(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post to learn more!)

On January 20th of this year, the nation anxiously watched the peaceful transfer of power, long a hallmark of democracy, after more than two months of heated claims of inaccurate presidential election outcomes, which culminated in a riot at the Capitol just two weeks before.  The day was marked with historic firsts – Kamala Harris’s inauguration as the first female, African American and Southeast Asian American vice president, and the inclusion of the first National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, as one of the contributors to the ceremony.  Gorman’s inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb, captured many profound insights, but also called Americans together to act, “It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.” Her words demonstrate the challenges for a people with a complex history to reconcile and reform their country, rather than fully reject it because of past and present conflicts and injustices.

Reflecting on his experiences as a journalist in What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, Dan Rather offers his perspective on values that Americans have previously shared, and perhaps can once again, unite.  Centering his argument in a discussion of patriotism, he characterizes our duty to “see [our] love of country imbued with a responsibility to bear witness to its faults…we are bound together by a grand experiment in government, the rule of law, and common bonds of citizenship” (11-12).  Rather’s definition suggests a valuable approach for us to take with any human-constructed structure or system, as well as with those humans within it – individual error and corruption mean that we will always have mistakes to overcome and less noble impulses to curb. In evaluating the values that he sees as essential to the good of our nation, Rather reflects both Tocqueville’s recognition of human challenges in our system, as well as his optimism for its reform.

Among the five values that Rather suggests compose the central elements of patriotism, perhaps freedom is the most recognizable of our American experiment.   The appeals to rights and freedoms led colonists to declare independence, fight the revolution and create not one but two political systems – the first of which, the Articles of Confederation, was short-lived.  But ultimately, it is the importance of political freedom that is most essential to our system’s functioning.  Our country has been pushed to recognize the importance of all citizens being able have voice in our system and yet, we still lag behind most comparable systems in our voter turnout.  Not only do other nations make it easier for voters to participate, but we have seen measures over time designed to discourage or even prevent some Americans from voting. Rather highlights the grave concerns that such actions should hold for supporters of democracy noting, “[t]o suppress the vote is to make a mockery if democracy.  And those who do so are essentially acknowledging that their policies are unpopular” (31).  Beyond voting, our system of majority rule incorporates recognition of that they may not always have right on their side. The privilege of dissent, to “force all of us to question our dogmas and biases,” and the role of a free and independent press, to protect against “the corrupting effects of unfettered power on the discourse of democracy” through investigative journalism, are protected by the First Amendment (42, 53).  These elements allow our system to function more effectively, but Rather finds a dedication to freedom alone insufficient to define patriotism, as these freedoms exist within a shared social context.

The value of community as an element of patriotism reflects the fact that our work inherently obliges some collective work. Collaborating – or simply coexisting – with others requires a stance of inclusion, not only in recognizing individuals from marginalized groups have value and worth, but also voice (“Inclusion”).  Interacting with others who come from different life experiences means that we will not know their perspectives first hand, but from which we can learn – “[w]hen we live in a self-selected bubble of friends, neighbors, and colleagues, it is too easy to forget how important it is to try to walk in the shoes of others” (101).  The membership in our community continues to evolve from the earliest immigrants to those of the present day, further shifting our experiences of inclusion and empathy. Although the response to newcomers has not always been welcoming, Rather notes that America has been “a blended land of ever-increasing diversity that so far has proven the strength and wisdom of our great experiment” (120).  When we see the value of not only ourselves but others, we have the ability to leverage our multiple efforts for greater reward.

Rather situates his work with an epigraph from Tocqueville that captures the hope for our – or other – nations.  Within Tocqueville’s assessment on the functional governing of democracy, he noted that “[t]he Greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults” (Vol 1, Chapter VIII, Part III, par. 17.)  In this section of Democracy in America, as elsewhere in his tome, Tocqueville acknowledged that our chosen form of government has both areas of strength and weakness.  For him, the ability of democratic republics/ democracies to recognize their errors and make changes to law and structure was its saving grace. The people might not always, or even often, get it right but they have the ability to learn over time.  He questioned the ability for democracy to succeed in its foreign policy (Vol 1, Chapter VIII, Part III, “Conduct Of Foreign Affairs By The American Democracy”).  Yet the ingenuity of the framers’ design placed the primacy of external affairs in the hands of a single executive, limiting but not removing popular influence, and tempering executive power with checks by the legislature.  Despite some of the specific shortcomings of government based on the consent of the people, it offers greater opportunity than other systems.

Tocqueville valued the incorporation of various voices and a willingness to include them allow a nation to identify its errors and work to repair them.[1] Over the course of our nation’s history, constitutional, legal and social reforms have extended political rights to additional voices. The inclusion and empathy that Rather extols does not come without practice, which Tocqueville noted our political system affords us:

For in the United States it is believed, and with truth, that patriotism is a kind of devotion which is strengthened by ritual observance. In this manner the activity of the township is continually perceptible; it is daily manifested in the fulfilment of a duty or the exercise of a right, and a constant though gentle motion is thus kept up in society which animates without disturbing it (Tocqueville, Vol 1, Chapter V, Part I, “Public Spirit Of The Townships Of New England,” par. 3).

Our commitment to the well-being of our nation and its people, not simply its persistence, requires something of us in turn; it also requires that we practice with a recognition that many others also belong within our community.

As we move through the initial days of a new presidential administration, especially in the midst of the pandemic and other pressing issues, it might be easy to continue to draw lines and pick battles rather than see how we can strengthen each other and our collective actions.  Certainly, we should condemn activities that are harmful to our nation’s existence, but we should also be careful not to use assertions of patriotism as a means to discourage change that can lead to beneficial changes.  Rather’s examination of patriotism as conceived from freedom and community, as well as the values of exploration, responsibility and character, offers a nuanced and thought-provoking set of options.  Likewise, in the closing lines of her poem, Gorman reveals the opportunity before us:

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover and every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful will emerge, battered and beautiful. When day comes we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it (The Hill We Climb).

If we frame our sense of patriotism not in terms of whether individuals speak and act in ways that we accord, but as ways in which we can identify the ways in which our nation may improve, we are most likely to ensure our nation’s continuation for ourselves and our posterity.

[1] Although not relevant to the central elements of this post, readers should note that Chapter XIII includes discussion of the impact of colonization on Indian tribes that reflects Tocqueville’s lack of knowledge as to how these populations constructed their own civilizations, different as they were from those of the earlier European culture that shaped the formation of government.

(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

(Note: The National Hockey League includes teams from the United States and Canada.  Canadian teams from the province of Quebec and their home facilities are known by the French versions of their name. The Buffalo Sabres, in their hometown abutting the US-Canadian border, also follow suit.)

