Considering the Critical Roles of Graduate Students

The formal publication date for this essay also marks the 12th anniversary of the Institute’s founding. Much has happened in these dozen years as the Institute for Policy and Governance (IPG) has grown and matured. We have changed our reporting relationships within Virginia Tech (VT), served under two Presidents, two Vice Presidents, two Deans and three School Directors and seen our role in the School of Public and International Affairs and College of Architecture and Urban Studies evolve considerably. More, during this period, the University has set itself on a course to realize interdisciplinary possibilities in its curricula and research, and its leaders have decided, too, that the institution will need to compete still more aggressively for research dollars to survive, let alone thrive, in the midst of a continuing decline in support from the state.

All of this has changed the professorial role profoundly and placed faculty under enormous pressure to obtain external support for their research, whether from governments, foundations or private corporations. All of these entities carry their own accountabilities and risks and they all require enormous investments of faculty time and resources as well as the time and expertise of our Institute (for those we serve) and Virginia Tech’s sponsored program support staff to help to realize them. In this sense, IPG’s functional remit has never been more significant or more prominent and it looks set only to grow in importance in these terms.

I want here to focus briefly on the role graduate students today play within VT and IPG in the rapidly evolving environment that each now confronts. It is easy to argue that the modern research university, complex marvel that it is, could not exist without the faculty who constitute its beating heart. But it is equally the case that today’s research institutions could not function without the graduate students who come to them to pursue knowledge and advanced degrees in their chosen fields. If faculty constitute the metaphorical heart of the world’s leading universities, graduate students may be understood as the arteries attached to them. They complete the organism that serves as the center of the modern research university. Indeed, for many scientists and engineers, graduate students literally act as extensions of their work, helping them to carry out projects or experiments they could not otherwise complete alone in their labs. Graduate students also lead undergraduate courses and discussion sections across many disciplines and help faculty with advising and grading chores related to large classes as well. Further, graduate students assist professors with field research and sponsored project reports, and many also publish the results of those efforts in academic journals with their mentors, as an integral part of their educational experience.

By implication, this partial list of the ways graduate students are enmeshed in the University’s life suggests that these individuals also likely play vital roles in the Institute¾ and so they do. One way of illustrating how post-graduates are integrated into the warp and woof of IPG’s daily activities is to outline how those individuals have shaped and continue to chart the Community Change Collaborative (CCC) research initiative within the Institute. The CCC is an ongoing multi-dimensional interdisciplinary project aimed at exploring the dynamics of community and civic change at multiple analytic scales. The effort is comprised of the following parts:

  • An Academic Forum: A weekly substantive seminar-style discussion investigating central questions related to community change. Graduate student participants come from multiple disciplines and academic programs and share their own inquiry, research foci and conceptual frames as they address key concerns related to theorizing and examining democratic change processes. All participate voluntarily and without academic credit.
  • A Speakers Series: Engaged students select, invite and host individuals involved in community development or change work to visit campus each semester to share insights from their experience and practice. Guests offer a public address, which is recorded, and a roundtable, also open to the community, which is recorded, too. These are available on a public website and a group of CCC students and I will use them to produce a forthcoming analytical volume based on the series.[1]
  • A Podcast Series: Two or three student volunteers interview each Collaborative project speaker for the Institute’s Trustees without Borders podcast series. These are professionally produced and hosted by IPG Senior Fellow Andrew Morikawa and available to the public. Many guests have indicated this opportunity proved a high point of their visit to campus. The quality of these sessions has proven to be routinely excellent.[2]
  • An Academic Journal: A group of IPG-affiliated graduate students have successfully launched a refereed academic journal called, appropriately enough, Community Change, which will shortly publish its second issue.[3]
  • Cross-University Sharing of Ideas Concerning Community Change: The Collaborative strives actively to bring faculty members interested in community change together for forums to share their research interests and theoretical frames in order to catalyze learning and continued dialogue across disciplinary boundaries.
  • Field Research: Finally, CCC participants have participated in field work to assist Appalachian communities during this past year. I hope we will be able to continue to deepen and enlarge those opportunities in coming months as they permit students to consider the concepts, constructs and concerns on which they have reflected in the Forum and during speaker visits as these are revealed or may be applied in community contexts. We hope, too, to add one or two CCC-sponsored field visits per semester to Appalachian towns that will be aimed at equipping participants with a deeper understanding of the complex interplay of social, cultural, economic and political issues in communities in this vital region. Again, these forays will be designed intentionally to encourage participating to seek to make sense of what they experience through the theoretical and conceptual frames they have discussed in other CCC events and activities.

