I’ve recently been exchanging with some friends on a list of favorite reads from 2020. While I started with a short list, it quickly grew: after all, despite the pandemic, there has been lots of interesting stuff published in the areas that I care about throughout the year. While the final list of reads varies in terms of subjects, breadth, depth and methodological rigor, I picked these 46 for different reasons. These include my personal judgement of their contribution to the field of democracy, or simply a belief that some of these texts deserve more attention than they currently receive. Others are in the list because I find them particularly surprising or amusing.
As the list is long – and probably at this length, unhelpful to my friends – I tried to divide it into three categories: i) participatory and deliberative democracy, ii) civic tech and digital democracy, and iii) and miscellaneous (which is not really a category, let alone a very helpful one, I know). In any case, many of the titles are indicative of what the text is about, which should make it easier to navigate through the list.
These caveats aside, below is the list of some of my favorite books and articles published in 2020:
Participatory and Deliberative Democracy
While I still plan to make a similar list for representative democracy, this section of the list is intentionally focused on democratic innovations, with a certain emphasis on citizens’ assemblies and deliberative modes of democracy. While this reflects my personal interests, it is also in part due to the recent surge of interest in citizens’ assemblies and other modes of deliberative democracy, and the academic production that followed.
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.
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?
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.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, legislative bodies around the world have struggled to function. Meanwhile, from Europe, all the way to Australia and Pakistan, calls to ensure that national legislatures continue to operate abound. In the UK, over 100 MPs signed an open letter asking for the creation of a digital parliament to “maintain democratic traditions in accordance with social distancing.” In the US, amidst media concerns of a “sidelined” Congress, dozens of House Democrats sent a letter to their leadership calling for a change in the rules to enable remote voting.
The disruption in legislative work caused by the pandemic has visibly impacted crisis response efforts. For instance, in Canada, the House of Commons delayed for weeks the vote on a critical wage bill, aimed at covering a percentage of employees’ wages so that employers can keep them on the payroll. The key point of contention? Liberals wanted to vote via virtual parliament, while Conservatives asked for in-person participation.
The functioning of parliaments becomes all the more important as fears of executive overreach are revealed to be founded). Indeed, previous evidence suggests that a pandemic crisis is fertile ground for authoritarian drifts; and chronic abuses are unlikely to stop as the outbreak expands and a growing number of parliaments are unable to work.
Freedom of information for example – particularly relevant during such crises – is under assault. The Global Right to Information Rating shows that since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, countries on multiple continents have altered or lifted their “right to know” legislation. At the same time, a growing number of governments restrict journalistic coverage of the outbreak through threats and detentions.
In a context where traditional forms of collective action and resistance – such as social movements and protests – are constrained by physical distancing, parliaments should be the first line of defense in flattening the authoritarian curve. While innovative models of social activism are certainly emerging, they may not be sufficient to contain authoritarian drifts. To avoid rule of law giving way to rule by decree, parliaments must continue working, even if virtually.
The Brazilian Virtual House of Representatives
On March 11th, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Six days later, in one of the swiftest parliamentary responses, the Brazilian House of Representatives approved a normative resolution authorizing MPs to vote online and provided guidelines for the launch of a “virtual parliament”.
The Office of the Clerk and the House’s digital services (Department for Information Technology and Innovation, DITEC) immediately got to work on the technical solutions required by this rule change. The mobile application Infoleg, originally developed to follow up on the work of the House of Representatives, was repurposed to enable MPs’ mobile phones, following authentication protocols, to function as remote devices for registering presence and casting votes. But Infoleg is more than an e-voting app: it integrates most of the information required by an MP to properly navigate parliamentary sessions, including the list of representatives that will discuss a bill, or the pending procedural motions involved in the deliberation of a matter. While MPs use an external videoconferencing system for their interventions during sittings, the critical systems for registering presence and votes are entirely developed and managed by the House’s internal digital services.
On March 25th, eight days after enacting the new Rules of Procedure, the House of Representatives conducted the first online voting in its history. By April 9th ten virtual sessions had been held, with 15 pieces of legislation, six urgency motions and one constitutional amendment passed. Average attendance for these ten virtual sessions was 98.6% (503 out of 513 representatives), far above the in-person average (87.1%). The constitutional amendment, it seems, was the first ever to be approved by a legislative body through online voting. It was also one of the fastest legislative responses to the financial challenges generated by the pandemic – especially important given the delicate fiscal situation of the country.
