The Practical Republic:
Social Skills and the Progress of Citizenship

Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520

This is a chapter in Andrew Feenberg and Darin Barney, eds, Community in the Digital Age, Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

Please do not quote from this version, which may differ slightly from the version that appears in print.

8300 words.


Political philosophy, for all its frequent brilliance, is also frequently innocent of the actual workings of politics. Exceptions are found, particularly among authors who do fieldwork, for example, Mansbridge (1980) and Sirianni and Friedland (2001). But more often the arguments of the political philosophers are abstracted from everyday political life. To illustrate what I mean, I will discuss three prominent political theories: social capital, deliberative democracy, and civic republicanism. All three are the objects of vast literatures -- the literature on social capital being relatively recent, that on deliberative democracy being ancient in its roots but explosive in the last couple of decades, and that on civic republicanism being one of the most venerable of any literature on earth. All of these literatures are brilliant, but all of them are analytically flawed. Each of them, I will argue, suffers for lack of a theory of social skills -- the practical skills of political life broadly construed. I will conclude by sketching such a theory with particular reference to the United States, and by demonstrating that social capital, deliberative democracy, and civic republicanism must all be reconceptualized as a result of it.

1 Social capital

The concept of social capital draws on a long tradition, starting with medieval sources and Tocqueville. But the phrase "social capital", as well as its connection with the mapping of social networks, begins with Loury (1977), for whom it served as part of an explanation of poverty in terms of poorly-functioning community support systems. Social capital for Loury was the sum total of other people's capital (e.g., equipment available for borrowing) to which an individual has access through social connections of friendship and association. A related concept, mainly intended to explain the persistence of social stratification, originates with Bourdieu and Passeron (1977). Social capital was then theorized more fully by Coleman (1990) and by such scholars of social networks as Lin (1982, 2001) [1].

The idea of social capital entered broad circulation, however, with Robert Putnam's Making Democracy Work (1993). Half of good research is having a good question, and Putnam's question was this: why does northern Italy work so much better than southern Italy, given that the two halves of the country share the same government, language, and religion? The answer, Putnam suggests, lies in a nonobvious aspect of culture. Southern Italy is clientelistic: when people in southern Italy have a problem, they look up and down social hierarchies. Northern Italy, by contrast, is associationistic: when people in the north have a problem, they look laterally to people like themselves. They form associations, and the social connections that result then become resources that the association's members can draw on in the future [2]. By "social capital", Putnam refers to two things: the stock of social network connections and the prevailing atmosphere of trust that is conducive to making such connections [3]. Thus, although the concept of social capital originates in social theory rather than in political philosophy, Putnam's conception of social capital is essentially political. Civic engagement is one of its elements, but even the founding of businesses and nonpolitical associations draws on the same generalized reservoir of trust and network connections as do formal political processes.

One problem with the concept of social capital is that it is not clear why we should call it "capital" (Arrow 2000, Hodgson 2001: 162, Smith and Kulynych 2002; but cf. Lin 2001: 19). An individual's own social network, though lacking a price in the market, is arguably a type of capital, but "capital" is not the sort of thing that a society can have. And even if the sum total of a population's social networks were its collective capital, it is hard to understand why a prevailing sense of trust should be called "capital". At least one is stretching the term.

A more serious problem, in my view, is that "social capital" ought to include a third element that is often left out, namely social skills. Because Putnam was comparing northern and southern Italy as regions, we learn less about differences within those regions. In reality, life chances, even within a single region, depend heavily on one's ability to fashion the kinds of lateral connections that Putnam discusses. Those social skills are themselves a kind of capital -- economists would call them "human capital" if they considered them at all -- and social capital is only going to accrue to individuals who possess the skills to create it. Of course, the acquisition of such advanced social skills is related to associations and trust: if you associate with people who are skilled at organizing people, and you have relations of mutual trust with them, then perhaps you can acquire the necessary skills through apprenticeship or osmosis. Even so, access to the skills of creating social capital is hardly a given.

So the three elements of social capital -- networks, trust, and social skills -- are interrelated. And the element of social skills should not be taken for granted. Many people grow up in environments where the necessary social skills do not exist, either because everyone is too busy scratching out a subsistence living, or because they have acquired the social skills they need to live in a different kind of society, or because they have internalized conservative ideologies that keep them from creating associations that might threaten established interests. People from such a disadvantaged background might excel in school and get a good job, only to stall in their careers because they are not building strong networks [4]. People whose careers stall in this way are often mystified; they are working hard, doing what they are told, projecting a positive attitude, and generally exercising the skills that are required to get along in a clientelistic world. But they lack the skills of association. Indeed, they probably lack even a clue that the skills of association exist. They might decide that they are being discriminated against (which does happen, skills or no), or that they really do deserve the subordinate social status to which they had originally been assigned. Either would be a tragedy compared to a world in which the necessary skills are universal.

Intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations have expressed great enthusiasm for the concept of social capital because it promises concrete guidance for social development projects, both in poor areas of industrial countries and in emerging democracies. Accordingly, these organizations have spent huge sums in recent years on social capital research, and several books about social capital have appeared, most famously Putnam's (2000) own extremely detailed study of the decline of social capital in the United States [5]. These intuitions are probably right, as far as they go. But social reform activities based on building social capital may not succeed, or may even reinforce existing social inequalities, unless explicit attention is paid to building the necessary social skills among those segments of the population that lack them. You can give people social capital, but it is better to teach them the skill of making social capital for themselves.

