Keywords: Political Theory; Democratic Theory; American Politics; Democratic Realism; Political Realism; Thomas Hobbes; Political Science Pedagogy ORCID: 0000-0002-7049-2341
Overview In light of growing economic inequality, declining trust in political institutions, and ongoing discussions about democratic deficits, what is the political status of ordinary (i.e., non-wealthy) citizens? How should they relate to their state and fellow citizens? How should they think about questions of legitimacy, membership, and civic responsibility? In short, how should citizens understand themselves politically?
By exploring the categories and concepts used to describe the practice of citizenship, my research primarily focuses on making sense of the contemporary democratic subject. Specifically, I am interested in elaborating a model of citizenship that directly attends to the persistent asymmetries of power found within the United States and other liberal democracies. Rather than understanding citizens as decision-makers able to intentionally influence sovereign power, I argue for a reimagined conception of citizenship, one which enables individuals, in light of their inability to realize popular sovereignty or political equality, to better orient themselves in relationship to the state and one another.
In this sense, my research is best understood within the broader tradition of democratic realism. Long associated with Max Weber, Joseph Schumpeter, and E. E. Schattschneider, democratic realism is now experiencing a renaissance, with recent work from Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Jeffrey Green, John McCormick, and Jason Maloy all promoting a more chastened view of democratic citizenship. My work, however, is unique in that I more closely attend to the ways in which less-than-ideal democratic conditions should influence the political self-understanding of ordinary citizens, asking how democratic frustration itself plays into that self-understanding. Rather than assume a static conception of citizenship, unresponsive to a growing awareness of democratic deficit, I explore how such an awareness can contribute to a more nuanced, complicated account, one which juxtaposes a deep, affective attachment to democratic ideals with the chronic inability to realize them. This, in turn, paves the way for both a more practical relationship to the state and one’s citizenry, as well as a therapeutic engagement with politics as a whole.
Methodologically, I engage in exegetical readings of classic and contemporary works of political philosophy and theory, putting these texts into conversation with relevant, empirically-driven research with the ultimate goal of elaborating the conditions, considerations, and challenges relevant to the lived experience of democratic citizenship. As such, my work has significant implications both for democratic theory and the study of political behavior. In regards to the former, my account presents a more faithful and, thus, more productive depiction of contemporary democratic life than often found in works of ‘ideal theory,’ one more relevant to the real problems facing ordinary citizens within mass democracy. Concerning the latter, my approach to democratic citizenship offers a new way of conceptualizing the perceptions and motivations surrounding political participation, shifting attention away from the exercise of popular sovereignty and toward the existential significance of democratic affect. In other words, it can illuminate the ways in which voting, protest, and other practices can function as a means of self-realization, even if their intended political outcome is never achieved. My recent and ongoing work, detailed below, further illustrates the nature and import of my research.
Current Research During my time as a Visiting Democracy Fellow at the Ash Center (HKS), I’ll be working on my second book manuscript, Democratic Realism: A Normative Theory of Elite Democracy and a series of related papers. It begins by tracing the evolution of democratic realism from its roots in late 19th-century Italian elite theory and German theories of bureaucracy, through 20th-century masterpieces by Walter Lippmann, Joseph Schumpeter, and E. E. Schattschneider and, finally, to more recent work by Christopher Achen, Larry Bartels, and Jeffrey Green. The book then furthers that tradition by developing a normative theory of democratic realism, one that draws primarily on the contemporary literature on activism and political advocacy to identify key principles of democratic governance and change. I plan to have the manuscript out for review in the fall of 2020.
I am also working on a closely-related series of articles, all focusing on political activity under conditions of inequality: one that introduces a realist approach to deliberation, another that examines the ‘problem of dirty hands’ in the context of television’s Better Call Saul, a third that explores the democratic value of elite candor in the work of David Foster Wallace, and a fourth that distinguishes democratic realism from the related concept of political realism (e.g., Bernard Williams, Raymond Geuss).
Selected Publications “‘A State of Lesser Hope’: The Servant in Hobbes’s Natural Commonwealth” Hobbes Studies 31, no. 2 (Oct 2018): 147-165. doi: 10.1163/18750257-03102002
Winner of the 2017 Hobbes Studies essay competition, this paper explores the nature of liberal-democratic citizenship by drawing upon Hobbes’s oft-ignored figure of ‘the servant’, providing the an exhaustive account of Hobbesian servitude and further arguing that Hobbes’s servant gives us a unique insight into the experience of mass democratic citizenship.
“‘What is to be done’ when there is nothing to do?: Realism and Political Inequality” Constellations 25, no. 4 (Dec 2018): 602-613. doi: 10.1111/1467-8675.12320
Seeking to impress the lessons of democratic realism upon the closely-related discourse of political realism, this paper argues that political realists have not gone far enough to reframe the question of legitimacy, noting the ways in which past accounts have failed to consider the more persistent, practical consequences of political inequality. I suggest that political realists should do more to consider the relative political capabilities of their intended audience, for whom the question of legitimacy may ultimately have little significance.
Dissertation My dissertation, “Living under Post-Democracy: Political Subjectivity in Fleetingly Democratic Times” develops a practical account of democratic political subjectivity that takes into consideration the greater consequences of political inequality for the citizen’s approach to both political participation and the practice of political philosophy. In doing so, it offers a robust and rigorous model of self-reflective citizenship informed by democratic realism. Specifically, I argue that both political participation and political philosophy can serve a therapeutic purpose, allowing self-understood democratic citizens to work through the enduring contradictions and disappointments characteristic of post-democratic political life. The manuscript is currently under contract with Routledge Press, now titled Living under Post-Democracy: Democratic Citizenship in Fleetingly Democratic Times, and should be available by spring of 2020.
Political Science Pedagogy In addition to my work in political theory, I am also actively engaged in improving the teaching of political science. Co-authored with Margarita Safronova (UC Santa Barbara) and Colin Kuehl (Northern Illinois University), “Discussing Programmatic Learning Outcomes in the Classroom” demonstrates a statistically-significant relationship between explicitly emphasizing PLOs to students and students’ perception of a course’s overall value. After presentations at the 2017 APSA meeting in San Francisco and 2017 APSA TLC meeting in Long Beach, the paper is now available from the Journal of Political Science Education (doi:10.1080/15512169.2018.1493998). We are currently developing a new project with the hope of tracking whether an early emphasis on PLOs can better prepare undergraduates for advanced coursework in political science.