Category Archives: Politics

Polls and Partisanship

A recent poll found that 37% of evangelicals are more likely to vote for GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore following allegations of sexual misconduct against him.

That makes for a nice clickbait headline.

It sounds appalling, and it is appalling, though perhaps not for the reasons one might think.

First, some details on the poll itself: it was fielded by JMC Analytics. A firm, for what it’s worth, given a ‘C’ ranking by FiveThirtyEight. It was a landline poll, with a 4.1% margin of error.

The question alluded to in the lede read: “Given the allegations that have come out about Roy Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct against four underage women, are you more or less likely to support him as a result of these allegations?”

Among all respondents, 29% responded that they were more likely to vote for Moore, a number which rises to 37% when considering the responses of self identified evangelicals. (Incidentally, 28% of evangelicals said the allegations made them less likely to vote fore Moore.)

It’s further notable that there is no gender variation in response to this question. 28% of men and 30% of women report being more like to vote for more, 39% of men and 37% of women report being less likely, and 33% of men and 34% of women say it makes no difference.

The poll asks no questions about why respondents are more or less likely to vote for Moore, though JMC’s results summary gestures towards a possible explanation:

Those more likely to support Moore over the allegations favor him over Jones 84-13%. However, the numbers are just as polarized (81-9% for Jones) among those who say the incident makes them less likely to support Moore.

This poll result isn’t about religion, it’s about partisanship.

That’s not to say those who support Moore are just dirty partisans who need to get their priorities in order. Indeed, if I may venture a guess, I’d imagine that supporters who find themselves on the side of “more likely” interpret this whole thing as a partisan stunt meant to weaken the Republican party.

Importantly, such a view does not intrinsically require doubting victims’ legitimacy – indeed, it might better be interpreted as a doubting our collective democratic legitimacy. It’s not a sign of a healthy democracy when people – of all parties – imagine our national politics to have the cloak and dagger character of House of Cards.

That makes me sad.

It makes me sad that we’re so caught up in the politics of partisanship that we can’t engage seriously with the real work of democracy; of working together to figure out how we all get by in this messy world.

Headlines and memes which indicate that Republicans or Evangelicals support child molestation do a disservice to democracy.

They make me tired. We have serious work to do.

And some of that serious work stems from the fact that there are terrible people in all parties. Seriously, there are terrible, abusive men everywhere. Everywhere. We can’t pretend that such abuse is relegated to one party, one state, or one denomination.

The first step, as they say, is admitting we have a problem.

With any hope, there is a great reckoning coming. As we finally start listening to women, and believing women, and building a non-patriachial society where such terrible abuse isn’t built into the fabric.

But as part of that reckoning, we’ll need to figure out how to collectively respond when abuses by celebrities, politicians, and other men of power, come to light. Neither steadfast solitary nor internet-mob panic seem the optimal way to go.

Personally, I’d like to see Alabama Republicans given the opportunity to replace Roy Moore on the ballot. Turns out he’s a terrible person. That happens some times. Reschedule the general if you need to. The system should support voter choice, not constrain it. I’d like to see a system which allowed voters to respond to this issue in a thoughtful, responsible way.

After all, while I wish this abuse were an isolated incident, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’d know – this is going to happen again, and it could happen with a candidate from any party.

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Polarization, heuristics, and the 24 hour news cycle

Skeptics of the democratic ideal of self governance often point to the almost laughable impracticality of the vision. People are simply bad at being knowledgeable and making well-informed judgements.

Notably, this concern needn’t inherently be a slight. While the most elitist of skeptics will judgmentally decry the dreadful specter of “the masses” for perceived failings of willful ignorance or stupidity, some scholars offer a more nuanced view.

Consider, for example, the post-WWI writing of journalist Walter Lippmann. While his rhetorical flourishes reasonably earned him a reputation as an elitist and a technocrat, the full thread of his argument is much more subtle.

Lippmann – who had been intimately acquainted with propaganda efforts during the war – was notoriously concerned about giving too much power to “the public;” that “uninformed, sporadic mass of men” who will “arrive in the middle of the third act and will leave before the last curtain, having stayed just long enough perhaps to decide who is the hero and who the villain of the piece.”

