Original books often share two common virtues. They reach conclusions which make perfect sense in hindsight, but which somehow no one else managed to reach before. And they ask simple, big, often-asked questions, but answer them in new ways. Both of these apply to James Dawson’s new book Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria. How Ideas Shape Publics.
The book’s key finding – based on innovative ethnographical fieldwork – is that Serbia has a more vibrant and, to some extent, more liberal, public sphere than Bulgaria, despite being rated considerably lower on most governance and democracy indices (the book focuses on Freedom House’s Nations in Transit measures).
On a conventional reading this makes little sense: Bulgaria is a low quality democracy, which made slow, but steady progress towards EU membership in 2007, while Serbia slid into semi-authoritarianism following the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars of Yugoslav succession as the regime and (large parts of) the opposition embraced a culture of militant illiberal nationalism. Serbia began EU accession negotiations only this year and officials are carefully avoiding speculation about when it might eventually join the Union as its 29th member.
James Dawson’s book, however, tells it differently. Most conventional measures of democracy, he suggests, are too formal and legalistic, and do little to tap into the day-to-day thinking of citizens. ‘Hard’ comparative scientists are too often driven by an essentially procedurally framing of democracy leading them to overlook a multitude of defects and limitations in democratic practices. As a clever dissection of a well-known survey article in East European Politics and Societies makes clear, too many insights and observations appear simply as passing comments or incidental qualifying remarks, but in the end slip out of the final analysis.
The book addresses this gap by investigating the existence of an everyday public sphere conceived in (modified) Habermasian terms. This is investigated by examining the discourses employed by citizens in two provincial cities, Niš in southern Serbia and, Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv using an ethnographic method embracing both focus groups and more embedded forms of participant observation: following in the footsteps of Nina Eliasoph in her study of the culture of political avoidance in US civic voluntarism, Avoiding Politics, Dawson immerses himself in local associational life to reach a cross-section of informants in terms of age, education levels and sociological types:
I participated [he writes] in the activities of almost any available recreational and civic associations [in the two cities] which would accept me as a member. These included a mountaineering club, a careers office, an ‘alternative’ NGO, a sports club (Serbia), a private language school, an environmental NGO, a running club and a dance class (Bulgaria)
The result are slices of ethnographic data, which are both vivid and revealing opening up a world of what Dawson terms (adapting the nationalism literature) ‘everyday democracy’: one serving and two retired Serbian army officers walk up a mountain talking over who lost Kosovo; Bulgarian friends pick over the corrupt municipal politics and the still dirtier (in both senses) politics of local rubbish collection, touching on issues of clientelism and nationalism in the process; a young women denies the existence of gender discrimination, but then recounts how a job offer turned out to a thinly disguised attempt at recruitment for the porn industry and weighs up (but does not reject) her initial proposition.
This public sphere and public sphere pluralism Dawson seeks out is not some Habermasian abstraction but a curiously every day, workaday phenomenon, both less and more than formal, institutional civil society.
Bulgaria’s missing public sphere
At least where it exists. For the book’s headline finding is that while Niš does contain ‘vibrant communities of everyday debate’, ‘… the most remarkable thing about the public sphere in Plovdiv was just how rarely it was encountered’. This is especially the case for the minority of citizens in both countries who are, as Dawson puts it, ‘hard liberals’: the 10-15 per cent of the population who may be expected to develop and articulate a consistent discourse of liberal democratic citizenship, anchor democracy in both value and discursive terms, and perhaps act as focus of cultural change.
Why should be the case? This is perhaps an unfair question. Ethnographers are focused on meaning not causation. However, Dawson permits himself a hunch –and social researcher of all kinds should surely be allowed hunches? – that the more open and liberal political culture of socialist Yugoslavia has in some ways been carried through from the 1980s and fed into a distinct liberal public (or ‘counter public’). In Bulgaria, by contrast, despite more peaceful, institutional and economic patterns of development after 1989, legacies of a more authoritarian and closed form of communism have left a citizenry, whose most liberal ‘counter-public’ is still marked by illiberal nationalism and a view of liberal politics as mostly about forcing through (economic) reform.
