more generally. These advocates argue the nation must retrench in all areas except military spending (and some call for large reductions in defense expenditures as well) because the country’s debt and deficit make such imperative. This contention is paired with the claim that those receiving educational or social support are undeserving, so little will be lost by demanding that they not receive aid. In keeping with this overall approach, although animated by neoliberalism rather than libertarianism, when reelected in 2004 President George W. Bush sought unsuccessfully to privatize the Social Security system on the view that the market could replace government in this role. Others in his party have consistently sought reductions in social service and social safety net expenditures since, especially and notably in the Party’s “alternative” House-passed budgets of recent years. For their part, Democrats have pressed to preserve the nation’s social programs and to distinguish between government and any reforms it may require and the imperative need to ensure effective governance.

            This brief snapshot of the nation’s political context does not alone explain the bitterness GOP stalwarts have displayed toward America’s first African-American president, nor their unprecedented determination to derail virtually every major effort President Barack Obama has embraced during his presidency. While many have argued this unvarying opposition is the result of racism and the fact that the Republican Party’s base is located in the nation’s south and many of its “new era” conservative leaders have espoused views that have raised doubts about their commitment to civil rights, that argument does not itself appear to explain the wholesale effort the GOP has launched to stymie this president and to mistrust all he undertakes.

            Nor, does the southern base of the Republican Party explain its turn to anti- intellectualism as evidenced by its leaders’ decision to deny the existence of climate change. These choices seem more closely tied to a long-standing cultural tendency in the U.S. that advocates and would-be leaders are exploiting to prevent near-term costs to current industry (a key campaign funds supporter) and as a strategy allied with efforts to mobilize citizens against “government” to gain perceived electoral advantage. In addition to these policy stands, many in the libertarian wing of the party have adopted an absolutist orientation that see any compromise as weak and any countenancing of alternative points-of-view as betrayal to their perspective and demands.

            Our remit here at VTIPG requires that we consider such political phenomena as those just described in light of their implications for ongoing social, economic and political trends and the vibrancy of our democracy. It is an ambitious undertaking and it is made more challenging as our work is most often focused on the vulnerable and disadvantaged in American society who have historically often felt the sting of rights deprivation. The civil rights, women’s rights, disability rights and gay rights movements have all sensitized Americans to the ways in which the citizenry’s shared norms, prejudices and attitudes were systematically depriving some in their midst of their rights and, in some cases, their freedom. It is important and difficult to understand the claims and counter-claims of all engaged in these and other policy related arguments and the citizen attitudes that undergird them to come to fair-minded judgments concerning them in order to gauge their significance for governance and for policy design and implementation. Moreover it is insufficient simply to report leader or citizen beliefs since those views can be, and often have been historically, tyrannical in their intention and/or outcomes.

            Unlike many, we do not, as our primary focus, view these issues through a lens of “who is up” and “who is down” in opinion polls, although such concerns do matter since perceived public standing and elections establish policy options and direction. In any case, these questions already receive strong attention from many scholars and journalists. Instead, we are more interested in the larger question of discerning how political, economic and social trends are shaping the fundaments of self-governance and freedom while also tracing the implications of that direction for policy action and implementation. This orientation underscores our shared interest in the changing character of the nation’s culture and its economy for our collective politics and for its implications for the rights and life possibilities of America’s citizens.

            We aim not only to assist the governments and civil society organizations that engage us to aid them and to learn from those efforts, but also to inform a broader audience through our research of the larger trends that shape the nation’s political debate and its policy choices (whether those represent actions or decisions not to act) that we encounter in our work. We are partisans of effective democratic governance and of the rights of the American citizenry, rather than any single political party or dogma. That said, like many, we here at the Institute are frankly concerned about the implications for American democracy of today’s too frequent single-minded attempts, whatever their origins, to undermine governance in the name of one or another ideology or to label government as per se anathema, or to stigmatize any group of citizens as “unworthy.” Such choices signal an unwillingness to deal with the messiness of heterogeneity and democratic responsibility while according all equal standing in that conversation. This tendency constitutes dangerous ground for a diverse polity that would be free. We hope to continue the focus outlined here and to contribute our voice and the fruits of our inquiry to the nation’s ongoing policy debate as our country grapples with the implications of its past choices and with a changing and fractious global economic and political landscape, itself shaped in part by those decisions.

