In the latest contribution to the Democracy Papers, Deborah Coen explores how human beings make sense of large-scale natural phenomena like climate change. What does it mean to “understand” climate change? Does it mean the same thing to concerned citizens as it does to natural scientists, or humanities scholars, or policymakers? Coen uses a brief history of climate science since the nineteenth century to explore these questions and to challenge the traditional dichotomy between scientific explanation and humanistic understanding.
Can representative democracies be strengthened to govern more effectively? The SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy (AOD) program is motivated by a concern about whether the core institutions of established democracies that connect citizens and civil society to the political system—elections, mass media, political parties, interest groups, social movements, and, especially, legislatures—can capably address large problems in the public interest. The Democracy Papers makes available short essays and works-in-progress from the events AOD organizes and the broad network of scholars and practitioners it mobilizes. Previously located on AOD’s website, past Democracy Papers are available there while new ones will be published as part of SSRC’s Items essay forum.
The Anxieties of Democracy (AoD) program’s Working Group on Climate Change has released three substantive reports on the ways in which social science, particularly political science, can and should engage with climate change. Here, AoD’s Kris-Stella Trump and Cole Edick provide an overview of the reports, which address the political demand for addressing climate change, the politics of choosing climate change policies, and the ethical and normative concerns that underscore the need for political action. Each report provides a concise overview of current research and outlines suggestions for future work.
In the latest contribution to the Democracy Papers, Christopher Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg analyze the gender dynamics of small groups that discuss political issues. Based on experimental research they conducted, in which they varied the gender composition and decision rules of the groups, the authors found that women’s views and the kinds of issues most pertinent to them were typically ignored when women were in the minority, and when group decisions were majoritarian rather than consensus-based. Karpowitz and Mendelberg consider how the microdynamics of small groups might relate to the large-scale inequalities that research has shown regarding political influence among different social groups.
In the latest contribution to the Democracy Papers, Jan-Werner Müller argues that attention to right-wing populist movements gaining attention in Europe and the United States can both over- and underestimate their political importance and impact. For Müller, such movements are best understood not by their “anti-elitist” tendencies, but rather by their antipluralist claims to represent the “real people.” He also emphasizes how the rise of right-wing populism is inseparable from the degree to which they are enabled by more mainstream conservative parties, and refers to Austria as a counterexample in which the mainstream right rejected populist extremism.
In this new contribution to the Democracy Papers, Elisabeth Clemens discusses what she calls the “(mis)alignment of social and political geography” in the United States as an unrecognized source of democratic anxiety. Taking an historical perspective, Clemens traces the increasing distancing of citizens and lived communities from infrastructures and geographies of governance. “Antistatism, federalism, and repeated redistricting,” she argues, render opaque the identification of “effective channels of influences or … responsibility for good or bad governing.”
Armin Schäfer reflects on what populism’s rise in Europe and the United States implies for how we view social class as a basis for voting and political partisanship. Drawing on recent studies, Schäfer shows growing disaffection among the working classes in established democracies concerning their sense of their ability to influence the policy decisions that affect them. Other research provides some evidence that the working class perceives their lack of political efficacy correctly—governing institutions respond far more to the preferences of the wealthy. In such a context, populist anger points to genuine democratic deficits.
Rarely do we get a sense of how conservative white working class Americans view the civic competence of urban-based liberals. Katherine Cramer provides such a perspective in this Democracy Paper, building on the extensive research for her book on rural Wisconsites with follow-up visits during the 2016 election campaign and the early days of the Trump administration. Cramer finds a very deep and mutual lack of faith, a chasm that makes the possibility for building alliances, or even dialogue, across polarized groups a difficult one.
In this Democracy Paper, Regina Kreide traces the different ways in which social inequality can, and is, undermining democratic politics. Kreide breaks down inequality into three dimensions—growing economic cleavages, deepening political segregation, and cultural invisibility. These trends combine to diminish many citizens’ faith in the future and open the door to populist appeals. The author argues that reversing democratic decline and ultimately inequality itself will take more thoroughgoing collective action beyond piecemeal reforms.
Over the next months, Items will publish essays based on research presented at a spring workshop on the theme “Democratic Participation: A Broken Promise?” cosponsored by the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program’s Participation group and the German-based Democratic Anxieties. Claudia Landwehr, co-organizer of Democratic Anxieties, describes the fraught efforts of democracy to deal with “disturbances”—deep tensions that put at risk agreement on democratic procedures and the norms of reciprocity that undergird it. Landwehr argues for practices of “meta-deliberation” to draw publics into discussion about the norms through which reciprocity and procedural consensus are produced.
Over the next months, Items will publish essays based on research presented at a spring workshop on the theme “Democratic Participation: A Broken Promise?” cosponsored by the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program’s Participation group and the German-based Democratic Anxieties. Here, Larry Bartels, cochair of the AOD Participation group, draws on recent work on the extent to which established democracies are disproportionately responsive to the preferences of their wealthiest citizens. While this is not news for observers of the United States, Bartels finds very similar patterns across what are often assumed to be the more egalitarian democracies of Europe.