My scholarship integrates critical and analytical approaches to normative political theory with empirical research in the social and behavioral sciences, in service of useful insights for democratic theory and practice. I have articulated and defended this practice-oriented and interdisciplinary approach in some of my published work (see: one, two, three). In other articles, I put this method into practice, engaging biological perspectives on human nature, theories of cultural evolution, the cognitive science of motivated reasoning, and most extensively, empirical research on political behavior and institutions. My book manuscript brings key findings from all of these traditions into dialogue with critical and poststructuralist thought, developing a critical realist theory of democracy.
Forthcoming. “An Adversarial Ethics of Campaigns and Elections", with Isak Tranvik, Perspectives on Politics.
2018. "The Power of the Multitude: Answering Epistemic Challenges to Democracy," American Political Science Review. (ungated)
2018. “Beyond the Search for the Subject: An Anti-Essentialist Ontology for Liberal Democracy,” European Journal of Political Theory. (ungated)
2017. “What Makes a Political Theory Political? A Comment on Waldron” Political Studies Review. (ungated)
2017. “When will a Darwinian Approach be Useful for the Study of Society?” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. (ungated)
2016. “Between Critical and Normative Theory: Predictive Political Theory as a Deweyan Realism” Political Research Quarterly. (ungated)
The Dispersion of Power: A Critical Realist Theory of Democracy
It is commonly assumed that democracy aims at collective self-rule through meaningful political equality. Yet the everyday realities of democratic life are in glaring contradiction with that ideal. Despite heroic attempts to salvage the dream of self-rule—dating back at least to Locke’s “tacit consent” and Rousseau’s “general will”—I argue in this book that we are better off abandoning it as a mirage. Whether we seek to explain the real but limited value of basic democratic procedures, negotiate among the many demands of liberal democracy, or articulate utopian aspirations for deep democratization, the goal of dispersing power yields better theoretical guidance, and this book develops an alternative framework oriented around that ideal.
Integrating “critical” and “realist” traditions, part one of the book presses two challenges to leading accounts of democracy’s promise. Given the tribal behavior of misinformed voters and the structural problems with social choice, for one, we should be skeptical that any political order—much less our deeply flawed contemporary democracies—could meaningfully realize collective self-rule. Moreover, the concept of individual self-rule presumed by such ideals has been increasingly discredited by convergent developments in the humanities and biological sciences, casting doubt on the stability of the “self.” As both challenges become increasingly difficult to ignore, there is rising demand for more realistic theories of democracy. Nevertheless, there are still few genuine alternatives to the resilient ideal of self-rule.
Part two turns to my alternative framework: the dispersion of power. Rather than realizing collective self-rule, I argue, the real purpose of democratic procedures is simply to make it harder for partial factions to capture the concentrated power of the state. Rather than striving in vain towards the mirage of equal power over collective decisions, meanwhile, democratization efforts should focus much more on dispersing non-political power—i.e., redistributing concrete resources such as wealth and institutional authority, fostering countervailing power that can challenge advantaged individuals and groups, and contesting the hegemonic cultural discourses that structure group-based inequalities. Compared to prevailing theories, I conclude, the dispersion of power framework offers a more plausible defense of existing institutions as well as a more productive program for democratizing action and reform.
Early version of manuscript awarded “Best Dissertation” in Political Science (AY 2016-2017), Duke University.
Recent version subject of manuscript workshop with eight faculty commentators at GRIPP Montreal, August 2018.
"Is Democracy the Worst Form of Government?”, for Duke GradX symposium
"Madison meets Foucault", for Council on European Studies video
"Discourse as Freedom / Discourse as Power", for University Scholars Program interdisciplinary symposium
"Comments on Sources of the Self, by Charles Taylor," for workshop with the author