PSR INTERVIEWS #14: Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum (PART 2)

“Democratic innovations always struggle with their neoliberal and capitalist context. Capitalism has produced a particular kind of democracy. We refer to it as liberal or representative democracy. Calling it capitalist democracy would actually be more fitting. What we call democracy today is a hybrid between the democratic logic of the self-rule of the people and the capitalist logic of competition and hierarchy” – says Dr Hans Asenbaum. This interview is the second and final part of our conversation with this researcher and a PSR author, who covers new forms of democratic engagement and radical democratic politics. You can learn more about democratic innovations in his PSR article: Rethinking Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum, 2021 (sagepub.com).

Political Studies Review: You discuss a participatory approach, in which the major axis of the critique comes from the dehumanising properties of institutions. What are the most effective ways to apply participatory innovations to public institutions? Have any experiments been done in this area?

Dr Hans Asenbaum: The dehumanising effect of institutions stems from their functions to govern us. They structure interactions and decision-making procedures, leaving little leeway for creativity, playfulness, or serendipity. What is surprising, however, is that participatory democracy happens within such institutions despite their rigidity. The participatory spirit creeps in and claims space when teachers decide their curriculum in a participatory and inclusive manner together with students or when a community reparation board invites victims and perpetrators into a dialogue.

Of course, state institutions are not always open to this participatory spirit, and its realisation to a large extent depends on the goodwill of individuals in power positions. This is why social movements are crucial in challenging these institutions. The Black Lives Matter movement is a case in point. Their actions constitute democratic innovation by interrupting the racist structures that govern societies around the world. This interruption is not only realised through a negative moment of protest but also through a positive moment of building a peer-help network.

Political Studies Review: In terms of the agonistic approach, you write that it’…has long remained vague about institutional manifestations of its ideal and has mostly referred to the contentious politics of social movement.’ The transformative perspective is also linked with social movements in your article. Have you been able to spot any of the features of these approaches in any of the significant social movements in recent years, such as Occupy Wall Street, Indignados, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, or any others?

Dr Hans Asenbaum: Movements such as Extinction Rebellion (XR), Black Lives Matter (BLM) and their predecessors have played a crucial role in inspiring theories of agonistic and transformative democracy. Hence, these theories are not only useful for analysing these movements but the movements also serve as the theories’ empirical sources. Now, this is the wonderful thing about democratic theories – and normative political theories more generally –; they each shed new and different light on the same phenomenon. This means we do not have to choose whether XR or BLM are either agonistic or transformative movements; they both harbour aspects of agonistic and transformative democracy.

State institutions are not always open to this participatory spirit, and its realisation to a large extent depends on the goodwill of individuals in power positions. This is why social movements are crucial in challenging these institutions.

The profound revolution XR calls for in the face of the dramatic climate crisis and the shattering of racist ideology and practice BLM advocates resonate with the transformative democratic perspective. Far beyond reform, it needs profound cultural and economic change to tackle the climate crisis and racism. Despite this revolutionary outlook, from an agonistic angle, we can see how both movements do not understand their opponents as enemies to be destroyed but as adversaries who are receptive to dialogue. Their views need to be challenged, and their practices disrupted. Such agonistic approaches are reflected in street protest and social media contestation of the respective movements.  

Black Lives Matter protest, London, June 2020, phot. E. Kania

Which of the developed solutions can be utilised in modern, democratic institutions most effectively?

The focus on social movements in the agonistic and transformative accounts doesn’t mean that the type of democratic innovations I’m suggesting cannot be realised within state institutions. Indeed, state actors are enablers of democratic bottom-up participation. This is what the participatory perspective highlights in particular. Participatory budgeting is a great example of how democratic innovations can be realised from a participatory democratic (rather than a deliberative) angel. The history of participatory budgeting also illustrates that whether democratic innovations emerge bottom-up or top-down is not necessarily a mutually exclusive question but that there actually can be a fruitful interface between the state and social movements.

The agonistic perspective further adds insights into how the state can facilitate democratic innovations beyond the deliberative paradigm. Mary Paxton suggests a Contestation Day, which is modelled after Ackerman and Fishkin’s Deliberation Day. Before general elections, citizens would meet for small group debates in the agonistic manner Paxton suggests. The new understanding of democratic innovations, I suggest, allows us to think even further. What if the state would provide social movements and civic initiatives the funds to set up their own democratic innovations? Democratic innovations, then, could be state-sponsored but social movement-run. I have made this suggestion together with Frederic Hanusch. We argue that instead of focusing on reasoned deliberation through the verbal expression of arguments, new democratic spaces could focus on non-verbal deliberation through artistic expression and play. This could be realised in democratic playgrounds and democratic ateliers as new democratic innovations that allow participants to prototype solutions to political problems.

What major challenges for applying democratic innovations would you highlight?

Democratic innovations always struggle with their neoliberal and capitalist context. Capitalism has produced a particular kind of democracy. We refer to it as liberal or representative democracy. Calling it capitalist democracy would actually be more fitting. What we call democracy today is a hybrid between the democratic logic of the self-rule of the people and the capitalist logic of competition and hierarchy. Capitalist democracy translates self-rule to the representation of the people by the elite. The power the people hold in this process is reduced to choosing among elite actors in staged party competition. Election campaigns follow market principles of product promotion and profit maximisation. The Schumpeterian ideal has become reality. This has been convincingly argued by Ellen Meiksins Wood.

Capitalism has produced a particular kind of democracy. We refer to it as liberal or representative democracy. Calling it capitalist democracy would actually be more fitting.

Democratic innovations, as I understand them, break with this capitalist logic and in doing so recapture democracy’s egalitarian spirit. Instead of delegating decision-making power to the elite, people deliberate and decide for themselves. Instead of competing with one another, they aim at mutual understanding – here the deliberative perspective is helpful. Democratic innovations interrupt capitalist hierarchy by demonstrating that self-rule is possible. Of course, there are convincing arguments that democratic innovations themselves are co-opted by neoliberal logic. They may only pretend to realise democracy while actually functioning as a governing tool of the powerful. We have to be aware and mindful of this problem. This is why bottom-up co-creation of democratic innovations is so important.

What are the key contributions your paper brings to the field?

The kaleidoscope of democratic theory my paper introduces reaffirms the value of theory triangulation. Triangulation is highly valued in empirical research, but it is hardly used in the field of theory and, in particular, in normative theory. Normative theories are commonly seen as mutually exclusive because each theory proposes its own ontology and its own complete worldview. By employing the kaleidoscope of democratic theory, we don’t compromise the internal integrity of each perspective. But we are still able to draw on a diversity of theories. I think this approach is particularly fitting for democratic theory because the value of pluralism is at the very heart of democracy.

The kaleidoscope approach also prioritises deep normative commitments. Discussions in democratic theory lately have moved away from normativity. Instead of focusing on normative models such as deliberative, participatory, agonistic or transformative democracy, democratic theorists suggest pragmatist approaches that are more problem-oriented. While I acknowledge the value of this argument, I worry about losing democratic theory’s firm normative grounding. Instead, I encourage exploring new ways of diversifying and creatively engaging with normative models.

In which direction normative democratic theory will develop is an intriguing question. How will deliberative democracy develop, and what may come after deliberative democracy? We are all part of this debate, and I’m looking forward to participating in it.

ABOUT

Hans Asenbaum is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. His work focuses on new forms of democratic engagement and radical democratic politics.

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Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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PSR INTERVIEWS #14: Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum (PART 1)

The wealth and diversity of democratic theory are incredible. What is fascinating about the participatory, agnostic, and transformative perspectives is that each of them offers an entire world we can dive into, immerse ourselves in, and relish in the democratic vision it generates” – says Dr Hans Asenbaum. This interview is the first part of our conversation with this researcher and a PSR author, who covers new forms of democratic engagement and radical democratic politics. You can learn more about democratic innovations in his PSR article: Rethinking Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum, 2021 (sagepub.com).

Political Studies Review: You suggest that we need to rethink democratic innovations. Why is such a “re-innovation of democratic innovations” needed, and how do we best go about this?

