Elizabeth Stokes


Recent Posts by Elizabeth Stokes

  • For Millennials, Reforming Government Means Reimagining Democracy

    Mar 14, 2013Elizabeth StokesAlan Smith

    Millennials don't want a government that just talks at them. They want to build it together.

    Millennials don't want a government that just talks at them. They want to build it together.

    There is a paradox in the Millennial generation’s relationship with government. On the one hand, research shows that we firmly believe government can and should play a role in solving society’s most urgent and complex problems. We’re less interested in big government vs. small government than we are in better government -- making our democratic systems more inclusive and more responsive. On the other hand, despite seeing government as a theoretically important tool, this generation is opting out. We don’t see ourselves reflected in the decision-making process in our governments, in the values undergirding policies, or in the issues being debated by our representatives.

    Still, opting out doesn’t mean this generation has checked out. We are engaged politically, just not in the ways and systems that previous generations have engaged. We don’t want to be courted for our votes and then kicked to the curb until the next big election. We want to build systems that meet us where we are, that is, in community-based service projects, where we see things directly change as a result of our voices, ideas, and action. In short, we need complementary systems that create the sort of direct connection not found in our representative democracy. But how?

    The process of creating the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Government By and For Millennial America document suggests a series of answers. Over a period of six months, this student-designed, student-driven, and student-written project engaged more than 1,000 Millennial voices and resulted in a 56-page document. That document in turn framed a network-wide vision for how the Millennial generation wants its government to function. It also produced hundreds more pages of expanded research and writing and a series of conversations on campuses around the country that pushed students to think beyond the constraints of the current political milieu and articulate a blueprint for their ideal government.

    This output alone is testimony to the dedication of our students, but how and why did we get their buy in to generate these results? Simply put: the integration and use of participatory democracy. The starting point of this whole project was the creation of democratic spaces that enabled students to collectively deliberate and decide what they thought were the main challenges and opportunities facing the realization of their ideal government. These initial conversations were intentionally stripped of any political jargon and instead focused on values: if you had a blank slate, what values would be embodied in your ideal system? By using values as our foundational building blocks, we made these democratic spaces accessible to anyone, regardless of their experience in policy, and enabled the gradual development of a shared language and understanding of what government can and should be.

    Of course, as any political theorist will tell you, participatory democracy is not only about erecting accessible spaces for discussion. It is also about building up the capacities and orientations of citizenship so that those spaces can be effectively used. The vital question then becomes: how do we build such a citizenry? How do we push young people to look beyond their individual wants and needs and think and act in terms of the public? We attempted to answer these questions through political education and the collective exercise of power.

    From the beginning, Government By and For Millennial America was an open-ended project. This was both its most exciting and maddening feature: a project with no predetermined outcomes, no predetermined framework, and no predetermined process for making decisions or conducting research beyond what had emerged from student discussions. While this setup had the very real potential for spectacular and rapid implosion, it also allowed students to see that their work was more than simply filling in the spaces on a test. We continuously practiced the collective exercise of power, and in so doing, vested the project with the kind of control that Millennials seek.

    This was more than just a logistical challenge of figuring out our own timeline, peer-reviewed editing processes, voting procedures, and so on. Intellectually speaking, it also meant venturing far beyond our individual areas of expertise to learn with and from other students and experts on issues outside our comfort zones, being flexible in how we integrated the regular influx of ideas shaping our ever-evolving body of work, and tying together strands of thought that previously seemed so disparate into the unified framework we were building together.

    Imagine, then, the implications of such a project for how we engage in the larger political sphere. There is no reason why this same dual process of building capacity and investing people with real responsibility can’t be expanded to the questions that bedevil local governments or be used to turn around a company that has run afoul of public opinion. Participatory budgeting, for example, gives local politicians a way to get their constituents invested in the budget process in a way that yields real growth, continued participation, and better decision-making.

    Of course, this is not to say our process was always rosy – in fact, there were many times when it lagged or stalled. But when schedules freed up, the project was revitalized again: trans-state conference calls to discuss the newest idea, a flood of new interesting and innovative policy write-ups, or a wave of new students eager to be brought into the fold would get us back on track. The power of democracy does not lie in waiting for these sporadic highs, but in the intermediate “lows.” There is something incredibly precious in the messiness of the sometimes slow and arduous back-and-forth that characterizes all experiments in participatory democracy.

    We are a team of people with diverse identities and diverse opinions. We were grappling with incredibly tough issues through a medium that demanded collective engagement, deliberation, and decision-making. We learned together, had revelations together, and were able to build a collective lens for how to understand the individual problems plaguing government and the ways in which they were connected. That potential for real change, to be really seen and heard, and to grow so much as an individual in a community -- that is powerful. That is why Government By and For Millennial America should be viewed as more than just a bunch of good ideas in print. It’s also an example of how to engage with a generation that is in danger of being written off as self-interested, but that we believe is looking for a different way forward.