In addition to the many ways graduate students are involved in the Community Change Collaborative, the Institute also routinely seeks to involve interested students in sponsored projects, where they may obtain robust professional experience in preparing analyses or delivering programs for clients. In some cases, these have led to Ph.D. dissertation or master’s degree thesis topics for those individuals so involved. More, Institute faculty members are chairs and members of graduate student advisory committees across a number of disciplines, and the reach of those individuals’ intellectual interests and topics lend richness daily to the intellectual life of IPG. They also bring alternative theoretical formulations and ways of knowing that can illuminate Institute work, whether arising from agriculture, public health, landscape architecture, the arts and humanities, or international politics and development. Finally, student engagement in IPG in these various ways often results in their mentors becoming involved in Institute activities as well, an always welcome and enriching turn.

In many ways, IPG now serves as a forum in which an interdisciplinary group of interested graduate students and faculty can come together to explore common concerns linked to policy or governance and to discern ways of addressing them that traverse traditional intellectual boundaries. Ultimately, the special province and provenance of their vocations allow these professors and graduate students to be driven foremost by their curiosity and limited only by the reach of their individual and collective imaginations. Perhaps the Institute today constitutes something of a microcosm of the vibrancy and determinedly polyglot character of the larger institution of which it is a part. Ideally, both are engaged in the relentless pursuit of knowledge and are open to the magic that can transpire when human beings, willing to listen and passionately desirous of learning, engage one another with openness and good will. The results of such interaction can be, and often are, surprising and bracing. They intrigue, pique and provoke, and constantly renew those so engaged. Graduate students are vital and essential interlocutors and participants in this special forum of exchange, this unique educational possibility. Indeed, they are critical to its potentials, and to the life of the Institute and of the larger institution they have elected to attend.

Overall, I fondly hope that IPG can serve graduate students and faculty members interested in our mission and involved in our work in whatever form best suits their aims, in a fashion identical to that one-time Yale University President A. Bartlett Giamatti (1938-1989) once remarked should be true of universities generally:

Universities are not here to be mediums for the coercion of other people, they’re here to be mediums for the free exchange of ideas.[4]

           Just so. And they (and we at the Institute) cannot thrive without that possibility, in which graduate students do and must play an integral role.



[2] Trustees without Borders, Community Voices website. Accessed June 19, 2018.

[3] Community Change, website. Accessed June 19, 2018.

[4] Giamatti, A. Bartlett, Brainy Quote,                         

Accessed June 19, 2018.

The Dangers of “Cotton Candy” Politics

Regular readers of this column know that I usually employ it to reflect on Institute for Policy and Governance (IPG) projects and seek to explore and illuminate the broader questions or concerns those efforts embody. I want to depart temporarily from that precedent to comment on the fundamental importance of civic capacity for deliberation for self-governance, a concern that underpins all of IPG’s work. Indeed, recent years have witnessed something of a renaissance on the topic via a wide-ranging literature ¾how such deliberation might be defined, what processes might conduce to it, how to equip individuals with capacities to practice it and so on. This literature is doubtless a rich one, and it owes much to many scholars. Yet, at bottom, these authors have examined an apparently simple question: how human beings can come to live peaceably and reasonably in freedom with one another while addressing the inevitable conflicts among their number that will arise.

My sense is deliberation has become so signal a question once more because interested scholars are well aware that in the United States (U.S.) and many other nations, a large and growing share of citizens exhibit less informed awareness of political questions, even as such issues have become more enmeshed in their personal daily lives. To some extent, the internet and social media, as well as the canalization of communications media more generally, have allowed a share of citizens to turn inward and worry more about reporting their reaction to their breakfast cereal to their friends than on, say, a genocide occurring in another nation or another mass shooting in their own. They can, and many also seek, news and information that conforms to their personal world view or affirms their opinions and expectations.

These individuals have become self-absorbed masters of their own wants and preferences and constant purveyors of the same, while increasingly less conscious of community occurrences, and still less capable of imagining what they owe the broader body politic. Indeed, they believe it owes them, and they demand that it serve their personal desires more efficiently and effectively. I have overstated and exaggerated this point for emphasis, as there are many citizens who use social media and the internet to discuss and to learn more about current events and governance. But my point here is widely known and is as broadly a topic of concern.

