American Democratic Politics and Deliberative Possibility

            George Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, recently wrote a poignant piece on the travails confronting Southside, Virginia, that sprawling region in the south central part of the state along the North Carolina border. He focused in particular on Martinsville, a one- time furniture and textiles center, now experiencing Great Depression levels of unemployment. His article treated how the politics of the dire economic situation is playing in the region, and especially for President Obama. Prior to the March 15, 2010 publication of the story, Packer shared snippets of his interviews with relevant congressional and White House officials on his blog (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2010/03 obamas-lost-year.html - entry-more). One exchange he quoted with an individual identified as a “senior congressional staff member,” is significant for what it revealed about the current character of American politics:

One of the problems with this Administration is it has tried to have a grownup, sophisticated conversation with the public. That is the President’s instinct, it’s Tim Geithner’s instinct. And that itself is tone deaf…. The President is having a very eloquent, one-sided conversation. The country doesn’t want to have the conversation he wants to have.

             This remark is both a commonplace in today’s politics and fascinating for what it suggests about how public policy/politics is increasingly conceived by those in powerful positions. One might offer a number of observations concerning it, but here are three for consideration. First, one plain implication of the statement is that one may not have an “adult” conversation with the polity’s citizens today. But why that is so or what it might portend, even in the immediate term, is left unaddressed. Instead, the implication is that the President and Geithner are foolish for trying. This staffer implies that theirs is a quixotic quest. Second, apart from being foolish, they are also, at least by implication, electorally naive. Why bother to seek an “adult conversation” if the citizenry is not listening, does not want to listen, and it does not help one’s poll numbers?

             Third, and most important, the staffer assumed that the leaders should first check the public pulse and then speak and act accordingly. But this orientation raises several age- old and well-known red flags. Indeed, theorists and philosophers have expressed skepticism for centuries about the possibility of creating enduring democracy. Primary among their concerns is the fact that democratic tyranny may be born not only of individual despotism, but also of shared misunderstanding, lack of deliberation or lack of knowledge. Empowered majorities across history have acted in haste or without sufficient information or consideration or have been swayed by revenge or pride or other emotions and tyrannically deprived fellow citizens of life or limb as a result. Accordingly, democracy theorists have argued for at least as long that preservation of freedom is ultimately not about current desires or preferences, however popular those may be at any given moment, but about ensuring action in accord with a considered or deliberative understanding of the common good in ways that secure freedom. This staffer’s comment raises the enduringly significant question of whether democratic leaders may simply abandon their responsibility to that aspiration in favor of addressing the currently popular, however inaccurate or juvenile. Perhaps the question is, is the majority popular preference of the moment sacrosanct, or shall we as citizens expect our leaders to demand that we consider our current preferences in light of broader criteria of justice or community aimed at the common weal? Is simple preference, considered or not, a sufficient standard to ensure responsible self-governance? Put differently, a simple- minded and preference-focused majoritarianism is freighted with dangers for freedom. We abandon our common quest for an “adult” and deliberative conversation at our collective and individual peril. Let us hope some of our leaders, at least, continue to believe that an adult conversation is at least worth a try. Our capacity to remain a free and self-governing nation may well be at stake.

Pondering Citizenship, Governance and Deliberation

            My last Tidings column reflected on certain implications of the enduring values that separate Americans in our ongoing political dialogue. This piece explores several challenges that confront the American public as those citizens collectively address the responsibility of sorting through the portent of such foundational claims for democratic decision-making. I make no pretense to comprehensiveness but the issues treated here merit thoughtful consideration even though they do not constitute all possible relevant factors.

            One of the reasons democratic forms of governance found few partisans among political theorists and philosophers until the modern period was that democratic experiments historically were subject to two oft-evidenced forms of tyranny. Either single individuals bent on power could corrupt democratic processes and gain control to rule by fiat or, worse in its way, a majority could deprive a minority or minority groups within a nation of their freedom, rights or standing on the basis of whatever characteristic gained the majority’s support (tribe, race, ethnicity, nationality have all been used). Avoidance of these twin possibilities seemed unlikely to many thinkers who did not trust that a majority would forbear blame-casting and scapegoating or so control its natural emotional inclinations as to avoid being misled by talented manipulators and demagogues who might engage in such efforts.

            On reflection, this stance still seems reasonable today. Prevention of tyranny of either sort rests on the relatively thin reed of a population sufficiently self-disciplined that it will not deprive some in its midst of their rights on the basis of one or another attribute. And, of course, our collective record in this respect is decidedly checkered. Many citizens of our nation and indeed, many of its governmental institutions, have in varying ways and at varying times, discriminated against individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, national origin or sexual orientation. The interesting question is not whether human beings can be whipsawed by powerful emotions and claims to assail their fellows, even to the point of yielding freedoms to others to do so for them, but what can prevent them from pervasively doing so and thereby undoing the possibility of democracy.