The interpretation of Bulgarian liberals (in the broadest) sense of term as hamstrung by conservative and illiberal nationalism – influential perhaps precisely because it has been less militantly and radically asserted than in Serbia – is a controversial one. Many liberal Bulgarians are quick to assert that their country’s biggest problem is rampant corruption not rampant nationalism. In terms of action-this-day issues, this seems hard to argue with, but there seems sufficient evidence – as in the current dispute over Turkish language TV news – that the position of the Turkish minority cannot be taken for granted. Lessons from Hungary and elsewhere in the region suggest that all bets about what ‘cannot’ happen in CEE are now off. However, this perhaps misses the argument which is, in the end, more about the subtle influence of culture and discourse, rather than a scorecard of directly traceable political outcomes.
A similar set of question arises over the sustained mass protests in Bulgaria 2012 -13, which took place after the book’s fieldwork was conducted. If Bulgaria’s public sphere and liberal ‘counter-public’ were so weakly developed, how and why were civil society and social movements able suddenly to mobilise to hold corrupt elites to account? This issue is partly addressed in the preface and postscript (which also deals with the rise of the supposedly reformed nationalists of the Serbian Progressive Party [SNS].
Here, Dawson argues that while events in Bulgaria are positive in terms of long-term civil society development there is still greater reason for optimism in Serbia and pessimism in Bulgaria (especially beyond Sofia). ‘[T]here is’ he writes ‘little evidence that Bulgaria’s anti-government protests aspire to any emancipatory vision approaching the philosophically consistent liberalism of the cosmopolitan anti-nationalist, feminist and LGBT movement still audible from the margins in Belgrade’ and had that the protests, in particular, done little to challenge conservative nationalist assumptions underpinning much political discourse.
In this regard – although Dawson himself does not make this link – the reader cannot but be struck by the book’s discussion of the anti-Roma protests in Bulgaria in 2011 – triggered by an incident near Plovdiv – and his informants’ discussion of them. The account that emerges is not simply an outburst of familiar scapegoating ‘anti-Gypsyism’ but of inchoate and confused anger, which (at least in the minds and accounts of some of his informants) contained social, anti-corruption and anti-elite demands distinct from the obviously racist agenda of many rioters.
It is tempting to ask whether the wave of more civic anti-government mass mobilisation that swept the country in 2012-3 – while largely devoid of anti-Roma ethnic scapegoating – drew on a similarly confused mass of frustrations based on a loosely populist, anti-elite framing of politics which had little need of a strong liberal counter-public.
Accountants versus poets?
Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria is framed as a critique of conventional, democratisation theory and a world of ‘hard’ quantitative political science reflecting – as one panellist at the book’s launch event put it – a division between ‘accountants and poets’.
However, in many ways as book’s dissection of literature makes clear, traditional comparativists were aware of the limitations of surveys and quantitative data and keenly aware of the potential mismatch between liberal institutions and a society lacking extensive liberal values or well embedded liberal ways of thinking. Those pondering the fuzzy and much debated concept of ‘democratic consolidation’ have for years wondered whether spread of the liberal or civic culture is necessary condition of such consolidation.
Correspondingly, the book would lose much of its argumentative force in the absence of the (flawed) comparative indices it critiques (although in the bigger picture such indices do show Bulgaria as a consistent ‘laggard’ which is in many ways closer to SE Europe than the Visegrad states – indeed the latest Nations in Transit report shows improvement in the Western Balkans and backsliding in Bulgaria). Accountants read poetry, poets need the accounts to add up.
Moreover, although written in the language of Habermasian public sphere analysis and discourse theory, some aspects of the book run comfortably in parallel with mainstream, political science thinking about liberal democracy: the existence of publics and counter-publics fits well with classic and radical notions of pluralism; the emphasis on contending philosophical notions of citizenship is echoed in the literature on party based democracy and democratic quality which emphasises the need for completing programmatic alternatives,
The sense that meaningful consolidation of liberal democracy will occur only with the embedding of a widespread liberal culture is, as noted, not controversial for many political science. And this is perhaps unsurprising given that like Cultures of Democracy Serbia and Bulgaria most have a basic (if less clearly stated) normative commitment to liberal models of politics and citizenship.
