Tag: democracy (page 1 of 2)

Taking Democracy for Granted

[This is a guest post by Valerie J. Bunce, the Aaron Binenkorb Chair of International Studies at Cornell University, and Mark R. Beissinger, the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Politics at Princeton University. After Aida Hozic shared the essay with me, I asked Valerie and Mark if I could post it at the Duck. They kindly agreed. I think it is one of the clearest—and most succinct—statements of why we should be worried and vigilant about the fate of US institutions.]

How might American democracy end? The United States would not be the first long-lasting government to collapse. Whether they supported communism or not, those who lived under it assumed, in Alexei Yurchak’s words, that communism was forever—until it was no more.   Developments in the United States bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those that fore-shadowed the decline of democracy elsewhere in the world (Poland, Hungary, and Russia, and earlier, Latin America in the 1960s and interwar Europe).

There are three pieces to the puzzle of why and how democracies fail. The first involves public opinion. In Russia, for example, growing public worries about crime and social disorder, economic collapse, and national security paved the way for the rise of a leader who promised political order, economic growth, and strong government—in short, making Russia great again. In many instances of democratic collapse, there was a decline in tolerance, as publics grew more polarized, more locked into their own views and into networks of like-minded people, and more distrustful of and angry at each other and the government. There was a thirst for new styles in politics, flamboyant rhetoric, and a willingness to gamble. Citizens voted for change; they did not vote to end democracy.

The second piece is dysfunctional political institutions. Just as the rise of Victor Orbán in Hungary was preceded by the collapse of the party system, so too was the rise of Hitler and Mussolini foreshadowed by prolonged parliamentary paralysis. In failing democracies, public trust in political institutions declines, and government can no longer fulfill the basic tasks expected of it. In the American case, there is ample evidence of such trends—from the Republican obstruction and gridlock in Congress to repeated attempts to shut the government down. Little wonder that trust in Congress has plummeted to the mid-20 percent level since 2010.  Mistrust of government is contagious, poisoning democratic processes. Echoing Trump’s rants about a “rigged system,” nearly a half of all registered voters believe that voter fraud occurs somewhat or very often in the United States, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

The final piece of the puzzle is the role of politicians in terminating democracy. As Nancy Bermeo reminds us, it is political leaders that end democracy, not angry publics or dysfunctional institutions. But how leaders have taken down democracy has changed over time. During the interwar years and the Cold War, democracy tended to end through military coups or declarations of national emergency. By contrast, contemporary would-be autocrats have played a more subtle game, undermining democracy from within. Claiming to have the support of the people (and therefore the right to use all means necessary to defend the nation), they use legislation, appointment powers, and informal interventions to whittle away at checks-and-balances, the rule of law, and civil liberties.

The elections that bring these dangerous leaders to power typically feature an electorate composed of large numbers of alienated, floating voters. All of the candidates have unusually high unfavorability ratings (which depresses voter turnout, skewing the representativeness of the electorate), and the choice confronting voters boils down to supporting experienced but compromised establishment politicians or risky outsiders. Outsider-politicians exploit public disgust with politics, attack their opponents in personal rather than policy terms, make grandiose promises, and talk of a return to the good old days by restoring the culture, society, and status of the past.

Most important is their claim to defend the nation. This is a perfect issue for ambitious amateur politicians because it plays so well to public fears about national security, personal security, and cultural diversity. Being for the nation, like being for economic growth and against crime and polio, is a valence issue—there is only one acceptable position. The costs of nationalist tropes for democracy are many. They give candidates a license to avoid talking about policy. They silence the opposition, since it cannot possibly come out against the nation. They sow divisions among the public. But perhaps their greatest danger is that they give rise to the demand for strong leadership—leaders who will do anything to defend the nation from its enemies.

To those who view American politics as exceptional, Trump is an anomaly that is difficult to explain. To us, his politics are disconcertingly familiar.

— Valerie J. Bunce and Mark R. Beissinger


In Domestic and Foreign Affairs, ‘It’s the Institutions, Stupid’

american-839775_1920[tl;dr: This is a ~3.5k word essay on why the biggest threat posed by a Trump Presidency is to liberal-republican institutions at home and abroad. It suggests placing specific policy debates  on the back burner in favor of forming and maintaining a broad political coalition—one aimed at preserving those two aspects of American liberal order.  In brief, you can always change tax rates, but once democratic institutions and America’s web of international partnerships are gone, they will be monumentally difficult to put back together. Focusing on this kind of action is a matter of prudence; one hopes that it proves unnecessary. The essay does not discuss the fate of democracy in other countries, although that too remains a major concern. The piece collects and synthesizes arguments that I have made in other social media, most notably Twitter.]


A number of people are now sharing stories about Trump and his circle with the caption “This is not normal.” The pieces range widely in subject matter. They range from  apparent purges of insufficiently loyal members of Trump’s transition team to Kansas Secretary of State—and transition-team member—Kris Kobach’s discussion of “drafting a proposal for his consideration to reinstate a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.”

They are right: none of this is normal.

My wager in this post is that Trump’s election may amount to an inflection point in the institutional fabric of our political system. And by this, I do not simply mean our domestic republican institutions. I also mean the broadly liberal-republican international order constructed after World War II.  Indeed, these two sets of institutions are profoundly bootstrapped to one another. This dual threat amounts to the greatest challenge to the American experiment since the early years of the Cold War.

The nature of this challenge requires us to set aside normal politics. It requires a broad coalition—of liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, and moderates—to come together with the purpose of monitoring and protecting the health of those institutions. Such a coalition will fail if it becomes divided by policy differences. At this moment, many of the standard debates—about taxes, the level of economic regulation, and size of the defense budget, and so forth—are of secondary importance. Indeed, their elevation to existential concerns helped bring us to this point.


As I’ve argued on Twitter, most Americans—and academics—operate with the assumption that political institutions are sticky. Once constructed, they prove difficult to radically transform—in the absence of huge shocks such as revolutions, wars, and economic collapse. And, in many respects, that’s a reasonable assumption. Institutions structure political competition and cooperation, create vested interests, and otherwise generate their own mechanisms of perpetuation.

