Category Archives: democratic reform overseas

Volodymyr Zelensky, servant of the people?

I’m very curious what my politically diverse but well-informed Ukrainian friends think about their presidential election. It’s mostly framed in the West as: “comedian with no political experience is elected president.” That is a little misleading: it suggests a stand-up comic winning on the basis of one-liners. Volodymyr Zelensky is actually the founder and creative leader of a company that produces successful movies and TV series in which he stars.

His most recent show is Servant of the People, which is available on Netflix with English subtitles, and which my wife and I have been watching. Zelensky plays a high school teacher who goes on a profane rant against corrupt politicians that his students film and post on YouTube. They also crowd-source his campaign funds and get him on the ballot, and he’s elected president.

Ukrainians have now voted to make the writer/actor of this role their actual president. It is roughly as if Americans chose Amy Poehler for president because of her role as Leslie Knope on Parks & Rec–either selecting Leslie to lead our real country (a naive reaction) or choosing the creator of Parks and Rec because of the show’s values and its portrayal of America. Or it might be a little like electing Ronald Reagan as governor of California because of his fictional personas plus his political speeches (which made a seamless whole in the 1960s).

Servant of the People is well-made, well-acted, funny. I can totally understand why people would be interested in voting for its creator, who is utterly appealing on screen.

Of course, the show is also a powerful device for persuasion. In the controlled environment of a fictional world, Zelensky can construct events to make his character the good guy and to sideline difficult questions. Plato’s warnings about the power of theater come to mind. Instead of describing Zelensky as a “comedian,” I would call this entrepreneur/actor with a law degree a highly skillful rhetorician. On screen, he is without guile. But to create that persona took artistry.

Questions:

What is the political thesis of the show? The targets are corruption, hypocrisy, arrogant elites, and social unfairness. Those are very real problems in Ukraine and many other countries. It can, however, be misguided to treat integrity as the only goal while neglecting contested policy questions. Zelensky’s fictional character dodges policy questions from the press because they are ridiculously wonky and because he’s a a draftee into politics who doesn’t know the answers. The real Zelensky has avoided interviews and press conferences even though he seriously ran for president. This strikes me as problematic.

What does Zelensky stand for? Reading scattered quotes available in English, I would guess he’s basically a Europhile liberal, in the Ukrainian context: in favor of civil liberties, some market reforms, and tilting West. But not a hardcore nationalist–for example, Servant of the People is performed in Russian rather than Ukrainian. He’s ethnically Jewish, which should give no one a free pass but which rarely accompanies xenophobia in that part of the world. On the other hand, it’s not great to have to guess the president’s positions from scattered quotes.

Is he qualified? I don’t believe that political leaders must be, or even should be, policy wonks. They should learn from experts (and from others) while setting the tone and direction. Zelensky is a very capable person–again, not just a stand-up comic but the author of complex (if problematic) political fiction and the founder and leader of an enterprise. He did study law. I would think his resume is fine if he demonstrates an ability to share power, delegate, and learn.

Ukrainians have rolled the dice. Given the alternative, I fully understand why they took this risk. It’s not the textbook version of how a democracy should work, but the status quo has been intolerable, and at least the explicit values of Servant of the People are benign. Nor does the textbook account ever fully apply. My fingers are crossed.

how Brexit is unlike Trump (and what to do about it)

When they think about Brexit, most of my American friends equate it with the election of Donald Trump. Both events are seen as manifestations of xenophobia, paranoia toward elites, and even Russian propaganda.

You can tell that this analogy is weak from the stance of Labour, which is meeting right now for its conference in Liverpool and debating a huge range of motions on Brexit. Yesterday, the Guardian reported:

Consensus appeared to break out as Jeremy Corbyn insisted he would follow the democratic will of his party if delegates voted for a second referendum on the final Brexit deal. But trouble could still be brewing. The Labour leader refused to say which way he would vote. The Unite chief, Len McCluskey, added his tuppence worth, suggesting it would be wrong for any new vote to include the option of staying in the EU. Remainers will be unimpressed.

Last night, after 5.5 hours of negotiation, party leaders emerged with a draft statement that criticizes “the Tories’ chaotic approach to the Brexit negotiations,” calls for a general election, and fudges everything else. Corbyn himself voted against Brexit, but he also voted against the key European treaties of 1975, 1992, and 2008; he has little positive to say about the current EU; and he has frequently pledged to “respect the referendum” that passed Brexit.

Imagine if Bernie Sanders won control of the Democratic Party and refused to say which way he would vote on Trump’s Wall or the refugee ban, while expressing respect for the policy implications of an election held several years ago. That would be plausible if Brexit were like Trump–but it isn’t.