But despite the colorful imagery, his argument wasn’t that the vast mass of men were too lazy or stupid to be entrusted with the vital task of democracy. Rather, his argument was simply that  no single person could ever have the capacity to be all-knowledgeable on all things.

There is just too much.

Reasonably lacking in the time to perfectly master all of human knowledge, every single person is left to make the best decisions they can by drawing heavily from existing knowledge, perceptions, and instincts.

Lippmann, incidentally, coined the word “stereotype” to describe the phenomenon.

As social psychologists will tell you, “stereotyping” is not inherently bad. As beings constantly bombarded by information, we literally couldn’t function if we constantly had to reconstruct our basic understanding of everyday objects and encounters. We couldn’t live without heuristics.

But, they can also become problematic if we become too rooted in our thinking, if we don’t have or take the time to periodically push past our heuristics.

Political polarization is just one example of this. It is too easy, too easy, to heuristically label people who agree with you as “good” and people who disagree with you as “bad.” A mild version of this may be helpful in some cases of electoral politics – knowing that a candidate of party X supports the political platform I generally support is arguably meaningful information. But it most certainly becomes problematic when this heuristic labeling seeps into our every day life and every day encounters.

Markus Prior argues that polarization is an outcome of an increasingly efficient media environment. When people aren’t all “accidentally” exposed to the same evening news – as they were when the evening news was literally the only thing on TV – people tend to self-select into separate, biased news spheres.

Perhaps worse, they self-select out of news consumption all together. After all, there are far more enjoyable things to watch than the constant depressing drudgery of current events.

This causes a perfect storm for polarization – most people are generally uniformed, and when they peak their head up to get a sense of what’s going on, they make quick judgements inferred from a media outlet specially curated to cater to their existing beliefs.

There’s a reasonable amount of psychological and political literature to reinforce this story, but, I think, we lose something if we forget the Lippmann view.

The problem, Lippmann would argue, is not the stereotypes themselves, it’s the thoughtless and broad application of them which results from not having enough time to do otherwise.

In other words, while the wide variety of media options may lend themselves to polarization, the constant, 24-hour avalanche of news coverage is perhaps a bigger problem. It is literally impossible to keep up, to take it all in and study every issue in a thoughtful, non-biased way.

In the absence of time for such activity, and buried in our own personal pressures of work of and life, we adapt as best we can by making quick, vaguely informed decisions motivated largely by our pre-existing beliefs.

It’s not that “the public” can’t be trusted, Lippmann would argue, it’s that we all put too much faith in our own ability to rise above such challenges. It is always “other people” who are politically foolish. We – and the people we agree with – are, of course, more enlightened.

As if anyone has the ability to keep up with all the news.

 

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Text as Data Conference

At the end of last week, I had the pleasure of attending the eighth annual conference on New Directions in Analyzing Text as Data, hosted by Princeton University and organized by Will Lowe, John Londregan, Marc Ratkovic, and Brandon Stewart.

The conference had a truly excellent program, and was packed with great content on a wide variety of text analysis challenges.

There were a number of papers on topic modeling, including work from my colleague Ryan Gallagher on Anchored correlation explanation: Topic modeling with minimal domain knowledge. – a really cool, information-theory approach to topic modeling.

Luke Miratrix also presented joint work with Angela Fan, Finale Doshi-Velez on Prior matters: simple and general methods for evaluating and improving topic quality in topic modeling, an approach which aims to approve upon standard LDA by using priors to promote informative words.

I also really enjoyed Hanna Wallach’s presentation on A network model for dynamic textual communications with application to government email corpora, which introduces the Interaction-Partition Topic Model (IPTM), which combines elements of LDA with ERGMs.

There were also a number of talks reflecting and improving upon the ways in which we approach the methodological challenges of textual data.

Laura Nelson argued for a process of computational grounded theory, in which textual analysis helps guide and direct deep reading, but in which the researcher stays intimately familiar with her corpus.

Justin Grimmer presented the great paper, How to make causal inferences using texts, which presents a conceptual framework for making causal inference using text.