In the American system, we have multiple “veto points” spread across our Courts, Congress, and the Presidency. Our federal system devolves a fair amount of authority to the states, making top-down change harder than, say, in France. Indeed, France is on its Fifth Republic, but the United States has enjoyed the same fundamental law—its constitution—since 1789. On top of that, we have a complex, professional bureaucracy that requires immense knowledge and willpower to set in a radically different trajectory.

All of these factors may rightly provide reason to discount my alarmism (and I am being deliberately alarmist). But this is not a good year to bet on the stability of liberal-democratic institutions. The Philippines, with its wave of extra-judicial killings and the deaths of elected officials, is seeing rapid democratic backsliding. Turkey looks in danger of quickly moving through the hybrid-regime phase into outright autocracy.

Americans generally look at democratic backsliding as something that happens “to other people.” As the well-known phrase itself calls into question, we believe that “it can’t happen here.”

But underneath the trappings of continuity—a longstanding continuous currency, the US Constitution, and the like—the United States has indeed undergone radical change. In practical terms, American institutions look almost nothing like they did prior to the Civil War.


Consider this way of thinking about the first 190 years of American political development: We first tried a confederation. We quickly gave up on that and built a semi-centralized federation. That federation collapsed into civil war. The victors established a more centralized federation. We further struggled over the terms of central authority through the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. The post-war period saw the combination of a more national-state apparatus combined with a regional race-based hybrid regime. The Federal Government, pushed by a great social movement, ended many of the institutional props of those regional apartheid systems.

Moreover, during the long nineteenth century, the United States was a continental empire. It established settler colonies and displaced indigenous inhabitants. After the Spanish-American War, the US explicitly established an overseas empire. Vestiges of those empires still remain, even if many of the territories of the first became part of the American federation.greateramericamap

We could discuss many more examples. In fact, the history of ethnic, religious, and racial inclusion and exclusion itself supplies a great deal more empirical material. But all of this evidence would all point in the same direction: beneath the superficial stability of the American system—beneath its apparent equilibrium—lies great political instability and ongoing transformation.


The same is true of the post-war liberal international order, including the World Bank, the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). To these, and other, institutions we might add more recent ones, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the European Union (EU), and the EU’s predecessor agreements and institutions.  Beyond these ‘named’ organizations lies a host of relationships, networks, partnerships, and alliances. In this diplomatic and military web, the US is at least primus inter pares. Continue reading

Words Mean Things: The Beginnings of De-Gendering Democratic Citizenship

This is a guest post by Kyleanne Hunter, PhD Student and Research Fellow at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

Yesterday it was discovered that Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has ordered the Marine Corps to both integrate their enlisted training and to create gender-neutral job titles.  This news comes on the heels of a passionate battle of words surrounding the integration of women into all Military Occupational Specialties (MOS).  This latest victory for those who recognize the value of women’s service is not limited to those in the service.  It is a large step forward for all women in America.

Democratic citizenship has long been tied to military service.[1]  Even as we have moved to an all-volunteer force, the rhetorical power of the citizen-solder has maintained its prominence in political debates.  This power has been instrumental in minority groups gaining full citizenship rights.  Yet there has been one group unable to harness this power – women.  Even as women have made great strides in military service, the hyper-masculinity of military culture and speech has made achieving parity very difficult for women.   While, on paper, in the USA women have equal rights as their male citizen counterparts, the reality is that women remain underrepresented economically, professionally, and politically.  In short, they aren’t able to realize the full benefits of citizenship in a liberal democracy.

While not a complete panacea, the move of opening all MOS’ to women, and requiring gender-neutral job titles is a big step in rectifying some of the challenges to complete citizenship women face.  One of the explanations for male-preference in citizenship can be traced to the positive association between masculinity and military service.[2]  If the best a citizen can be is a soldier, and the best a soldier can be is “manly,” clearly men are our best citizens.  This cognitive heuristic is reinforced by military language: infantry man, fly boy, armor man, “A Few Good Men.”  These words, so engrained in our sociopolitical lexicon that we hardly give them a second thought, have reinforced the patriarchal system of male-privileged citizenship.

It has been argued that removing the formal barriers to women’s service in all aspects of the military, including the Selective Service, is important for fulfilling the social contract between the citizen and the states.  Removing the informal ones is just as important. De-gendering the language of military service is a large step towards changing the culture that has created them.  Sociopolitical rhetoric doesn’t change overnight, but words means things.  By using gender-neutral terms we will begin to recognize the importance of all citizens contributions to our security.  The small act of removing “man” as a qualifier for military jobs as the power to change the citizenship dynamics for half the population.

[1] See: Krebs, Ronald R. Fighting for rights: military service and the politics of citizenship. Cornell University Press, 2006; Morgan, Matthew J. “The reconstruction of culture, citizenship, and military service.” Armed Forces & Society 29.3 (2003): 373-391; Salyer, Lucy E. “Baptism by Fire: Race, Military Service, and US Citizenship Policy, 1918–1935.” The Journal of American History 91.3 (2004): 847-876

[2] See: Arkin, William, and Lynne R. Dobrofsky. “Military socialization and masculinity.” Journal of Social Issues 34.1 (1978): 151-168; Hinojosa, Ramon. “Doing hegemony: Military, men, and constructing a hegemonic masculinity.” The Journal of Men’s Studies 18.2 (2010): 179-194; Snyder, R. Claire. Citizen-Soldiers and Manly Warriors: Military Service and Gender in the Civic Republican Tradition. Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.


*Kyleanne Hunter is currently a PhD Student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.  She spent more than a decade as a United States Marine Corps Officer, serving as a AH-1W “Super Cobra” pilot on multiple combat deployments, and the Marine Corps’ Liaison Officer to the House of Representatives. 

Tuesday Linkage

Editor’s note: this post previously appeared on my personal blog. I’ve been doing links posts on Tuesdays over there for a while now, so I guess I might as well start cross-listing them.

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Democracy: de facto vs. de jure


For the ultimate outcome of the Arab Spring and the prospects of moderate Islamic influence of politics….  Continue reading

Could the Youth Protests of the EU, Middle East, Turkey, and Brazil Spread to Asia’s Corrupt Democracies?


Jay Ulfelder and I had a Twitter conversation on this question in the last few days (here and here). But Twitter has such limited space, I thought I would break out our discussion on the blog and ask what others thought.

Watching all these riots – driven heavily by youth dissatisfaction, it seems – is making me wonder if this might spread to Asia’s democracies.