Looking north, facing west
Despite its unusual and inventive Bulgarian-Serbian comparison, the book appears on first reading a work of South-East European studies. Questions will, however, immediately occur to anyone familiar with the supposedly more successful liberalisers of Central Europe. If indices can be wrong – or, at least, misleading and incomplete – on Bulgaria and Serbia can they be wrong elsewhere? If similar methodology was deployed in provincial cities in liberal front-running countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland, liberal discourses might be found to be similarly anaemic and economistic.
The narrowly economic, reform oriented nature of the Bulgarian liberal discourses identified might thus be more Central European than the book allows. Indeed, I wondered what kind of liberal discourses and public might emerge if similar research was carried out in the streets, sports clubs and voluntary associations of Clacton, Colchester, Wigan or Worcester. Anti-political and illiberal sentiments – and a populist desire for an out-of-the-way ‘stealth democracy’ for emergency use only, akin to a fire escape – run deep in Western Europe and North America too.
Mature liberal democracies may also have a shortage of liberal citizens. The desire of a young liberal educated Bulgarian woman for a government of non-political businesspeople to sweep aside discredited and corrupt politicians is a source of mild shock and disappointment. But when asked in 2012, some 38% percent of UK respondents told YouGov that ‘Britain would be governed better if our politicians got out of the way, and instead our ministers were non-political experts who knew how to run large organisations’.
Despite – or perhaps even because – of its immersive sense of place and locality, it is difficult in some ways not to feel that this a book about democracy more than it is a book about Bulgaria or Serbia.
This post is based on notes made for a panel discussion at the launch of Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria. How Ideas Shape Publics which took place at the UCL-SSEES School of Slavonic and East European Studies on 18 November 2014.
As in 2007 Poland’s parliamentary elections in two weeks are being followed mainly as a battle between the (now incumbent) liberal Civic Platform (PO) and the conservative-national Law and Justice (PiS), which despite modest electoral revival has been on the back foot for most of the last parliamentary term. Indications are therefore that despite a narrowing in the polls PO’s leader Prime Minister Donald Tusk will become the first Polish post-communist premier to lead his party back into office.
But let’s look further down the likely results list to the smaller fry.
In what was once to be a kaladoscopeic politial system, smaller parties in Polish seem to have been reduced to a political footnote. Indeed, they were nigh on wiped out by the polarisation between the two liberal and conservatiive big parties in 2007. The main two stories here are whether the post-communist liberal-left – once the dominant counterweight to the post-Solidarity Catholic conservative – right can advance beyond minor party status and whether the Polish Peasant Party (PSL) can hang on as a niche interest party (indications are that it can, comfortably so in this election).
Elsewhere, observers of populism and extremism breathe easy, although the League of Polish Families is still politically in business, there
seem likely to be no revival of radical/ultra-conservative nationalist right or of the agarian radicalism once represented by Andrzej Lepper’s Self-Defence. Lepper was founded hanged this August, having apparently committed suicide, leaving his much diminished party in disarray.
But, if opinion polls are to be believe, there is a new party poised to make a (modest) electoral breakthrough – the the movement created by maverick ex-Civic Platform Deputy Janusz Palikot .
Palikot, a businessman first elected for PO in 2005 , cuts a colourful, not to say downright eccentric figure, having appeared at a press conference wearing a T-shirt saying “I am from the SLD” [the main party of the post-communist] on the front and “I am gay” on the back, claiming he wanted to highlight the need to defend of minorities (For factual claridication, he is hetereosexual and not a member of the SLD). Still more oddly he later he produced a gun and a dildo at a press conference called to discuss the case of police officers accused of rape – symbols of state of justice and law enforcement in Poland apparently. No friend of the conservative right, he is also on record as calling the late PresidentKaczybski a yokel (cham) and (after his death) suggesting he bore responsibility for the crash of the presidential flight at Smolensk and had ‘blood on his hands’. He left the Platform following this remark to found his own movement in 2010.
Although dismissed as likely to get nowhere by at least Polish politics analyst I spoke to one at the time of its foundation, some polls have Mr Palikot (Palikot’s Movement (Ruch Palikota), formerly the Movement in Support) on up to 7%.
Critics dismiss Palikot as an oddball showman and buffoon, complaining of the palikotyzacja of Polish politics in a culture of spin and stunts and general vulgarity. But Palikot, a former vice president of the Polish Business Council and chairman of a parliamentary anti-bureaucracy commission, is at least a semi-serious political figure and his party fills a clear political gap.
