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?

outline of a session on civic agency

This morning, I enjoyed working with an impressive group of Rwandan professionals (academics, clinicians and others). The outline of the session could work for other groups and is “open source”–available for anyone to borrow.

I open with my formula that a good citizen is someone who seriously asks “What should we do?” I have probably overdone this refrain–it’s in video form here and here–but I see value in it. Imposing the discipline of this question blocks the cheap path of discussing what should be done (by someone else). It forces us to notice which groups we belong to and how they work. And it emphasizes the value dimension (“should”), which is often evaded in a culture dominated by science and technical expertise.

So I ask people to talk about a range of issues that matter to them and try to impose the discipline of discussing only what we should do about each one.

I then argue that in order to ask, “What should we do?” we must belong to one or more functional groups that offer agency to their members. (I don’t see a clear maximum size to such groups, but responsiveness certainly becomes problematic at large scales.)

I usually ask about the groups that people belong to or have joined in the past that enable their members to ask the citizen’s fundamental question.

Groups address an enormous range of issues, from putting on an entertaining show to challenging the patriarchy. Any group will also face three categories of internal problems–challenges to its own survival and functioning that arise more or less regardless of the issues it addresses. I present these categories one at a time, and we talk about examples (and solutions) that have arisen in people’s experience. The categories are:

  1. Problems of collective action: how to get people to contribute attention, energy, and resources to the group rather than free-ride or drain value from it. Note that these problems arise even in groups that pay their employees and require and assess their performance. Even then, degrees of contribution still depend on the norms of the group. A relevant concept here is “social capital,” which I would define as the rules and practices that allow groups of people to function well together.
  2. Problems of discourse: how to make wise decisions about the “should” part of “What should we do?” in the face of disagreement and moral uncertainty. People disagree about values. In fact, premature consensus is a threat to wisdom. But how can we disagree in ways that prevent manipulation, misinformation, balkanization, faction, etc.? (Rwandans are a little unwilling to talk about deep disagreements, for reasons I understand, and I didn’t push the matter.)
  3. Problems of the we versus the them. Any group needs boundaries, or it cannot function, but how should it relate to those who don’t belong? What if a dominant group doesn’t want your kind to join it? Groups commonly face ethical questions about how to treat outsiders as well as strategic questions about how to force their way in when they are excluded from where they want to be.

See also: what should we do?what if something is not your problem?; and Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.

Bologna, Santiago de Cali, and Tulsa win Cities of Service’ first Engaged Cities Award

I enjoyed serving on the selection committee for Cities of Service’s inaugural Engaged Cities Award and reading many superb applications. The winners were announced today. From the announcement:

  • Bologna, Italy: Realizing that bureaucracy was hindering citizens’ ability to improve their city, Bologna adopted new regulations allowing residents to partner with the city to revitalize public spaces. The new regulations spurred the city to establish district laboratories, where city staff connected with residents to develop their ideas and co-design initiatives. The labs engaged thousands of residents and resulted in more than 400 citizen-led initiatives, including turning an abandoned market into a concert hall for hundreds of local musicians to play and converting a former parking garage into a full-service bike station run by a resident cooperative.
  • Santiago de Cali, Colombia: To combat a high level of violence, especially between neighbors, Santiago de Cali created local councils, made up of citizens in 15 city districts. The councils designed and implemented more than 200 community initiatives, including the rehabilitation of a number of public spaces that had been used for drug activity, dance classes for at-risk youth, and soccer tournaments involving local youth and former gang members. The citizen-led initiatives benefitted more than 15,000 residents, building trust and reducing conflict in their communities.
  • Tulsa, Oklahoma: Tulsa had hundreds of data sets that could help them grow per capita income, increase population, reduce violent crime, and address other challenges. But they did not have the capacity to analyze the data for insights it might provide. The city created teams of city staff, citizens, and nonprofit partners to examine city data and help the city address more than a dozen public problems. The teams have proposed a number of solutions, including a better method for prioritizing street repairs, a tool for citizens to collect much-needed blight data, and more.