A lot of the problems these protests are identifying exist in spades in Asia: high-handed, out-of-touch governments; election-proof pseudo-technocracies that act as unaccountable oligarchies; shallow, clique-ish political parties that provide no meaningful transmission belt of citizen preferences; massive government and business corruption; wasteful white-elephant spending to capture global ‘prestige’ while everyday services like health care and education are underfunded; closed political opportunity structures that regularly reward insiders and large corporations with crony connections to the state; wealthy, de-linking elites with 1% lifestyles wildly at variance with the rest of the population… That’s Asia too; there’s more than enough sleaze to go around.

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What Patterns of Trade Might Tell us About the Democratic Peace

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: it appears that wars between pairs of democracies are relatively rare compared to wars between other pairs of states.  Some people even think this relationship might be causal.

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Dispatch from Hong Kong: Asian Values?

This is a guest post by Jarrod Hayes. Jarrod is Assistant Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. He received his PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Southern California in 2009. From 2009 to 2010, he was the ConocoPhillips Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Oklahoma, a joint appointment between the Department of Political Science and the School of International and Area Studies.

Last week, my wife and I were hiking with a local day hiking group in Hong Kong.  We were discussing Hong Kong’s pollution and the surprising fact that recycling does not appear to be a priority here.  One of the women, an Australian expat who has been in Hong Kong for a number of years, made the observation that it is difficult to get the citizens of Hong Kong and Chinese generally to act for the sake of the community.  I was immediately struck by the comment.  Specifically, it brought to mind the ‘Asian Values’ argument—part of which argues that Asian societies value the community over the individual—that had a high profile in the 1990s and continues to pop up with varying degrees of frequency.

Usually (almost always?) the argument is deployed by China and other authoritarian states in the region to justify the denial of individual rights.  I had always assumed there was probably something to the argument, if for no other reason than I did not want to be guilty of cultural imperialism.  But the expat’s comment gave me reason to reflect on the last six months or so that my wife and I have spent in East and Southeast Asia.  In doing so I have found there does not seem to be much evidence to support the ‘Asian Values’ claim.  Certainly economic norms are as individualistic as they are in the West, perhaps even more so.  It seems to me that the major cities of East and Southeast Asia have come close to perfecting consumerist capitalism  (or are working hard at it), with its emphasis on the needs and wants of the individual.  The social safety nets (i.e. community oriented economic provisions) here are also minimal, as the widespread and active panhandling in Chinese cities suggests.  In terms of economic norms, individualism rules the day.

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Can Kofi Annan Build Democratic Time?

Patient voters in Zimbabwe, from The Guardian 2008.

Democracy sits in time. It is a looping circuit of accountability between leaders and led. Voters authorise leaders to act on certain problems. Through everyday experience and media reports those voters can track if the leaders are doing what they said they’d do. Another election comes around and voters can stick or twist, authorising another set of actions. The loop of democracy creates expectations about what everyone should be doing and when. Everyone knowing and following this temporality is a necessary condition for democracy to work. Given that all but 11 countries have held elections since 2000, we live in a world of democratic loops.

At the publication of a new report on strengthening democracies today, Kofi Annan was challenged to think about how democracy can be strengthened at different times. The report, Deepening Democracy: A Strategy for Improving the Integrity of Elections Worldwide, was conducted by the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy & Security and published by the Kofi Annan Foundation. While there is unlikely to be any global consensus of what integrity, transparency or democracy mean, the Commission hopes that its recommendations can be taken up in different countries in the coming years, and that it might inform whatever programme emerges in 2015 to succeed the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The group Annan leads make explicit connections between democracy and development. In the report they write, ‘elections with integrity matter for empowering women, fighting corruption, delivering services to the poor, improving governance, and ending civil wars’. Consequently, the actions this group recommend on ‘deepening democracy’ may have knock on effects on much broader issues of welfare and sustainability. This makes their attempts to shape the temporality of democracy important for the temporality of those broader issues.

Democracy can move too quickly, for some. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Egypt rushed to hold elections when their institutions and social norms were not ready, were immature, were weak, leading to unpleasant outcomes that impugn democracy’s name. While it is understandable people may wish to mark a new beginning in their societies, should they not have waited until their democratic governance was ready? To these charges, Mr. Annan’s group said that all the international community can do is be positive and supportive. It should not immediately condemn a society, nor judge it by the standards of established democracies. There is a need for patience, to be there for the long haul; imagine if the international community had given up on Burma?

Democracy can move too slowly, for others. Isn’t the significance of elections diminishing in a world where social media campaigns allow citizens to hold elected officials accountable on a continual basis? Let’s face it: elections are an industry. They give politicians a chance to control their relationship to citizens. They give political scientists easy case studies on which to build careers. Long ago, the loop of accountability got lost along the way. And perhaps, when an election is years away but officials are performing badly, it is sometimes necessary to short-circuit the loop! Here Mr. Annan agreed to some extent. There need to be ways to hold leaders to account between elections, and this is where civil society is vital. By sustaining pressure between elections, it is possible for citizens, journalists and activists to signal to leaders that they can expect the same pressure after the next election, he said. Social media enables more rapid, flexible campaigns. Corrupt officials can be thrown out at any time.

What emerged from the discussion was a commitment to the integrity of elections over the integrity of democracy more generally. It is perhaps more straightforward for an international body of experts such as Mr. Annan’s Global Commission to focus on elections than on the slow between-times. Mr. Annan recognised these between-times matter, but only committed to encourage civil society to exert pressure on leaders and to recognise the potential of social media campaigns. Elections offer the more tangible prospect of rules, institutions and practices that can be easily identified and improved. If the Global Commission can shore up the integrity of these moments, then the loops in-between may be more secure. If, at election time, the influence of money and clientilist relations can be replaced by rule of the law and genuine inter-party competition, this may cultivate the continual political culture of democracy the group advocate.

Even if that is the case, does the group’s focus on democratic process obscure the importance of the content of democratic politics? Democracy for what, time for what? Elections matter because their inter-connected character allows parties to be held to account for the substantive gains of wealth, security, quality of life, or whatever else they have promised. But surely democracy requires plural political parties to make different promises. It is no place for the Global Commission to begin prescribing substantive policy goals to any country’s parties. However, we began with the proposition that the looping time of accountability is a necessary condition for democracy to work. If the content of party programmes does not deliver then is democratic time sufficient?

