In this report, Cole Edick—program assistant for the Anxieties of Democracy program—outlines the ideation and theoretical principles that served as the basis of conversation at a research workshop, held at IE University in Segovia, Spain, entitled “The Ideational Approach: Consequences and Mitigation.” Edick highlights five key challenges discussed at the workshop for the contemporary study of populism, among them: how to define populism, what unites populism across different political systems, and can social media inform the study of populism. Future endeavors assessing the modern ascendance of populism will benefit from this report, which contextualizes extant as well as ongoing research seeking to understand populism in varying contexts.
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.
A consequence of increasing polarization is the decline of moderate legislators—those who occupy an ideological middle ground between the two parties. This decline has allowed those moderates to play pivotal roles, especially in the Senate, in deciding whether a bill passes or fails or a nominee is confirmed or not. Yet little is known about whether these moderate senators play an influential role in shaping public opinion around pieces of legislation. Using a survey experiment, Logan Dancey investigates whether public support for specific bills changes depending on who sponsors (and cosponsors) the legislation. His findings suggest that although names like Susan Collins and Joe Manchin are well-known among American voters, when moderates attach their name to pieces of legislation, it does not uniquely influence public support for or opposition to the bill.
It is commonly believed that congressional leaders will always obey the “first commandment” of party leadership: Thou shalt not aid bills that will split thy party. Nevertheless, in 2017 House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allowed voting on a bid to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), putting on display their party’s ideological divisions. In this Democracy Papers essay, Ruth Bloch Rubin draws on the personal papers of midcentury House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX) to understand when and why congressional leaders choose to act as agents of discord. She investigates how Rayburn used intraparty tensions to push for his agenda. Bloch Rubin argues that Rayburn’s tactics provide a new angle for understanding contemporary congressional action like the ACA bill.
Danielle Thomsen, a Negotiating Agreement in Congress grantee of the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program, examines the electoral preferences of primary voters. Her project investigates whether primary voters can be persuaded to support politically centrist candidates. Using a survey-based experiment, Thomsen finds: (i) primary voters tend to prefer politically extreme over centrist candidates; (ii) despite Americans' frustration with gridlock and hyperpartisanship in Washington, primary voters are unlikely to vote for candidates who champion bipartisanship. Her findings shed light on the continued polarization in US politics.
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.
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.