Even as national politics is dysfunctional or repugnant in many countries, cities are hotbeds of innovation and are often simply well governed. This is a truth increasingly acknowledged–most recently by Jim and Deb Fallows in Our Towns–but it is both encouraging and interesting.

See also: engaging citizens in cities“A Tale of Two Cities”: comparing the best and worst cities for civic engagementthe rise of urban citizenship; and A New Model for Citizen Engagement.

the Kenya Youth Manifesto

The Kenya Youth Manifesto is great. It’s the product of an elaborate deliberative process involving Kenyans between the ages of 18 and 35 (a cohort that represents 57 percent of the electorate). The Manifesto offers 52 pages of detailed recommendations. I’m sure it has specifically Kenyan underpinnings that I have missed, but from my perspective, it looks pragmatic rather than revolutionary, concerned with participation and voice as well as economic outcomes, attuned to issues like gender and disability, and consistent with Amartya Sen’s “capabilities approach.”

In his foreword, Willice Okoth Onyango depicts “youth as a distinct but heterogeneous population group.” He sounds like Sen when he calls for “build[ing] the capabilities and expand[ing] the choices of young people by enhancing their access to and participation in all dimensions of society.” And he calls for “young people and their representative associations” to be included “at all stages of the policy development and implementation process.”

Any group that writes a manifesto must avoid recommending policies that are simply unaffordable, settling for minor tweaks, demanding blatantly obvious reforms, neglecting the most obvious reforms in the interest of being original, setting vague targets, setting overly narrow or short-term targets, advocating elaborate processes (such as new commissions or research studies), ignoring process altogether, placing all the demands on target authorities, promising to solve all problems themselves, simplifying complex issues, or offering too much wonky detail. This sea is full of shoals. I think the Kenyan youth navigate just about as well as can be done.

Their product is more like a party manifesto (what Americans call a “platform”) than, say, the Communist Manifesto, which offered a compelling new social vision. The Kenya Youth Manifesto couldn’t simply be implemented, because it would need various kinds of scarce resources–not only money but also political capital. I know far too little about Kenyan social issues to be able to assess the recommendations. But it’s an impressive product that’s worth imitating elsewhere.

what does it mean to say democracy is in retreat?

According to Freedom House, “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—came under attack around the world.”

This statement deserves unpacking if we want to understand in what ways democracy (or “freedom”) is declining worldwide. The statement combines several ideals that may not fit neatly together in practice. It’s not obvious why Freedom House mentions some rights instead of others. For example, if the key concept is “democracy,” we might look for equality of voice, power, and status. Finally, the statement never defines the alternative to democracy: what is gaining at the expense of the basket of values that Freedom House endorses.

I think what’s gaining is authoritarianism, meaning a system that relies on the arbitrary will of leaders. It is a government by rulers without (many) rules. An authoritarian leader can say “Do this” and can evade any explanation other than, “Because I said so.” Authoritarian leaders typically undermine precisely the values that Freedom House lists: fair elections, minority rights, a free press, and rule of law.

The opposite of authoritarianism is “non-domination,” in Philip Pettit’s influential sense. A system without domination is one in which, although citizens must follow rules and face restrictions, nobody can simply tell anyone else what to do. Pettit argues that non-domination was the core value in the long tradition of civic republicanism that began in antiquity and flourished in the Italian city states, the English Revolution, and the American founding. His framework suggests a spectrum that runs from an absence of domination (republicanism) to pervasive domination (authoritarianism).

Evidence like the material I collected recently shows that republican institutions are in decline in many countries. Republicanism is in retreat.

Within the republican tradition, there is room for debate about democratic processes. Do democratic institutions (such as popular voting) prevent domination or create opportunities for majorities to dominate? There is also room for debate about liberal rights. For example, do property rights prevent or enable domination?