It has a stright-down-the-line socially and economically and radical secular – not say anti-clerical – programme proising a Modern State, which goes straight for the taboo issues glossed over or ignored by the more conservative and/or pragmatic PO. The Palikot Movement wants to scrap religious education in state schools, scrap state subsidies of churches and introduce free contraception, legal abortion on demand and civil partnerships for same sex couples. It also a mixed electoral system combining first-past-the-post and PR and the abolition of the Polish Senate (oddly self-defeating for a small party but a popular nostrum across the CEE region) as well as a war on bureauracy
Polish voters, more perhaps than anywhere else in the CEE region, are wont to spring surprises. It is entirely possible that come the weekend the Palikot Movement will just be another pre-election flash in the pan.
But the party’s surge in the polls seems well timed and Palikot an archtypical media savvy, semi-celebrity outsider politician of the kind with a mainstream, but anti-establishment message increasingly successful in contemporary European democracies.
He is certainly more likely to be leading a new party into the Sejm than any on radical right or social populist fringe.
What do you do if you’re a fading historic right-wing party in a small northern European country with a strong, broadly social-democratic political culture?
For the Scottish Conservatives, whose secular decline despite the electoral bounce- back of 2010 in England and Wales is catalogued by a recent IPPR report, the answer would seem be to dissolve and rebrand as a new more modern, more appealing centre-right formation.
That at least is the idea of leadership contender Murdo Fraser (one floated as early 2007)- and one looked at with quiet sympathy by London Tories around David Cameron who basically buy in to the idea the Conservative identity is too toxic and too undermined by social change and the decline of political identities shaped by religion and Empire to be redeemable. Better a strong, autonomous allied party better than enfeebled rump.
But what – assuming Mr Fraser gets his way – would such a party be called?And what would it imply? Perhaps in time the drawing in of pro-market elements of the Liberals or the SNP.
We know one thing. The new would include the word ‘Scottish’ and not include the word ‘Conservative’. But where to go from there?
Perhaps take inspiration from the Anglosphere?
Canada has the Progressive Conservatives, but the ‘C’ word is out and Progressive tag (Scottish Progressives? Progressive Democrats?) alone might be a linguistic modernisation too far, even in this age of political cross dressing. I guess, still following Canadian politics, the label Reform might be a possibility.
After all, the Tories European Parliament Group – where this new party’s MEPs (if it won any) would sit – is called the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR). So perhaps Scottish Reform Party? Tory bloggers liked this idea. On the other hand, the label does have vaguely religious echos, which might be a bad idea given Scotland’s sectarian history.
Perhaps the Scandinavian right might offer inspiration. Sweden has the Moderates (as does Estonia) but I suspect the Scottish Moderates would not do well and might provoke a few guffaws given the Tories’ history of hot gospelling Thatcherism in Scotland in 1980s.
Iceland, of course, has the Independence Party – a pragmatic fusion of Liberals and Conservatives , take note – but somehow that might not strike the right note in Scotland… And besides UKIP seems have baggsied the Independence label.
Some Scottish Tories also toyed, it seems, with the idea of becoming the Freedom Party, although this rather in-your-face label has only been successfully used by Geert Wilders anti-Islamic outfit in Holland and the late Joerg Haider’s radical right grouping in Austria and is more associated with European liberal parties. Beside Scottish Freedom Party, sounds somewhat like a more radical version of the SNP.
Perhaps Central and East European politics then? After all, the dissolve-rebrand-and-reinvent formula was tried by a number of discredited former ruling (communist) parties there.
However, as even the most rapid Tory-phobe would admit, we not talking about a bunch of ex- totalitarians, so it’s really the CEE right we should be looking. Here the word ‘Democratic’ seems to be the main label on office (Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic, Slovene Democrats, Bulgaria’s Union of Democratic Forces (as was)) – as well as general avoidance of the word ‘Party’.
So that would leave is with Scottish Democrats or Scottish Democratic Union (handy echoes of the Unionist tag, the Scottish Tories historically used until 1965 and which, oddly, seems a favoured option, despite stressing the English link and having slight undertones of Northern Irish protestant politics)
Unless, like many a Central European and Scandinavian conservative, they started to think less in party terms and more in terms of alliance-making. Slovakia had its Blue Coalition, Denmark its Blue Alliance.
