How can organization leaders make strategic choices that allow them to exercise power in politics? Our book, Prisms of the People, attempts to answer this question by drawing on several case studies of organizations that have won significant victories for their constituencies. In our “prism” metaphor, organizations are the prisms that refract a group’s actions […]
Can representative democracies be strengthened to govern more effectively? The SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program is motivated by a concern about whether the core institutions of established democracies can capably address large problems in the public interest. The “Democracy Papers” highlight and summarize new research presented at conferences and workshops related to the Anxieties of Democracy program. Throughout the SSRC’s history, it has organized and sponsored committees and conferences on democracy, both in the United States and abroad. Most recently, before the Anxieties of Democracy program, the SSRC convened the National Research Commission on Elections and Voting in 2004, culminating in the publication of the report, Challenges Facing the American Electoral System: Research Priorities for the Social Sciences.
If you enjoy the “Democracy Papers,” you may also like our collection of reflection essays on the anxieties of democracy, The Inaugural Democracy Papers. These pieces were collected for the launch of the Anxieties of Democracy program in 2014–15.
The United States Has a Democracy Problem: What Democratic Erosion Scholarship Tells Us about January 6by Christina Kulich and Elizabeth Iams Wellman
On January 6, 2021, an organized mob stormed the US Capitol. In this essay, Christina Kulich and Elizabeth Iams Wellman suggest that democratic erosion literature, as studied and taught by the Democratic Erosion consortium, might provide insight into how to understand the events of January 6 as a case study in democratic backsliding. They point out that this insurrection is but one of many antidemocratic disruption events in recent history, finding that the event is a symptom of global, causal trends that include rising inequality, declining trust in institutions, increasing political polarization, and truth decay. Kulich and Wellman argue that liberal democracies are facing a reckoning that may require a redress of systems and institutions so that they are more inclusive, participatory, and accountable.
As part of the annual “Democratic Erosion” undergraduate series, Andrea Gustafson examines what the Covid-19 pandemic reveals about federalism in the United States, in particular changes in the balance of power and responsibility between state-level governments and the federal government. Gustafson finds that, in response to the Covid-19 crisis, governors and state legislatures are taking a more active role, often in opposition to leaders at the federal-level. Noting a trend toward the “nationalization” of United States politics prior to the pandemic, Gustafson argues that “strengthening” federalism may reinvigorate democratic participation at the state level and prevent federal overreach, which may in turn combat democratic erosion.
As part of the annual “Democratic Erosion” undergraduate series, Jamie Horowitz examines the potential effects of disinformation in Colombia—in particular, disinformation campaigns related to the country’s 2016 peace deal referendum and the 2018 Colombian presidential election. Horowitz finds that well-known politicians are primarily responsible for disseminating disinformation in Colombia, which then circulates unbridled on WhatsApp. Disinformation campaigns, she argues, serve to polarize the population, which, in turn, leads to democratic erosion that manifests in low trust in electoral procedures and government.
As part of the annual “Democratic Erosion” student series, Edcel John Ibarra examines the deterioration of the judicial independence of the Philippine Supreme Court in recent history, especially under Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency. Pointing to the relationship between judicial independence and democratic consolidation, he argues that the Philippine judiciary has historically been a crucial bulwark against democratic erosion. However, presidential and congressional efforts to reshape the Supreme Court in recent years have undermined its independence, and so the country may have to rely on other safeguards.
As part of the annual “Democratic Erosion” undergraduate series, Justin Kopek traces the complex impact of Evo Morales’ presidency for Bolivian democracy. Morales, Kopek argues, deepened Bolivian democracy through socioeconomic reforms for previously marginalized groups. At the same time, Morales disrupted democratic processes and check and balances by interfering with the judiciary and the media. His dramatic removal as head of state now raises questions about whether Bolivia will be able to maintain progress toward broader social inclusion and whether the constraints on liberal democratic institutions will be reversed or continue.
In light of the evolving Covid-19 pandemic, the Media & Democracy program has been forced to postpone two upcoming workshops until further notice. “News Coverage of US Elections,” which will address how changes in media, technology, and politics shape the way that elections are covered in the United States, and “Extreme Right Radicalization Online,” which will support research on the processes driving right-wing extremism and the distinct mechanisms by which such processes occur online, will be held later this year. As the program reorients toward an uncertain future, it offers this report on media and political change in historical context, the subject of a research workshop and public event held last spring.
While congressional conflict is most visible when the institution is debating a bill or nomination, the roots of conflict arise earlier in the legislative process. When the House and Senate debate legislation, two of the institution’s most important decisions—whether to make policy and how—already have been made at the committee level. In this essay, Jonathan Lewallen explores agreement and dissent in congressional committees. Drawing on committee reports, he finds that, although overall rates of disagreement on committee reports have not changed much since the mid-1990s, there is variation in the likelihood of report disagreements by committee. This project is poised to better understand where and why agreement in Congress has become harder.
Over the last 30 years, party polarization has increased, making bipartisan compromise less attainable. In this essay, Lynda Powell identifies the electoral and institutional factors influential in determining the extent to which individual legislators spend time forming cross-party rather than within-party coalitions to pass legislation. Focusing her analysis on individual legislator behavior, she introduces a new measure of legislative activity—coalition building bipartisanship—defined as the difference in time legislators devote to cross-party versus within-party coalition building to pass legislation. Overall, Powell finds that in state capitols as well as Congress, as time goes on, legislators spend more time building within-party coalitions, rather than bipartisan coalitions.
Over the course of nearly 50 years, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has developed many strategies and negotiating tools to become an effective organization in Congress. Here, Mamie Locke explores how the CBC has grown from its original 13 members from relatively homogeneous districts to a caucus reflecting greater geographic and demographic diversity. She argues these changes in membership allow the CBC to more readily engage in deliberative negotiation and strategic partnerships to meet its mission of empowering marginalized communities. The CBC has leveraged its collective power to animate a policy agenda determined to move minority communities forward. Despite facing an increasingly polarized environment for the past 20 years, CBC members have formed alliances and worked in a bipartisan way to achieve successful legislative outcomes.