I’ll leave liberal rights aside for this post, although they are important. If we focus on democratic participation (lively debate, mobilized citizens, and a strong scope for elections), then we can view it as theoretically distinct from republicanism. Below, republicanism is on the horizontal axis; democracy on the vertical. Quadrant A stands for a system in which the people rule, yet majorities or popularly elected leaders dictate results without having to justify themselves. B is a society with equal voice and power, where everything is open to debate and no one can dominate anyone else. C is classic authoritarianism: no rules, no voice. And D is a system in which the government is limited and rule-guided and obligated to explain itself, but the people don’t have much of a voice. (Austria-Hungary in 1890?)

It is then an empirical question whether democratic processes tend to accompany republican safeguards. Is B common? Is it even possible?

In the V-Dem database, in 2016, for nations that held elections at all, there was a correlation of 0.4 between the degree to which the executive branch honors constitutional constraints and the degree to which free elections were held without intimidation.

There was a stronger correlation between respect for the constitution and robust public discussion (.53). (This means that that “large numbers of non-elite groups as well as ordinary people … discuss major policies among themselves, in the media, in associations or neighborhoods, or in the streets”).

I show here the correlation between respect for the constitution and whether the government consults with a broad range of stakeholders before making decisions (0.6).

These results are consistent with the hypothesis that elections and a strong public sphere help to check arbitrary power. Perhaps limited governments are forced to permit elections, to consult with stakeholders, and to accept robust deliberation.

There are no examples in the world today of strongly rule-guided governments that don’t deliberate at all, nor are there any governments that consult and deliberate widely but pay no attention to constitutional safeguards.

However, the correlations are far from lockstep. Countries do fall in all of the four quadrants, albeit not deeply into A or D. If your values are strongly republican, democratic methods seem to be helpful–but they won’t get you all the way to non-domination. And if your values are strictly democratic, republicanism may get somewhat in your way.

watching democratic cultures decline

Yesterday, I offered some evidence that broad public deliberation declines when authoritarianism rises. I used data Varieties of Democracy, which asks 2,800 experts questions about specific countries in specific years.

For this purpose, I’ll define “authoritarianism” as a system that relies on the arbitrary will of leaders. It’s a system of rulers without many rules. Its opposite, then, is “republicanism” in Philip Pettit’s sense: a system in which nobody can be told what to do without a justification. Many variables in the V-Dem database relate to authoritarianism, but I’ve selected two: (1) whether the executive branch respects the constitution of its country, and (2) whether elections are held without intimidation. I chose this election-related variable because regular and fair elections provide a check on arbitrary rule, and also because a typical tactic of an autocrat is to interfere with elections.

Pettit, citing Quentin Skinner, emphasizes that “one of the central themes” of the civic republican tradition is “belief in dialogical reason.” The connection between republicanism and deliberation is not definitional. In other words, you could imagine an authoritarian state that encourages deliberation or a genuine republic that is weak on deliberation. But republicanism and deliberation have often been connected because one way to make decisions non-arbitrary is to encourage discussion of them.

V-Dem offers two measures of deliberation: 1) to what extent do “large numbers of non-elite groups as well as ordinary people … discuss major policies among themselves, in the media, in associations or neighborhoods, or in the streets”?; and 2) to what extent do leaders consult a wide range of stakeholders? Along with the two measures of authoritarianism, we have four variables whose relationships interest me.

In Turkey, for example, all four measures have fallen since 2010. The fair elections variable began to decline first; then the other three fell in tandem.

The pattern is less pronounced but similar in Poland since 2011.

In the Philippines, election intimidation has not grown worse, but the other three variables have taken a dive since 2012.

In Venezuela, it’s been steadily downhill since 2000.

Brazil’s elections got a little worse first (starting at a high baseline), and then everything plunged after 2015.

Russia has seen fairly steady declines from a lower baseline.

And the US saw declines before 2016 in elections and in public dialogue that may presage rising state authoritarianism in 2017 and ’18 (not shown yet).

authoritarianism and deliberative democracy

The Varieties of Democracy project asks 2,800 experts many questions about specific countries in specific years. One question is “When important policy changes are being considered, how wide and how independent are public deliberations?” The scale ranges from zero (“Public deliberation is never, or almost never allowed”) to 5 (“Large numbers of non-elite groups as well as ordinary people tend to discuss major policies among themselves, in the media, in associations or neighborhoods, or in the streets. Grass-roots deliberation is common and unconstrained”).

