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Democracy

  • Can We Make Voting Like Tweeting?

    Written on July 7, 2011

    A recent Brookings Institution forum on new social media and the re-invigoration of democracy got me thinking about whether and how Twitter and Facebook could successfully increase political participation, specifically voter turnout. Voter turnout is one of the most important indicators of a healthy democracy and – as many have noted – U.S. voter participation rates are remarkably low.

    It does not surprise me that people don’t see the immediate gains of voting. Going to the polls on election day entails individual costs (e.g., time, figuring out polling locations), while the benefits are essentially collective and weakly dependent on the vote of any one individual. Thus, people may find that it’s in their interest not to bother (Downs 1957 is the classic work on this). This rational approach conflicts with a more normative (even moral) understanding of democracy and civic behavior – e.g., we know we should all vote; it’s as much our responsibility as our right.

    In a much less academic vein, although many U.S. citizens are free-riders when it comes to voting, it appears that Americans love to give their detailed opinions on all kinds of things. For example, why are Americans, who are so enthusiastic and industrious when it comes to writing lengthy product reviews, indolent when they are asked (once every four years) to voice their political views? How can we make voting as compelling as writing an online review? And can social media help in this endeavor?

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  • Remembering Elena Bonner; Honoring Andrei Sakharov

    Written on July 1, 2011

    Our guest author today is Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House.

    Two years ago, Elena Bonner, frail in body but not in mind or spirit, had this to say about conditions in Russia:

    The West isn’t very interested in Russia….There are no real elections there, no independent courts, and no freedom of the press. Russia is a country where journalists, human rights activists and migrants are killed regularly, almost daily. And extreme corruption flourishes of a kind and extent that never existed earlier in Russia or anywhere else. So what do the Western mass media discuss mainly? Gas and oil -- of which Russia has a lot. Energy is its only political trump card, and Russia uses it as an instrument of pressure and blackmail. And there’s another topic that never disappears from the newspapers -- who rules Russia? Putin or Medvedev? But what difference does it make, if Russia has completely lost the impulse for democratic development that we thought we saw in the early 1990s.
    Here, in a few sentences of remarkable insight, Bonner, who died recently, neatly summarized much of Russian reality today.
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  • Suppressing Democracy

    Written on June 28, 2011

    At a recent Shanker Institute conference, a guest presenter from the United Kingdom was discussing the historical relationship between public spending and democracy. I don’t remember the exact context, but at some point, he noted, in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact tone, that one U.S. political party spends a great deal of effort and resources trying to suppress electoral turnout.

    It’s always kind of jarring to hear someone from another country make a casual observation about an American practice that’s so objectionable, especially when you're well aware it's plainly true. And perhaps never more so than right now.

    There are currently several states – most with Republican governors and/or legislatures, including Wisconsin and Ohio – that are either considering or have already passed bills that would require citizens to obtain government-issued identification (or strengthen previous requirements), such as driver’s licenses or passports, in order to register to vote and/or cast a ballot. The public explanation given by these lawmakers and their supporters is that identification requirements will reduce voter fraud. This is so transparently dishonest as to be absurd. Recent incidences of voter fraud are exceedingly rare. Most of these laws are clearly efforts to increase the “costs” of voting for large groups of people who traditionally vote Democratic.

    Others have commented on the politics behind these efforts. I’d like to put them in context.

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  • New Teaching Resource Highlights Voices Of Leading Pro-Democracy Muslims

    Written on June 24, 2011

    The Albert Shanker Institute has released "Muslim Voices on Democracy: A Reader"—a free, downloadable publication that highlights the speeches, articles, and ideals of pro-democracy Muslims. It is designed as a resource for high school teachers to use in American classrooms, as they seek to help students make sense of the complex forces at work in the Muslim world.

    You can download the publication (PDF) here.

    The individuals featured in this collection include intellectuals, union activists, dissidents, and journalists. Although the voices of women are featured throughout the publication, it contains a special section devoted to their unique challenges and contributions to the democratic political dialogue. The publication also features a glossary of terms and a list of resources for further study.

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  • Middle Class Overvalues

    Written on June 13, 2011

    It is a staple of American politics that elected officials routinely frame their appeals to the "middle class." The idea is simple: Since the vast majority of Americans consider themselves members of the middle class, it makes sense to use this label as shorthand for "people like you." The practice of people locating themselves within a class structure – rather than being "assigned" to classes based on particular characteristics, such as income or occupation – is often called "subjective class identification."

    Now, I don’t know whether the daily use of the "middle class" appeal is smart politics (I assume it has been poll-tested and focus-grouped ad nauseum). But I can say that the underlying assumption – that virtually all Americans identify subjectively as middle class – is not correct. Or, more accurately, it depends on how you ask the question.

    If you give people a three-category class structure (upper, middle, lower) in which they must place themselves, a huge plurality opts for the middle. On the other hand, in the simple tabulation below, I demonstrate what happens when you add a fourth category to the menu of options – "working class." The data come from the General Social Survey (GSS) for 2010, and it’s a representative, unrestricted sample of all Americans over age 18. One of the survey questions is: "If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?"

