In the Journal

Hindsight bias in expert surveys: How democratic crises influence retrospective evaluations

While the past few decades have seen a global expansion of democracy, more recently many academic studies have warned of democratic backsliding. In some cases, seemingly consolidated democracies have begun to resemble authoritarian regimes, while elsewhere liberal democratic institutions such as freedom of the press have been systematically undermined.

Academics, policymakers, journalists and a range of other actors often use indices to measure the quality of democracy across time and space. Some of these indices have been criticized on methodological grounds for apparent political bias and/or a lack of transparency. Due to these well-known limitations, academic studies of the quality of democracy increasingly rely on indices derived from expert assessments—that is, the judgments of other academics, journalists, and political practitioners.

How reliable are experts when it comes to assessing the quality of democracy? Although indices based on expert assessments represent an improvement over previous measures, they are based on the assumption that expert judgments are objective and accurate. However, we show that experts remain vulnerable to errors in reasoning that may impede the impartiality and reliability of their judgments. In particular, we find that expert judgments may be influenced by the very phenomenon that many index users are trying to understand: democratic crises.

In our recent article in Politics, we examine one particular form of expert bias: hindsight bias. Hindsight bias refers to the tendency to retrospectively exaggerate one’s foresight of an event—in this case, a crisis of democracy. We argue that hindsight bias is particularly insidious when applied to retrospective evaluations of democratic crises due to the difficulty of separating our evaluations of the pre-crisis period from the knowledge that a crisis occurred.

Complicating matters further, political memory is often ideologically polarized, as interpretations of past events may be embedded in current political debates that seek to (re)frame past conflicts. Although this sort of ideological bias differs from hindsight bias, the two problems are related. While we cannot alter past events, the way in which these events are (re-)interpreted in the present, and their significance in relation to events that are currently unfolding, is constantly evolving. We suggest that crises of democracy, by their very nature, are particularly vulnerable to shifting/competing interpretations in this way.

When it comes to expert assessments of democratic crises, we find evidence of considerable disagreement. In spite of the fact that their evaluations paint widely different pictures, however, experts remain highly confident in their individual judgments.

We argue that this poses a potential problem for those who use expert surveys to study democratic breakdowns. Our findings suggest that experts’ knowledge of a crisis colours their evaluations, and, more importantly, experts may not be fully aware that this is happening.

The Trouble with “Non-lethal Agents”

On early morning of October 26th, 2002, Russian special forces stormed Dubrovka Threater to free hundreds of civilian hostages captured by Chechen separatists. As a part of this infamous operation, Russians used a gaseous compound – an incapacitating chemical agent – that caused the death of over one hundred hostages. While there are still many unanswered questions left about this tragic incident, it seems clear that a vast majority of fatalities were indeed the result of gas poisoning.

Similar incapacitating chemical agents (ICAs) are often imprecisely grouped together with so-called riot control agents (RCAs) as “non-lethal chemical agents” that, unlike chemicals intended for warfare, should belong to the domain of law enforcement unregulated by the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). However, tragic events such the Dubrovka hostage incident have contributed to a growing sentiment in international community that these chemicals are much more dangerous for civilians than their name suggests and that rules and norms of the CWC should change to regulate their possession and use by states.

In our new article in Politics, we draw on an adapted theory of the cycle of normative change to track the development of the “non-lethal agents” issue within the CWC. At the beginning, states intending to change the CWC rules concerning these chemicals had a little success with bringing the issue of the agenda, partly due to the general disinterest among relevant actors partly also because other CWC-related issues that sometimes resulted in “non-lethal agents” being sidetracked – such as the events in Syria that “overshadowed” the debate at the Third Review Conference.