For my own research, Will Hobbs might get the prize for method I’d most like to use, with his paper on Latent dimensions of attitudes on the Affordable Care Act: An application of stabilized text scaling to open-ended survey responses. He presents a very clever method for scaling common and uncommon words in order to extract latent dimensions from short text. It’s really cool.

And, of course, Nick Beauchamp presented work done jointly with myself and Peter Levine on mapping conceptual networks. In this work, we present and validate a model for measuring the conceptual network an individual uses when reasoning. In these networks, nodes are concepts and edges represent the connections between those concepts More on this in future posts, I’m sure.

Finally the session titles were the absolute best. See, for example:

  • How Does This Open-Ended Question Make You Feel?
  • Fake Pews! (a session on religiosity)
  • America’s Next Top(ic) Model
  • Fwd: Fw: RE: You have to see this paper!

Well played, well played.

Many thanks to all the conference organizers for a truly engaging and informative couple of days.

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Title VII

Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a memo to agency heads and US attorneys. Obtained by BuzzFeed, the memo read in part:

Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination encompasses discrimination between men and women but does not encompass discrimination based on gender identity per se, including transgender status.

In other words, while federal law previously recognized that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act applied to all forms of gender discrimination, the Justice Department is now choosing to interpret the law more narrowly; no longer protecting all men and women from employer, voting, or other forms of public discrimination. Specifically, transgender men and women will no longer have these federal protections.

Currently, only 20 states plus the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting discrimination against transgender individuals. So with the distribution of a memo, three fifths of our nation’s citizens just lost human rights protections which they had the day before.

It shouldn’t be that easy to take away basic rights.

Additionally, the removal of federal backing puts existing state laws into greater peril, as opponents are already mobilized trying to over turn state laws. Even more of our citizens could lose their rights.

This unconscionable act cannot go unchallenged.

In his memo, Session tries to sound nonchalant about stripping citizens of their rights. The new Justice Department interpretation is “a conclusion of law, not policy. As a law enforcement agency, the Department of Justice must interpret Title VII as written by Congress.”

Scapegoating Congress for this egregious interpretation, however, flies in the face of existing case law and existing understanding Title VII protections.

Sessions attempts to appear all innocent and neutral in re-interpreting this law:

The Justice Department must and will continue to affirm the dignity of all people, including transgender individuals. Nothing in this memorandum should be construed to condone mistreatment on the basis of gender identity, or to express a policy view on whether Congress should amend Title VII to provide different or additional protections.

But it’s not neutral to roll back protections which have been in place, and it’s not innocent to explicitly remove protections covering transgender individuals. Despite his claims to the contrary, this is a policy move, not a legal one.

Furthermore this move comes just days after the United States took a position – as just one of 13 countries – against a UN resolution condemning the death penalty as a sanction for same-sex relations.

Yes, you read that right – we are no longer against the state-sanction murder of people for being gay.

The current administration is waging a war against human rights on many fronts. I know we are tired, we are exhausted and numbed from the constant stream of negative news. But we cannot allow these policy changes to pass silently or without confrontation.

We cannot let it be okay to simply re-interpret someone’s rights away.

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Travel Ban: Take 3

Yesterday, President Trump issued his third travel ban. As you may recall, the previous Executive Order on this topic called for the “assessment of current screening and vetting procedures.” While the ban itself was suspended by numerous legal challenges, apparently the information gathering work was in fact completed.

The new travel ban effects nationals of 8 countries – nationals of Chad, Iran, Libya, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, Somalia, and North Korea. Sudan was removed from the previous travel ban list, while Venezuela and North Korea were added. Six of the effected countries have majority muslim populations.

The new ban will remain in effect indefinitely.

Experts indicate that the new ban will be harder to challenge in court. It is more polished, more precise, and more removed from President Trump’s numerous anti-Muslim campaign comments. It ameliorates some of the most egregious problems with the initial, January 27 ban: there will be a several week delay before the new ban goes into effect, people who currently hold valid visa will not be effected by the new ban, and restrictions vary slightly by country, allowing, for example, Iranians with valid student visas to enter the country.

In short, this is what a politically savvy travel ban would have looked like in the first place. It has been thoroughly considered and vetted; carefully dressed up to give the impression of a relatively reasonable piece of U.S. policy.