            Our nation’s Founders famously sought to use institutions to check against such potential democratic excesses. Congress was fashioned to be bicameral, the national government’s legislature, executive and judiciary were created to share power and each thereby served as a countervailing force on its counterparts. And federalism allowed states to check the potential excesses of the national government. But the Framers recognized that these steps were not sufficient to fend off potential tyrants and they imposed franchise requirements, too, in an effort to ensure that those who voted had a sufficient stake in the regime that they would not be swayed easily by freedom-enervating claims. Nonetheless, and despite this legitimate concern, our nation’s history has rightly witnessed the broadening of the franchise and a reduction of the requirements necessary to secure it. We are now doubtless a more thoroughly democratic nation, and that broadened franchise requires “average citizens” to make informed, judicious and deliberative choices of their leaders and when involved directly via referenda, directly on governmental policies.

            Yet, there are reasons to be concerned that our enlarged voting citizenry is increasingly ill prepared to bear the responsibilities now assigned to it. Moreover, it must do so in an era in which the issues confronting governance are ever more complex and the processes by which public services are rendered are similarly complicated. Additionally, campaigns are now carefully scripted affairs designed by handsomely compensated professionals who market candidates around “images” and “values” and when they are lucky and have the right candidate, a “brand.” Speeches are crafted to elicit emotions and to persuade while “driving up the negatives” of the other side whenever necessary to prevail, or in some cases, whenever possible. Researchers have amply documented the alarming trend of Americans’ dwindling knowledge of their nation’s institutions, history, current policy debates and concerns. Levels of political awareness and knowledge are low and interest in voting, while it has improved at the national level of late, remains discouragingly low. Overall, and on average, the nation’s historically large pool of enfranchised citizens who evidence comparatively little knowledge of its institutions or of the tensions inherent in its policy challenges, are now subject to a multi-dimensional ongoing imperative:

  • To understand at least the fundaments of a range of enormously significant and complex issues including many involving thorny political/economic tradeoffs and tensions such as climate change and international trade and economic policy

  • To sort through and place in context the well-crafted and very often subtle emotionally freighted messages of campaign pollsters and consultants whose primary interest is not effective public policy, but power/office for a party or for a candidate

  • To do the same as they evaluate the pronouncements of their elected lawmakers and executives who now rely increasingly on that same “advising” industry as they undertake their official roles and responsibilities to help them craft “sound bites” for public consumption

  • To exercise their citizenship responsibilities when their own values have complicated governance to a very significant degree. This has occurred to address an ongoing desire for public services that is coupled with a strong skepticism that those services can be offered efficiently and effectively by government acting alone. In practice public service delivery often now involves nonprofit and for-profit institutions, such as in weapons development and the prosecution of war, in transportation and highway construction and maintenance, in social services programs, in energy industry monitoring and policy and in international development initiatives.

  • To recognize the consequences of their own ambivalent values for how governance occurs and for how much more difficult it is to establish accountability when several contracted agents or levels of government deliver public services than when such services are delivered by a single public entity.

            This list of challenges is daunting and if anything, exceeds those the Founders had in mind when they bent so much effort to secure democracy against the potentials of individual and majority tyranny. Citizenship is the result of complex acculturation processes that involve families, schools and civic institutions. But, if one is to believe frequent polling data, increasingly these are not producing individuals motivated to understand the warp and woof of governance or even to monitor it actively. Many voters instead are lured by well-formed plaints designed to persuade that “the other” (however defined, but more and more, along partisan or “native” versus “immigrant” lines) is to be reviled or worse for their views or characteristics or both. The result is a nation increasingly sharply divided along its enduring values fault lines with diminishing capacity to conduct a deliberative dialogue about pathways to the future. What this portends for public deliberative capacity about policy and governance complexity is that neither set of realities is likely to receive thoughtful attention for its own sake.

            Proponents of democracy must soon find ways to educate and encourage the American citizenry to participate in civically engaged deliberation while preserving their individual freedom to choose for themselves. Not to pursue such an agenda vigorously to secure this result is to run an increasing risk of the emergence of tyranny, however subtly it may evidence itself. No partisan of democratic self-government can desire that outcome. Notably, however, and perhaps appropriately, citizens ultimately will control this outcome. Americans must collectively address this enduring and foundational claim of democratic self-governance.

Cultural Values, Policymaking and Deliberation

            The Institute is presently involved in a variety of research initiatives and projects linked to social, health and environmental policy. I have lately been struck afresh by the ways in which each of these is underpinned by concerns that ultimately are rooted in American culture. These fault lines are enduring commitments by millions to specific values, and reflect ongoing interpretations of hoary arguments concerning how our nation’s government should relate to its citizenry, how citizens should relate to each other or how the nation and market should relate. These ways of viewing the world persist, but receive little attention in the hurly burly of political exchange in specific policy debates. And yet, more often than not, it is just these values and interpretations of them that serve as the foundation of the public policy stances our citizens and leaders embrace.