However, we also show the factors that have, in time, led to increasing support for norm change among the state parties. The aforementioned Dubrovka incident came as a shock and provided a ground for opening the debate on the issue. An important turn in the discussion was the involvement of Australia as one of the main proponents of stricter regulations and later also the United States, which eventually reconsidered its earlier dismissive position. Nevertheless, what we found particularly intriguing was the change of the framing strategy that provided norm-promoting states with more room for maneuvering and significantly helped them to gather broader support in the CWC. The framing strategy was to newly decouple RCAs and ICAs as two different problems (rather than a single “non-lethal-agent issue”) and focus mainly on the latter of the two. In addition, the ICAs were rebranded as “central nervous system acting chemicals” with more clearly defined scope – a move that significantly increased the level of international support for norm change.

The process that would end up with formal changes of the CWC rules on these contested chemicals is, as of early 2020, far from complete, and there is certainly resistance among some states to proceed further with these changes. If the issue were to be taken forward, the next step should be to follow the recommendations of the Open-Ended Working Group on Future Priorities and launch a policy discussion on formal rule changes concerning “non-lethal agents” in the CWC.

Labor and Justice Platform activists as ‘the pious resistance’ in Turkey

James Scott (1985) wrote that “everyday forms of resistance make no headlines”. Yet, still there are everyday forms of resistance, all those apparently insignificant narratives and acts that stop short of collective defiance but hold sway over the political authority. While tracing contestations of religious neoliberal governmentality under the AKP in Turkey, we interviewed members of the Labor and Justice Platform (LJP), a social-justice oriented grassroots organization that brings together young activists from former Islamist and leftist networks. In a recent article in Politics, we call their actions and discourses the pious dissidence. Notwithstanding their lack of electoral strength, we aimed to show that they still matter: first, they are strong enough to voice an alternative to the AKP; second, to show neoliberalisation cost the AKP its moral claim to stand for the underdog; and third to retain Islamic consciousness amidst the increasing authoritarianism with religious references in Turkey. Hence, what matters is not their numbers, but their courage to harness counter-discourses against the AKP rule imbued with Islamic references.

In order to do this, these young activists problematize the AKP government’s instrumentalization of religious idioms, such as kader (fate), kısmet (destiny), şükür (thankfulness), sabır (steadfastness) in order to shirt the responsibility to a divine being when it fails to deliver. The pious resistance contests the government’s claim over these Islamic references, knowing that this is an attempt to enhance the resilience of the pious subject from within and essentially to contain any contestation of its rule at the outset. Turning to Islamic references to explain political failure aims to prevent the pious subject from questioning AKP’s responsibility for this failure. It seeks to retain this very subject within the politico-religious narrative even when AKP fails to deliver. Eventually, retention does not succeed, but contestation succeeds.

We explain this contestation using the Foucauldian framework while emphasising contestation as an underdeveloped term in this literature. In particular, we outline three areas of dissent. First, group members express a sharp criticism of market Islam or any efforts to mix religion and neoliberal economics. In their critique, they focus on Islamic principles of equality, brotherhood, and labor rights. Second, LJP members challenge political Islam by emphasizing a multiplicity of interpretations of Islam and the need to foreground the liberatory, egalitarian, and justice-based aspects of the religion without adhering to Islam as an ideology. Finally, the group expresses dissent against state-led Islam reflected in AKP’s religious nationalist ideology and corrupt cronyism.

Are some parties’ public figureheads more constrained?

During recent decades, many have come to believe that political parties in advanced democracies have become largely dominated by their public figureheads (party leaders, MPs, cabinet ministers, etc.). The weakening of parties’ activist elites who run extra-parliamentary party organizations is said to result from the grave transformation of parties’ operating ‘environment’: the mediatization, ‘governmentalization’ and internationalization of politics, and the emergence of public party funding that replaces waning party activism.

While this sounds intuitive, the broad generalizations tend to ignore that every party and ‘party family’ (a group of parties that share ideological and organizational characteristics) carries a distinct historical ‘genetic code’, which conditions their internal structures, practices and goals. Due to specific ‘genetics’, in some parties the core activists have established a stronger position, and should therefore be more able to stand against the external pressures, which push intra-party power toward public officials.

