In the Journal

Economic evaluations and regime support in China

Economic performance is of particular relevance to authoritarian regimes because satisfactory economic outcomes give the regime room to maneuver in immediate difficulties and keep them resilient under the pressure of political reform. Political leaders in Kazakhstan, Russia, Venezuela, Vietnam, and other authoritarian countries universally prioritize economic development as a national strategy. As an authoritarian nation with the world’s largest population, China’s politics provide a case for studying the maintenance of public support by authoritarian regimes through their economic performance.

Focusing on the impact of economic conditions on regime support enables us to examine how citizens’ economic evaluation affects their support for a political system. Although a link between the economic situation and governmental approval has been widely realized (see here, here, here and here), little is known about the psychological mechanism by which the economic situation affects the public’s regime support in an authoritarian context.

My recent article in Politics attempts to uncover the political-psychological mechanism in the relationship between public evaluations of economic conditions and political support for authoritarian regimes in the case of China. Citizens’ economic evaluations are systematically scrutinized on two dimensions: subject-based perceptions (sociotropic or egocentric perspectives) and time-based perceptions (retrospective or prospective perspectives). The subject-based economic perception examines the direction and strength of the bond between evaluation of national economy and regime support, and between evaluation of individual economic conditions and regime support. The time-based economic perception examines the direction and strength of the bond between retrospective economic evaluation and regime support and between prospective economic evaluation and regime support.

My findings show that the national economy outweighs household economic conditions in its effects on the public’s support of the regime. When sociotropic evaluation of national economic conditions and egocentric evaluation of personal economic status are tested independently, each type of economic evaluation has a significant effect on regime support. However, after controlling for the evaluation of national economic conditions, the evaluation of individual economic status does not have significant effects on regime support.

However, this does not mean that citizens’ individual economic conditions are trivial in shaping public support for regimes. The results show that the gap between evaluations of the national economy and individual economic situations debilitates regime support. Even if citizens evaluate economic improvement highly when compared with the past or they are optimistic about prospective development of the national economy, the gap between evaluation of the national economy and individual economic conditions erodes their regime support.

The present study identified the relevance of retrospective and prospective evaluations of the economic situation to political support, which sheds a light on political leaders’ ruling strategies. Producing despair of the past and hope for the future contributes to sustaining public support. First, political leaders are keen on propaganda concerning the worse situation of the past. In particular, when economic conditions are unsatisfactory at present, it becomes more important to stress the magnificent improvements in the economy compared with the past. Second, political leaders make an effort to create a blueprint for the realization of a great dream. They are particularly good at creating and manipulating symbols of the regime’s commitments to great national goals, by which ordinary people are easily attracted. The results of this study show that people who are optimistic about future economic prospects tend to have a higher level of regime support.

The nation, the region and ‘the people’

The past two decades have not only seen political and media discourse dominated by the ‘rise of populism’ but also an increase of calls to ‘return sovereignty’ to nations and regions. Such calls have most recently been illustrated in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, with the rise of ‘vaccine nationalism’ such as those from Matteo Salvini’s Lega, as well as the reignition of demands for Scottish Independence as a result of the UK’s handling of the pandemic.

This most recent flare up, however, had been preceded by a series of campaigns calling for independence in Catalonia and Scotland (conducted by Centrist and Left-wing parties), the exit of Britain from the European Union (conducted predominantly by the Right/Far Right) and also campaigns for both greater regional autonomy for Lombardy and Veneto, to changing  Italy’s relationship with the EU (both conducted by the Far Right Lega). These campaigns, conducted by both nationalist and regionalist Parties ranging from the Far Left to the Far Right, had been tied together by a common thread not only of ‘sovereignty’ but also of a claim to represent the ‘popular will’ and in some cases, demands to ‘protect borders against Others’

Regionalist and nationalist parties across the globe naturally have different aims and interests. However, the ‘us v them’ (region v nation; nation v supranational institution/other nation) logic which is central to regionalist and nationalist ideologies means that their discourse may well be combined with the logic of populism i.e. the juxtaposition between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ and, in terms of more Far Right and exclusionary forms of regionalism and nationalism, also to nativism (perceived ‘natives’ v perceived ‘non-natives’).