I can’t overstate my own disappointment with the Brexit vote. My commitment to European integration goes back to the 1970s, when I was a child in a London primary school with a literal WWII bomb site next door. The European Economic Community was forming in those days, and we studied each member country in turn–in order to become peaceful, pluralist, democratic Europeans. (By the way, this was a Christian socialist state primary school run on progressive lines.) I’m proudly a citizen of the USA but have remained deeply invested in the ideal of European unity.

However, it is a matter for debate and reasonable disagreement whether the current form of the EU merits membership. One doesn’t have to be a bigot or a fool to want to leave. If you approach politics from the left, you will see both pros and cons to exit.

For Labour politicians, ambiguity is attractive, because they can hope to win votes from both sides on Brexit while blaming the inevitable fiasco on chaotic Tory management.

I happen to believe in what Bill Galston once called “the obligation to play hardball,” and I think a Labour policy of deferring on Brexit until the outcome crushes the Conservatives is possibly a good hardball play (to use a baseball metaphor for the land of cricket).

But it also has risks, even from a Labour perspective:

  1. Constitutional risks: there is now a widespread sentiment in Britain that respecting a referendum is the best way to honor democracy. (And holding a second referendum would somehow undermine the people’s will.) The traditional view was that the British people were best represented by Parliament, which they choose to exercise sovereignty between elections. That is a better political theory, because government should be deliberative and flexible. Parliamentary sovereignty would return if Labour took a clear position against Brexit. No one would doubt that Parliament could overrule the referendum once voters gave Labour a mandate to do so. It would then be equally clear that Britain is heading toward Brexit because the Tories are in the government. Hence there is only one reason that parliamentary sovereignty is at risk: the opposition refuses to take a position on the most pressing issue of the day.
  2. Risks to the European left: many have noted that if Labour takes over and Britain gains the same status as Norway (all the rules without a vote in Brussels), then Europe will lose the strongest potential voice of the left–Corbyn, as the leader of the second-biggest EU economy. The best way for a Labour voter to try to influence all of Europe is to stay in the EU.
  3. Risks to the United Kingdom: the most obvious danger is the collapse of Irish peace due to a hard border. But you can also see pro-European Scotland constantly looking to leave Britain if the UK leaves the EU. There are arguments for Scottish independence, but if you’re a Labour voter (either north or south of the border), you should definitely want to keep all those leftish Scots in the country.
  4. Risks to Labour: I can believe that Britain will sustain a terrible shock from Brexit and that voters will long blame the Tories for it. But will they respect Labour if Labour didn’t oppose Brexit while it had a chance? On the other hand, if the exit goes reasonably well, the Tories will benefit. Thus ambiguity presents electoral risks, not just as benefits, for Labour.

nonviolent civic work under conditions of extreme violence

My Tufts colleague Anjuli N. Fahlberg, a sociologist, has done extraordinary work in Rio de Janeiro’s City of God. Despite a staggering level of violence in that neighborhood, the residents have created a wide array of impressive initiatives that offer social services, education, and culture and promote social justice. Local activists are networked with peers in other communities they have been effective at the national level in Brazil.

Anjuli helps rebut the claim that “civic engagement” is only for privileged people. She also reveals interesting patterns that may generalize to other places. For example:

CBO [community-based organization] leaders had to monitor their activities and tactics closely so as not to conflict with the political and economic interests of the drug trade. They did this in several ways. For one, they decidedly avoided local politics, which meant avoiding any contact with political or community leaders known to be working for the drug trade and declining favors from local political candidates. … Since Solange and other CBOs refused to engage in violent governance, they found power in its opposite: moral governance. Moral governance emphasized transparency, fairness, equality, justice, and the use of resources for their stated activities. Notably, nearly all CBO leaders were women and thus offered a visual, embodied distinction from violent politics, which were controlled almost entirely by men.

This is from Anjuli N. Fahlberg, “Rethinking Favela Governance: Nonviolent Politics in Rio de Janeiro’s Gang Territories,” Politics & Society, September 11, 2018. Read the whole thing. You can also watch Anjuli’s talk at last year’s Frontiers of Democracy conference, here:

from modest civic reforms to a making a stand for democracy

This summer, I’ve had the chance to lead discussions among 20 scholars and activists who gathered for two weeks at Tufts, to chair the Frontiers of Democracy conference for about 130 educators and organizers (mostly Americans), to work with social studies teachers in Utah and in Ukraine, and to participate in the 4th annual European Summer Institute for scholars and activists from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Germany, Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Ukraine. I got to meet more than 200 new people, almost all of whom would say that their vocation is to support democracy.