In my recent article published in Politics, I test this proposition by examining the organizational development of two major Finnish parties, which hail from polar ‘genetic’ traditions (in relation to the historical power position of party activists). During the research period (1983-2017), the Finnish political landscape changed dramatically – towards a model, which strongly supports the ascendancy of parties’ public ‘face’. (For discussion of these political changes, see here, here and here.)

Longitudinal studies on intra-party power changes have typically employed varying single-dimensional measures, producing mixed results. In order to provide a more reliable picture and a benchmark for comparative research, I used a robust set of indicators that connect to all classical attributes of intra-party power: decision-making authority, leadership positions and financial and staff resources.

My findings corroborate and amalgamate the suggestion that stemmed from earlier studies that are based on single-attribute measures: while the development of leadership positions and financial and staff resources indeed shows a growing general dominance of public party ‘face’, significant differences continue to prevail between the ‘genetic’ party types in how strongly the activist elite can (formally) interfere with the work of public officials.

In the Social Democratic Party, which hails from activist-driven mass party tradition known for its complex, comprehensive, hierarchical and rigid organizational arrangements, activist organs continue to play a prominent role. In the conservative National Coalition Party, which is based on election-driven cadre party model that features a simple, one-dimensional, thin and loose organization, the activist organs have always been weaker and continue to be so.

The parties’ public figureheads appear to enjoy unequal levels of autonomy and maneuvering capacity. Parties that have evolved out from these ‘genetic’ traditions exist all around Europe. Thus, it is very possible that similar discrepancies exist elsewhere, too.

Communicating Judicial Decisions – Evidence on the Determinants of Press Release Publication from the German case

Jeremy Bentham states that “publicity is the very soul of justice”. Accordingly, Bentham established the legal principle of open justice within which legal processes and judiciaries should be characterised by transparency and openness. These aspects include both the transparency of internal processes within the court trials and the openness of the judiciary to communicate rulings to the public.

But, the judiciary is the least visible branch, since courts barely intervene in the public debate, as they want to preserve their neutrality and institutional integrity. So, court decisions are rather unknown to the public and sometimes misinterpreted by journalists. This causes a dilemma, as the public’s trust in courts partly depends on the public’s knowledge of their actions.

Recent scholarly work (for example here, here and here) has shown that courts possess tools which they can enhance the public’s awareness of their actions. Among others, press releases seem to be the most effective. For example, Jeffery Staton has shown that courts use press releases strategically to create public awareness and to put pressure on the political branch. Yet, albeit we know that courts use press releases to communicate their actions, we do not know for which type of ruling they are more likely published. In my recent article published in PoliticsI filled this research gap by asking the following research question: Which institutional characteristics determine the publication of press releases by constitutional courts?

My analysis is based on a unique dataset on senate rulings by the German Federal Constitutional Court (FCC) between 1996 and 2018 (for a repository regarding the data and analysis of the paper, see here). This case selection serves two purposes. First, generalizability, since the FCC is an institutional role model for several courts worldwide and its public relations strategy is comparable to courts that share its institutional traditions. Secondly, importance and relevance, since the FCC is one of the most influential and active apex courts in the world. Methodologically, I have used a logistic regression model with year fixed-effects, because my independent variable – whether a ruling is accompanied by a press release or not – has a binary measurement. The independent variables used in my analysis are measured based on a theoretic concept, which has conceptualised the two open justice principles of transparency and openness.

My results show that the FCC is eager to publish press releases to communicate legal and political conflicts as long as the conflicts are not internal or instances of intra-judicial dissent. Hence, the FCC seems to be eager to open up its adjudication only until the FCC faces situations in which there is either internal dissent or the Court opposes lower courts. The FCC thus seems to be trying to secure the reputation of the entire judiciary on the one hand and its reputation on the other hand.