    Elizabeth Stokes is a Working Group Fellow for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's national initiative, Government By and For Millennial America, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's National Policy and Program Director.


    Study group image via Shutterstock.com.

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  • “We’re All in This Together” vs. “You’re on Your Own” Government

    Oct 15, 2012Elizabeth Stokes

    As the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network begins work on building a Government By and For Millennial America, Elizabeth Stokes defends the idea of government as a steward of the common good.

    As the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network begins work on building a Government By and For Millennial America, Elizabeth Stokes defends the idea of government as a steward of the common good.

    Despite no specifics on how they will slash taxes and also balance budgets, it is clear that the Romney-Ryan budget plan follows an ideology we've seen before. Seeking to block grant Medicaid and voucherize Medicare, the Ryan budget, endorsed by Romney, fundamentally warps the meaning and purpose of the social safety net. This ideology views government as important not for guaranteeing the collective success of all, but for protecting the individual’s right to make his own success. It views government as important not for creating a framework that meets the needs of all citizens, but for supporting and responding to the needs of the market. And it sees government, if it must offer public provisions, as an entity that works best when its services are farmed out to the private sector.

    But this view of government completely ignores its role as steward of the common good. To see why this role is so important, just take a look at the recent financial crisis. It has shown us that macroeconomics is more complex and more unpredictable than our economics textbooks would have us believe. Restricting government’s scope as the precondition of a “freely” functioning market is not enough to make the market provide effectively and justly for all. As the Census Bureau recently reported, even though GDP has grown, 2011 saw huge income gains for the top 5 percent of income distribution, declines for the middle, and stagnation at the bottom. Evidently, the market alone cannot allocate resources in a way that a just democracy demands, nor can it be relied upon to stably ensure the wellbeing of our most vulnerable.

    But this is the problem with the Romney-Ryan ideology: it completely misunderstands what a just democracy demands. As Jeff Weintraub puts it, the democratic ideal requires active participation in collective decision-making, carried out within a framework of fundamental solidarity and equality. The Romney-Ryan ideology severely jeopardizes this ideal. How can democracy be fully realized if 47 percent of citizens are viewed exclusively as rapacious moochers and not as fundamental equals in a shared political community? How can self-governance be possible when we fail to guarantee a fundamental baseline for all and let market-generated inequalities distort political equality?

    The fundamental equality democracy requires cannot be satisfied by a handful of political rights (not that these mean much anyway given voter suppression efforts). Rather, government must also guarantee what T.H. Marshall would refer to as the social elements of citizenship: equal access to basic essentials that relieve people from the constant struggle for survival and thus provide them with the time and energy to participate in political society as engaged citizens. These basic essentials are not simply an assortment of handouts for the destitute, but are universal and based on generally shared rights of citizenship (the 96 percent know what I’m talking about). Ensuring such a baseline enables us to do away with the artificial distinctions of makers or takers, and instead binds us in a community of mutual sacrifice and success. 

    Guaranteeing these social elements of citizenship also entails containing the market and money’s influence so that a person’s life chances and engagement with democracy are not exclusively determined by market position. It is therefore important to have non-market institutions, such as government, direct the market in order to uphold the common good and redress market-generated inequalities. This does not simply mean redistribution policies that tax the rich and give to the poor – after the fact mop-ups via social spending are not enough to make up for the disempowering processes that lead to market-generated inequalities in the first place. Rather, we must also focus on predistribution, i.e. the way in which the market distributes its rewards to begin with (such as regulations that protect consumers and empower workers).

    The concept of government as steward of the common good recasts its role in society, seeing it less as a third entity that runs alongside the market economy and the private household but more as a force in the service of the common good that is prior to both and directive of each. Government should act as the framework that both enables and is subject to democratic decision-making in society. It should ensure all people have the minimum they need to participate and engage as citizens and its fundamental direction should be shaped by public voice and societal goals that are collectively and consciously decided.  

    Ryan lauds choice, competition, and self-sufficiency as the pillars of his social safety net, implying that marketization will enhance liberty as well as efficiency. However, these words are pure rhetoric and pretense. By putting the market in charge of the common good, he would fundamentally transform basic welfare goods, which are shared in common by all citizens, into commodities, which are bought by individual consumers in a volatile marketplace. While the ethos of social insurance is “we are all in this together, rain or shine,” marketization says to the citizen “here’s some money, you’re on your own.” The Romney-Ryan ideology not only severely undermines one of the most important pillars of government, but also bars those subsets of the population who are reliant on government benefits from the democratic community. 

    Elizabeth Stokes is a Working Group Fellow for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's national initiative, Government by and for Millennial America, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania.


    Teamwork image via Shutterstock.com.