            At least since the 17th century, Anglo-American law and social policies have frequently assumed that the poor were poor or the afflicted (e.g. alcoholics, downtrodden, drug addicts, homeless) were troubled because there was something amiss in their character. The idea that such individuals simply lack sufficient “spine” to pick themselves up and do whatever may be necessary to overcome their conditions runs deep in the American psyche. On this basis many contend that the addicted “bring it on themselves” and the poor are simply too indolent to undertake the efforts necessary to redress their condition. This abstract belief in personal responsibility threaded through President Reagan’s famous argument that “welfare queens” were unfairly receiving government support and made little effort to do much of anything besides watch television. A similar claim supported partisans of the successful 1996 national welfare system makeover that removed the poor’s entitlement to social support. That policy debate highlighted the view that government should bend every effort to insure the poor be encouraged strongly to obtain employment. That controversy tied long-lived American devotion to personal responsibility to the equally hardy American ideal that the commons, in the guise of government, should do as little as feasible to “get in the way of the poor (or more broadly, the citizenry), fixing their own problems.” Only those declared “truly needy” against these criteria should benefit from public succor.

            The fact that no one has yet been able to eliminate the causes of poverty or of addiction does little to allay this enduring controversy. Even lawmakers sympathetic to the view that the community should support its poor or distressed confront the reality that no one has yet discerned either how to prevent or to “fix” poverty or addiction. In light of this rather cruel reality and realizing that they may be accused of “wasting” a share of whatever government funds are devoted to these intractable problems, it is indeed tempting for public leaders to assign responsibility to those so afflicted. The difficulty, of course, is that these issues pose costs not only to the individuals involved, but also to society. The relative complexity of these challenges and American devotion to individual responsibility and limited government has suggested to many leaders that government either should not assume or should sharply limit its responsibility for such problems.

            A similar tension characterizes our current national debate over health policy. Late summer saw forums to discuss options for health policy change attended by groups of agitated and screaming partisans concerned that government would soon eliminate their health insurance coverage while at the same time assuming direct control over a large share of the nation’s economy. While one can debate how much of this angst was genuine and how much created for political reasons, the concerns expressed do trace a major fault line in American policy politics. At least a share of those fervent protesters were genuinely concerned that their government would assume too large a role in the nation’s economy if it sought to provide additional health coverage options for the poor and uninsured and to curtail unsustainable cost growth. And many were also concerned that government should not interfere (as they saw it) in a domain of such personal choice- making. On this view, such decisions ought properly to be individual ones. Taken together, these twin claims and their associated values provide some insight into the otherwise unsupported and apparently irrational claims of advocates concerning “bureaucratic death panels” and the like. That is, they reveal that the fears unleashed may not have any basis in legislative language or intent, but they are no less real or discomfiting for those concerned as a result. Instead, these claims suggest just how deep such currents run in the culture and how very strong and volatile those currents are.

            Whatever may obtain on this point, it seems clear that the concerns being expressed in forums and in the media are born of identifiable interpretations of values otherwise widely held by Americans. It is also clear, at least in the abstract, that reasonable people could differ on how to regard these concerns. But such a discerning stance would require cooler heads and a more deliberate and deliberative discussion than seems to be obtaining now in the public square. Perhaps we are witnessing a fresh rendering of an age-old reality: for many Americans deeply held convictions anchor our personal and collective lives and once in play these may kindle all sorts of unexpected consequences. Those “mobilizing the base” for whatever purposes may have unleashed forces well beyond their power to direct or control. These then shape possibilities both for democratic deliberation and for reasoned policy dialogue. We are learning now just how difficult that environment may become for prudential policymaking.

            Environmental policy reflects most clearly the ongoing American devotion to an abstract, if ill-defined, ideal of “limited government” whose leaders must be ever mindful of the role of the market in our polity. Environmental policy is increasingly cast as a debate over which forms of energy may be developed and which forms of living must be changed against growing evidence of climate change and unsustainable ecologic degradation worldwide, American policymakers are nonetheless engaged instead in a debate over whether government will unduly harm the market and undermine economic support for its citizens if it intervenes too strongly to address these issues. Those alarmed about the role of government are equally concerned not to impinge individual rights unduly. When should government regulate what its citizens may consume or determine the products they may use? Meanwhile, the privatizing tendency implicit in resistance to such interventions may pit citizens against one another for the consumption of goods.

            Accordingly, there are groups now advancing claims linked to environmental justice that suggest class-based or economic discrimination by one group or another is imposing costs on other groups of citizens. Such can occur, advocates argue, precisely because of our collective devotion to allowing the market so large a role in our political economy and to limiting the role of government in our lives.