These conversations provoke reflection on my part, a quarter century after I started in the “democracy business” at Common Cause and then at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. It strikes me that our agenda must be very different today from during the Bush I and Clinton years, when I was in my 20s and early 30s. I’ve perhaps been too slow to adjust to the change (the Obama years made me complacent), but it’s not too late.

In the late 1900s, the formal systems of parliamentary democracy seemed secure in countries like the US, and triumphant globally. Autocrats were old guys who couldn’t deliver prosperity, achieve popularity, or anticipate the social movements that toppled them.

However, politics and government were unpopular in the US. We weren’t using public institutions to tackle complex and profound problems, such as de-industrialization, racial injustice, or environmental crises. Maybe that was because the neoliberal center-left–leaders like Clinton and Blair–had simply given up. Or maybe it was because citizens had come to mistrust public institutions for good reasons, and the tools and processes of government were inadequate to the challenges of the day.

Meanwhile, everyday civic life had eroded. Robert Putnam suggested this erosion in “Bowling Alone” (1995); succeeding events have unfortunately vindicated him. Traditionally, formal politics in the US rested on a foundation of associations that brought people out of their private spheres and taught them values and skills relevant to national government. Those associations had shrunk and fractured.

Many of us thought that we should try to “deepen” democracy by adding to the formal processes of our political system better opportunities for citizens to discuss and collaborate. That would repair some of the gaps among citizens and between citizens and the state and would enable civil society to tackle intractable problems. This was the premise of the National Commission on Civic Renewal, of which I was deputy director (1997-8), and of my 2000 book, The New Progressive Era: Toward a Fair and Deliberative Democracy.

Flash forward to 2018, and we observe a very different situation. The autocrats and oligarchs are now the innovators, delivering prosperity and popularity in countries like China. Freedom House argues that democracy has been in retreat for a dozen years. As influential as the book version of Bowling Alone was in 2000 is this year’s How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

Then, one of the concerns was US arrogance and ideological imperialism, as we sent legions of advisers to places like the former Soviet Union and discussed the End of History thesis. We “spiked the football” in the end-zone of the Cold War. Now China offers the model that has rising global appeal: sophisticated technocratic authoritarianism, a corporate-dominated market economy, and assertive nationalism. The US follows that global trend but in a version that inspires almost no one beyond our borders.

Many people don’t merely disapprove of the performance of their respective democratic governments; they explicitly disparage democracy. Whereas every Republican president from TR to George W. Bush (except perhaps Taft) presented himself as a champion of democracy (by that name), now only one of the major American parties consistently endorses democracy as an ideal.

Americans are not merely disengaged and a little mistrustful of one another; we increasingly hate each other.

In the modern world, we observe events not directly, but through media of communications. Those media have been massively transformed since the late 1900s. One third fewer people are employed at journalists today, metropolitan daily newspapers have virtually collapsed, and the global media environment is dominated by openly ideological broadcast companies and caustic social media.

We’ve made some progress on some social issues (health insurance, for instance), but other issues have reached the boiling point. Policing, for example, was racially unjust in the 1990s. People then demanded the execution of innocent young Black men and defended their stance by saying, “maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done.” But now the person who uttered that particular phrase is the President of the United States and has the explicit support of more than 4 in 10 Americans.

I am increasingly skeptical that our main need is to deepen democracy–to add forums, programs, or policies that grant citizens more valuable roles in our formal systems. I doubt that strategy would block Brexit or Trump or the purge of the Supreme Court in Poland. Deepening democracy might work for addressing a mild sense of alienation from routine governance, but not for holding back autocracy.

If mishandled, this strategy can even help to delegitimize institutions that deserve support.  Caroline W. Lee argues that organized deliberations can co-opt resistance. Cristina Lafont worries that deliberative fora can delegitimize regular democratic processes, such as elections, by making them look so inferior that they don’t deserve protection. China is implementing local deliberative processes at a large scale, perhaps to blunt criticism and improve satisfaction with its regime.

I think the new wave of strategies must have these features:

  1. Democracy must be championed by candidates, parties, and movements that aim to govern, not by specialized nonprofits in the democracy field. We can’t be satisfied with procedural innovations around the edges. Governments must demonstrate that they can get better outcomes by using democratic methods. That means that the same people must offer procedural reforms, democratic values, and substantive policies, and they must deliver results while they hold power.
  2. Democratic reforms must shift the balance of power. That means that democracy can’t be viewed as politically neutral or nonpartisan. Some people must gain influence at others’ expense, to even the balance.
  3. Our strategies must address formal processes and rights guaranteed by constitutions–not add-ons.
  4. We should make more use of direct action and contentious social movement tactics.
  5. Arguments for democracy must be enthusiastic assertions of human dignity, fairness and equity, decency and non-corruption. They can’t be technocratic, legalistic, or procedural arguments, nor can they be hedged with qualifications. Human beings (everywhere) simply have a birthright to be treated as owners of their societies.