Note to readers: This, the 25th Tidings, is the last that will appear in this way. When I began writing this column the Institute did not publish a quarterly newsletter, nor did I write a weekly Soundings commentary. It appears appropriate now to offer Tidings, which will continue, as the Director’s reflection in our future newsletters. Thank you to all of you who have read these columns during the last several years. I hope you will continue to do so under its new banner. MOS

Privatism and its Discontents

            I have been thinking and writing a good deal on the importance of empathy to democratic politics and to the preservation of freedom amongst heterogeneity in such societies. Our work here in the Institute takes me naturally to the topic as we study community change and democratization processes and work often with vulnerable populations, many of which are frequently the target of public discrimination and opprobrium (the poor, the drug addicted, the disabled or the incarcerated). Theoretically, as I have argued elsewhere, few concerns, human capacities or virtues are more central to the creation and maintenance of democratic institutions than empathy. So it is then, that I have become both interested in the topic and concerned about the state of what might be dubbed the collective willingness of our nation’s citizens to imagine themselves a part of a community, especially one that includes individuals unlike themselves.

            Most recently, I have become concerned about the turn in U.S. and several western European nations’ politics that has found a share of leaders blaming with derision, if not outright loathing, specific subpopulations for difficult conditions in their countries in order to garner votes from groups supposedly wronged by these individuals. Some of these political parties and movements have taken vile hate-filled turns, as in France in the guise of the National Front party and in Italy via its Forza Nuova party. Others, as in the Republican legislative majorities in Arizona and Alabama and several other states, while less obviously targeting certain groups for outright racist or jingoistic venom as their European counterparts have done, have nonetheless launched attacks on immigrants, the poor, ethnic voters and seniors. As part of the national Republican Party’s overall program, its U.S. leaders, including the chair of the House Budget committee, Rep. Paul Ryan, have demanded deep reductions in funding for the nation’s anti-poverty programs and have called for changes in the poor’s purportedly insufficient “culture” to address poverty in the United States. Conservative media figures meanwhile, including Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter particularly, have issued attacks on poor women as being somehow alone responsible for the conditions in which they find themselves.

            This is all occurring as Europe and this nation are experiencing historically slow economic growth post-recession, and with the United States exhibiting a poverty rate of 15 percent overall and 22 percent for its children. The U.S. is also presently not providing Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits to 74 percent of its poor families with children, despite the fact the program nominally exists to do just that. Meanwhile wealth and income inequality have reached record highs in the United States, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued a staff report in February (http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/sdn/2014/sdn1402.pdf) arguing that economic growth alone, especially at today’s slow rates in the United States and many other nations, will not address these issues, and doing nothing to deal with deepening poverty and inequality will, in fact, likely make matters worse. As the IMF paper’s authors concluded, “First, inequality continues to be a robust and powerful determinant both of the pace of medium-term growth and of the duration of growth spells, even controlling for the size of redistributive transfers. … It would still be a mistake to focus on growth and let inequality take care of itself, not only because inequality may be ethically undesirable but also because the resulting growth may be low and unsustainable” (p.25).

            Amidst this gloomy economic and social scenario, GOP leaders have led efforts to block the use of government to ameliorate these conditions. In the last two years, that party has successfully thwarted the extension of long-term unemployment benefits, worked assiduously to prevent the provision of Medicaid to additional eligible individuals under the nation’s new health care law in nearly all states in which it holds a majority, sought to reduce federal expenditures in programs that assist the poor, including securing recent significant reductions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation’s principal initiative aimed at hunger and food insecurity. More generally, the Party fought efforts to create a federal stimulus package to address the recent recession and blocked continuation of any such effort once it had run its initial course, despite the persisting relative weakness of the overall economy. The GOP has also imposed harsh anti-immigration laws in several states and stymied immigration reform in Congress. A consensus of America’s economists has suggested these steps have worsened economic conditions materially for all Americans and especially for those already suffering from unemployment or poverty by the equivalent of 1-1 1/2 percentage points of growth.