            Those interested in policymaking and democracy in the United States will not soon “fix” these fault lines. No amount of rhetoric or scholarly analysis will magically allow so heterogeneous a population suddenly to agree on what are, ultimately, matters about which reasonable people may disagree. Nonetheless, it may be of some help for interested observers to point up their central significance and to remind those concerned that democracy should allow for just such disagreement in the pursuit of prudent and defensible outcomes for the polity at large. Stridency for its own sake will neither compel others to agree nor change the fact that the nation’s citizens are free to make their own choices concerning these critical valences. This reminder of the validity of disagreement in the process of policymaking does not provide one or another partisan a “win” for their fundraising letters and media ads since it does not seek to find one party or another responsible for one slant on these deep tensions. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that democracy cannot be sustained without broad public deliberation about competing claims for what might constitute the good of the nation and its citizens. It might be well for all parties concerned to keep in mind as they study specific language and options and fear potential outcomes not in accord with their own views, that they are engaged on a much larger field and one which is far more likely to determine the fate of the nation than today’s headlines concerning who “won” this or that vote or perceived legislative battle. The deeper tensions will not go away, but the social fabric that allows civil discussion concerning them is fragile and must continuously be renewed. Perhaps that is a subject for another reflection.

A Free and Ordered Space

            The Institute has lately been involved in a project with the International Olympic Truce Centre aimed at developing a Handbook of “best practices” employing sport as a peacebuilding tool for United Nations peacekeepers in post-conflict situations. That task has required that we first understand more deeply how much peacekeepers are using athletics for this purpose. Second, we have set out to determine what is known concerning how sport conduces to conflict amelioration and the re-creation of norms of common claim or community. Our work on this issue generated an invitation by the International Olympic Committee for me to present our preliminary findings at an international forum on Sport, Peacebuilding and Development in Lausanne, Switzerland. That opportunity in turn spurred me to consider more deeply why sport can play a role in peacebuilding.

            As I reflected I was reminded of a collection of essays on higher education by professor of Italian Renaissance Literature, Yale University president and Commissioner of Baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti. While president of Yale from 1978-1986 Giamatti used the punctuation points of the academic year (Freshman Address, Baccalaureate, and so on) to think deeply abut the role of the university and, especially, of liberal education within it. Certain of those now canonical speeches and reflections were revised and collected into a book in 1990, A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University. In one of the essays Giamatti reflected on the university as a community that celebrated both individual diligence and energy and the broader social claims and purposes to which those capacities were best harnessed:

            The paradox into which one gradually grows, through education and throughout one’s life, is that independence is achieved by and through consenting to interdependence. I believe we grow in individual liberty in this country when we recognize the human needs and rights of others. I believe a state of independence comes when we decide through our intellect and sprit to forge human connections. Without connections, there is no individual coherence. There is no independence in uprootedness; there is only drift and decay. There is no growth of the moral and mental powers of the self if the self alone is the ultimate goal of learning. Independence of an enduring kind, noble and practical, arrives only when one realizes what it means, in all its glory and responsibility, that one is not alone (p.82).

            What strikes me most about this passage is Giamatti’s ultimate vision of the interdependence of individual and community. The community, whether understood as family, village or university, may support the individual, but it may not exist in the first instance without the engagement of the people who comprise it. These must seek coherence through relationships, and it is the norms that underpin and join those connections that constitute the source and vitality of the community. These relationships will nourish and sustain the capacity for both individual growth and autonomy of possibility and communal energy and sustenance.

            This idea is essential if one is to understand the potential power of the role of sport in peacebuilding. Sport celebrates individual competence, diligence and grace. It demands self- discipline, talent and ambition. But even those sports that celebrate individual achievement do not bring athletes to the highest order of excellence as hermit-like automatons. Instead, athletes are taught and prodded and cheered and uplifted by coaches, athletic staffs, friends and family. These offer training regimens as well as space and time and unstinting moral support. The bonds that join these people to the athlete, whether rooted in love, friendship or shared passion for the sport, permit and prompt the individual to succeed.

            There are lessons here for peacebuilders and for our understanding of the role of sport in social reconstruction efforts. First, sport constitutes a microcosm of community. It relies implicitly and explicitly on relationships even as it celebrates individual excellence and achievement. The most talented striker in soccer or guard in basketball is not likely to score without first receiving a pass from a teammate that places him or her in position to do so. Similarly, baseball celebrates the role of teammates in just this sense by tracking “sacrifice flies” and “runs batted in” as indicators of how team members support each other’s success. Second, sport implies common rules of engagement. One must accept those claims to participate. A discus thrower may not release beyond a certain line or will forfeit the toss. Tennis players may not cross the service line when serving and must keep the ball within agreed up bounds to score and to compete. A “gigantic blast” in baseball does not count as a home run unless it occurs within the specified field of play.

