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.
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.
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.
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.
Jason Roberts, a Negotiating Agreement in Congress grantee of the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program, asks: How might we know whether the leadership of majority parties in the US Congress achieve their goals, and why? To measure the effectiveness of party leaders, Roberts first compares how much of a party’s publicly stated policy agenda is actually addressed through legislation. Second, he measures how well parties in the majority retain control in the House over somewhat arcane procedures that are essential for pursuing party goals.
In this Democracy Papers essay, George Marcus addresses the important role that emotions play in politics. In a timely contribution to essays on the Anxieties of Democracy, Marcus delves into what we might broadly call the anxieties of citizens, distinguishing between the political consequences of fear and anger. In order to effectively address negative emotions in democratic politics, politicians first need to understand their distinctive psychological origins and consequences.
The SSRC’s Media & Democracy program has launched a series of workshops that put current controversies and debates into historical and cross-disciplinary perspectives. Here, Mike Miller and James Kirwan provide the key takeaways from a recent event on “A Modern History of the Disinformation Age.” Scholars at the workshop engaged the roots of our “epistemic crisis” regarding what counts as facts and as “reality.” Participants focused on actors who benefit from the questioning of truth claims, and how institutions that once served as gatekeepers for such claims have been weakened and unable to adjust to new media ecosystems.
In a new submission to Democracy Papers, Tracy Sulkin looks at the professional consequences of legislators’ bad behavior. Using a unique dataset on professional scandals and instances of incivility committed by members of the US House of Representatives, she shows that scandals and incivility are linked to stalling professional career trajectories of members of Congress. In an era of polarization and gridlock, these results indicate that Congress does retain ability to police and sanction bad behavior among its members.
In an essay that continues the Democracy Papers’ current focus on welfare states, Lea Elsässer explores unequal representation in the context of welfare state reforms. Focusing on Germany since the 1980s, she shows that welfare state reforms are more responsive to the preferences of citizens in the upper socioeconomic classes, compared to those in lower socioeconomic classes. These findings contribute to the recent literature on problems of representation in modern democracies.
In the latest contribution to the Democracy Papers, Marius R. Busemeyer explores which coalitions of citizens support various welfare state reforms in European countries. Recent years have seen the social safety net in these countries increasingly move toward a social investment model, whereby states help individuals invest in education and training. Busemeyer shows that, compared to other models of the welfare state, social investment policies enjoy broad-based support among many European publics, concerns about the potentially regressive effects of these policies notwithstanding.
Jaime Settle, a member of the SSRC Media & Democracy program’s advisory board, discusses her new book in the latest contribution to Democracy Papers. In Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America, she takes a deep look at how political information spreads on social media, emphasizing the importance of seemingly unpolitical posts and of exposure to the political opinions of people with whom we share only weak social ties.
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.