Hearing the other side even when its offensive? The reflective approach

What should we do when confronted with people whose views we find bizarre and who express their opinions in ways we find wrong? The more polarized our societies become, the more urgent this question appears. While people have always confronted different opinions at workplaces and family dinners, more and more people now find it difficult or intolerable to listen to them. The question is not only how individuals should handle these situations, but how society can uphold the democratic value of inclusion without letting just anything pass.

One solution is to say “enough! I don’t want to hear it anymore!” There are two reasons why this is not the best solution, however. First, it is like putting your head in the sand – just because you will not see what’s bothering you anymore doesn’t mean the issue has disappeared. Second, to choose not to listen is the privilege of the powerful, those who do not depend on others and do not need to hear their views. Perhaps you are one of those, but the problem is: just because you can do something does not mean it’s right.

In a recent article in Politics, I defend a different solution: the principle of responding reflectively. This principle means asking ourselves if another person’s violation of basic norms of respect, sincerity, and public mindedness could have been justified under present circumstances, even if we would normally say it was wrong.

This principle is intuitive: when someone says or does something hurtful or wrong, reflective persons ask themselves: why did this person act this way? Was there something I had done? Had I failed to listen? Many times, there might not have been anything we did that made us deserve being treated disrespectfully. But the rule of thumb is: it takes two to tango.

Now, the question is what it would mean to apply the same principle to a whole society. In what sense can a society be reflective? When some person or group violates basic norms, a reflective society does not immediately condemn the action, even if the action appears wrong. Instead, the violation initiates a process of collective reflection. Perhaps there was no other way to make oneself heard than to break norms one would otherwise respect?

As individuals, we can imagine various situations where it seems appropriate to break basic social norms: when a person is in danger, when someone is harming another person, or when people refuse to listen to anyone outside their group. In such cases, it seems justified to act in ways that might normally seem impolite.

For society, the reflective principle demands asking whether the way things work – who gets to speak and how, who gets to decide, and who are systematically excluded from important discussions – may justify breaking the norms that they would otherwise respect. A classic example is civil disobedience. While it seems extreme under normal circumstances, it appears less so when used to protest against wars and the killing of innocent people. It is by breaking norms that civil disobedience forces society to reflect on its failure to live up to democratic and humanitarian values.

The reflective principle does not mean that all violations of basic norms are justified. Not all cases are like the civil disobedience of peace activists. Sometimes people get aggressive or refuse to listen just because others disagree. While we may have a moral obligation to listen to other members of society, we have the right, of course, to find their views wrong and shameful.

The reflective principle makes it possible to get closer to an ideal society where no one would be justified to be disrespectful, insincere, or selfish. To get closer to that ideal, we may need to change how the media works, the education system, or how political parties operate. The reflective principle helps pointing us to various societal and systemic problems and allows us to correct them. And in some cases, it gives us a more well-founded reason to say that this person here was neither right nor justified to be disrespectful.

Deconstructing UNESCO’s Orient

During the ideologically heated stage of the Cold War and at the peak of the decolonisation process, UNESCO (the United Nations, Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) turned to cinema to provide a reimagining of world affairs in the post-World War II world. In 1959, UNESCO, together with the British Film Institute, published a catalogue of films produced in UNECO’s Eastern Member States titled Orient. A Survey of Films Produced in Countries of Arab and Asian Culture. The aim of the catalogue was to “stimulate the presentation of films which might give audiences in the West a fuller and more informed idea of the ways of life of Eastern peoples”.

Rather unexpectedly, the Orient catalogue introduced Eastern cultures to the West through an emphasis on cultural differences. The catalogue provided a seven-point list of general characteristics of Eastern cinema derived from the films in the catalogue to distinguish it from its Western counterpart. In a recent article in Politics, I examine the way that the list covered a wide array of social phenomena ranging from the way love and sex are treated to the role of music in the films and from the attributes of the standard female character to representations of violence.

