Tag Archives: democracy

Bang, bang — democracy’s dead: Obama and the politics of gun control

Matthew Flinders
Matthew Flinders

By Matthew Flinders. This was originally published on the Oxford University Press blog.

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.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested to read Depoliticization, governance and the state by Matthew Flinders and Matt Wood.

Social democracy after the Third Way: restoration or renewal?

Matthew Flinders
Matthew Flinders

By Matthew Flinders. This was originally published on the Oxford University Press blog.

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?

Where next? New politics, kinder politics, and the myth of anti-politics

Matthew Flinders
Matthew Flinders

by Matthews Flinders, Co-Editor of Policy & Politics. This was originally posted on the OUP blog and is reposted here with kind permission.

For many commentators the 2015 General Election was the first genuinely ‘anti-political’ election but at the same time it was one in which the existence of a major debate about the nature of British democracy served to politicize huge sections of society. The surge in party membership for the Scottish National Party, for example, with over 100,000 members at the time of the election (i.e. far more members than soldiers in the whole British Army) deserves some explanation in a context dominated by the rhetoric of disenchantment and decline. The subsequent election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party with over a quarter of a million votes (59.5% of those cast) raises further questions about ‘anti-politics being all the rage’.

The simple fact is that ‘anti-politics’ is a myth. It is also a dangerous myth due to the manner in which it seeks to perpetuate cynicism when the evidence is arguably far more positive. The truth is that the results of the 2015 General Election and the Labour leadership contest were actually more anti-establishment than anti-political. Take, for example, the influential writing and public interventions of Owen Jones [The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, 2014] or Russell Brand’s raw anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-elections nihilism that was Continue reading Where next? New politics, kinder politics, and the myth of anti-politics

Democracy without the State, by Mark Purcell

This post originally appeared on Mark’s blog, https://pathtothepossible.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/democracy-without-the-state/ and is reused with kind permission.

Mark Purcell giving his keynote at the conference last month
Mark Purcell giving his keynote at the conference last month

Below is the text of the talk I just gave at the Policy & Politics conference in Bristol (England). As you can see, I was very conscious of the audience, which I was not quite sure I had a handle on, but which turned out, I think, to be a group of people who think a lot about government and policy, but do so very critically and intelligently. So my message, that we need to get serious about thinking democracy without the State, was in a sense a message “from beyond,” but one they were able to hear and engage with, even if they did not fully accept it. Also important to know is that the theme of the conference was “Democracy, Inequality, and Power.”

[The paragraphs in brackets were part of the talk, but they were offered as asides. Those with a “***SKIP***” tag were in fact left out.]



When you find yourself on a list of plenary speakers like this one, in which all the others have really deep track records of academic achievement, you ask yourself what the heck you are doing here and what you can contribute. I don’t have their record, I am not a social scientist, I don’t study inequality, I am not even British.

I guess what I am is someone who has thought about and written some on democracy, on the idea and practices of democracy. So I thought what I would do today is offer a contribution along those lines. What I plan to do, we’ll see how it goes, is to introduce into the conference what I anticipate will be a minor current of thought. Continue reading Democracy without the State, by Mark Purcell

Can democracy survive?

IMG_3928by Tessa Coombes, PhD Researcher at Bristol University

For the final plenary session of the conference Prof. Andrew Gamble, from Cambridge University, took us back to the issue of democracy and its ability to survive and even thrive. We were reminded that for the first time in the modern state system authoritarian regimes are in retreat and representative democracy, in some form or other, is on the rise.

Representative liberal democracies have been described as the least admirable form of governance not least because of their inability to take difficult decisions and their short term thinking. Despite this, in the 20th century, representative democracy came to be seen as an ideal state. But it now seems we are in a time of transition, where there is a real disengagement and disillusionment with mainstream politics, where the choice is narrowing and where people are indifferent to their right to vote. This crisis of representative politics reflects a crisis of trust in our politics and politicians. Once more, despite this process, representative democracy Continue reading Can democracy survive?

Democracy without the state

tessa-profile2by Tessa Coombes, guest blogger for P&P Conference 2015.

The Policy and Politics Annual Conference 2015 kicked off with a fascinating challenge to our thinking about democracy and the state. Mark Purcell, from the University of Washington, took us on a philosophical journey of discovery about the true meaning of the word democracy, concluding with the notion that the state and democracy are the antithesis of one another.