Below is a graph that shows the change in public deliberation (so measured) since 2000 for eight countries that I see as increasingly authoritarian. My choice of these countries is subjective. (Why not the Central African Republic, which Freedom House names as the single-biggest “backslider” on democracy in the world? Because I don’t know much about the CAR.) But of the countries that I selected in advance to serve as examples of growing authoritarianism, all but one showed declines in the V-Dem measure of broad public deliberation.

This pattern may seem self-evident or even tautological. Perhaps countries that are tending toward authoritarianism see less deliberation because authoritarianism is the opposite of deliberation. But I find the graph at least somewhat meaningful. At the core of authoritarianism is a reliance on powerful leaders who disdain constitutional limits. It’s possible for authoritarians to run a state even while “large numbers of people … discuss major policies among themselves, in the media, in associations or neighborhoods, or in the streets.” Some authoritarian states even choose to expand deliberative fora. For example, China’s Communist Party is implementing deliberative processes, which it probably sees as devices for blunting criticism and improving satisfaction with its deeply undemocratic regime (He & Warren 2017). Caroline W. Lee (2015) has argued that small-scale deliberation co-opts resistance in the USA, and Cristina Lafont (2017) worries that creating ideal deliberative fora can delegitimize regular democratic processes.

So the question arises whether authoritarianism is really contrary to deliberation at all. One might even suspect that the biggest threats to deliberation arise in mass capitalist societies, where corporate and partisan propaganda drown out reasoned conversation on poorly designed platforms, like Twitter.

But this is partly an empirical question, and I do see evidence of a negative correlation between authoritarianism and deliberative values. Above I showed that countries well known for turning more authoritarian are also seeing less public deliberation. Below are two graphs showing a different relationship–between leaders’ respect for the constitution and the government’s tendency to consult a wide range of stakeholders. Again the source is V-Dem data, but unfortunately from 2006.

I take respect for the constitution as an inverse measure of authoritarianism, and consultation as a sign that a government wants to deliberate. The correlation is pretty clear. Most countries fall on a line between North Korea and Germany. India’s government consults more than China’s does. Neither respects its own constitution more than the other, but the Indian constitution is much better on civil liberties. The US is a circle between those two countries but a little higher up.

The next graph shows the same y-axis (respect for the constitution) plotted against the degree to which politicians respect counter-arguments. A high score on that measure means that they generally feel compelled to give explanations when they are challenged. Again, the line is defined by North Korea and Germany. On this plot, China is an outlier, showing decent respect for its own constitution but reluctance to consult diverse stakeholders.

Much more analysis could be done (and it would be better to use more recent data than 2006). Still, this seems to be evidence of a correlation–in practice, if not in theory–between respect for constitutional restraints and deliberative values. One reason may be that political leaders tend to model deliberation in societies where they also respect limits, and they fail to do so when they turn authoritarian. Or it could be that when publics are organized and motivated to demand discussion, they also block authoritarianism.

Sources: Baogang He  & Mark E. Warren “Authoritarian Deliberation in China,” Daedalus, 146, 3, 155-166; Caroline W. Lee, Do-It-Yourself Democracy: The Rise of the Public Engagement Industry New York: Oxford University Press, 2015; Cristina Lafont, “Can Democracy be Deliberative & Participatory? The Democratic Case for Political Uses of Mini-Publics,” Daedalus 2017 146:3, 85-105.

republican values in Uganda

Twice in 2017 (for family reasons), we visited Uganda with stops in Dubai. I posted a longer reflection on the two societies last February and would stand by those observations after a second visit. Having just returned, I would like to emphasize a point about Uganda’s being a genuine republic–and what that word means.

Uganda’s parliament recently voted to amend the constitution so that President Yoweri Museveni can run for a sixth term (while extending MPs’ terms from five to seven years). These are probably bad decisions–not that anyone would ask my opinion–but the debate reflects Uganda’s genuine republicanism.