The catalogue’s list of seven general characteristics of Eastern cinema thus seem like an attempt to provide ready-made interpretations of the essential characteristics of the Eastern world. However, it is impossible to determine for certain whether constructing the East as a single distinguishable cultural system was a conscious aim of the Orient project, even though that is what they ended up doing in practice. Through the act of constructing the East in this manner, the catalogue not only attempted to explain what the films tell of the East, but also to change the world through enhancing intercultural understanding. Interestingly, it created a problem in doing so: The differences were presented as obstacles to this aim.

More importantly, the catalogue positioned the alleged East-West dichotomy primarily as a question of differences articulated on cultural grounds. The catalogue’s proposed way of structuring the world, therefore, was one where the world order constructed upon the Cold War and post-colonial polarisations gave way to the primacy of the cultural aspect of world politics. The differences thus became an instrument for a cultural intervention in geopolitics through the catalogue’s reconstruction of Cold War political reality. UNESCO’s Orient catalogue therefore comes across as a radical reimagining of political realities constructed on a cultural basis and given a concrete form through cinema.

Assessing Angela Merkel’s chancellorship

In the 2017 general elections Angela Merkel was confirmed for a fourth consecutive term as German Chancellor. In the course of her incumbency media pundits came to dub her the world’s most powerful woman and certainly her mere longevity at the apex of German politics makes her stand out among European leaders. Merkel’s pivotal role in domestic and European affairs calls for a more systematic assessment of her chancellorship, which is the purpose of this investigation now published in Politics. Focussing on the period 2005 to 2017 and drawing on Jim Bulpitt’s statecraft model four descriptive categories of analysis are applied that are reflective of the core tasks leaders will have to dispatch effectively.

A winning electoral strategy is the first of the criterion Bulpitt devised for any analysis of statecraft. An exploration of Merkel’s four consecutive electoral endorsements reveals conflicting evidence: On the one hand the CDU’s election results under Merkel’s stewardship plummeted to the lowest levels since 1949, yet at the same time her consensual style, penchant for mainstream policies over conservative ideology and an uncanny habit of poaching the Social Democrat’s most appealing policies, effectively sapped the SPD’s voter base and resulted in a continuation of her chancellorship.

Operational competence in government is the second feature Bulpitt encourages researchers to cast a light on in their assessment of leaders. This category becomes particularly relevant when the ideological distinctions between the main rivalling parties become blurred and voters give preference to the challenger or incumbent who they expect to guarantee a smoothly run professional administration. Against this backdrop Merkel became increasingly seen as a trusted helmsperson that navigates with a steady hand the ship of state through turbulent times.

Managing party affairs is a skill Angela Merkel honed and perfected over time. Her early years as party leader and head of government were defined by palpable oppositional voices within the CDU ready to defy her authority and challenge her leadership. In a show of chutzpah, determination, tactical finesse and ruthlessness Merkel took out her detractors one by one until the CDU’s role had been diminished to little more than a circle of claqueurs in thrall to their leader. While this tight band of allegiance was severely tested by Merkel’s course in response to the Greek debt crisis and as a result of her stance amidst the mass influx of refugees in 2015, it did not snap and her leadership appeared unquestioned in the period here investigated.

When exploring Merkel’s record in establishing hegemony over the political discourse, the fourth category in Bulpitt’s framework, it was most striking to see how little evidence there was of the chancellor ever seeking to dominate the public discourse related to any of the policies pursued by her government. By contrast her strategy in the period until 2017 appeared to be – with rare exceptions – to keep a low profile in controversial public debates, whilst gauging the respective strengths of vieing factions and currents within her own party, in government and beyond before weighing in, usually on the side of the dominant position.

Do student mock elections increase turnout?

Political engagement among young people has since long been a topic of concern in public debate (for academic discussion see here and here). Different ways to stimulate participation has been put forward. In many countries around the world, an increasingly popular way to increase political interest among young people is to let schools arrange student mock elections. They usually take place at the time of general elections, and the schools provide the students with political information before they can choose a ballot, go to the voting booth and cast a vote. Thereby, young people who have not come of age can get information on party platforms and practise casting a vote under conditions that resemble real elections.