Against this backdrop, my research reveals how critically important it is to unpack the ideational content of these ‘thin-centred’ ideologies in order to avoid a conflation between these terms. My recent article in Politics does so by performing a comparative case study of propaganda produced by the Far-Right Italian Lega and Catalan secessionist parties ranging from the Far Left to the Centre Right. My work shows that despite nuances in their discourse these ideologically diverse parties share a similar populist ideational logic based on a discourse of morality, anti-elitism and appeals to ‘the people’s’ sovereignty.

At the same time, it emphasises the crucial role played by the articulation of the core ideologies of nationalism and regionalism in determining the presence of nativist discourse. While populism acts as a link between ideological heterogeneous nationalist and regionalist movements, nativism instead acts as a key dividing line between the Far-Right Lega, and the Catalan secessionist parties.

Indeed, the framework derived emphasises the importance of distinguishing between ethnic (exclusionary) and civic (inclusionary) forms of regionalism and nationalism. It is in its more exclusionary and ethnic articulations that nativism equips the nation-state with a ‘national identity’, with which to fashion its people by positing a ‘we’ whose identity is simply incommensurable with everything external and ‘alien’ to it’. In terms of populist regionalism, nativism can also emerge as a result of a combination of regionalism and xenophobia, if the region is viewed in exclusionary terms and involves a process of ‘othering’ which ‘relies on an ‘us-them distinction’.

The populist nationalist and populist regionalist framework derived from this case study, while building on existing paradigms, represents a significant departure as it demonstrates how one minimalist framework may be applied to examine a wide range of regionalist and nationalist parties with heterogeneous ideological positions, whilst also emphasising the importance of viewing populism and nativism as merely secondary ideational and/or discursive articulations of a core ideology.

Studying the collective candidacy of the Brazilian Bancada Ativista

Collective mandates in Brazil are now widespread. The gathering of several individuals to, jointly, represent a single chair is constituting a new way of political leadership in the Portuguese-speaking Latin American giant. Over 400 collective candidacies sought to reach a chair in Brazil’s 2020 elections, of which 20 have been successfully elected. This political renewal movement departed from the pioneering collective plank of the Bancada Ativista.

The Bancada Ativista was publicly launched in the 2018 elections as a common platform constituted by nine co-candidates running together to a single seat in the State Chamber of Sao Paulo. The formation of this victorious collective candidacy conveys a history of successful political curation strategies and mapping of activists and grassroots scattered in informal spaces, seeking the articulation of various sub-represented social demands. This representational bridging aimed to renew the existing party cadres, expanding the political system’s permeability to the demands of its constituents, opening creative political venues deriving from the social unrest that swept Brazil since 2013.

In the words of one of the co-deputies of the Bancada, Anne Rammi, interviewed for our research: “What would the impact of people that have been effectively participating in street-politics be within the political-institutional field if they are leading such disputes within that field instead of traditional politicians with formal mandates?”.

Attaining 10th place in the legislative chamber of the largest and most populous Brazilian state (Sao Paulo), the Bancada Ativista established new discursive spaces for formal representation in the 2018 elections. This is particularly insightful for two main reasons. On the one hand, Brazil forecloses a system of representation that highly favours mainstream parties and prominent personalist figures. Hence, the success of a collective candidacy that seeks to challenge the personalized form of political leadership draws our attention to the exploration of new social and political dynamics in Brazil’s electoral dispute. On the other, most analyses of the aftermath of the 2018 elections tend to take the rise of the right-wing candidate and elected president Jair Bolsonaro as a central explanatory factor. However, the victorious candidacy of the Bancada Ativista exhibits substantial aspects for comprehending the political disputes occurring in Brazil, which certainly overreach Bolsonaro’s figure.

Our analysis of the Bancada’s campaign highlights the importance of studying local/regional elections to understand party and political-system changes. This study also calls scholars and analysts to carefully reflect on whether personalism constitutes such a central factor in contemporary electoral politics as assumed by the sheer volume of publications on personalism and institutional crisis within mainstream political science.

Do Voters hold Parties Accountable in European Parliament Elections?