Cross posted from Global Policy: http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com

Constructing the Democratic Peace

Democratic peace theory is featured prominently in the latest issues of two different major IR journals. First, in International Studies Perspectives, Jameson Lee Ungerer tells us that the democratic peace exemplifies in three respects the Lakatosian ideal of a progressive research program, and provides an overview of the research agenda from 1970s to the present. He describes many (though not all) of the key causal arguments claiming to explain the democratic peace, concluding that:

Of all the theories examines, two [are] the most progressive: the economic norms explanation, which proposed contract-intensive markets as a confounding variable that leads to both peace and democracy… and the reverse causality explanation based on the resolultion of territorial disputes… with limited resources available, scholars would be advised to address these areas.

He’s right that the new work by Mousseau on the “capitalist peace” and Gilber and Tir on settled borders and regime type is pretty interesting. But Ungerer’s implication that there’s not much left unexplored among earlier explanations rests on the fact that he declines to discuss constructivist work at all under his review of the “normative explanation.” In fact, it’s still unsettled precisely how this explanation (what Ungerer calls “T2”) works – whether through elite preference construction and international socialization or public restraint. And Ungerer discusses only the portion of the normative explanation that focuses on norm externalization. He omits constructivist scholarship that focuses on shared identity and perception. In fact, too few constructivist accounts exist that take seriously how precisely democratic “states” come to view others as part of a security community, and the jury is certainly out on precisely how this process works to constrain belligerency among democracies.

To examine this further, Jarrod Hayes‘ new article in International Organization explores a single “hard case” in depth. Hayes examines why Nixon and Kissinger were unable to persuasively cast India as a national security threat in the 1971 crisis despite the fact that they very much saw India as a threat. Nonetheless Hayes shows Nixon and Kissinger were limited in their ability to “securitize” the dispute. Hayes argues therefore that it is not elites’ own perceptions of democracies that lead to dyadic peace: it is the way in which they are constrained by the perceptions of their constituents and the cognitive dissonance that arises from appearing to pick fights with members of a putative “in-group.” Hayes’ article is based on a discourse analysis of the contrast between Nixon’s/Kissinger’s private meetings and their public statements about the crisis.

I think Hayes’ piece is a great example of where the DP literature needs to go. We know a lot about the quantitative correlation between regime type and dyadic peace, but to the extent that the “normative explanation provides a causal process for the empirical observation” as Ungerer claims, we need process-tracing of specific militarized disputes to build a qualitative understanding of how this works and why. In emphasizing that this “us-ness” is reproduced through the public imaginary rather than by elites, Hayes’ argument represents a helpful advance.

Yet I think Hayes analysis would also be stronger if he drew more directly on the constructivist emphasis on perceptions (Risse 1995, 30). Arguably, it’s not how democratic countries actually are, but rather how democratic they are perceived to be (apparently by the public in other democracies rather than elites themselves) that constraints elites in those democracies. Hayes’ mentions the constructivist literature on dyadic identities only briefly and almost as an aside on p. 71, but surely his work has a bearing on precisely the dynamic authors like Risse and Williams are describing: the maintenance of a shared sense of “in-group-ness” between democratic dyads. And constructivists would argue this is about perceptions not facts.

How are these perceptions created and sustained? Hayes’ case doesn’t answer this question. In fact Hayes himself skirts it: he writes about “democracies” rather than “perceptions of democracy” as if a certain package of attributes constitutes “shared democratic identity” – rule of law, human rights, a capitalist economy, etc. But if it’s not the attributes themselves but others’ perception of them that matters in social identity analysis, then we need more careful research on how such attributes are conceptualized, measured and communicated and how they take root in the public imaginary to really foreground the analysis he provides.

Indeed, Hayes’ data suggests an interesting way to reconcile the “normative” and “economic norms” explanations: political leaders (Nixon and Kissinger) saw India as a threat primarily because they saw India as possessing different economic norms (a tendency toward socialism and affinity for the USSR) and thus their preference construction, while inconsistent with the “democratic peace” is consistent with the “capitalist peace.” However the “capitalist peace” research agenda hasn’t (yet) been about perceptions or shared identities, but rather domestic-level social processes. Future work in Hayes’ tradition focusing on social identity analysis could clarify whose perceptions matter, and how different perceptions of different pieces of the “liberal identity” manifest and play out in different historical cases. In fact, Hayes is calling for just such a research agenda in his new review essay in EJIR.

I also think we need to give consideration to how much room elites have to maneuver in terms of reconstructing these perceptions in given crises. Clearly, Nixon and Kissinger were not effective at doing so, but based on the data Hayes’ presents, they also didn’t really try. The diplomatic record suggests they were constrained by the understanding of the public’s understanding of Pakistan and of India despite their own perceptions and preferences. But Hayes’ analysis doesn’t suggest that they gave much thought to how they might re-frame these understandings to pursue their own interess. This might mean that elites don’t really have the ability to do so; but it might also simply mean that these two particular actors simply weren’t as clever at wielding soft power as they were at blustering around angrily behind the scenes. To examine this further, we need a different kind of “hard case” – a case where public figures are actually good at this and made an effort at it, and failed anyway.

Learning to Fish Through Human Rights Data

I often encourage my students to distill complex analytical concepts into terse, plain English.

But some things can’t be boiled down to a tweet, as I discovered this week when attempting to explain Cingranelli-Richards data coding in response to Joshua Foust’s queries on my abusers’ peace post.

What I didn’t think to tell him in response to his original question was: here is how you can look it up for yourself.

So this post contains (I hope) a better answer to Josh’s question but also a brief primer on the CIRI dataset, what it contains and how to use it.

I should add that I’ve never used it for research myself, that I don’t work with large data-sets, and that I’m not claiming to think the coding is perfect. But if you ever need to look up the answer to a question like: “what are the states that are similar to Singapore in both regime type and human rights record?” CIRI provides a user-friendly resource for a little fact-checking.

Here’s what the data-set contains: CIRI consists of quantitative scores for government respect for 15 internationally recognized human rights for 195 countries, annually from 1981-2010. The rights coded include: physical integrity rights (like no torture, disappearance or summary execution), empowerment rights (free speech, free assembly, freedom of religion, and the right to vote) and indicators for women’s and workers’ rights (here are the descriptions). Scores on each for each country-year were derived by coders drawing on Amnesty and State Department country reports for that year (codebook here).

