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Democracy

  • Democracy Under Siege

    Written on October 19, 2017

    Our guest author today, Mac Maharaj, is a former African National Congress (ANC) leader, friend and prison mate of Nelson Mandela’s, who smuggled the first draft of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, out of Robben Island. Over the past 50 years, he has been an anti-apartheid activist, political prisoner, exile, underground commander, negotiator, bank director, professor and a cabinet minister in South Africa's first democratic government. This post was adapted from his remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.

    I come from the generation that negotiated South Africa’s transition from race rule to a constitutional democracy that has been acclaimed throughout the world. We put together a constitution founded on an entrenched Bill of Rights, with a separation of powers, bolstered by a set of independent institutions. Having entrenched freedoms, such as that of expression, the media and assembly, and having secured the protection of the individual from arbitrary arrest, we believed that we had established a system that would enable the mediation of conflicts of interest that are immanent in society—evading the civil strife that degenerates into violence and preventing any group from having to go to war.

    But our democracy is only a little over two decades old, and there are already growing concerns that our system has not delivered and is under threat.

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  • The Authoritarian Challenge: The Concordance Between Trump And Putin

    Written on September 22, 2017

    Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and primary author of ASI’s Democracy Web civic education resource. This post was adapted from a longer essay, which can be found here.

    Since November 8, 2016, American citizens and international observers have faced a startling new situation. On that day, the United States, the longest continuous representative democracy in the modern world, elected the seemingly authoritarian-minded Donald J. Trump to a four-year presidential term. Trump, a man with little apparent knowledge of, experience in, or appreciation for either representative government or America‘s international treaties and alliances, promised to upend U.S. domestic and foreign policy and reshape the international order. He has succeeded.

    In the face of the decade-long rise of dictatorial leaders and nationalist and chauvinist parties in a number of countries around the globe, Trump’s election brought broad acknowledgement of a crisis of world democracy. Given its position and role in the world, the United States is now center stage in that crisis.

    One of the most troublesome aspects of the election was that the rules of the U.S. Constitution awarded Trump victory based on the preference of a minority of voters using an antique and unique electoral college system that overrode a substantial national vote margin in favor of the election’s loser. Notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s supposed unpopularity, the Democratic Party candidate won 2.85 million more votes in the national ballot, 48 percent to 46 percent, while Trump’s electoral college victory was determined in three decisive states by a total of 77,000 votes (out of 13.4 million). Putting aside that the results were influenced by foreign intervention (see below), the election process itself should be a cause for serious concern over the state of American democracy. For the second time in recent U.S. history, a national minority government has been imposed on the majority. No other democracy elects national leadership in such a manner. Yet, there is still little discussion of addressing this structural weakness in our political system.[1]

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  • Not Our President

    Written on January 25, 2017

    That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

    Last Friday, Donald Trump took the oath to become the forty-fifth president of the United States.

    Civil rights icon and U.S. Congressman John Lewis spoke for many when he declared that the Trump presidency was not “legitimate.” He was right.

    The democratic tradition captured in the words of the Declaration of Independence is unequivocal: It is the consent of the governed that provides a government with legitimacy, with its just powers. That consent is expressed through free and fair elections in which every citizen has the right to vote.

    The Trump presidency fails this test of legitimacy on four substantive grounds.

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  • Trump And The Authoritarian Temptation

    Written on July 5, 2016

    Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE). He is also principal author of Democracy Web, a civics education curricular resource project of the Albert Shanker Institute. This article is adapted from a longer version that appears on IDEE’s new website.

    In 1976, the French political theorist Jean François Revel critiqued what he called the “totalitarian temptation” among intellectuals who attacked Western political democracy at a time of severe threat. Forty years later democracy is again under threat.

    Revel wrote when the Soviet Union was at the height of its military strength and international influence. In the West, Eurocommunist parties were rising in popularity and non-communist political parties on the Left were developing a strong anti-American sentiment, with some political leaders and intellectuals equivocating in their defense of NATO against the Soviet bloc. Revel, himself a socialist and humanist, argued that one had to be “inoculated to the virus of reality” not to see that communism brought only mass political repression and economic misery. He had a dark theory for his colleagues’ blindness: “Does there lurk in us a wish for totalitarian rule?” he wrote. “If so, it would explain a great deal about how people behave, about the speeches they make, and the times they remain silent.”