Explaining the rapid transition
There is no single explanation of why some parliaments are struggling to function, while others are being more reactive. Yet in the case of Brazil, three enabling factors are worth highlighting.
Strong digital capacity does not guarantee a smooth transition to a virtual modus operandi. Take for instance Estonia, which has one of the most technologically savvy governments in the world and where online voting for elections is old news: as noted by Andy Williamson, Senior Researcher for the Inter Parliamentary Union, existing regulation prohibits remote sitting of the Estonian parliament. In other words, along with digital capacity, the shift to a virtual parliament may in many cases require political leadership to eliminate analog obstacles. In the Brazilian case, this included swift action by the Speaker of the House, who expedited a normative resolution that was rapidly approved by MPs across the political spectrum. This process, however, must be understood in its broader political context. The current relationship between the national Executive and Legislative is notoriously conflictual. It is therefore possible that the rapid response was also a preemptive move by the House to avoid executive overreach and to maintain political relevance during the crisis. Parliaments in similar situations may want to take note.
The importance of the administrative capacity of the Office of the Clerk (the Office) should not be understated. Amassing some of the most qualified civil servants in Brazil, it is the Office that makes political responses technically viable – examining constraints and opportunities and advising the House leadership on the most effective approaches. It should be noted that the adoption of the virtual parliament resolution was facilitated by existing legislation. Passed in October 2019 as a result of a shared vision between the House leadership and the Office of the Clerk, this legislation includes guidelines for a paperless legislative process.
Finally, a key enabler of the rapid response by the Brazilian House was the existence of a highly qualified, in-house digital team (DITEC), with the mandate and resources to quickly redesign systems that were already developed , maintained and updated internally (e.g. Infoleg, remote voting for committees). The full implementation of the virtual parliament was by no means a small task, and involved DITEC’s core teams on user experience, cybersecurity, application development, legislative informatics, voting and attendance systems, plenary operation (e.g. video streaming), help desk, and emergency response.
It is worth noting that DITEC’s response builds on a tradition of excellence. The House of Representatives has for over a decade been a trailblazer in digital democracy, illustrated for instance by the 2009 launch of e-Democracia, a collaborative platform to engage citizens and civil society organisations in the lawmaking process.
In short, digital transformation does not happen overnight, and the House’s timely response to pandemic-related challenges was in part due to in-house capacity built and honed over the years. (Full disclosure, I was an adviser to the e-Democracia program in its early days, when working on my research ondigital parliaments).
Potential effects of virtual parliaments
It is too early to assess the effects of the pandemic on democratic institutions. The same is true for the medium- and long-term effects of legislatures’ transitions to digital environments. But for the Brazilian case, we can hypothesize:
Effects on party politics
The virtualization of parliamentary procedures may lead to further strengthening of party leaders. First, given that MPs are no longer traveling to the capital, the number of in-person meetings, both formal and informal, is drastically reduced. This reinforces the coordination role of party leaders, already an important position in Brazil. Second, with sittings taking place virtually, for practical reasons the ‘floor time’ allocated to MPs is reduced, increasing the visibility of party leaders who also control the floor time allowed for their MPs.
The impact of this increased influence and visibility of party leaders is uncertain. On the one hand, in a multi-party system with 24 parties represented in the House, a strengthening of leaders’ coordination roles may facilitate the management of legislative politics and even enhance House efficiency. On the other hand, it may weaken the position of a considerable contingent of representatives who work somewhat independently, across party lines. This could be particularly problematic for newly elected MPs who benefited from the support of political renewal movements, whose allegiances to party lines are weaker. This effect could be offset, however, by the stronger online presence of these new, often younger MPs who are used to engaging remotely with their constituents.
Effects on media coverage and third party oversight
As in most countries, the media coverage of politics in Brazil is centered in the capital city, with most journalists, offices and support staff based in Brasília. A good part of that infrastructure depends on in-person and informal exchanges between journalists and their sources, through hallway conversations, over coffee, or at social events. Civil society organisations follow a similar pattern, focusing their advocacy and oversight activities where most MPs are found. With a transition to virtual operation, economies of scale in terms of geographic location and in-person interactions are lost.