CIRI is primarily designed to be used by students of human rights for large-N regression analysis, but here’s how journalists, bloggers, or can use CIRI to answer basic questions about countries’ human rights records at a glance :

1) Create a CIRI account.

2) Go to Download Data. Click Create New Dataset

3) Select just the variables and years you want.

4) Compare them in an excel sheet.

5) Sort the Excel sheet columns according to the question you’re asking.

Here’s how I used it to answer Joshua’s question on countries like Singapore (and a better explanation of my answer): I created a personal spreadsheet for just the year 2010. As a measure of “human rights performance” I looked at just the physical integrity index already created by CIRI (which combines scores on torture, extrajudicial killing, political imprisonment and disappearances). The index ranges from 0 (no government respect for these four rights) to 8 (full government respect for these four rights).

For “freedom” I created my own index by also downloading the columns for freedom of association, freedom of speech, electoral rights, and independence of the judiciary. These are coded from 0-2, with 0 being the worst score.* So my CIRI dataset included the CIRI variables labeled PHYSINT, INJUD, ELECSD, ASSN, and SPEECH. I used Excel to create a column averaging these last four columns numbers for each country, and then compared my country average score on “freedom” to the CIRI country score on “political integrity rights.”

How did I do this at a glance without statistical analysis fast enough to respond to a tweet? Easy. I just sorted the PHYSINT column by largest number first, so the best human rights performers are at the top, and the worst are at the bottom. Among those countries who receive an “8” it’s very easy to tell who are the free-est and least free – they vary in rank order on the other column between .25 and 2 (they can go as low as 0 but don’t for these high human rights performers). If you scroll down into the 7s (which is where Singapore sits) you can see the same distribution.

Now, Joshua’s question was which countries were similar to Singapore – relatively free, but relatively poor human rights record – and I listed the countries that score as well or better on human rights (7 or 8) but as bad or worse on freedom (.75, .5, .25, or 0). But his real question is to what extent they are outliers among these high-performers. (The comparison should be the the other high performing countries, not to all 192 countries in the dataset.) And to some extent Josh’s hunch is correct: 67 countries receive the 7 and 8 rankings for human rights, and only 6 score at .75 or worse on freedom (Singapore, Djibouti, Qatar, Bahrain, Seychelles, and Oman). However that doesn’t mean that all the other high performers are at the upper ranking for freedom – lots are in the middle ground. Only 29 out of these 67 have the highest democracy score. So on the one hand if you have the highest human rights score you have a 43% chance of being a full-fledged democracy, and only an 8% of being an autocracy. But you also have a 52% chance of falling somewhere in the middle on the democracy scale.

Within the middle and lower grades on human rights performance, especially the middle performers receiving a grade of 4, 5 or 6, there is wide variation in the relative freedom score. So while even eyeballing this data you can see a relationship between rights and democracy, the correlation is certainly imperfect. States like Singapore and Qatar that score super high on one indicator and super low on the other are indeed outliers, as are states like South Africa with mid-high freedom scores but low human rights performance. What these cases show, though, is that we have to qualify our conflation of human rights and democracy and think more about how this relationship works.

But the key point here is: this data is at anyone’s fingertips who wants to look at it independently or play with it for their own purposes.

*This is NOT the measure of democracy used in the studies I wrote about, both of which use a different dataset, Polity IV, to measure democracy. I used the CIRI measures as a short-cut because a user can easily compare them to one another.


President Hamid Karzai has called another jirga (assembly) to attempt to gain support for the creation of a long-term defensive pact with the United States. The traditional Loya Jirga is a mechanism for legitimizing the creation of a new dynasty or constitutional order in Afghanistan, but it is not supposed to be used in place of the parliament that was created with the new constitution nearly a decade ago. Most scholars would agree that the President of Afghanistan has the right to call a consultative Loya Jirga, but summoning a traditional Loya Jirga after a constitution is operational is much more problematic.

Unfortunately, the Afghan Parliament has been deadlocked for months because of a constitutional crisis stemming from last year’s flawed elections and attempts to unseat MPs who may have been elected under questionable circumstances. Politics within Parliament have also been marred by increasing ethno-linguistic factionalism. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Parliament is empowered to discuss the matters under consideration by the current jirga. It is for this reason that some MPs are boycotting the meeting and arguing in public that the meeting is illegal and unconstitutional. (The Taliban have also threatened — via SMS text messages — retaliation against MPs who participate in the Loya Jirga.) The Upper House of Parliament has issued a statement that the decisions of the Loya Jirga are only consultative and must still be submitted to parliament for approval.

In his opening address today, President Karzai called the meeting a consultative assembly, but closed the speech by saying that “You can represent the people of Afghanistan in such issues better than we can. We will take your recommendations and act as you have ordered.”  Thus, it is not at all clear that Karzai intends to submit the recommendations of the Jirga to Parliament.

The proceedings of this assembly are also complicated because the agreement with the US has not yet been hammered out.  (An agreement with India has already been announced. Negotiations are underway with the EU, UK, France, and Australia.)  Thus, the Jirga is meeting to discuss a hypothetical agreement or (more generously) the idea that Afghanistan should have a pact with the United States. Karzai has already framed the only conditional objections to the agreement as 1) ending night raids on civilian houses; and 2) eliminating any “parallel” structures of authority run by foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Regardless of what this Jirga recommends, the institutions of democracy in Afghanistan will be further eroded — if that is still possible.

[Cross-posted from Humayun]

War and the Eurozone

PM and Chancellor Merkel press conference

Last week, at University of Bristol, I gave a talk called “The Future of World Order” to the student International Affairs Society. It was a speculative lecture, based on my 17 years directing the Grawemeyer Award (for Ideas Improving World Order) more than my scholarship per se. I warned the audience from the start of two personal biases: (1) I am an optimist; and (2) I don’t really put much stock in specific predictions. I tried to stick to big ideas more than particular policies.

In the presentation, I argued that any order built on coercion and force would inevitably face a legitimacy crisis — and would ultimately collapse. The implications are twofold, I think. Domestically, people will demand greater control of their own lives. This means the world will see many more emancipatory movements to topple autocrats and unaccountable sources of power — as illustrated just this year by events in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, the city of London, Wall Street, etc.