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  • A Quick Look At U.S. Voter Turnout In International Perspective

    Written on June 9, 2015

    At quick glance, voter turnout in the United States seems quite low. Over the past 30 years, the turnout rate among eligible voters has fluctuated between 50 and 60 percent, whereas barely two in five eligible voters turn out in midterm elections. And this is not getting better. Turnout in the 2014 election was just under 36 percent, the lowest since the Second World War (these national percentages, of course, vary considerably between states).

    It is important, however, to put these figures in context, and one way to do that is to compare U.S. turnout with that in other nations. The Pew Research Center compiled data from recent elections in 34 OECD nations, and the graph below presents those data. The election to which the data apply is noted in parentheses. There are two rates for each nation: One is turnout as a percentage of the voting age population; and the other as a percentage of registered voters (i.e., the proportion of people registered to vote who actually cast a ballot).

    The first major takeaway from the graph is that turnout among those old enough to vote is relatively low in the U.S. Of course, the sorting in the graph may obscure the fact that several countries, including Spain and the U.K., are ranked considerably higher than the U.S. but the actual differences in rates aren’t massive (and the U.S. would have ranked much higher in 2008, or if turnout was expressed as a share of the voting eligible population, which, due mostly to felon disenfranchisement and non-citizen residents, is a few percentage points higher). Nevertheless, U.S. electoral participation doesn't look too good vis-a-vis these nations.

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  • In Defense Of The Public Square

    Written on April 30, 2015

    A robust and vibrant public square is an essential foundation of democracy. It is the place where the important public issues of the day are subject to free and open debate, and where our ideas of what is in the public interest take shape. It is the ground upon which communities and associations are organized to advocate for policies that promote that public interest. It is the site for the provision of essential public goods, from education and healthcare to safety and mass transportation. It is the terrain upon which the centralizing and homogenizing power of both the state and the market are checked and balanced. It is the economic arena with the means to control the market’s tendencies toward polarizing economic inequality and cycles of boom and bust. It is the site of economic opportunity for historically excluded groups such as African-Americans and Latinos.

    And yet in America today, the public square is under extraordinary attack. A flood of unregulated, unaccountable money in our politics and media threatens to drown public debate and ravage our civic life, overwhelming authentic conceptions of the public interest. Decades of growing economic inequality menaces the very public institutions with the capacity to promote greater economic and social equality. Unprecedented efforts to privatize essential public goods and public services are underway. Teachers, nurses and other public servants who deliver those public goods are the object of vilification from the political right, and their rights in the workplace are in danger. Legislative and judicial efforts designed to eviscerate public sector unions are ongoing.

    In response to these developments, a consortium of seven organizations—the Albert Shanker Institute; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the American Prospect; Dissent; Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor; and the Service Employees International Union—has organized a to bring together prominent elected officials, public intellectuals, and union, business and civil rights leaders “in defense of the public square.”

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  • Do Attitudes Toward Taxation Change When Economic Situations Change?: Evidence from Poland

    Written on December 1, 2014

    The following is written by Kinga Wysieńska-Di Carlo and Matthew Di Carlo. Wysieńska-Di Carlo is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

    In general, people tend to support expanding many of the programs funded by their taxes, but they don’t like paying taxes. In the U.S., for example, most people think the government should spend more on programs such as education, health care and urban renewal, but only a tiny fraction believes their own taxes, especially their federal taxes, are too low.

    One of the possible explanations for these seemingly contradictory attitudes might be that people think tax systems should be more progressive – that is, they believe that tax revenue should increase, but that the increase should come from higher tax rates on higher earners. Poland is an interesting example in this context (if for no other reason than the fact that there were no taxes in Poland during the communist period). Today, when asked a generic question about whether the government should play a role in reducing income differences between the rich and the poor, Polish people tend to respond in the affirmative in larger proportions than their counterparts in virtually any other advanced nation. Yet responses to these types of questions can be quite different when they ask about specific issues, such as tax rates (Roberts et al. 1994).