But make no mistake: this travel ban still represents a grave overreach based in fear and racism. It is still unacceptable.

I have attended several travel ban protests in the last nine months and it looks as though in the near future I’ll be attending more.

And while attending those protests, I suppose I’ll be remembering Machiavelli’s advice to his beloved prince: If you’re going to do something terrible, start by doing something as terrible as possible. Then, when you benevolently scale back to something slightly less terrible, the people will appreciate your reasonableness and moderation.

That’s what a clever dictator would do.

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Adversary Democracy

There’s a long tradition in computer science, largely originating from cryptography, of designing with a generic adversary in mind.

Code should be able to handle the mistaken input of a thoughtless user and should remain robust in worse-case scenarios. The motivation for this approach is simple: programming for ideal users and ideal cases will quickly go awry in the messy world of practical applications. Programming against a malicious or incompetent adversary will make your code better.

This presents an interesting divergence from deliberative theory, where participants are arguably hoped to be as close to ideal as reasonably possible.

If people can be thoughtful, open-minded, and eager to discover the truth through debate, then deliberation can be transformative. If they enter discussion as “tolerant gladiators,” to borrow a phrase from Huckfeldt, and argue with the goal of convincing others and being convinced when it is appropriate, as Mercier and Landemore write, then we can have a rich and robust society.

Skeptics respond that this is too idealistic a vision. People are just not that virtuous and unbiased. At least, not in the numbers required for a functioning deliberative democracy.

Deliberative democrats continually rebuff this claim. Mansbridge, for example, draws a distinction between adversary democracy and unitary democracy. Adversary democrats not only have hesitancies about the capacities of humankind, but more fundamentally, they believe political life can only exist as a zero-sum game.

In every community decision, in every group interaction, someone wins and someone loses. With this epistemic frame, any shortcomings of humanity are actually besides the point: the best you can do is try to make the distribution of wins and loses as just as possible.

Mansbridge and others strongly argue against this framing. Political life – associated living – is not zero-sum. By engaging in deliberation, by reasoning together, people can collectively build new approaches and solutions which remain out of reach in the adversarial paradigm.

It is not about winning or losing; it is not even about compromise. Deliberation transforms the values and beliefs of participants and gives them space to co-create their worlds together.

I believe whole heartedly in this vision. Politics isn’t zero-sum – or at least doesn’t have to be – and deliberation can serve as a powerful vehicle for collective leadership.

But I am left wondering – do adversarial models have no place at all?

This seems somewhat unlikely, given the current inundation of adversarial political relationships. Yet, the prevailing wisdom among deliberative democrats is that current democratic failings result primarily are primarily epistemic in nature – that if we collectively shift how we think about politics we can build the unitary systems Mansbridge describes.

It seems, though, that the computer science model might have some value here. Imagine an adversary who is wholly uninterested in dialogue. Engaging them in deliberation is more challenging than overcoming their biases or social power, rather they actively engage in trying to make deliberation fail.

There are a lot of great frameworks for deliberation, there’s a lot you can accomplish with structure and moderators.

But if someone is deadset on being adversarial – if they actively don’t want to participate and threaten the wellbeing of other participants – I don’t see how deliberation can survive.

That’s not necessarily fatal to deliberation, though – I still believe strongly in the critical role this work has to play in our democracy, and I would still fancy myself a deliberative democrat who sees this approach as the cornerstone for a healthy democracy.

But sometimes you have adversaries who don’t want to play by the rules. Who don’t want to co-create or reason with others. They just want to destroy.

And for that you need a whole other approach of advocacy, protest, and resistance.

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To Charlottesville, With Love

I have to admit that up until this past weekend, I’ve paid little attention to the Virginia city of Charlottesville. I had a vague sense of the city, thanks to posts from Facebook friends who live there, but I had little knowledge of the city, its people, or the controversies it was struggling with.

When the city was suddenly catapulted into the news this weekend as the site of a white supremacist rally, I began to notice how little everyone else seemed to know about the city as well.

“Charlottesville” became a hashtag, a name synonymous with violent acts of hate. “After Charlottesville” became shorthand for our national angst. How do we move on, what do we do, “after Charlottesville”?

