Democracy as Failure


Paper by Aziz Z. Huq: “The theory and the practice of democracy alike are entangled with the prospect of failure. This is so in the sense that a failure of one kind or another is almost always to be found at democracy’s inception. Further, different kinds of shortfalls dog its implementation. No escape is found in theory, which precipitates internal contradictions that can only be resolved by compromising important democratic values. A stable democratic equilibrium proves elusive because of the tendency of discrete lapses to catalyze wider, systemically disruption. Worse, the very pervasiveness of local failure also obscures the tipping point at which systemic change occurs. Social coordination in defense of democracy is therefore very difficult, and its failure correspondingly more likely. This thicket of intimate entanglements has implications for both the proper description and normative analysis of democracy. At a minimum, the nexus of democracy and failure elucidates the difficulty of dichotomizing democracies into the healthy and the ailing. It illuminates the sound design of democratic institutions by gesturing toward resources usefully deployed to mitigate the costs of inevitable failure. Finally, it casts light on the public psychology best adapted to persisting democracy. To grasp the proximity of democracy’s entanglements with failure is thus to temper the aspiration for popular self-government as a steady-state equilibrium, to open new questions about the appropriate political psychology for a sound democracy, and to limn new questions about democracy’s optimal institutional specification….(More)”.

Publics in Emerging Economies Worry Social Media Sow Division, Even as They Offer New Chances for Political Engagement


Aaron Smith, Laura Silver, Courtney Johnson, Kyle Taylor and Jingjing Jiang at Pew Research: “In recent years, the internet and social media have been integral to political protests, social movements and election campaigns around the globe. Events from the Arab Spring to the worldwide spread of#MeToo have been aided by digital connectivity in both advanced and emerging economies. But popular social media and messaging platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have drawn attention for their potential role in spreading misinformation, facilitating political manipulation by foreign and domestic actors, and increasing violence and hate crimes.

Recently, the Sri Lankan government shut down several of the country’s social media and messaging services immediately after Easter day bombings at Catholic churches killed and wounded hundreds. Some technology enthusiasts praised the decision but wondered if this development marked a change from pro-democracy, Arab Spring-era hopes that digital technology would be a liberating tool to a new fear that it has become “a force that can corrode” societies.

In the context of these developments, a Pew Research Center survey of adults in 11 emerging economies finds these publics are worried about the risks associated with social media and other communications technologies – even as they cite their benefits in other respects. Succinctly put, the prevailing view in the surveyed countries is that mobile phones, the internet and social media have collectively amplified politics in both positive and negative directions – simultaneously making people more empowered politically andpotentially more exposed to harm.

Chart showing that people in emerging economies see social media giving them political voice but also increasing the risk of manipulation.

When it comes to the benefits, adults in these countries see digital connectivity enhancing people’s access to political information and facilitating engagement with their domestic politics. Majorities in each country say access to the internet, mobile phones and social media has made people more informed about current events, and majorities in most countries believe social media have increased ordinary people’s ability to have a meaningful voice in the political process. Additionally, half or more in seven of these 11 countries say technology has made people more accepting of those who have different views than they do.

But these perceived benefits are frequently accompanied by concerns about the limitations of technology as a tool for political action or information seeking. Even as many say social media have increased the influence of ordinary people in the political process, majorities in eight of these 11 countries feel these platforms have simultaneously increased the risk that people might be manipulated by domestic politicians. Around half or more in eight countries also think these platforms increase the risk that foreign powers might interfere in their country’s elections….(More)”.

Internet Democracy and Social Change: The Case of Israel


Book by Carmit Wiesslitz: “What role does the Internet play in the activities of organizations for social change? This book examines to what extent the democratic potential ascribed to the Internet is realized in practice, and how civil society organizations exploit the unique features of the Internet to attain their goals. This is the story of the organization members’ outlooks and impressions of digital platforms’ role as tools for social change; a story that debunks a common myth about the Internet and collective action. In a time when social media are credited with immense power in generating social change, this book serves as an important reminder that reality for activists and social change organizations is more complicated. Thus, the book sheds light on the back stage of social change organizations’ operations as they struggle to gain visibility in the infinite sea of civil groups competing for attention in the online public sphere. While many studies focus on the performative dimension of collective action (such as protests), this book highlights the challenges of these organizations’ mundane routines. Using a unique analytical perspective based on a structural-organizational approach, and a longitudinal study that utilizes a decade worth of data related to the specific case of Israel and its highly conflicted and turbulent society, the book makes a significant contribution to study of new media and to theories of Internet, democracy, and social change….(More)”.

The Dark Side of Sunlight


Essay by James D’Angelo and Brent Ranalli in Foreign Affairs: “…76 percent of Americans, according to a Gallup poll, disapprove of Congress.

This dysfunction started well before the Trump presidency. It has been growing for decades, despite promise after promise and proposal after proposal to reverse it. Many explanations have been offered, from the rise of partisan media to the growth of gerrymandering to the explosion of corporate money. But one of the most important causes is usually overlooked: transparency. Something usually seen as an antidote to corruption and bad government, it turns out, is leading to both.

