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.
“Is American democracy really under threat? What about democracy in the West, or the world more generally? If democracy is under threat, what can we do about it? And if it’s not under threat, why are so many of us so worried that it is?” Democratic Erosion is a cross-university collaboration of over 50 institutions across the United States and the world that aims to help answer these questions through a combination of teaching, research, and civic and policy engagement.
Since 2018, Democratic Erosion has, in collaboration with the Anxieties of Democracy program at the SSRC, held an annual contest in which faculty at participating universities nominate the best essays or blog posts from their classes to be featured on Items. Each year, the SSRC picks several winners to revise and expand their work for publication in collaboration with their faculty advisers and our editorial staff. We are proud to feature this exemplary undergraduate work on anxieties of democracy, on topics ranging from the “entertainment politics” of Latin America and the United States to Slovakian leaders’ efforts to combat right-wing populism.
This essay series, and the work of the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program, is possible due to generous funding from the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, the Mark and Anla Cheng Kingdon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
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 this undergraduate essay for the “Democratic Erosion” miniseries, Justin Saint-Loubert-Bie examines recent ballot restriction initiatives currently under consideration in various state legislatures. He explores whether these efforts—requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns to be included on the state’s election ballot—could help bolster US democratic norms. Motivated by concerns about the current political climate and growing polarization, Saint-Loubert-Bie presents the arguments for and against these ballot restrictions. Ultimately, this piece asserts that these ballot restrictions could narrow the political divide and protect democratic norms, though he is unsure there is enough time.
In the third installment of our 2019 undergraduate “Democratic Erosion” miniseries, Emilie Larsen examines how the exact-match policy used in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race to determine voter eligibility could undermine democratic institutions. Won by Republican Brian Kemp, this election has been mired by accusations of voter suppression, with the exact-match policy at the center, which some advocacy groups claimed undermined turnout in minority and predominantly Democratic areas. Larsen argues the use of the exact-match policy is a form of “stealth authoritarianism” that targets specific parts of electorate for disenfranchisement.
In this second undergraduate essay for our “Democratic Erosion” miniseries, Rachel Funk interrogates the susceptibility of referenda to abuse by government leaders. Using the examples of recent constitutional referenda in Rwanda and Burundi to extend presidential term limits, she explains how, in atmospheres with a history of violence and nominally democratic regimes that stifle political opposition, referenda can be manipulated to prolong the tenure of a leader under the guises of popular will and consent. Funk concludes by highlighting examples where referenda and other forms of direct democracy can play a more constructive role when combined with institutional checks.
We kick off the 2019 round of our “Democratic Erosion” student essay miniseries—part of the Democracy Papers—with Jenny Xiao’s account of how this year’s elections in Slovakia bucked the trend toward right-wing populism in Eastern Europe. Xiao analyzes the successful campaign strategy of the progressive Zuzana Caputova, Slovakia’s first woman president. For Xiao, Caputova’s victory reflects her ability to build on public discontent and protest directed at the previous regime, a positive and inclusive message, and a direct engagement with populist candidates in ways that did not legitimize them or their use of disinformation.
Concluding our “Democratic Erosion” miniseries, Victoria Potts uses a prolonged political dispute over the fate of Confederate monuments in Memphis city parks to examine political accountability in democratic institutions. She examines the conflict between Memphis City Council, the Tennessee state legislature, and an appointed historical commission to ask whom appointed commissions should be accountable to, and when indirect or unelected power is justified in a democratic system.
Continuing our “Democratic Erosion” miniseries of essays, Rachel Risoleo takes a look at the concept of incumbency advantage, arguing that this concept can help us explain the successful political candidacies of nonincumbent popular icons like Donald Trump in the United States and Jimmy Morales in Guatemala. She argues that celebrities who run for office are able to draw on advantages that are similar to those enjoyed by incumbent politicians, including name recognition, high levels of media exposure, and voters’ preference to identify with individual politicians.