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  • How Turning the Public School System into a Market Undermines Democracy

    Jul 25, 2012Elizabeth Stokes

    Citizens shouldn't be seen as merely consumers choosing from an array of options, but active participants in collective decision-making.

    Citizens shouldn't be seen as merely consumers choosing from an array of options, but active participants in collective decision-making.

    Backing Governor Chris Christie and Commissioner Chris Cerf’s unrelenting push for more “high-quality school options” in New Jersey, the Department of Education recently approved nine charter schools to open in September, bringing the total number of charter schools in New Jersey to 86. This move is part of a broader trend toward the marketization of education policy – the incorporation of market principles into the management and structure of public schools, as well as voucher programs to subsidize alternatives to public schools. These market principles include deregulation, competition, and the unqualified celebration of “choice,” all of which are embodied in the charter school movement. Despite claims of greater efficiency, innovativeness, and responsiveness, however, the growing rhetoric around choice needs to be more closely scrutinized before we wholeheartedly jump on the charter school bandwagon.

    Market-based school reform is focused on the idea that by structuring schools like business enterprises, we can inject them with stereotypical private sector virtues like innovation and efficiency. According to this view, this is sorely needed because “traditional” public schools are supposedly ineffective. By removing barriers to entry for different types of educational organizations, market-based reformers believe we can incorporate some healthy competition into the state-run system and overcome drawbacks allegedly caused by the state’s monopoly control. This approach positions parents and students as consumers of education, free to choose which types of schools best meet their individual needs and preferences. The rhetoric of “choice” implies that marketization will enhance liberty as well as efficiency.

    This approach reconfigures our understanding of what is “public.” While traditional conceptions of public education define “public” according to who funds, owns, and governs the system, under the marketized model public education is considered “public” to the extent that a public made up of individual consumers is provided for. Indeed, this is considered to be one of the great advantages of the marketized model. Whereas public schools are forced to be all things to all people, which requires using what Milton Friedman once called "cumbrous political channels" to try to reach agreement, marketized models will supposedly eliminate messy conflicts and streamline the process into a neat consumer-provider relationship that better responds to individual needs.

    There are several problems with this model from the perspective of both efficacy and, more importantly, democracy. First, despite the grand intentions behind marketized programs, they do not get better results on average than traditional public schools. A study conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, 46 percent showed no difference from public schools, and 37 percent were significantly worse. Additionally, introducing supposedly tough-minded material incentives to improve teacher performance, such as giving higher "merit" pay to more successful teachers and threatening to fire less successful ones, has yielded no measurable benefits for children and, instead, tends to divide and demoralize teachers.

    Other studies have found that the competitive incentives designed to drive innovation in the classroom are not operating as intended. Instead of improving teaching and learning practices, market incentives have driven an increase in schools’ marketing and promotional activities – that is, advertisements that better sell their products. And as marketing is most effective when aimed at specified groups, schools usually beef up their academic achievement statistics by targeting families of higher-achieving students, thereby contributing to increased student selectivity, sorting, and segregation.

    Efficiency considerations aside, the real problem with championing marketized models in education and other areas is the damage it does to democracy. We should not be upholding a model based on turning citizens into consumers. Democratic citizenship does not simply involve an individual’s choice from a platter of options. Rather, it requires active participation in collective decisionmaking.

    The problem with marketized models is that in the process of providing individuals with private “choice,” citizens are necessarily deprived of public choice – that is, the opportunity to discuss, deliberate, and act in concert with others. While advocates of marketization claim that it eliminates many of the protracted disputes that currently impede the effectiveness of schools, disputes aren’t always such a bad thing from the standpoint of democracy – especially when they deal with matters of genuine common concern like the education of future generations. Even if conflicts do arise, the opportunity to debate and engage in a democratic give-and-take with neighbors is a vital aspect of political education and empowerment. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, it is only through participation in the exercise of power over collective outcomes, and the practice of thinking about and acting on public issues in public arenas, that people can develop the skills and commitments necessary to be citizens. Removing public education as a site for political education simultaneously removes yet another stake citizens have in our democracy.

    Of course, this is not to say that there is no place for anything that is not a “traditional” public school. On the contrary, a variety of independent alternatives can certainly complement a healthy public school system and contribute to diversity and innovation. That’s particularly true when they represent initiatives led by local community members rather than corporate franchises. But that is very different than using public money to undermine and dismantle public education itself as a genuinely public enterprise.

    The trend toward increasing privatization and marketization means the increasing disempowerment of citizens. The reconfigured version of “public” advanced by marketized models of education is severely truncated and distorts our understanding of why public education is important. Public education is not simply service delivery. It is also an expression of community and shared responsibility that helps shape the character of a society. We should value public schools not only for educating our children, but also for their role as local institutions where citizens can congregate and practice democracy.

    Elizabeth Stokes is a Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Summer Academy Fellow, co-leading its newest project, "Government By and For Millennial America.


    School hallway image via Shutterstock.com.

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