The origin of the term partisanship provides insight into the way that this factor functions in our political system.  Despite being a political scientist studying political behavior for a couple of decades and a student of French since middle school, it was not until February 2, 2013 that I grasped the meaning of this term on a whole new level.  A hockey fan since my youth, I eagerly tuned in that day to watch the Buffalo Sabres play the Montreal Canadiens, a game that took place just a couple of weeks after the end of a months-long lockout that resulted in the cancellation of games until late January. As the teams faced off in the Bell Centre, I noticed additional wording at center ice: “Merci à nos partisans!” – “Thank you to our fans!” Partisan – fan, devotee, follower – certainly captures the essence of individuals following political groups and philosophies.  Ardent supporters can become quite heated on behalf of their teams, driven more by emotion and loyalty of shared identity, rather than critical analysis.

In the field of political science, we most often use party identification to measure partisanship within the public.  Party identification (referred to as PID), the extent to which individuals feel closer to one of the political parties, reflects a primarily affective (emotional) view.  As shown in this overview from the American National Elections Studies project, one of the most extended and reputable series examining political behavior in the United States, this characteristic reflects responses as to which party respondents think of themselves as “closer” (click “Notes” tab for question-wording).  Over time, PID has shifted among three primary groups: Democrats, Independents and Republicans, with Independents retaining a strong presence over time. Despite extensive analyses of alternate approaches to measuring PID, this general approach remains the most effective measure in our two-party system, based on its ability to more accurately capture the pulse of political behavior.  For the general public, partisanship has no doubt had some negative impacts on the political system, but it can also be harnessed constructively.

I find it helpful to consider partisan identity as a “lens” that not only impacts voting decisions but also shapes other political beliefs and attitudes.  Many models, including the pivotal Michigan voting model of the “funnel of causality” include PID as a factor with both direct and indirect effects.  Sixty years after the introduction of the model, the Change and Continuity series, published after each national election with in-depth analysis, reveals the persistent and multiple influences of PID on voting.  Not only are partisans more likely to vote for candidates running under that party label, but PID shapes evaluations of candidates, issues and events that also influence voting.  Part of the reason for this outcome is that party identification serves as a heuristic – or shortcut – in processing information.  Unfortunately, shortcuts do not allow for effective evaluation of complex situations, creating “teams” of political opponents that combat one another rather than consider options outside of their partisan defaults that might serve the greater good.

The public has responded with a sort of polarization that primarily reacts to changes among elected officials and party activists.  Despite the fact that the plurality of people in the United States range from center-right to center-left, the public is perceived as more politically polarized than their issue stances would suggest due to what scholar Morris Fiorina terms the “sorting” of party elites over the last two and a half decades. This shift, aided by the growing influence of social media, has culminated in a new variant – negative partisanship.  Identified by elections expert Alan Abramowitz, this shift has resulted primarily in the decline of opinion towards the opposing party even as attitudes towards one’s own party remained stable and, in 2016, dropped.  The votes in that election were cast against opposing parties/ candidates, rather than for the candidates that aligned with voters’ own parties. Does this team rivalry mentality prevent change that can return us to an effective government that deliberates and discerns actions based on the good of the whole rather than political biases?

Despite the current circumstances, some of which have been quite dire for the health of representative democracy, room for change exists.  The post-election challenges, despite the lack of legal evidence to merit them, culminated in violent insurrection on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.  Even in the face of reservations over this event by Republicans in the public, the impact of PID as a political lens is still evident as the country approaches the inauguration of the Biden administration. Yet, given the existence of negative partisanship, the majority of the public does not serve as a stable base for either party, which indicates that the voting landscape is ripe for realignment if leaders can tap into shared values.  According to the Carr Center, those common values do exist.  But promoting that change will require collaboration and empathy, with individuals and leaders who support the principles of representative democracy seeing beyond labels and stereotypes to the human beings within groups.  Another sports team analogy provides a suggestion as to how we as citizens can break the habit of overreacting to partisanship.

Ardent fans in Buffalo and Baltimore illustrated how it can be done following the January 16 American Football Conference (AFC) divisional playoff game between their teams.  During the second half of the game, quarterback Lamar Jackson left with a concussion and could not return.  The Buffalo Bills won the game, but the story did not end there, with one team jubilant and another bitter.  The Buffalo fan base (aka Bills Mafia) took a page out of its own playbook, researching causes that Jackson has supported, and kicked off a donation drive in his honor to the Louisville affiliate of Blessings in a Backpack.  Ravens fans motivated others in their flock to contribute as well.  Although the financial impact is inspirational – as of the completion of this post, over $290,000 had been raised in less than 48 hours – the fan to fan communication has also been incredible.  Fans connecting individually have been able to see beyond the stereotype of their sports rivals and support a common end regardless of wins and losses.  Hungry children are undoubtedly the winners.

(The nature and change in political behavior in the United States have many more layers of complexity, but this element serves as the focus for this post.  For a more detailed examination of the current and historical party systems, please read the segment on political parties in our sister series From the Field.)




(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

In the 1994 midterm, the Republican Party won majorities in both houses of Congress with larger margins than most electoral models predicted.  The incoming majority had formed a united campaign front with its Contract with America, staking out clear stances from its Democratic opponents.  Yet, by the end of President Bill Clinton’s second term, one that included not only an impeachment but also an ahistorical gain in seats for his party during the subsequent midterm, the White House and Congress had amassed many policy accomplishments.  Divided government was not dysfunctional.

As of today, election officials have certified most of the 2020 ballots and, at least at the federal level, all but two run-off elections concluded.  Pending the outcome of those latter races, the United States may again face a measure of divided government.  Is that situation desirable? Explainable? Even though much of the deeper analysis of voting awaits the more detailed academic studies that can examine a whole host of factors that simpler horserace polls cannot, these results are not necessarily puzzling when taking in a longer-term context.  As parties and their elected officials have polarized in the last several decades, especially in comparison to the landscape of public opinion, divided government not only balance for the public, but also an indication that business as usual does not serve the larger American public.

Divided government is not necessarily a surprising outcome, either in current or past times.  In terms of party identification (PID), the public has tended to reflect more of a bell curve over the last several decades, with just small spikes favoring either major party.  In addition, these totals include those who respond as weak partisans; researchers Paul Hernnson and James Curry note that these individuals who sometimes turn out in lower numbers or may be more likely to defect to the opposing party when election contexts are less favorable.  As parties have polarized, voters other than strong partisans do not find these groups to be very representative of their beliefs (Table 1).  In fact, results in a November 2020 survey by Harvard/Harris reveals that a majority of voters want bipartisan control of Congress (30).  Thus, ticket-splitting may be motivated by a desire to curb the excesses of either party.

Despite the attention to congressional gridlock in recent years, though not without bipartisan successes such as the First Step Act, divided government has necessarily not been synonymous with unproductive outcomes.   Divided government has occurred regularly for a number of decades.  Congressional expert David Mayhew has found that, for a good portion of that time, divided government did not correlate with less productive policymaking.  Officials were able to rise above partisanship to the point that they could collaborate on key outcomes, but those outcomes were also due to the overlap across more moderate elements of the parties.