Why does the skill dimension of social capital receive so little press? It is hard to know for certain. But experts have generally forgotten what it is like to be beginners, and people who long ago learned the skills of association, or who acquired them tacitly through their socialization into the habitus of professionals, often have a hard time articulating the skills for others. This is a general pattern that De Soto (2000) also remarks on in his analysis of the institutional foundations of economic development: people in the industrialized countries are so accustomed to a very complex institutional environment that they literally cannot comprehend life in a society where that environment is lacking. Institutions consist first and foremost of social skills, and what Putnam really saw in Italy was institutions that are present in the north and not the south [6].

2 Deliberative democracy

From its earliest days to the present, democracy has always been attended by a certain myth: citizens gather around in the community meeting-house, they have an open and rational discussion, they come to a consensus or hold a pleasant vote, decisions get made, and everyone becomes a better person in the process. This powerful legitimating myth is called deliberative democracy, and it is almost unrelated to the reality of democracy in any time or place [7]. Of course, the more sophisticated theorists of deliberative democracy, such as Jurgen Habermas, do not present this picture as a descriptive theory but as a system of regulative norms. But even as a norm, deliberative democracy is so profoundly disconnected from reality that something must be analytically wrong with it.

Objections to the empirical utility of the myth of deliberative democracy are not new. Schudson (1998), for example, presents a wide variety of debunking arguments from American history [8]. For example, he argues that the classical New England town meetings were largely staged events in which social hierarchies were placed on display (1998: 16-19). And sophisticated, grounded accounts of democracy in practice are certainly available; see, for example, Olsen (1983). My target, then, is not the study of politics as such, but a relatively narrow tradition, albeit one of great importance historically.

The problems with the myth of deliberative democracy are numerous. It ignores the embedding of formal democratic processes in other social structures. It ignores the behind-the-scenes work, both strategic and tactical, in which any skilled citizen or politician engages before bringing an issue to a public forum. It neglects struggles over the constitutional framework that is supposed to organize deliberation in any democracy. And it ignores the plain fact that many people are afraid to speak at public meetings (Mansbridge 1980: 60-64, Schudson 1997a: 301-302). To disagree with the myth of deliberative democracy is not to endorse the opposite myth of a mass democracy manipulated by elites [9]. Rather, it argues that the neglected dimensions of democratic reality belong at the center of any realistic analysis.

I want to focus on one of these neglected dimensions: the issue of scale (Calhoun 1998). Democracy today occurs on a mass scale. Yet deliberative democracy takes as its paradigm the local group: the Greek polis, the small town, or (especially in northern Europe) the workplace. This attention to small-group democracy is not entirely wrong, of course. Dewey, for example, emphasized the small group because that is where children learn or do not learn the values of democracy. Classrooms that tacitly instruct children in authoritarian values are antidemocratic. Conservatives in the United States have emphasized political localism for their own, almost opposite reasons. The problem in either case is simply that society is big and interconnected. And the problem obviously comes to the fore in a society that is rapidly becoming globalized and wired, as the issues that citizens debate in a democracy become themselves increasingly intertwined with the issues that citizens debate in other places.

Of course, political parties and other structures of mobilization have existed for centuries, but now the interconnections through which political opinions and policies are formed are much more complex. The problem for political theory is not that political decision-making is moving upward in a hierarchy, away from local councils and toward a representative central government. The problem, rather, is that a wired society is making obtrusive the role of large-scale processes in organizing even very local decision-making. In a society where communications technologies are poorly developed, even in the early days of radio and television that provoked the literature on "mass society", it is possible to conceptualize the influences of large-scale processes on local decision-making in the nebulous form of "ideology". Ideologies waft outward from the center, or upward from the supposed masses, and influence individuals' general cognitive orientations, thus shaping the attitudes (e.g., democratic or deferential) that they bring to the affairs of their community. That, in its dimness, is the picture that centuries of political theory have left us.

The reality is different. Listen to real people argue about politics, and you will generally hear them recite arguments that they got from professional opinion-makers (politicians, pundits, journalists, scholars, workplace authorities, and so on) that they happen to agree with (Tarde 1969 [1898]: 312, cited in Schudson 1997a: 304-305). From the point of view of the deliberative democracy model, this observation is an embarrassment, if not an elitist insult. But it is nothing of the sort. Coming up with novel political arguments requires a lot of work. Human beings are finite, and nobody has the time or knowledge to invent thought-out arguments on every issue all by themselves. Even the professional arguers are mostly pooling arguments among themselves, for example by refashioning arguments they have appropriated from others and applying general schemata to particular cases. Political tendencies can be thought of as industries that generate arguments to suit their respective interests and strategies, and then deliver those arguments to their members. A political tendency, in this sense, requires an infrastructure (magazines, radio programs, associations, Web sites, think tanks, and so on), and a political infrastructure is successful if it delivers the right arguments to the right people at the right time. This has always been true. What is different now is simply the scale and speed with which debates collectively unfold in a society. Think, for example, of the titanic clash of party lines during the American election controversy of 2000 (Agre 2001). Such episodes make clear that local debates are not constituted only by their members, or conditioned only by an evolving climate of competing ideologies, but are embedded -- in great detail and in real time -- in larger systems (Agre 2002).