Dr Hans Asenbaum: Democratic innovations are commonly understood as participatory institutions created by governments. Examples are the now very popular citizens’ assemblies which flourish across the UK and Ireland and participatory budgets which emerged in Brazil. The way the scholarly community conceptualises these instantiations of lived democracy is limiting. This established understanding draws our attention to top-down initiated governmental institutions that are meticulously designed. Design pre-structures what participants in these settings can do and what they can express. Problems range from time constraints to a too narrow focus on rational arguments and go on to include co-option by the organisers. In other words, democratic innovations often produce the decision their organisers intended them to produce, which, of course, defeats their democratic purpose.

What can we do to challenge or at least mitigate these problems? One reason why we perceive and conceptualise democratic innovations in such a narrow manner is because of the incredible success of theories of deliberative democracy, which have dominated the field in the last few decades. This success is due to the persuasiveness and the merits of deliberative democratic theory. Indeed, the scholarly and practitioner community that aims to study and realise public engagement has benefitted immensely from the vibrant field of deliberative democracy research. Deliberative democracy in theory and practice has taught us about the values of inclusion, listening, empathy, humility, learning and respect. These are values I personally cherish.

Indeed, the scholarly and practitioner community that aims to study and realise public engagement has benefitted immensely from the vibrant field of deliberative democracy research.

The problem, then, is not with the deliberative ideal – it is with the exclusivity of one ideal only, whatever it may be. There are evident problems with dogmatism that prevent learning and development. So what I’m suggesting is not to replace the deliberative ideal with another, which would entail the same exclusivity. Rather, I suggest complimenting the deliberative ideal with compatible yet diverse other ideals. Rather than understanding democratic innovations exclusively as deliberative spaces, I propose looking through the kaleidoscope of democratic theory and making use of the wide variety of existing democratic theories. In this way, we can rethink democratic innovations from agonistic, participatory, and transformative angles. This lets us see democratic innovation in a new light. It helps us both to identify aspects of existing democratic processes we haven’t been able to see before, and it also helps us to identify instantiations of democracy that we previously hadn’t identified as democratic innovations.

What, then, is the result of applying the kaleidoscope of democratic theory? What does a novel understanding of democratic innovations look like?

So far, we know what democratic innovations look like from a deliberative angle. Following their Habermasian roots, deliberative democratic innovations have been particularly concerned with creating the “ideal speech situation” – they are staged as egalitarian islands amidst a world dominated by hierarchies and exclusions. This has led to an extreme focus, if not an obsession, with design. The idea here is that we can structure participants’ interactions – not the contents they express but the way they express these contents. This has had beneficial effects, particularly for marginalised groups in society participating in democratic innovations. Nevertheless, the undemocratic aspects of this approach are evident. Design means limiting and pre-determining participants’ behaviour.

If we supplement the deliberative with agonistic, participatory, and transformative lenses,  democratic innovations take on a new meaning. Rather than top-down initiated design, democratic innovation may emerge organically from grassroots mobilising and everyday interaction. Agonistic, participatory, and transformative democratic theory teaches us that democracy may occur anywhere – not just in official democratic processes such as election campaigns, referendums, or citizens’ assemblies, but wherever people meet and exchange ideas and opinions about how society should be governed. Rather than formal, state-run institutions, in the reading I propose, democratic innovation may include informal institutions such as social movement spaces, everyday conversations, societal conventions, and even language and thinking patterns.

Could you give us a concrete example?

Take language as an informal institutional arrangement as an example. Here, let’s zoom in on the debate about personal pronouns. Many advocate explicitly identifying oneself with pronouns including she/her, he/him, or they/them. The mere act of such a declaration constitutes a democratic innovation. Previously it was assumed that we could visually deduce each other’s gender. Making a conscious gender declaration breaks with these established patterns. It democratises gendering as now the control over gender identification lies with the individual democratic subject. The option of self-identifying as they/them allows for a rejection of the established gender binary and identifying otherwise. Democratic innovation, then, can happen in every type of institutional setting that governs us – be it formal or informal.

This does not mean that formal institutions such as deliberative mini-publics are excluded from this understanding of democratic innovation. But the novel understanding presents them in a new light. It draws attention to the inherently interruptive nature of democratic innovations. Where formerly decisions were made by the political elite, mini-publics and other formal democratic innovations interrupt this mode of governance and demonstrate that democracy can be practised otherwise.

What are the major differences between participatory, agnostic and transformative perspectives?

The wealth and diversity of democratic theory are incredible. What is fascinating about the participatory, agnostic, and transformative perspectives is that each of them offers an entire world we can dive into, immerse ourselves in, and relish in the democratic vision it generates. The participatory perspective draws attention to bottom-up participation in unlikely places like workplaces, schools, public administration, and even prisons. Albert Dzur’s Democracy Inside is truly insightful. He sheds light on democratic innovations such as Inside-Out courses, in which free college students and inmates meet weekly to learn about criminal justice or community conferences in which perpetrators, victims, and witnesses meet and reflect on incidents of perceived wrongdoing from different angles. Participatory democratic innovations appear not as top-down designed political institutions but as organically emerging democratic spaces that are organised by civil society actors or public servants.

The agonistic view adds new insight to this approach. Agonistic democracy does not focus on formal political institutions but on language as an informal institutional arrangement that affords and governs how we express ourselves and what we think. In addition to the focus on language, agonistic democracy is concerned with emotion, passion, and affect. At its core, agonistic democracy is about venting suppressed conflict but at the same time preventing conflict from becoming destructive. Hence, creating a safe space is important. Mary Paxton’s Agonistic Democracy opens our eyes to a range of democratic innovations that are mostly outside the realm of the deliberative view. She suggests various seating arrangements, speech tokens, personal testimony instead of expert facts, and controversial topics for debate. More than anything, agonistic democracy does not prescribe one ideal setting but opens our view to the many forms democratic innovations can take on.

I suggest maintaining the internal integrity of each of these perspectives, including the deliberative one, and allowing ourselves to switch between them. It’s like cycling through various different landscapes, immersing ourselves, and learning something new in each of them.

While the agonistic and participatory perspectives suggest reform of a flawed democratic system, the transformative perspective proposes a profound systemic change that breaks with capitalist logic. Such deep transformation has been advocated in the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. But what transformative democracy means for democratic innovations has hardly been explored. Alexandros Kioupkioulis’ The Common and Counter-Hegemonic Politics does a magnificent job at breaking things down by focusing on one concept: the commons. Common-pool resources such as land, water, and knowledge are not simply property that is collectively owned. They constitute a democratic practice – a radical democratic innovation. Wikipedia, the Ancient Greek polis, and occupied public squares all illustrate that transparent and open collective decision-making is possible.

We can see how diverse these three perspectives are. My suggestion is not to combine and hybridise them in some sort. Rather, I suggest maintaining the internal integrity of each of these perspectives, including the deliberative one, and allowing ourselves to switch between them. It’s like cycling through various different landscapes, immersing ourselves, and learning something new in each of them.

ABOUT

Hans Asenbaum is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. His work focuses on new forms of democratic engagement and radical democratic politics.

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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PSR INTERVIEWS #13: Normativity in Realist Legitimacy – Ben Cross

Ostensibly ambitious moral values may have regressive ideological functions.  It is not hard to see how moralist legitimation narratives about freedom, equality, and human rights have provided ideological support for Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere” – says Ben Cross in this interview. You can learn more about normativity, moralism and realism in his PSR article, Normativity in Realist Legitimacy.

PSR: What are the key distinctions between moralist and realist views on normativity and legitimacy that you identify?

I think the fundamental difference stems from views about the epistemic merits of morality. 

Realists seem to be committed to the view that:

  1. some or all of what is usually called ‘morality’ – call it “S-morality” – rests on epistemically dubious assumptions. 
  2. at a minimum, S-morality includes what Bernard Williams calls “the morality system” (which is especially concerned with the notion of moral obligation and the assignment of responsibility and blame), as well as most of the moral principles that moralist theories of legitimacy typically appeal to. 

Moralists will at least reject ii), and possibly also i). 

In light of i) and ii), realists take themselves to have reason to ensure that their normative claims – including their normative claims about legitimacy – do not appeal to S-morality. 

How do realists set their standards of politics, while not appealing to a “morality that is prior to politics”?

Realists typically make one of two non-mutually exclusive moves here.  First, they claim that politics is conceptually distinct from certain other kinds of human interaction such as war or terror.  Second, they claim that the practice of political institutions seems somewhat teleologically geared towards certain purposes, notably providing stability and facilitating collective decision-making. 