Such language is unfair to the city and does too much to distance ourselves from the situation. Charlottesville isn’t some remote backwater disconnected from the rest of American life. It is a vibrant, diverse, and loving city.

What happened in Charlottesville this past weekend could have happened anywhere.

The Southern Poverty Law Center – which incidentally, you can donate to here – is currently tracking over 917 hate groups all across the US. White supremacist rhetoric isn’t isolated to Charlottesville, and it isn’t isolated to the South. It is a national challenge we all most grapple with and stand against.

It’s been a few days since the rally in Charlottesville, and just this morning I caught a piece of the story I had missed before. I had known that neo-nazis descended on Charlottesville in response to the city council voting to remove a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee. But what I had missed is that vote came in part as a response to a petition started by a 15-year-old Charlottesville high schooler: Change the name of Lee Park and Remove the Statue.

In the petition, Zyahna B. shares a letter to the editor that she wrote explaining her motivations. First, the statue represents something abhorrent: “When I think of Robert E. Lee I instantly think of someone fighting in favor of slavery. Thoughts of physical harm, cruelty, and disenfranchisement flood my mind.”

But perhaps even more importantly, this message “doesn’t represent what Charlottesville is all about.”

“There is more to Charlottesville than just the memories of Confederate fighters,” she writes. “There is more to this city that makes it great.”

This fifteen-year-old girl wanted the statue removed because she loves her city and she wants her city to celebrate love.

As we collectively reflect on the terrible events of this past weekend, it is too easy to forget this aspect of the story. Charlottesville is full of amazing, passionate, dedicated people who literally put their lives on the line to stand against white supremacy and hate.

Confronting our legacy of slavery and our ongoing systems of oppression is a national endeavor; no city, state, or region is absolved from this task.

It is facile to point to Charlottesville as a symbol of everything that is wrong with this country. Rather, I can only hope that in confronting this national blight, my neighbors and I can be as courageous, committed, and full of love as the people in Charlottesville. They leave me in awe.

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On Politics and Blame

Perhaps one of the few things that can be widely agreed upon these days is that the state of U.S. politics is less than ideal. Whether your side is winning or losing, it seems, the fight sure is ugly.

Of course, hindsight bias makes it challenging to accurately quantify the depravity of current affairs relative to past political struggles. Things seem pretty bad now, sure, but our vice president hasn’t shot any political rivals, and this isn’t even the first time the world has found itself on the brink of a nuclear showdown.

So perhaps things have always been terrible.

It is both interesting and depressing to read older political science literature; to see the long history of fake news documented by digital humanities scholars, or to read Lippmann’s blistering arguments for why the public will never be capable of taking on the tremendous task democracy has set out for them.

It is remarkable how little has changed; how much those old arguments still ring true.

Lippmann, for example, decried people’s steadfast commitment to their stereotypes – a word he coined. These mental short cuts may serve many useful functions, but they cause deep disfunction in the political domain, as people cling desperately to their fabricated understandings.

Stereotypes offer such familiar comfort, Lippmann argues, that “any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.”

Lippmann would hardly be surprised by the current state of political polarization.

Perhaps most remarkable in all this is that the critiques of our democracy have remained relatively stable over time. The details have changed and the voracity of certain view points ebb and flow, but, in the broadest sense, the contours of the critiques stay the same.

If our democracy doesn’t work as well as we might hope, there is always someone to blame.

We could join with Lippmann in being skeptical of the average person’s capacity to carry out this work. Perhaps the great majority are simply too lazy, stupid, or distracted to properly engage in democracy.

We could blame the media – they are too caught up in ratings, too interested in sensation and not interested enough in the truth.

We could blame the school system – why haven’t they better prepared their students for the work of democracy?

We could blame whichever Others we find most distasteful. Perhaps people like us and the institutions we’re a part of are smart, capable, and doing everything right. It’s just those Other people, the people not like us, who hold us back from achieving the full vision of our democracy.

Note that these criticisms could come from any portion of the political spectrum – no party has a corner on this market.

And the truth, I would argue, is that all these actors and institutions are to blame. If our democracy is broken – and it certainly seems to be less than ideal – it is a collective challenge which we all must address and which we all must accept responsibility for.

