In the Journal

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.

The Future is Queer Kids

The legalisation of same-sex marriage has been widely lauded in Australia and elsewhere as the final frontier of gay and lesbian equality, but for many queer theorists same-sex marriage represents a broader crisis of vision in LGBTIQ activism. Lisa Duggan’s concept of homonormativity has been formative of this queer critique. According to Duggan, homonormativity is a new politics that aims to remove sexual difference to the private sphere, while maintaining heteronormativity in public. However, in the homonormative future imagined by Duggan, children appear to have no place. Duggan and her critics, such as Gavin Brown, overlook children because they fail to think beyond spatiality to consider the temporalities of heteronormativity. In a recent article in Politics, I argue that an analysis of these temporalities reveals new ways in which same-sex marriage may queer the future.

Appeals to act ‘in the best interests of the Child’ increasingly underpin both heteronormative and homonormative discourses. In the Australian same-sex marriage debate, both anti- and pro-same-sex marriage campaigns drew meaning from the Child as the symbol of the nation’s future; what is best for the Child is best for the nation. Such appeals to act ‘in the best interests of the Child’ are not, however, concerned with children in the present, but with the Child as the ideal future-citizen. This ideal future-citizen is assumed to be the white, cisgendered, middle-class and abled heterosexual self.

Marriage plays an integral role in regulating the Child’s conception and growth into this heterosexual self. As such, the Australian anti-same-sex marriage campaign sought to maintain heterosexual-only marriage to ensure the Child’s normative development of gender and sexual identity. The pro-same-sex marriage campaign largely did not challenge the desirability of this normative development, and instead argued for a homonormative future in which same-sex parents are ‘just like’ heterosexual parents.

I nevertheless argue that, even after same-sex marriage, LGBTIQ people may enact queer futures. Queer futures reject the heteronormative imperative to reproduce a fixed heterosexual self through the Child, and instead embrace an open, non-fixed vision of the future. Same-sex marriages hold a potential to queer spatial norms, including the public/private dichotomy itself. Group childbirth classes, for example, are both a private yet strangely public practice in which same-sex parents must take up the gendered roles of ‘mother’ and ‘father’. Secondly, same-sex marriages hold a potential to queer temporal norms, including the dichotomy between adulthood and Childhood. Same-sex marriages may therefore produce new open and non-fixed visions of the future, including the Child queered by their sexuality, and the Child queered by their parents.

While the homonormative consequences of same-sex marriage should not be understated, neither are they unassailable. Queer theorists, activists and their allies should continue to produce queer futures, not only as points from which to critique the present, but as futures worth desiring in themselves.

Political participation in autocratic states: Who, how, where and why?

In an age of globalisation, increasing inequality, emerging power of autocratic states and their rising economic dominance, the world has experienced a sharp escalation of new forms of political ideologies and representation reflecting variably on people’s political participation. While existing autocracies continue posing challenges to their citizens’ opportunities to enact political change, scholars have recently drawn attention to how democratic norms and institutions may be eroded from within seemingly democratic polities, even alerting to a third wave of autocratisation.

Given these trends, in a recently published article in Politics, we offer a capability-based approach to understand political participation in contexts where democratic forms of governance may be under duress. Our approach focuses on the relations between state and citizens, and formal and informal institutional structures. We are interested in how these relations structure and shape citizens’ dispositions for political participation, their actual opportunities to participate and the processes in which they engage in the public sphere to bring about political change.

Two country examples are offered to illustrate our approach.

The first example uses secondary sources to trace the evolution of political power of the Jordanian Kingdom. Our analysis suggests that people’s sensibility about ‘political’ agency notably excludes outright conflict with the monarchy. But there remain a multitude of supposedly ‘apolitical’ functions still exercised by the people in applying their agency through informal networks of kinship and tribal relations. These functions provided the mechanisms for people to meet their needs and access economic and social opportunities. Kin and tribal networks thus became, and continued in Jordan’s contemporary society, to be people’s preferred processes for engaging in the public sphere, attaining their needs, ensuring access to opportunities and influencing their motivations for political participation.

Our second example is based on an ethnographic study of community activists’ blogging on social media in Vietnam. We found that these activists’ perceived opportunities for participation differed to their actual opportunities. The former was dependent on the activists’ political class, that is membership with the Vietnamese Communist Party, and their ambition to ascend within the Party. The latter was dependent on the contexts of the blogs, that is the social media platform and groups which the blogs were posted, rather than the blogs’ content. In other words, the norms of communication in the polity affect the process in which political expressions were made, rather than people’s ideological differences about the regime. These activists felt that ‘speaking out’ had an intrinsic value for their political agency not only an instrumental value in achieving political change.

These examples illustrate that political participation is shaped by historical, regional and cultural contingencies, resulting from the continuous interactive process of negotiating collective values and adapting individual goals respectively. They also show that there is plenty of space for political agency even outside the scope of opposition and dissent. By fusing the understanding of these concepts, it is possible to miss the myriad ways in which individuals may seek to bring about a socially just polity, particularly in situations where democratic conditions are deficient.