Internationally, it means order built on deterrence, brute force, or even the balance of power will give way to something that is more consensual, such as a security community. In support of this position, I talked a bit about John Mueller’s thesis that major power war is becoming obsolete — an outmoded institution, abandoned like slavery and dueling previously were. Could this thinking become even more pervasive, so that virtually any talk of war — internal or external — becomes outmoded? Eventually.

In the talk, I did not explicitly argue against the traditional state-centrism of international relations, nor call for the end of the states-system. However, I strongly implied that the future of world order will be more cooperative, focused on low rather than high politics (elevating the human security agenda), and much less violent.

This week, recovering from jet lag, I’ve been following the efforts to save the euro and Eurozone. One interesting aspect is that conservative leaders in Europe have certainly made some bold claims to sell their preferred outcomes. For instance, while traveling in Australia, British Prime Minister David Cameron used some classic statist language to highlight his concerns about the implications of ongoing negotiations:

“This is our key national interest, that Britain, a historic trading nation, has its biggest markets open and continues to have those markets fairly open and fairly governed.”

He later told the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson: “In business often it’s selling more to your existing customers that’s the best strategy.

What his comments reveal is that when – if – the eurozone crisis ends, big political questions will replace the big economic problems”

“We’re big sellers into Europe, we can do better in those markets if we liberalise further.”

Mr Cameron has vowed to protect the UK’s position and said on Friday that the City of London was one “area of concern… a key national interest that we need to defend”.

“London – the centre of financial services in Europe – is under constant attack through Brussels directives,” he said.

Note the words and phrases Cameron used: “key national interest,” “attack” and “defend.”

Next, consider these remarks Wednesday from German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

“Nobody should take for granted another 50 years of peace and prosperity in Europe. They are not for granted. That’s why I say: If the euro fails, Europe fails,” Merkel said, followed by a long applause from all political groups.

“We have a historical obligation: To protect by all means Europe’s unification process begun by our forefathers after centuries of hatred and blood spill. None of us can foresee what the consequences would be if we were to fail.”


Based on these quotes, scholars should perhaps worry about the long-term durability of Mueller’s thesis.

Well, at least slavery is gone. Right?

Saudi and Emirati Intervention in Bahrain

Saudi APCs and Emirati troops are now on the streets of Bahrain attempting to squelch what was formerly a non-violent, secular, youth-led, economically rooted, democracy movement as America does little other than urge restraint from its allies. Such mealy mouthed statements toward a regime which is using live ammunition against unarmed protesters and then denying the victims of its rampage access to medical facilities indicates that the US foreign policy establishment has failed to adapt its posture toward authoritarian client regimes since the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Consequently, the monarchists’ narrative explaining the democratic demands of the protests in sectarian terms and foreign influence appears to be becoming self fulfilling.

The situation reveals the paralyzing contradictions in American foreign policy, economic interests, and political ideology, but perhaps more importantly the failure of the Obama administration to decisively restrain Saudi and Emirati intervention may threaten regional stability. The Iranian republic has already called on the monarchies to leave Bahrain “immediately.” There have been popular protests in Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait against the crackdown in Bahrain.

Despite the regime’s attempt to erase the memory of the protests, Manama is not pacified. If the underlying reasons for the unrest are not addressed quickly and substantively, a wider escalation could eventually involve the US.

Bush’s failed freedom agenda

Condi Rice writes some fancy words this morning:

As I watched Hosni Mubarak address the Egyptian people last week, I thought to myself, “It didn’t have to be this way.”

In June 2005, as secretary of state, I arrived at the American University in Cairo to deliver a speech at a time of growing momentum for democratic change in the region. Following in the vein of President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, I said that the United States would stand with people who seek freedom. This was an admission that the United States had, in the Middle East more than any other region, sought stability at the expense of democracy, and had achieved neither. It was an affirmation of our belief that the desire for liberty is universal – not Western, but human – and that only fulfillment of that desire leads to true stability.

The problem is that history is a tricky thing. Bush and Rice both gave wonderful speeches at times on the merits of democracy. But after 9/11 and throughout the remainder of his presidency, Bush expanded security cooperation with dozens of corrupt authoritarian regimes. These included, among others Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt (yes Egypt), Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. This expanded security cooperation often included additional foreign aid packages for military and security forces that repressed domestic oppositions, it included coordination on intelligence gathering that, again, frequently targeted domestic oppositions, and it included numerous instances in which the U.S. government supported torture, rendition, and secret detentions. None of these practices are consistent with democracy or human rights — or an “affirmation” that the “desire for liberty is universal.”

Furthermore, even though Bush added money to democracy promotion programs during his presidency — the National Endowment for Democracy went from $40 million in 2001 to $100 million in 2008 and the Middle East Partnership Initiative added another $150 million per year in 2005 — the problem was always one of proportionality. The defense budget was roughly $600 billion in 2008 while the intelligence budget and supplemental appropriations for the global war on terror added another $150 billion. I think it is fair to say that the Bush administration spent far more on secret CIA programs than on democracy assistance. Democracy promotion under Bush — like almost all presidents in history — was always subordinated to strategic and economic interests.

But what is perhaps most striking is that, even after all the “freedom agenda” rhetoric, in the end, global freedom suffered under Bush –though this is not a point you’ll hear from those claiming vindication of George W. Bush. Freedom House’s 2011 annual report concludes:

According to the survey’s findings, 2010 was the fifth consecutive year in which global freedom suffered a decline—the longest period of setbacks for freedom in the nearly 40-year history of the report.

This decline (which followed several years of stagnation) is directly attributable to the legacy of the global war on terror and the global financial crisis.

Rice concluded her op-ed this morning by focusing on the road ahead and how the United States can and should help promote democracy in Egypt and beyond. But, I think what will strengthen the US hand ahead is a candid and real discussion of where we’ve been. Thomas Carothers made this case in a Foreign Affairs debate with Paula Dobriansky, Bush’s Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs back in 2003:

The “relentless portrait of the United States as a country uniquely devoted to democracy promotion, is part of a pattern of rhetorical overkill by administration officials that weakens rather than strengthens this country’s credibility in the eyes of others. People around the world are quite capable of seeing that the United States has close, even intimate relations with many undemocratic regimes for the sake of American security and economic interests….
A more honest acknowledgment of this reality and a considerable toning down of self-congratulatory statements about the United States’ unparalleled altruism on the world stage would be a big boost in the long run to a more credible pro-democratic policy.”