            Interestingly, many of the arguments the Republican Party has advanced in support of these policy positions have not rested on specific economic or empirical evidence concerning programmatic claims, but instead on abstract arguments or ideological assumptions, such as the claims that providing health care access to the poor would deprive them of their freedom to choose policies of their liking (without noting they do not have insurance now), that the poor misuse their food support benefits because of a culture of lassitude, that the long-term unemployed are not really looking for work because their benefits are keeping them too comfortable, that voter fraud requires strong identification measures at polling places and that immigrants are “stealing” other Americans’ jobs.

            In all of these cases the Republican policy argument has rested on broad negative contentions regarding what someone is doing “to” citizens: “taking” their jobs, “taking advantage” of their kind support (the poor and unemployed), “taking unfair (and illegal) advantage” at the polls and so on. The GOP has also justified on similar grounds its wider critique of the federal government and of governance. The Republican Party has argued for decades that the nation should not provide Social Security or Medicare on the nonconcrete assertion that these programs impose unneeded restrictions on personal choice or interfere unduly with the market or both. In this argument, the “other” is the government and governance itself, which is typically criticized in favor of a theorized perfect market alternative. In short, the GOP has for many years set up dichotomies concerning policies it dislikes and attacked their beneficiaries or the government that provides them as somehow alien or apart from “us,” labeling them “others” who take unfair advantage of our support through alleged waste, fraud or abuse. That is, Republican government officials have “othered” the government they serve in order to undermine support for programs and policies of which they do not approve.

            All of this has consequences for the citizens who listen to this rhetoric, a share of whom have come to believe that the government over which they are sovereign is not their own or is “taking” their resources to serve those among them who are contemptible and should be distrusted, whether specific groups or the government itself. That is, these arguments conduce to social distrust and to a slow enervation of empathy among the populace. With that process comes a weakening of support for and understanding of the need to maintain the common or broader community via governance processes in order to secure freedom itself. As marketization of society and of much of the state continues unrelentingly, citizens are offered the option of retreat into privatism even as they are encouraged not to empathize with a large swathe of their fellow Americans or to support democratic decision processes. This seems to be a neat description of what is happening among many in the United States today as their distrust of their own governments and their scapegoating of specific subgroups of the population continues to rise.

            Whether one blames the nation’s present pass on widespread fear of a continuation of worsening economic conditions among the working and middle classes, policies that have exacerbated that situation or the fact that our political parties today are quite sophisticated in their appeals to humankind’s innate emotions and willingness to “other” to make sense of otherwise opaque situations to garner votes, the result, here and abroad, has been the same: the slow collapse of empathy in the polity, encouraged by a share of its own elected leaders. There are few long-term trends more significant for the health of freedom in our polity and that of other democratic nations, and therefore of more moment for our work here in the Institute, than this one. We are witnessing the unfolding of a political paradox for the ages: the possibility of freedom slowly despoiled by the dedication of a share of democracy’s own leaders to a flawed ideology tied to an effective machinery of electoral mobilization.


Special Note: This essay is the 24th Tidings, meaning the column has been published for six years. Special thanks to all who have read these reflections, commented on them and have otherwise encouraged me to write them. I have learned more than I can say from this privilege. MOS

Early Childhood Education and the Education Policy Challenge

            One reads often these days that the United States is falling farther behind other developed nations in ensuring an educated population. This appears to be true across the preschool through high school age group, that is, from Pre-K through grade12. And that academic achievement gap seems to be widening. This fact is especially salient to faculty members here at the Institute currently active in the New River Valley region’s Smart Beginnings program aimed at encouraging and securing the ongoing availability of quality Pre-K educational efforts for all eligible students.