Do voters use information on parties’ legislative work at EU level when voting in European Parliament (EP) elections? Exactly like in the workplace – where employers monitor the concrete performance of employees – it is crucial that voters keep tabs on the performance of political parties and use that information come election time (retrospective voting). Retrospective voting is considered an optimal strategy, but it is cognitively demanding and prone to biases. For this reason, Ferejohn suggested that monitoring ‘valence’ performance indicators – such as attendance to legislative plenary sessions – is a more convenient shortcut that enables voters to keep tabs on representative effectively.

Other than the inherent difficulties of retrospective voting, EP elections make it even harder: these elections have displayed features of ‘barometer’ or ‘second-order’ elections, and because of that scholars expect it to be even more difficult for voters to monitor what political parties concretely do when serving in the EP, and to use that information when they cast their vote in EP elections. But were things different in 2019, in an era where the politicisation of the EU is at its height?

In my recent article in Politics, I use retrospective data on political parties’ legislative activities of the previous EP term (2014-2019) – web-scraped from the EP official website – to test whether parties with higher plenary attendance, number of speeches delivered, and number of members filling rapporteurships and committee chairmanship positions are rewarded by voters in the 2019 elections. Vote choice data for the 2019 EP elections was retrieved from the European Election Study 2019.

I find that, controlling for ideological congruence and other relevant party characteristics, voters do reward political parties that were more active in the previous EP legislative term, especially as it pertains plenary attendance, a clear valence activity that unambiguously signals hard-work. Parties that gave a lot of speeches, were, instead penalised – possibly the result of speeches being seeing as theatrical, ‘show-horse’ activities, with less immediate links to policy work.

To fully believe these findings, the mechanism – i.e. that voters are aware of political parties’ legislative records – needed to be probed further. To do that, I leveraged the different electoral rules used by the various Member States in the 2019 European elections, as well as the EES 2019 survey question “how closely did you follow the campaign ahead of the European Parliament elections?”. Information about legislative records, in fact, is more likely to get out in electoral systems that encourage the personal vote – e.g. systems with open ballots or, alternatively, systems with small district magnitudes. The system which leads to the highest personal vote incentives is the open list with large district magnitudes, while a closed-list system with large district magnitudes depresses the personal vote most.

I find that the higher the personal vote incentive in a Member State, the more parties’ legislative productivity (in work-horse activities) is electorally beneficial, and especially so in the sample of voters that were paying attention to the EP election campaign.

There is sound evidence that high levels of activity in the previous EP term – especially of the ‘work-horse’ type – give an electoral advantage to national parties. And that, therefore, the normative requirement of retrospective voting can be a feature of multi-level, supranational contexts as well.

 

Learning Democracy by Doing Democracy

As right-wing extremism and conspiracy ideologists, as well as different forms of inequalities and injustices, challenge democracy around the globe, focusing on what strengthens democracy becomes all the more important. Not only institutions like the rule of law, the peaceful transition of power, and other institutional features are important, but also the citizens and their involvement in politics equally matter for defending democracy as political theorists have been arguing for a long time. After all, it is the citizens who are the constituents of democracy. Likewise, it is citizens who search for and adopt anti-democratic and simple answers to the challenges of our complex modern societies. Research on civic culture and democratic as well as anti-democratic attitudes has supported such claims: the stability of democracy rests on the democratic attitudes of citizens. Adorno et al.’s The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950, still is a landmark study in this respect. We do know a lot about how anti-democratic attitudes evolve. But how, in turn, can democratic attitudes be fostered? Based on insights from socialization theory, I argue that teaching knowledge about how democratic politics work is not enough. Citizens have to learn democracy by doing democracy.

In my recent article in Politics, I investigate whether engagement in school or university, such as being the speaker of class, a member of a student council, has an impact on political participation and political trust. Moreover, I investigate empirical evidence in nine European countries. Following interactionist socialization theory, engagement during adolescence should develop ideas of citizenship, democracy, and political participation. Schools and universities are arguably key institutions as they can promote democratic decision-making in the classroom. Such experiences strengthen democracy by increasing subjective political efficacy and through internalising democratic principles (learning democracy): by acting democratic, one becomes a democratic citizen. My findings indeed show that respondents who actively experienced democracy in school or university tend to vote and engage more often even in contentious forms of political participation. Also, experiencing democratic practices in school and university increases trust in political institutions. Moreover, what is particularly interesting, trust in political institutions, in turn, increases the likelihood of voting, but not of engaging in other forms of participation. Thus, early democratic experiences seem to foster vivid and participatory democracy without streamlining people into passive participation. To support this analysis, I use online panel surveys from nine European countries which included additional quotas for young adults.

