Survey of young adults further exposes the challenges for US democracy. But addressing them could be an opportunity to reimagine democracy.

I just came across the recently published data from the GenForward project in the United States, a nationally representative survey of over 3,000 young adults aged 18-36 conducted by political scientist Cathy Cohen at the University of Chicago. The new data on race, young adults, and the 2020 elections paints a challenging picture of how young adults in the country perceive institutions and democracy. For those who think the recent election outcome put democracy back on track, these results reveal important challenges, but also opportunities.

  1. Negative enthusiasm takes the lead in young voters’ motivations

Prior to the election, in an interview with the Washington Post, Donald Trump  asserted that “Negative enthusiasm doesn’t win races. Positive enthusiasm, meaning ‘they like somebody’ is how elections are won.” But judging from the survey, negative enthusiasm was determinant in young voters’ choices: 64% of respondents said they would vote for Joe Biden precisely because they disliked the other candidate. There are significant differences across the profiles of respondents: for instance, only 28% of white respondents indicated that they would vote for Biden because they were enthusiastic about the candidate, while this number reaches 47% for black respondents.  

While these numbers can be disheartening, one could say they just show democracy at work, with young adults sanctioning the incumbent at the ballots. Add to that the polarized nature of elections, and the results are hardly surprising. But could this also reveal something more worrisome, particularly in the long-term? After all, research shows that voting is a rather habit-forming behavior: a citizen who votes today is more likely to vote in the future, and an 18- year-old who votes for a certain party now is likely to be voting for the same party when he turns 81. Does antagonistic voting behavior follow the same pattern? If it does, what signal does it send to parties? And what does it mean for the future of US democracy if such adversarial behavior crystalizes in the long-term?

  1. Perception of elite capture and de facto disenfranchisement 

Overall, 83% of respondents agreed (strongly or somewhat) with the statement that “the government is run by a few big interests, looking out for themselves and their friends.”

These results may seem surprising, but how do they fit with reality? Let’s take, for instance, the US Congress. While only 3% of the US population is made up of millionaires, in Congress they are a majority. And while workers make up more than half (52%) of the US population, they are only 2% in Congress. Is this exclusive club of Congress an exception in American politics? Unfortunately not. When looking at all levels of US government, politicians from working class backgrounds are less than a tenth of all elected officials. 

Some might argue that these disparities are not necessarily problematic, as elected individuals can act on behalf of broader interests. But as the saying goes, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Similar to most representative systems around the world, US policymaking is systematically biased towards the interests of the wealthier. So, while it may be depressing that 83% of young adults feel the government is run by a few big interests, it is understandable in the face of a governmental model that is, unfortunately, by the rich and for the rich. This discredit of representative institutions is reinforced by another result of the survey: 75% of young Americans agree (strongly or somewhat) with the statement “The leaders in government care very little about people like me”, revealing a sense of political alienation.  

4) Between discredit and revolution 

Young adults were also asked about the most effective way to drive real change in the country. And their responses tell us a lot about how they currently perceive traditional democratic institutions and their capacity to address collective issues. First, only 16% of respondents answered that real change can be achieved by voting in national elections. In other words, the overwhelming majority of young adults in the US reject the notion of voting in presidential elections as the ultimate democratic practice in the country. 

Second, 22% of respondents find that voting in state and local elections is the most effective way to bring about change. One can only speculate on the reasons for this, but here are a few potential explanations that come to mind. In socioeconomic terms, sub-national institutions are slightly more representative than national ones. This, at least hypothetically, should make these institutions marginally more responsive to larger constituencies. Also, given that most of the participatory institutions that allow citizens to impact decision-making in the US are at the sub-national level (e.g. referendums, initiatives), citizens may perceive state level institutions as being more responsive. Finally, the recent protagonism of some state  governments in the response to the Covid-19 crisis might also play a part in these views. 

Third,  38% of responses on the most effective ways to create real change in the US mention unconventional (non-electoral) forms of public participation, including categories such as protests, boycotts and social media campaigns. This is the same proportion as answers mentioning voting in elections, presidential and subnational, combined. Most strikingly, the third-most selected means to bring about change is “revolution” (14%). While the term revolution is not clearly defined here, this result certainly shows an eagerness for structural change in the way American democracy works, rather than milder reforms that are unlikely to alter the status quo. If we add revolution to the list of non-electoral forms of participation, these represent a total of 52% of survey responses. 