            The external context for this vitally important improvement effort is, however, challenging. The recent recession forced many states, including Virginia, to cut their education budgets sharply and the national government, while admitting its No Child Left Behind education initiative, the most recent reauthorization and revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is flawed and has fallen far short of expectations, has not adopted a wholesale fresh reform to address the nation’s growing education crisis. In any case and complicating matters still further, our school systems’ difficulties are not distributed equally across the nation. Many wealthy suburban districts continue to provide curricular experiences that allow their students to compete for college entrance or otherwise prepare for the workplace. But far too many urban and rural school districts lack the advantage of the tax base and general population education levels of affluent suburbs and must also cope with difficulties in attracting a high quality workforce, deal with shabby facilities and seek daily to assist children hailing from circumstances that make it difficult for them to learn.

            Poverty is closely aligned with broken families and hungry children obviously find it much more difficult to learn than do those who come from food secure homes. All of this is well-known and yet the nation and its states continue on a path of too little public support for pre-school programs, considered vital by researchers, to ensure that young children are well-prepared to learn and develop as they enter kindergarten and elementary education. Unfortunately and despite these facts, for far too many legislators in Virginia and many other states, preschool education especially, is viewed as what former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder habitually labeled public services he did not wish to support, “a nicety.”

            In short, despite strong evidence that we cannot “test our way” to educational excellence and accountability and that youngsters will do better in kindergarten, primary school and beyond if first provided well-crafted and structured learning opportunities in preschool, our legislators at both the state and national levels have moved too little on either concern. In consequence, our nation’s overall elementary and secondary school achievement level continues to decline against the attainments of other developed nations. In lieu of adopting meaningful reforms that might help address both the enduring poverty in many communities and the closely linked broken schools in those and others, GOP representatives especially, have not supported early childhood education and have sought otherwise often to blame teachers as the architects of America’s growing educational mediocrity. Not surprisingly, these elected leaders have generally also argued that test results should determine instructor salaries and retention.

            Without imagining that teachers have no share of responsibility in producing learner outcomes, these assertions must strike any reasonable observer as poorly targeted. Education is a deeply mediated enterprise and instructors possess no control over whether the youngsters who appear in their classrooms come to school hungry, have been encouraged to fulfill their assignments and have otherwise received appropriate support from their parents or other family members to enter school each day ready to gain all they can from the experience. Indeed, the evidence is strong that too many children, especially from broken homes and poor families, do not enjoy secure meals, let alone vigorous support for timely completion of learning goals and assignments. Poverty particularly, creates an inauspicious environment for student success, and teachers may hardly be expected to redress it alone, even when threatened with loss of their posts if unable to do so. And yet, in a vain search for “easy fixes,” many elected leaders are offering just such claims and choices. Neither tests nor punitive action against supposedly poor teachers will remedy scenarios that are beyond a school’s or individual teachers’ capacity to address. So, however rhetorically handy, this supposed policy alternative is no option at all.

            That is, the apparent deterioration of our country’s overall primary and secondary educational situation will not be remedied by simply blaming already harried teachers for it. Nor will it be addressed by additional testing or more punitive measures linked to such efforts, which thus far have yielded little by way of long-term learning outcomes besides focused student preparation for prescribed examinations. Moreover, this trend has arisen amidst growing employer and educator complaints that the Pre-K-12 school system is doing too little to teach students how to think and reason analytically, engage in problem solving and communicate effectively orally and in writing.

            None of this is, on its face, surprising, as it fits what one might expect of the current brand of politics ascendant in our nation. First, the political difficulty in securing support for universal preschool education in many states reflects a long-time view that such efforts constitute goods best suited to private provision, rather than the vital public good they in fact represent. That orientation makes it difficult to gain legislator attention irrespective of the persuasiveness of the argument advanced. Second, many in the GOP especially have embraced various alternatives to public schools, including vouchers and nonprofit and for-profit-managed charter educational institutions and have viewed the development of more such entities as a sufficient policy response to the continuing downward spiral in educational quality evident in many areas of the country. Critics of this stance suggest it is only exacerbating negative trends for the worst-off schools. In any case, legislators have been unable to attain consensus on how to proceed with reform in light of this deep disagreement.

