Category Archives: U.S. Citizenship

Introducing Democracy Dinners

(c) Paul Lachelier 2019

With the intent to connect democracy (broadly defined) professionals, activists and academics across specialty silos, and to nurture cross-fertilizing conversation about a variety of democracy issues and areas of work in metro Washington DC, Learning Life is organizing Democracy Dinners. For more about the Dinners, or to add yourself or someone else to the invitation list, click here.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.

P.S. Thanks to marketing and strategy consultant, Dorie Clark, from whose networking dinners these Democracy Dinners are adapted.)

New Book: The Civil-Civic Citizen

My Ph.D. dissertation is now a book published by Lambert Academic Publishing. The printed version of the book ain’t cheap ($90+) because Lambert prints on demand rather than in bulk, but the e-book version is free. If you want a free e-copy, just let me know via email at

Here’s the book summary below. The book should be of interest to those who follow American politics, given ongoing concern about the political disengagement of young Americans — excluding the relative few who fuel many political campaigns and organizations.

Democracy & the Civil-Civic CitizenThe Civil-Civic Citizen:

Democracy, Individualism & Citizenship among Young Americans
(c) 2016  Saarbrücken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing

International issues like terrorism and climate change confirm the inescapability of politics and the significant impact the United States has on the world, for better or worse. Despite the importance of American politics, there is disturbing evidence that young Americans are politically less engaged than their predecessors. Given these concerns, political sociologist Paul Lachelier conducts in-depth interviews with young American professionals — whose work, as professionals, inclines them to be more politically active — to learn what they think about politics, community and citizenship. Lachelier’s interviews reveal that some young Americans uphold what he calls a “civil-civic citizenship” which stresses politeness and charity, but eschews politics, especially partisan and collective politics. Lachelier contends that this civil-civic citizenship is in some ways politically disengaging because it prioritizes forms of individualism inimical to collective action.

Toward Participatory Democracy

It’s presidential election season in America. If there is a time when more Americans pay attention to politics, it is now. Now is thus perhaps the best time to challenge how Americans think about democracy. More often than not, the word “democracy” conjures electing representatives to govern. As important as that is, there is more to democracy, and that “more” is well worth pondering.

The influential 20th century American philosopher, John Dewey was one of democracy’s most ardent proponents. But his view of democracy was broad and participatory, not limited to electing politicians to govern (Dewey 1927, Morris & Shapiro 1993). As historian James Kloppenberg explains, summarizing the work of one of Dewey’s intellectual chroniclers, “First, Dewey believed that democracy is an ethical ideal rather than merely a political arrangement. Second, he considered participation, not representation, the essence of democracy. Third, he insisted on the harmony between democracy and the scientific method: ever-expanding and self-critical communities of inquiry, operating on pragmatic principles and constantly revising their beliefs in light of new evidence, provided Dewey with a model for democratic decision making…Finally, Dewey called for extending democracy, conceived as an ethical project, from politics to industry and society” (Kloppenburg 1992).

Democracy2To Dewey then, democracy is an ongoing way of being that involves participation in learning and decision-making in most if not all domains of life, including family, work, associations and government. Dewey is, of course, not alone in advocating a more “participatory” version of democracy (e.g., see Pateman 1970, Mansbridge 1983, Barber 2004, Fishkin 2011), but this version is not what prevails in the United States and other modern democracies.

What prevails political observers commonly call representative democracy, or a republic. In contemporary republics, democracy is like a gladiator’s contest, as the political scientist Lester Milbrath (1965) aptly described: at any given time, about 5-7% of citizens are the gladiators who run for office and lead political campaigns and organizations.  The spectators, who comprise 55-65% of the public, pay attention, express support and vote.  The rest, whom Milbrath called “the apathetics,” comprising 30-40% of citizens, don’t bother to come to the show — they don’t pay attention, let alone act politically, and thus know little about politics.  This republican democracy is associated with greater inequalities in participation and power as well as greater apathy and partisanship.

Some political scientists claim that republican democracy is inevitable, that one cannot realistically expect citizens to be engaged in the same way all the time, and that more engagement may only lead to more conflict and crisis from competing citizen demands. These claims though generally assume that democracy should be limited to government, and that active citizens are partisans rather than deliberators.

Dewey, like other participatory democrats, contends that all organizations – governmental, business and nonprofit – engage in decision-making, and that decision-making can be made more democratic, involving more people rather than habitually delegating to executives or representatives. Further, whether citizens become rigid, self-interested partisans or flexible, public-interested deliberators depends in no small part on the rules of engagement organizations establish, including the ideal citizens organizations uphold.

Clearly, as numerous notable political observers (e.g., more recently, Haidt 2012, Fukuyama 2014) remark, drawing on evolutionary science, humans are inclined to be self-interested, but we are also routinely cooperative when it suits us, and for better or worse, even self-abnegating when moved by another individual or group to whom we feel committed. As social scientists know well, how we act depends a lot on our social circumstances, and the organizations in which we live and work every day play a large role in defining those circumstances.

The implications are that (a) more participatory democracy is possible, and (b) democratic organizations can make it happen. Indeed, there are plenty of contemporary examples, including organizations like Voice of the People, Healthy Democracy and the Center for Deliberative Democracy. Groups like these get diverse citizens involved in local to international dialogues that nurture more equitable, tolerant, informed and public-spirited decision-making among citizens and policymakers alike. Yet to make democracy a routine practice, as Dewey envisioned, rather than a periodic choice, calls for imagining, discussing and enacting models that democratize not only government, but also society.