Which perhaps begs the question of where the ranks of this new centre-right in this increasingly politically far away country called Scotland would come from.
Things get off to a bad start when, after opening remarks, it becomes clear that the English language version of the film won’t play. We can, however, show it in Slovak, which is OK for around 80% of the audience and perhaps a blessing in disguise as the English version is overdubbed, rather undermining its effect, rather than subtitled. The film, however, is powerful and well made and in the Q and A that follows Gál shows himself to be a magnetic and charismatic speaker. If you wondered why he was a revolutionary leader, this would answer your question. The questioners are all young, the question all in Czech or Slovak, self-translated in English. Everyone agrees that communism-nationalism-and-populist social-democracy are all part and parcel of the same illiberal conundrum that plays to the lowest, materialistic and most provincial inclinations of the Slovak and Czech populace and still haunts the region. Why did thy not handle things more smartly? Boli sme blbí, Gál tells his listeners in a line you feel he’s probably used before. But given the revolutionary avalanche of events and the fact he bowed out of politics almost two decades ago, that’s perhaps a more than acceptable answer.
Showing up in the grander circumstances on 17 November itself to give a lecture, Slovak Prime Minister, Robert Fico represents precisely that Other Slovakia (my phrase) that Gál and his listeners so dislike. We had expected a bland speech, but characteristically Fico decided to deal with controversial issues bluntly and head on: not everything under communism had been all bad -welfare standards were higher and teaching in universities ‘more systematic’; there had been privations and bureaucracy – he himself had had to queue through the night to book his honeymoon to Malta; the revolution was not a cause for unbridled celebration as the ‘tribunes of the revolution’ didn’t deliver on promises of fairness and freedom and hacked away a lot of ordinary people’s social certainties in their pursuit of economic and party self-interest (until the arrival of R. Fico and Smer, you understand. Politically, this is some extent a necessary move as in 1989 Fico was a member of Communist Party of Slovakia (having joined in 1987) working at the Institute of State and Law of the Academy of Sciences, although on the other hand some Czech Social Democrats have similar backgrounds as bright young things in the late socialist nomenklatura and don’t feel the need for such a ‘balanced’ assessment of the old regime.
My sympathies were, it must be said, not with Fico, who made a more convincing case for himself on his last visit in UCL in 2006. On the other hand, he has turned out to have played the smarter political game and, as one leading specialist on Slovak politics, reminded me after afterwards it is a sign of progress to have ‘bog standard left-wing politics’ dominating the Slovak political scence not the more paranoid and dangerous nationalism of the Mečiar era – a period oddly absent from Fico’s speech – albeit suffused with a bit of dodgy nomenklatura nostalgia for social cosseting of the normalization era.
Update: A video of the full lecture has now appeared on the UCL-SSEES website here.
The answer, of course, is that they were and he couldn’t. All in all, it was reassuringly unimpressive performance by the BNP leaders, lacking not only any credible answers but also professionalism, poise or personal charm. I remember once watching Jean Marie Le Pen comprehensively outmanoeuvre a left-wing opponent on TV discussion with a mixture of sure footing cunning and avuncular bluster on French TV in the 1980s. Happily, the BNP leader clearly wasn’t in this league.
I was just about to turn back to Prague municipal politics, however, when suddenly I caught flash of the kind of leader the British radical populist far-right probably does need and the kind of politician we probably should fear: it was Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson for home affairs – up to that point a grey and totally forgettable presence on the panel, – launching into an eloquent tirade about how Britain should have closed its borders to citizens of new (that is predominantly, East European) EU member states for as long as possible and wasn’t it awful that the government that the government didn’t do this and lots of them came over here… Open borders in an opern liberal Europe. What a disaster.
For a fleeting moment, I though Mr Huhne, an unsuccessful contender for his party’s leadership in 2007, was making a pitch for the BNP leadership, which to judge from his poor performance Nick Griffin might soon be vacating. Then I realised, of course, that, having slipped out of anti-fascist mode, he was simply illustrating the well established truth that immigrant-bashing and playing up to the public xenophobia is OK provided you are a respectable person from a resepctable mainstream party. And, Mr Huhne, – public school, Oxford, the City, economist and financial journalist, long-serving MEP, policy expert – is certainly that.
And then it struck me that, here – not necessarily in the person of Mr Huhne – but some of some ambitious, well educated, well spoken, reasonably well known figure public figure gone maverick that the real threat of more articulate, credible and dangerous far-right lies. No of burden of neo-fascist pedigree or a penchant for anti-semitism tor seeing the positive side of Hitler that, fortunately for us, encumbers Nick Griffin (and later held back Le Pen and Joerg Haider). Political or media skills already honed. Stock of political respectability already laid in.
Such figures seem to be media personalities with a certain political-cum-academic commentators (Pym Fortyn, Robert Kilroy-Silk) or frustrated members of existing parties, who turn maverick or decide to air views on race, minorities or immigration they have previously kept to themselves. Interestingly, Liberal parties, typically often under electtoral pressure from bigger competitors of left and right, whose identity is often a rather unstable mix of anti-establishment, pro-market, pro-market and pro-little person/geographical periphery appeals, seem especially vulnerable to such occasionally odd mutations: Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party was originally a liberal grouping, controversial anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders was once an MP for Holland’s Liberals the VVD; Germany’s FDP was hit by accusations of anti-semitism in 2002-3 because of statements of one its then rising stars, the late Jurgen Molleman; in the mid-1990s factions in the FDP associated with the nationalist Neue Rechte intellectual (unsuccessfully) sought a Haider-style transformation of the party.
I don’t, of course, expect to see Mr Huhne leading the BNP or indeed some populist confection (although I’m sure he’d do an excellent job if he did), but as the comedian Alan Davies pointedly pnoted on the This Week programme that followed Question Time‘s BNP-fest, Griffin’s party are not a hugely successful or professional outfit and don’t deserve high profile controverst treatment and still less the back-handed compliment of being banned from Question Time.
The real threats lie elsewhere. We clearly had a lucky escape when ex-Labour MP and chat show host Robert Kilroy-Silk proved too maladroit and egomaniacal to take over the UK Independence Party in 2004. Celebrity populists and mavericks peeling away from already opportunistic mainstream seem a potentially far more potent force than the wafer thin veneer of respectability and normality of a welfare chauvinist niche party that can’t escape its neo-fascist roots like the BNP.
I lack background to analyse this properly, but I wonder whether such sentiments will feed into the electorally emergent Bulgarian radical right, which – as far as I am aware – has so far been a ragbag of populist and racist positions without much intellectual ballast. A Bulgarian student tells me that it should be regarded as a new post accession phenomenon, not one with roots in historic nationalism (like say the Slovak National Party). Interestingly, other new phenomena – Kosovan independence and the rise of Putin-era pipline politics – seem to have opened up further intellectual and political space for it.
Lewin’s books seeks to challenge a range of intellectual motifs in political science, which hethinks undermine the notion of politics as purposive rational activity and hence suggest that politicians cannot meaningfully be held accountable for their actions. He develops this analysis in thematic chapters, each discussing the intellectual origins and political science manifestations of one such argument then knocking it down it through an empirical counter-example.
Politicians are, he says, firstly are not prisoners of historical forces, whether structural or ideological. Some strategic choices, such as the US policy-makers’ decision to implement the Marshall Plan, not only radically affect historical outcomes big time, but are contingent and contested instances of Churchill’s ‘hinge of history’ Nor are policy-makers deprived of choice by some supposed inherent tendencies towards conflict in the international system or the recent globalization of the world economy. The formation of the EEC in 1956, Lewin argues, shows political actors can opt for deep, long-term co-operation. Tentative international agreements on climate change – very tentative, as he admits – suggest that the global market is (potentially) subject to political regulation. Neither can we discount politicians’ accountability because of trade-offs and compromises involved in consensus-building and coalition formation. Inclusive power sharing arrangements can simply generate corrupt, collusive political systems like that of the Italian party system – although unfortunately, its post-1994 to adversarial politics of alternating blocs of left and right as he admits hardly seems to have rectified this.
