Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Civic Bargain (the Book)


Somehow I missed this very important book, when it came out last year: Brook Manville and Josiah Ober, The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives (Princeton University Press, 2023). As the title suggests, it is a work about establishing and maintaining a consensus-based democracy. A successful democracy of this sort is sustained by what the authors call "a grand civic bargain," which "is a negotiated agreement among citizens about the terms of their collective self-governance, enabled by practices of civic friendship and supported by civic education. It is achieved through a history of predemocratic political bargains. And it si sustianed over time by ongoing, incremental bargaining."

As the title suggests, this is not a political theory of moral absolutes - e.g., like universal human rights. "For a democracy to work, all must accept getting less than they desire. All must subordinate certain of their personal or subgroup interests to the good of the whole." The opposite of value absolutism, "bargaining will fail if the parties come to the bargaining table inflexibly committed to rejecting any agreement that does not fully instantiate their own conception of what a perfectly just (or happy, pious, or moral) outcome would be."

The authors also recognize the salience of who is or is not a participant in the bargain. "When the citizen body is increased, the capacity of the community is increased: more human capital is available in the form of more information, knowledge, and experience." On the other hand, "expanding the citizen body means more and more diverse members at the bargaining table. And that means that there may be more and different issues on the table."

The authors apply their theories to four familiar historical cases: "the four greatest democratic experiments in Western history," four "long-duration cases," which they consider "especially valuable for understanding democracy as collective self-government by citizens." The four are ancient Athens ("The Bargain That Invented the Power of the Citizenry"), republican Rome ("The Compromises That Created the First Great Republic"), England and then Britain ("The Royal Bargains That Made Parliament Sovereign"), and finally the U.S. ("Painful Compromises in Search of a More Perfect Union"). The historical analyses of each of these cases is too long and detailed to be effectively recapped here. Suffice it to say that the authors demonstrate how in each case, "citizens struggled with the challenges of scale, and struck bargains to face those challenges." Also, "in each case, the historical trajectory ending in democracy featured political bargains made long in advance of the civic bargain," bargains which granted or established citizens' rights and responsibilities. In all cases, "democracy is hard to get, not easy to keep, and never finished: democratic emergence and survival is never a sure thing." 

Indeed, the two ancient cases offer valuable lessons in how and why democracy was no longer sustainable and so ended in each instance. Their account of the long history of the development of British democracy highlights the many stages along the way, the many political bargains preliminary to the final early 20th-century civic bargain that made Britain the successful democracy we are familiar with. 

In the U.S case, the authors emphasize the early colonial experience in local self-government. "In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, civic rights, including the right to vote for local representatives, were more widely distributed in the English colonies in the New World than anywhere in Europe." The founders were well versed in the history of the ancient democratic experiments, which had taught them that "self-interest could be tempered by the active promotion of civic virtue. Formal institutions and civic education could help build strong norms of public-spirited commitment to seeking the common good, a passionate love of country, and a consequent willingness to sacrifice when necessary."

The political bargain between the colonists and the Mother Country having broken down, the first attempt at an American civic bargain, the Articles of Confederation, also failed. The process that led to the ratification of the new constitution became "a preeminent example of self-conscious civic education." That constitution required compromise between free states and slave states: "ratification of the bargain would fail if the Philadelphia delegates did not compromise with what some of them already recognized as an inherent evil." The new country continued to scale up in size, and organized political parties developed to structure political debates and outcomes. The Jacksonian era made the U.S. more democratic, but not more liberal. With the Civil War, the imperfect civic bargain collapsed. "The founders had depended on the bonds of civic friendship along with the common interest in security and welfare to hold together a union in which regional interests diverged and passions ran high. But fellow citizens now saw one another as deadly enemies." The post-Civil War civic bargain failed until the mid-20th-century in its initial goal to fully incorporate freed slaves, but was much more successful "in building civic friendship among ethnically diverse residents." Recent conflicts, however, have highlighted how "the basic question of 'who actually has a place at the civic table' has not been fully resolved." The present question is whether the American civic bargain can "be renegotiated int he face of a toxic mix of misinformation, ideological rigidity, and the threat and fact of resort to violence. Is civic friendship again being replaced  by the fatal enmity that led to the Civil War? What civic education might shore up the civic bargain and enable democracy to survive?" The last part of the book attempts to answer those questions.

The authors repeatedly stress the difference between "democracy as self-government by a self-defined body of citizens," which is the achievable goal, and some alternative "just regime predicated on an egalitarian principle of distribution or full array of universal human rights." The goal is citizens ruling themselves "through managing benefits and costs, dividing both the moral and material payoffs of their political cooperation and the duties, including military service and the payment of taxes" - doing so in a way regarded "for the time being, as fair enough." Such a civic bargain is "never final and must always be open to revision."

Among the lessons learned from studying the four cases are the necessity of leadership and "the requirement of periodically rethinking what democracy requires of individuals and groups, and what it offers to them." There is also the warning concerning "unproductive absolutism" concerning the ends to be sought, frequently experienced today, and "hyperpolarized partisanship aimed at winning, when winning is defined as destroying our enemies on the other side." The important point is that, despite contrary claims, we never really all want the same things. Democracy is about "finding workable compromises so that as citizens we can move forward together." Hence, the authors' repeated emphasis on civic education which "forges vital bonds of knowledge, values, and behaviors on which shared membership in the ongoing project of self-government stands or falls."

Unlike, for example, Robert Kagan's ideology of  rights individualism, or Progressive wokeism, Catholic integralism, or any other extremely polarizing absolutism, these authors' proposals probably require more effort on the part of all, since they acknowledge as acceptable the fact that we do not all agree on the same values or want the same ultimate outcomes and so need to negotiate a genuinely political way to live and make a future together. 

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