Now, it may be argued that this new picture is still deliberative democracy, only shifted from the local group to what Kroeber (1917) called the superorganic level. But that won't do. Central to deliberative democracy is a certain picture of the human person: self-possessed, fully rational, engaged with others, respectful of procedural rules, and so on. The capacity to participate in collective decision-making is, for the ideal of deliberative democracy, the highest state of human life, and people who cannot participate in collective decision-making (whether because of outside political constraints or for lack of the relevant skills or attitudes) are not fully realized human beings. This is why critiques of the deliberative democracy theory are taken so seriously: they explode a normative picture of human development, thereby leaving rudderless whole territories of social and educational thought. This is just as well, given the standard theory's tendency to abstract the citizen away from the individual's concrete identity and location in the social system (Bohman 1999). Surely this reassertion of the collective level in politics diminishes the significance of the individual and obliterates the case for liberal political freedoms? Not so. Recognizing the embedded nature of political debate does explode a certain story about those topics, but it does not explode the topics themselves.

What does it do? To start with, viewing individual citizens as participants in debates on a collective level does not cast us into the outer darkness of antihumanist political theories, such as that of Foucault, that view the human individual as wholly the product of impersonal "discourses". One could make some minimal sense of the collective level of public deliberation, for example, simply by appealing to the metaphor of the "marketplace of ideas" [10]. Under the marketplace metaphor the individual, no longer centrally a producer of arguments, is at least a discerning consumer, picking and choosing through the arguments on offer. The marketplace metaphor hardly does justice to the phenomena, given that the advertising and the goods are nearly the same. It does not explain the phenomena that are central to Foucault's theory: the ways that individuals' political participation is organized through their socialization into social roles such as professions. It eliminates any sense that the citizen has responsibilities, as opposed to private rights. It fails to suggest a satisfactory political analog to marketplace's regulations against fraud. And it provides no account of the actual process of debate, as opposed to the forming of opinion. But it does provide something of an existence proof that a theory of collective political argument does not extinguish individual political agency. Perhaps, in analyzing the tensions among the various received theories, we can transcend the deliberative model and set about reconstructing the values of democracy in the context of democracy as it is actually lived.

3 Civic republicanism

A republic is the opposite of a monarchy. A republic, in other words, is a polity that does not have a king or queen. This may not seem like much of a definition, but so long as most of the world was ruled by monarchs -- until well into the twentieth century -- it was a powerful idea. The very possibility of a society without a monarch was already well-known to the Greeks, however, and republicanism is a nearly continuous thread throughout the history of the West [11].

In the United States, however, attempts to discuss republicanism are frustrated by the widespread idea that the United States is a republic because it is not a democracy. This unfortunate dichotomy originates with an isolated mistake in Madison that is representative neither of his philosophy generally nor of the history of political thought with which he was certainly familiar (Everdell 2000: 5-6). In fact, the concepts of republicanism and democracy are logically unrelated. Conservativism is rule by an elite, or a stratified social order administered by that elite, as opposed to democracy, which is rule by the people. Republicanism (which can be either conservative or democratic), for its part, is opposed to monarchy (which also can be either conservative or, in the case of a constitutional monarchy, democratic). Conservative philosophy stereotypes democracy as rule by the mob, the erosion of culture and morals by demotic values, and the leveling of aristocratic excellence into a general mediocrity (Femia 2001). Democracy is held to lead inevitably to tyranny, and rule by elites (which is what conservatives mean by representative government) is understood as a counterweight to the mindlessness and degradation of the mass.

Such distinctions having been drawn, we can consider the real ideas of civic republicanism. The word "civic" points to the positive agenda for society that is supposed to occupy the void left behind by the departing monarch. People are supposed to rule themselves, not be ruled by monarchs, and this obligation makes certain demands on them. Good citizens, it is said, place the welfare of the whole above their own private welfare as individuals. Of course, stated in that way the principle could mean several things. It is not, for example, communism. In particular, it is not an institutional question, such as whether private property should exist or what other laws should be passed; rather, it is a norm of political culture. Citizens, it is said, should pitch in, be public-spirited, and recognize that their fates are conjoined. If the modern ideal of market supremacy were actually true -- that is, if it were even theoretically possible that each individual's welfare could be reduced to his or her own private property -- then the civic values of republicanism would not be necessary. But the market ideal is not true, and civic republicanism, while not opposed to markets as such, is founded on its denial.

The history of civic republicanism has mostly been written, like most history, as a story of leaders. This is a vestige of the aristocratic worldview, in which the fate of the polity depends on the personal qualities of the few who are in charge. Successful republican government has historically been regarded as a wonder, and credit for the wonder goes to the leaders who manage to hold it together. Or else it goes to institutions such as the separation of powers that compensate for human nature. While talented leaders and well-designed institutions are certainly necessary, however, they are more nearly products of republican society than producers of it. In reality, the success of republican government, like that of nearly any institution, is founded on ordinary people. The problem with the philosophy of civic republicanism, historically, is precisely its overemphasis on the civic values of placing the good of the whole above one's own. Civic-mindedness is certainly valuable, but a preoccupation with civic values as the central condition of republicanism speaks too much of a polemical defense against conservative pessimism about humanity, and too little of the actual practical work of republican self-government.