Explosive Pakistan

Is “people power” contagious? It’s easy to find examples of journalists, policymakers and/or analysts, and some scholars arguing that opposition to authoritarian rule is spreading like a winter virus from Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen. In this case, many optimists argue (though some merely hope) that the viral idea will result in more democratic governance for millions of people that have long lived under autocratic rule. Moreover, many think (or hope) that the contagion will spread to other similar states with large Arab or Muslim populations.

However, the skeptics and pessimists have keyboards too. IR realists have already provided plenty of reasons for skepticism. For example, even during the so-called “third wave” of democratization some years ago, many states merely transitioned from authoritarian to semi-authoritarian rule.

The worriers are concerned about the fact that Egypt has long been the second largest recipient of American foreign aid. Indeed, many believe that the American government is quite cautious and fairly openly favors the status quo. Egypt has received substantial aid in large part because of its continued support for the Jimmy Carter-brokered Camp David peace agreement; thus, many friends of Israel are more than a little concerned about the current situation.

In any case, I have been thinking about the prospects for internal upheaval spreading to Pakistan — ground zero in the current war and a nuclear-armed state with a history of conflict with its neighbors. Vice President Joe Biden, who like me sometimes worries about the relationship between Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and its internal stability, largely dismisses the prospects of contagion effects. However, he acknowledged to PBS interviewer Jim Lehrer on January 27 that “there’s a lot going on across that part of the continent, from Tunisia into — all the way to Pakistan, actually.” Lehrer explicitly asked Biden to compare the situation in Tunisia and Egypt to events in Eastern Europe more than 20 years ago.

Biden was not biting:

…the difference between Tunisia and Egypt is real, beyond the fact that Egypt’s the largest Arab country in the world.

So, I don’t see any direct relationship…But I don’t — I think it’s a stretch at this point. But I could be proven wrong. But I think it’s a stretch to compare it to Eastern Europe.

However, in a weekend Press TV news report (from Iran) about the continued unpopularity of American drone attacks, a man identified by name as a human rights activist openly declares (in English): “There will be an uprising in Pakistan. After Tunis example, after Yemen…I think so, now it is our turn. Now is Pakistanis turn.” See about 1 minute into this report, which differs somewhat from the one linked above that is currently on Press TV’s website:

Obviously, any mass uprising in Pakistan would be important for a large number of reasons, but today’s Washington Post centers on one key concern — Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal:

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal now totals more than 100 deployed weapons, a doubling of its stockpile over the past several years in one of the world’s most unstable regions, according to estimates by nongovernment analysts.

As the article notes, U.S. policymakers frequently “voice confidence in its [Pakistan’s] strong internal safeguards, with warheads kept separate from delivery vehicles.”

Perhaps these policymakers are simply whistling past the graveyard as a number of Wikileaks documents highlight genuine US and British concern about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. As the BBC reported in December:

senior UK Foreign Office official Mariot Leslie told US diplomats in September 2009 that Britain had “deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons”.

In another cable seven months earlier, then-US ambassador Anne Patterson told Washington: “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in the government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”

Potentially, that smuggling task would be easier in a context of internal disorder. Imagine if the state security apparatus is distracted by mass upheaval.

The 22 September 2009 cable quoting Leslie was written in London by Ellen Tauscher, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. It is available at the Wikileaks collection on The Guardian website and is quite intriguing for another reason. It suggests that Pakistan is fearful of an entirely new form of American counterproliferation:

The UK has deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and Pakistan has accepted nuclear safety help, but under the IAEA flag (albeit British technicians). The Pakistanis worry that the U.S. “will drop in and take their nukes,” Leslie said.

Could the U.S. really “drop in and take” Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?

Granted, it seems foolhardy to speculate about second and third-order consequences of internal upheaval in Pakistan. The drone attacks in Pakistan have long been unpopular, but it is possible that Biden is correct and that neither Washington nor Islamabad have anything to fear from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Perhaps readers should take solace in the words of Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK Wajid Shamsul Hasan, who told the BBC in December that his government “had a very successful, foolproof control and command system looking after the nuclear arsenal.”

Maybe we should keep on whistling.

Tunisia… Egypt… Yemen…

We haven’t had much to say about these topics at the Duck. Which is fine, as there are much better academic bloggers to go to for informed commentary (e.g. Marc Lynch, Juan Cole, etc.). But I am struck by this AP story, which suggests Egypt is taking additional efforts to shut down internet communications (more here and here [note: holy &*!!, the whole country appears to be cut off]) as it ramps up its crackdown.

On a more abstract plane, Josh Tucker wrote an interesting post on revolution and revolutionary contagion that approvingly cites Timur Kuran’s influential work on the inevitability of revolutionary surprises.

2) One of the most interesting theoretical pieces I ever read about the collapse of communism was a 1991 World Politics article by Timur Kuran (gated, ungated). In this article, Kuran posits that even people living within a regime that is perched on the edge of collapse may not realize it. The mechanism here is to assume that different people have different thresholds for when they will be willing to publicly oppose the existing regime. Imagine a country with 10 people, one person who will protest if there is at least 1 other protesting, 1 if there are 2 other protesting, 1 if there are 3, etc. It is a stable equilibrium for no one to protest. However, if something happens to put just one person out on the streets (say, a particularly difficult interaction with the authorities, or, hypothetically speaking, an emotional response to someone setting themselves on fire), then suddenly everyone ends up protesting. Person 1 comes out because now there is 1 person on the streets. Once person one comes out, then person 2 comes out because there are 2 people on the street, and onward up the chain. The lesson of the story – in my opinion – is that as long as regimes are repressive and we can assume that citizens have accumulated grievances against the regime, then there is always the possibility that the regime could tumble precipitously.

Kuran published a variation of this argument in a symposium in the American Journal of Sociology on the why-did-we-miss-the-collapse-of-the-USSR issue , which also included a piece by Charles Tilly called “To Explain Political Processes”. In it, Tilly argues that:

This seems to me a very important thing to remember when we turn our analytic vision to unfolding events. For now, however, I find the personal accounts coming over listservs and across the web moving and inspiring. I hope the people of Egypt claim their democratic rights.