Each of these two moves can be used to identify standards of “good politics”.  For example, if politics is teleologically geared towards providing stability, then it might be claimed that one important standard for assessing the goodness of political order is its stability. 

Neither of these two moves appeals to any kind of morality.  But note also that, by themselves, they are not obviously normative at all.  They might help us identify what counts as “good politics”, but they don’t clearly explain why we have a reason to pursue “good politics”. 


What are the pillars of a moralist critique of a realist critique of the morality system? Is there any universal model of morality that it refers to?

Perhaps the most common moralist objection to realism is that the various theories of “good politics” that realists propose can only have normative force if they appeal to morality.  By itself, this objection does not fault realists for failing to embrace any particular universal model of morality.  Rather, it faults them for being inconsistent.  If the objection is correct, realists can make normative judgments or avoid appealing to morality, but they can’t do both. 

I think realists can respond to this objection in one of two ways.  First, they can argue that there are certain forms of morality that are not S-morality, and hold that the normative force of their ideas of “good politics” can be explained in terms of these forms of morality.  Second, they can argue that their normative force can be explained without reference to any kind of morality at all.  For example, perhaps “good politics” is instrumentally valuable: it helps us get what we want. 

Williams-premise holds that there is a conceptual distinction between politics and war, and that this conceptual distinction can only be maintained if we suppose that politics takes the form of legitimate politics.  It thus identifies “good politics” with political legitimacy

What’s the idea behind of a so-called “Williams-premise”?

What I call the Williams-premise emphasises the first of the two moves I referred to in my answer to the second question.  It holds that there is a conceptual distinction between politics and war and that this conceptual distinction can only be maintained if we suppose that politics takes the form of legitimate politics.  It thus identifies “good politics” with political legitimacy. 

A challenge for realists who accept the Williams-premise is to then explain why political legitimacy is something that is desirable.  Without such an explanation, it is unclear that these realists can articulate a theory of legitimacy that is normative

You mention ‘concessive realism’ as well as ‘naturalist realism’ – would you elaborate on the differences between these two approaches?

Concessive realism responds to the above challenge by narrowing its aims.  It holds that realism only aims to establish the truth of the Williams-premise without appealing to morality.  It is content to delegate the task of explaining the desirability of political legitimacy to morality. 

Naturalist realism, unlike concessive realism, seeks to show that political legitimacy is desirable without thereby appealing to S-morality.  It tries to do this by asserting what I call the “naturalist premise”: avoiding politics is not a real option for human being because politics is necessary to secure certain basic goods that we all desire for ourselves. 

Ostensibly ambitious moral values may have regressive ideological functions.  It is not hard to see how moralist legitimation narratives about freedom, equality, and human rights have provided ideological support for Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. 

How would you define the realist approaches to legitimacy with, for instance, the current situation in Afghanistan? How would it differ from a moralist approach?

Here is a crude but potentially helpful way of illustrating things. 

I think moralists, most of whom are liberals, would likely view the recently collapsed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as legitimate because it embodied certain important liberal democratic moral norms (albeit imperfectly).  For example, it had a broadly liberal constitution, and it gave citizens the right to vote.  Realists, however, would likely be more inclined to regard it as suffering from a severe legitimation deficit, simply because it never fully succeeded in creating stable political order or obtaining sufficient support from its citizens. 

By contrast, I expect most moralists would regard the recently re-established Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (i.e. the Taliban government) as necessarily illegitimate because it does not, by and large, embody liberal moral values.  Realists, however, would hold that it could conceivably become legitimate, even though it rejects liberal moral values if it were to implement stable political order and provide citizens with a justification for its power that generally makes sense to them.  Admittedly, this “if” appears likely to be counterfactual. 

Are there any other practical examples that would help us to understand a major difference between the two approaches?

The above example may create the impression that realists are more pessimistic than moralists about what is politically possible and are thus willing to settle for less ambitious political goods.  There is a sense in which this might be true.  Stable political order is a necessary condition for people to have access to basic goods, services and protections.  Its existence is clearly very important to citizens’ interests.  Risking political stability in order to pursue liberal reforms may endanger these interests. 

However, there are at least two points to bear in mind which may complicate this impression.  First, stable political order is often a very demanding goal.  Marxists, for example, may claim that capitalism is inherently unstable and that the only route to lasting political stability goes through proletarian revolution.  Second, ostensibly ambitious moral values may have regressive ideological functions.  It is not hard to see how moralist legitimation narratives about freedom, equality, and human rights have provided ideological support for Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. 

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

My article has more mundane and modest goals than my answer to the previous question would suggest.  It takes a step towards showing how realist theories of legitimacy can be internally consistent – that is, they can be normative without relying on S-morality.  It may also help us better understand what the underlying motivating concern of realist theories of legitimacy is.  Why should we care about political legitimacy?  What needs, interests, or desires are served by having political institutions that are legitimate, rather than illegitimate?  Answers to these questions may further enable us to see what place the concept of political legitimacy might have in political philosophy and the extent to which it is a concept worthy of continuing analysis and application. 

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Article: Cross, Ben (2020), Normativity in Realist Legitimacy, Political Studies Review.

ABOUT

Ben Cross is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University. His research interests include political realism, legitimacy, and critical theory.

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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PSR INTERVIEWS #12: The Electoral Connection Revisited – Corentin Poyet and Mihail Chiru

Personalization, usually defined as an increased relevance of individual politicians at the expense of parties over time, manifests itself at institutional, media and behavioural levels” – claim Corentin Poyet and Michail Chiru in their PSR Article. Learn about this intriguing political phenomenon and its influence on electoral systems, candidate selection and party leadership selection processes, behavioural as well as media personalization. A fuller analysis of these topics can be found in the PSR article: The Electoral Connection Revisited: Introduction to the Special Issue

PSR: How would you define the personalization of politics?

Mihail Chiru, Corentin Poyet: The literature has given various definitions of the personalization of politics, depending also on the level at which this phenomenon has been theorized. We adhere to an understanding of personalization as an increased relevance of individual politicians at the expense of parties over time, acknowledging that this can manifest itself in behavioural patterns of politicians and voters, through reforms of political institutions or at the level of the media. This phenomenon goes hand in hand with the crisis of collective representation and the decline of trust in parties, being also enabled by technological changes. In the special issue, we concentrate on understanding better one dimension of decentralized personalization, that is personalization focused on regular politicians, not party leaders. We do so by examining the institutional and contextual correlates of Members of Parliament (MPs) engagement in cultivating a personal vote, and by assessing whether such efforts are rewarded by voters in very diverse settings.

You focused on five European countries: Finland, France, Romania, Italy and Hungary. What has determined your selection?

The literature on the topic is mainly country-specific, and the few comparative works rarely include cases from Central and Eastern Europe. With our selection, we wanted to assess the correlates and electoral consequences of behavioural personalization in countries that have very different institutional designs and party systems, have achieved different levels of democratic consolidation and in which electoral system reforms went in opposite directions regarding the levels of personalization (e.g. Italy and Romania). The case selection also enabled us to show that legislators’ efforts aimed at personal vote-seeking happen sometimes even in the absence of electoral system incentives (the case of Italy), or in the context of legislatures highly controlled by parties (the case of France).

What are the key factors in the three major strategies for cultivating a personal vote: position-taking, credit claiming and advertising?

The three major strategies are not mutually exclusive but complementary. Position-taking refers to the use of parliamentary instruments (speeches, questions, legislative motions, roll-call votes etc.) by MPs to express a personal position that usually mirrors the perceived preferences of the constituents. The critical element here is that these positions can be different from or even contradict the positions of the legislator’s party and thus jeopardize the unity and goals of the party.

Credit claiming has the aim of making constituents believe that the MP is responsible for a positive outcome, i.e. an increase in the welfare of the district or the adoption of a popular policy. This can be achieved in various ways and it does not necessarily imply the presence of tangible benefits. For example, parliamentary questions – that are studied in four papers of the special issue, rarely result in immediate policy changes or allocation of funds towards districts but MPs can still claim credit for having put the issue on the agenda and contributed towards solving the problem.

Finally, advertising is about actions that MPs take to increase their name recognition and create a favourable image. Here, the content of the message is less critical, but it usually has to do with the personal characteristics of the MPs that are appealing to the constituents and facilitate name recall such as their experience, their ties with the district or their socio-economic background.  

The articles in the special issue show that the adoption of these strategies depends both on the characteristics of the legislators and their districts and on features of their parties (e.g. government-opposition status, type of candidate selection).