As parties have polarized over the last couple of decades, their electoral fortunes have been short-term in nature.  Since 1992, unified government has been the exception, rather than the rule, with each side holding that position for only 1 to 2 election cycles (Table 4).  As long as officials promote policies that relate to their bases, they risk the inability to grow sufficient support in the public in order to sustain power and make consistent policy.  The winning parties have tended to incorrectly view their wins as a mandate, ceding more independent supporters to the opposing party in subsequent elections.   Moreover, policy purists, rather than pragmatists, have engaged in significant overreach by promoting policies that do not have widespread support, which seems to perpetuate the political tumult come election time.

However, this cycle is not inevitable, if political leaders exercise courage in representing the larger American public.   Recent research by Harvard’s Carr Center has shown a number of areas of common ground among voters – with strong bipartisan support topping 90% for rights relating to personal data, voting, racial equality and affordable health care (Takeaway 2).  Students of public policy know well that agreement on policy goals do not automatically produce results on the methods by which they might be achieved.  But, with such overwhelming desire on the part of the public to address these issues, and the varieties of approaches, built on the results of which ones may or may not work well, a compromise that advances the interests of the American people is possible.

Critical to that compromise is the willingness of officials to examine viable solutions and to engage in honest dialogue.  To do so, members of Congress need to return to some fundamental values, chief among which is empathy.  Rather than seeing members of opposing parties as enemies, recognizing their humanity requires our ability to understand how individuals’ experiences shape their values.  As noted by actor Alan Alda, who has spent many years working in the field of communication, active listening has the potential to reframe our views.  In turn, we have the opportunity to develop empathy for others who think differently than we do.  In light of current political alignments within the public, empathy and collaboration are not only ethical necessities but practical ones.

If we wish to solve collective problems by implementing policies that can have longer-term – and likely more effective – outcomes, partisans need to reframe their approaches.  Democracy typically organizes around a principle of majority rule; in some cases, procedures – including some of those addressed in the Constitution – even require supermajorities.  Neither party has been able to generate a clear, convincing and, most importantly, sustainable majority.  Political scientist Robert Putnam offers insights on returning to the common good, based on examples from the past in his new book, co-authored with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. More efforts, such as those of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, have the opportunity to chart a different course.  The onus is on current leaders to chart a path that tackles commonly agreed-upon goals in ways that harness the strengths of competing perspectives.   In doing so, they will find themselves much more likely to generate support from the public, raising from approvals in the teens and 20s, and securing a broader and more stable set of bases.   In becoming more representative, they also stand the chance to adopt more effective policies that majorities of Americans can respect.

Zoe Smith is a senior with majors in Politics and Chinese Studies


Latin America has often been the focus of international attention, particularly in the eyes of the United States. As neighbors to the South, there has always been evolving foreign policy between the U.S. and Latin America. As we evaluate the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords, the history of policy preceding and the outcome of the 1997 Peace Accords will come to light. The checkered past of the United States intervention in Latin America plays an important role in events leading up to the Peace Accord. Exploring this past leads to a new understanding of deep-seated conflicts in Guatemala, and the nature of the Peace Accords.


In 1944 Jacobo Arbenz was democratically elected as president following a coup staged to depose dictator Juan Fredrico Ponce Vaides. Jacobo Arbenz was well supported by the people, his popularity showing through his success through democratic means. Unfortunately, the United States had hawkish policy focused on Latin America and any seemingly leftist political movement. This was because of events on the international stage, namely the Cold War. Upon review, the nature of Guatemala was not communist or anywhere near such radical ideology. This did not prevent the Eisenhower Administration and Congress from supporting military leaders in a coup in Guatemala through the CIA.

The efforts of United States lead to the strengthening of elites and military leaders in Guatemala. Underneath these leaders, the normalcy of violence and suppression began. The Guatemalan government was particularly stringent with revolutionists, and their response to guerilla groups horrified the international community. A 36-year civil war between these guerilla groups and the Guatemalan government led to the mass murder of thousands of Guatemalans. Human rights protection decayed as the government targeted indigenous Mayans in the Mayan Highlands where many guerrilla groups hid.

The United States, despite their role previously supporting military leaders, also agreed it was time to return power to the citizenship. They also backed United Nations peacekeeping actions in Guatemala (so long as monetary aid translates as support). The government sponsored genocide of Guatemalan citizens eventually led to the 1996 Peace Accord which was introduced and supported by the United Nations.

The 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accord

After 36 years of violence, the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accord was established with the signing of a cease fire agreement between the Guatemalan government and URNG in 19. The URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca) was a leading group in the revolution against the government. Like many guerilla groups during this period, they established themselves in the Mayan Highlands and intertwined their struggle against the government with the historical trials of the indigenous Mayan people. Acknowledging their disadvantages, URNG took advantage of the opportunity to achieve political change through peace talks. The Guatemalan government was brought to the table through international influence and potential loss of foreign aid.

After this cease fire occurred, the United Nations began to gather information on the conflict and those affected. The Peace Accord promoted the use of various organizations to establish accountability for human rights violations, provide historical accounts, and verify the truth behind events that were considerably damaging for indigenous peoples and other communities. REHMI, organized by the Catholic Church, gathered 5,000 testimonies representing 25,000 victims… RHEMI has also identified more than 300 mass graves across the country, which the army had previously kept hidden.” (Wilson, 1997) These investigations were the culminations of efforts to provide future accountability for human rights protection and change the status quo of hidden government violence.

As investigations continued, the conversation around government reform progressed. The 1996 Peace Accord consists of a few necessary agreements, such as the ceasefire in 1996, and an exhaustive list of government reforms to be carried out. These reforms and agreements came about through discussions with various non-government organizations, URNG, and the Guatemalan government. The Peace Accord established provided a plan of reforms on human rights, the judicial system, economical development, military power, and various government structures.. This study of the 1996 Peace Accord provides insight on the nature of peace talks and the scope of the effort in Guatemala.

Though the efforts to provide future reform for Guatemala were considerable, the Peace Accord had fundamental imperfections that would dampen the effect of this policy. A core issue with the Peace Accord is that it failed to empower citizens, which in turn left them without the ability to hold the government accountable for reforms. There were some notable efforts on part of the Peace Accord, such as the Assembly of Civil Society. The Assembly of Civil Society attempted to represent all civil sectors, however, like other programs that were meant to give a voice to the citizens in these peace talks, it was ineffective. The Assembly was never truly representative of the people and failed to have lasting impact once implementation began.