            These examples could easily be multiplied. What they suggest is that each sport relies on a common set of rules and norms that control the contest. Players enter competition subject to these, and violations may result in the inability to participate. Sport relies on norms and the relationships that play both nurtures and embodies. Last, these norms and the values they express may change, but not without the consent of those who participate in the game. The community that plays a sport creates and sustains mechanisms that allow for constant experience-based learning and orderly evolution.

            Communities emerging from conflict have fractured or even lost the ties among their members that once bound them. Often this occurs by intention as one party or another seeks to enflame potential supporters by dehumanizing or scapegoating a targeted group as somehow not human or worse. Examples abound: the radio campaign preceding the genocide in Rwanda that characterized the Tutsis as “cockroaches,” Hitler’s vile rhetoric concerning the Jews and Milosevic’s efforts in Yugoslavia to create a “pure” Serbia. Sadly, these examples only point to like efforts across human history. In such circumstances and once hostilities have ceased, sport can recreate the possibility of an ordered environment in which those lately engaged in war may meet one another afresh. On the playing field, they may do so knowing and using norms while aware of the values that underpin them. They may do so realizing that certain behaviors will result in penalties or will not be countenanced, and they may do so in the knowledge that boundaries must be recognized. In this ordered reality previous combatants are free to compete and to collaborate to seek victory, but victory will be defined as temporary, within the bounds of the game, and will be predicated on norms of mutual civility.

            Would-be peacebuilders using sport rely implicitly on the hope that previously sworn enemies will use the playing field and the rules and norms under which it functions to come to recognize Giamatti’s insight that uprootedness and radical individuality do not produce coherence or development. In this sense, sport may help to overcome past enmity by highlighting the possibility of respectful and controlled competition. Sport provides the portent and possibility of an ordered community. It also reinforces, indeed demands, development of norms of mutual comity, if not respect. These are essential to any free community. Sport may help establish such norms, but they cannot be institutionalized in community by athletics alone.

            Giamatti had in mind the university as a free and ordered space. The Institute’s role in the continuous creation of that possibility surely remains an aspiration as we go about our work. Nevertheless, it is a special privilege to think afresh about these matters on behalf of societies in post-conflict situations of profound need. This opportunity provides a reminder of the essential fragility of the bonds of community and of their profound significance. Endemic though it may be, the costs of conflict far exceed the countable human sacrifice and suffering it creates. War and social violence may also straightjacket the possibility for a common life among a people or peoples. Whatever their form, efforts to intervene to prevent this possibility are freighted with immense moral possibility and significance. Efforts are afoot around the globe to employ sport to these high purposes.

Reflections on Peacebuilding and Radical Hope

            I recently was privileged to participate in a national summit of 170 invitees gathered together to help to design a National Peace Academy for the United States. The group convened in Cleveland, Ohio for three days to consider how a dream, now more than 30 years old, might finally be realized. Despite the long-lived character of the goal and irrespective of the fact that it is easy to be “for peace” in the abstract, this undertaking still felt groundbreaking. It remained, even after all these years of advocacy by committed, well-intentioned and deeply passionate people, a singularly audacious idea. This was so, or so it seemed to me as a relative newcomer to this diverse fraternity, as I participated in the effort to draw upon the wit and wisdom of those attending to design this new institution, the result of the complex character of its central aim: peace.

            It doubtless also felt bold because there is so much strife around the world as to seem to give the lie to the hope. Nepal, Serbia, Rwanda, Sudan, Indonesia, Somalia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Congo and Afghanistan, among other nations, have all experienced severe conflict in recent years. Amidst such evidence not only of conflict, but also of accompanying cultural devastation in many instances, it is difficult to conceive how people could imagine coming to live in peace, let alone begin taking the steps that might help to secure that result. What is less difficult, and therefore far more frequently articulated, is to criticize proponents of peace as dewy-eyed romantics unconnected with the ruling passions, cruelties and interests of human beings living in the “real world.” After all, these “realities” are daily everywhere evident in social conflicts around the globe and their results too plain to ignore. Such critics might say, “Why don’t these peace-folks go sing ‘Kum Ba Yah’ in the corner while we who understand the complexities of human beings see to the real challenges, pointless jealousies and conflicts and hostilities that are unavoidable among our kind.”

            But this dismissive formulation is both too clever and too shallow to stand. One simple way to think of peace is the absence of conflict. But a moment’s reflection suggests that such a situation, while surely an improvement over active hostilities, is not adequate to ensure conditions of long-term stability and mutual respect among populations, especially diverse ones. Instead, peace, like so many phenomena borne of the interaction of human intelligence and emotions, requires a constellation of supporting factors if it is to arise and to endure. It requires, among free individuals at least, a similarly unfettered set of choices to discipline what may otherwise be ready impulses to violence in favor of dialogue and conversation with others who may be wildly different, in virtually every sense of that term.