Student mock elections could potentially both increase voter turnout and make voting more equal, by providing young people with the necessary skills for voting. However, no previous study has examined if mock elections have such effects. In a recently published article in Politics, we fill this gap by examining whether turnout in Swedish elections is higher among young people who have previously experienced a student mock election.

Our analysis is based on unique administrative population-wide data on turnout in the Swedish 2010 parliamentary election and the 2009 European Parliament election. By focusing on these two elections, we are able to study one election with very high general turnout (84.6%) and one with low turnout (45.5%). The register data we use includes validated information on turnout among young people and their parents, as well as a wide range on individual and school characteristics.

Our results show that students enrolled at an upper-secondary school that arranged a mock election were slightly more likely to vote in the Swedish 2010 parliament election. However, this result is due to differences in student composition between schools that have mock elections and those that do not. When we adjust for these differences, the effect of having experienced a mock election disappears. We also fail to reveal any effects when we split our data according to socio-economic background of the students.

In other words, our results imply that mock elections do not increase turnout. This conclusion holds when we study short- and long-term effects, and we use turnout in the Swedish 2009 EP election as our outcome variable, i.e. an election with substantially lower turnout. Even if the design of our study does not allow us to make any certain causal claims, the quality and size of the data make us believe that we would have discovered an effect if it existed.

It is still, however, possible that mock elections carried out in other electoral contexts or in other ways might enhance voter turnout, and other studies provide some evidence that they might lead to other effects worth pursuing. Hence, we do not claim that mock elections do not have any merit and that schools should refrain from organising them. We only state that our results do not support the view that mock elections improve voter turnout, and we therefore suggest that the rationale for carrying them out should be found elsewhere.

The shifting status of failure and possibility: partnership-organized prevention in Sweden

As policy debates are increasingly moving towards resilience, critical scholars have discussed whether this turn reveals something deeper about shifts in techniques of government. In the field of security, commentators have observed a ‘marked distancing from centrally coordinated response organized via hierarchical chains of command and control designed to combat known threats and enemies’, in favor of more self-organizing forms of security. Others have argued that the terms resilience and resilient have become ‘political keywords’ in the field of security and beyond, vested with symbolic meaning to legitimate specific practices. What has received little attention in these debates, however, is the performative function of the ‘shift’ in policymaking: the semantics of the shift. What exactly does the ‘shift’ do when enacted to affect change in urban prevention politics?

In a recent article in Politics, we argue that the semantics of the shift serves a particular purpose: to criticize a long-established welfare-state tradition, associated with professional silos. Proponents of resilience thinking use the ‘shift’ to dismiss a welfare-state way of organizing prevention as outmoded, in juxtaposition to future-oriented resilience thinking, based on cross-sectorial collaboration. Much like critics of centralized government elsewhere, academics and pundits in Sweden hold that conventional techniques are unable to deal with the complexity of new security problems. The aim of this strategic critique, we argue, is to create new possibilities for intervention in urban districts considered particularly vulnerable to crime and violent extremism.

We take as our point of departure the reformed national crime- and radicalization prevention politics, which is oriented towards establishing, maintaining and dispersing local collaborations, often coordinated by the municipality and the police (and usually involving numerous other partner organizations as well). In constantly changing and unpredictable environments, the argument goes, partnership collaboration is a suitable way of organizing prevention initiatives because of their bottom-up, multi-sectorial, holistic and yet open-ended configuration.

Part I of the article draws attention to how partnership collaboration is organized around failure and possibility. Based on the (resilience) idea of limited knowledge and governance in an indeterminate world, failure is considered inevitable and potentially productive (of new possibilities), if handled appropriately – which is an issue of problem design or framing. Part II demonstrates how partnership-organized prevention initiatives bracket-off risky failure by strategically reframing problems and bringing new visions of the future into being – through the semantics of the shift. In characteristically epochal terms, the ‘shift’ casts partnership formation as an improvement of the future, although the strategists’ belief in future visions is apparently shot through with cynicism.