One of the great things about being on sabbatical is that you actually get a little time to hide away and do something that professors generally have very little opportunity to do – read books. As a result I have spent the last couple of months gorging myself on the scholarly fruits that have been piling-up on my desk for some time, in some cases years. I’ve read books on ‘slow scholarship’ (Berg and Seeber, 2016) and ‘How to be an academic super-hero’ (Hay, 2017); books on ‘radical approaches to political science’ (Eisfeld, 2012); brilliant books on The festival of insignificance (Kundera, 2015) and In Defence of Wonder (Tallis, 2012); and even novels on university life, such as Stoner (Williams, 2012). What fun it is to soak yourself in the literature! To swim from genre to genre, from topic to topic with a little more freedom to explore beyond your micro-specialism than is ever usually possible and, through this, to garner new insights. Continue reading Are we to blame? Academics and the rise of populism→
Matt Flinders reflects on the changing nature of democratic politics and asks whether a focus upon all things ‘post’ – post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-truth, post-democratic, etc. – has prevented scholars and social commentators from looking beyond or beneath the populist signal.
Although there is no doubt that we live in ‘interesting times’, I cannot help but think that there is something incredibly boring, possibly even myopic, about most of the political analysis that is surrounding recent events. A clichéd sameness, defined by narratives of impending democratic doom, wrapped-up in notions of ‘crisis’, ‘disaster’, ‘hatred’, and ‘death’ that tend to flow into (and out of) dominant interpretations of post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-truth, post-democratic politics. The contemporary democratic debate is arguably cocooned within its own intellectual echo chamber that specialises in problem identification but falls short in terms of a more vibrant brand of design-orientated, solution-focused political science. Continue reading What kind of democracy is this? Scholars must look beyond the populist signal→
Many of us these days are deeply worried about the tone and content of contemporary public debate and discussion about key issues which affect us in common. Somehow, the gulf which has long appeared between elites, experts, academics and everyone else has widened out dramatically. We seem to lead separate lives, imbibing separate ideas and creating separate crude stereotypes about others with whom we share our environments and our political institutions.
A century ago, from the struggles between labour and capital and between tradition and modernity, and the fight for the political rights of workers and women, some sense of a shared political community was forged. Today, while we pass our fellow citizens by on the bus, in the playground, at the supermarket or the doctor’s, or meet in a care home, how much do we understand of our various ways of life, struggles and challenges? Political institutions without some sense of what citizens of that community share in common is far from any conception of democracy. They become easy prey to the megaphones of contemporary populism, as we in the Western world are re-discovering. Continue reading Reflections on my article: “Creating public value through caring for place”→
There is something very odd and bizarrely impressive about Donald Trump’s approach to democratic politics: it is quite obviously undemocratic. Indeed, if anything, his campaign is fueled by anti-political sentiment and populist slogans. It’s strong stuff. So strong that it deserves to be recognized in the form of a new political ideology: “Trump-ism” Eponymous…and yet also synonymous with the failure and farce of American politics. I’ve tried so hard not to write a piece about “you know who” Trump. I really have! It’s just too obvious and to some extent just too easy but as his apparent popularity in the United States grows so does my concern about who might actually hold the most powerful political office on the planet.
But in many ways my concern has nothing to do with partisanship, less to do with politics and everything to do with democracy.
Many countries across the globe have seen an increasing involvement of non-state actors in public policies. Scholars have used the term of network governance to describe this phenomenon. In democracies, such networks pose challenges to the democratic legitimacy of public policies. How can citizens control non-state actors given that they cannot be held accountable via elections? Previous research on the topic has mostly focused on institutional aspects of ensuring democratic accountability of governance networks. Our recent Policy & Politics article entitled ‘Over-responsibilised and over-blamed: elected actors in media reporting on network governance’ shows that – beyond institutional mechanisms – the media play an important and independent role for holding policy actors accountable to the public, whether they are elected or not.
Empirically, we examine policy-making processes in big European city regions, where network governance is widespread and usually includes a wide array of policy actors. Are non-elected actors held accountable in the media as much as elected actors and do the media report adequately upon them? To verify these questions we examined 1200 news articles from 12 different newspapers in eight big cities in four European countries (Berlin, Stuttgart, Zurich, Berne, Birmingham, London, Paris and Lyon). We looked at the public accountability of different types of actors involved in governance networks: how visible are they in the media and to what extent are they held responsible for policy success or failure? We were interested whether the media simply informs the public or whether some actors are more interesting to the media than others (media logic). Continue reading Over-blamed and over-responsibilised: elected actors in network governance→
Tennessee State University, Northern Arizona University, Texas Southern University, Winston-Salem State University, Mojave High Scool, Lawrence Central High School, Umpqua Community College, Harrisburg High School, Sacramento City College, Savannah State University, Southwestern Classical Academy, Bethune-Cookman University, Frederick High School, Wisconsin Lutheran High School, Marysville Pilchuck High School…. the list school shootings goes on (and on). Over twelve thousand people died in the United States last year from gunshot wounds. Since the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012 there have been no fewer than 161 mass shootings. Does Obama’s frustration suggest that democracy is part of the solution or part of the problem?