A potential secondary effect is that the House becomes less subject to scrutiny from the press and organized groups. Some CSO leaders have indeed expressed such concerns over the shift. José Antonio Moroni, leader of a coalition of social movements for political reform lamented to a local media outlet: “[…] before the MPs circulated in the corridors, and we managed, to a certain extent, to have a dialogue. Now, with this process, we get nothing.” But organisations are reacting quickly, as described by a member of the Education Workers’ Confederation: “We, for instance, already have a list of all the MPs, with e-mail, WhatsApp details, and now we are incentivizing our member organizations not only to maintain their communication with MPs, but actually to intensify the online pressure.”
More digital politics (and fake news)
As the Brazilian parliament moves to an online environment and physical distancing measures continue to be implemented (with varying degrees of success), we should also expect that more political conversations will take place online. This is not necessarily good news, particularly given that somestudies suggest that Brazil is particularly fertile ground for fake news. Add to this a combination of a growing polarization between the branches of government, and the infodemic generated by the current crisis, and you have all the ingredients for accelerating the fake news arms race in the country. As we argued in a recent report, a possible consequence of this arms race is a further and unhealthy shift of the focus of public debates: towards disputes over the authenticity of statements and evidence, reducing the time and energy left to discuss possible actions and solutions to problems.
Whether these hypotheses are validated or not remains an empirical question. These effects become more probable the longer that parliament is obliged to work remotely – a function of the length of the crisis.
For national legislatures like Brazil’s, the hypothetical adverse effects of a virtual parliament are dwarfed by the possibility of undermining the structure of checks and balances. In other words, these potential effects should be weighed against the possibility of a closed parliament.
The temporary transition to an online environment should also be regarded as an opportunity to explore options for a more open parliament going forward. For example, virtual citizen panels, consisting of randomly selected citizens representing a microcosm of the population, could be convened online to advise on divisive issues including crisis response measures (after all, if parliament can function in a decentralized manner, why not consider the same for a more participatory model of politics?) Such an effort – which would, again, require a political decision by the House leadership – would put the parliament at the forefront of democratic innovations.
In this respect, from a digital democracy perspective, the Brazilian case is one more example of the prospects and limitations of technology for achieving democratic aspirations. The fact that the House adopted a virtual model is critical at this moment. Yet it does not render the legislative any more transparent, representative or participatory than before. Without reforms, digital practices will always mirror their analog origins, whether good and bad. International organizations, donors and tech enthusiasts should not therefore delude themselves: establishing virtual parliaments will do nothing for national legislatures that suffer from pre-existing conditions or that are already on life support. As some recent events attest, national parliaments themselves can be accomplices in the crossing of democratic lines during the coronavirus response.
From a more technical perspective, democracy scholars and practitioners (myself included), have long been aware of the importance of face-to-face interactions for democratic processes. The limitations of existing solutions for digital replication of these interactions was no secret. What few of us expected, however, was how fast democratic praxis would have to transition to a virtual space in order to maintain basic functioning. This applies not only to legislative procedures but also to democratic innovations such as participatory budgeting and citizens assemblies. Unless one believes this pandemic is a one-off with short-term consequences only, the current context reveals the need to invest time and resources in reducing, at least partially, the dependency of democratic processes on face-to-face interaction. If the question of how to best achieve online participation and deliberation at scale was once a niche area, this is no longer the case.
On a more futuristic note: could virtual parliaments be an additional source of resilience in the case of unilateral action by any given executive? Consider the case of Estonia’s Digital Embassies program. Based on cloud technology and off-site servers based in Luxembourg, the program aims to ensure the functioning of critical government functions regardless of Estonia’s territorial integrity. Historically, parliaments have been shut down through coercion of parliamentarians and the closure of legislatives’ physical spaces. But what happens if a parliament can work virtually, with MPs geographically dispersed within and outside their territory? Again, it is an empirical question that – one hopes – won’t need to be answered anytime soon.
Finally, and back to the Brazilian case: as previously mentioned, several countries have altered or lifted their “right to know” legislation during the crisis. The Brazilian President recently enacted a provisional measure temporarily suspending deadlines for answering certain information requests from the public. The Speaker of the House has already announced his intention to reverse the measure in parliament. While the final result is hard to anticipate, one thing is certain: the next battle for the right to information in Brazil will take place online.