Mark offered us what he termed a minor current of thought to haunt our discussions and to stimulate new and better currents of thought throughout the conference. He premised his presentation on the idea that the state and democracy need to be seen as antithesis and that we do indeed need democracy.

The debate about power, according to Mark, is about more than we think it is and we need to think about it differently; we need to think of it as power to rather than over. That is, all people retain power to act into and change the Continue reading Democracy without the state

DIY Democracy: Festivals, Parks and Fun

Matthew Flinders
Matthew Flinders

by Matthew Flinders, Co-Editor of Policy & Politics

Wimbledon has been and gone, the barbeques have been dusted off, the sun is shining and all our newly elected MPs have just left Westminster for the summer recess. Domestic politics, to some extent, winds down for July and August but the nation never seems to collapse. Indeed, the summer months offer a quite different focus on, for example, a frenzy of festivals, picnics in the park and generally having fun. But could this more relaxed and self-organising approach to life teach is something about how we ‘do’ politics? Is politics really taking place at festivals and in the parks? Can politics really be fun?

The recent suggestion that the Glastonbury Festival provides a model for policy reform took many academics and commentators by surprise. ‘If you want to know how to achieve those things the politicians promise but never quite deliver — a ‘dynamic economy’, a ‘strong society’, ‘better quality of life’ — stop looking at those worthy think-tank reports about the latest childcare scheme from Denmark or pro-enterprise initiative from Texas’ Steve Hilton, the former Director of Strategy for David Cameron argues in The Spectator (20 June 2015) ‘just head down to Worthy Farm in Somerset… it’s got so much to teach us’. I’ve never personally been ‘a festival person’ (and yes, there is such a type) and the only thing the images of Glastonbury in the past have taught me is never to go there. Continue reading DIY Democracy: Festivals, Parks and Fun

Why voting cannot be a duty

Dan Degerman
Dan Degerman

by Dan Degerman, Graduate Research Scholar, Department of Political Science and International Studies, Long Island University,USA

The electoral race has reached its climax. The party war machines are running at full capacity, saturating the airwaves with political vitriol. Yet, even in this state of war, the combatants unanimously agree on one thing. As democratic citizens, each and every one of us has a duty to vote.

Most of us concur, which is unsurprising given the incessant repetition of this mantra. While few would agree with the letter of phrases, such as “Vote or Die,” many seem to agree with their spirit. That is, people who fail to vote are worthy of derision. We saw this exemplified in the public outcry against Russell Brand’s notorious statement that people shouldn’t vote. Such calls may be misguided, but the idea that people are morally obligated to vote is equally misconceived.

At its core, the purpose of voting is to legitimize the government. As Continue reading Why voting cannot be a duty

Is there “one best way” to govern public services?

Catherine Durose
Catherine Durose

Catherine Durose discusses her latest article with co-authors Jonathan Justice and Chris Skelcher. Catherine is on the Editorial Board of Policy & Politics and is based at the University of Birmingham, UK.

What is the best way to organize the design and implementation of public policies and services? We do not pretend to know. Further, we would argue that a meaningful answer can be provided only contingently. It might therefore be more productive to ask a slightly different question: How can we go about figuring out – in a given situation at a specific time with respect to a specific complex of decisions and services – what the best way might be?

A century ago, industrial engineer Frederick Taylor famously argued that managers ought to determine the one best way to do any given task, and then train their subordinates to do things in precisely that best way. Contemporary scholars of organization, however, tend to agree that activities for which a single best way can be prescribed and implemented are very rare. In the 1950s, scholars in the rapidly suburbanizing U.S. debated whether local -government policies and services were better organized through a multiplicity of jurisdictions or through unitary consolidated metropolitan governments. Versions of that debate continue to this day, not only in the U.S. and Continue reading Is there “one best way” to govern public services?

Making Electoral Democracy Work

Andre Blais
André Blais

by André Blais, Professor at the Université de Montréal

Making Electoral Democracy Work (MEDW) is an international collaborative project that brings together an exceptional team of political scientists, economists, and psychologists from Canada, Europe, and the United States. It is the most ambitious study ever undertaken of the impact of electoral rules on the functioning of democracy. It is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (CAD $3,700,000 from 2009 to 2016).

The goal of the MEDW project is to examine how the rules of the game (especially the electoral system) and the electoral context (especially the competitiveness and salience of the election) influence the dynamic and reciprocal relationship between voters and parties. To do so, the study is looking at virtually all elections held in Canada, Continue reading Making Electoral Democracy Work