Learning democracy through direct engagement in school/university should draw more attention both by academic scholarship interested in democracy and participation as well as by educators. Regarding the former, the process of how citizens are formed, what experiences are most important, and what other factors may intervene should draw more attention in political science and political sociology: As my findings show, the effects of learning democracy on participation and political trust outweigh traditional variables like educational attainment or income by large. Regarding the practical use of my study, the findings underline the importance of civic education for democracy. More specifically, my findings point at the importance of establishing opportunity structures for learning democracy by doing.

Illiberal democratic attitudes and support for the EU

Liberal democracy is founded on two pillars: the electoral pillar based on citizen representation and the principle of majority rule, and the constitutional pillar that consists of institutional checks and balances to limit executive power and protect minorities. Ideally, there is a balance between the two pillars, but there is also an inherent tension between the principles of majority rule on the one hand, and the principle of checks and balances and protection of minority rights on the other. In our recent article in Politics we focus on support for liberal democracy among European citizens and particularly on the question whether such support is more widespread among those who support the EU than among Eurosceptics.

While the European Union (EU) has been criticized for its poorly developed electoral institutions, others have argued that its institutions perform well when they are evaluated against the principles of liberal democracy. These principles include institutional checks and balances on executive power, respect for the rule of law, human rights, and civil liberties. Since the European Union is seen to perform well in terms of the constitutional pillar of democracy, but weakly with regards to electoral representation of citizens, support for European integration can be expected to be associated with support for different models of democracy.

We studied the relationship between EU support and support for the principles of liberal democracy among citizens in the 28 EU member states, using data from the European Election Studies 2019. Our findings demonstrate that supporters of liberal principles of democracy tend to be more supportive of the EU, while supporters of more direct forms of citizen influence are more Eurosceptic.

We also find that attitudes towards liberal democracy are less structured than previous research suggests. Yet, the structuration of attitudes towards liberal democracy and the association between these attitudes and EU support is stronger in contexts where the role of the institutions of liberal democracy is more contested. Two examples are presented in the figure below. One item measures whether independent courts should be allowed to overrule the government. In contexts in which the independence of courts is respected, the item is unrelated to EU-support (at the right side of the horizontal axis). Yet in contexts in which the independence of courts is under attack (on the left side of the graph), this item is strongly related to EU-support. We find a similar pattern for an item on the independence of public television. It is unrelated to EU-support when there is no censorship of the media. Yet in countries where the government tries to censor the media, the issue is strongly related to EU-support.

 

Both the European Commission and the European Parliament attempted to initiate sanctions against Poland and Hungary for not respecting liberal democratic institutions values and its institutions to defend them. These initiatives were highly visible. As a consequence, the liberal democratic institutions themselves became the object of contestation, while at the same time it created a clash with European institutions.

From a normative point of view, some may be worried about the consequences of the contestation of institutions that are designed to constrain the power of the executive. Yet, a more positive side effect might be that citizens do form more consistent attitudes on these matters. Given the fact that there is widespread support for EU membership also in countries where the institutions of liberal democracy are being challenged, the EU should feel confident to defend those institutions. At the very least, this is what the citizens in these countries would expect.

 

 

A Blessing in Disguise: China’s Economic Strategy toward Taiwan from 2000 to 2019

Since the end of the Cold War, liberalists have expected that China’s rapid economic growth and capital flows would foster greater cooperation and stability in Asia. However, China’s frequent use of economic sanctions has increased concerns among East Asian countries. More importantly, Beijing is likely to explore more options to apply economic coercion in maintaining its foreign policy objectives. Its growing economic clout and expanding policy instruments also lead to the following questions: does economic interdependence promote stability or foster conflicts? Under what conditions are China’s economic coercion most effective? How would medium-sized or smaller countries respond to China’s sanctions?

These questions are not only core issues for international relations, but they also carry important implications for decision-makers in Asian countries and the U.S. government. As China becomes a rising power in Asia, Beijing has gradually learned how to achieve its goals through using economic coercion and diplomatic assertiveness.