Once again -- and there is a pattern here -- what is missing is a clear conception of the individual citizen [12]. The word "citizen", like many words in politics, is unfortunate because it has two independent meanings: it is either a bundle of rights (such as the rights enjoyed by citizens of a country versus people who are in the country on visas or illegally) or a bundle of responsibilities (voting, being informed about public issues, engaging with fellow citizens, expressing views) and the construction of self that goes with them. The civic republican tradition, which has not (unlike democracy) been centrally concerned with spreading the rights of citizenship as widely as possible, has understood citizenship mainly in the latter sense, as a bundle of responsibilities. In many cases, citizenship has been understood as love of country, respect for the flag, civility in debate, and other injunctions that, while perhaps necessary, suggest more a fear of citizens rather than respect for them [13]. With rare exception, republicanism's understanding of the skills of citizenship has been superficial and formalistic. It is highly developed in some areas, for example in its inheritance from the tradition of rhetoric. It has also drawn on the lengthy tradition of advice manuals for rulers (as opposed to citizens). But it provides little guidance about the great majority of social interactions that organize political life outside the giving of speeches.

Republicanism also has a deeper meaning, one that begins to connect with the other themes that I have been developing. Republicanism is not simply the absence of monarchs -- that is its negative meaning. It is also the capacity for collective self-government. Obeying a monarch is not simply a consciously chosen method of running a society; it is also an existential condition. No form of government is feasible in the long run unless the people regard it as legitimate, and the only way to legitimize monarchy is through internalized habits of deference -- that is, through the deeply rooted belief that one is, by nature, inferior to the monarch, and by extension to the hierarchy of authorities that God Himself, through the agency of His monarch, has instituted. Republican conservatism is, in historical terms, a transitional form of society in which deference to authority remains but is legitimized by an abstract appeal to tradition rather than to the monarch. The historical significance of the United States, and its greatest contribution to the world, is that it broke with deference as an organizing principle of political culture (Shalhope 1990, Wood 1992). From the cultural revolution of the 1790s, through the populist eras of the early and late 19th century, through the labor movement of the Depression to the civil rights era and the new social movements that followed it, the history of the United States has been a story of progress: the progressive undoing of internalized deference and the progressive realization of democratic republican values. Overcoming the habits of deference means realizing, at the deepest level, that one can, and deserves to, participate in determining one's own fate. Only when the lights go on in individuals' minds will they take the initiative to fulfill -- indeed, to invent -- the promise of citizenship.

4 Machiavellianism

These considerations on republicanism provide a convenient occasion to discuss the most important modern analysis of social skill and its role in society, that of Fligstein (2001). Fligstein observes that social theory, despite its endless concern with the relationship of agency to social structure, has been remarkably unconcerned with either the nature or the substance of the skills that social agents employ. He has sought to remedy that omission by sketching a theory of social skill that draws on ideas from symbolic interactionism [14].

Fligstein's starting point is the concept of a social field, which is roughly speaking an institution in which various social groups contest their respective interests. The social skills he describes are those of a "skilled actor" or "institutional enterpreneur" who negotiates the interactions between powerful and powerless groups within the social field in order to arrive at a set of rules to govern their future relationships. Social fields, he observes, tend to be highly stable. The opportunities for a skilled actor to change things tend to emerge in periods of crisis, especially when the territory of the social field is being invaded by some other social field. In those situations, the skilled actor can employ a wide range of interpersonal strategies, maintaining the appearance of community-mindedness by manipulating rules and tailoring communication to the beliefs and identities of each particular audience. Having thereby mediated the emergence of a new system of rules, the skilled actor must once again stabilize the field by instilling in the field's participants a new set of habits.

Fligstein's theory restores a missing piece to social theory. It does so, however, through a striking reinvention. Although he does not seem aware of it, Fligstein's theory is isomorphic, and in remarkable detail, to that of Machiavelli (whom he mentions only in passing, when observing that the skilled actor tries not to appear Machiavellian) [15]. The skilled actor in Fligstein's account is analogous to Machiavelli's prince. The field is the Renaissance city-state. The powerful groups are the oligarchic families, and the powerless groups are the populo, mainly the guilds. The powerful groups/oligarchic families must negotiate among themselves, lest their rule collapse into factionalism. The various groups among the powerless/populo must also maintain solidarity to have any chance of curtailing the rule of the powerful. The "rules" that govern a field are the laws of the city-state. The field/city-state alternates in each theory between stasis and crisis; the crisis can be caused by internal dynamics but is more often caused by invasion. It is very hard to change the rule of a field/city-state while it is static. The would-be prince must wait for a crisis. The field/city-state is ruled not directly by the ruler, but through the mediation of a set of habits that the field/city-state instills in its participants/citizens. This, after all, is what the fifteenth century meant by republicanism. The elements that Fligstein takes from symbolic interactionism have been known since ancient Greece as rhetoric. The prince/skilled actor fashions appearances and manipulates rules/laws, operating largely by flattery. And he is very concerned to be seen as acting in the community interest, whether he is or not.