The problem began in 1970, when a group of liberal Democrats in the House of Representatives spearheaded the passage of new rules known as “sunshine reforms.” Advertised as measures that would make legislators more accountable to their constituents, these changes increased the number of votes that were recorded and allowed members of the public to attend previously off-limits committee meetings.

But the reforms backfired. By diminishing secrecy, they opened up the legislative process to a host of actors—corporations, special interests, foreign governments, members of the executive branch—that pay far greater attention to the thousands of votes taken each session than the public does. The reforms also deprived members of Congress of the privacy they once relied on to forge compromises with political opponents behind closed doors, and they encouraged them to bring useless amendments to the floor for the sole purpose of political theater.

Fifty years on, the results of this experiment in transparency are in. When lawmakers are treated like minors in need of constant supervision, it is special interests that benefit, since they are the ones doing the supervising. And when politicians are given every incentive to play to their base, politics grows more partisan and dysfunctional. In order for Congress to better serve the public, it has to be allowed to do more of its work out of public view.

The idea of open government enjoys nearly universal support. Almost every modern president has paid lip service to it. (Even the famously paranoid Richard Nixon said, “When information which properly belongs to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them, and—eventually—incapable of determining their own destinies.”) From former Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, from the liberal activist Ralph Nader to the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, all agree that when it comes to transparency, more is better.

It was not always this way. It used to be that secrecy was seen as essential to good government, especially when it came to crafting legislation. …(More)”

A New Way of Voting That Makes Zealotry Expensive


Peter Coy at Bloomberg Business Week: “An intriguing new tool of democracy just had its first test in the real world of politics, and it passed with flying colors.

The tool is called quadratic voting, and it’s just as nerdy as it sounds. The concept is that each voter is given a certain number of tokens—say, 100—to spend as he or she sees fit on votes for a variety of candidates or issues. Casting one vote for one candidate or issue costs one token, but two votes cost four tokens, three votes cost nine tokens, and so on up to 10 votes costing all 100 of your tokens. In other words, if you really care about one candidate or issue, you can cast up to 10 votes for him, her, or it, but it’s going to cost you all your tokens.

Quadratic voting was invented not by political scientists but by economists and others, including Glen Weyl, an economist and principal researcher at Microsoft Corp. The purpose of quadratic voting is to determine “whether the intense preferences of the minority outweigh the weak preferences of the majority,” Weyl and Eric Posner, a University of Chicago Law School professor, wrote last year in an important book called Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society. ….

This spring, quadratic voting was used in a successful experiment by the Democratic caucus of the Colorado House of Representatives. The lawmakers used it to decide on their legislative priorities for the coming two years among 107 possible bills. (Wiredmagazine wrote about it here.)…

In this year’s experiment, the 41 lawmakers in the Democratic caucus were given 100 tokens each to allocate among the 107 bills. No one chose to spend all 100 tokens on a single bill. Many of them spread their votes around widely but thinly because it was inexpensive to do so—one vote is just one token. The top vote-getter by a wide margin turned out to be a bill guaranteeing equal pay to women for equal work. “There was clear separation” of the favorites from the also-rans, Hansen says.

The computer interface and other logistics were provided by Democracy Earth, which describes itself as a borderless community and “a global commons of self-sovereign citizens.” The lawmakers had more immediate concerns—hammering out a party agenda. “Some members were more tech-savvy,” Hansen says. “Some started skeptical but came around. I was pleasantly surprised. There was this feeling of ownership—your voice being heard.”

I recently wrote about the democratic benefits of ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank all the candidates in a race and votes are reassigned from the lowest vote-getters to the higher finishers until someone winds up with a majority. But although ranked-choice voting is gaining in popularity, it traces its roots back to the 19th century. Quadratic voting is much more of a break from the past. “This is a new idea, which is rare in economic theory, so it should be saluted as such, especially since it is accompanied by outstanding execution,” George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen wrote in 2015. (He did express some cautions about it as well.)…(More)”.

Revisiting the causal effect of democracy on long-run development


Blog post by Markus Eberhardt: “In a recent paper, Acemoglu et al. (2019), henceforth “ANRR”, demonstrated a significant and large causal effect of democracy on long-run growth. By adopting a simple binary indicator for democracy, and accounting for the dynamics of development, these authors found that a shift to democracy leads to a 20% higher level of development in the long run.1

The findings are remarkable in three ways: 

  1. Previous research often emphasised that a simple binary measure for democracy was perhaps “too blunt a concept” (Persson and Tabellini 2006) to provide robust empirical evidence.
  2.  Positive effects of democracy on growth were typically only a “short-run boost” (Rodrik and Wacziarg 2005). 
  3. The empirical findings are robust across a host of empirical estimators with different assumptions about the data generating process, including one adopting a novel instrumentation strategy (regional waves of democratisation).

ANRR’s findings are important because, as they highlight in a column on Vox, there is “a belief that democracy is bad for economic growth is common in both academic political economy as well as the popular press.” For example, Posner (2010) wrote that “[d]ictatorship will often be optimal for very poor countries”. 