In my recent article in Politics, I re-evaluate the literature on East Asian politics and economic statecraft. First, I highlight the salience of power asymmetry to the field of economic statecraft. Second, I offer a three-level analysis of when and how China exercised economic coercion and incentives towards Taiwan. Third, this study examines how Taiwan addressed Beijing’s sanctions on Chinese group tourists starting in 2016. The final section discusses some conclusions that can be drawn and suggests some avenues for future research.

As most Asian countries will encounter the dilemma between accepting more Chinese trade and capital and hence greater vulnerability to China’s economic coercion, they can also learn from each other based on previous experience. Putting China’s coercive diplomacy in perspective matters for China’s neighbors. Specifically, scholars and policymakers in Asia have to differentiate between the short-term and long-term impacts of China’s economic leverage. They should avoid making an overly alarmist or dismissive view of China’s coercive strategy.

In this case, Taiwan has much to offer to the rest of the world regarding how to respond to China’s economic coercion. Strong cooperation between Taiwan and countries in Southeastern Asia can also establish the basis for a coordinated strategy in response to China’s economic sanctions.

Can digital platforms create more democratic parliaments?

Whether digital technologies could make the legislative process more democratic is a question that deserves attention. While commercial social media platform dynamics increasingly challenge the quality of public debate, when it comes to enacting laws – before the COVID19 crisis – parliaments worldwide continued to rely almost exclusively on traditional face-to-face interactions for law-making.

In our recent article, published in Politics, we examined the democratic potential of Senador Virtual, a web platform that for more than 16 years had been hosted inside the Chilean Senate official website. On this site, people can vote and give comments on selected bills under discussion at different Senate commissions.

It is hard to evaluate how democratic an online platform can be, which is why we analyzed the potential of a technology to produce a democratic outcome or to be perceived to produce it. According to the definition of democratic affordance, we understand an outcome to be democratic when the platform favors participation and deliberation among participants in the discussion of the laws.

Our research shows that the platform gave rise to five latent democratic affordances which are not always fully leveraged because of the existence of organizational constrains or the lack of human competences for systematizing individuals’ contributions. Among these democratic affordances, three had already been discussed within the CrowdLaw literature: 1) capture a variety of viewpoints; 2) generate insights that illuminate the lawmaking process; and 3) serve as a device for communication between citizens and senators. Notwithstanding, we also found two additional affordances not normally attributed to crowdsourcing: 4) create a civilized public forum; and 5) foster civility among the users that engage with it.

It is important to mention that the Crowdlaw is a type of crowdsourcing in which individuals are required to take part in any of the phases of the lawmaking process. But unlike other crowdsourcing initiatives, it is a tech-based experience that works inside an institution of government or parliament.

Based on our research of this Crowdlaw platform, we suggest that in order for these affordances to be fully leveraged, the CrowdLaw process must be designed to complement traditional law-making processes, which means to institutionalize the participation in the platform, incorporating it into the lawmaking process and adding a reliable methodology for processing citizen input. Only when the above is accomplished will this technological facilitator produce actual democratic outcomes. These initiatives are urgent to foster healthy public debates and the smart uses of technologies that can help institutionalize participation to counteract the risky trends we perceive nowadays.

How does party system fragmentation affect turnout in the long-term?

Electoral turnout depends on the kind of choice offered in elections and that choice is structured by the party system. Intuitively, more options to choose from might be expected to translate into a greater likelihood of participating in elections. However, the findings and theories about the impact of party system fragmentation on turnout are contradictory. In some accounts, more parties equals higher mobilization and thus higher turnout, whereas it could also lead to uncertainty, information deficits and lower turnout. The results of empirical tests of the effects of the number of parties on aggregate levels of turnout are inconclusive – some find a positive impact, others negative, while most do not find any significant effect at all (see here, here, and here).