In short, the majority of young Americans between 18 and 36 years old, a sizable part of the electorate, finds that the best way to effect real change in the US lies outside typical democratic institutions. Even the much celebrated “return to [pre-2016] normalcy” following the recent election result is unlikely to reverse this picture on its own. After all, it was this very political normalcy of recent decades, characterized by inequality and poor responsiveness, that led to the situation that now affects US democracy. 

Not indifferent to the fact that a return to the pre-2016 era is unlikely to be sustainable, there are now a number of proposals on the table for how American democracy could be strengthened. These include, for instance, the Protecting our Democracy Act, the six strategies put forward by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, and the implementation of proportional voting, most effectively defended in Lee Drutman’s recent book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.

While most of the proposed reforms are well-intended and likely to produce positive results, they are unlikely to address the fundamental issue of unequal responsiveness that affects liberal democracies nowadays. Furthermore, given the context of polarization and distrust, any democratic reforms undertaken by political elites alone are bound to have their legitimacy questioned by a large part of the population. What the numbers of the GenSurvey reveal, above all, is a sense of disenfranchisement and a belief that public decisions are taken by “few big interests, looking out for themselves and their friends.” 

Citizens will be wary of any attempts to change the rules of the game, but particularly if these changes are defined by those who benefit the most from the current rules. Thus, efforts to rebuild the foundations of modern democracy, be it in the US or elsewhere, are unlikely to be sustainable if citizens are not effectively included in the process. In that case, why not constitute a large citizens’ assembly on democratic reform, to be subsequently validated through the popular vote? Or, as suggested by Archon Fung, why not empower ordinary citizens to make recommendations to Congress and the administration on how to address democratic issues?

The modalities for citizen involvement in this process are multiple. And while some models may be more feasible than others, one thing is certain: tokenistic approaches to citizen participation in democratic reforms are equally doomed to fail. Addressing the challenges highlighted by this survey will require more than politics as usual. But this can also be an opportunity for Americans to collectively reimagine the democracy they want. 

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Catching up: civic tech research, crisis of participation in Brazil, podcasts and more

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picture by tollwerk on flickr

The dream consultancy

The Hewlett Foundation is seeking consultants to help design a potential, longer-term research collaborative to study the application of behavioral insights to nudge governments to respond to citizen feedback. This is just fantastic and deserves a blog post of its own. Hopefully I will be able to do that before the EOI period ends.

Rise and fall of participatory democracy in Brazil?

In an excellent article for Open Democracy, Thamy Pogrebinschi and Talita Tanscheit ask what happened to citizen participation in Brazil. The authors note that “The two main pillars on which institutional innovations in Brazil had been erected – extensive institutionalization and a strong civil society – have not been enough to prevent a functioning system of social participation being torn to shreds in little more than a year.”

I have been asked for my take on the issue more than once. Personally, I am not surprised, despite all the institutionalization and the strength of civil society. Given the current Brazilian context, I would be surprised if the participatory spaces the article examines (councils and conferences) remained unaffected.

Playing the devil’s advocate, this period of crisis may also be an opportunity to reflect on how policy councils and conferences could innovate themselves. While they extremely important, one hypothesis is that these structures failed to appropriately channel societal concerns and demands that later exploded into a political crisis, leading to the current situation.

Provocations aside, it is just too early to tell whether this is the definitive death of conferences and councils. And my sense is that their future will be contingent upon two key points: i) the direction that Brazilian politics take following the 2018 general election (e.g. progressive x populist/authoritarian), ii) the extent to which councils and conferences can adapt to the growing disintermediation in activism that we observe today.

The Business Model of Civic Tech?

If you are working in the civic tech space, you probably came across a new report commissioned by the Knight Foundation and Rita Allen Foundation, “Scaling Civic Tech: Paths to a Sustainable Future.” As highlighted by Christopher Wilson at the Methodical Snark, while not much in the report is surprising for civic technologists, it does provide the reader with a good understanding of the expectations of funders on the issue of financial sustainability.