The one important divergence between the theories comes at the point where, each says, the prince/skilled actor's attempt to institute a new order can fail. The main motivation of Machiavelli and his readers is to prevent political crisis from producing a tyrant. For that reason, Machiavelli advises the prince to resort to violence when necessary to institute his new republican order. Fligstein and his readers are not motivated by the danger of a tyrant, at least not consciously, and that may explain why Fligstein observes much more dispassionately than Machiavelli that the prince/skilled actor's attempts can fail. He is not clear on what happens next, though from the logic of his argument I would assume either that the old order limps along in a reduced form, or else that the field is subsumed by its neighbors.

My purpose here is not to criticize Fligstein, who has done social theory a service by reviving a theme that was once central to Western theories of politics as a whole. Fligstein's accomplishment speaks volumes about the immense reorientation of political inquiry from a practical art to a distanced, abstract, and only marginally applicable would-be science. Even Marx, who was emphatic about the unity of theory and practice, provided his readers with almost no concrete instruction in the arts of politics (Habermas 1997: 51). It is time to repair the damage. Yet Machiavelli's theory, even when updated with modern social-theoretic vocabulary, is not the theory of social skill that a modern democracy needs. Machiavelli, like the great majority of authors of guides to practical skills before the modern era, wrote only for an elite. He presupposes that only one individual possesses the skills that he writes about. Everyone else is treated passively as raw material for the manipulations of the prince. This is not a theory of democracy. It is not even a theory of republicanism. What would a polity be like in which everyone had advanced social skills, and what would the ideal skills be like for a polity in which political skills are widespread?

5 Citizenship

The United States is a democratic republic, and it needs a democratic republican theory of the skills of citizenship [16]. Although such a theory cannot be simple, elements of it can be found in the correctives that I have offered to the ideas of social capital, deliberative democracy, and civic republicanism. What is needed is something like a manual -- a how-to, that most American of genres. The central problem that the citizen faces is how to participate meaningfully in a society of hundreds of millions. It is a common and reasonable question: how does my voice count? Some theorists, in the tradition of Downs (1957), actually seem to revel in the difficulty, making it seem mysterious that anyone should even find it worthwhile to vote, much less involve themselves in the minutiae of public issues. That won't do.

Other theorists point more reasonably to the institutions of "civil society" that mediate between individuals and the state [17]. Perhaps the average citizen cannot have much effect on national legislation, but having an effect on the policy positions of one's profession, party, church, union, political club, interest group, or civic association is more imaginable. The concept of civil society has its weaknesses; it works better for some societies than for others [18]. But at least it provides a point of departure for a serious consideration of the practical work of politics in a complex modern society.

From the arguments above, it follows that a how-to for democratic republican citizenship would have several elements, including skills for building social capital and participating in the collective production and circulation of political arguments. I cannot provide such a how-to here, but I can sketch perhaps the central idea that is undreamt in the philosophies that I have been describing. That idea is as follows: it is central to the political process that individual citizens, in their public personae, are able to associate themselves with issues. Citizens, whether politicians or activists, make their political careers in entrepreneurial fashion by identifying issues that are coming to prominence, researching and analyzing them, staking out public positions on them, and building social networks of other citizens who have associated themselves with related issues, especially those whose positions are ideologically compatible [19]. Not only this kind of issue entrepreneurship central to the making of public policy, but it is also central to the "politics", in the broad sense, of nearly every institutional field, from industries to research fields, from bureaucracies to artistic circles, from professions to social movements. Ideologies, in their practical political aspect, are designed to rationalize and cement coalitions among issue entrepreneurs who have staked out a wide range of issues, and the social networks whose construction the ideologies facilitate then become the connective tissue of political movements.

This process is fractal: its logic is essentially the same on the global stage as on the national, and it is essentially the same on a regional stage as on a local. What is more, it is essentially the same within a wide variety of institutional contexts. Thus, individuals can stake out issues and build political networks within their professions, their churches, their unions, their industries, or their political organizations. The politics of the local PTA is, in this regard, largely isomorphic to the politics of a national political party. Issue entrepreneurship, in this sense, is a pervasive organizing logic of a democratic republican society, and not the preserve of the social movement leader-hero or the occasional prince. The key is that political personae, political networks, and political issues, on every scale, are all constructed in the same process. This network among individuals who have publicly associated themselves with particular political issues -- drawing on a mathematical metaphor (Birkhoff 1967), call it an issue lattice -- has four dimensions:

* in the vertical dimension, individuals who stake out a given issue on the national level will generally network with those who stake out the same issue on either the global or the regional level;

* in the geographic dimension, individuals who stake out issues in a given geographic jurisdiction will generally network with their counterparts in other jurisdictions;

* in the institutional dimension, individuals who stake out a given issue within one institutional context will generally network with those who stake out the same issue in other institutions; and

* in the ideological dimension, individuals who stake out ideologically related positions on different issues in similar institutional locations will generally network with one another.

This four-dimensional lattice structure is the essence of civil society [20]. Yet, note how different it is from the three concepts that I described at the outset. First of all, the four-dimensional issue lattice is not simply a large quantity of social network connections, but a very definite network structure. Nor does it require high levels of trust, but rather a large number of particular negotiations and a great deal of issue-by-issue coalition-building stabilized by ideology. Above all, the issue lattice is sufficiently complex in its detailed workings that it will never emerge without high levels of political skill diffused throughout the society. From this perspective, the crucial type of capital that a society needs is not social networks but social skill; the rest, social networks included, will follow from the entrepreneurial energy of individuals and the cognitive and informational demands of republican politics. Social capital, on this theory, does not depend crucially on the founding of associations, in the sense of formal organizations among nominally equal citizens. Associations are usefully viewed as epiphenomena of the more fundamental skill of forming an issue lattice [21].