Blame gets us nowhere.

Habermas argues in favor of what he calls “discourse theory” as a middle ground between systems theory and rational discourse theory. Our society is neither a hierarchical network of institutions nor an unstructured blob of autonomous individuals. It is something in between.

As Habermas describes:

The lifeworld forms, as a whole, a network composed of communicative actions. Under the aspect of action coordination, it’s society component consists of the totality of legitimately ordered interpersonal relationships. It also encompasses collectivities, associations, and organizations specialized for specific functions. Some of these functionally specialized action systems become independent…spheres integrated through values, norms, and mutual understanding.

“The media” and “the public” – even “the left” and “the right” – are such spheres, internally cohesive with their own norms and grammar, but still very much integrated into the entire deliberative system. We can’t just tell one sphere to go fix itself – the solution requires a more holistic perspective that considers broader network.

The solution requires all of us.

I am not interested in blame. I’m not interested in post-mortems on political campaigns or past policy initiatives. We can learn a lot from history, of course, but ultimately I more interested in the future.

Like it or not, we’re all stuck on this earth together. We have to find ways to work together, to co-create our world together. We can’t put all our energy into passing blame. “Fixing” politics begins with each one of us.

…Or, perhaps, we’re all going to die.

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Computational Models of Belief Systems & Cultural Systems

Work on belief systems is similar to the research on cultural systems – both use agent-based models to explore how complex systems evolve given a simple set of actor rules and interactions – there are important conceptual differences between the two lines of work.

Research on cultural systems takes a maco-level approach, seeking to explain if, when, and how, distinctive communities of similar traits emerge, while research on belief systems uses comparable methods to understand if, when, and how distinctive individuals come to agree on a given point.

The difference between these approaches is subtle but notable. The cultural systems approach begins with the observation that distinctive cultures do exist, despite local tendencies for convergence, while research on belief systems begins from the observation that groups of people are capable of working together, despite heterogeneous opinions and interests.

In his foundational work on cultural systems, Axelrod begins, “despite tendencies towards convergence, differences between individuals and groups continue to exist in beliefs, attitudes, and behavior” (Axelrod, 1997).

Compare this to how DeGroot begins his exploration of belief systems: “consider a group of individuals who must act together as a team or committee, and suppose that each individual in the group has his own subjective probability distribution for the unknown value of some parameter. A model is presented which describes how the group might reach agreement on a common subjective probability distribution parameter by pooling their individual opinions” (DeGroot, 1974).

In other words, while cultural models seek to explain the presence of homophily and other system-level traits, belief systems more properly seek to capture deliberative exchange. The important methodological difference here is that cultural systems model agent change as function of similarity, while belief systems model agent change as a process of reasoning.

 

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Defining Deliberation

While there are many definitions of deliberation – and many substantive debates about what constitutes ‘good’ deliberation (or perhaps it must be good to count as deliberation) – I like Jane Mansbridge’s ‘minimalist definition’ as a good starting point for understanding the term.

Deliberation, she writes, is “mutual communication that involves weighing and reflecting on preferences, values and interests regarding matters of common concern.”

While there is much that may be missing from this definition, I do think that it captures the core of what deliberation is all about. It is, fundamentally, a form of communication which engages reason and normative beliefs about shared concerns.

But the simplicity of this definition, perhaps under-states the value of deliberation; the power people can have in shaping their own communities.

Dewey writes that:

Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws and carrying on governmental administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officers. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that…It is, as we often say, though perhaps without appreciating all that is involved in the saying, a way of life, social and individual. The key-note of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.

When Dewey writes that ‘democracy is a way of life’ he means that the ideal of democracy can only be achieved when we co-create our values and institutions together; when we deliberate to answer the question, what should we do?

But more fundamentally, the Deweyian invocation to democracy as a way of life, tells us that deliberation is democracy. It is not “just talk” or isolated blather. Deliberation is the very stuff of democracy itself – and when we live our lives as good citizens, engaging regularly and rationally in conversation with all members of our community; when we treat every conversation as a chance to improve ourselves and co-create our world; when we take democracy as a way of life –

Then we are indeed creating democracy itself.

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