            Ultimately, that challenge demands an ontology of hope that continues to act as if possibilities for more fulsome exchange and understanding are possible even in the face of grave odds and much evidence to the contrary. It is this far-reaching idea that most struck me in conversations with those attending the Peace Academy Summit. This belief appears to have captured the individual and collective imagination of those who have worked so long on behalf of an abstract and complicated idea. It is at once a daunting and very realistic aspiration that does not wish away the darkness characteristic of the human condition.

            As it happens, not long before heading to the Peace Academy Summit I had read Jonathan Lear’s thoughtful book, Radical Hope. The text chronicles the thinking and leadership of Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow American Indian tribe as his nation transitioned from a nomadic and warrior-like existence to one situated on parcels of land that were primarily to be farmed. Plenty Coups had to help his people not only address social change, but also to grapple with the loss of an entire way of life while nonetheless retaining the profound sense of honor that had long underpinned their shared social imaginary. They had literally, in this sense, to endure cultural catastrophe and nonetheless (re)construct and maintain a shared identity. Lear frames the question that confronted the Crow nation this way:

Unlike an anthropological study, I am not primarily concerned with what happened to the Crow tribe or to any other group. I am concerned rather with the field of possibilities in which all human endeavors gain meaning. This is basically an ethical inquiry: into how one should live in relation to a peculiar human possibility. But it is also what philosophers call an ontological dimension: if we are going to think about how to live with this possibility, we need to figure out what it is. (2006, p.7).

            Lear also notes that this issue is hardly a historical one alone. Rather, it is a ubiquitous challenge that has very much to do with a collective sense of vulnerability revealed as conflicts of various kinds unfold:

We live at a time of a heightened sense that civilizations are themselves vulnerable. Events around the world—terrorist attacks, violent social upheavals, and even natural catastrophes—have left us with an uncanny sense of menace. We seem to be aware of a shared vulnerability that we cannot quite name. I suspect that this feeling has provoked the widespread intolerance that we see around us today—from all points on the political spectrum. It is as though, that without our insistence that our outlook is correct, the outlook itself might collapse (2005, p. 7).

            It is just such a sensibility that would-be peacebuilders of all stripes see themselves daily addressing in very real, if seemingly very commonplace ways—family and community mediation services, conflict management classes for primary school students and the like. We would do well to remember that it is in precisely these settings (and in others to be sure) that our society shapes its collective meaning. If conflict is epidemic due to our sense of vulnerability, as Lear suggests, perhaps we would do well to recall Chief Plenty Coup’s efforts and determination to lead his people to a new way of life, however unclear and terror-filled that path was at the moment in which he and his nation embarked on the journey. Plenty Coups was under no illusions. Still, his flinty determination and radical hope in human possibility provide a profound exemplar for would-be peacebuilders everywhere. I was struck in Cleveland that this philosophical lesson has been taken to heart by many engaged in the practice of peacebuilding. I count that shared awareness an important step in efforts to secure more peaceful social conditions in an array of cultural contexts around the world.

Reflections on Idealism, Realism and the Human Condition

             I learned yesterday (late in December 2008) that a documentary film describing the heroic, tragic effort by 22-year old Hannah Senesh to lead an uprising of captive Jews in Hungary in 1944 will appear in theaters in late January, 2009. Senesh was utterly unsuccessful in her endeavor. She was instead captured, tortured and executed by Nazi forces. Her mission could easily be dismissed (and has been) as a young and misguided woman’s romantic illusion. After all, she failed and lost her life in a horrific way in the process. And the world lost the possibility of what would likely have been a life of accomplishment and grace. Realists might shake their heads knowingly and wonder how anyone could imagine that sojourning against such odds in the name of an abstract principle of individual freedom could lead one so young and gifted to martyr herself and others for it. After all, these thinkers might suggest, the notion of a right to individual freedom is itself persistently contested in international politics.

             The producers and director of the film “Blessed is the Match,” after a poem by Senesh, take an opposing view. They suggest that Senesh and her compatriots deserve not only to be remembered, but also held up as models for pressing ahead on the force of their moral convictions and despite the evil and immensity of the odds arrayed against them. This debate between the ideas-oriented philosopher or poet (in the case of Senesh) and the pragmatist/realist is likely as old as humanity itself. Cervantes immortalized it in his deeply affecting portrait of Don Quixote whose imaginary world evinced the possibility of human civility even as it criticized those who could not see ”things as they were.” International political theory in the post World War II era was shaped by a debate between the so-called realists who favored strong-willed action to pursue supposedly hard-nosed “national interests” and those who sought to build an international system that legitimated other values besides. Similarly, Aristotle, though Plato’s most famous pupil, rejected his teachers’ tendency to lionize abstract possibility in favor of rooting his analyses in the here and now of the concrete vicissitudes of human existence.