    Let’s take a quick look at some very tentative analyses that we (and our colleague Zbigniew Karpiński) have performed on this issue, with a specific focus on the question of whether people’s attitudes toward taxation change as their circumstances (e.g., income, employment) change.

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  • Attitudes Toward Education And Hard Work In Post-Communist Poland

    Written on October 3, 2014

    The following is written by Kinga Wysieńska-Di Carlo and Matthew Di Carlo. Wysieńska-Di Carlo is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

    Economic returns to education -- that is, the value of investment in education, principally in terms of better jobs, earnings, etc. -- rightly receives a great deal of attention in the U.S., as well as in other nations. But it is also useful to examine what people believe about the value and importance of education, as these perceptions influence, among other outcomes, individuals’ decisions to pursue additional schooling.

    When it comes to beliefs regarding whether education and other factors contribute to success, economic or otherwise, Poland is a particularly interesting nation. Poland underwent a dramatic economic transformation during and after the collapse of Communism (you can read about Al Shanker’s role here). An aggressive program of reform, sometimes described as “shock therapy," dismantled the planned socialist economy and built a market economy in its place. Needless to say, actual conditions in a nation can influence and reflect attitudes about those conditions (see, for example, Kunovich and Słomczyński 2007 for a cross-national analysis of pro-meritocratic beliefs).

    This transition in Poland fundamentally reshaped the relationships between education, employment and material success. In addition, it is likely to have influenced Poles’ perception of these dynamics. Let’s take a look at Polish survey data since the transformation, focusing first on Poles’ perceptions of the importance of education for one’s success.

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  • Where Al Shanker Stood: Democracy In Public Education

    Written on July 21, 2014

    There is an ongoing debate in the U.S. about the role of democracy in public education. In March 1997, in his final “Where We Stand” column in the New York Times, Al Shanker addressed this issue directly. The piece, published posthumously, was an excerpt from a larger essay entitled "40 Years in the Profession," which was included in a collection published by the Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

    Why do I continue when so much of what I’ve worked for seems threatened? To a large extent, because I believe that public education is the glue that has held this country together. Critics now say that the common school never really existed, that it’s time to abandon this ideal in favor of schools that are designed to appeal to groups based on ethnicity, race, religion, class, or common interests of various kinds. But schools like these would foster divisions in our society; they would be like setting a time bomb.

    A Martian who happened to be visiting Earth soon after the United States was founded would not have given this country much chance of surviving. He would have predicted that this new nation, whose inhabitants were of different races, who spoke different languages, and who followed different religions, wouldn’t remain one nation for long. They would end up fighting and killing each other. Then, what was left of each group would set up its own country, just as has happened many other times and in many other places. But that didn’t happen. Instead, we became a wealthy and powerful nation—the freest the world has ever known. Millions of people from around the world have risked their lives to come here, and they continue to do so today.

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  • Tiananmen Anniversary Reflections

    Written on June 4, 2014

    Our guest author today is Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University

    On the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, it is worth reflecting on the effect that tragic event had on labor conditions in China.

    Tiananmen is generally thought of as a student movement, but there was also a great deal of worker participation. A group called the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation took shape during the movement under the leadership of Han Dongfang, then a young railway worker. Today he leads an important worker rights organization, China Labour Bulletin, that works on Chinese labor rights issues from its office in Hong Kong.  Outside of Beijing, demonstrations occurred in more than 300 other cities, also with worker participation. Some of the harshest penalties after the crackdown were imposed on workers, rather than students.

    But workers, students, and other participants had the same goals in the spring of 1989. They all wanted the ruling Chinese Communist Party to open itself up to dialogue with society over issues of corruption, reform, rule of law, and citizens’ rights. One faction in the leadership, headed by Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, advocated that the Party accept this demand. He said that the demonstrators were patriotic and shared the Party’s goals for the nation, and that the Party could work with them. The other faction, headed by Premier Li Peng, argued that if the Party gave in to demands for dialogue, it would lose its monopoly of power and risk being overthrown. In the end, senior Party leaders headed by Deng Xiaoping sided with Li and used military force to end the demonstrations. In doing so, they reaffirmed the basic principle of authoritarian rule: the people have no right to interfere in politics.

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