            All of this bears little relationship to reality. First, we are unlikely to assist our nation’s at-risk children without effective programs and policies aimed at doing so. Essentially doing nothing about these overriding and undergirding socio-cultural and economic challenges looks likely only to exacerbate the already massive inequalities among school systems, states and regions and will do little to improve student learning outcomes in any location. Given these realities, it seems especially paradoxical that some Republican leaders have lately been attacking Head Start, the most significant federal program aimed at readying children from disadvantaged backgrounds for school. Second, there is little evidence that privatizing additional public schools or chartering them under different management will remedy the complex dilemmas created by the confluence of broken families, impoverished conditions and poor physical plants so typical of the nation’s poorest performing educational institutions. Nor is there verification that these strategies by themselves lead to improved student learning and capabilities. Likewise, we now have ample confirmation to suggest that testing, or imagining that teachers can be held responsible for addressing students’ learning woes, will not alone change those outcomes either.

            Instead of continuing on our current course, our policy-makers must find ways and means to deal with the endemic poverty and inauspicious context created by many of our nation’s households and neighborhoods, by funding quality programs aggressively aimed at addressing that difficult context’s multiple implications for affected students, especially for those preparing to enter kindergarten and primary school. Rather than call for its demise, leaders should use the nation’s long experience with Head Start as an excellent foundation on which to continue to build such initiatives. Second, educators must develop curricula for Pre K-12 students that focus on developing analytical reasoning capabilities and communications capacities, including age-appropriate mathematical, reading, writing and language competence. Such materials should be focused on ensuring writing and reasoning capabilities and encouraging students to engage with a variety of texts in history, literature, science and more. This orientation implies that teachers will need to be well prepared themselves to realize this approach in their classrooms. Whether the Common Core standards now being implemented in several states ultimately fill this role remains to be seen.

            I do not pretend here to be able to offer specific curricular answers to the nation’s Pre-K-12 education system woes for instructors or students, but it seems clear that the broad outlines of such systemic changes as are undertaken for the nation’s schools will acknowledge the role of poverty, broken families and unequal system resources in creating the current crisis, while also methodically experimenting with mechanisms to ameliorate the worst effects of that reality for affected youngsters. More generally, true reform will continue to move away from a nearly complete reliance on standardized testing as a measure of quality and toward more nuanced ways of demonstrating student reasoning and communication competence. None of this will be possible without also ensuring that all children have access to quality preschool education experiences. Institute faculty members are in the vanguard of efforts to design and secure just such a result for Virginia and beyond.

On Intervention for Change

            One of the thornier issues we encounter in a range of domains in our work here at the Institute revolves around the question of how best to consider and manage the interface of a policy or program and its intended targets or beneficiaries. This challenge is perhaps most obvious when our faculty or staff members address initiatives whose results are mediated in whole or in part by the capacities, values, norms and proclivities of those they aim to influence. So, for example, if the program with which we are involved requires an effort to reduce the recidivism rates of those who have committed crimes or those suffering from alcohol or drug addiction, our faculty and staff must pay careful attention to the circumstance, abilities and dispositions of the individuals involved and seek to understand and work within those realities if the effort is to have any hope of success. In fact, stating the matter this way only begins to address the character of the challenges our professionals face as they must not only undertake the assessment to which I have pointed, but wrestle at the same time with the ethics of how to deliver the program to beneficiaries while ensuring their capacity to make their own choices, a prerequisite of democratic and human dignity as our liberal regime has defined those constructs.

            That is, public programs that seek to affect human behavior directly or indirectly in democracies must discern ways to honor or dignify the affected individuals as they do, so as to ensure that each is treated as the agential actor he or she is supposed to be. But this turns out to be easier said than done. Our Partners for Self-Sufficiency (PSS) and Community Mentoring Partnership for Enrichment, Training and Employment (COMPETE) staff, for example, daily not only must work with poor individuals with often spotty records in the labor market, but also with the vagaries of their personal circumstances and capacities. These may include limited formal education, uncertain living space and conditions, little or no access to personal transportation, criminal records, addictions of various sorts, untreated medical conditions due to a lack of insurance and ongoing care, child care needs and mental illness. Any or all of these conditions might make attaining employment difficult, but the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program with which our PSS and COMPETE staff works demands that all individuals receiving public assistance take tangible steps to obtain employment.

