In the Journal

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.

Voting Pirate Parties: Program or Protest?

Pirate parties appear to be on the decline. These parties were successful in winning representation in Sweden (European Parliament) and in Germany (State Parliaments) but have since disappeared from these parliaments. Yet recently, they have recently won seats in national parliaments in Iceland, the Czech Republic and Luxembourg.

Given the great differences in electoral results of Pirate parties, two questions arise: who votes for these parties? And whether these patterns are consistent between countries? While there has been research about in which countries pirate parties are stronger, there has not been comparative research looking at which voters vote for pirate parties. In a recent article in Politics, I investigated this, pooling six different election surveys to examine who voted for these parties in eleven different countries.

The first pirate party was founded in Sweden in 2006, by founders who were particularly upset with new copyright regulations. The formation of this party sparked the formation of more than fifty parties all over the world. The Swedish Pirate Party won seats in the European Parliament in 2009. The German Pirate Party won seats in the European Parliament in 2014 and also a number of state parliaments. Pirate parties have entered in elections in 18 countries in Europe since 2006: they became the third party in the Czech Parliament, they have become a stable feature of the Icelandic party system and they have recently won seats in the Luxembourg parliament.

I looked at two factors that may structure voting for these parties: programmatic agreement with these parties and political dissatisfaction. First, voters may vote for pirate parties because they agree with the ‘cyberlibertarian’ program of these parties. Pirate parties have libertarian views on issues like file-sharing, but also online and offline privacy. The surveys used have items on general attitudes towards privacy, law enforcement and authoritarianism, but no specific item on file-sharing. This means that these measuring the general attitudes that one would expect pirate party supporters to have and not the specific concerns that motivate the formation of these parties originally.

Second, voters may vote for these parties as a protest vote. In that case, voters who trust politicians less, in general, may vote for pirate parties.  It is reasonable to expect that pirate parties attract protest voters. Not just because new and third parties in general attract voters that are cynical about politics, but because they themselves often emphasize that they favour alternatives to the existing representative democracy, such as direct participation of citizens in decision-making.

My article shows that both factors matter for the support of Pirate parties, but that political dissatisfaction is a more important driver of support for these parties than concerns about privacy. In each analysis political distrust was a strong and significant predictor of voting for these parties. Libertarian attitudes are less important and in some analysis do not significantly affect the likelihood of voting for them. However, more than these two factors, age plays a crucial role in voting for these parties: virtually all voters of Pirate parties are born after 1985. Pirate parties are parties of digital natives: for this generation online activities form a major part of their life.

So, what do these results tell us about the volatility of the support for Pirate parties? If voting for these parties is driven more by political dissatisfaction than by their program, we can understand why these parties also decline. If other parties rise that give a more articulate voice to political dissatisfaction, voters may turn away from Pirate parties and to these alternatives. Yet if they are able to capitalize on dissatisfaction with established politics, like they have in Iceland, they may become a more stable feature of the system.

Teaching ‘The Professional Political Scientist’ to prepare students for life outside academia

What happens to students after they leave academia is often a blind spot, both for teachers and students of political science. This uncertainty can often be a source of and stress for the latter group. As a result of repeated requests from the student body to address such issues, we created “the Professional Political Scientist,” a module that has been given three times until this date.

Offered as an elective module at the end of the Bachelors program and spanning fifteen credits, it is devised to aid students’ knowledge about how individuals with political science degrees find jobs, situate and translate what they have learned at the University into work-life skills, as well as introducing them to practical skills conventional political science educations often do not offer.

The course is centered around three main themes: working in public service, writing and communication in professional life, and introduction to project management. As much of this competence is lacking within a regular political science department, we use lecturers from several departments across the University along with, critically, a number of professionals coming in from working life.

Although it is too soon to say whether the course has aided their careers, the general sentiment from students has been highly positive. They consistently report satisfaction with learning “new” types of skills and knowledge, like presentation technique, different types of writing, and dealing with deadlines foreign to those set up in the classroom.

Our article in Politics provides thorough description of the course itself, the work involved with its preparation, as well as a number of pieces of advice for colleagues interested in offering similar career preparation efforts at their home departments.

Rasmus Broms is a researcher at the Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg. His research focuses on public finance and institutional quality from a comparative perspective.

Jenny de Fine Licht is a researcher and lecturer at the School of Public Administration, University of Gothenburg. Her main research interests are transparency, auditing, and public acceptance of hard decisions

Welfare or Politics?

Would you support a policy you like, but proposed by someone you don’t? The answer to this question is complex as it depends on several factors such as the policy design in question. What is more, the spillover from politics to policy is difficult to be identified as they are intertwined: even an honest respondent might not actually know the extent to which his/her preferences are influenced by feelings towards the political actor.

In a recent article, I attempt to tackle this question by a survey experiment in Hong Kong, which is notorious for its skyrocketing housing prices and income inequality. As the most expensive and least affordable housing market in the world since 2010, Hong Kong’s median home price is 18.1 times the median household annual income, higher than all other metropolitans. Most young people in Hong Kong, university graduates included, face much difficulties in buying an apartment. As such, it should be expected that they would benefit from an active government housing policy — even if they do not apply for public housing, an increased supply would lower the cost of private housing units as well, making them more affordable.