In the special issue, we concentrate on understanding better one dimension of decentralized personalization, that is personalization focused on regular politicians, not party leaders.

You asked whether personal vote-seeking efforts get noticed and rewarded by voters? What do your findings show?

This is a question widely discussed in the literature, but evidence for a personal vote is rare. Two of the articles in the Special Issue are relevant for this discussion. Zsofia Papp shows that Hungarian voters from rural districts reward interpellations that deal with agriculture, when this policy area has great salience, and during times of high governmental unpopularity. Conversely, she finds that MPs can lose a significant number of votes by asking agricultural interpellations when they represent an urban area. David Arter draws on the case of Finland to show that even in institutional contexts generally perceived as conducive to intra-party competition (open list PR under a high party magnitude), candidates gain most of their votes from their home municipality, a finding which can be interpreted as evidence for voters rewarding local ties.

Have you spotted any particularly interesting country-specific trends of party decline and political personalization?

Declining rates of party membership, growing dissatisfaction with democracy and electoral volatility have become distinctive features of European political systems in the past decades, and in this respect, we see an unwelcome convergence of Western and Central and Eastern European democracies. One route politicians have followed to try to address these issues was to give voters and rank and file party members a stronger say in who gets nominated or elected for public or party office. This was done via institutional personalization reforms that have adopted more candidate-centred electoral systems or have made candidate selection and/or party leadership selection processes more inclusive through the introduction of primaries.

Interestingly, the special issue shows not only that behavioural personalization can be facilitated by institutional personalization reforms, but also that personal vote-seeking behaviours survive even when the electoral incentives for them vanish. The cases studies analyzing the determinants of constituency service in Romania and Italy following electoral reforms that have gone in opposite directions are revealing in this respect.

In Romania, the personalization of the electoral system has increased the incentives for MPs to cater to territorial interests and engage more in constituency service. Mihail Chiru’s analyses show that the 2008 electoral reform has led to a substantial increase in the share of parliamentary questions inspired by allocation responsiveness. On the other hand, in Italy, the 2005 electoral reform abolished single-member districts and introduced the most party-centred electoral system possible: closed list Proportional Representation. In his article, Federico Russo is able to illustrate that despite the absence of electoral system incentives, Italian MPs still devote considerable time to constituency service and this is driven mostly by personal motivations rooted in past local political experience and biographical ties with the constituency.

Interestingly, the special issue shows not only that behavioural personalization can be facilitated by institutional personalization reforms, but also that personal vote-seeking behaviours survive even when the electoral incentives for them vanish

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

A critical contribution of the special issue is its ability to illustrate that personal vote seeking behaviors are not an exception in European legislatures but a rather common feature, regardless of the institutional settings in which the legislators operate and of the levels of democratic experience of their polities. In doing so, the articles in the collection also empahsize the relevance of factors which have been largerly disregarded by the continental legislative studies literature, such as the role of district features.

A second key contribution of the special issue is to show that, although behavioural personalization is frequently perceived as a potentially disruptive and destabilizing factor, in all the five cases analyzed, parties managed to maintain a key role in the way individual responsiveness works and in how individual voter-politician linkages are concretely established. David Arter’s article illustrates that in the Finish case, parties not only organize how personal vote-seeking and personalized campaigning is conducted, but they deliberately select local candidates to ensure proper geographical coverage and maximize personal votes. Moreover, as Corentin Poyet’s article shows, the salience parties assign to issues that matter locally can reinforce the MPs’ district responsiveness.

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Article: Chiru, Michail, Corentin Poyet (2021), The Electoral Connection Revisited: Introduction to the Special Issue, Political Studies Review 19(3) 327–333.

ABOUT

Corentin Poyet is an Academy of Finland postdoctoral researcher at Tampere University. His research interests include parliamentary studies, electoral systems and public policy. His work has been published in The Journal of Legislative Studies, Legislative Studies Quarterly and Parliamentary Affairs, among others.

Mihail Chiru

is a Lecturer at the Russian and East European Studies Department, Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford. His main academic interests include legislative behavior and legislative organization, party politics, and electoral studies. His recent work was published in Journal of European Integration, Journal of European Public Policy and Journal of Common Market Studies.

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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PSR Interviews #11: Rethinking Identity in Political Science – an interview with Scott Weiner and Dillon Stone Tatum

We can’t even say what identity is, we can’t truly understand why it’s having an effect on the mediation of power. We often want to make causal arguments in political science, so this gap is a real problem. Having a better framework for talking about identity would help us have smarter discussions about it as political scientists” – say Scott Weiner and Dillon Stone Tatum. Learn about identity, identity politics and its meaning for political science. A fuller analysis of these topics can be found in the PSR article: Rethinking Identity in Political Science.

PSR: What is the most precise definition of identity? And what are its specifics in the field of political science?

Scott Weiner, Dillon Stone Tatum: Identity is essentially our “address” in the social and political world. That’s not a bad definition but it’s vague. In fact, it’s really hard to say exactly what identity is, and that’s why we wrote this piece. This paper found ten different definitions of identity in major political science scholarship over just a 25 year period. And that’s only in political science, not the rest of social science. Different kinds of political science each have great scholarship on identity (we discuss three in the piece), but each kind of identity works totally differently. We can explain precisely why a Prius, a Porsche, and a Model T are all cars, but we can’t say precisely why these three frameworks are all identities. Given how central identity is to political science, that’s a big problem. We’re trying to understand how identity mediates power without knowing what identity is.

You claim that “political scientists lack a common framework for addressing questions about what identity is, how it relates agents with social and political structures, and how it changes over time”. Would a common framework or toolbox benefit social and political science?

Yes, because identity is a central concept of political science. For the most part, our discipline studies why, when, and how some entities get power while others don’t. One way to do that is to look at identities like ethnicity, gender, or nation and see whether being part of one group is a good prediction of getting power or not. But if we can’t even say what identity is, we can’t truly understand why it’s having an effect on the mediation of power. We often want to make causal arguments in political science, so this gap is a real problem. Having a better framework for talking about identity would help us have smarter discussions about it as political scientists. It would also help us create better and more respectful ways of having discussions with and about members of society whose identity is outside of the norm in some way.

In your article, you focused on three dimensions of identity: ethnicity, gender and national identity. Do you consider these three to be the most important dimensions of identity? If so, why?

Ethnicity, gender, and nation are three highly developed subfields of political science with which readers are likely to have familiarity. We picked these three so it would be easier to make our key point that they all work differently, using examples that readers know and to which they can relate. We also are both really fascinated by these particular identities. This paper actually started out as a series of online chat messages about our research, and we realized that our conversations spoke to a larger issue in political science. Our paper is based off a discussion of these three identities but we don’t claim that they’re necessarily the most important. They are, however, very different in how they conceptualize identity, so they happen to be excellent examples of the point we’re making in this paper.

Having a better framework for talking about identity would help us have smarter discussions about it as political scientists

Could you briefly elaborate on your model of elements of identity? How can studying changes and shifts within recognition, visibility and conceptualisation benefit political science?

In considering identity as a political phenomenon, we focused on three elements of identity. First, we focused on recognition—to what degree are one’s identity claims recognized as legitimate by a political community? Second, we looked at visibility—to what degree are attributes associated with one’s identity (i.e., markers of race, gender, ethnicity, etc.) visible and recognizable to others? Third, we considered the issue of conceptualization—to what extent is the identity conceptualized(able) by a socio-political group. The ability to even have debate about terms like “transracialism” are limited, in a sense, by the way we can express identity frames in language in the first place.

Studying shifts is important for understanding the ways that political movements are able to change (or not) social attitudes. The internet’s role, for example, in allowing asexual people to gain more recognition and stronger conceptualization of their identity has implications for LGBTQ+ politics.

You claim that identity is the way we orient ourselves in a given community on the basis of recognizable attributes. What about the identities with dark visibility or low recognition such as in the case of Rachel Dolezal you highlight? Where is the boundary of this debate?

Identity is inherently social and relational—in other words, identity is not just something we can claim about ourselves, it’s something that depends on recognition and visibility. There are two things that the unrecognizable or invisible forms of identity highlight for us: (1) The continuing struggle that some groups and individuals experience in having their lives affirmed by society. It has only been since the 1970s, for instance, that homosexuality was de-pathologized as a psychological diagnosis. Recognition is not a given—it is a site of contentious politics; (2) It allows us to interrogate the why question in regards to non-recognition—in thinking about cases like Rachel Dolezal’s, we were less interested in commenting on the claims she was making than by the conflict that ensued as her identity claims were rejected.