U.S. elementary and secondary schools have contributed to this situation, as they have not adequately acquainted their students with how American democratic politics works, or their roles in its success, for some decades. In 2017, for example, only 24 percent of U.S. high school seniors who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics examination scored at a level high enough to be deemed “proficient” in their understanding of core ideas related to the American regime and its Constitution.[1] This educational trend is partly the product of political and social choices that have sought to prize markets as the arbiter of all things and to ensure that students are “job ready,” rather than also to make certain they become informed and deliberative citizens. Relatedly, this result is surely the consequence of decades of partisan attacks on the very idea of the necessity for self-governance, in favor of a belief that capitalism and markets alone can serve those political functions.

The conflation of these trends has made Americans, particularly, more vulnerable to what one might call a “cotton candy politics” of empty, but initially alluring surface claims focused not on reality, but on fears and perceived slights and with no awareness and less concern about their longer-term implications. Cotton candy is a superficially appealing treat with no nutrition value, but with long-term pernicious effects if consumed in undue quantities. By analogy, I share four brief current examples of this new form of politics here. All are familiar, and all have seen their full flowering during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and administration, which has both relentlessly exploited this trend and deepened it for purposes of mobilization and to serve the President’s personal narcissism and self-evident cruelty.

Perhaps most familiarly, Trump has argued with no evidence that refugees and immigrants constitute pariahs who arrive only to prey on American women and steal livelihoods from all other citizens. As a matter of historical fact, these very individuals have played and continue to play critical roles in building this nation. Trump’s egregious claims use perceived differences and the anxieties of residents most concerned about, and directly affected by, social and economic change to scapegoat ruthlessly and thereby undermine democratic norms and human rights. More, Trump’s assertions have trivialized the complexities of self-governance and life in a diverse community by arguing that these imagined “woes” can be addressed by constructing a wall that will keep “those” people out. Not only is this idea an infantilizing grotesquerie, it encourages the very anxiety it purports to alleviate. Nonetheless, this bluntness makes it a potent mobilization device for a population otherwise only partly engaged and aware, if listening at all. This rhetoric and the unreasoned policy it engenders separates Americans into favored and disfavored groups and thereby erodes the possibility for civic unity.

Trump has exacerbated the implications of these claims and actions addressed to “outside others” with systematic attacks on minorities within the American population. These verbal assaults have taken the guise of anti-Semitic campaign ads and comments, high profile defenses of Neo-Nazi and white supremacist sympathizers and continuing condemnations of transgender and Hispanic Americans. He has frequently alluded to a non-existent crime wave in the country’s cities and persistently denounced those he claims are creating it, in an obvious gesture to fear and racial animus among a share of the nation’s population. Again, he has launched these attacks particularly to appeal to an economically restive group in the body politic and his discriminatory claims have undermined citizens’ sense of shared purpose and comity, even as they have violently scapegoated specific groups and subjected them to misplaced animus.

To these deliberate efforts to polarize, with their implications for civic capacity and shared norms, Trump has added a fresh embrace of torture in the guise of his nomination of an individual deeply involved in the George W. Bush administration’s malignant and much-criticized infatuation with torture to serve as head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Trump apparently believes his action makes him appear “tough” to those who support him, but this move undermines in symbol and in fact the most elemental principle of the American regime. If Congress approves this nomination, it will endanger American men and women serving in our armed services by signaling that this nation approves of such practices and may well undertake them again. Leaving aside that potential, Trump’s selection alone has besmirched the nation’s ideals and its standing as a beacon of human rights and freedom in the world.

Finally, Trump has lately turned to international trade as another convenient and simplistic means to scapegoat others to appeal to the anxieties of a share of Americans. As he has done with immigrants and minorities, he has argued that “others,” in this case, nations, have taken unfair advantage of past American officials’ gullibility, including those of his own party, and that fact has cost laborers their jobs. To say the issue is not so simple is to understate how misleading Trump’s claims are and continue to be. Still, at a superficial level for those millions of Americans not paying much attention, he appears to be “fighting” for those who have lost positions or status due to ongoing economic globalization. This perception can obtain among many, irrespective of the fact that his actions may well cost a share of those enamored of his othering rhetoric the positions they now possess and cost other individuals billions of dollars should trade wars ensue as a result of his ill-considered actions.

Taken together, these examples suggest that this form of politics seeks foremost to polarize and divide the citizenry into warring camps to the perceived advantage of its titular leader. It contemplates and encourages a thoroughgoing social tribalization. We have seen this before in our nation. In an essay published in 1871 in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Walt Whitman argued,

Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn—they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.[2]

Whitman was surely correct that democracy cannot long withstand such a situation. And yet, our current politics can readily be so characterized. Trump’s continuing attacks on the moral foundations and shared norms that comprise the fundaments of our collective governance enterprise, together with long-lived educational, communication and political trends that have found citizens knowing less and less about their nation’s institutions, but daily encouraged not to obtain the knowledge and capacities necessary to sustain them in any case, now endanger the Republic.