(I should have posted this on the 31st, but better late than never)
Below are some of the most read posts in 2014. While I’m at it, I’ll take the opportunity to explain the reduced number of posts in the last few months. Since mid-2014 I have been working with a small team of political and data scientists on a number of research questions at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement (I presented a few preliminary findings here). Following the period of field work, data collection and experiments, we have now started the drafting and peer-review stage of our research. This has been an extremely time-consuming process, which has taken up most of my weekends, when I generally write for this blog.
Still, one of my new year’s resolutions is precisely to better discipline myself to post more regularly. And I am hopeful that the publication of our upcoming research will make up for the recent reduction in posts. We will start to disseminate our results soon, so stay tuned.
In the meantime, here’s a selection of the five most read posts in 2014.
The Journal of Field Actions, together with Civicus, has just published a special issue “Stories of Innovative Democracy at the Local Level: Enhancing Participation, Activism and Social Change Across the World.” When put together, the 13 articles provide a lively illustration of the wealth of democratic innovations taking place around the world.
Does democracy promote development? Despite a large number of empirical studies of this question, the evidence remains inconclusive since it is difﬁcult to establish causality running from democracy to development: democracy is likely to be endogenous to socio-economic factors that also affect development (Lipset 1959). As democracy at the national level is clearly not randomly assigned across countries, the empirical challenge is to disentangle the effect of democracy from other confounding factors to the largest possible extent. This paper revisits this question in the context of human development in sub-Saharan Africa. Speciﬁcally, I investigate whether the democratization sweeping the region in the 1990s has reduced infant mortality.
My ﬁndings are as follows. After democratization in sub-Saharan Africa since 1990, infant mortality drops by 1.2 percentage points (12% of the sample mean). This result is robust to controlling for country-speciﬁc linear trends in the birth year of babies, country-speciﬁc birth-order dummies, country-speciﬁc quadratic trends in the mother’s age at birth, and country-level covariates such as per capita GDP, the incidence of wars, and the amount of foreign aid. Except for a couple of outlying cases, there is no such reduction in infant mortality in countries where the dictator holds multiparty elections and stays in power by winning them or where leadership change takes place in a nondemocratic way.
Interesting paper by Yuen Yuen Ang, Political Scientist at the University of Michigan:
Authoritarian states restrain online activism not only through repression and censorship, but also by indirectly weakening the ability of netizens to self-govern and constructively engage the state. I demonstrate this argument by comparing I-Paid-A-Bribe (IPAB) — a crowd-sourcing platform that collects anonymous reports of petty bribery — in India and China. Whereas IPAB originated and has thrived in India, a copycat effort in China fizzled out within months. Contrary to those who attribute China’s failed outcome to repression, I find that even before authorities shut down IPAB, the sites were already plagued by internal organizational problems that were comparatively absent in India. The study tempers expectations about the revolutionary effects of new media in mobilizing contention and checking corruption in the absence of a strong civil society.
Adding pieces of evidence to the ROI of citizen participation. Highlights are mine:
Participatory budgeting, via which the common citizen is given the ability to interact with the elected politicians in the drafting of the local budget, became a popular political reform in Brazilian municipalities in the 1990s and attracted widespread attention across the world. This paper investigates whether the use of participatory budgeting in Brazilian municipalities in the period 1991-2004 has affected the pattern of municipal expenditures and had any measurable impact on living conditions. I show that the municipalitiesthat made use of this participatory mechanism favoured an allocation of publicexpenditures that closely matched the ìpopular preferences and channeleda larger fraction of their total budget to key investments in sanitation andhealth services. I also found that this change in the composition of municipalexpenditures is associated with a pronounced reduction in the infant mortalityrates for municipalities which adopted participatory budgeting. This suggests that promoting a more direct interaction between service users and elected officials in budgetary design and implementation can affect both how local resources are spent and associated living standard outcomes.
Does democracy help babies survive in sub-Saharan Africa? By using retrospective fertility surveys conducted in 28 African countries, I compare the survival of infants born to the same mother before and after democratization to identify the eﬀect of democracy. In measuring democracy, I adopt a theoretically motivated deﬁnition of democracy: universal suﬀrage and contested elections for executive oﬃce. I ﬁnd that infant mortality falls by 1.8 percentage points, 18 percent of the sample mean, after democratization. The size of the reduction is larger for babies born to mothers from disadvantaged groups. I also ﬁnd that the replacement of a chief executive by democratization is the driving force behind these results. Additional evidence suggests that improvements in public health service delivery, not an increase in aﬄuence, are the key mechanism in which democratization has reduced infant mortality.