On the other hand, CY Leung, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong from 2012-17, was a highly controversial figure. When he ran for office (although the election was not a universal suffrage), he made housing policy his key platform, which initially brought him much support among some intellectuals and professionals. However, he would perhaps be better remembered by his divisive governance, as the Umbrella Movement and the “localism” movement both originated during his term in office. Thus this provides an interesting contrast between the supposedly popular housing policy and his personal character.

The research team successfully surveyed over 1200 respondents. The “experimental” component randomly divided them into three groups. The first group received an information about housing concerns among the youth; the second received the same information plus a cue that housing policy was the priority for Leung’s government; the third group’s cue linked housing policy with the oppositions.

The findings show that politics indeed spills over into support for welfare policies, even one that should be beneficial. Respondents expressed less support for public housing if they were dissatisfied with the political leadership and received the cue that the policy was associated with the government. The support level would be higher if the cue was absent. Before politicians or policymakers initiate “good” policies, perhaps they wish to reconsider their strategies and first cultivate personal support (or at least reduce the level of dislike).

Mathew YH Wong is Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Education University of Hong Kong. His research interests center on income inequality, democracy, and politics of Asia.

What’s Wrong with Expert Policy Making?

Many people doubt the wisdom of the many and believe that experts, or some people distinguishing themselves by their wisdom, should play a more important role in shaping public policy. The motivation is that most lay people are ignorant about politics – and rationally so, because the impact of their vote is not worth the investment of time necessary to acquire the relevant knowledge – and may even be systematically biased (against markets, foreigners and future generations, for example).

Isn’t it possible to imagine better decision-making mechanisms than giving everyone equal electoral power? The merit of Jason Brennan’s recent contribution to these debates is to offer several possible alternatives. Among those, one is particularly interesting, because it doesn’t entail disenfranchising some citizens, and because it bears similarity to the practice of judicial review: an “epistocratic council”, either with legislative or review and veto power (Brennan’s favoured option). Members of this council would be selected on a meritocratic basis, passing a competency exam. And in order to minimize the risks of a biased test, all citizens could have a say and an equal vote in the determination of the required competencies.

Some degree of popular participation and political equality would thus be maintained in the determination of the required competencies. There would also be formal equality of opportunities to access political power. Differences in skills would of course translate into unequal real opportunities, but this is also the case with elections. Hence, the main difference with electoral representation is that there would be no institutionalized democratic accountability: during their mandate, these technocrats would have free rein vis-à-vis public opinion.

In a recent article in Politics, I argue that granting political power (either legislative or vetoing) to such council would generate increased risks of misrule or biases, risks that egalitarian inclusion and democratic accountability help minimize – albeit imperfectly. The risks of misrule stem from the independence from public opinion. Elected representatives do enjoy an important degree of independence in existing democracies. Mandates are not imperative, and citizens being poorly informed have troubles identifying their representatives’ responsibility. Hence, the accountability mechanism offered by elections is poor. Yet poor doesn’t mean useless. Elected representatives’ independence is not total; they still have to anticipate voters’ judgment and worry about their popularity. This can have negative consequences when voters are xenophobic or discount the future, but it is still an important safeguard against misrule. And we do need such safeguard, because a person selected through a competency exam cannot be trusted to behave morally. A person’s morality cannot be tested, for it can be feigned and unchecked power is corrupting.

Furthermore, even the best intentioned technocrats run the risk of being biased. Due to their social position, they might not know what it means to live specific experiences such as being a proletarian, a woman or an immigrant. And deprived from the electoral incentive to gather information from citizens, they risk acting on these biases.

In sum, a council of experts making decisions for the whole is not appealing. Expertise does have a role to play in politics, but in informing deliberations, not in making decisions. Whether this argument applies similarly to judicial review is an open debate.

Pierre-Étienne Vandamme

KU Leuven, Center for Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy

Pierre-Étienne Vandamme is a postdoctoral researcher at the KU Leuven Center for Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy, Belgium.


2018 Elections in Brazil: Political Reorder or ‘Gatopardism’?

This post is the introduction to our virtual special issue on the 2018 Brazil elections. The issue was edited by Adrián Albala and André Borges, from the University of Brasilia, who also wrote this introduction.


Brazil’s 2018 Election have widely been commented for three main reasons. First, the emergence, or better said the meteoric ascension, of a hardcore right-wing populist to the presidency. Second,   the unprecedented and dramatic polarization of the electorate, conducing to a centrifuged electoral campaign. Finally, as a consequence of the two previous points, the emergence of a far-right political force and the decline of traditional central political parties (namely the MDB and PSDB).

If the conflagration in 2014 of the Lava Jato corruption scandal constitutes the main background to this hinge electoral contest, the potential effects of this election are still unclear and unpredictable. However, the proposal of this virtual issue consists in highlight some explanatory elements that may further an understanding of the emergence of Jair Bolsonaro’s electoral linkages, and the impacts on the Brazilian political system.