It would seem that President Obama has a new prey in his sites. It is, however, a target that he has hunted for some time but never really managed to wound, let alone kill. The focus of Obama’s attention is gun violence and the aim is really to make American communities safer places to live. The New Year therefore brought with it an Executive Order from the President that requires all firearms sellers to seek a licence and initiate background checks on purchasers. There is no doubt that this will make the process of buying a gun a slightly slower and more cautious process but in reality it will do little to reduce the scale of gun crime. Obama knows this well and his measures are themselves borne from a frustration that has seen the Congress repeatedly block his attempts to push through more significant measures.
The killing of twenty school children in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012 fuelled a national discussion about gun control. Mass killings by gunmen in civilian settings, children covered in blankets, screaming parents rushing to see if their child has missed the carnage…the emotive politics of gun control turned from individual liberty and protection to individual responsibility and collective freedom but Obama’s attempt to limit the availability of semi-automatic assault weapons was defeated in the Senate. Body bags and public support, it seemed, was not enough to deliver change.
And yet crises – as political science frequently tells us – generally create ‘windows of opportunity’ into which radical new policy shifts can occur. Not, it would seem, in the case of gun atrocities in America. The paradox of the American psyche is that Obama’s call for restrictions on the sale of guns actually stimulated the biggest spike in gun sales that the country had seen for nearly two decades (1.6 million guns sold in December 2015).
So is democracy the problem or the solution?
Democracy is, as Bernard Crick sought to underline in his Defence, inevitably slow and cumbersome. It is messy simply because it somehow has to squeeze simple decisions out of a vast array of competing and often intractable social demands. As a result the democratic process tends to contain multiple veto points that can stifle responsiveness; a smooth policy change is suddenly turned into a sluggish and grating process that too easily morphs into gridlock and inaction.
Could it therefore be that the problem with democracy is that it prevents the implementation of measures that look eminently sensible to the rest of the world?
To some extent this might be true and the interesting element of Obama’s recent move is that by using an executive order to promulgate gun control he is in effect circumnavigating elements of the democratic process. But even here his weakness shines through. First, in the sense that by adopting this approach he risks setting a precedent for future presidents who have a very different approach to gun control and wish to shift the balance via executive order in a very different direction. And (secondly) the significance of the measures are so far removed from any notion of actually disarming the country that they could be interpreted as a sign of weakness rather than strength.
Mr Obama is clearly using some of his final ‘lame-duck’ year freedoms to push the issue of gun control back onto the political agenda. But at the moment the lack of political will is making gun control look too much like ‘a sitting-duck’ for the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups who want to take it back off the agenda. Some opinion polls suggest that the mood of the American public is shifting away from unlimited ownership but the pace of change appears glacial. In some ways American gun control has regressed rather than progressed in recent years as the federal ban on military assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that existed between 1994-2004 has not been renewed by Congress. But it’s too easy to exaggerate the threats or to ridicule gun toting Americans but the reality is far more sad: most deaths occur from guns being used to commit suicide, or are found by children and toddlers who mistake them for toys with devastating effects. When it comes to gun control and American politics then maybe – just maybe – could there be a case for a benevolent dictator who understands that the ballot and bullets, just like guns and safety, just don’t mix?
…. Reynolds High School, Seattle Pacific University, Kennedy High School, Georgia Gwinnet College, Paine College, South Carolina State University, Purdue University, Los Angeles Valley College, Rebound High School, Widener University, Delaware Valley School, Berrendo Middle School, Magne High School, Arapahoe High School, Brashear High School, Carver High School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology….
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also currently Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom. He was once, for a very short time, a member of the British Army but had to leave because he did not like guns or loud bangs.
An invitation from the British Library to give the first in a new public lecture series called “Enduring Ideas” was never a request I was going to decline. But what “enduring idea” might I focus on and what exactly would I want to say that had not already been said about an important idea that warranted such reflection? The selected concept was “democracy” and the argument sought to set out and unravel a set of problems that could – either collectively or individually – be taken to explain the apparent rise in democratic disaffection.
Such is the world we live in that a lecture is no longer a lecture but rapidly becomes a multi-media “artefact” and the beginning of a global discussion. I suppose this is probably not quite true of all lectures, I’ve been to quite a few that really do need to be forgotten, but I’m pleased to say that the intellectual ecosystem seems to have exploded in all sorts of ways that I could never have imagined. Continue reading Social democracy after the Third Way: restoration or renewal?→