Another failure of the Peace Accord was its inability to prioritize key issues for reform and implement timely solutions. This failure was due to the sheer scope of the policy and the lack of vision for government restructuring on the part of the administration. Peace talk solutions that address historical, systemic issues are more likely to have lasting impact, however, simple, practical solutions are more likely to be implemented. Had the Peace Accord prioritized human rights protection and gave clear instruction on how to restructure government institution to suit these priorities, it may have worked.

While there is much to be said in terms of what could be improved on, the 1996 Peace Accord did have a positive impact in Guatemala. Despite large adversity from the Guatemalan government and elites, or even the URNG at times, the Peace Accord brought forth a cease-fire after 36-years of violence. Furthermore, the revolutionists who disarmed were reintegrated into society and the violence of 36-years acknowledged.  The Truth Commission, which gathered data in subsequent years on the nature and sources of violence, provided a stark account of government activities.  The lack of implementation of reforms has meant a continued abuse of human rights and government power, however, the 1996 Peace Accord exhibits the potential of peace keeping policy if executed effectively. For this reason, policy such as this must be studied and understood to bring about lasting impact in the future.

Autumn Kritzer is currently a junior Politics and International Relations major.


(What is From the Field?  Read the introduction to the current segment to find out more!)

Drug production and trafficking polluted Colombia’s national security for nearly fifty years. The issue had to be addressed in order to restore tranquility and peace within the nation. Upon President Pastrana’s election in 1998, his main goal was to eliminate the issue of drug production and trafficking, since the drug market fueled internal violence within Colombia. The policy that was created to minimize the drug market within Colombia is known as Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia has had partial success but had failed in certain areas. Internal conflict has been reduced within Colombia, but the process of drug interdiction and eradication had negative effects on the neighboring nations, and the local population’s health.

Colombia was plagued with internal conflict for half of a century. The nation of Colombia did not have full sovereignty, in being that it did not have control of all of the lands within the country. Guerilla groups played a role in drug production and trafficking, which gave the groups a substantial amount of power. Guerilla groups were controlling land that the Colombian government struggled to re-gain. Many murders and kidnappings were committed by the guerilla groups. Due to the violence being acted out against citizens, funding went towards self-defense organizations. The Colombian government did not have control over the nation’s land and also, did not have the ability to protect its citizens, so their sovereignty came into question (For further background before the implementation of Plan Colombia, click here).

The root of internal conflict was drug production and trafficking, giving President Pastrana the desire to eliminate it, which was hoped to be reached through Plan Colombia of 1999. Plan Colombia was a $7 billion plan and was open to funding from the international community. The United States contributed $1.3 billion towards this plan, between fiscal years 2000-2001. The US assisted in areas such as human rights and judicial reform, the expansion of counter-narcotics efforts, alternative economic development, increased interdiction, and the national police of Colombia. Many illicit drugs used in the United States originated from Colombia. The US had an interest in reducing the supply of drugs in Colombia, so that drug use within the US would decrease as well (to view more about US funding, click here).

The objectives of Plan Colombia were to decrease drug production and trafficking by 50% within a six-year span and to restore national security by re-gaining lands back from illegally armed groups that were controlling them. The tools that were used to reach the objectives include drug eradication through the process of aerial spraying, drug interdiction, and alternative economic development. Aerial spraying was completed through the use of helicopters, which sprayed herbicides upon coca crops that were otherwise unreachable. If the number of coca crops was reduced, the Colombian government hoped that the overall production rate of drugs would significantly decrease. Drug interdiction is when national police seize illegal drugs that are being produced and trafficked. The intentions of this tool were to reduce the production and trafficking of drugs as well. The tool of alternative economic development gave farmers incentives to not cultivate illicit crops such as coca. Rather, the government provided farmers with marketing resources so they had the capability to cultivate and sell legal crops. If illegal crops were not being cultivated by farmers, the overall production of drugs would decrease (For further reading on strategic reasoning for Plan Colombia, click here). Reducing the scope of power of the drug market also would reduce the profits of Guerilla groups. If guerilla groups were losing money and power, there would not be a need for self-defense organizations, restoring lands to Colombia along with their sovereignty (which is where a country has unrivaled control of their territory).

The tools used to reach the objectives have had both positive and negative impacts. Drug eradication through the use of aerial spraying was very costly. Aerial spraying costs nearly $240,000 to eliminate just one kilogram of cocaine. For perspective, nearly 128,000 hectares are sprayed annually. Aerial spraying is expensive and not that effective. Local farmers have been able to find loopholes around this system, by simply moving their crops to areas that were unreachable by helicopters, which sprayed the herbicides. Aerial spraying had a negative impact on the citizens’ health, 403 citizens felt ill within four weeks of the fields being sprayed by herbicides according to a survey which was conducted.  Drug interdiction has increased between 2000-2012 from 80,000 to 190,000 drug seizures. The process of interdiction has decreased the trafficking of drugs, which shows that it was successful for Colombia’s interest. Even though interdiction decreased drug trafficking in Colombia, this caused drug trafficking to be displaced in Mexico and Central America. The displacement of drugs from one country to the next shows a flaw within the process of drug supply reduction. Alternative economic development has not been completely successful. The programs used to achieve development had implementation issues, the resources that were given to farmers that intended to widen their production and sales were not self-sustainable. The tools used to reach the objectives have caused a decrease in internal conflict, which is measured through crime rates. For recent statistics, between 2013-2014 the crime rate has decreased by 14.28% (for further reading on key findings of Plan Colombia, click here and here). Overall, the tools have had both positive and negative impacts.

Plan Colombia of 1999 had the objectives of reducing drug production and trafficking, along with eliminating internal conflict. The United States provided Colombia aid to reach these objectives. The tools used to reach the objectives included drug eradication by aerial spraying, drug interdiction, and alternative economic development. The tools have achieved a decrease in internal conflict, and drug production and trafficking. Certain processes had negative effects on the local population’s health, such as aerial spraying. Also, the increase in drug interdiction has caused drug production and trafficking to be displaced in other regions, such as Mexico and Central America. Plan Colombia has proven to be effective in the reduction of internal conflict, but not at completely eradicating drug production and trafficking. The failure of Plan Colombia has shown flaws in the process of drug supply reduction.

(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post to learn more!)

“At a time of deep partisan and demographic divides related to the 2020 election, more than two-thirds of Americans surprisingly agree that they ‘have more in common with each other than many people think,’ including 74% of Democrats, 78% of Republicans and 66% of Independents”  (Carr Center, “Key Takeaways: 1”).

This conclusion, one of many from a national survey by Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy revealing common ground among Americans, flies in the face of the vitriolic political rhetoric often found on social media and in many of the 2020 general election campaign ads.  Although we have seen much coverage and public evidence of political polarization over the last few decades, as indicated in this post in our partner series From the Field, the term does not accurately describe the bulk of the American public.  The larger findings of this study are not out of sync with other research on the mood of the American public over time. However, regardless of the outcome, the results of the November 3rd election will not end the rancor that seems to pervade the public sphere.

