Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Governance (Page 1 of 6)

How democratic are pre-election polls?

In most Western democracies nowadays, pre-election periods are littered with polls. Some polls, conducted by polling organizations, are sophisticated and more likely to be challenged for their accuracy (as are the media houses that publish them). Other polls are simple. For instance, a news website may ask its readers who they would vote for if the election happened on that day. Polls represent a simple and cheap commodity for the commercial news media to offer to their audiences. As Jesper Strömbäck notes, polls generate fresh and often dramatic news items that are easy to analyze for journalists and easy to digest for audiences.

But how do polls, and particularly pre-election polls, fit into a normative vision of democracy? Do they enrich our democratic practices and institutions, or do they undercut democratic ideals? Despite being an epitome for divisive issues (49% of countries restrict the publishing of pre-election polls in some capacity, as Petersen notes), pre-election polls have attracted little interest of democratic theorists. Reaching a verdict on whether they are normatively compatible with democracy has been left almost entirely to political scientists and journalists.

On the face of it, pre-election polls have a positive case going for them:

  • First, as long as their integrity is not in question, publishing pre-election polls in liberal democracies could be seen simply as what freedoms of the press and expression require.
  • Second, pre-election polls provide voters with factual information that is seemingly relevant for reaching a decision on how to cast the vote.
  • Third, the publishing of pre-election polls, assuming that they significantly deviate from electoral results, can help indicate whether an election has been tampered with.

Democratic theorists have their work cut out for them to discuss the strength of these three points. But assume, for the moment, that we grant their initial appeal. If these points spoke decisively in favor of pre-election polls, then deciding whether polls are democratic or not would hinge on how accurately they predict outcomes. It is only the publishing of accurate information that would be non-controversially protected under press freedom, contribute to informed voting, or reliably signal election tampering. And matters of polling accuracy are exactly the direction in which much of political science and journalistic takes on pre-election polls have steered the discussion. Insofar, our greatest fears about polls would be whether they are conducted poorly, or rigged.

On second thoughts, however, it doesn’t seem that polling accuracy should be the whole story of how democratic pre-election polls are. Here are two reasons why.

The first concerns the effects of publishing pre-election polls on voting behavior. How exactly voters will be affected remains inconclusive, despite nearly 50 years of research in the social sciences. For instance, it is uncertain whether a pre-election poll will bring about the bandwagon effect – causing voters to flock to the winning side – or the underdog effect – causing the exact opposite. Some authors believe these effects may in fact cancel each other out.

But not everything is uncertain about polling effects. Exposure to pre-election polls is sure to make voters more likely to “maximize the utility of their vote in producing a favorable election outcome”, according to Moy and Rinke. This means that if the poll informs the voter that her preferred option is unlikely to succeed, she will opt for a “second-best” or “third-best” option. Not everyone will succumb to this “strategic voting” effect, but those who do will often solidify two-party systems, since strategic voting is more likely to favor strong parties and candidates at the expense of the weak. If true, obstacles to entry become more significant for democratic newcomers, and voters, who have changed their voting preferences but not their political attitudes, may find themselves unrepresented. These effects, as well as voter indifference, which may be caused if polls project a significant margin between candidates, are all arguably undesirable occurrences in a democracy.

The second democratic worry about pre-election polls concerns the kind of information that these polls provide and how it affects voters. Many authors have linked the media coverage of polls with the culture of so-called “horse race journalism.” This kind of media content primarily emphasizes the standing of candidates in the race and their popularity compared to the competition. And since a democratic arena saturated with polls will direct most of the voter’s attention on the horse race, little attention remains to consider important political views and policy proposals. Along similar lines, Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit once argued that polling effects, among other factors, represent “capricious influences” on voting behavior, and that we should come up with institutional pressures to downplay caprice and stimulate the democratic exchange of reasons that precedes voting.

Of course, pre-election polls are not the only driver of strategic voting, or the sole source of horse race journalism. But if they exacerbate these effects, then we should do more to determine whether and how they fit into a desirable vision of democracy. The institutional pressures against their “capricious influences” need not be strict bans, but may be inspired by numerous policy solutions not yet observed in the West.

The news media are a watchdog, but so are you

In this post, Emanuela Ceva & Dorota Mokrosinska discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on what grounds the duty of the news media (and citizens) to act as a watchdog.


The news media often claim a quasi-political role as a watchdog entrusted by the people to keep the government in check. This claim has a particular purchase when it comes to the dissemination of whistleblowers’ unauthorized disclosures. The publication in the Guardian and the Washington Post of Edward Snowden’s revelations of classified information about British and US governments’ surveillance programs provide a textbook illustration of this claim.

