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  • Are Americans Exceptional In Their Attitudes Toward Government's Role In Reducing Inequality?

    Written on January 10, 2012

    As discussed in a previous post, roughly half of Americans believe that government should take some active role in reducing income differences between rich and poor, though, as one would expect, this view is less prevalent among Republicans, more educated and higher earning survey respondents.

    These data, however, lack a frame of reference. That is, they don’t tell us whether American support for government redistribution is “high” or “low” compared with that in other nations. The conventional wisdom in this area is that Americans generally prefer a more limited government, especially when it comes to things like income redistribution.

    It might therefore be interesting to take a quick look at how the U.S. stacks up against other nations in terms of these redistributive preferences.

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  • A Republic At Risk

    Written on December 12, 2011

    Hardly a week goes by when some newspaper or television network doesn’t feature where the U.S. ranks among the nations participating in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This test, administered to 15-year olds every three years, serves as a benchmark for “how we’re doing” in terms of education outcomes relative to our international competitors.

    Because the results get so much attention, millions of Americans are aware that our students' average scores rank relatively low on all three tests (though, when you account for error margins, U.S. scores are actually roughly average). Such awareness has stirred up remarkable urgency to improve our education system – we are told this is a “Sputnik moment," and that the very future of our nation’s economy is at risk.

    Yet, for all the attention we pay to our rankings on standardized tests, how many Americans are aware that, in terms of voter turnout (voters as a proportion of voting-age population) between 1945 and 2001, the U.S. ranked 138th out of the world’s 169 democracies? To whatever degree electoral participation is an indicator of the health of a republic, ours is a sick one indeed. And it’s about to get even sicker.

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  • Similar Problems, Different Response: “We Are Public Education”

    Written on October 28, 2011

    Thousands of people from all over Spain demonstrated Saturday October 22nd in Madrid against severe austerity measures affecting public education in several Spanish regions. The march on Madrid, which attracted more than 100,000 protesters – huge by Spanish standards – was jointly organized by national education unions and the national parents’ association, CEAPA. Taking part in the protest, a somewhat unprecedented coalition: educators, parents, and students.

    The economy in Spain is in terrible shape. Parents and teachers don’t always have an ideal relationship, yet  Spaniards seem to have avoided the divisive and unproductive quarrels we often read about in the US education debate – e.g., adults versus children or teachers versus parents – in an attempt to prioritize long-term educational investment over short-term, budget-driven savings. This broad alliance is building consensus around the notion of “the education community." As the protest’s manifesto notes, such community is “society as a whole," which must unite to oppose drastic budget cuts in public education and attacks by political leaders on public school teachers.

    The nationwide protest was triggered by a recent government decision that bans the temporary hiring of teachers as part of a plan to reduce government spending. In various parts of the country, teachers have already been laid off, class sizes and teaching hours have increased significantly, and teachers will have to teach subjects they are not specialized in. Many schools will have to reduce extra-curricular activities, remedial classes for struggling students and integration classes for the children of immigrants. This situation triggered a series of regional demonstrations across Spain throughout the months of September and October – including student demonstrations in defense of public education – with protesters arguing that education quality has been put at risk. National in scale, the march on Madrid sends a broader message, with the potential of immediate political impact.

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  • Do Americans Think Government Should Reduce Income Inequality?

    Written on October 24, 2011

    With all the recent coverage of Occupy Wall Street and President Obama’s jobs bill, we’ve heard a lot of polling results showing that a large plurality of Americans supports raising taxes on high earners, and that this support is strong among both Democrats and Republicans.

    The campaign to raise taxes on high-income households is part of a larger ideological notion that reducing inequality by such means as taxation and welfare programs is a proper function of government. Supporters (e.g., Democrats) argue that progressive taxation helps to ensure that high earners pay their “fair share” in supporting the public resources, such as schools, roads and law enforcement, that are necessary (but not sufficient) for their success. Republicans, on the other hand, tend frame the issue directly in terms of government intrusion – the government is unfairly “picking winners and losers," and stifling innovation and risk-taking. The assumption seems to be that many Americans don't care for the generic idea of government taking an active role in reducing the gap between rich and poor, even though they tend to support many of the specific means by which this occurs, including not only raising taxes on high earners, but also public education and programs like Medicaid.

    So, it might be interesting to see what Americans think of the broader idea that government has a legitimate role in reducing income inequality. Let’s take a quick look.

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  • Collective Bargaining Teaches Democratic Values, Activism

    Written on September 16, 2011

    Some people must have been startled by President Obama’s decision to draw a line in the sand on collective bargaining in his jobs speech to the Congress last week. Specifically, the President said: “I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy."

    Given the current anti-union tenor of many prominent Republicans, started by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, it seems pretty clear that worker rights is shaping up to be a hot-button issue in the 2012 campaign. Collective bargaining rights as presidential campaign plank? It wasn’t that long ago that anything to do with unions was considered to be an historic anachronism – hardly worth a major Republican presidential candidate’s trouble to bash. Times have changed.