Writing almost a decade ago in Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Parker Palmer recognized that the key to transforming our current politics begins with us, the very individuals who compose our society. At the root of his analysis is the role of citizenship “a way of being in the world rooted in the knowledge that I am a member of a vast community of human and nonhuman beings that I depend on for essentials that I could never provide for myself” (31).  This large social system includes millions of individuals, each situated with rights in the political sphere, as well as different experiences and perspectives.  In making his claims, Palmer calls on fundamental ideas from Tocqueville, affirming the values of our habits and their impact on our culture as a means to restore our community.

Central to Palmer’s argument is the fundamental paradox that democracy puts individuals in tension with those whose life experiences and views differ from our own.  Rather than respecting the political equality to which each member of our political community is entitled, we sometimes focus on our own voice to the exclusion of others.  Add to this often-competitive system the great challenges we may encounter, which often results in heartbreak.  Palmer notes that, as we encounter these heartbreaks, we may tend towards one of two responses – the shattered heart becomes “withdrawn and bitter” or the broken-open heart becomes more compassionate (60).  In the former case, people develop the “fight or flight” response that leads them to perceive threats from others, especially those not like them.  In the latter case, people are able to overcome great loss and disappointment and use it to constructively respond to the future, with compassion towards others in their struggles.

From his analysis, Palmer suggests that we can promote more compassionate and respectful political engagement by developing what he calls the “habits of the heart” (43-46). These habits provide a foundational set of principles that shape how we engage each other in the public sphere.  Accepting our interdependence with others who come from different perspectives, and valuing tension as an opportunity for growth in which we, along with others, exercise our voice and agency, ultimately allows us to leverage our collective power to address communal problems.  This transformation will not happen innately but rather relies on our efforts in our educational, religious and political systems (Chapters 6-7).  Despite this seemingly steep learning curve, Palmer also shows that there is precedent for fostering communal habits, captured by Tocqueville himself.

Palmer recalls for his readers Tocqueville’s insistence that “democracy’s future would depend heavily on generations of American citizens cultivating the habits of the heart that support political wholeness” (35). These habits could counter the growing individualism, resulting from relative equality of condition that could shatter the public sphere. Instead, human habits could strengthen the system:

I here used the word manners with the meaning which the ancients attached to the word mores, for I apply it not only to manners in their proper sense of what constitutes the character of social intercourse, but I extend it to the various notions and opinions current among men, and to the mass of those ideas which constitute their character of mind. I comprise, therefore, under this term the whole moral and intellectual condition of a people (Tocqueville 1835, Volume I, Book I, Chapter XVII, par. 9).

The ability to see beyond one’s own immediacy and to recognize and respect the political equality of voice for those with whom we might not regularly interact in our private lives.  In this conception, parallels exist with Jewish theologian Martin Buber’s conceptions of I and Thou, in which individuals see the moral value of both themselves and others, recognizing the need to respect the rights and needs of both.  Recognizing the Thou in each other, especially in those folks who come from different vantage points in society, can inherently shape how we engage each other in the public square.

The limits of individual power also prompt us to connect with others who share our goals. Palmer notes the deep awe that Tocqueville displayed for the vibrant civic life existing on American soil (42).  The collective efforts of those with shared goals allowed both members of the majority and minority to advocate for their causes.

The members of these associations respond to a watchword, like soldiers on duty; they profess the doctrine of passive obedience; say rather, that in uniting together they at once abjure the exercise of their own judgment and free will; and the tyrannical control which these societies exercise is often far more insupportable than the authority possessed over society by the Government which they attack. Their moral force is much diminished by these excesses, and they lose the powerful interest which is always excited by a struggle between oppressors and the oppressed. The man who in given cases consents to obey his fellows with servility, and who submits his activity and even his opinions to their control, can have no claim to rank as a free citizen (Tocqueville 1835, Volume I, Book I, Chapter XII, par. 29).

In these collaborative exercises, we may also find common ground in goals despite disagreement as to the method of achieving them.

These compelling ideas may sound encouraging, especially to those who recognize common values and goals, but the challenge rests in identifying the practical steps that may lead us toward a more constructive and inclusive system.  First, we must recognize that difference of experience and opinion makes us stronger, as illustrated in research on diversity and outcomes. Second, we should take steps to enter what Lennon Flowers and Jennifer Bailey call “brave spaces” – as illustrated in their People’s Supper initiative, which brings together people from different perspectives into meaningful contact with each other.  More thoroughly, we can take advantage of opportunities, such as those offered by Palmer’s Center for Courage and Renewal, to develop spiritual and professional growth.  But first we must be willing to set aside our shattered heart armor and be willing to see the humanity of all people in the public square.

We hold the power within ourselves to step out of the current cycle, not in apathy, but to begin again.  Doing so need not be intimidating, as common ground exists.   The Carr Center (“Key Takeaways: 4 & 5”)results confirm that our values are not polar opposites, with majorities – even supermajorities – supporting the following political ideals and rights: Voting (93%), Equal protection (95%), Free speech (94%), Equal opportunity (93%), Equal opportunity (93%), Privacy (94%), Racial equality (92%), Religious liberty (90%), Right to bear arms (73%), LGBTQ rights (71%).  Add to those findings the consistent strength of relative centrists/ moderates as the largest political group within our political system, the prospect need not seem so daunting.   Rather, it takes conscious effort to set new habits that allow us to harness the strength of our system to address our collective needs.

(What is From the Field?  Read the introduction to the current segment to find out more!)


Elise is a senior Politics major, who also studies English.


President Bears ‘Ultimate Responsibility’ For Wrongdoing” was just one of the many headlines circulating the United States in the 1980s. After news of the Iran-Contra Affair broke, there was an endless stream of similar refrains, all echoing the question of what exactly the Reagan administration did in Nicaragua. While the specifics of the US action in Nicaragua is still opaque, valuable information within the history of US interventionism and the Cold War reveals that the executive branch failed to uphold democratic norms in both domestic and foreign affairs during this time.

In the height of Cold War tensions, the United States’ foreign policy took an interventionist approach. The US used interventionism (direct intrusion into another country’s affairs) as early as the 1830s. Beginning in 1832 with the Monroe Doctrine, the US adopted an interventionist foreign policy to achieve a status of power in the international community. The US continued meddling in the domestic affairs of other nations, asserting its political dominance for about a century. However, there was a break from this approach during the 1930s with the Roosevelt Administration.