             While this long-lived controversy, which ultimately hinges on one’s view of the possibility of human agency and the capacity of human beings to undertake altruistic action, is hardly new, I am struck afresh, as I reflect on Senesh, by its significance for governance and by the fact that much hangs in the balance if one “side” or the other ever prevails in this debate. Without those who possess the moral courage and imagination to conceive of new possibilities and to imagine the potential of peaceful co-existence of human beings, individual freedom itself could not likely exist, as Plato famously speculated. Meanwhile, a too-Pollyannaish belief that somehow human evil and selfishness, egoistical capacity for rationalization and self-regard will go away simply because theorized to do so, can only lead to profound disappointment and poorly framed political action. Another way to cast this argument is to ask why it has so persistently been framed as a dichotomous choice. Are human beings inclined to demand epistemic certainties, even if falsely framed ones? Who or what interests serve this long-lived divide? Decades of efforts to obtain peace in deeply divided societies suggest that once adopted, changing dominant ways of knowing in a population is extraordinarily difficult. Ways of considering the other are passed on within families, along with the often- unstated assumptions (well-founded or not) underpinning them. These then go unexamined and division and hatred can hold full sway. Realists emphasize the relative intractability of these assumptions and therefore frequently dismiss those offering alternate views as romantics in quest of the impossible. Those seeking change are equally ardent advocates of the necessity of their perspective. Both “sides” prototypically dichotomize their arguments.

             What can be learned from this hoary controversy that has suffused so much reflection on human behavior, democratic governance and action? Shall the analyst choose “realism” in the name of alleged cleverness and astute action? If so, what will be lost by expecting the least of humankind and behavior in governance? Alternately, does it make any more sense to imagine, given so much evidence of evil and cruelty to the contrary, that one may assume a Quixotic quest for fair-minded action of all whom one encounters?

             Perhaps the quest for human possibility entails both and neither. We need frequent reminders from those, like Hannah Senesh, of the power and possibility of hope, moral courage and human imagination in the face of those who would trumpet mediocrity or worse as the best that can be attained among humans. We also need daily reminders from the so-called realists of the profound evil and self-absorption of which human beings are capable. Self-governance demands both the possibilities and abiding belief in human freedom and hope embodied by Senesh and her colleagues and the wisdom embodied in Aristotle’s insistence that all thinking about human beings be rooted in their demonstrated behavior, for good and ill.

             The friend of human freedom and democratic governance may not choose to disregard the enormous importance of a belief in the capacity for good of humankind, nor to dismiss its individual and collective capacity to choose and to rationalize evil. However alluring the apparent certainty provided by choosing, this supposed dichotomy represents a false dilemma. The true advocate of freedom rightly lionizes the breathtaking courage, other-regardingness and sheer moral audacity of Senesh, but also realizes that she was tortured and murdered for her convictions by fellow human beings and that the epistemological frames that underpinned both sets of actions are socially constructed by people in search of meaning. There are powerful lessons here for those who would study and seek to inform democratic possibility.

Governing Collaboratively

I recently attended a meeting at which I was asked to describe the activities of the Institute. Not wanting to offer a laundry list litany of the “We are doing this, we are doing that” variety, I strove instead to discern a common strand across several projects in which we are now engaged. I settled on suggesting that many of our efforts are concerned with the challenges and dynamics of governing collaboratively. At one level, this may sound like a banal truism since democratic governance, by definition, demands coalition building and at least a modicum of civic engagement. But that is hardly the whole story. Under the sway of neoliberal calls for increasing the role of markets to secure economic development and a companion deep popular suspicion of a national government perceived to have overreached and to have failed in its efforts in Vietnam and to secure the Great Society, the United States has led much of the rest of the world for several decades in adopting forms of governance that demand that public actors undertake a broad share of their actions with and through the for‐profit and/or nonprofit sectors. At its root, this phenomenon is essentially paradoxical as it is born of a broad collective desire to undertake government actions and services that exists along side a fundamental insecurity in the appropriateness and often, likely efficacy, of such action. Lawmakers, reflecting deep public ambivalence, demand that government work through other sectoral actors to secure the perceived benefits of their engagement in policy implementation: increased efficiency and effectiveness due to less “waste, fraud, abuse and bureaucracy,” heightened legitimacy and representation and perceived lower costs. The result of these competing and conflicted public values and narratives, however, has been a remarkably byzantine structure of governance whose very hybridized character, whatever its potential advantages, has made democratically accountable governance far more difficult to achieve.

Wherever one turns in policymaking domains with which we are engaged here at VTIPG, one encounters the reality of this phenomenon. In our work in social welfare and health care policy for example, at bottom, we see a nation struggling to develop a framework of private action and public support that results in adequate social action and treatment opportunities as well as individual initiative. The complex forms of social support and policy implementation in these areas mirror the public’s deeply conflicted values on the rightful role of government and market. The result has been breathtakingly complex public policy and broad popular disaffection amid cries for increased service effectiveness and accountability. Similarly, in disaster relief and mitigation, scholars and public officials alike have argued that effective response cannot occur unless organizations and actors in all three sectors are actively engaged. But hurricanes Katrina and Gustav have revealed again how difficult it is to elicit and sustain such cooperation and to make complex intersectoral governance structures work effectively and equitably. In this policy domain too, there are shrill calls in and out of government for greater accountability, and restiveness over the relative efficacy of publicly led action. The same is surely true for efforts to secure effective responses to ongoing environmental pollution and climate change. Community resilience demands the engagement of actors from all sectors of the political economy in environmental public policy implementation, but ideological disagreements over the rightful role and reach of government and the resulting mind‐numbingly complex forms of regulation and service delivery have made progress uneven in this domain, with conflicts and suspicions running deep among all parties.