To this end, we at Learning Life are looking into developing regular democracy dialogues in our nation’s capital. These dialogues would follow on Learning Life’s mission to spread knowledge, and on our ongoing interest in developing local learning infrastructure. These “DMV democracy dialogues” would, every 1-2 months, assemble advocates, researchers, students and citizens to learn about what democracy organizations in the Washington D.C. metro area are doing, and to facilitate their communication and collaboration on a range of issues in civil and civic engagement, voter rights, ballot integrity, campaign finance, participatory budgeting, workplace democracy, and more.

If you live in metro Washington D.C., and are interested in being updated or learning more about these democracy dialogues, please email me at

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life


Barber, Benjamin. 2004. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dewey, John. 1927. The Public and its Problems. New York: Holt.

Fishkin, James. 2011. When the People Speak. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fukuyama, Francis.  2014.  Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy.  New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Haidt, Jonathan.  2012.  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.  New York: Pantheon Books.

Kloppenberg, James T. 1992. Book review of John Dewey and American Democracy, by Robert B. Westbrook in American Historical Review, p.919-920.

Mansbridge, Jane. 1983. Beyond Adversary Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Milbrath, Lester. 1965. Political Participation: How and Why Do People Get Involved in Politics?Chicago: Rand McNally & Co.

Morris, Debra, and Ian Shapiro, eds. 1993. John Dewey: The Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Pateman, Carole. 1970. Participation and Democratic Theory. London: Cambridge University Press.

Can Face-to-Face Mobilization Boost Student Voter Turnout?

Back in fall 2010, I taught “Community Organizing for Social Change” for the second time at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.  I engaged my course students in a formal experiment in which they attempted to raise Stetson student voter turnout in the 2010 mid-term election by repeatedly contacting randomly selected students face-to-face to encourage them to vote.  The article, linked below, reveals the results of that experiment and the reasons why I and my co-author, Stetson political scientist, David Hill, who kindly crunched the numbers for this experiment,  conducted the study.

Given the growing proportion of young people going to college, how important young voters can be to election outcomes when they vote (witness the 2012 U.S. presidential contest between Obama and Romney, in which Obama’s aggressive mobilization of student voters proved critical to his re-election), the challenges and opportunities youth and being in college pose to student voting, increasing use of formal experiments comparing treatment and control groups to test what works to get people out to vote, we thought it time to try a voter turnout experiment with college students.

You can read the abstract (i.e., summary) and the full article here.


Toward Private Nudges for Public Citizens

© Paul Lachelier 2014.  All rights reserved.

What is the good citizen, and how can modern democratic societies nurture more good citizens?

These questions have animated me as a sociologist for nearly two decades now, and they are a key impetus for Learning Life.

As I’ve noted in my own research, some critics of democracy enjoy saying that Americans live in a republic, not a democracy.  Our founders, these critics like to add, never intended a democracy, which they often associated with mob rule, but rather a republic governed by wiser representatives chosen from among the people.  There is some truth to this, but some of the founders did advocate nurturing an informed and engaged citizenry, and subsequent political leaders in the United States and elsewhere have called again and again for government “of, by and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln famously put it.

FDR4Today, in retrospect, it seems fairer to argue that a republic requires democracy of some kind.  That may seem paradoxical if one defines a republic as rule by representatives and democracy as rule by the people themselves.  However, what I mean is that elected representatives, left to rule alone without the scrutiny and involvement of the people, may be more likely to advance their own interests and those of their friends than those of the people.  Ensuring our representatives more often than not advance the interests of the people requires informed and engaged citizens – that is, some measure of democracy – to keep them honest.

Thus, informed and engaged individuals are good citizens, and good citizens can help ensure governments, local to global, are more responsive and accountable to the people.  The trouble, as the French political thinker Benjamin Constant noted so well in the early 19th century, is that it’s usually difficult to get most modern citizens to stay informed and engaged because they are so absorbed in their private pursuits of happiness at work and leisure with family, friends and colleagues.

There are no lack of public proposals for ways to nurture informed and engaged citizens, from civics in schools to more open government, citizen issue assemblies, and more democratically financed elections (e.g., low dollar limits on campaign contributions to encourage candidates to engage more ordinary citizens rather than wealthy donors).  Many of these public proposals can indeed help inform and engage more citizens, but they ignore the powerful lure away from public engagement that private life poses.

Accordingly, citizen engagement demands not just public solutions, but private ones.  As the American sociologist Herbert Gans wisely put it, “if citizens cannot or will not come to political institutions to participate, these institutions have to come to them” (Gans 1988: 123).  Gans mostly had in mind ways to make government and media more representative of and responsive to the people.  In contrast, I have in mind ways in which private life can nudge people into public life, and in particular how business can engage people more in their government and communities, local to global.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I find the burgeoning interest in social entrepreneurialism – in essence, using business to do good – encouraging.  More and more for-profits and non-profits alike are selling goods – from food to soap to shoes – to do good in the world, and in so doing, informing their customers a little about social problems and ways to address them.


Constant, Benjamin.  1997 [1833].  “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the  Moderns” in The Libertarian Reader, ed. David Boaz.  New York: The Free Press.

Gans, Herbert J.  1988.  Middle American Individualism: Political Participation and Liberal Democracy.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Lachelier, Paul.  2007.  “Democracy, Individualism and the Civil-Civic Citizen: Young     American Professionals Talk about Community, Politics and Citizenship.”  Doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison.