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The Forgotten Civic Bargain

Stanford Classics and Politics Professor Josiah Ober thinks about the Roman Empire five times a week — but for good reason. The frequent musings form the basis of his latest book, The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives, which posits that the bedrock of democracy is mutual negotiation, a concept that has largely slipped from contemporary discourse.


At its core, Ober's argument is simultaneously simple and profound: democracy depends on a "bargain" – a consensus among individuals with differing opinions. The only way democracy can thrive is if these individuals can reach an agreement, recognizing that all parties involved are better off within this shared understanding than outside of it. This inherently means that democracy will never reach a state of perfection, as the essence of a bargain requires compromise. Ober told us to think of it as “haggling over a used car;” neither party can leave with everything they initially wanted.


Ober visited CMC to present his book at the Athenaeum and attend an American constitutionalism conference hosted by the Salvatori Center. He is the author of numerous books, including Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (1989), Political Dissent in Democratic Athens (2008), and Democracy and Knowledge (2008). When I collected Ober for our interview, the juxtaposition was cinematic: a towering academic in his 60s, exuding gravitas yet crowned with a playful newsboy cap and smile, struggling to fold his way into the confines of my compact passenger seat. He eventually squeezed in, launching into thoughtful responses even before my questions fully left my lips.


So how does a society reach this critical juncture, the civic bargain? Ober tells us that history provides valuable insights, with Athens, Rome, the UK, and the US as illustrative examples. In each instance, the fundamental agreement that delineates how the people coexist democratically is preceded by a series of political bargains. These can be among the elite or between the elite and the masses. The journey towards democracy, defined as self-governance by the people who determine their own citizenry, is never instantaneous. Often, a central figure or authority is the precursor, steering the society towards the eventual ideal of self-rule.


For any democratic system to be resilient, it must have the flexibility to evolve. Ober uses the US Constitution as an example, as it began imperfectly, it possessed the intrinsic ability to be amended, ensuring its relevance across changing times. The civic bargain, then, doesn't promise perfection from the outset. Instead, it creates conditions that allow a society to edge ever closer to an improved version of itself.


Ober also spoke of the importance of scaling up in democracies. In a world with multiple superpowers, with contrasting ideologies and governance systems, democracies must scale to withstand autocratic rivals. Autocracies can scale more efficiently due to their hierarchical structure. For democracies to counteract this, they must properly maintain their civic bargain.


The issue of scale in Rome became a significant challenge. By the end of the Roman Republic, the sense of citizenship became so diluted that it no longer resonated deeply with the people. Why engage in complex negotiations when following Caesar seemed more profitable?


In the early evolution of democracy, separating it from religious ideologies was a radical yet crucial step. In places like the United Kingdom, religion had led to significant societal upheavals and violence. Addressing religious conflicts and ensuring basic security and welfare were paramount for democracy to take root. Ancient societies like Athens and Rome integrated public religion into their political system differently, but they all ensured that religion didn't equate to an unchallenged rule. A democratic society seeks to curb extreme passions, focusing on rationality and mutual benefit. The ultimate aim is to prevent politics from becoming a zero-sum game, where one side's gain is another's loss.


Unfortunately, the zero-sum game defines most 21st century political issues. There's a tendency to view the national-level impasses as issues that will simply shift to state governments. Such bypassing impacts national security; Ober draws historical parallels with the failure of the Articles of Confederation. While the federal system can delegate various responsibilities to the local communities, it's essential that some crucial matters remain within the national purview.


This feeling of being "stuck" isn't new to the United States. Both the House and Senate have been bitterly divided for the better part of the last three decades. There have not been consecutive Presidents from the same party since H.W. Bush was elected in 1988. The last several Presidential elections have also been decided by razor thin margins. Deep-rooted systemic power imbalances, voter suppression, and issues like gerrymandering have been persistent challenges as well. With the advent of technological advancements, these issues have become more sophisticated and often less conspicuous.


In the face of increasing division, Ober proposes reviving what Aristotle termed as 'Civic friendship.' This doesn't imply an actual camaraderie but rather an understanding and acknowledgment of being part of a collective enterprise. To rebuild this civic friendship, Ober points to civic education.


This isn't just about academic education; it's about equipping each citizen with the tools to engage, communicate, and sometimes, compromise with others – even those they may disagree with.


A society's fabric is woven from conversations, from talking to people, understanding perspectives, and not necessarily agreeing but finding a common ground. It's about delineating boundaries on some issues while leaving room for negotiations on others. Ober emphasized the importance of fostering "civic friendship" through civic education, where citizens help educate their fellow citizens.


However, a fundamental concern arises when individual interpretations of civic understanding start diverging extensively. Throughout history, such divisions have led to devastating outcomes like civil wars. To avoid reaching such extremes, Ober says there's a pressing need for historically accurate information and a diversity of perspectives.


Ober tells us that the US doesn't need to overhaul its constitution or introduce a slew of amendments. Instead, institutions and individuals can champion civic education right now. A call to action could be as simple as approaching professors or educators to emphasize the importance of courses that unpack what it means to be a modern-day citizen, dealing with racial inequality, technology, constitutional tenets, political theory, and history. Ober proudly noted a new course at Stanford designed with this intent that has already seen ⅔ enrollment for the freshman class (75 sections — 1 syllabus). Ober knows change won’t happen inside the halls of Stanford, but if he has one message, it’s to pass it on.


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