Whether the country writ large and its public officials—progressives or conservatives, and irrespective of their party affiliations—can find the wherewithal to overcome this multi-barreled denunciation of its democratic foundations remains an open question. What seems clear is that Trump’s superficially appealing, but empty appeals to human fears and capacity for hate will continue, even as only the more difficult, but essential, task of deliberative discourse can prevent democracy’s ultimate usurpation. In short, cotton candy politics, like its confectionary namesake, is insubstantial and empty, and ultimately the carrier and symbol of a host of significant maladies. It must routinely be unmasked for what it is and for its deeper and darker implications.

In my Tidings column of January 1, 2017, I argued the following:

           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.[3]

In my view, that goal has never been more important for the Institute and the School of Public and International Affairs and university of which it is a part.


[1] National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2017, “How did U.S. students perform on the most recent assessments?”     Accessed March 24, 2018.

[2] Whitman, Walt. “Democratic Vistas,” 1871,  Accessed March 24, 2018.

[3] Stephenson, Max, Jr. “Revisiting the Central Challenge of Democratic Self-Governance,” Tidings, January 1, 2017,  Accessed. March 22, 2018.

Learning from Appalachia

One of the privileges we enjoyed at the Institute this past year was working with leaders and citizens of two small middle-Appalachia communities, Pennington Gap, Virginia and Montgomery, West Virginia, as they sought to chart a future course. Both towns are small— approximately 2,000 or so individuals live in each—and both have experienced catastrophic economic decline in recent years. In the case of Pennington Gap, that has come in the guise of the continuing decay of the coal mining industry as a result of mechanization, competition from natural gas, changing markets due to new demand patterns arising from environmental concerns and the fact that much of the easiest to obtain and highest quality Appalachian coal has already been mined. In addition, this small Lee County community has witnessed the waning of the tobacco industry, previously an agricultural mainstay and high value crop.

Montgomery, meanwhile, has also suffered the closure of the coal mines near it that had long ensured its prosperity and this past year lost another foundation with closure of its branch location of West Virginia Tech. Montgomery’s branch of that 4-year public higher education institution had been home to some 1,700 students per year and its faculty and employees and their earnings had all helped to support the community’s economy. The continued decline of mining alongside the loss of this stable source of employment and retail support has created a cascading series of negative effects for the town.

As a consequence of these trends, which were not created by the residents of these communities, both jurisdictions are now confronting high poverty rates in their remaining populations, decaying private and public infrastructure, a crisis of opioid addiction among a  share of their citizens with the attendant difficulties that trend suggests and an outward migration of their young people. Moreover, both are witnessing the steady erosion of their public schools  as institutional bastions as enrollment falters and locations close.

Our role as we worked with public and civic leaders from both communities was to help them understand better the character of their challenges and to work with them and with interested citizens to chart a course forward that mirrored the hopes and values of their populations. This process was somewhat different for each community, given the particular assets and ongoing efforts of each, but Institute staff, faculty and graduate students, with the assistance of colleagues from the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development, sought to  help the two towns identify their preferred paths and possibilities themselves, rather than to suggest we could or should do so. The leaders of both towns told us that our efforts were very helpful to the major stakeholders of their communities, and that each jurisdiction now has the information to allow it to pose tradeoffs and consider possible steps to address its circumstances thoughtfully. That is, we helped these community officials and citizens grasp more fully their contextual environments and consider possible ways they might proceed, given the realities and vicissitudes of the conditions they now confront. Our aim was never to tell them what to do, but instead to seek to help them identify alternatives concerning how they might wish to proceed and why.

Reflecting on our work with Pennington Gap and Montgomery, I want to highlight some of the exogenous forces that have shaped and will continue to structure the futures of these two Appalachian communities. Some are historical, others are related to changing market conditions and others have arisen on the basis of how some elements of our political system have reacted to the shaping trends that have placed these communities in the parlous state they now confront. I outline these here, but I recognize that each could easily merit a separate and more detailed analysis of its own and many more items could be added to this list.