The role of ‘cultural production’ in celebrity politics

In April 2004, Donald Trump attended WrestleMania XX, the largest annual pay-per-view event of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) calendar, held that year at Madison Square Garden, New York. Sat ringside, he was interviewed by retired professional wrestler and former politician Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, whose recent tenure as the 38th Governor of Minnesota had run from 1999 to 2003. Ventura asked Trump whether he could expect his “moral and financial support” were he to “get back into politics” and when Trump promised he would – “one hundred percent” – Ventura triumphantly declared: “You know what? I think that we may need a wrestler in the White House in 2008!”

What can this small, cultural vignette tell us about our political situation a decade later? In this Politics article, I argue that, while Ventura ultimately did not run for President, as a political campaigner in 1999 his example nevertheless lay a groundwork for Donald Trump – his friend, interviewee, and fellow member of the WWE Hall of Fame – in his own successful 2016 campaign. In making this case, the article draws out the significant similarities between their two political insurgencies charting their own premillennial political collaborations as members of the Reform Party, before identifying wider lessons for the study of contemporary celebrity politicians through a comparison of their individual campaign styles.

In doing so, its central argument is the important role the specific ‘cultural production’ of celebrity politicians can play in shaping their subsequent political campaigns. By cultural production, I refer to the nature of the cultural spheres their public celebrity personas were produced within. In the case of both Ventura and Trump, these were genres of popular culture generally positioned as having ‘low’ cultural value; for the former, pro-wrestling, action movies and shock-jock radio, with the current President, reality TV (The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice), beauty pageants, Pizza Hut adverts, and more pro-wrestling.

This matters, I argue, because Ventura and Trump are not merely entertainer who became politicians, but ‘politainers’, a term introduced by Conley and Schultz in their own analysis of Ventura’s 1999 campaign to distinguish between celebrities turned politicians such as Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono and more recently Cynthia Fox – who simply traded in celebrity fame for political power, ‘rebranding’ themselves when they ran for public office – and those where there is no rebranding or ‘breaking character’ when running for office, the popular persona produced within produced within their particular field(s) of entertainment instead continuing unabated into the political sphere.

Through the comparison of Trump’s campaign with Ventura’s, the article illustrates how the ‘low cultural’ status of the entertainment genres their celebrity personas developed within furnished both with an anti-establishment ethos as ‘no bullshit’ straight-talkers with abilities to employ carnivalesque forms of rhetoric and performance – this marking them as outsider candidates able to act as conduits for political protest by an electorate alienated from mainstream political elites.

In short, we need to pay attention to the specific cultural background of celebrity politicians, especially of the politainer variety.

Measuring populist attitudes – identifying a core

A central question in contemporary populism research is to what extent people hold so-called populist attitudes. In light of this question, various scales have been proposed to measure populist attitudes (see here or Chapters 6 and 7 here for an overview). While the scales differ in various aspects, what they have in common is that, in one way or another, they draw on trailblazing measurement studies that were conducted in the USA or the Netherlands using a similar battery of survey items assumed to measure populist attitudes (see first six items in Table 1, below). At the moment of writing, the scale devised in the Dutch study remains perhaps the most influential battery of items to measure populist attitudes and examine relationships between populism and broader political behaviour. And while such studies are insightful and enrich the discipline, the integrity of their results depends on having an appropriate measurement of populist attitudes.

Table 1: Survey items of the populist attitudes scale

items Question wording
populism_1 The politicians in Congress need to follow the will of the people.
populism_2 The people, not the politicians, should make our most important policy decisions.
populism_3 The political differences between the people and the elite are larger than the differences among the people.
populism_4 I would rather be represented by an ordinary citizen than an experienced politician.
populism_5 Politicians (elected officials) talk too much and take too little action.
populism_6 What people call “compromise” in politics is really just selling out on one’s principles.
populism_7 The particular interests of the political class negatively affect the welfare of the people
populism_8 Politicians always end up agreeing when it comes to protecting their privileges.

 

In a recent article in Politics, we argue that the measurement and empirical evaluation of both the individual items in particular and the scale as a whole have yet to receive sufficient attention despite some efforts being made in other studies. With that crucial caveat in mind, we use a cross-national sample (9 countries, n = 18,368) and apply Item Response Theory (IRT) to the most commonly used populism scale in order to evaluate whether that scale (1) accurately extracts people’s populist attitudes from self-reported answers, and (2) provides a pan-European measurement for the European context. This exercise allows us to make three crucial observations that are relevant for (populism) scholars and beyond.

First, the IRT analysis of the traditional 6-item scale shows that all six items have difficulties in capturing high and extreme values of an aggregate populist attitudes instrument. Some of these items, like the ‘elite-procrastination’ item (item 5 in Table 1), perform notably better than others. While the brilliant study by Castanho Silva et al. (2019) confirms this is not uncommon across a wide variety of populism scales and samples, this observation presents a challenge for the findings and measurement of populist attitudes to the extent that most research in this area focuses precisely on the most -and least- populist. Hence, suggesting further scale development is required for accurate inferences.

With that in mind, we propose two additional items to formulate an 8-item scale (items 7 and 8 in Table 1). While our analysis shows the new items clearly outperform some of the traditional items, the addition of these new items gauging the perceived conflict between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ does not expand the extent to which we accurately capture the full range of the latent populist construct. For that reason, in a final step, we set out to fit a more parsimonious measurement through the refinement of the 8-item scale that can serve as the basis for future studies. By combining Occam’s razor and psychometric principles, we deduce a core measure comprised of 3 high-performing items covering the hypothesised theoretical concept and consisting of one item from the traditional 6-item scale (item 1 in Table 1) and the two novel items (items 7 and 8 in Table 1).

Overall, the intention of this exercise is not necessarily to provide a ‘minimal’ populist instrument that comprises no more than three items. Rather, we wish to highlight some of the areas for improvement of existing measures and propose a foundation (at least in a pan-European context) that researchers can build on and use as a baseline for further advancement of this field.

Just in time: Political policy cycles of land reform

A large literature exists on political budget cycles, or the tendency for political incumbents to manipulate fiscal and monetary policy to their electoral advantage just before an election. The theory holds that voters, enticed by policies such as additional expenditures, reduced taxes or increased budget deficits will be more likely to re-elect the incumbent. For the most part, this literature has focused on the manipulation of existing policies before elections. But could the passage of redistributive policies themselves also act as a tool used by incumbents to win over voters before elections?

In a recent article in Politics, I examine this question in greater detail. Policy passage might be an ideal form of manipulation, since it tends to be visible to voters, especially if it concerns a salient policy. Depending on the policy, it may also be more cost-effective than increasing expenditures. Moreover, previous studies have found evidence of ‘novel’ government actions becoming more common around elections, such as increased defense contracts, the passage of job-creation schemes or the passage of social pacts.

To test whether policy passage also contains an electoral component, I analyze the passage of land reform policies in 15 Indian states from 1957 to 1992. Land reform is an ideal candidate for manipulation for several reasons. States were tasked with passing and carrying out this policy, meaning that voters can attribute policy passage to the state parliament. Land reform was also cost-effective for the state since private landowners bore most of the redistributive costs. Empirical results suggest that land reforms are likely to occur the year before a state election. This result remains robust to a variety of alternative specifications, such as accounting for the percent of poor and landless residents, and the ideology of the governing party.

One potential issue with a theory of “political cycles” is that voters could get wise to the fact that repeated policy passage might just be used as a tool to win over voters rather than a policy promising any real substantive change. To test whether voters might view repeated passage of land reform as less credible, I look at nationally-representative individual-level surveys conducted in India. I test whether respondents are less likely to view land/land inequality as the “most important problem”, and whether they are less likely to approve of land grabs (the forcible taking of property) in states that have passed land reform policies. I found that land issues remain salient to voters, even in states that have passed reforms. This suggests that land reform is an ideal policy to use around elections. Future work might explore other policies that contain an election cycle component.

The future of open access publishing is in our hands

I have been thinking about open access publication ever since I became interested in intellectual property rights twenty five years ago. There are all sorts of issues with the current standard system of academic publishing, not least of all that an oligopoly of journal publishers have maintained a system (albeit that has changed in its details) that sees them effectively profit from free inputs which are sold (or now, often digitally rented) back to universities. Academic institutions pay twice for research: once for it to be done and again to access the results through authorised publication.

This system is neither inevitable nor (now) universal; the hard sciences are perhaps furthest along a route out of this situation and have developed a number of strategies collectively and individually to free access from the formal constraints of copyright. In Politics and International Relations (PIR) we have been much more reticent in embracing open access, with still around 80% of our publications appearing in (access controlled) proprietary outlets.

One way of understanding this lack of use of open access alternatives is to focus on our academic literacies. Decisions about choosing forms of outputs and (publishing) locations are driven by a range of factors including the desire to share work, and the development or maintenance of a researcher/author’s reputation or profile. While the acceptability of open access publications may be growing, the reputational benefits claimed by the major publishers still factor into too many decisions about where to publish. When citation is a key metric (including specifically, impact factors for journals), and where managerialism foregrounds such research productivity measures, movement away from the major journals is likely to be slow. It is only when our assessment of research clearly favours open access that more work will be published this way. It is only when the shape of academic literacies shifts profoundly that we will see a significant move in publishing. It is not so much an issue of the availability of open access platforms, journals and opportunities but rather how they fit into (y)our own understanding of our academic lives.

So, to effect a change:

  • Senior colleagues who sit on appointments and promotions committees need to work to normalise open access publication as conveying recognisable and valued academic achievement;
  • We need to continue to expand our use of alternative (open access) communication routes and early non-formalised publication such a blogs;
  • Institutions using & publishing open access work need to offer clearer guidance about their quality assurance for content and process of review;
  • We also need to see the appearance of similar work, research or analysis in multiple locations (with different access protocols) not as ‘salami slicing’ of research but the recognition of the variegated ecology of publishing.

The future of academic publishing is in the hands of the academic communities it serves and if we in PIR are saddled with high subscription prices and/or constrained access, then in the end we only have ourselves to blame, as we have not done enough to change a system which remains in our control even if those who profit from it have done their best to obscure this fact. The scientific community has recognised this and acted and so should we!