Here I follow Philip Pettit in understanding a republic as a system without arbitrary command. In a republic, no citizen can tell another citizen “Because I said so.” To make a society a republic, neither equality nor freedom (in the sense of private choice) must necessarily be maximized. Instead, domination–anyone’s ability to dictate what others do–must be minimized. This ideal can be accomplished by a combination of rule of law, democratically accountable institutions, certain kinds of actual equality, and a civic culture in which dominating behavior is shunned and the respectful exchange of reasons is prized.

Note that this ideal has deep African roots. In exploring the value of consensus in traditional African societies, Kwasi Wiredu emphasizes that it doesn’t mean agreement. “It suffices that all parties are able to feel that adequate account has been taken of their points of view in any proposed scheme of future action or coexistence.” In a republic, some win and some lose–and some may even lose quite consistently–but everyone’s opinions are owed consideration and a response.

Uganda ranks 125th in the world in economic equality. It is also deeply poor, which means that everyone except the elite is very badly off. The UNDP estimates that “70.3 percent of the population …. are multidimensionally poor while an additional 20.6 percent live near multidimensional poverty.” This means that very few Ugandans have cooking fuel, toilets, water or electricity that comes near their homes, a floor, any accumulated assets, or any support for their children’s education. (The government spends $2.12 per student per year on education.)

The effects of deep poverty on both political voice and actual freedom cannot be overstated. You’re not free (in most senses of the word) if your survival depends on constant physical labor, good luck, and fair treatment by those who have more than you. Meanwhile, Uganda has a problematic democracy, dominated by the majority NRM party and its president and afflicted by corruption. These are real challenges, and being a republic doesn’t compensate for them.

Yet Uganda is a republic. The constitution guarantees right to citizens. The overwhelmingly powerful NRM can amend the constitution in its own interest but still feels compelled to offer citizens reasons for its actions. Courts still review the process. Citizens still respond with very active criticism. The press is full of passionate, concerned, critical voices. There’s huge turnout at MPs’ public meetings in their constituencies. Although preserving abstract, procedural rights would seem remote on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–a luxury or “First World Problem”–Ugandans take changes to their constitution personally.

In turn, powerful Ugandans address their fellow countrypeople as citizens. That word is common in the pronouncements of politicians, clergy, and experts. Even President Museveni feels compelled (or moved?) to address his people as citizens. While we were there, he wrote a column in New Vision, one of the newspapers that struck me as more friendly to his government. It is a somewhat digressive piece, rather like an impromptu speech after a meal, that begins with his retelling a local folk tale. He writes, “I want to inform the reader that when I read the Nyabihoko story, I was reminded of what I normally observe from the helicopter the People of Uganda provided me as President for quick travel.” He then begins to discuss various waterways in the country. But notice that he feels the need to justify his helicopter and to thank The People for it. He doesn’t have a right to a helicopter because he is the president; he needs it and feels obliged to explain why he uses one.

Uganda’s republicanism is especially notable in contrast to Dubai, where human development is dramatically higher and most people enjoy considerable actual freedom in the form of an ability to choose what to do. Moreover, the dominant cultural style is that of mass consumer capitalism, which involves treating the customer or client respectfully and not saying, “Because I said so.” A visitor with cash–a mizungu, in East African parlance–could more easily dominate people in Uganda than in Dubai, because Ugandans very badly need a customer or a tip, whereas a shopkeeper in Dubai can wait for the next person on line. Still, underlying the whole system in Dubai is “domination” in Pettit’s sense: the Ruler can decide which freedoms to permit and owes no justification.

What to make of a combination of republican norms, deep poverty, and one-party dominance? One view would be this is not really a republic. Too many Ugandans are too economically vulnerable to be able to escape everyday domination, and the NRM has too many seats (293 out of 426) for its political power to be constrained. I’d be inclined to say, instead, that Uganda faces deep economic and political challenges but still has a genuine republic, and that is an achievement for which Ugandans deserve full credit.

See also: do we live in a republic or a democracy? avoiding arbitrary command and Dubai, Uganda, and today’s global political economy.