Rather than engaging with other nations as opponents, President Roosevelt introduced the “Good Neighbor Policy” in 1933, which focused on inter-governmental partnership and mutual respect. The former notion of hemispheric hegemony (or “top- dog” status within the Western hemisphere) of the Monroe Doctrine was replaced with this concept of collaboration. Roosevelt’s approach particularly benefitted developing countries within Latin America. Like a “good neighbor,” the US would respect the internal matters of these countries, supporting them in non-intrusive means and respecting their sovereignty. But with the rise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War in 1945, this hiatus from interventionism was short-lived and it swiftly returned as the main instrument of US foreign policy.

The Cold War was an ideological battle, pitting democracy against communism, and while no direct confrontations occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union, these nations fought by spreading their ideologies around the globe.  As former allies in WWII, what caused these nations to turn into opponents? At the conclusion of WWII, there was a power vacuum in Europe and the Soviet Union strove to fill that newly vacant position of supremacy. Therefore, unlike the US, which removed practically all of its military forces, Soviet troops continued to occupy the lands the USSR had stripped from Hitler. Author and social theorist Michael Warren analyzes the ideology of the Cold War in his book The Rise and Fall of Intelligence: An International Security History. He reports that by 1946, “organs of Soviet state security set about remaking the countries that Stalin had promised his allies at Yalta would be granted self-determination.” Rather than the end of WWII liberating Eastern European countries, it resulted in the replacement of one authoritative leader for another: such countries merely becoming agents of Stalin rather than Hitler.

In order to prevent the spread of Soviet power, the US pledged to economically and militarily support nations threatened by Soviet domination. Tensions continued to increase and by 1949, the US had established a coalition of anti-communist nations, NATO, and the Soviet Union had created the pro-communist alliance, the Warsaw Pact. The US, acting as the champion of democracy and the Western Superpower, entered into a decades-long battle for ideological supremacy against the Soviet Union and thus the Cold War had begun. Interventionism resurged vigorously under the justification of the “Domino Theory.” This theory claimed that if one nation “fell” to communism, surrounding countries were soon to follow. Therefore, the US intervened in even potentially communist leaning countries with extreme measures such as using military force to replace the existing government with pro-US, pro-democracy, regimes.

US interventionism in Nicaragua began when the Sandinista rebel group overthrew the Somoza regime in 1979, replacing the formerly conservative Somoza regime with the left-leaning Sandinistas. The revolution alarmed US officials in the Reagan administration because of the Sandinista’s anti-US sentiment. Johannes Wilm’s article “On Sandinista Ideas of past Connections to the Soviet Union and Nicaraguan Exceptionalism,” explains the Sandinista’s unfavorable view of the US as a response to the immense poverty in Nicaragua. According to Wilm, the Sandinista movement blamed Nicaraguan poverty on the “exploitative, unequal relationship with the United States,” maintained throughout the former Somoza dynasty. The Sandinista government strove to sever the strong ties the nation had with the US, so the new government embarked on an economic policy that forged relations with a variety of nations, including the Soviet Union. By 1982, 20% of Nicaragua’s credit was coming from communist nations.  The US viewed such developments as an open invitation for communism in Central America. In order to prevent Nicaragua from being a Soviet foothold in the Western hemisphere, US forces took action to topple the Sandinistas.

From the inception of the Sandinista’s authority, resistance groups opposed the new left-leaning policies of the regime. These rebels, the “Contras,” strove to return to the conservative principles of the Somoza regime, motivated by such as loyalty to the Somoza family or unhappiness with the economic reform of the Sandinistas. In the opinion of President Reagan, the anti-leftist platform of the Contra movement granted these counterrevolutionaries the status of “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.” Consequently, the president led the US effort to support the Contra resistance movement and oust the Sandinistas.

Prior to the Reagan administration, the American public zealously supported the fight against communism. However, by the time of President Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, the public was no longer so supportive of the anti-communism effort. The US had already fought in taxing proxy wars like the Vietnam War and the public fear of communism was waning. However, the Reagan administration steadfastly continued to use interventionist tactics to fight the spread of communism and Soviet power. Although the executive branch’s actions were not aligning with the public’s wishes, Congress was much more responsive and created policies to lessen US involvement in Nicaragua.

In response to the growing anti-interventionist sentiment of the public, Congress made an initial legislative attempt to curb President Reagan’s anti-communist crusade with the first Boland Amendment in 1982. As Edwin Timbers’ piece, “Legal and Institutional Aspects of the Iran-Contra Affair” reports, the amendment prohibited, “the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency from spending funds to overthrow the government of Nicaragua or to provoke conflict between Nicaragua and Honduras.” However, the policy did not have the intended effect as executive agencies continued to support the Contras with loophole methods such as procuring funding from third parties. Congress, undermined by the Executive strategic use of loopholes within the legislation, continued to construct increasingly specified policies and by 1985 there had been five versions of the Boland Amendment. Among the eventual clearly stated prohibitions were funds — including solicited third party and private funds, handled by any U.S. government personnel (For more information on the conflict between the president and Congress, explore Sobel’s 1995 article “Contra Aid Fundamentals: Exploring the Intricacies and the Issues” featured in Political Science Quarterly).

Human rights advocates and journalists continuously opposed the pro-Contra messages of the US government; however, it was not until the infamous Iran-Contra Affair that executive interventionist action was finally halted. After congressional investigatory committees exposed operation “Enterprise”, the “secret operation to supply military equipment and monetary assistance to the Contras,” it was clear that none of the legislation restricting US interventionism was stopping the Executive Branch (For more information concerning the Iran-Contra Affair, read Rubenberg’s article “US policy toward Nicaragua and Iran and the Iran-Contra Affair” in Third World Quarterly).

Following US intervention, both the US and Nicaragua had suffered substantial damages. The US reputation was disgraced in the international community and American citizens’ sense of trust in their government fell tremendously. Additionally, as seen by the 14,000% inflation rate in Nicaragua in 1988, the meddling of the US government created massive economic and social instability. While it would be an overstatement to claim that Nicaragua experienced instability solely due to US interventionism, perhaps the severity and longevity of its economic and social hardships would have been lessened if the nation had fewer external pressures to combat.

As the immense recovery required within both the US and Nicaragua after the Iran-Contra Affair demonstrates, US intervention in Nicaragua during the Cold War was ultimately a harmful ordeal. Interventionism failed to promote democracy both within the US and abroad or support the development of Nicaragua. The threat of communism under the Sandinista regime was insufficient justification for the interventionist policies and actions taken by the Reagan administration, and the procedures in which the executive branch skirted congressional oversight displayed a blatant disregard for crucial democratic values such as transparency and accountability. Refusing to obey the American public’s desire to abstain from meddling in Nicaraguan affairs disgraced the US reputation and perpetuated the instability within Nicaragua.




(What is From the Field?  Read our welcome and prior posts.)

