Aug
04

Elections and Development in Africa

What does democracy / democratization result in within African contexts? Robin Harding argues that due to the increase of elections, combined with a majority of many countries being rural, is an increase in rural interests as an outcome. The answer is summarized in his 2020 book "Rural Democracy: Elections and Development in Africa", which is part of Oxford's series on African Politics & International Relations. The book draws on doctoral work, with research done in Botswana and Ghana (which have case study chapters). This is a brief book of 169 pages, but makes a clear and compelling case for the this rural interest process as one influence on elections as well as outcomes of elections. I began the book skeptical, and probably shared some of the biases of the literature that focus on ethnicity and clientelism (interestingly, the countries I have more experience with are mostly not included in the 28 countries included in the sample). I would have liked to see some discussion on governance systems (Nigeria and South Africa, included in the sample, are federal; and South Africa is an outlier; in these contexts the expression of rural interests may differ. Would have also liked to see this tested not only in improvements of outcomes, but in actual expenditures. Could further strengthen the case, in both instances. Well worth a read (fortunately a paperback version makes the book somewhat more accessible to those beyond the gated walls of privileged academia - Oxford sells the hardback for $155!). Very short summary by the author is here.

From the start: "Elections are a powerful thing, but they are not a panacea. Despite being a means to peacefully manage conflict, they remain inherently conflictual, creating winners and losers out of those with competing interests and ideals. In light of this recognition, this book is in part an attempt to understand who has benefited from democratic electoral competition in sub-Saharan Africa, and why." (p. vii)

"Urbanites across Africa are unhappy with their governments. Evidence from public opinion data demonstrates this clearly; urbanites are significantly and substantially less likely to support incumbents, and more likely to express dissatisfaction with democracy itself. While there are likely multiple facets to any explanation for this situation, it is not merely the result of structural factors, because these differences transcend demographic variations, and differential access to information. My argument in this book is that the large residual differences, those unexplained by structural factors, result from the differential experiences of urban and rural residents with regard to government policy choices. Put simply, urbanites sense that they are getting a raw deal." (p. 54-55) 

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Jun
19

How to Rig an Election

"The greatest political paradox of our time is this: there are more elections than ever before, and yet the world is becoming less democratic" (p. 1). This paradox is explained in How to Rig an Election (2018) by Cheeseman and Klaas (published by Yale). In sum: "How is it possible that the flourishing of elections has coincided with a decade of democratic decline? The answer is that dictators, despots and counterfeit democrats have figured out how to rig elections and get away with it." (p. 3) The book is an excellent read for undergraduate students, it is clear and accessible. The chapters cover gerrymandering (Ch 1), vote buying (Ch 2), repression (Ch 3), hacking the election (Ch 4), stuffing the ballot box (Ch 5), playing the international community (Ch 6). Each chapter provides a range of examples of each issue, from a set of countries the authors have more experience with (which are global in nature). The focus of the book is on contexts where democracy does not have deep roots (they say the emphasis of cases is more on how to "strengthen or build democracy, rather than rescue or defend it").

The chapter on hacking the election is fascinating in that it sheds light on new directions of rigging, particularly the use of technology. The authors state that there is "a clear risk that we are heading towards a future, previously imagined only in science fiction movies, in which our actions and beliefs are recorded and manipulated at a level of detail that was hitherto unthinkable. And whether we like it or not, such methods are being increasingly deployed in an ever-larger number of elections, with important consequences. When elections are decided by small margins, big data can be decisive." (p. 148)

Conclusion? "In the twenty-first century, elections will be rigged with strategies both old and new, because autocrats have learnt a simple but sad truth: it is easier to stay in power by rigging elections than by not holding them at all. For that reason, we must learn an even more uncomfortable truth: right now, those who rig elections are outfoxing not only their own people but also the international community. Unless we learn how to identify these strategies and address them, then election quality will continue to decline. Over time, this is likely to call the basic legitimacy of democracy into question, as people grow frustrated with elections that fail to usher in change." (p. 239) 

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Mar
09

Democracy Project

Starting in 2001 Teodros Kiros began writing articles in Ethiopian newspapers, as a way to engage with the public about democracy and democratization. The articles continued until 2004, and are gathered in his book "Philosophical Essays" (2011). The series of articles are short interventions, and are largely an introduction to Euro-Western thinkers, or a sort of Euro-Western political science 101 (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Madison, Kant, Hagel, Marx, de Tocqueville, Rawls). Given that this is the same author who brought to life Zara Yacob for a broader audience, it is surprising that little to no engagement with Ethiopian ideas takes place, nor strands of thought beyond the Euro-Western canon. However, that seems to be a purposeful selection for this book, as the author has another book, Ethiopian Discourse, also published in 2011, that collects writing explicitly engaging with Ethiopian thought and experience (to be reviewed in a future post). This is an interesting collection of writing during a particular moment in Ethiopian political history - however, other than a reference for historians interested in the early 2000s (or a general primer on Euro-Western political philosophy), it is unclear who the intended audience is. 