Lewin also doubts whether accountability is always diminished because politicians’ strategies are distorted by self-interested bureaucrats or because social complexity and the longue durée inevitably produce unintended consequences. Margaret Thatcher’s reforms of 1980s show how even a long established, independently minded civil service can be made to implement policies it dislikes, while successful Social Democratic strategies for Sweden’s unemployment insurance system of 1920s aimed at promoting unionisation suggest that long-term consequences can be intended. He concludes with an appeal for a democratic politics centring on choice and competition and a more informed, open and reflexive political class willing and able to face up to issues of democratic accountability.
Overall, Lewin’s hypothesis that political science agendas inadvertently combine to deny democratic accountability is a striking one. However, for me the quality of his book’s argumentation largely fails cut the mustard. Authors and cases selected as counter-examples are seem idiosyncratic and unconvincing. Italy, for example, is an odd test for Lijphart’s consensus democracy model – Holland, Austria or Sweden might be more convincing choices. And Lenin and Hobbes are not perhaps the best representatives of neo-realist views in modern politics, which I suspect do not say that war is inevitably, merely than conflict of some kind based on self-interests is. Despite a nod towards Mill’s comparative method, the book’s broadbrush essayistic studies also offer no compelling argument that cases are critical cases rather than exceptions proving the rule. Democratic Accountability is thus perhaps best an interesting, if undemanding, essay in democratic theory – the intellectual equivalent of a well dunked biscuit over a tepid cup of tea (or several)
Caplan, by contrast, is a much tougher cookie. Backed by survey evidence, he argues that the failures of democratic governance stem less from the rational ignorance of voters, as traditional Public Choice models suggest, than their irrational anti-liberal economic prejudices. Compared both to professional economists and a minority of well informed voters, most Americans he finds suffer from marked irrational biases when assessing the working of the economy and economic policy: an anti-market bias stigmatizing profit-seeking and unequal remuneration as greed; an anti-foreign bias favouring protectionism and autarchic measures costly to most consumers; a ‘make-work’ bias which wrongly sees employment as a something to be husbanded and protected, rather a resource whose input should be minimized; and a pessimistic bias, which wrongly assesses the economic situation and most aspects of economic policy as negative and deteriorating. Adapting the classic ‘rational ignorance’ perspective, Caplan suggests that such biases, in fact, represent ‘rational irrationality’: citizens cling to populist beliefs that bolster psychological well-being and identity when (as in politics) the marginal costs of doing so are low, but behave rationally in consumer markets when confronted with narrower, more immediate cost-benefit decisions
Such systematic biases, he claims, void conventional Public Choice arguments for the essential rationality of voters – to prop up the key analogy between political and economic markets – such as cognitive short-cut, cues from friends and family, retrospective voting on how the government didor the ‘miracle of aggregation’. Rational politicians thus demagogically play to majority economic prejudices, but then ignore campaign promises knowing that the electorate will punish them if the economy deteriorates because of its populist nostrums. This explains why democracies make policy with some degree of efficiency. Contrary to the prevailing ‘democratic fundamentalism’, we are, Caplan concludes, already bumping up against the desirable limits of democracy. We should therefore introduce economic literacy tests for voters and abandon efforts to boost turnout likely to mobilize less educated, less economically rational voters.
Although refreshingly iconoclastic, Caplan is not wholly convincing. The case for systemic voter ignorance seems made, but empirical evidence for ‘rational irrationality’ appears patchy. Even given its US focus, the book’s dismissal of self-interested (class-based) voting is sweeping. Politics is often a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers, not (just) an exercise in generating a single, rational socially optimum outcome. Caplan’s ‘democratic pessimism’ also seems to point as much to technocratic elitism as the greater marketization he clearly favours. Nor, as he is happy, is his argument very new. Indeed the books comes with self-consciously liberal (no pun intended) helping of quotations from classical liberal economists of the C18th/C19th (Smith, Bastiat, Spencer) and early 20th century elitist and democratic sceptics like Le Bon and Mosca – both intellectual influences on fascism, as I recall, but I guess that might be just historical contingency. The difference is that whereas then the uneducated nature of masses could in the views of someone like J.S. Mill (perhaps rather oddly not referenced by Caplan) justify civic literacy tests and an unequal if universal franchise (extra voters for graduates) as a form of quality control before their full admittance to democratic citizenship, now we have education galore. But rising levels of education, as Caplan is happy to point out, have not brought rising levels of knowledge about politics.