Science :: Special Issue – Democracy in the Balance

Featured Journal Content – Democracy

04 September 2020 Vol 369, Issue 6508
Special Issue – Democracy in the Balance
Introduction to special issue
In flux and under threat
By Tage Rai, Brad Wible
Science04 Sep 2020 : 1174-1175
Around the world, democracy is losing ground. Polarization and disinformation have rendered liberals and conservatives unable to agree on basic facts. State violence and suppression of citizens’ rights are resurgent. Free and fair elections are being threatened.

In this special issue, we critically examine the state of democracy and how it must adapt to achieve its ideals in the 21st century. We need to meet the challenges and opportunities of living in increasingly multiethnic societies, of fostering democracy in a weakened international environment, of reducing inequality and elevating the political representation of the poor, and of organizing social movements and combating disinformation tactics in the digital age. Advances in technology are making it easier to distort true voter representation through gerrymandering, and political campaigns continue to struggle with reaching voters and persuading them to participate. Worryingly, state violence, which has always been a core feature of the democratic experience for some, is spreading in democratic societies.

Twenty years ago, it seemed inevitable that democracy would reach every corner of the globe. In this moment, we are reminded that we must fight for democracy and work to improve it. A scientific understanding of the social and behavioral phenomena that underlie its operation will help us enhance democracy and, by doing so, improve human lives and societies globally.

Policy Forum
Racial authoritarianism in U.S. democracy
By Vesla M. Weaver, Gwen Prowse
Science04 Sep 2020 : 1176-1178
One segment of the population experiences different rules and differential citizenship.

Human-centered redistricting automation in the age of AI
By Wendy K. Tam Cho, Bruce E. Cain
Science04 Sep 2020 : 1179-1181
Human-machine collaboration and transparency are key

Campaigns influence election outcomes less than you think
By David W. Nickerson, Todd Rogers
Science04 Sep 2020 : 1181-1182
Campaigns have small effects but are built to win close races

Diversity and prosocial behavior
By Delia Baldassarri, Maria Abascal
Science04 Sep 2020 : 1183-1187
Immigration and globalization have spurred interest in the effects of ethnic diversity in Western societies. Most scholars focus on whether diversity undermines trust, social capital, and collective goods provision. However, the type of prosociality that helps heterogeneous societies function is different from the in-group solidarity that glues homogeneous communities together. Social cohesion in multiethnic societies depends on whether prosocial behavior extends beyond close-knit networks and in-group boundaries. We identify two features of modern societies—social differentiation and economic interdependence—that can set the stage for constructive interactions with dissimilar others. Whether societal adaptations to diversity lead toward integration or division depends on the positions occupied by minorities and immigrants in the social structure and economic system, along with the institutional arrangements that determine their political inclusion.

Can democracy work for the poor?
By Rohini Pande
Science04 Sep 2020 : 1188-1192
Millions of the world’s poorest people now live in middle-income democracies that, in theory, could use their resources to end extreme poverty. However, citizens in those countries have not succeeded in using the vote to ensure adequate progressive redistribution. Interventions aiming to provide the economically vulnerable with needed resources must go beyond assisting them directly, they must also improve democratic institutions so that vulnerable populations themselves can push their representatives to implement redistributive policies. Here, I review the literature on such interventions and then consider the “democracy catch-22”: How can the poor secure greater democratic influence when the existing democratic playing field is tilted against them?

Democracy’s backsliding in the international environment
By Susan D. Hyde
Science04 Sep 2020 : 1192-1196
If the end of the 20th century was defined by the relatively widespread acceptance of democracy, the second decade of the 21st century is marked by concerns about backsliding in new and established democracies alike and by a notable decline in foreign support for democracy around the world. As democracy’s global tailwinds shift to headwinds, scholars have an opportunity to better understand how experience with even superficial forms of democratic institutions across a diverse set of contexts influences citizen behavior when formal democratic institutions erode or disappear. This shift also provides the opportunity to examine whether citizen movements alone—absent external support—are sufficient to check newly emboldened autocrats.

False equivalencies: Online activism from left to right
By Deen Freelon, Alice Marwick, Daniel Kreiss
Science04 Sep 2020 : 1197-1201
Digital media are critical for contemporary activism—even low-effort “clicktivism” is politically consequential and contributes to offline participation. We argue that in the United States and throughout the industrialized West, left- and right-wing activists use digital and legacy media differently to achieve political goals. Although left-wing actors operate primarily through “hashtag activism” and offline protest, right-wing activists manipulate legacy media, migrate to alternative platforms, and work strategically with partisan media to spread their messages. Although scholarship suggests that the right has embraced strategic disinformation and conspiracy theories more than the left, more research is needed to reveal the magnitude and character of left-wing disinformation. Such ideological asymmetries between left- and right-wing activism hold critical implications for democratic practice, social media governance, and the interdisciplinary study of digital politics.