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  • Grand Bargaining

    Written on September 2, 2011

    With Labor Day upon us, I’ve found myself thinking about three apparently unrelated pieces of sociological research, and how all point to the role of laws, policies, and institutions as "signalers" of the social values that we share.

    First, in an unpublished paper, Stanford University’s Cristobal Young examines the role of unemployment insurance in encouraging prolonged job search effort. Second, in a talk earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Shelley Correll (also at Stanford) discussed how greater awareness of laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) make it harder for employers to discriminate against those who take it. Third, a recent article by Bruce Western (Harvard University) and Jake Rosenfeld (University of Washington) argues that unions contribute to a moral economy that reduces wage inequality for all workers, not just union members.

    I think that these three pieces of scholarship tell a similar story: policies, laws and institutions have impact beyond their primary intended purpose. Unemployment benefits are more than the money one receives when jobless; laws pertaining employment rights are more than rules enforced by the imposition of sanctions; and unions are more than organizations seeking to improve their members’ wages and working conditions. These policies, programs, and institutions also have a symbolic importance—they signal a consensus about what we value and desire as a society which simultaneously shapes the lens through which we judge our own behavior and that of others.

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  • Can We Make Voting Like Tweeting?

    Written on July 7, 2011

    A recent Brookings Institution forum on new social media and the re-invigoration of democracy got me thinking about whether and how Twitter and Facebook could successfully increase political participation, specifically voter turnout. Voter turnout is one of the most important indicators of a healthy democracy and – as many have noted – U.S. voter participation rates are remarkably low.

    It does not surprise me that people don’t see the immediate gains of voting. Going to the polls on election day entails individual costs (e.g., time, figuring out polling locations), while the benefits are essentially collective and weakly dependent on the vote of any one individual. Thus, people may find that it’s in their interest not to bother (Downs 1957 is the classic work on this). This rational approach conflicts with a more normative (even moral) understanding of democracy and civic behavior – e.g., we know we should all vote; it’s as much our responsibility as our right.

    In a much less academic vein, although many U.S. citizens are free-riders when it comes to voting, it appears that Americans love to give their detailed opinions on all kinds of things. For example, why are Americans, who are so enthusiastic and industrious when it comes to writing lengthy product reviews, indolent when they are asked (once every four years) to voice their political views? How can we make voting as compelling as writing an online review? And can social media help in this endeavor?

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  • Remembering Elena Bonner; Honoring Andrei Sakharov

    Written on July 1, 2011

    Our guest author today is Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House.

    Two years ago, Elena Bonner, frail in body but not in mind or spirit, had this to say about conditions in Russia:

    The West isn’t very interested in Russia….There are no real elections there, no independent courts, and no freedom of the press. Russia is a country where journalists, human rights activists and migrants are killed regularly, almost daily. And extreme corruption flourishes of a kind and extent that never existed earlier in Russia or anywhere else. So what do the Western mass media discuss mainly? Gas and oil -- of which Russia has a lot. Energy is its only political trump card, and Russia uses it as an instrument of pressure and blackmail. And there’s another topic that never disappears from the newspapers -- who rules Russia? Putin or Medvedev? But what difference does it make, if Russia has completely lost the impulse for democratic development that we thought we saw in the early 1990s.
    Here, in a few sentences of remarkable insight, Bonner, who died recently, neatly summarized much of Russian reality today.
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  • Suppressing Democracy

    Written on June 28, 2011

    At a recent Shanker Institute conference, a guest presenter from the United Kingdom was discussing the historical relationship between public spending and democracy. I don’t remember the exact context, but at some point, he noted, in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact tone, that one U.S. political party spends a great deal of effort and resources trying to suppress electoral turnout.

    It’s always kind of jarring to hear someone from another country make a casual observation about an American practice that’s so objectionable, especially when you're well aware it's plainly true. And perhaps never more so than right now.

    There are currently several states – most with Republican governors and/or legislatures, including Wisconsin and Ohio – that are either considering or have already passed bills that would require citizens to obtain government-issued identification (or strengthen previous requirements), such as driver’s licenses or passports, in order to register to vote and/or cast a ballot. The public explanation given by these lawmakers and their supporters is that identification requirements will reduce voter fraud. This is so transparently dishonest as to be absurd. Recent incidences of voter fraud are exceedingly rare. Most of these laws are clearly efforts to increase the “costs” of voting for large groups of people who traditionally vote Democratic.

    Others have commented on the politics behind these efforts. I’d like to put them in context.

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  • New Teaching Resource Highlights Voices Of Leading Pro-Democracy Muslims

    Written on June 24, 2011

    The Albert Shanker Institute has released "Muslim Voices on Democracy: A Reader"—a free, downloadable publication that highlights the speeches, articles, and ideals of pro-democracy Muslims. It is designed as a resource for high school teachers to use in American classrooms, as they seek to help students make sense of the complex forces at work in the Muslim world.

    You can download the publication (PDF) here.

    The individuals featured in this collection include intellectuals, union activists, dissidents, and journalists. Although the voices of women are featured throughout the publication, it contains a special section devoted to their unique challenges and contributions to the democratic political dialogue. The publication also features a glossary of terms and a list of resources for further study.

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