Political Theory; Democratic Theory; American Politics; Democratic Realism; Political Realism; Thomas Hobbes; Political Science Pedagogy
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.
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 political life. Currently, I am editing the dissertation into a book manuscript, tentatively titled On Post-Democracy, which I plan to send out to academic presses before the end of 2018.
Winner of the 2017 Hobbes Studies essay competition, my forthcoming paper on Hobbesian political subjectivity further explores the nature of liberal-democratic citizenship by drawing upon his oft-ignored figure of ‘the servant’. Entitled “A State of Lesser Hope,” it provides the only exhaustive account of Hobbesian servitude, further arguing that Hobbes’s servant gives us a unique insight into the experience of mass democratic citizenship. The paper is due out in the fall of 2018.
Seeking to impress the lessons of democratic realism upon the closely-related discourse of political realism, “Realism and political inequality” 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. The paper will be published in Constellations in the fall of 2018 and is currently available online.
Ongoing and Future Research
Looking forward, I am also working on several related projects. First, I am in the early stages of planning a comprehensive overview of democratic realism that will explore the contributions of a diverse collection of thinkers, including Weber, Schattschneider, Green, and others, to an emerging school of thought. In addition to shopping the project around to academic presses, I plan to submit a shortened version of the introductory essay for journal publication.
Second, I have recently finished an article that uses the TV show Better Call Saul to explore the problem of dirty hands (i.e., when politicians engage in immoral actions for the benefit of the polity) under conditions of political inequality. I argue that the show complicates our previous understanding of the issue, illustrating the ways in which power imbalances can justify, if not invite, violating certain liberal-democratic norms. Having presented at the 2018 WPSA meeting, the paper is currently under review.
Third, I am co-authoring an article that offers a distinctly realist account of democratic deliberation. While deliberation is typically seen as an opportunity for political legitimation through the satisfaction of deliberative ideals, deliberative theory has little to say about deliberating with bad faith (i.e., dishonest/insincere) participants. As such, we draw upon Bernard Williams and Raymond Geuss to develop an alternative approach to bad faith deliberation, one which privileges the pursuit of truthfulness as a precondition for any form of legitimacy. We will be presenting the piece at the 2018 APSA meeting, then submitting it for journal publication .
Finally, I am working on an article that examines Jeffrey Green’s concept of democratic candor through the lens of David Foster Wallace’s reflections on John McCain’s 2000 presidential primary campaign, “Up, Simba,” highlighting the ways in which Wallace expands and complicates our understanding of Green’s ocular democracy. I plan to present the piece at the 2019 WPSA meeting, then submit it for journal publication.
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 forthcoming from the Journal of Political Science Education. Safronova and I are also 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. We plan to conduct this study over the 2018-19 academic year.