These examples might be multiplied but they suggest that our current intricate forms of policy implementation that demand and depend upon intersectoral‐cooperation reflect a polity deeply conflicted in its estimation of the appropriate role and reach of government action. But wide awareness of this fact and the healthy debate that might accompany popular recognition of the multi‐ faceted forms of governance it has wrought has not yet occurred. Instead, public officials deal with structures of action that demand complicated and collaborative forms of action amid competing incentives and values while the broader citizenry grows ever more impatient over how difficult it appears to be to attain policy results and transparent and accountable government action.

It is hard not to conclude that while it is important for researchers and public officials to seek to do all they can to make collaborative governance structures work as effectively as possible - exploring the dynamics of alternate organizational structures, forms of leadership and types of conflict management strategies, for example - it is still more vital that they seek to develop a thoroughgoing public conversation on the governance structures that our collective and conflicted values have created. It is equally necessary for the citizenry to develop patience as their governments struggle to find ways and means not only to realize their demands for collaborative governance structures, but also to do so in ways that can conduce to democratic accountability and outcomes. There is much work to do on all of these concerns to which our ongoing research and capacity building projects here at the Institute can surely contribute.

Governance in Conflicted Landscapes of Memory and Action

The Institute is surely at an important point in its organizational development as we celebrate our second anniversary. The energy is palpable, the creativity always energizing and the range of projects underway inspiring. I want to focus on a subset of our efforts here. We have, for some time now, been developing a range of long-term and effective collaborations with entities on our campus and in the communities we serve. Sponsored projects and research are underway in community-and-public health and in child and social welfare as well as in disaster risk mitigation and resilience and peace building, among other initiatives. Much of our work is integrative and transdisciplinary and aims to understand and address the challenges that arise with today’s complex forms of governance and to devise effective solutions and strategies. But as we embark on these efforts, it is striking how little is known about how one actually “does” this important work. Accordingly, we are exploring and testing alternate conceptions of transdisciplinarity even as we seek to create such efforts. Our project in Sub-Saharan Africa with the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) is illustrative. This collaboration aims to join VTIPG expertise with VBI capacities to develop a long-term presence and partnership in two Sub-Saharan African nations to assist in combating infectious disease. But even as we seek ways and means by which to encourage planners, geographers, political scientists, biologists, computer scientists and mathematicians to work together, we are also self-consciously developing mechanisms to chart the whys and wherefores and relative efficacy of what we are doing. The result is always fascinating, sometimes painful and finally, we hope, a significant contribution to this critically important area of inquiry and action.

Our interest in complex forms of governance and intersectoral relationships also extends to our projects and research linked to social welfare. Few policy domains in the United States are more complex or more conflicted than this one and few are more vital. Our project teams, led by Mary Beth Dunkenberger and Renee Loeffler, not only are making these complicated service delivery structures work more effectively at the local and state levels, they also are seeking ways to deepen our understanding of how they work (or not) and what may be done in the longer pull to make them more effective and equitable instruments of policy action. In so doing, they are exploring in practice a key example of the complicated mosaic that is service delivery and governance in the United States today.

The Institute’s work in peacebuilding provides another example of an effort that self-consciously crosses disciplinary boundaries and creates new common ground. Professor Laura Zanotti of our Department of Political Science and I are engaged in creating a long-term research and project agenda linked to the roles of community-based organizations and philanthropies in peacebuilding. Our work took us to Belfast, Northern Ireland in late May. While there, we were privileged to participate in a superb conference on Victim Empowerment sponsored by the Foundations for Peace Network whose leaders also kindly allowed us to interview them for our research. Developing 2 peacebuilding strategies and understanding the social, political and cultural dynamics that underpin them demands deep sensitivity to the ways in which the various stakeholders are making sense of their world(s). The differences among parties in conflict may be deep, wide and enduring, but peace and effective governance demand action notwithstanding.

Taken as a whole, the work briefly described here is at once daunting and humbling and symbolizes the Institute’s commitment to ethically informed, intellectually vital and policy relevant understanding and action. We can and should aspire to no less. Those we serve certainly deserve our best efforts.

We are always interested in hearing from those with interest in our work. Please feel free to contact us at cbm9q@vt.edu to share your ideas and perceptions. We look forward to hearing from you.


Max Stephenson Jr.