Identity is inherently social and relational—in other words, identity is not just something we can claim about ourselves, it’s something that depends on recognition and visibility.

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

The biggest contribution we hope to bring to the field is to create a common frame of reference for diverse research agendas to talk about identity. While identity is a central feature of political research, we found that there were deep sub-disciplinary boundaries that foreclosed dialogue. We want to poke holes in those boundaries, and expand the frontiers of what we can do with a more comprehensive framework.

MORE

Article: Weiner S, Dillon S T (2020), Rethinking Identity in Political Science, Political Studies Review 2021, Vol. 19(3), 464–481.

ABOUT

Scott Weiner is a professorial lecturer in political science at George Washington University. His research focuses on identity politics in the Middle East with a focus on state building, kinship, and gender politics on the Arabian Peninsula. From 2013-2014, he was a Visiting Research Fellow at the American University of Kuwait.

Dillon Stone Tatum is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Francis Marion University. His research focuses on liberalism and world politics, critical security studies, and international political theory.

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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PSR Interviews #10: Houston, We Have a Problem: Enhancing Academic Freedom and Transparency in Publishing Through Post-Publication Debate – an interview with Kristian Skrede Gleditsch

I think it is entirely legitimate for scientists to engage in public and political life, and scientists have much to contribute to policy debates. But scientists should be careful to claim privileges because of their position” – says Professor Kristian Skrede Gleditsch. The issues of “problematic articles”, imperfections of the system of academic publishing and political engagement of scientists in the context of academic freedom discussed in a brilliant and compact analysis by Professor Gleditsch. A fuller analysis of these topics can be found in his PSR article: Houston, We Have a Problem: Enhancing Academic Freedom and Transparency in Publishing Through Post-Publication Debate.

PSR: You discuss coping with problematic articles published within academia. How do you define a “problematic article” and how is that related to academic freedom?

Kristian Skrede Gleditsch: The article mainly discusses articles that people generate controversy, where people flag specific issues as problematic. This could range from the topic itself, the data used, the analysis, or the inferences drawn from data or analysis. There can obviously be main problems in articles or research that are ignored, but my focus here was on how to best deal with controversies, inspired by the debate on the article on “The Case for Colonialism”. Academic freedom is normally defined as the freedom of researchers to pursue research without interference. Research that generates controversy can face additional barriers to publication or open discussion.

What are major myths or misperceptions about common ways of managing controversial publications you’d highlight? How can one avoid political biases during the evaluation process?

Science is always to some degree uncertain, incremental and gradually revised, and should be open to debate. However, in practice, it is often difficult to publish comments on articles, as many journals are reluctant to consider comments on published work. Dialogues are often more informative than monologues, but journals are skewed towards the latter. There is a strong status quo bias, where published work is often left uncontested, and important questions or qualifications often become sidelined. There are many biases that could affect the evaluation process, and I am not convinced that if political biases are more problematic than other biases, even if they are likely to generate more heat. Ultimately, we can only call for all of us as reviewers and editors to try to consider not just whether they agree with or are convinced by something, but whether it is a debate that is worth making public.

Allowing for more debate post-publication would help clarify the sources of disagreement and allow for others to make up their minds about the merits of a contending argument

You argue that “calling for retraction for articles that one disagrees with is clearly problematic on grounds of academic freedom, commonly understood as the right of researchers to have freedom in conducting their research and seeking to publish the results”. What are better approaches to such questions?

Retraction may be appropriate for clear cases of misconduct or fabrication, but it is not an appropriate response to resolving disagreements and risk suppression of research. Allowing for more debate post-publication would help clarify the sources of disagreement and allow for others to make up their minds about the merits of a contending argument. Ultimately post-publication debate can also allow for better science and advancing knowledge.

Are traditional control mechanisms such as peer-review and editorial judgment a sufficient safeguard for academic publishing?

Peer review is a valuable way to evaluate scientific research, but it is not an infallible guide to “truth” or scientific insights. Peer review can both fail to detect important problems, and it may recommend against important contributions that deviate from conventional approaches. For example, Akerlof’s article on the “Markets for Lemons” on the problems in markets with incomplete information was rejected three times before it was published, and Ioannidis in an important article argues that most published findings in medicine are more likely to be wrong. I think it is a mistake to focus too much on keeping out material that we may later find to be incorrect. Sometimes we are unlikely to find out unless something was published, and learning from the past is a key part of scientific progress.

You say, that it is not possible to divorce one’s own political views when conducting research. What is your view on a more complex level of this issue: scientists’ engagement in public/political life?

I think it is entirely legitimate for scientists to engage in public and political life, and scientists have much to contribute to policy debates. But scientists should be careful to claim privileges because of their position. The policy is ultimately a question of objectives, and determining what our objectives ought to often lie outside scientific knowledge per se. For example, science may tell us passive investment on average will provide a higher return than active management, but we may wish for public investment to support other objectives than just maximizing return (i.e., “ethical investments”). Scientists should separate value judgements from claims about means-end relationships.

Science is always to some degree uncertain, incremental and gradually revised, and should be open to debate

You emphasise the significance of a post-publication debate. The other pole of a post-publication article’s trajectory can be a post-publication lawsuit. As, for instance, in this case, where two leading Holocaust historians were accused of defamation. Should courts be places for validating scientific evidence?

I do not think courts are a suitable place for making decisions on scientific debates. It is hard to think of examples where such lawsuits have been helpful, and they appear to most often been dismissed or withdrawn. In 2017, for example, an academic sued the US National Academy of Sciences over a study the criticized his claims over green energy, demanding more than $10 million in damages and retraction, but he ultimately withdrew the lawsuit and may be liable to pay legal costs.

MORE

Article: Skrede Gleditsch K. (2021), Houston, We Have a Problem: Enhancing Academic Freedom and Transparency in Publishing Through Post-Publication Debate, Political Studies Review 2021, Vol. 19(3) 428–434

ABOUT

Kristian Skrede Gleditsch is the Regius Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government at the University of Essex and a research associate at the International Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). His research focuses on conflict, democratization, mobilization, and data development in conflict research. More information about his research can be found at http://ksgleditsch.com/. He has been the chair of the Academic Freedom Committee of the International Studies Association, 2018–2020

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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PSR Interviews #9: Sexual Predators in Contest for Public Office: How the American Electorate Responds to News of Allegations of Candidates Committing Sexual Assault and Harassment – an interview with Stephanie Stark

Candidate characteristics have an important impact on voter choice, and scandals are found to negatively impact a political campaign. Yet the literature, with its focus on scandals such as financial and (consensual) affairs, has failed to look into how allegations of sexual assault and harassment may impact electability” – claim Stephanie Stark and Sofía Collignon in their PSR article. Learn more about their research on sexual predators in the world of politics, in this research-based interview with one of the authors, Stephanie Stark.

A fuller analysis of these issues can be found in a PSR article: Sexual Predators in Contest for Public Office: How the American Electorate Responds to News of Allegations of Candidates Committing Sexual Assault and Harassment by Stark and Collignon.

PSR: How would you precisely define a problem of SASH (sexual assault and sexual harassment) in relation to power and powerful institutions?

Stephanie Stark: SASH are expressions of abusing power: it is most common amongst acquaintances where there is a power imbalance. This is especially true in the context of this study. In each of the recent high-profile cases in elections that are used in the study as examples, the politicians are necessarily in a position of power, and their accusers are not. Because we know that SASH are expressions of an abuse of power within a personal relationship, consequently, the question as to how a propensity to abuse power can translate to how voters perceive an accused candidate for public office is existentially relatable. It is particularly relatable in the context of the #MeToo movement, and the 2016 election wherein 19 women officially accused then-candidate Donald Trump of SASH, and as of December 2019, wherein President Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives for abusing the power of the office.

Donald J. Trump, a former US President, photo by Nathan Congleton (Flickr)

What were the “milestones” for an increased understanding of this problem? Can we say that the level of scepticism or disbelief towards claims of sexual abuse is continuously diminishing?

The understanding and perception of SASH in American public conversation has evolved throughout the last 70 years and it will likely continue to do so.