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  • Another Tiananmen Anniversary: Will There Be A Reckoning?

    Written on June 3, 2011

    This Saturday, June 4, 2011, marks the 22nd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, where thousands of pro-democracy activists were killed, injured or imprisoned by Chinese authorities.  This year’s Tiananmen anniversary comes at a time of greatly increased political repression in China.  According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), “Chinese authorities have launched a broad crackdown against rights defenders, reform advocates, lawyers, petitioners, writers, artists, and Internet bloggers in what international observers have described as one of the harshest crackdowns in years."

    Over the last several months, activist groups such as Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) have repeatedly tried to draw attention to this harsh renewal of repression in China. In an article entitled “Missing before Action” in the March issue of Foreign Policy Magazine, a CHRD writer noted that hundreds of Chinese human rights activists, lawyers, and pro-democracy dissidents from across the country have been affected by the crackdown. Police have used “violence, arbitrary detention, "disappearances," and other forms of harassment and intimidation” to put a damper on any nascent protest movement.  Other dissidents --or non-dissident citizens walking the streets -- have been picked up for questioning.

    Although authorities  began tightening the political screws in the period leading up to  the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it appears that the recent democratic uprisings in the Middle East have given added impetus to this policy.

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  • Public Employee Unions And Voter Turnout

    Written on May 10, 2011

    During the recent debates over public employees’ collective bargaining rights, especially around the Wisconsin protests, I heard a few people argue that Republican governors are intent on destroying public sector unions, at least in part, because union members are more likely to vote – and to vote Democratic.

    The latter argument (union members are more likely to vote Democratic) is generally true (also here) – although the union "effect" on candidate/party choice is of course complicated. The former argument (more likely to vote in general) is also valid, but there is some underlying public/private variation that is both interesting and important.

    As is almost always the case, isolating the effect of a given factor (in this case, how being a union member affects the likelihood of voting) requires one to compare how this factor “operates” on people who are otherwise similar. For example, in a previous post, I compared public and private sector workers’ earnings. In order to uncover the “effect” of public sector employment on earnings, I used models that controlled for other relevant, measurable factors, such as education and experience. In doing so, I was able to (imperfectly) ensure that I was comparing public and private employees who were similar in terms of skills and qualifications.

    The same basic concept applies to voting.

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  • Tunisia Needs International Supervision For The Upcoming July Elections

    Written on May 3, 2011

    Our guest author today is Radwan A. Masmoudi, President of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, D.C. A version of this post has appeared on other sites that follow political developments in the Muslim world.

    As head of the Tunisian High Council for Political Reforms and the Achievement of the Goals of the Revolution, Dr. Iadh Ben Achour has declared his opposition to international monitors for Tunisia’s July 24th elections.  He says international “observers”   -- essentially a pro forma intervention -- would be acceptable. This is a mistake and represents a misplaced emphasis on sovereignty and a major retreat from the post-revolution commitments of the interim government—including the president and former prime minister, both of whom recognize that Tunisia has never organized free and fair elections, and most Tunisians won’t accept the election results without international supervision or at least monitors.

    The “sensitivity” about foreign intervention has been used (and abused) by oppressive governments and regimes around the globe, helping to set the stage for massive election fraud. We have been down this road before, under Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, and the other Arab dictators. True sovereignty belongs to the people, and the best way to protect that sovereignty is to ensure that the elections are free and fair. Today, many Tunisians do not believe that this interim government is capable of organizing truly free and fair elections, and are afraid that these elections—as in the past—will not reflect the will of the people.

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  • What Democracy Looks Like When We Actually Show Up

    Written on April 7, 2011

    As you probably already know, yesterday was spring election day in Wisconsin. With a margin just about as slim as it gets (about 200 votes) in the race for State Supreme Court Justice (and a recount looming), it seems that the Democratic candidate, JoAnne Kloppenburg, has beaten her opponent, Republican Justice David Prosser.

    No matter how the recount turns out, it was a stunning outcome. Kloppenburg was a virtual unknown, facing a long-time incumbent who had bested her by 30 points in the Feb. 15 primaries. Her victory seemed virtually impossible.

    Equally amazing was yesterday’s turnout. Although the final certified ballot count will no doubt be a bit different, roughly 1.48 million Wisconsinites went to the polls to cast their votes. Now, turnout in spring elections is notoriously low, and the one and a half million voters represents only about 36 percent of the voting-eligible population.

    But, as always, we should put this figure in context.

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  • Egypt: Workers Urged To Reject Constitutional Amendments In March 19 Referendum

    Written on March 18, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    Egypt’s fledgling independent unions have urged members to reject proposed constitutional amendments that are up for a referendum vote on March 19 and to demand a "new constitution that lays the foundations for a new Egypt." In a statement released March 17, the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS), and the newly established Independent Trade Union Federation in Egypt, called the referendum a "constitutional patching"  

    The unions noted that the proposed amendments, which introduce term limits to the presidency and guarantee judicial supervision of elections, are identical to reforms proposed by former President Hosni Mubarak. They argued that the current constitution has no legitimacy, which, after the January 25th Revolution, resides in the Egyptian people.

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