Secondly, the four-dimensional issue lattice could hardly be more different than the idealized picture of deliberative democracy. Political decision-making, it turns out, is embedded in long-term relationships. Its center is ideology, not the making of particular political decisions. Whereas the deliberative democracy theory portrays every citizen as having the same relationship to every issue, in reality citizens tend to specialize in particular issues. This phenomenon follows naturally from the cognitive limits of citizens in complex societies, but it also follows from demands of the long-term construction of public political personae. Individuals fashion themselves into "brand names" by articulating positions on particular issues that will attract coherent groups of followers, whether as organization members, contributors, subscribers, volunteers, or voters. It follows that a central task for a citizen is to organize the circulation of arguments on an issue, both within the four-dimensional issue lattice and to the individuals who subscribe to the citizen's position. Of course, deliberative meetings still occur. The point is that these meetings are thoroughly embedded in longer-term, multiply-scaled political processes that extend far beyond the walls of any given meeting-house.

Finally, specifying the actual practice of citizenship shifts the focus of civic republicanism from civic values to the skills of civic life. Civic values are no doubt necessary, but their exercise is heavily embedded in the structure of relationships. This embedding helps to make civic values less mysterious: they become partly reducible to the negotiations through which coalitions are built, for example in the segmentary politics that continually ripples up and down the vertical dimension of the issue lattice. More importantly, the success of republican government no longer seems to depend on the altruism of civic selflessness, and instead to depend on the diverse incentives to pursue civic careers [22] (Habermas 1997: 59). Of course, a polity of global scope without powerful norms of civic selflessness may no longer be republican in any recognizable sense. The question is not trivial: one must determine whether the classical ideal of the self-governing city-state is the very definition of republic, or whether that ideal was simply one means, limited by the available technology and the unequal distribution of entrepreneurial social skills, to a more fundamentally republican end.

The operation of issue lattices is, then, closely tied to the technologies of information and communication, and these technologies become especially important when we consider the democratic aspects of citizenship [23]. Historically, theories of political networks have focused their attention on the highest echelons of interest group politics, for example in the endlessly shifting alliances among interest groups in Washington (e.g., Laumann and Knoke 1989). In fact, similar issue-networking processes take place throughout the society, and civil society can be strengthened if access to the skills and technologies of building networks around political issues are further democratized. This includes the curricula of civics classes, of course, which ought to teach the practical skills of political organizing. But it should also include the curricula of professional schools, the citizenship tests given to immigrants, and many other contexts where the practical foundations of a democratic republic can be reinforced [24]. In particular, the issue entrepreneurship theory argues that the main democratic potential of technologies like the Internet does not rest in their ability to support deliberation (Agre 2002: 311-312). Instead, it rests mainly in their ability to support the work of issue entrepreneurs: identifying and researching emerging issues, distributing analyses of current events to an audience, organizing events, and networking with other entrepreneurs in the issue lattice.

Politics has been understood since the Greeks as a practical skill, and so it may seem surprising that the most central skill of politics has remained largely unarticulated across centuries. But in hindsight it is not surprising at all. Civilization is the story of the human struggle to emerge from the moral darkness of conservatism, to turn the lights on in individual minds and overcome the habits of deference that turn people into machines. Democratic republicanism is a story not of perfection but of progress. It is a story that is written afresh in every era, and in every life. Technology provides most of the organizing themes for that story in our own era. But technology is not central; what is central are the choices that we make, each of us, in laying claim to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in our own lives.


I appreciate helpful comments from Michael Cornfield, David Ryfe, Karl Schafer, and Janos Simon.


[1] On the concept of social capital and its applications, see Dasgupta and Serageldin (2000), Grootaert and Van Bastelaer (2002), Lin (2001), Putnam (2002), Rotberg (2001), and Woolcock (1998). Fine's (2001) bibliography is invaluable. On the background in Tocqueville see Hadenius (2001) and Mansfield and Winthrop (2000).

[2] For critical discussion of Putnam's argument see Edwards and Foley (1998), Levi (1996), and Sabetti (1996).

[3] For Loasby (1999: 46), by contrast, social capital is located not in networks but in practical skills:

Institutions are a response to uncertainty. They are patterns acquired from others which guide individual actions, even when these actions are quite unconnected with any other person. They economise on the scarce resource of cognition, by providing us with ready-made anchors of sense, ways of partitioning the space of representations, premises for decisions, and bounds within which we can be rational -- or imaginative. They constitute a capital stock of other people's reuseable knowledge, although, like all knowledge, this is fallible. In fact, just as Marshall recognized the importance for firms of supplementing their own internal organisation with an external organisation, so each of us finds life much more manageable if we supplement our own internally organised cognition with the externally organised social capital which is the accretion of many other people's cognition. We are therefore not restricted to our own apparatus of classification in trying to make sense of our surroundings.
Somewhat similarly, Ostrom (2000) locates social capital in the governance systems that local communities evolve for managing common resources such as water. A significant difference between Putnam and these authors is that, for Putnam, social capital is sufficiently generic that it can readily be transferred from one institutional setting to another. For Loasby and Ostrom, by contrast, social capital consists of concrete practical skills that are embedded in particular institutions.