Our Carceral State

Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman have published a study in the American Political Science Review on the relationship between contact with the US criminal justice system and disaffection from US government and politics. They find that even after controlling for other important factors, contact with the criminal justice system is a significant predictor of civic and political disengagement and mistrust of government.

Contact with the criminal justice system is greater today than at any time in our history. In this article, we argue that interactions with criminal justice are an important source of political socialization, in which the lessons that are imprinted are antagonistic to democratic participation and inspire negative orientations toward government.

Since you won’t be able to access the article unless you subscribe to the journal, and since there’s a lot of interest in the blogosphere right now in how social scientists generate probabilistic causal claims and what can be inferred from them to specific cases, let me explain a little bit how the authors conducted the study. The study is based in large part the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (aka Add Health), a study that follows youth over their life course and provides a nationally representative sample of school-age people in the United States. The survey contains statistically significant data on thousands of US citizens, including their criminal justice histories, plus data on political attitudes and practices. To ensure that other variables aren’t explaining both contact with the criminal justice system and political beliefs/practices, the authors control for age, sex, household income, education, stability of family relations, employment, citizenship, and minority status among others things. (They also used a second source of data specifically on fragile families to corroborate their findings.)

The reported results: contact with the US criminal justice system is strongly related to a much decreased likelihood of voting or registering to vote in elections, of stated trust in government, and of civic engagement generally (though those results were weaker due to poor data):

“People who experienced an encounter with criminal justice institutions were much less likely to believe that it was important to vote, serve on a jury, volunteer time to community service, or serve in the military, and this effect grew starker with more severe encounters… those who experience punitive interventions – from police questioning to incarceration – are much less likely to seek out civic society and participate in cultural, social or political groups.”

While these results may or may not be especially counter-intuitive, Weaver and Lerman point out studies of the effects of policy on civic engagement and beliefs have focused much more the redistributive rather than punitive policies so far, and this should obviously change. I hope political scientists will find a way to examine whether these relationships hold true cross-nationally as well, since the only inferences we can make from this study concern the US.

[cross-posted from Lawyers, Guns and Money]

Some Good News from Pakistan

Last week, Asma Jahangir was elected to head Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), the leading professional organization for the country’s lawyers. She is a very skilled broker and a committed human rights lawyer (she is United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief) and will add a much needed counter force to the increasingly politicized judiciary that is destabilizing the current political system.

We don’t often hear good news from Pakistan these days and it’s easy to forget that there are still some powerful and influential liberal forces in the country. Asma is the real deal and her election is good news. She has a tough (and dangerous) road ahead — the future and strength of Pakistan’s democratic institutions rest on the legitimacy and integrity of its institutional checks and balances and a professional and independent judiciary — but the lawyers movement that she now leads has shown that it can play a significant role in constraining political excesses. I wish her well….

The Problem With Online Petitions

At LGM, I recently suggested that readers support a Department of Justice Rule-making process on prison reform. I probably should have added that it’s not enough – not nearly enough – to simply log into the Change.org site and click “send” on the form letter they offer.

That’s because DoJ doesn’t care how many individual constituents support or oppose prison reform per se. They couldn’t care less, in fact. All they care about is how to create the best possible set of rules, so what they want most are informed, carefully thought out, unique comments.

Congress cares about numbers, of course. Congress’s job is to pass laws, and because we elect our congressional leaders they care a great deal about the popularity of those laws.

Federal agencies are pretty much the reverse. They are tasked with implementing laws, and they are staffed by civil servants. Their job is not to get re-elected, it is to figure out how to produce collective goods.

Citizen input in federal rule-makings is not about the popularity of a particular rule. Rather, it’s about more heads being better than few – it’s about tapping the experiential, procedural, scientific and everyday expertise of the American people. The federal rule-making process is one of the truly deliberative mechanisms in our country. What the public comment process is supposed to produce is useful substantive citizen input on what the rule should look like.

What does this have to do with online petitions?

Well, because federal agencies don’t care about quantity of comments, only quality, a form letter written by Change.org and submitted by you and 500,000 others is worth exactly one comment no matter how many times it’s sent – precisely the opposite of Congress.

You can probably see the grand irony here. The genius of websites like Change.org is that they make sending a letter to your government easy, thereby potentially increasing the level of citizen participation. But because clicking a form letter is so easy, citizens have powerful disincentives to write substantive comments where such form letters are available, even in cases – federal rule-makings – where such a comment would actually be read and considered valuable. For example, researchers studying the 2004 EPA mercruy rule-making found that the vast majority of comments submitted to the EPA through were are either identical form letters or contained extremely minor modifications.

Not only is this a waste of citizen time and effort, but this influx of meaningless form letters actually makes it harder for federal civil servants to identify the few useful comments sent in by citizens to their government that could actually aid their decision-making about a particular rule.

So, here’s the moral of the story: Anytime you go to signal your opinion on an online petition, first figure out if it’s going to Congress or to a federal agency. If it’s Congress, sheer numbers count and substance is discounted – so save yourself time and simply click yes or no. But if it’s a federal agency – EPA, DoJ, DoT, FCC – be sure to alter the letter as much as possible, and write an informed, substantive comment. For example, if you support prison reform, write about what prison reform rules should look like and why, or ways in which DoJ can actually improve on the NPREC recommendations, and encourage others to do the same.

The same is true for many, many other issues about which progressives care deeply. Biomass for Fuel. Polar Bears. Net neutrality.

Sure, use the above websites to formulate your opinion. Use their online form to submit it. But delete the form letter and put it in your own words. (And not just any words. No emotional rants. No insults in all caps. No accusations of immoral behavior. No threats. It’s not that public officials care about these things; it’s that they couldn’t care less and letters like that just make it harder for them to find the useful, substantive comments that they need to make the best rules.)

Citizens unwilling or unable to take the time to write their own substantive letters can far better serve our democracy if they engage the Congressional process where it’s the absolute numbers of voters taking a certain position that matters, rather than gumming up the rule-making process with duplicative comments. And organizations aiming to increase citizen input to government should be thinking harder about to improve the quality of that participation, not just the quantity.

[cross-posted at LGM]

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