When thinking about business models of civic tech efforts, I wonder how much money and energy were devoted to having governments open up their datasets while neglecting the issue of how these governments procure technology. If 10% of those efforts had been dedicated to reforming the way governments procure technology, many of those in the civic tech space would now be less dependent on foundations’ grants (or insights on business models).

Having said this, I am a bit bothered by the debate of business models when it comes to democratic goods. After all, what would happen to elections if they depended on business models (or multiple rounds of foundations’ grants)?

Walking the talk: participatory grant making?

A new report commissioned by the Ford Foundation examines whether the time has come for participatory grant making. The report, authored by Cynthia Gibson, explores the potential use of participatory approaches by foundations, and offers a “starter” framework to inform the dialogue on the subject.

Well-informed by the literature on participatory and deliberative democracy, the report also touches upon the key question of whether philanthropic institutions, given their tax benefits, owe the public a voice in decisions they make. If you are not convinced, this Econtalk podcast with Bob Reich (Stanford) on foundations and philanthropy is rather instructive. There is also a great anecdote in the podcast that illustrates the point for public voice, as described by Reich:

“So, in the final days of creating the Open Society Institute and associated foundations, there was disagreement amongst the staff that Soros had hired about exactly what their program areas, or areas of focus would be. And, to resolve a disagreement, Soros allegedly slammed his fist on the table and said, ‘Well, at the end of the day, it’s my money. We’re going to do it my way.’ And a program officer that he’d hired said, ‘Well, actually Mr. Soros, about 30% or 40% of it would have been the taxpayer’s money. So, I think some other people actually have a say in what you do, here, too.’ And he was fired the next week.”

Democracy podcasts real-democracy-now-logo-jpg

Talking about podcasts, the Real Democracy Now Podcast is fantastic. It is definitely one of the best things out there for practitioners and scholars working with citizen engagement.

Although broader in terms of the subjects covered, Talking Politics by David Runciman and Catherine Carr is another great option.

Other tips are more than welcome!

And this is brilliant…

(via @oso)

Other interesting stuff you may have missed

Study analyzing Pew survey data suggests a “gateway effect” where slacktivism by the politically uninterested may lead to greater political activity offline

Seeing the World Through the Other’s Eye: An Online Intervention Reducing Ethnic Prejudice

Smartphone monitoring streamlined information flows and improved inspection rates at public clinics across Punjab (ht @coscrovedent)

The Unintended Effects of Bottom-Up Accountability: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Peru

Literature review: does public reporting in the health sector influence quality, patient and provider’s perspective?

How democratic is the Greek referendum?

Picture by PowderPhotograpy on flickr.

Picture by PowderPhotograpy on flickr.

In a blog post in 2013, questioning whether there was a case against citizen engagement, Nathaniel Heller provoked: “Would TARP have worked had US policymakers taken the time to poll a million Americans via SMS to solicit their opinions on whether it was a good idea? I doubt it.”

Two years later and we are faced with a similar situation: in the light of current circumstances, how appropriate is the Greek referendum? Alexander Trechsel, a professor at the European University Institute and one of the major experts when the issue is direct democracy, recently published an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine giving four reasons as to why this referendum is a bad idea. With Alexander’s permission, I am re-posting the English version of his article:

It could hardly get any more dramatic in the negotiations between the EU and the Greek government. The clock is ticking and if no solution can be found during this very week a Southern European country, member of the Eurozone, will go bankrupt – with unforeseeable consequences for Greek citizens, but also the rest of Europe. This Tuesday at midnight, a first deadline has expired, with Greece not having paid its dues to the IMF. Clearly, things do not look well.