In many countries, the torch can be carried by new parties with explicitly democratic values and policy agendas. Pedemos (left) and Ciudadanos (center-right) both fit that bill in Spain.

In the US, the most important struggles involve our existing parties. The Democrats must win in 2018 and 2020, must then govern competently, must articulate a persuasive vision of an inclusive democracy, and must shift from making social policy reforms (like Obamacare) to changing who has power through electoral and labor-law reforms. They must address the third level of power.

Meanwhile, conservatives must capture the Republican Party for a genuinely conservative agenda of decentralization, constitutionalism, and skepticism about government. This may sound like “concern trolling“: a liberal pretending to care about the GOP to score points against it. But I genuinely believe that the struggle of true conservatives for their party is one of the most important frontiers in the US today.

See also: people trust authoritarian governments mostwhy autocrats are winningwhat does it mean to say democracy is in retreat?; and why the deliberative democracy framework doesn’t quite work for me.

why autocrats are winning (right now) #DemFront #DemFront18

During the opening session of Frontiers of Democracy last night, Hardy Merriman from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict showed this graph from Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. It shows that nonviolent social movements were strikingly successful at achieving their own stated objectives during the 1990s, but their success rate has fallen sharply since.

A full explanation would have to consider many variables–geopolitics, technology, changes in ideologies and issues. I suspect (as Chenoweth and Stephan do) that one factor is the skill and sophistication of both democrats and autocrats. For a sustained argument about the importance of skill in social movements, see Marshall Ganz, Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement

To explain the graph above, we could first argue that nonviolent movements and bottom-up pro-democracy movements developed an impressive repertoire of strategies, thanks to the experience of anti-colonial struggles in the Global South, social movements in the West, dissident movements in the Soviet Bloc, and hacker cultures online. At the same time, the traditional toolkit of the autocrat–centrally managed economies, mass incarceration and terror, secret police bureaucracies, etc.–was failing.

On both sides, actors always learn from their peers. Solidarity invited Bayard Rustin to Poland to teach nonviolent strategies–and that’s just one of countless examples on the nonviolent side. On the other side, Saddam imitated Stalin. But Rustin and Solidarity had the newer and and more successful ideas; Saddam and his ilk were losing.

Then the surviving older autocrats, and the new generation of authoritarians, began to innovate. Chenoweth & Stephan write:

State opponents may be learning and adapting to challenges from below. Although several decades ago, they may have underestimated the potential of people power to pose significant threats to their rule, they may now see mass nonviolent campaigns as truly threatening, devoting more resources to preventing them — perhaps following the implications of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith’s “Dictator’s Handbook” — or deploying “smart repression” to subvert them when they arise. This phenomenon of learned adaptation, or what Steven Heydemann, the Ketcham Chair in Middle East Studies at Smith College, calls “authoritarianism 2.0,” is a central focus of the “Future of Authoritarianism” project at the Atlantic Council.

In a recent Bloomberg column, Tyler Cowan argues that “the governance technologies and strategies of authoritarian regimes have become much more efficient.” One-party states and oligarchs are better at managing economies and thereby delivering economic growth.

They have also developed more sophisticated ways of dealing with criticism:

Authoritarian leaders realized that absolute prohibitions on free speech were counterproductive, and they learned how to manage an intermediate solution.  Allowing partial speech rights is useful as a safety valve, it allows major dissidents to be identified and monitored, and absolute speech prohibitions tended to wreck the economy and discourage foreign investment, leading to unpopularity of the government. At the same time, an autocratic government could come down hard on the truly threatening ideas when needed.

Authoritarian states have begun collecting valid data about what the people want through reliable opinion polling. As Cowan notes, Mao got only indications of popular support from his terrified underlings, but today’s Communist Party really knows what the Chinese people think and can respond strategically.

Also in the modern autocrat’s toolkit are increasingly sophisticated surveillance strategies, state control of media that is actually popular (rather than drab and overtly propagandistic), and the use of digital technologies to corrupt the public sphere.

The graph is alarming, but the game isn’t over yet. Autocrats and democrats play an endless cat-and-mouse game. There was nothing inevitable about the triumph of nonviolent social resistance, but neither is it doomed today. Strategies that worked in 1995 are not likely to work in 2020, and we should always expect effective counter-strategies to develop. As Merriman said last night, this pattern underlines the importance of innovation, analysis, training, and networking.

See also Why Civil Resistance Workspeople trust authoritarian governments mostwhy the global turn to authoritarian ethnonationalism?what does it mean to say democracy is in retreat?watching democratic cultures decline; and was the Civil Rights Movement successful because of the Cold War?