[4] For extensive empirical evidence that the structure of social networks affects career advancement, see Burt (1995) and Lin, Cook, and Burt (2001). For background see Rauch and Casella (2000) and Smelser and Swedberg (1994).

[5] This new work makes a stronger empirical case for claims that Putnam originally put forth in his celebrated but controversial article alleging a decline of social capital in the United States (Putnam 1995). For critical analysis of Putnam's original argument see Schudson (1996).

[6] Cohen and Fields (2000) argue that Putnam's theory of social capital as a generalized disposition toward association does not explain the economic success of Silicon Valley, with its high levels of network-building and near-zero levels of civic engagement. Instead, they argue that Silicon Valley's social capital cannot be dissociated from its unique ensemble of institutions. Those institutions include the great research universities, government research and development policies, venture capital, stock options, and the specific nature of the computer industry. The social capital of other economic and political regions, even ones as superficially similar as the Route 128 technology corridor near Boston, may well be embedded in quite different institutions.

Krishna (2000) also connects the concept of social capital to that of institutions. He usefully subdivides social capital into two kinds: institutional capital, which is the collection of formal mechanisms for organizing activity with which a given community has experience, and relationship capital, which is the collection of established personal relationships among the individuals in a community. The two forms of social capital are complementary, and each is necessary for a strong and flexible social system. This way of defining the concepts is somewhat problematic: institutions comprise more than just formal rules, and relationships are generally organized by institutions. Even so, Krishna's analysis does provide one way of overcoming the industrial world's inattention to the institutional foundations of development.

See also Hoff and Stiglitz (2001) on the role of institutions in development and Bellah (2000) and Berman (1997) on institutions in civil society.

[7] Very unusually in the literature, Mansbridge (1980) actually found and studied two polities that approximate the deliberative myth. She emphasizes the ongoing work of maintaining relationships outside of the venues of formal decision-making, and she argues that the ideal of deliberation requires the citizens to have the same interests. For both these reasons, she concludes that the deliberative ideal is inapplicable to large-scale politics. See also Dryzek and Berejikian (1993), who use interviews and quantitative analysis to reconstruct citizens' conception of democracy and the deliberative process.

On the idea that participation in politics makes one a better person, see Gutmann and Thompson (1996) and Mansbridge (1999). Although Mansbridge argues that the idea in its full-blown form is recent, elements of it are much older.

On the concept of deliberative democracy generally, see Bohman and Rehg (1997), Dryzek (2002), Elster (1998), Gutmann and Thompson (1996), Koh and Slye (1999), and Nino (1996). On the related but distinct concept of participatory democracy, see Pateman (1970). Of course, these theories of deliberative democracy vary, and not all of them subscribe to every element of the myth that I have described. The overall picture, though, is quite consistent. For diverse criticisms of Habermas' theory of deliberative democracy in particular, with Habermas' informative response, see Calhoun (1992).

[8] See also Schudson (1997a, 1997b).

[9] It is, however, to acknowledge somewhat ruefully the empirical accuracy in most democratic polities to date of what Etzioni-Halevy (1993) calls the demo-elite theory. According to this theory, the feasibility of democratic government depends on the elites of many different institutional fields (business, education, the arts, and so on) having enough resources under their command to maintain their autonomy in relation to the state. If the state is able to undermine the autonomy of these institutions, then the result will be some form of corporatism, or worse. In a society where the social skills of association are unevenly distributed, being in essence restricted to the various elites, this conclusion most likely follows. Whether the autonomy of sectoral elites is a significant consideration in a society where political skills are universally taught in grade school is another matter.

[10] The phrase "marketplace of ideas" is widely attributed to John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1974 [1859]), but as Gordon (1997: 235) observes, "[t]his metaphor does not come from Mill's own text ... and quite to the contrary ... does not reflect accurately Mill's views on free speech". The metaphor is also often falsely attributed to Milton's Areopagitica. It is best known from its use in Oliver Wendell Holmes' dissent in Abrams v. US, 250 US 616 (1919). Yet even there the precise phrase, "marketplace of ideas", does not occur. Holmes in fact says: "the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas" and "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market" (both at 630). The text is available at <>.

[11] On republicanism see Connell (2000), Pettit (1997), Sunstein (1993), Van Gelderen and Skinner (2002), and Viroli (2002). An especially accessible history is Everdell (2000). For the debate on the role of republican ideas in the founding of the United States, see Appleby (1984), Pocock (1975), Rahe (1992), Rodgers (1992), Shalhope (1990), Wood (1969), and Zuckert (1994).

[12] On the concept of citizenship and its history see Hadenius (2001), Ignatieff (1995), Pocock (1995), and Riesenberg (1992).

[13] For a contemporary version of this, see Sandel (1996).

[14] Fligstein (1997) presents an earlier version of the theory.

[15] See, for example, Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy, Book 1, Chapter 9. The convergence of Fligstein's theory with the account of Machiavelli in Coleman (2000) is especially striking.

[16] For a rare discussion of the role of social skill in democratic society, see Elkin and Soltan (1999). On democratic republicanism see, e.g., Baker (2001).