            Given this stricture, staff members need to discern ways to help those with whom they work address their needs whenever possible in order to make them as competitive as feasible for employment. In practice, this does not simply mean enjoining them to take a specific action, but as often, helping them understand how that step might be relevant to their lives and needs, and assisting them to develop the capacities necessary to address the needed effort. This could be something so apparently simple as obtaining necessary medical or dental care, with staff helping to identify ways to access the care and pay for it, if necessary. Or it might involve something as obviously difficult as enrolling in, and completing a course of treatment for an addiction. In the latter case, one must first work with an individual and relevant professionals to recognize and acknowledge the condition, itself often a very tough challenge, and thereafter find ways to help the person pay for treatment and thereafter help avoid a relapse and so on.

            All of this is undertaken to help a poor person obtain a job, a process that many of our elected leaders portray in their rhetoric as a simple matter of the individual sending in an application. In short, the capacities and circumstances of individuals in poverty, both personally and socially mediated, must be addressed if PSS and COMPETE staff members are to succeed in assisting them. As they do so, and as an ethical proposition, as I have noted, staff members must honor the dignity of those with whom they work. In practice, this means allowing these individuals to make their own choices while seeking to provide each the wherewithal to make reasoned and informed decisions. In so doing, ticklish problems always arise in assisting without ordaining or, to put the matter differently, in helping these individuals build knowledge and capacities from where they are, rather than demanding (or imagining) that their needs are merely technical matters to be addressed with a “fix” and thereby acting as if they should have no rights to choice-making and robbing them of their dignity and freedom.

            Institute international development projects encounter this same question: How should the would-be intervener consider the individual or community they would assist? If the desire is to help a village provide its citizens with improved public health, for example, and to do so by means of widespread adoption of hand washing or food preparation sanitation, are these simply to be regarded as technical concerns requiring that villagers “take a course” and be expected to change their norms and habits accordingly because enjoined to do so by obviously “smart and well-intentioned” aid workers? That is, is it sufficient to imagine that interventions are merely matters of specialized expertness that require only that those targeted “do the right thing” and adopt the needed change because “obviously appropriate and necessary”? As with PSS and COMPETE, the answer to this question is that matters are hardly so simple. Instead, those working with another nation’s citizens must first take time to understand how and why those individuals live as they do through their eyes. Undertaking this effort makes it more likely that those intervening will appreciate more fully how proposed changes could affect citizens’ ways of life and health. Even then, real changes in behavior will likely require modifications in norms, which may both be difficult to realize and still more demanding to sustain. But, if change is to occur and those with whom one is working are to be dignified, they must be given capacity and wherewithal to act, and thereafter to make their own choices. This must be so even when, perhaps especially when, the decisions ultimately taken are not those one might wish most to see.

            These examples suffice to suggest how difficult in practice it can be to “assist” another human being and nonetheless seek simultaneously to help that individual make his or her own decisions. Together they imply that such policy interventions, when mediated by people, are not so much technical assistance lessons for the targeted persons as they are opportunities to begin a process of personal and social learning that the intervener ultimately can neither mandate nor control. These examples, too, illustrate that at least some of our society’s dominant competing imaginaries concerning how to regard the “poor and benighted” sharply contradict our liberal aspirations to assure each individual freedom and dignity. In addition, our policy work here at the Institute has taught us that there is no single narrative that can be attached to change, and change ultimately is the aspiration of initiatives aimed at assisting people to develop new capacities, norms and values. Instead, would-be change agents need to construct such possibilities patiently and from the ground-up in tandem with those they would aid. If they do not, they risk not accounting for critical mediating conditions, and thereby undoing any real possibility for success. In short, interventions are neither neutral nor simply technical in character. Finally, if this is so, we need also to account for another condition we have encountered in our work with policy interventions: Would-be interveners must be prepared for scenarios in which those with whom they interact are not able to articulate what they take to be their interests concerning an issue or concern, or proposed project. Such scenarios, and they are more frequent than many imagine in the abstract, require a special measure of humility and patience on the part of the would-be change agent whose job, at least initially, becomes to assist those with whom they would work to consider what their interests might be relative to a matter, and thereafter to craft a program design to address those, and the sponsor’s aims, with those populations. Our elected leaders and many other funders too rarely acknowledge these challenges and subtleties in galvanizing social change and the result of that disposition in our experience here at the Institute is to make an already demanding responsibility still more difficult.

