In the Journal

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!

Simulations as reality check for students?

A range of academic literature (for instance here, here, here, and here) has investigated the importance of games, simulations, and alternative teaching methods in the international relations (IR) field. Among many role-playing experiences, the Model United Nations (MUN) is and one of the most popular IR simulations around the world.

In a recent article in Politics we examine how students have modified their own views, interpretations and expectations after participating in the MUN. This article, based on a survey of students (N=218) participating in two MUNs held in Spring 2018, answers the following research questions: How is the MUN perceived as an experience that helps improve personal skills (such as language ability, negotiation skills, and knowledge)? How and to what extent do perceptions vary on selected IR issues before and after the MUN? How and to what extent do views on future university enrolment or future work and career vary before and after the MUN? By answering these questions, we make three innovative contributions to the current scholarly debate.

First, we analyse the evolution of students’ perceived skills before and after the simulation, confirming – thanks to a sample larger than the vast majority of studies in the field – that students consider the MUN experience as ‘increasing’ their personal skills. In this way, the manuscript aims at addressing one of the shortcomings acknowledged in the literature (here and here): the lack of empirical studies on simulations based on large samples.

Second, we investigate students’ perspectives on selected IR issues (such as conflict and cooperation), corroborating the findings of the very few studies (here and here) that have stressed a (counter-intuitive) ‘reality check effect’ of simulations in tempering the idealism of participants. In fact, students tend to conceive conflict in IR as more salient than they had thought it was before the MUNs—and, vice versa, they see cooperation in IR as less important than they had assumed it to be beforehand. Students consider International Organisations (IOs), cooperation, and diplomacy in IR to be highly relevant, but this perceived importance decreases after the MUN. Students who attend MUNs tend to view IOs with less idealism, according them importance but not as much as before the experience.

Third, we focus on another underestimated issue in the literature on IR and role-playing: how student’s viewpoints on future university enrolment or career vary after the simulation. Our analysis reveals that, after the MUN, students are less doubtful about their future university and career aspirations, and more willing to enrol in curricula that are consistent with an international orientation. In other words, their perspectives on future careers become less uncertain and more oriented towards curricula that are somehow related to the world of IR.

Finally, the variance of students’ sample, which is differentiated by age, level of education (high school or university, MA, BA, years of enrolment, etc.), gender, and the kind of MUN attended, allows us to employ a OLS multivariate regression analysis. All in all, the empirical findings of the research underscore the conclusion that simulations are a valid and enriching experience for both high school and university students.

Further research could try to confirm and generalise our findings with even larger samples, especially concerning our preliminary analysis of the influence of simulations on student’s views about future studies and career. For instance, a cross-national comparative study might confront different national samples emphasising recurrent patterns, regularities and differences, and their main drivers. Further studies could test our hypotheses through an experimental design, i.e., submitting the same survey to students not participating in a simulation and learning through seminars and reading only. Finally, a more detailed gender-based approach could also represent a fruitful avenue for further research.

Governing migration in the UK after Brexit

Despite the ongoing division and debate over the UK’s future relationship with the EU, the Government is currently working on the assumption that exit will take place by 31st October 2019. Key to their ongoing preparations, driven by a view that migration was central to the Leave campaign’s success, is the development of a future migration policy.

The clearest indications so far of what this policy might look like come from two documents: the Government-commissioned report by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) on the impact of migration to the UK from the European Economic Area (that is, the EU28 plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway, citizens of which all enjoy reciprocal freedom of movement), published in September 2018; and the Government White Paper on immigration, published in December 2018.

Taking on board the MAC’s recommendation to remove preference for EU citizens, this latter document announced an intention to move to a single points-based migration system after the transition period, which will give “access to highly skilled and skilled workers from all countries” (p. 15). However, the Government parted from the MAC by also proposing to institute, as a transitional measure, “a time-limited route for temporary short-term workers”, which “will allow people to come for a maximum of 12 months” (p. 16).

How can we understand this proposed system, and what might its effects be? In a recent article in Politics, I examined the current UK visa regime for non-EU migrants, which will form the basis of the proposed ‘post-Brexit’ regime. The most popular categories in the ‘points-based system’ that applies to most non-EU migrants in recent years have been the Tier 2 and Tier 5 visas. These offer temporary residence for periods of between one and nine years, with the length of stay granted depending on factors such as age, wealth, and the type of work undertaken.

I noted how the explicit references in the visa guidelines to indicators such as salary and savings tie this regime into much wider class, racial, and gender dynamics, by ignoring how access to high earnings or cash reserves are often influenced by nationality or family background, or by promoting a gender-blind notion of ‘minimum salary’ that does not take into account well-documented gender pay gaps. For those employed in less desirable occupations, or who cannot meet stringent conditions such as earning at least £35,000 per year, the end of the visa period will mean moving on to a third country, or remaining  in the UK but crossing from a legitimate residence status to an irregular one, and from the open economy to the shadows.

My main argument was that this migration system acts to encourage non-EU migrants in the UK to remain mobile through its temporary nature. I noted how this operates as a bar on integration, as temporary migrants are denied sufficient time to gain the language skills or make the connections needed for social and economic integration. I also argued that it operates as a method of control, by making immigration status always conditional, and at the whim of political decision-makers. The temporary nature of the UK visa regime thus makes certain migrants easier to govern, as they are always mobile and movable, if permanent residence status is not forthcoming.

The Government White Paper on immigration suggests a simultaneous expansion of these logics, and an important modification to them. In moving to a single system for all persons not granted entry rights under the Common Travel Area agreement (that is, citizens of the UK, Ireland, and the Crown Dependencies), the system for non-EU migrants that I analysed will become the basis for the new regime.

However, in instigating a formal two-tier system, with a main route “for skilled workers entitled to stay longer periods, to bring dependants and in some cases to settle permanently”, and another “for temporary short-term workers at all skills levels… subject to tightly defined conditions” (p. 44 of the White Paper), the proposed system marks an even clearer hierarchy between those on a pathway to permanent status and citizenship, and those governed by logics of mobility.

So, what does my analysis suggest for the UK’s ‘post-Brexit’ migration policy? If modelled on the White Paper, future policy will further entrench the two-tier system already emerging through the current regime. While the wealthiest and most privileged will be attracted with clear routes to permanent residence and citizenship, the lower-skilled will be welcomed on a temporary basis only. It is therefore likely that any ‘post-Brexit’ migration system will fit into the longer-term trends of UK migration policy that I identified, where a system of ‘mobile migrants’ is slowly replacing the ‘permanent settler’ model of immigration.

The influence of various measures of health on different types of political participation

The question of why, when, and how individuals participate in the political process is probably one of the most important questions in Political Science. Alongside more traditional reasons, such as money, time and civic skills, an individual’s health has become a prominent explanation for voting. There is near consensus in the literature that poor health hampers an individual’s likelihood to vote.  Yet, the influence of poor health on other forms of political action seems to be more complex.

In a recent article in Politics, we try to disentangle if it matters how we measure poor health. In detail, we ask the following research question: does the relationship between individual health and political involvement depend on how we assess poor health?

To answer this question, we distinguish two health indicators – self reported health and being hampered by illness in daily activity – and test both indicators’ relationship with different forms of political engagement. Using data from the European Social Survey (ESS) (2014; N=35000), we receive a nuanced picture about the relationship between different health indicators and different forms of political participation.

When it comes to voting, things are quite straightforward – regardless how we measure health, individuals in poor health are less likely to vote. In contrast, the effect of either of the two health measures on the six other types of political participation – contacting a politician, signing a petition, participating in a boycott, wearing a campaign badge, being a member of a political party and contacting a politician – is more nuanced. For one, self-reported health does not have any relevant relationship with any of these types of political activities. However, the second health indicator, being hampered by illness in daily activity shows a positive, albeit small, relationship with most of these forms of political participation: individuals, who feel hampered by illness in daily activity have a slightly higher likelihood to contact a politician, sign a petition, wearing a campaign badge and boycotting.

Conceptually, this implies that we have to be explicit in what health indicator we use and justify it. It might be possible that individuals with an objective physical or mental ailment vote less, because they think that they cannot achieve anything through voting. However, they might think that they could achieve some of their goals such as an appropriate health care and social protection system through other means of political participation such as boycotting. Future studies should confirm this conjecture.

‘Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who Is the Ugliest of Them All?’: Othering as Soft Power Strategy

China’s global media expansion is one of the latest signs of the continued rise of the Middle Kingdom. As the tentacles of Chinese media expand far and wide, there is now a debate on whether Beijing’s global media reach has helped China spread its influence and boost its soft power abroad. For many observers, the answer is yes: the media equal influence and soft power, by means of effectively channelling and broadcasting a country’s soft power to the wider world.

And yet, China’s soft power clearly has not increased in proportion to the spatial expansion of Chinese media or the growth of Chinese investment in this realm. While some scholars attribute this discrepancy to the fact that China, being an authoritarian state, has limited soft power resources to begin with, in a recent article in Politics we argue that the more complex relationship between the media and soft power cannot be fully understood from the dominant resource-cum-transmission approach to soft power and the media. Instead of defining soft power as resources and treating the media as primarily a transmission vehicle for such resources, we argue that soft power should be seen as an effect of discursive construct, in which media discourse plays an instrumental role. This brings media discursive strategies and their effect to the centre of the study of soft power.

Thus far, we still know little about what strategies exist in media discursive repertoire, and how such discursive strategies contribute to the construction of soft power. In our article, we respond to these rarely-asked questions by looking at Chinese media discursive practices in the context of Beijing’s soft power push. We identify a typology of soft-power discursive practices: charm offensive, defensive denial and Othering offensive.

By charm offensive, we mean a discursive practice of constructing the self in a positive light. Notable examples of this practice include discourses of the ‘manifest destiny’ (the United States), ‘normative power Europe’ (Europe), a ‘Russian world’, and ‘Peaceful Rise’ (China). Othering offensive, on the other hand, is an indirect discursive practice of soft power: it relies on the construction of a negative and repulsive Other so as to create, implicitly but no less powerfully, a positive and attractive self-identity. Defensive denial is a largely reactive strategy of resisting or denying negative discourses about the self, often as a response to an Othering offensive by other actors.

While these are not an exhaustive list of the soft-power discursive repertoire, they are the most commonly deployed practices in the construction of soft power in global politics. Their deployment and effectiveness as discursive practices, among other things, contribute to the overall soft power dynamics. In this sense, understanding Chinese soft power requires not only looking at the spatial reach of Chinese media, but also probing into the soft-power discursive practices found in Chinese media.

As we show in the article, one such soft-power discursive practice—Othering offensive—was clearly at work in China Daily’s coverage of Donald Trump and the United States in general during the 2016 presidential election. In the Othering strategy deployed by China Daily, three framing themes stand out: the depiction of Trump as a problematic and irrational candidate, the focus on the tensions and division within US society and the dysfunctionality of US political system, and the portrayal of the US as a waning and irresponsible global power.

All the negative framings of Trump and the US, we argue, aim to convey a sense of what China is not. In other words, these Othering discourses of the US are in effect implicit soft-power messages about a more ‘stable’, ‘harmonious’, ‘open’, and ‘responsible’ China. Whether such messages have indeed convinced an international audience of China’s attractiveness requires further research on audience reception, but it is clear that in order to understand Chinese soft power diplomacy, we need to pay more attention to its media discursive practices.

More importantly, such soft-power discursive practices are not unique to Chinese media. Indeed, it can be said that Western media have long plied their trade in soft-power discursive practice, and in the process, China is more often than not the target of their Othering offensive. In this sense, a country’s soft power is not just a matter of how many soft-power resources it has, how far-reaching its media expansion is, or even what discursive strategies its media have deployed in the soft power push, but also a reflection of the international balance of soft-power discursive strategies and their respective audience receptions.

Becoming better listeners: democracy and meta-deliberation

If you’ve ever tried to interrupt or pause an ongoing conversation to make a comment about the way people discuss an issue – how they miss important aspects, ignore valid points of view, or exclude people who might have something to contribute – you have been part of what theorists of democracy call “meta-deliberation.” Simply put, the term refers to the act of addressing problems with how discussions proceed.

Meta-deliberation concerns a critical aspect of democracy – how to make room in our conversations for all citizens affected by the issues and all the perspectives relevant to make well-informed decisions. For instance, have debates about climate change failed to involve young people, who will be most affected by its consequences? Such discussions concern our rights and responsibilities as citizens. While political equality may be most concretely expressed through the equal right to vote, citizens exercise power also by debating and reasoning together. Thus, when people cannot be part of discussions that affect them, or when discussions are shaped by preconceptions that make it hard to consider all relevant perspectives, we have a democratic problem.

Until now, theorists of democracy have seen this as their problem to solve. They have asked themselves: how can we create better forums for public discussion so that everyone can participate on fair terms? It now appears, however, that the question itself might be misguided.

Whatever solutions theorists come up with, they will never be able to guarantee that people have equal chances to speak and be heard. After all, societies are not theirs to shape and manipulate as they wish. Real-world citizens need to know, instead, how to deal with the problems they will face. This includes how to bring attention to failures to include all relevant aspects or views.

In a recent article in Politics, I describe this democratic challenge and highlight three issues that we need to keep in mind when discussing meta-deliberation.

First, meta-deliberation often occurs in the most everyday situations. Whenever a person says “I think we have not considered all relevant aspects of this issue,” or asks “should we not also ask other people what they think about this?” they are contributing to meta-deliberation. Thus, while we usually associate democracy with specific political institutions (the parliament, public referenda, and so on), meta-deliberation takes place as ordinary citizens engage in ordinary discussions.

Second, meta-deliberation often has the same problems as other kinds of conversation. When people talk about how we talk, they are not necessarily any more open to considering all relevant aspects and views than people are in other types of discussion. This makes things more complicated, because not only do we need to talk about the way we talk, we also need to examine, and talk about, the way people talk about how they talk. We could go on, in an endless regression, to examine issues that are even more “meta” (talk about talk about talk about talk, and so on). The point is, to be reflective of how we interact does not stop at any particular level – it’s reflection all the way down!

Third, these issues may seem very philosophical, or even silly. Why do we need meta-deliberation in the first place? Can’t we just go on like we do? After all, isn’t it working pretty well anyways? We could perhaps do so, and maybe just deal with specific problems as they arise instead of thinking that people should be constantly engaged in discussions about democracy. But the thing is, how do we know a problem when we see one, and how do I know that what seems like a small problem to me isn’t a big problem for you? Without an ambition to make public conversations open to all citizens and open to all relevant points of view, we might miss issues that need to be addressed, or we might address them when it’s already too late. A well-functioning democracy must give citizens possibilities to address a wide range of problems, not just the ones that seem most urgent at the moment, and to consider various perspectives and forms of knowledge, not just the familiar ones. That’s why we need to talk not just about the problems we see at the moment but also about the way we discuss them.