Existing studies have focused on the impact of fragmentation in the short-term and at the aggregate level, by correlating the number of parties at an election and turnout rates in that particular election, or the following one. We know much less about the effects of fragmentation in the long run and at the individual level. Regarding the short-term effects at the individual level, the evidence is equally mixed as at the aggregate one. Nevertheless, in line with the theories of political socialization and voting as a habit, it could be argued that the formative elections (the first few ones at which one is eligible to vote) that are crucial for participation in the subsequent ones. The decision on whether to cast a ballot or not in the first few opportunities one has leaves a stable footprint on voting behavior. The propensity to vote or to fail to participate in subsequent elections is contingent on the contextual factors specific to the formative elections. The socializing effects of many contextual-level variables (e.g. election competitiveness, electoral system, general turnout rates and polarization) have already been tested. Party system fragmentation has been neglected in the existing studies of habitual voting.

In my recent article in Politics, I aim at filling in this gap by answering the following question: how does political socialization in a highly fragmented political scene affect propensity to vote in subsequent elections? Drawing on CSES IMD data on 96 parliamentary elections between 1996 and 2016 of nearly 100,000 individuals in 31 countries, I show – using multilevel fixed and random effects logistic regression models – that exposure to a high number of parties in the first elections at which one is eligible to vote leaves a footprint of non-participation. This linear negative effect is at play even if fragmentation has decreased over time. It is also robust to account for the quality of the choice offered, for the characteristics of the electoral system, and it is significant in both Western and Eastern parts of Europe, with the strongest effect found for the CEE post-communist countries.

Having more choice is not bad for turnout. However, proportionality is good in moderation and too much choice in terms of quantity of political offer might lead to confusion, choice overload, and, consequently, to choice deferral. Abstention is always an easy option, especially so for the youngest voters who have not yet developed the habit of voting. Facing too many options to choose from might lead to abstention, which affects decisions on whether to cast a ballot in the future.  These findings are especially relevant given the recent significant rise in fragmentation of most party systems in Europe, as one of its unforeseen long-term consequences might be a further decline in turnout, which has already been falling for decades in many democracies.

Studying party discourse on climate action from a rhetorical perspective

Propositions on climate action come in many forms and shapes, from declarations of climate emergency to initiatives to promote Green Deals. The proliferation of practices and ideas that advance climate action points to the controversial nature of climate change as a political issue: different social actors have different ideas on how best to respond to the challenges that emerge in the context of global environmental change. Political thinkers from Aristotle to Arendt and from Machiavelli to Mouffe acknowledge controversy as a key marker of political life. Political disputes are constituted through rhetoric; they can also be studied employing tools from rhetoric as a field of inquiry.

In my recent article in Politics, I offer a methodological framework for studying political disputes and use party discourse on climate action in the UK to demonstrate how it functions. I propose that the identification and analysis of commonplaces, or keywords that organise meaning or ideas, can provide a nuanced understanding of public debates on controversial issues. This is because commonplaces help to shed light on the purposeful nature of communication, to identify sedimented ideological commitments, but also to explore openings for re-energising social and political life towards alternative arrangements.

A rhetorical analysis requires a defined dataset, as well as attentiveness to the specific social and political context amidst which the material under scrutiny emerges. For this study, I analysed five party manifestos from the 2019 UK General Election. The analysis showed that ‘economic growth’ functioned as a source for arguments for climate action in the Conservative and Liberal Democrats party manifestos. In contrast, SNP, Labour, and Green party introduced, in various degrees and intensities, alternative commonplaces that link climate action with ideas such as ‘social equity’ and ‘well-being’.

The rhetorical study of the discourse of climate action calls into attention how the articulation of proposed solutions to the challenges of climate change becomes the terrain of ideological conflict. By attending to the commonplaces that organise meaning in this dispute, we can discern between the different ideas competing for public acceptance. For example, we can affirm how ‘economic growth’, now a sedimented element in political discourse on climate action, is challenged by alternative commonplaces, such as ‘social equity’ and ‘well-being’. By highlighting the availability of alternative sources of identification, rhetorical analysis can help to link ideas with broader ideological issues, thus clarifying the place of the dispute within the wider context of the social formation, and helping to draw directions for socio-ecological transformation and recontestation.

Political change requires more than a shift in rhetoric. The pursuit of alternative socio-ecological arrangements becomes actualised through material changes in production and consumption patterns, behaviour changes and so on. Yet, transformation also requires change in the use of language. Using commonplaces to analyse the political dispute on climate change, we can see how arguments such as ‘climate action should and can be combined with economic growth’ is challenged by competing parties. Clarifying alternative ideas and possibilities for identification is the first step towards transformative action.