Individual Frames and Community Imaginaries: Plus ça Change?

            I recently came across a pithy quotation from the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden concerning human capacity for change that quite struck me: “We would rather be ruined than changed.” The writer captured in a nutshell how difficult it is for individuals to modify their mental frames or dominant epistemic understanding or way of knowing their environment. Once developed, such perspectives, the bedrock of cultural dispositions and a mix of values, beliefs, rationalization and acculturated perceptions, prove extremely durable. Nonetheless, many of the central questions and challenges we investigate here at the Institute concern efforts to encourage change at this scale.

            Consider, for example, the Institute’s Partners for Self Sufficiency (PSS) program. That effort works with area government agencies to assist some of our region’s most difficult to place unemployed people in finding work. Such requires that these individuals develop not only a range of specific capacities that allow them to engage in the job market, but more importantly and more deeply, and very often, to change how they regard themselves and their life chances. Such habits of mind are extremely “sticky” and our professional staff members involved with this effort work hard to assist clients to articulate and then to change those perceptions appropriately. But our staff members cannot learn technical capacities or change basic understandings of self vis-á-vis society for those with whom they work. Instead, their clients’ own attitudes, beliefs and values play vital roles in determining how they will fare in changing their life narratives. They must choose to undertake this difficult work themselves.

            Our Institute’s work in international development provides another example of the hardiness of human epistemic assumptions. What most who intervene to work with populations in developing nations wish to do is to offer opportunities for citizens of those countries to enjoy conditions that will improve their lives. This often involves providing those individuals with options and services they may never have experienced, such as hand pumps that might ensure access to clean water or immunization programs that can prevent diseases. But without previously employing these possibilities and their accompanying technologies, those asked to consider them must recast shared basic assumptions and behaviors and to adopt them. And this process is extremely difficult in psychological terms to undertake and accomplish. Residents may not trust those intervening, may not understand why or how the alternative or new possibility offered will assist them, or may simply want to continue to prefer the known as against an unknown or unfamiliar optiona well-known human disposition.

            If securing individual scale change in an effort to develop the possibility for community-level shifts is difficult in poverty amelioration and international development, it is equally challenging in early childhood education, another Institute focus area. In this instance, parents need to come to understand why and how timely interventions to provide reading and learning opportunities for their children can make a profound difference in their youngsters’ life course, and in a holistic way. This often requires that they rethink their assumptions about the character and role of education in their

children’s future and to adopt views that differ markedly from their own experience. But doing so is critical if they are to take the steps and indeed, make the sacrifices sometimes necessary, to offer rich opportunities to their children to succeed and to become well- adjusted and successful individuals. These parents must adopt a perspective on education predicated in faith that it will ultimately redound to their youngster’s advantage for them to do so. Stating the matter this way highlights just how difficult such changes can be to accomplish for the individuals involved.

            Likewise, VTIPG’s Community Voices program has specifically focused comprehensively on leadership and community change. As with our international development and poverty-related research and projects, our efforts in this initiative have taught us that to galvanize a community’s members to consider shifting their basic shared assumptions about how to go about living their collective lives is complex and difficult. Most group participants will resist challenges to their narrative or epistemic frames, and some will do so violently when these are challenged. Countless cases of sectarian and ethnic or racial violence around the world bear witness to just how difficult it can be for human beings to accept others who have been declared “different” or “outside” of their epistemic community, on whatever basis. The difficulties implicit in changing those values valences should never be underestimated.

