Days Before the Election, Political Science Professors Emphasize "Why Democracy Matters"

Professor Corrales (center) presents his concluding remarks and thanks the attendees of the zoom panel. Photo courtesy of Sophia Wolmer.

On Oct. 28, the political science department hosted “Why Democracy Matters,” a panel as part of a series of events related to the U.S. 2020 election. This followed earlier lectures in the series on the same topic, and took place a week out from election day. At the event, three panelists — Professors of Political Science Kerry Ratigan, Javier Corrales and Jonathan Obert — presented information about democratization and its intersection with both American politics and other regimes. Drawing on their respectives areas of expertise, the professors advocated for democracy and gave warning to threats of democratic backsliding in the present day United States.

Nearly 70 live viewers tuned into the event, which was open to all Amherst students, faculty, alumni and other Amherst community members. Among the attendees, there were many current and past political science majors, according to Corrales. “There was great attendance, from all communities [including] students (in residence and remote), parents, former students, other faculty [and] staff,” he said.

Ratigan, a specialist in Chinese politics, social policy, authoritarianism and state-society relations, was the first panelist to speak at the event. Through the lens of Chinese politics, Ratigan argued that an absence of democractic institutions can have potentially disastrous consequences. Using the example of the Great Leap Forward, an economic and social campaign led by the Chinese Communist Party from 1958 to 1962, she highlighted four factors that led to policy disaster for China: the centralization of power;  the government’s lack of accountability to citizens;  a focus on ideology over expertise; and a lack of information for citizens. Ratigan emphasized that ideal deocractic political systems safeguard against these wrongdoings. 

Ratigan pointed out that, despite democracy’s prioritization of collective decision making, freedom of information and accountability to citizens, it does not guarantee a perfect political system. Rather, she said, “democratic institutions are only as good as the humans and the individual people who maintain them by maintaining democratic norms and practices.”

“For example, if you have experts, but their expertise is diluted by misinformation, then freedom of information may no longer be sufficient. Or, for example, if a governor is more worried about maintaining a good relationship with the president than serving their constituency, perhaps elections are insufficient and to hold local leaders accountable,” she added. “The Great Leap Forward teaches us that democratic institutions are necessary, but maybe not sufficient to avoid policy disasters.”

Building off of Ratigan’s presentation, Corrales, who studies democratization and Latin-American politics, argued that democracy matters because it is the only political system that helps humans manage and act responsibly with information. Corrales first explained  how democractic erosion manifests and then turned to how it results in executive aggrandizement. 

“In our typical liberal democracy, we have separation of powers, and we have checks and balances, and so in theory, this is the way that government is supposed to exist. This is the concept of limited government. And this is there to adopt to avoid concentration of power.” Corrales said.,  “[During democratic backsliding], the executive becomes the biggest sun in the system. The congress and the courts and the federal systems operate, but they become subsumed, or at least smaller in relation to the power of the executive, and those other little bubbles that you see are elements of civil society that remain independent but enter into the orbit of the sun. This is what is meant by executive aggrandizement, and it’s done legally and gradually.”

Corrales continued to assert that in situations of democracic backsliding, the president undermines the ability of citizens to discern between fact and fiction. Citing Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil, Venezuela, Hungary and Poland as examples, Corrales concluded that executive aggrandizement is widespread and is not due to a president’s personality or ideology. Instead, it has become a political “playbook” for nation leaders.

“Presidents do not engage in censorship. What they do is they dominate the airwaves [by] constantly, constantly producing noise and noise and noise: sometimes truth, sometimes fiction and sometimes myths. They’re taking the mic away from everyone else, by being constantly out there producing information,” he said.

For Corrales, the most vital reason why democracy matters is that it promotes and protects “freedom of inquiry, respect for pluralism, the autonomy of institutions, the independence of courts … and the protection of whistleblowers,” all of which he views as vital to the independent management and uptaking of information. 

Obert was the final speaker of the panel. Based on his research pertaining to state formation and violence in United States politics, Obert claimed that its essential to think about democracy not “just as a set of institutions like voting, as a rule of law and as majority sort of persuasion and popular sovereignty, but instead also as a process as a way that people behave as a set of practices and orientations toward the world.”  

Obert began by arguing that democracy is a product of human cooperation. Accordingly, history is made when individuals choose to “do things differently” or act decisively in moments of conflict. Only through moments of great discomfort and fear do people gain a sense of power, said Obert. In Obert’s mind, “[democracy] often involves conflict and fighting, and is probably most achievable in moments of great uncertainty and fear and anxiety — which I think is what we are currently undergoing.”

His final point was that democracies do not follow “a linear process” or an “arc of justice.” The history of the United States, Obert explained, illustrates that democracies should be described using a two-steps-forward, one-step-back analogy. “There have been moments where we see great inclusion, where people join in the franchise, which are followed by moments of great exclusion,” he noted. 

After their presentations, the professors opened the floor to questions from the audience. 

One question was posed by President Biddy Martin. She asked: “Given the worrying trends in survey data identified by Foe and Monk a few years ago (which showed that millennials in the U.S. and Europe are more indifferent to democracy, less politically engaged, and more positive towards military rule), do you see any prospects for reversing the gradual erosion of democracy that you described?”

“I think it’s one thing to respond to a survey and have cynicism towards democracy in the abstract. But, consider what happened this summer with protests, many of which were led by young people. The protests were some of the most substantial movements in American history, if not the largest. I have a hard time saying that that’s apathy and not at some level democratic,” responded Obert. “Also, they’re anticipating for this election that rates of young people voting will be at an all-time high. So, I’m not sure that I think the survey findings are very, very concerning. I think they’re picking up on our general discomfort with the way that institutions are working.”

In response to another question, the two professors asserted that voter suppression is intrinsically connected to democratic backsliding. Obert, in response to a question from Ruby Cain, attributed the act of voter suppression to a leader whose power is waning. “Those who are losing power are less invested in playing the game of elections,” he said. “They aren’t in it to make the supply of governance meet the demand of the people, and instead they’re trying to cut off the people that don’t find them appealing.”

Susan Banki ’91 asked how executive aggrandizement overlaps with other popular political science terms, namely “hybrid regimes” and “illiberal democracies”. In his response, Corrales alluded to the fact that there are many ways that a democracy can be compromised, but held fast to his claim that executive aggrandizement is “common to all forms of democratic backsliding.”

Corrales and Obert closed out the talk by thanking the attendees. Professor Obert noted the importance of community in this unprecedented time. “I think it’s exciting that even though we’re in the midst of this insane period in history, that this kind of moment is possible,” he said, “we’re being brought together through a medium like zoom in a crisis of historical proportions.”