This post kicks off our second segment of From the Field, a student blog series that shares the work and experiences of students in Messiah University’s Department of Politics and International Relations.  Last spring, students participating in the US-Latin American Relations delved into the history of relations between these regions, as well as contemporary issues. Although the course originally was intended to run as the university’s first embedded travel course – in which students have intensive travel-based learning for a section of the course – the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global health pandemic just three days before our departure to Quito, Ecuador limited our options.  We were able to capture some of the intended in-country learning with a 4 part global lecture series focused on applied issues of dollarization, human rights, indigenous populations, and intra-regional organizations.

This segment of From the Field will feature posts based on policy evaluation research conducted by the students. Our goal is to introduce you to some important policies, their history and effects, as well as their relevance for our contemporary times. As with the prior segment, the student posts are supported by some of the academic sources that they used for information by which to evaluate the policies, as well as some general access sites that give context to the issue.  All sources are credible and reflect knowledge within the field.  We hope you find these posts to be helpful in building or extending your perspective of American foreign policy.



About the From the Field blog editor (Dr. Robin Lauermann):  I currently serve as a Professor of Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations, which hosts this blog site. I have specific expertise in two sub-fields.  Within American politics, I teach and research on topics related to political institutions, public policy, and political behavior, with special consideration as to how they impact the functioning of our political system.  Within Comparative Politics, I look at many of the same themes, but within the regional areas of Latin America and Europe.  Above all, my passion and work focus on empowering people – students, colleagues, and citizens – to be able to better understand our political system in order to navigate it and evaluate it constructively.  With this series, I hope to provide such a forum, which can serve as a resource for citizens in evaluating policy, candidates and our system.

Before diving into the topic of this month’s edition, I wanted to share two important items.

1. If you are eligible and have not yet done so, register to vote.  Ballotpedia, a respected non-partisan resource, offers helpful information about how to register in your state.

2. Consult reputable resources to learn more about candidates and issues. Check out the options on the Issues and Elections tab of Messiah University’s Murray Library Civics Resources Guide.


(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

In 2016, the United States again faced a situation where the overall national popular vote for president produced an outcome that was different from the electoral vote total.  As in 2000, 1888 and 1876, questions over the legitimacy of the outcome arose.  In addition, several states had very close votes (i.e. Wisconsin and Michigan), which involved the impact of minor party candidates who received more votes than the difference between the two main contenders.  Individuals may look at the votes for other candidates in several ways.  Those who see it as a spoiled vote think that only possible winners should receive a vote.  On the other hand, voters may not cast a sincere ballot for a preferred candidate for fear of having a “wasted vote”.  Regardless, 2016 again prompted debate calling for changes to the Electoral College – although a wholesale change may be highly unlikely, significant chance can, and has, occurred. (For overview of the mechanics of the Electoral College, see this official resource by USA.gov.)  Maine offers one more example of such revisions, a number of which have occurred at the state level.

Clearly, individuals wishing to cast out the Electoral College face an uphill battle due to the intentional design of the constitutional amendment process.  Since the ratification of the Constitution in the late 18th century, thousands of potential amendments have entered the public square, only a fraction have been adopted.  However, under Article V of the U.S. Constitution, to even be considered an officially proposed amendment, the measure must secure 2/3 support of both houses of Congress or of a national convention (the latter method has yet to be used. Only 33 have made it that far.  In order to be ratified – officially adopted as part of the Constitution – ¾ of state legislatures (or state conventions) must approve.  27 have cleared that hurdle.  The founders intended that changes occurred only when the country had overwhelming support for them – even before our current level of political discord, that level of support was extremely rare.  (Though our current time is not the only one in which political conflict has existed.) That said, the Electoral College can and has changed in a number of ways.

The Constitution seats the power to manage elections with the states in Article I Section 4, which allows experimentation with approaches for everything from promoting voter turnout to mechanisms for counting votes.  In earlier years, the state legislatures surrendered their power to determine the electoral vote choices for their states, as part of democratic trends.  States have determined methods of voter registration and ballot casting methods (see more information in this prior Civic Mind post). In more recent years, some states have made further reforms for the tallying of their electoral votes that have been designed to break the “winner take all” outcome in state elections; Maine and Nebraska adopted models that left the two votes based on the number of senators determined on the state-wide outcome but divided the others (based on the number of representatives) by congressional district.  Known as the “district system”, it became possible for multiple candidates to win votes based on the geographic concentration of supporters for candidates within different areas of these states.  Maine has now taken its innovative history further by adopting the ranked-choice ballot.

In an initiative that came from citizens rather than the legislature, Maine voters approved the use of a different system than used in other states during the 2016 election.  Initially adopted for state-level contests, 2020 will mark its first use of ranked-choice voting in a U.S. presidential election.  Most states (except Louisiana and now Maine) use what we call single-member plurality (SMP) systems – the candidate with the most votes wins, even if they only receive 35%. Unlike the SMP system, where voters have to discern not only their favored candidate but also how to vote if their preferred candidate has no likely chance of winning, ranked-choice voting allows for a more nuanced choice.

As indicated by the name, voters indicate their preference order of candidates on their ballot.  In each round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the vote summed again based on the next preference of voters who supported the candidate no longer in contention. The votes are reallocated based on established voter preferences until one candidate has a majority. (For more details on the logic of this system and its history in the US, see this helpful summary by Ballotpedia.  As with the change from “winner take all” allocation of electoral votes, this reform has the potential to shape electoral outcomes, especially as it interacts with the previous reform that breaks up the winner-take-all system. We can’t know how it might have changed past elections because we do not know what people’s preferences were aside from their votes – we do not know who else they might have supported if they had been able to cast alternate votes.  But the adoption at the state level provides concrete experience for other states to evaluate.

Although ranked-choice voting at the federal level is new in the United States, a handful of other countries have used this approach, such as Australia and Northern Ireland.  However, the lessons are only partially transferable, at least when it comes to presidential elections; those countries that do use the process at the national level have a parliamentary system in which the executive is determined based on which party gains the most seats.  In addition, a small number of states and localities have adopted its use for more localized elections, though not all that have done so have yet implemented it.

In principle, ranked-choice voting appears to be primarily a good option for voters, but it is not without its challenges.  Certainly, ranked-choice voting allows individuals to cast their first vote for their first preference (sincere voting), as opposed to trying to calculate which of the candidates are most competitive in order to avoid that wasted vote (strategic voting).  However, one of the primary concerns with ranked-choice voting is the issue of ballot exhaustion.  Because voters must not only select their first choice but multiple alternatives, individuals may not complete their ranking across available candidates; moreover, less educated voters may not understand the process of ranking, even as voter education advocates launch information campaigns.