[17] Although the concept of civil society is arguably ancient, its extraordinary contemporary revival begins with Keane (1988a, 1988b, 1998). See also Alexander (1998), Cohen and Arato (1992), Gellner (1994), Hall (1995), and Seligman (1992). For a forcefully analytical argument for the central role of civil society in the contemporary trend toward democratization, see Gill (2000). For historical perspectives see Black (1984), Ehrenberg (1999), and Ferguson (1995). Seligman (1995) argues that the concept of civil society, with its emphasis on the citizen's private attributes, is incompatible with republicanism, with its emphasis on the public self. The concept was also employed for rather different purposes by American conservative intellectuals in their campaign for welfare reform in the 1990s; see Berger and Neuhaus (1996), Eberly (2000), and Mansfield and Winthrop (2000).

[18] For comparative perspectives, see Chambers and Kymlicka (2001), Hann and Dunn (1996), Howell and Pearce (2001), Kaviraj and Khilnani (2001), and Schechter (1999). For an especially forceful critique, see Comaroff and Comaroff (2000).

[19] It has often been observed that experts, for example the members of professions, play distinctive cognitive roles in society (e.g., Bohman 1999). My point here, though, is more general: a democratic republic will make available a repertoire of institutions and action-forms that enable any citizen, whether formally credentialed or not, to pursue a career as an issue entrepreneur.

On business entrepreneurship see Swedberg (2000) and Casson (2000). On entrepreneurship in the university context see Clark (1998). In the context of cultural institutions see DiMaggio (1982a, 1982b). In the context of social movements see McCarthy and Zald (1987) and Spinosa, Flores, and Dreyfus (1997). McCarthy and Zald (1987: 18) use the phrase "issue entrepreneurs". Their emphasis, however, is on movements generally, and they do not develop a general theory of the issue entrepreneur as an individual, or of issue entrepreneurship as a form of social practice.

Political scientists also use the phrase to refer to politicians who build electoral coalitions by pioneering new political issues. Schneider and Teske (1992), for example, draw out the analogy between politicians' issue entrepreneurship and the economic theory of business entrepreneurship. In his lecture on "Politics as a Vocation", Weber (1946 [1919]: 86, 102-105, 109) describes the professional politician as an entrepreneur. In each case, though, he is referring to the methods that politicians (and not citizens generally) use to turn political activity into a paying job. He also briefly discusses the business entrepreneur's role in politics, or lack thereof (85, 100). [20] In Burt's (1995) terms, citizens establish places for themselves in the issue lattice by filling structural holes, that is, networking among diverse individuals among whom the newly emerging issue creates opportunities for arbitrage, agenda-setting, and other forms of entrepreneurial gain.

Like the issue lattice theory, Lin's (2001: 36-39) theory of social capital asserts that the social system is organized as a hierarchical social network. But Lin offers little explanation of how individuals attain their particular locations on one stratum or another except to say that they invest effort in establishing new social links with people on the strata above them.

[21] The theoretical consequences of this point may be considerable. Even as it provides a substantive theory of the social mechanisms that underlie civil society, the theory of issue entrepreneurship also undermines to some degree the very concept of civil society as something distinct from, and set against, the institutions of the state. The pervasively fractal nature of issue entrepreneurship implies that the same social logic organizes political processes in every institution, including both state and non-state institutions. What is more, the issue lattice of a functioning democratic republic knits the social networks of the state into those of nearly every other sphere of society. Although it is commonly held that democracy requires a robust civil society (see note 17), it is entirely possible that democracy in fact requires a robust political culture -- a culture in which the skills of issue entrepreneurship are thoroughly ingrained in the language, values, and action forms of everyday life. Perhaps that kind of political culture must satisfy additional institutional constraints, such as a distinction and opposition between civil society and the state. But before the question can be usefully asked, categories such as association and civil society need to be rethought. As Habermas (1997: 54) aptly notes, "as an organizational form, an association lacks the complexity necessary to structure the social fabric as a whole".

Arguing from a conservative perspective, however, Zijdervald (2000) asserts that social networks are replacing the institutions within which people formerly found their positions in society. He worries, though, that mere networks may be incapable of serving the socializing, value-instilling function of traditional institutions. Similarly, Sandel (1984: 93) argues that "[b]y the mid- to late twentieth century ... the [United States] proved too vast a scale across which to cultivate the shared self-understandings necessary to community in the formative, or constitutive sense. And so the gradual shift, in our practices and institutions, from a public philosophy of common purpose to one of fair procedures, from a politics of good to a politics of right, from the national republic to the procedural republic".

[22] Similarly, March and Olsen (1995) warn against a conflation between the quite distinct concepts of community membership and civic identity. [23] See Agre (2002); Barney (2000); Becker and Wehner (2001); Buchstein (1997); Florini (2000); Hacker and van Dijk (2001); Hague and Loader (1999); Hoff, Horrocks, and Tops (2000); Netanel (2000); and Norris (2001). On the civic networking movement see Doctor and Dutton (1999), Friedland (1996), Schuler (1996), and Tambini (2001).

[24] Berkowitz (1996) argues that proposals for deliberative democracy unfairly tilt the political playing field towards the very sorts of sophisticated and articulate individuals who tend to support them, and a similar objection might be raised to my own proposals here. In each case, though, the obvious response is the same: you cannot have a democratic republic without an educated citizenry, and one purpose of a democratic republican political theory is to sketch the syllabus for the necessary education.


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