Women as property
For much of American history, women’s bodies were white men’s legal property, and sexual violence was legally actionable only for men when their property (wives, sisters, and daughters) was damaged.

Sexual Revolution
In the 1960s and 1970s, American women began to assert their own perspectives on the subject of sexual violence. It went from being thought of as a random attack by a stranger to women defining it as “a violent crime committed against millions of women by men they knew and trusted.” The increased awareness of SASH incited increased research.

However, the public’s understanding of sexual violence and women’s empowerment led to claims of sexual violence being regarded with increased skepticism in the 1970s (it had always had an air of mistrust because of the private nature of most encounters). The logic was that, because women were choosing to violate the norms of subordination to men, they also sacrificed their right to protection. Therefore, an empowered woman who claimed to be a victim of sexual violence generally was regarded as if she brought it upon herself because she had rejected men’s protection.

Anita Hill in the 1990s
The prevalence of sexual violence is evident nowadays with victims reporting in increasing numbers new and historical accounts of SASH. It is common for women to reveal stories of SASH with the encouragement or corroboration of other victims. In the 1990s, there was a surge in reporting called the “Anita Hill effect” after a former staffer for Justice Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, testified in the Justice’s confirmation hearings about his sexual harassment.

MeToo
The present-day surge in reporting can be tracked to the “#MeToo movement” that motivated women around the world to share their own experiences

Anita Hill
Anita Hill, source: Britannica

In your article, you mention a “rape myth acceptance” – could you elaborate on this category? Are there any other common beliefs or myths that can be considered contributing factors to cycles of harassment, misconduct, and abuse of women by men in power?

Rape myth acceptance explains the reaction to accusations of SASH, and I don’t know its relationship with a propensity to be a perpetrator. Rape myth acceptance is confirmed in the literature as the level of willingness a person may have to disbelieve a victim’s story, or “the amount of stereotypic ideas people have about rape, such as that women falsely accuse men of rape, rape is not harmful, women want or enjoy rape, or women cause or deserve
rape by inappropriate or risky behavior”.

In the 1960s and 1970s, American women began to assert their own perspectives on the subject of sexual violence. It went from being thought of as a random attack by a stranger to women defining it as “a violent crime committed against millions of women by men they knew and trusted.”

You mention various politicians accused of sexual abuse in the US. Some of them were able to avoid any repercussions. What about Joe Biden? In March 2020, Tara Reade, a former staffer in Biden’s U.S. Senate office, alleged that Joe Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993 when she was a staff assistant in his office. President Biden denied these allegations, but what were public perceptions of this accusation?

This is a good question. What our research finds is that 1) Democrats are more likely than Republicans, male or female, to NOT want to vote for a candidate that has been accused of SASH. This means that there were likely some people who chose not to vote for Biden because of the accusation. The research also finds that we need more women like Tara to speak out in order for us to be able to study this topic further. The #MeToo movement allowed women to feel more comfortable speaking out about SASH, which enables us to be able to study it at all. What I mean to say here is that it is worth studying more angles to the scenario. The Tara Reade accusation begs the question: What happens in the electorate when both candidates for office have been accused of SASH? I would imagine, some people may have chosen not to vote at all because both candidates had been accused, contributing to a weakening of our democratic systems and our trust and value in democracy.

You claim that scandals “have a markedly negative impact on voters’ judgment of the candidate”. Is that also the case in relation to sexual scandals? Are we able to determine how reactions differ among particular groups of electorates or particular political parties?

It’s important to note that this study measured SASH, and shouldn’t be put in the same category as sexual scandals, because the former is a crime, and the latter is a consensual experience.

There have been many studies about how scandals, including sex scandals, impact public perception. Those studies informed our research but our study was the first that made the distinction that they should be considered differently because after the #MeToo movement, we’re more aware of what SASH IS. Scandals like financial scandals and sex scandals and corruption scandals are found to negatively impact voters’ judgments, but their judgement is tied to how they see the scandal impacting the JOB of holding public office. So the significance there and relation there to our study is that when people see SASH as a character marker of someone who would abuse power, they relate it to that candidate’s ability to do the job with integrity.

MeeToo protest, photo by Mario A. P. (Flickr)

We looked at reactions based on age, gender, political affiliation, race and region of the US, and included in our results only the answers about age, gender and political affiliation. Democrats are more likely to change their mind about a candidate that has been accused of SASH than Republicans. There is no difference when it comes to age: or in other words, we couldn’t find a trend saying young people care more than older people.

Surprisingly there was no significant difference between genders. I will elaborate on that more in the next question

What our research finds is that Democrats are more likely than Republicans, male or female, to NOT want to vote for a candidate that has been accused of SASH.

You’ve conducted very important research on this topic. What are the most important findings?

Thank you. I had hypothesized that women would be more likely than men to change their opinion about a candidate for office that had been accused, but one of my most important findings was that there was not a significant difference between men’s and women’s reactions. In fact, Democratic men are more likely to vote for a candidate that has been accused of SASH than Republican women. Democrats see an allegation of SASH as an abuse of power, and thus they relate it to a propensity to abuse the power of public office. Republicans, though, are more likely to not believe an accusation, and therefore they don’t relate it to a factor that should be considered in how they are judging the candidate.

Second, it bothers me to my core that people actually think that women make accusations about SASH to “get attention” as if the kind of attention they receive is desirable. I want people to understand that SASH accusations should be taken seriously because they show who that person is. We need to believe women. I want women to know that we need their stories in order to be able to research this more and that when we can research it more, we will be able to make more informed choices about who our leaders are based on their integrity.

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

Our research opens the door to viewing SASH allegations as a legitimate act that is worth taking seriously as a barometer for the character. We contributed to the study of harassment and intimidation of women by showing that some sectors of the population are more likely to believe in allegations at face value than others. It requires courage to speak out about such incidents, particularly when they are oftentimes not believed and/or the perpetrator is allowed to continue to progress in their career. When this happens, it adds to a cycle of victimization and injustice.

MORE

Article: S. Stark, S. Collignon (2021), Sexual Predators in Contest for Public Office: How the American Electorate Responds to News of Allegations of Candidates Committing Sexual Assault and Harassment, Political Studies Review

ABOUT

Stephanie Stark obtained her Master’s in Media, Power and Public Affairs from the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London (2018). She is a digital communications strategist who has been advising on and creating digital media campaigns for non-profit organizations, political campaigns and elected officials in New York and London for a decade.

Dr Sofia Collignon is a Lecturer in Political Communication at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is Co Investigator in the ESCR-funded Representative Audit of Britain project, part of Parliamentary Candidates UK and Principal Investigator in the Survey of Local Candidates in England. Her main research focuses on include the study of candidates, elections and parties, in particular on the harassment and intimidation of political elites and violence against women in politics.

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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PSR Interviews #8 (audio): Realism, Utopianism and Human Rights – Paul Raekstad

“We should, however, be wary of the moralist mistake of largely ignoring concrete questions of power and political agency when reflecting on political values and vision. It’s no accident that so much of the most historically influential political theory, from the work of Adam Smith to anarchism, a great deal of feminism and Marxism, has been realist.” – says Dr Paul Raekstad. How can the realist utopian political theory that can reform capitalist society?

Listen to a short interview, based on a PSR article: Realism, Utopianism and Human Rights by Dr Paul Raekstad.

Paul Raekstad has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Cambridge, is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Amsterdam, and will shortly be taking up a lectureship at the University of Edinburgh. His work focuses on envisioning and achieving free, democratic, and ecologically sustainable economic institutions.

Production: Eliza Kania (PRS/Brunel University London)

PSR Interviews #7: Critical Dogmatism: Academic Freedom Confronts Moral and Epistemological Certainty – an interview with Colin Wight

Academics should defend their colleagues against attacks on their academic freedom, even if they strongly disagree with the views expressed. And academic freedom should be protected by privileges similar to parliamentary immunity. Prof. Colin Wight explains his approach to academic freedom – a complex category, full of nuances and controversial issues, but fundamental for democracy. A fuller analysis of these issues can be found in Prof. Wight’s PSR article: Critical Dogmatism: Academic Freedom Confronts Moral and Epistemological Certainty

PSR: How would you define academic freedom?