  • These communities came to exist historically in economic terms because they were located near rivers and rich natural resources, especially For decades, coal provided stable employment for their citizens and more; the income it produced sustained the livelihood and tax base of both towns more generally. That is, these small communities are located where they are so that entrepreneurs could exploit the natural resources located near each to serve the energy and, to a lesser degree in the case of Pennington Gap, the personal consumer demands of a burgeoning nation. This was true into the 1960s, but mining technologies had already become more mechanized, the health dangers of tobacco use had become more widely known and external market conditions had begun to shift markedly during that decade and that pace only quickened in the 1970s and thereafter, resulting in falling employment in these sectors across Appalachia. Today, neither community can call coal mining a principal employer for its remaining population and the leaders of neither town are looking to resource extraction related employment to secure their citizenry’s futures.


  • The vexing basic question this reality raises, given the fact that the United States economy is driven to so large an extent by autonomous market actors seeking to maximize returns on their investments, is whether these towns can now redefine themselves in a fashion that market actors and consumers in their broader regional economies will In this, their small size and difficult straits make their challenge more arduous than it might otherwise be by removing much margin for error and by sharply limiting the resources available to pursue such repositioning. This is to say nothing ill about these leaders or citizens or their characters or capacities, but instead to point up the overwhelming significance of the market dominated realities of the economy in which they must operate. As Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman observed recently when examining the regenerative potential of (much larger) small cities (e.g., Rochester, New York with its 210,000 residents):

… If you back up enough it makes sense to think of urban destinies as a random process of wins and losses in which small cities face a relatively high likelihood of gambler’s ruin. … It’s going to be an uphill struggle [to maintain the viability of small cities]. In the modern economy, which has cut loose from the land, any particular small city exists only because of historical contingency that sooner or later loses its relevance.1

  • This difficulty is exacerbated by the challenge that many voters in these communities have known no other way of life than that which coal and, to a lesser degree, tobacco production In such a circumstance and given how quickly that known way of life has evanesced, many citizens in both of the towns with which we worked understandably continue to hope that the coal industry will return to its past vibrancy and that few changes in their ways of thinking and living in the world will be necessary as a result. In this, they have been encouraged by President Trump, who carried both localities by wide margins in the 2016 national election and has argued that coal’s decline is the product of unfair foreign competition and undue regulation rather than any structural changes in the market for the commodity. There is no evidence to back this assertion, but many citizens have adopted Trump’s stand as a coping mechanism and a way to maintain hope in a difficult situation. For present purposes, it must be said that this scenario makes it thorny politically for Montgomery and Pennington Gap political and civic leaders to seek change. More, it is not altogether implausible that an unwillingness to contemplate an alternative future could completely inhibit both communities from repositioning themselves for economic regeneration. The interested observer should always keep this possibility in mind and, should it occur, seek to understand why citizens chose that course.


  • These towns, like many elsewhere across the nation, are confronting a rapidly changing economy during a period of strong vilification of government and governance among many in the While individualism and suspicion of government are hardy perennials in the United States, the idea that public investment and governance itself are little but parasites in our political economy now dominates the perspective of many in the nation’s leading political party, the GOP. And that is certainly the case in the regions in which Montgomery and Pennington Gap are located. In this circumstance and given that party’s recent national tax action expected to create at least an additional $1 trillion deficit in federal funding during the next decade, it may be difficult for these towns to obtain the resources necessary to develop the foundations on which to predicate any new vision. This economic and social reality may only reinforce the political difficulty the leaders of these Appalachian communities now confront.

None of this is to contend that these two towns will succeed or fail in their efforts. Like Krugman, I find that impossible to predict. What I can say is that all democratic social change is complex and dependent upon changing otherwise sticky ontological and epistemic assumptions among populations, who may elect to ignore pleas to do so. In the present case, that fact is exacerbated by the reality that the residents of these Appalachian communities have been traumatized by rapid economic shifts in a very short time frame and have also been presented with political claims by national and state leaders that these changes can, in fact, be readily addressed or ignored. Some have heeded that assertion while others have abandoned all hope that positive change is possible; many of these are the drug addicted now so evident in these towns.

Both groups make it more difficult for these community’s leaders to build and maintain a political consensus for change with others who see the need for such action.

Finally, I can also conclude that all of us engaged in this effort came away from our involvement with the citizens and leaders of both communities with profound respect for the resourcefulness, intelligence, determination and grace with which they are seeking to address the changed circumstances of their towns. If anyone can overcome the difficulties now confronting Montgomery and Pennington Gap, these leaders and their citizens will surely do so. Of that I have no doubt.


 1 Krugman, Paul. “The Gambler’s Ruin of Small Cities (Wonkish),” The New York Times, December 30, 2017, Accessed December 30, 2017.

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,,_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. 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,, 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, , 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,
[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, Accessed September 13, 2016.

[2] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1865, available from:, 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.

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: