I offer a scholarship that integrates the study of social movements, constitutional law, public policy, and the environment. My work is driven by a personal commitment to building democracy in the United States as a means of resolving otherwise intractable social and ecological problems and achieving durable systemic change. This commitment has inspired four projects concerning constitutionalism and democracy movements, movement building and activist praxis, environmental pollution and corporate power, and strategic approaches for 21st century democratization.
My work begins by considering democracy as a social movement and popular constitutionalism as an articulation of democracy. Such an approach asks how ordinary people articulate societal goals, build democratic power, engage in struggles over the constitution of society, and make constitutions. In centering agency in the constitution of society, this approach provides balance to top-down institutional accounts of law and democracy. And in bringing constitutionalism into the purview of social movement studies, this research provides a new opportunity to bridge the usually disparate theoretical traditions of contention, identification, and praxis.
My first book, The Constitutional Revolution, under contract with Routledge for publication in 2021, is motivated by the recent emergence of campaigns to democratize the Constitution of the United States to secure equal rights, protect voting rights, abolish the Electoral College, and end inequitable constitutional protections for corporations and the wealthy via the Equal Rights Amendment, Voting Rights Amendment, Popular Vote Amendment, and We the People Amendment, respectively. This book brings together multiple stages of completed, in-process, and planned research operating at multiple levels and using a variety of methods.
Completed research for The Constitutional Revolution includes a crossnational time series analysis of constitutional change and democratization in which constitutional amendments are shown to be associated with significant improvements in democratic vitality. This global analysis, involving 244 countries over 66 years, provides a top-level view suggesting a democratizing force tends to operate within the structure of formal constitutional change. Completed research also involves a series of qualitative studies using data from ongoing interviews (40+) with democracy movement activists in the U.S., as well as archival research. These studies, intended to explore the motivations, understandings, and strategies employed by democracy activists, find that their decision to engage in the long-term and relatively difficult kinds of mobilization characteristic of constitutionalist campaigns is rooted in a sense of what I call “strategic necessity.”
I have presented various iterations of both sets of studies, as well as related legal historical and theoretical analyses, at meetings of the Law & Society Association, American Sociological Association, Critical Realism Network, West Coast Law & Society Association, and elsewhere, and published aspects of this research in Socialism & Democracy, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, and in chapters published in Charles Derber’s Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times, and Keri Iyall Smith, Louis Esparza, and Judith Blau’s Human Rights of, for, and by the People: How to Critique and Change the U.S. Constitution.
In-process research for The Constitutional Revolution is primarily taking place through my doctoral dissertation, The Constitutional Revolution: Strategies of Movement and Powers of Structure in the Global Pursuit of Democracy. Here I seek to identify the various configurations of processes, conditions, and movement strategies of engaging in constitutional change that have proven necessary or sufficient to bring about substantive democratization. I conduct a qualitative comparative analysis (fsQCA) of constitutional processes that produced 26 new constitutions in 23 top-50 GDP countries between 1986 and 2000 (as well as top-50 GDP countries in which a new constitution was not adopted) in order to get at a research object that is usually missing from studies of constitutional change: The strategies and actions of democracy activists attempting to constitutionalize democratic reforms. In treating activist strategies and choices as potentially necessary and/or sufficient conditions among various contingencies, my dissertation research is intended to inform a sense of the possibilities for popular constitutionalism in the United States.
Planned future research for The Constitutional Revolution includes a comparative analysis of four cases of new constitutions adopted in the late 20th century - those of Brazil (1988), Canada (1982), Russia (1993), and South Africa (1996), selected for the lessons they may offer regarding the relative success and failure of democracy movements engaged in radically different processes of constitutionalization. Finally, I plan to bring this analysis into dialogue with a multistage comparative analysis of constitutional reform movements in U.S. history.
My second major project investigates how activist cognition and knowledge shapes future movements. This work began as a case study of the Wisconsin Uprising, in which I show that the mass mobilization that launched the 2011 protest wave in the U.S. was anything but spontaneous. Instead, primary elements of what became the Wisconsin Uprising were built out of a series of earlier mobilizations operating on particular terrains of struggle.
My analysis of the Wisconsin Uprising led me to rethink social movement theory, conceptualizing movement waves, the movement building process, goals and grievances, and movement forms, and situating contention and identity theories alongside an emergent theoretical tradition of movement praxis. These concepts I have presented as papers at Mobilization’s conference on Social Movements and Nonviolent Resistance, and meetings of the Pacific Sociological Association, International Sociological Association, and the American Sociological Association. Three papers for publication resulting from this work include my introduction of a method of “movement building analysis” in “Methodological Approaches to Movement Waves and the Making of History,” a chapter of the forthcoming The Palgrave Handbook on Social Movements, Revolution, and Social Transformation, edited by Berch Berberoglu (2018), as well an empirical analysis of the Wisconsin Uprising and a new account of contemporary social movement theories in light of the systemic movements of the 21st century.
My work on activist knowledge and movement building also led me into a series of collaborations with scholars concerned with questions of “movement relevance” in social movement studies. Working with Gregory Maney and Charlotte Ryan, I organized a session on these topics at the 2016 American Sociological Association meeting in Seattle, as well as a larger “off-broadway” social movement scholar-activist dialogue at the King County Labor Temple. In 2017 and 2018, I worked with Maria Martinez to organize formal sessions on social movement ontologies at the Beyond Positivism Conference in Montreal and the World Congress of Sociology in Toronto. Currently I am coordinating with John Krinsky to prepare an invited session on movement relevance and activist knowledge for the 2019 meeting of the American Sociological Association.
A third area of my research seeks useful knowledge about structural barriers to democratization, especially those posed by egregious polluters, major corporations, and other institutional actors. In many cases, a single facility (factory, worksite, etc) or limited set of facilities account for more than 90% of the toxic pollution in an entire industry, year after year. Over the past two years I have worked with Simone Pulver and Mary Collins as part of their multi-year NSF grant investigating egregious polluters and disproportionality in toxic release. In the course of this project I co-authored a paper presented at the 2017 ASA meeting; several future publications are pending. As I continue my involvement in this research, I expect to bring my past scholarship of the corporation into our study of specific facilities as well as of particular patterns of persistently egregious pollution.
Finally, in my latest initiatives, I assess contemporary strategic approaches for 21st century democratization. Specifically, I am interested in evaluating new movement strategies that seek to alter the terrain by democratizing climate governance, introducing new technologies, and renewing federalism. Thus, I am working with John Foran on a series of papers on the emergence of “climate democracy” as an emergent politics alongside climate justice; together with others we are building an international climate democracy research collaborative. In partnership with Sarah Manski, in a recent issue of Law & Critique I recently co-authored, “No Gods, No Masters, No Coders: The Future of Sovereignty in a Blockchain World” (2018). Finally, on the topic of federalism, I am working under contract to produce a white paper for the Next System Project on constitutional reform and the prospects for democratic federalism and participatory democracy in the United States.
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