My definition is quite traditional. Put simply, I define academic freedom as the “freedom of academics (including students) to teach, study, and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from the law, institutional regulations, or public pressure.” Defined this way, it is a particular kind of freedom (and responsibility) that academics possess in virtue of being academics. Hence, it is a form of freedom that not every member of society can call upon. This is why, as we will discuss later, I insist on distinguishing between free speech and academic freedom. In societies committed to free speech (and some aren’t), every member of that society has free speech protections. Only academics (and students) have protections pertaining to academic freedom. It only applies to the university sector. So it should be something that is highly valued and protected by all academics. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case today.

You claim that it is “one of the necessary components of a democratic society”. Why so, and what is the role of universities according to the principle of academic freedom?

Thomas Jefferson argued that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy. Citizens need to be educated enough to assess the political arguments they are being asked to vote for. Universities play a role in educating the electorate, but they also play many other roles. One of their primary functions concerning academic freedom is to produce, preserve and protect knowledge in society, which can then inform public debate on complex issues. However, I want to stress the ‘inform’ here, as scientific knowledge cannot determine policy. It can provide a framework for considering the consequences of different policy options, but politics and values matter just as much in public debate.

But in complex and information-saturated societies, knowledge is vital for democracy. Citizens today are bombarded with information and misinformation, and they need trust in institutions to set out the facts in a non-partisan way. Science, produced in Universities is meant to provide that knowledge. Unfortunately, trust in almost all social institutions seems to be in decline, the university included. I fear that the politicisation of knowledge in the Covid-19 crisis is only accelerating that trend.

How one can misunderstand this concept? How would you differentiate between academic freedom, free speech and hate speech?

Let me admit first that I have a problem with the concept of hate speech. I don’t deny that it exists, but I believe that it’s such a subjective concept that it’s almost impossible to define in a way that can inform policy without also introducing harms in other areas. That said, if societies want to declare certain kinds of speech to be hate speech, then the appropriate way to determine that is through public debate. As a democrat, if the majority decide to ban certain kinds of speech as ‘hate speech, I’ll respect that decision, even though I might disagree with it. My view is even more radical in relation to societies I am not a member of. Hence, although I abhor blasphemy laws, I recognise the right of Islamic Societies, for example, to have laws against blasphemy.

But in complex and information-saturated societies, knowledge is vital for democracy. Citizens today are bombarded with information and misinformation, and they need trust in institutions to set out the facts in a non-partisan way. Science, produced in Universities is meant to provide that knowledge.

But laws against hate speech can end up being limits on free speech. There are always some limits on free speech, the question is, what those limits should be? This indicates something important about how I distinguish between free speech and academic freedom. Free speech is really a question of a society deciding what speech it should restrict to protect that society from harm caused by certain kinds of speech. Societies have the right to make that determination. They have a right to determine what limits they deem necessary to place on free speech to protect society.

On the other hand, the purpose of academic freedom is not to protect society, but to protect the truth. Truth has no national or social boundaries. Thus the only limits I would put on academic freedom, are the incitement to violence. Violence is no friend of truth either. If I was the supreme leader of my society, I’d apply that same standard to free speech as well. Still, since I’m not, I have to accept society’s right to set free speech limits. So we have a situation where I recognise the rights of societies to limit free speech, but I reject any limits (apart from inciting violence) on academic freedom. Societies have national boundaries, truth does not. And since academic freedom is about the production and protection of truth, it has no national boundaries. So state laws relating to free speech and hate speech should have no impact on academic freedom. This is why I argue that academic freedom is a higher-order value than free speech.

Can academic freedom be exercised, avoiding the risk of spreading (or even legitimising) racial, ethnic, sexist, or homophobic biases within academia? Are there any limits to academic freedom?

No, probably not. In contentious areas involving these and other subjects, it’s going to be impossible to escape the fact that we will find some arguments deeply distasteful. But the way to deal with opinions you disagree with in an academic setting is to engage with them and demonstrate where they go wrong. History teaches us that societies have often believed in things that have turned out to be wrong (slavery, the treatment of women, or theories of racial superiority, for example). We have no grounds to believe that some of our current beliefs won’t also turn out to also be wrong. I find moral and epistemological certainty to be dangerous positions. They assume that we have reached absolute truth about some moral or epistemological position. This kind of thinking leads to totalitarianism, and since we accept some societal limits on free speech, we need a place to test all ideas; that’s the academy.  The only limitations I would place on academic freedom are clear incitement to violence.

What is the view(s) of truth linked to this concept? Are there any disagreements? Is it connected to the idea of post-truth? 

Given that I believe that the role of academic freedom is to protect the pursuance of truth, we must understand what I mean by that term. I operate with two interconnected versions of truth. Technically, these can be understood as an ontological version, which is a truth that exists independent of whether it is known or not, and an epistemological account of truth which is known truth; or a better way to phrase that might be as accepted truth. Ontological truth is totally objective. It exists as it does irrespective of if it is known or not. Epistemological truth, on the other hand, is always approximate, and always subject to revision. To give an example of the former (ontological truth). Something happened to Flight MH370, the Malaysia Airlines aircraft that disappeared on 8 March 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Beijing.

We do not know what happened, but something clearly did. This is a truth that exists but which is unknown. We do, however, have many theories about what happened. Still, we do not know which one most accurately captures what happened. We may never know. But still, something happened, and we hope that one day with better theories and more evidence we might come to know what happened. This is why I distinguish between the two kinds of truth. The way we assess the relationship between actual truth and accepted truth in science is based on evidence and debate.

A quote from  Vaclav Havel captures this dynamic well: “Keep the company of those that seek the truth – run from those that have found it”.

Given the difficulties we have knowing when our human-constructed version of the truth has captured, and to what extent, the truth of the phenomenon we are studying, then I embrace what is known as a Nietzschean perspectivism method of approaching the truth. That is to say that the more perspectives, views and opinions we bring to bear on a subject, the more likely our objectivity will be enhanced. And this is why academic freedom is so important. A group of scientists might think they have reached epistemological certainty on an issue. But we literally have no way of stepping outside of our current stock of knowledge to compare it with the truth of the world.

Our truth is a constructed truth. But the non constructed truth remains. And one lone dissenting voice in the academic community might just reveal something to us that improves our understanding, our version of the truth. So we need to protect the space where these lone dissenting voices might emerge, however much they might contradict the dominant accepted understanding. That is why I believe that epistemological (and moral) certainty are dangerous. It assumes we know with absolute certainty that our current account of some phenomenon’s truth absolutely matches the ontological truth of the phenomenon. Now, how does this relate to post-truth? It seems to me that a large part of the modern academy has actually given up on the idea of ontological (objective) truth. What happens in this instance is that all we are left with is our epistemological version of the truth, which, since it is no longer trying to grasp a truth independent of us, simply becomes true by virtue of those with the most power to make it stick. Thus truth becomes a function of power and has no existence in and of itself. A quote from  Vaclav Havel captures this dynamic well: “Keep the company of those that seek the truth – run from those that have found it”.

What are the significant dangers to academic freedom today?

There are many significant threats to academic freedom today. Some come from outside the university and some from within. Although, in many respects, external threats can have an internal aspect to them, and the internal threats can become externalised. Externally, perhaps the most significant threats are increased government interference in Universities and a lack of adequate funding. Government interference can be both explicit and implicit. For example, in Poland, the Government threatened to withdraw government funding from Universities due to a dispute over abortion policy. This was a direct attack on academic freedom. But also in Hungary, the closing down of universities believed to be critical of government policy, the closing down of certain courses and subjects, and government takeover of control of some universities are all attacks on academic freedom. But even in democracies such as Australia, Government attempts to control what research is funded are attacks on academic freedom. Often this works in less insidious ways that we have seen in Poland and Hungary. A good example here is how governments will set strategic research priorities. Only research that meets these priorities will receive funding. Here in Australia, government fuding for research is tied to a national interest test.. This means that academic staff will often change their research projects to chase the funding, which, of course, is linked to their promotion prospects. Other threats come from managerial practices such as university league tables that ensure that universities steer their staff to undertake teaching and research activities that will boost the league tables’ rankings. In this sense, academics’ autonomy to research and teach in their own way is continually being undermined.

In many respects, the structural context driving this is the lack of adequate funding from governments for Universities. But some of the biggest threats to academic freedom today come from within the universities themselves, and from academic themselves. There has been an increasing trend for academics to attempt to shut down views they disagree with. Open letters denouncing research that is disagreed with or deemed to be harmful are now becoming, if not the norm, common occurrences. Speaker is getting de-platformed, and some issues are said to be beyond debate. That some academics are engaging in this kind of behaviour rather than defending academic freedom is perhaps the biggest threat to academic freedom today. After all, if academics won’t defend academic freedom, then who will?