Until now, this “Greek drama” was staged involving institutions and their representatives: the European Commission, the IMF, ECB, the Greek government, Alexis Tsipras, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Jean-Claude Juncker, Christine Lagarde, Mario Draghi as well as a series of finance ministers and experts. The cast was complex, but it fit onto a list no longer than a few pages. With the Greek government’s surprising decision to put the final offer by the creditors – the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF – to a referendum vote, the very logic of the play has changed. It looks as if it will now be up to a majority of Greek citizens to decide on the fate of their country, presumably in a binary yes-no vote, on a question that has yet to be formulated and on an offer that might have expired by the time the vote takes place. At first sight this seems to be a dignified process for the country where, after all, democracy was invented. A more careful look, however, unveils a rather less glorious image. Indeed, there are at least four fundamental problems that the proposed “people’s verdict” may give rise to.

First, modern Greece totally lacks any referendum experience. The last time Greek voters were called upon expressing themselves at the polls other than in elections was over 40 years ago, in 1974, when the country transitioned to democracy and when a popular majority decided to give itself a Republic rather than a Monarchy for its future form of government. Since then, and unlike in most other countries in Europe, direct democracy at the national level remained inexistent. It was only with the economic crisis and the confrontation with creditors over the bailout in 2011 that then-Prime-minister George Papandreou took the referendum threat out of his hat. In his view, creditors would simply be obliged to respect the will of the Greek people. It did not come that far – Papandreou had to step down before any referendum was held. Today, this very referendum threat is once again made by Alexis Tsipras, more concretely, though, with a date fixed for this coming Sunday, July 5. In less than a week a citizenry that could not take any yes-no choice in over 40 years is now supposed to “decide” on the future of its country. In no other, modern direct democratic process are citizens given so little time to gather and process the necessary information about the proposal at stake, to debate about it and allow for an informed public opinion to emerge, let alone take a far-reaching decision. And these are necessary, though not sufficient, conditions for a referendum process to be truly democratic. Today, this very point was made in Strasbourg, by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

Second, Greek citizens are called upon voting in favor or against an offer by a set of external actors to keep the country solvable and to get its economy a financial boost through future investments. It is therefore not even an agreement between the Greek government and, say, another government or an international organization that is at stake, but simply a plan decided upon outside of and independently from Greece. This is very different from international treaty referendums, such as those existing in Switzerland, Ireland or Denmark, in which respective governments defend the negotiated agreements and campaign in favor of the latter. In the coming days, however, the main actors defending a “yes” in the Greek referendum process will be either foreign creditors or – maybe – the Greek opposition. This, in turn, will result in a “them” against “us” campaign, which will give nationalistic arguments the upper hand over a sober discussion of pros and cons of the proposed offer – hardly the ingredients for a mature, democratic decision at the polls.

Third, the referendum will mix up direct with representative democracy. Let us imagine a “yes” coming out of the ballot boxes. In such a scenario the government of Alexis Tsipras would possibly have to step down and new elections would have to be called upon. And what if Greek voters say “no”? In this case, not only will the country most likely go bankrupt, it will also lead to Greece’s exit from the Euro. The consequences for the Greek people would be devastating and the fate of a government having actively led the campaign towards this outcome might become rapidly sealed. In other words: whatever the choice of the voters, it will be a choice about policy as much as about government itself. And the process could well end up in an own-goal, similar to the “suicide by referendum” committed by Pinochet in Chile and de Gaulle in France. For voters, however, this does not make things easier, as they will be voting both on the plan to save Greece from insolvency and on Alexis Tsipras’ government.

Fourth, and this is possibly the worst aspect of the entire drama, calling this referendum is a desperate attempt of shifting governmental responsibility to the people as a whole. Here is a government that is unable to reach an agreement with creditors to save its country from chaos. Instead of going down in history as a political failure, this government now shifts the burden onto the citizens, hoping for them to chime into the “us” and “them” theme alongside its representatives. While the threat of a referendum may be a powerful tool during negotiations, once the cards are on the table it does hardly serve any other purpose than to let a government hide behind an alleged popular will, forged in no time and in a heated climate of nationalistic accusations. Not to be able to find an agreement in negotiations may be seen as a failure – however, to blame one’s own citizenry for the outcome, because it was its “choice” at the polls, may be seen as outright cowardice.

The only conclusion one can draw from these observations is that on July 5, Greek voters should not be called to the polls. Out of democratic respect for its citizens the government in Athens should cancel this sordid referendum process – the earlier the better.