TALK OF THE FRAGILITY OF DEMOCRACY, or variations on that theme, is commonplace these days—and perhaps for good reason. Whether in those countries where it is most settled, or at the frontiers, where it struggles more openly with authoritarianism or worse, democracy, if not broken, seems at least dented and scuffed. At the Kennedy School, where democratic values are central to the mission, this is a call to action. So, across more than a dozen centers and programs, through rigorous and applied action, scholars and practitioners are busy trying to understand whether and how democracy is in fact in real peril and how it can be improved and fixed. From looking at how democracy prospers or fails unexpectedly, to how political adversaries work across bitter partisan divides, from studying the flow of polluted information through our digital media landscape, to mending the shaky machinery of elections, HKS is devoting itself to Making Democracy Count.
See what we’re thinking at hks.harvard.edu/mdw
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The next generation of democracy scholars, or at least an important slice of them, are being incubated right here. Every year since 2011, the Democracy Fellowship program, run by the Ash Center, has invited a broad, diverse, interdisciplinary cohort of scholars who are focused on the toughest challenges to democratic governance. Fellows, ranging from doctoral students to well-established academics, learn from and interact with Harvard faculty members, researchers, politicians, practitioners, and one another. And the growing number of alumni of the program, now numbering more than 50, have established a network spanning five continents and nearly 20 countries.
First of all, some definitions. Don’t call it “fake news,” because that simplifies complex phenomena and is also increasingly being used as a cudgel by politicians around the world to discredit news they don’t like. Do call it misinformation when false information is shared but no harm is intended.Call it disinformation when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm. And call it malinformation when information based on reality is shared to cause harm. The correct terminology is just the beginning in the construction of a framework created by Claire Wardle and her First Draft project at the Shorenstein Center to understand the impact that “information pollution” can have on societies and how stakeholders—including governments, the media, technology companies, and civil society—can address the problem. There’s no question that until they are addressed, information disorders will continue to influence, and sometimes undermine, democracies.
Shape So Unnatural
A congressional district with boundaries so tortuous it resembled a salamander gave rise to the term “gerrymander” in the 19th century (Gerry was the surname of the beneficiary). Nowadays, to protect their political futures, political map drawers rely not just on intimate knowledge of the landscape but on high-powered computing that allows one party to maximize its influence while diluting the voting power of its opposition. The Supreme Court, which has often weighed in on how to think about race when drawing political boundaries, is considering the constitutionality of political gerrymandering and will issue a decision in a landmark case later this year. Meanwhile, with the 2020 census and another round of district-drawing around the corner, HKS is taking a leading role in bringing forward ideas to reform a broken system. In 2017, it bestowed the prestigious Roy and Lila Ash Innovation Award for Public Engagement in Government on the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, a radically new, citizen-led redistricting experiment. (Read here about an alum involved with the commission.) And in November, under the leadership of Professor Archon Fung and Ash Center Fellow Miles Rapaport, HKS held a major conference that brought together academics, practitioners of all political stripes, and activists from around the country.
Elections are not democracy. But there can be no democracy without them. Unfortunately for democracy, elections aren’t doing well. HKS Senior Lecturer Pippa Norris has spent much of this decade figuring out what isn’t working and what can be done to fix it. The Electoral Integrity Project, which Norris heads, has collected enormous amounts of data on elections around the world; published dozens of books, reports, and scholarly articles; and worked with international organizations, regional bodies, and nonprofits. The work is aimed at three goals: finding out when elections meet international standards, understanding what happens when they fail to do so, and figuring out how to mitigate those problems.
In Fertile Ground
Seeing democracy sprout in some places can be a little like seeing a flower grow through a crack in the sidewalk. Political science tells us that the ideal conditions include factors such as a healthy economy, a high level of development, and a neighborhood of democratically inclined nations. But sometimes democracy seems to grow against all odds: in India in 1947, despite tremendous poverty and deep ethnic and religious divisions; in Indonesia in 1998, after decades of military rule; or in Costa Rica in 1953, surrounded by juntas and dictatorships. Democracy in Hard Places, led by Kennedy School professors Tarek Masoud and Scott Mainwaring, aims to learn from those lessons. The program, housed at the Ash Center, is bringing in fellows and speakers and building up a body of knowledge on democracy’s improbable successes to learn whether that precious hardiness can be grafted elsewhere.
Legislative negotiation is not for the fainthearted. Between the necessary transparency and the inevitable leaks, the parties are working in a fishbowl. Individuals don’t have the power to get anything done on their own. They can kick the can down the road (to future sessions or legislators) on most things. And there are always multiple levels of negotiations going on simultaneously. These are some of the problems. Renowned negotiation experts at the Kennedy School are working on solutions. Brian Mandell, Julia Minson, Kessely Hong, and Jane Mansbridge, with Bruce Patton and Bob Bordone of the Harvard Negotiation Project, are developing tools that legislators can employ. In January they hosted Massachusetts state legislators and staffers in a weeklong effort to test and refine their work, which should be completed later this year.
Bent Not Broken
Thirteen percent. That’s the share of Americans who approve of the way Congress is doing its job, according to a recent poll. One popular perception of Capitol Hill, reinforced by the spate of high-profile legislative failures this year, is that nothing gets done (except perhaps stuff that ought not to). But that’s not necessarily true. Every year, despite the undeniable polarization and gridlock, Congress passes 30 to 40 important bipartisan pieces of legislation. A team of Kennedy School scholars, including Jane Mansbridge, Archon Fung, and David King, is trying to learn from those successes and to determine whether they had actionable lessons that could help Congress do even more. The program grew out of an event that hosted a cadre of senior congressional staffers from both parties to find out how they worked together. The scholars plan to present a final report later this year.
Early and Often
In 2016, TurboVote, an app that lets citizens register and keep track of elections, signed up its millionth voter. The same year, more than 11 million people looked up where to vote on GetToThePolls.com. And millions of absentee ballots mailed out by election officials are now tracked through Ballot Scout. All three initiatives were part of Democracy Works, a nonprofit founded by Kathryn Peters MPP 2012 and Seth Flaxman MPP 2012, which aims to be the “digital connective tissue” for American democracy.
Top image by Akintunde Akinleye; portraits by Martha Stewart; Noun Project icons; Turbovote photo courtesy of Kulsum Ebrahim | Pomona