What are the significant dangers to academic freedom today?

In many respects, the structural context driving this is the lack of adequate funding from governments for Universities. But some of the biggest threats to academic freedom today come from within the universities themselves, and from academic themselves. There has been an increasing trend for academics to attempt to shut down views they disagree with. Open letters denouncing research that is disagreed with or deemed to be harmful are now becoming, if not the norm, common occurrences. Speaker are getting de-platformed, and some issues are said to be beyond debate. That some academics are engaging in this kind of behaviour rather than defending academic freedom is perhaps the biggest threat to academic freedom today. After all, if academics won’t defend academic freedom, then who will?

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

I would like readers of my article to takeaway the following main points: First, that academic freedom is a higher-order value than free speech. As such, any restriction on academic freedom must reach a much higher bar than free speech restrictions. Hence I would like to see academic freedom globally protected from state restrictions on free speech. So hate speech laws should not apply to academics in the conduct of their research and teaching.  In the article, I suggest that academics enjoy something equivalent to parliamentary privilege related to their research. Public comment is different. But academic freedom should be almost absolute apart from the incitement to violence. Second, I think academics must defend their colleagues against attacks on their academic freedom from other academics. And in particular, they should do so even when they might vehemently disagree with the views being expressed.  Academic freedom requires all academics to dispute controversial ideas by engaging with them, responding to them, martial the evidence, showing where they are wrong, and not merely acting in ways to shut debate down. Finally, academics need to recover their belief in ontological truth. The Idea that there is a truth we are attempting to discover, even if we ultimately fail. For we cannot know that we have failed unless we try. And we can not begin a journey in search of truth if we do not believe such a place exists.  We do not have a map that will guide us to truth, but we have to think the journey is worth embarking on

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Article: C. Wight (2020), Critical Dogmatism: Academic Freedom Confronts Moral and Epistemological Certainty, Political Studies Review

ABOUT

Colin Wight is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sydney, Australia. His research interests are the philosophy of social science and political violence. He served as the Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of International Relations from 2008 to 2013. Publications include Agents, Structures and International Relations: Politics as Ontology (Cambridge University Press, 2006), Rethinking Terrorism: Terrorism, Violence and the State (Palgrave, 2015), Scientific Realism in International Relations, edited with Jonathan Joseph (Routledge, 2010) and Realism, Philosophy and Social Science, co-authored with Kathryn Dean, Jonathan Joseph, and John Roberts. He is currently completing a book on Fragmentation and Pluralism in International Relations Theory.

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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PSR Interviews #6: Linkage to the West and Electoral Manipulation – an interview with Jaroslav Bílek

“Some people would perhaps say that there is, or at least was right after the end of the Cold War, a worldwide demand afterlife in democracy. Nonetheless, democracy as such is a too abstract concept for most people. Therefore, those who do not have honest intentions with it, are often for a long time successful with hiding their true thoughts and restraining its fulfilment” – claims Dr Jaroslav Bílek. In this interview, he discusses competitive authoritarian regimes, electoral manipulation and the aspect of a linkage to the West, in the light of Levitsky’s and Way‘s theory. A fuller analysis of these issues can be found in Dr Bíleks Null Hypothesis PSR article: Linkage to the West and Electoral Manipulation.

PSR: Why competitive autocracies are a post-Cold War phenomenon?

Jaroslav Bílek: First and foremost, the end of the Cold War brought a worldwide demand for an electoral competition that at least seemingly appears to be fair and just. Thus, elections cannot be cancelled, not even by politicians who would rather govern without them. Cancelling elections would cost them too much legitimacy at both their home and foreign audience. This is a historically unique situation as never in the history of mankind there has been such a demand for holding elections.

Some people would perhaps say that there is, or at least was right after the end of the Cold War, a worldwide demand afterlife in democracy. Nonetheless, democracy as such is a too abstract concept for most people. Therefore, those who do not have honest intentions with it, are often for a long time successful with hiding their true thoughts and restraining its fulfilment. Then again, elections are something far more tangible and in the hands of power-holders, they present a solid source of legitimacy. Notwithstanding, these are not elections we know from real democracies, since their goal is not for the voters to elect their representatives, but for the power-holders to retain their power.

You refer to the work of Levitsky and Way (Levitsky, Way, 2010). They claimed that competitive authoritarian regimes that had a high linkage to the West, democratized. What are the roots of this argument?

Levitsky and Way argue that the West contributes to democratization in four different ways. It helps to even the uneven playfield between government and opposition, increase the probability of potential rupture within autocratic parties, improve the image of democratic opposition at a domestic audience, and what is central for my research, it protects opposition from regime repression. Linkage to the West raises the international cost of repression as it increases the probability that Western governments will take action in response to reported abuse. Based on this hypothesis, power-holders in hybrid regimes with high linkage to the West are supposed to resort to violence toward opposition or to significant tampering with election results less often. Such well-visible forms of electoral manipulations are expected to discredit them on the international level and also raise the risk of international sanctions or even of international intervention. However, my research disproved this hypothesis.

How would one measure the influence of linkage to the West on hybrid regimes, and what research tools/methods have you used?

I worked with data prepared by Levitsky and Way. In their book on competitive authoritarianism, they defined linkage to the West as the density of ties (economic, political, diplomatic, social, and organizational) and cross-border flows (of capital, good and services, people, and information) among particular countries and the United States, the EU (and pre-2004 EU members), and Western-dominated multilateral institutions (Levitsky and Way, 2010: 43).

We may still expect that there is some sort of connection between linkage to the West and decision-making processes in competitive authoritarianism.

Another option would be to set up my own dataset or to use the KOF Globalisation Index (as other studies did), but my intention was, in the largest possible extent, to work with the data asembled by the authors of the theory. Speaking of data, I would like to mention here the Varieties of Democracy database from which I took the data on the individual forms of electoral manipulation. This database has proven to be crucial for my research as I also wanted to test Levitsky and Way’s theoretical assumptions on new data. My research was then a standard quantitative study (data analysis with use of multilevel regression model).

So, can we assume, that a hypothesis that the decision-making processes of the leaders of hybrid regimes are affected by the state’s level of linkage to the West cannot be confirmed?

My research has shown that leaders in competitive authoritarian regimes do not take the linkage to the West into account when opting for a concrete manipulative strategy. The goal of my research was not to assess the effect of linkage to the West on the decision-making processes of leaders in hybrid regimes in general. We may still expect that there is some sort of connection between linkage to the West and decision-making processes in competitive authoritarianism. It should be noted though, that both Levitsky and Way’s original book and my research only work with one type of hybrid regime and only in a single era.

What factors make international reputation a low priority for political leaders in competitive autocracies?

That is a good question to which I would like to dedicate my next research. Contemporary comparative political science offers a variety of possible explanations. The following three appear to be the most likely ones. First, it becomes obvious that powerful western countries sometimes suffer from selective blindness and can prioritize their geopolitical interests over the protection of democracy. The second option is that linkage to the West is related to the economic nature of the given regime. A country with a more centralized economy that is not linked to the West does not have to really care about its international reputation with the West. That brings us to the last factor, which is China’s growing power and also the growing influence of other countries that do not really strive for spreading democracy in the international system. If those countries are your dominant commercial partner, they invest in you and are able to diplomatically support you when breaking human rights, you do not really have to rack your brain over your reputation with the West.

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

My research shows that intensive linkage to the West does not provide the opposition in competitive authoritarianism with effective protection from electoral repression and manipulation. In other words, it concludes that our views of political praxis after the end of the Cold War were overly optimistic in this sense. Furthermore, my research brings other possible explanations of why many democracies with high linkage to the ‘West’ in the last decade collapsed. Although the results of my research may appear to be pessimistic, I see them rather as an opportunity for the international community to take help to the opposition in competitive authoritarianism more seriously and thus help to twist the current global wave of autocratization.

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Article: J. Bílek (2021), Linkage to the West and Electoral Manipulation, Political Studies Review 2021

ABOUT

Jaroslav Bílek is a research fellow at the Department of Politics, University of Hradec Králové. His research interests cover electoral manipulation, authoritarian politics, democratization and civil-military relations

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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