            At a speech in Belfast just prior to a G8 summit meeting held recently at a resort near that city, President Barack Obama celebrated Northern Ireland’s relative peacefulness since the 1998 Good Friday agreement, even in the face of continuing division and dissensus among Loyalists and Republicans in that province. The President suggested the relative social calm since that watershed accord provides an example of what is possible among free people of good will. While that is surely true, our research on peacebuilding in Northern Ireland suggests that the province’s relative lack of violence has been purchased in part by means of a profoundly segregated society whose population continues to disagree deeply on the appropriate character of their political and social community. From one perspective, which the President highlighted, Northern Ireland’s citizenry’s accomplishment is more than notable as the murder and mayhem that plagued the country for three decades during “The Troubles” is now history. From another point-of-view, however, the province’s population has not achieved a breakthrough epistemic agreement concerning how to regard their rightful inheritance and futures, nor anything like consensus concerning how they as individuals fit within such a frame. They have agreed, at least for the most part, to support efforts to resolve their continuing conflicts concerning how to live together without recurring to violence once more.

            All of these examples illustrate that significant democratic change cannot occur without individuals revisiting and recasting their values and questioning their assumptions and tempering or disciplining those to permit space for the consideration of alternate choices, even if they do not immediately shift their existing understandings. Free individuals will always mediate such decisions, and such processes are neither automatic nor linear in their character. Indeed, the American experience with socially dominant views of poverty, race and ethnicity suggests that it may take generations to change prevailing community beliefs and values. The same may be said of the experience of the residents of Northern Ireland concerning their class and sectarian divide.

            Surely, policy (legal) claims can encourage such shifts, but they alone cannot secure them. This reality is suggested by the distinction often drawn in American society between de jure and de facto discrimination against African Americans, for example. Many argue the United States has made great strides in eliminating the former, but still struggles with changing the attitudes and values that underpin the latter for many citizens. Instead, large numbers of Americans will need to adopt alternate ways of knowing if new forms and sinews of civic bonds and new community imaginaries are to obtain across what for many remains a broad racial divide. Put more generally, conflicts in societies may be reduced and a measure of coexistence may be attained without changing fundamental social values among many, but it is those basic beliefs that must be modified for durable changes in fundamental political and civic relationships to occur. Such processes may take generations to bear fruit and, notably, they can be stalled by would-be democratic leaders’ efforts to use social fissures to mobilize specific groups to the polls. Leaders’ use of fear and endemic “othering” on real or imagined bases is often the enemy of meaningful and peaceful community change.

            These observations suggest that abiding political change requires social learning, and the deeper the divide separating population groups, the longer it may take them to attain agreement even to agree to coexist amidst heterogeneity, let alone contemplate development of a new shared values consensus or social imaginary. Given that free societies allow individuals to make these choices, it will ever be the responsibility of democratic leaders in such nations to encourage such social learning, rather than to foment conflict for electoral gain. That lesson is plain across our research experience here at the Institute. It is a warning perhaps too easily and too often ignored by those seeking office, but the costs they impose to human freedom are real when they do not heed it and one may hope their sense of duty to their regime will dissuade them from doing so. Heterogeneity and genuine community change represent key persisting challenges to self- governance and offer just as long-lived a temptation to would be leaders to exploit difference for short-term electoral gain. As Alexander Hamilton noted in The Federalist Papers, only normative claims to duty, fame and honor bind leaders to the furtherance of peaceful democratic change in the face of epistemic inertia among citizens. This choice for leaders is real and vital for the maintenance of healthy democratic communities.

Special Note: This column’s publication marks the fifth anniversary of Tidings. Thanks to all who have written and otherwise shared their comments, suggestions and reactions to these commentaries with me during these years. I am indebted to all of you for your interest and consideration and I have learned much from each of you. Our dialogue has often shaped my thinking and these reflections.