The simplicity of ANRR’s empirical setup, the large sample of countries, the long time horizon (1960 to 2010), and the robust positive – and remarkably stable – results across the many empirical methods they employ send a very powerful message against such doubts that democracy does cause growth.

I agree with their conclusion, but with qualifications. …(More)”.

Many Across the Globe Are Dissatisfied With How Democracy Is Working


Pew Research Center: “Anger at political elites, economic dissatisfaction and anxiety about rapid social changes have fueled political upheaval in regions around the world in recent years. Anti-establishment leaders, parties and movements have emerged on both the right and left of the political spectrum, in some cases challenging fundamental norms and institutions of liberal democracy. Organizations from Freedom House to the Economist Intelligence Unit to V-Demhave documented global declines in the health of democracy.

As previous Pew Research Center surveys have illustrated, ideas at the core of liberal democracy remain popular among global publics, but commitment to democracy can nonetheless be weak. Multiple factors contribute to this lack of commitment, including perceptions about how well democracy is functioning. And as findings from a new Pew Research Center survey show, views about the performance of democratic systems are decidedly negative in many nations. Across 27 countries polled, a median of 51% are dissatisfied with how democracy is working in their country; just 45% are satisfied.

Assessments of how well democracy is working vary considerably across nations. In Europe, for example, more than six-in-ten Swedes and Dutch are satisfied with the current state of democracy, while large majorities in Italy, Spain and Greece are dissatisfied.

To better understand the discontent many feel with democracy, we asked people in the 27 nations studied about a variety of economic, political, social and security issues. The results highlight some key areas of public frustration: Most believe elections bring little change, that politicians are corrupt and out of touch and that courts do not treat people fairly. On the other hand, people are more positive about how well their countries protect free expression, provide economic opportunity and ensure public safety.

We also asked respondents about other topics, such as the state of the economy, immigration and attitudes toward major political parties. And in Europe, we included additional questions about immigrants and refugees, as well as opinions about the European Union….(More)”.

Politics and Technology in the Post-Truth Era


Book edited by Anna Visvizi and Miltiadis D. Lytras: “Advances in information and communication technology (ICT) have directly impacted the way in which politics operates today. Bringing together research on Europe, the US, South America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa, this book examines the relationship between ICT and politics in a global perspective.

Technological innovations such as big data, data mining, sentiment analysis, cognitive computing, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, social media and blockchain technology are reshaping the way ICT intersects with politics and in this collection contributors examine these developments, demonstrating their impact on the political landscape. Chapters examine topics such as cyberwarfare and propaganda, post-Soviet space, Snowden, US national security, e-government, GDPR, democratization in Africa and internet freedom.


Providing an overview of new research on the emerging relationship between the promise and potential inherent in ICT and its impact on politics, this edited collection will prove an invaluable text for students, researchers and practitioners working in the fields of Politics, International Relations and Computer Science…..(More)”

Trivialization and Public Opinion: Slogans, Substance, and Styles of Thought in the Age of Complexity


Book by Oldrich Bubak and Henry Jacek: “Centering on public discourse and its fundamental lapses, this book takes a unique look at key barriers to social and political advancement in the information age. Public discourse is replete with confident, easy to manage claims, intuitions, and other shortcuts; outstanding of these is trivialization, the trend to distill multifaceted dilemmas to binary choices, neglect the big picture, gloss over alternatives, or filter reality through a lens of convenience—leaving little room for nuance and hence debate.

Far from superficial, such lapses are symptoms of deeper, intrinsically connected shortcomings inviting further attention. Focusing primarily on industrialized democracies, the authors take their readers on a transdisciplinary journey into the world of trivialization, engaging as they do so the intricate issues borne of a modern environment both enabled and constrained by technology. Ultimately, the authors elaborate upon the emerging counterweights to conventional worldviews and the paradigmatic alternatives that promise to help open new avenues for progress….(More)”.

Renovating Democracy: Governing in the Age of Globalization and Digital Capitalism


Book by Nathan Gardels and Nicolas Berggruen: “The rise of populism in the West and the rise of China in the East have stirred a rethinking of how democratic systems work—and how they fail. The impact of globalism and digital capitalism is forcing worldwide attention to the starker divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” challenging how we think about the social contract.

With fierce clarity and conviction, Renovating Democracy tears down our basic structures and challenges us to conceive of an alternative framework for governance. To truly renovate our global systems, the authors argue for empowering participation without populism by integrating social networks and direct democracy into the system with new mediating institutions that complement representative government. They outline steps to reconfigure the social contract to protect workers instead of jobs, shifting from a “redistribution” after wealth to “pre-distribution” with the aim to enhance the skills and assets of those less well-off. Lastly, they argue for harnessing globalization through “positive nationalism” at home while advocating for global cooperation—specifically with a partnership with China—to create a viable rules-based world order. 

Thought provoking and persuasive, Renovating Democracy serves as a point of departure that deepens and expands the discourse for positive change in governance….(More)”.