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Jan
28

Democracy in Chains

Nearly on a weekly basis during the Trump years we heard pundits proclaim something along the lines of "who saw it coming?!" While the specifics were not predictable, the trend was clear. One of those for whom the writing was on the wall was historian and public policy expert Nancy MacLean, who published Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, in 2017. The book is contested, not surprisingly given its claims and highly political nature. For readers, approaching any book as being biased (by its topic, framing, research questions, etc) and engaging it critically is important. A few notes:

"In his first big gift to Buchanan's program, Charles Koch signaled his desire for the work he funded to be conducted behind the backs of the majority. "Since we are greatly outnumbered," Koch conceded to the assembled team, the movement could not win simply by persuasion. Instead, the cause's insiders had to use their knowledge of "the rules of the game"—that game being how modern democratic governance works—"to create winning strategies." A brilliant engineer with three degrees from MIT, Koch warned, "The failure to use our superior technology ensures failure." Translation: the American people would not support their plans, so to win they had to work behind the scenes, using a covert strategy instead of open declaration of what they really wanted." (p. xxii)

"The goal of the cause, Buchanan announced to his associates, should no longer be to influence who makes the rules, to vest hopes in one party or candidate. The focus must shift from who rules to changing the rules." (p. xxvii)

"Their cause, they say, is liberty. But by that they mean the insulation of private property rights from the reach of government, and the takeover of what was long public (schools, prisons, western lands, and much more) by corporations, a system that would radically reduce the freedom of the many. In a nutshell, they aim to hollow out democratic resistance. And by its own lights, the cause is nearing success." (p. xxx)

"...back in the county where Barbara Rose Johns first organized for fair treatment, and where officials continued to insist that they would abandon public education entirely rather than submit to "dictation" by federal courts, the Board of Supervisors voted a few weeks later to close the schools. That September, they padlocked every public school and opened new private schools for the white children while leaving some eighteen hundred black children with no formal education whatsoever. "It's the nation's first county," reported the Wall Street Journal, "to go completely out of the public school business." Local black youth remained schoolless from 1959 to 1964, when a federal court intervened to stop the abuse." (p. 72)

"Buchanan's experiences at UCLA left a far deeper legacy, one that ultimately explains why, in our time, governors and state legislators under the influence of the capitalist radical right have been moving aggressively to transform public higher education in states where they are in control. After 2010, as the Koch-funded project moved forward in the states, its representatives sought to slash their states' public university budgets while simultaneously raising tuition, ending need-based scholarships, limiting or curtailing tenure protections, reducing faculty governance, and undermining support for the liberal arts curriculum (particularly those parts of it most known for dissent)." (p. 103)

"In the view of the libertarian economist [Buchanan], Jesus was mistaken. Conscripting the Good Samaritan story, Buchanan made his case that "modern man [had] 'gone soft'": he lacked the "strategic courage" needed to restore the market to its proper ordering. By this logic, what seemed to be the ethical thing to do—help someone in need—was not, after all, the correct thing to do, because the assistance would encourage the recipient to "exploit" the giver rather than to solve his own problems." (p. 143)

"...it was Buchanan who guided Pinochet's team in how to arrange things so that even when the country finally returned to representative institutions, its capitalist class would be all but permanently entrenched in power. The first stage was the imposition of radical structural transformation influenced by Buchanan's ideas; the second stage, to lock the transformation in place, was the kind of constitutional revolution Buchanan had come to advocate. Whereas the US Constitution famously enshrined "checks and balances" to prevent majorities from abusing their power over minorities, this one, a Chilean critic later complained, bound democracy with "locks and bolts"." (p. 155)

"Many liberals then and since have tended to miss this strategic use of privatization to enchain democracy, at worst seeing the proposals as coming simply from dogma that preferred the private sector to the public. Those driving the train know otherwise. Privatization was a key element of the crab walk to the final, albeit gradual, revolution—the ends justify-the-means approach that allowed for using disingenuous claims to take terrain that would make the ultimate project possible." (p. 182) 

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