Regardless of the valid critiques of the electoral college, even in these contested outcomes, it has functioned correctly; that is, it has been mathematically accurate because equal representation in the Senate means that electoral votes are not distributed proportionally among the states.  Unless there is pervasive and sustained opposition that can propel a constitutional change, reform-minded citizens should look closer to home based on the nature of our federalist system.  Currently, the changes both breaking apart electoral votes at the state level and allowing for ranking of sincere candidate preferences have a modest impact; Maine has only four electoral votes and Nebraska six. However, both cases illustrate the power that voters have to promote change at the state level.  In addition, some states have joined a compact to allocate their electoral votes based on the popular vote winner, which would not require a change to the electoral system implemented in each state. If you are interested in having your state evaluate these options, use these suggested tips in this prior Civic Mind post about contacting your elected officials.



(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post for the series!)

In September 2015, I learned that a former student, who had been diagnosed with cancer, was in ICU.  A little over a month later, I traveled to Maryland for his memorial service.  Although the loss of someone was not new to me, this particular one had me thinking.  A man in his early 20s, midway through law school, who had the reputation of amazing friendship and all the promise of a bright future, gone.  To say that we should make the most of our lives, not knowing how long they will last is certainly clichéd, but is so because of its perennial truth.  This loss helped me grasp the truth of the uncertainty of time and has left me fascinated with analysis of how we use the time that we have, as we are often unaware of how our choices shape our time commitments and overall well-being.  Over several decades, John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey conducted extensive social research through time analysis which offers interesting and sometimes surprising findings, primarily in the American context, but also with some cross-national comparisons.

With their careful methods and detailed data, Robinson and Godbey challenge longstanding conventional wisdom about American “busyness” in Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time. In particular, their analysis of people’s perceptions of time use, as well as potential causes, offers a hard but necessary push for us to think honestly about our own lives.  Perhaps, as a consequence of the activity, Tocqueville noticed even in the early years of the republic, our freedom is a double-edged sword, one that must be wielded intentionally and responsibly, not only for the benefit of society as a whole but also for our own well-being.

Despite the focus on a relatively specific question – how do we use our time – Robinson and Godbey provide not only cross-national comparisons but also provide a look at the use of time in society, specifically the balance of work and leisure, in a longer-term context (Chapter 3). In fact, they note, that time is a cultural creation. Judeo-Christian practices launched a more linear use of time.  Industrialization – both in its processes and products – and the rise of a shared global use of time, which offered societal advancements, but also created a sense of scarcity.   The result, shown in several examples, is a life of rush, which in turn creates a greater push of stress as we complete more numerous, but also more shallow, activities.  The authors unpack the likely suspects in the creation of this “time famine” – greater efficiency and speed of some activities, the pace of change, the chunking of free time, and inequalities in resources that affect the amount of time and use by different individuals.

Using a multi-method approach to gather information, the researchers used a feasible but more detailed approach of time diaries to reveal some important findings on the use of our time and its change over the last few decades. Organizing diary entries into several categories, which they explain thoroughly in the second part of the book, the authors distinguish between paid time, family care, personal time and free time.  With the approximately 40% of our time available for leisure activities (118), an amount that grew over several decades, why might we feel like the balance has been moving in the opposite direction?

Part 3 shares some insight into the ways in which we choose to use our leisure time impacts our experience of it, specifically what makes us feel pressed for time.  One factor relates to how free time is organized – primarily compressed into the weekend or other similar blocks of time off the clock.  Another relates to how we use our leisure time; an increasing trend in individualized activities, some of which are termed “escapist” and a decreasing trend in activities that build social capital, which provide not only bonds but the opportunity for collaboration and a larger sense of purpose. (For more on social capital, see this prior series post on the work of Robert Putnam, who authored the foreword for this book.)  In addition, as discussed in Part 4, not everyone has the same biological and cultural opportunities that afford as much free time in the first place.  The idea of free time itself also brings us awareness of a more foundational facet of our society that shapes the structures of our lives and our perceptions of them.

Seeing Americans as busy folk is not a new phenomenon; Robinson and Godbey carry forward Tocqueville’s observations on the mixed blessings of a free society.  In a democratic society, individuals have relatively more freedom than in other systems.  Freedom, though simple in theory, can vary in our thinking from the absolute absence of constraints on our actions to one that is constrained by intentionality – and even by culture and law – out of respect for others and for own good.  Thus, our view of this value and our use of it plays a role in our collective and individual use of time. The relative equality of political rights in society, at least in a formal sense, opens the idea of choice in the pursuit of happiness.

Even in the early 1800s, Tocqueville pondered the frenetic pace that the free society produced:

“In the United States a man builds a house to spend his latter years in it, and he sells it before the roof is on: he plants a garden, and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing: he brings a field into tillage, and leaves other men to gather the crops: he embraces a profession, and gives it up: he settles in a place, which he soon afterwards leaves, to carry his changeable longings elsewhere. If his private affairs leave him any leisure, he instantly plunges into the vortex of politics; and if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds he has a few days’ vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a few days, to shake off his happiness. Death at length overtakes him, but it is before he is weary of his bootless chase of that complete felicity which is forever on the wing. At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance…” (Volume II, Book 2, Section 2, Chapter XIII, pars. 2-3).

Moreover, the value of equality of condition – imperfect though it is even still today – produced a strong drive for ever-increasing achievement.  Tocqueville also finds much to admire about the impact that individual drive also had on public affairs.  But the fact that the findings of this research and the constellation of related studies (over 3,000 have built on their work up until present time) provide a more detailed picture of essentially a similar outcome of driven people should perhaps give us pause.  So how might we harness this knowledge?  I had to chuckle when Googling to grab the publisher link to include in this post – Google had incorrectly categorized it as a self-help book.  The book is informative, but it is also academic, even if also accessible.

The awareness of our context that comes from this research can be supplemented with some practical resources.  Most importantly, as individuals we have to come to terms with the idea of competing goods – we have to be discerning in the voluntary commitments we make, even in terms of setting our own personal and professional goals.  Doing so means we have to decide not to do perfectly reasonable, interesting and/or helpful things. Greg Mckeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less offers not only concrete suggestions but helpful ways to conceive of why we should become better at making choices with our time in the first place.  (This summary is a helpful one.) In addition, Celeste Headlee’s Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing and Underliving, offers great insight and the importance of leisure for our personal well-being.  (Give a listen to the overview in this quick segment.) Finally, Happify – a science-based site for general audiences offers great resources, such as this infographic about how to live without regret.  Giving ourselves space allows us to restore but also increases our capacity to innovate.

Sitting here writing, these several years after the loss of a former student, not only do I currently face a significant loss, I am struck by the scope of loss of lives and livelihood in the midst of the pandemic.  I am also thankful that I was pushed to examine my life more critically in a way I had not done before, allowing me to lean into the change of lifestyle that has also accompanied the public health crisis.  Time for Life adds important context to understanding part of what makes our society, and us within it, tick. Robinson and Godbey include a chapter on comparison data from other countries, which shows that what we face is not an inevitable outcome of contemporary conditions.  In short, if we place more value on our time by intentional use, we risk not less but more in our own sanity and health, our relationships and our collective work.