Widespread as it is, this view of the unique quasi-political role of the news media is hard to justify. In a recent article, we argue that the watchdog role of the news media does not derive from their special status in society. It is rather an instance of a general duty that accrues to any member of a well-ordered society in the face of institutional failures.

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Trump vs Twitter: who has the right to do what?


“Twitter is completely stifling free speech, and I, as President, won’t allow it to happen!” Donald Trump, 27 May 2020 – published on Twitter (of course).

 

Introduction

Who has the right, to do what, on Twitter? Donald Trump’s falling out with Twitter, after Twitter’s censuring of certain tweets, has inspired accusations of bias and misbehaviour on all sides, none of which is likely to convince anyone not already convinced. But if we step outside the specific debate around Twitter’s current and future legal immunity, perhaps we can find at least one principle that might gain broad agreement: that no person has the right to do that which would prevent another person from being a person at all. And this suggests that Twitter has every right to censure Trump – and that Trump may have little right to act to censure Twitter in return.

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The harm in fake news

During the last months, an enthralling debate on fake news has been unfolding on the pages of the academic journal Inquiry. Behind opposed barricades, we find the advocates of two arguments, which for the sake of conciseness and simplicity we can sketch as follows:

  1. We should abandon the term ‘fake news’;
  2. We should keep using the term ‘fake news’.

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Why There Are Some Things You Can Only Know If You’ve Been Pregnant – And Why This Matters

In this post, Fiona Woollard discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the significance of experiencing pregnancy.


There are some experiences that make you a member of special kind of club. Some are trivial: drinking Irn Bru, Scotland’s favourite soft drink. Some are life changing: going into space, fighting in a war or having cancer. The club members (people who have had the experience) know what the experience is really like. This is very hard to explain to people outside the club.  They often think they understand, but they do not really get it. It is easy to talk about the experience with other people who have had that experience. They understand what you are trying to express.  They get it. L.A. Paul called experiences like this, experiences that provide knowledge that you cannot acquire without having the experience, epistemically transformative experiences.

I argue in a recent article that pregnancy is an epistemically transformative experience: being pregnant provides you with access to knowledge about what pregnancy is like that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to acquire without being pregnant. This matters because in order to think properly about the ethics of abortion we need to know what being pregnant is like.

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Conceptual Engineering and Structural Injustice

In this post, Paul-Mikhail Catapang Podosky discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the obligation to combat structural injustice through conceptual change.


Suppose you’re at home watching the latest documentary on factory farming. You witness the horrific treatment of chickens being debeaked, the tails of pigs cut clean without pain relief, and the horns of cows seared off with a hot iron. Feeling this moral atrocity with intense anger and sadness, you wonder: What obligations do we have to combat this injustice?

Of course, there are many answers to this. Perhaps our obligations to combat the oppression of non-human animals requires directing our attention to bringing about substantive changes to material conditions – a shift in concrete social phenomena, such as the introduction of more plant-based foods or synthetic meats, that will expand our choice-sets and, hopefully, motivate us to eat better.

Yet, it is plausible that this material reconditioning will be pointless without a shift in consciousness. We don’t just need to stop eating meat. We need to change our understanding of the sorts of things that count as ‘food’. In a recent article, I argue that an important obligation that we bear in combating structural injustice concerns revising the concepts that are the basis for oppressive behavior. To see this, let’s explore the role of concepts in the construction of social reality.

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Should We Punish Non-Citizens?

In this post, Bill Wringe discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on difficulties justifying punishing non-citizens.


Philosophers spend a surprising amount of time thinking about punishment: about what counts as punishment, about what people should and should not be punished for, and about whether and why people should be punished at all. When they do so, they tend to make a lot of assumptions about the kinds of cases of punishment they are interested in: for example, that when the state punishes someone, it is typically because they have been convicted of a genuine crime at the end of a fair trial. One assumption that often gets made in these discussions is that the person being punished is a citizen of the state that is punishing them. But it’s important to realize that states often punish individuals who are not citizens. As I argue in a recent article, this matters, because some of the ways in which we might try to justify punishing citizens don’t seem to make very much sense when we apply them to non-citizens.

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From the Vault: Coronavirus

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall some of the highlights from our 2019-2020 season. This post focuses on contributions relating to the COVID-19 crisis and its social and political fallout.

 

The coronavirus crisis has raised countless ethical and political questions, and in many cases further exposed injustices in society. The cooperative of authors at Justice Everywhere have been engaged in assessing many of these questions in recent months.

  • Our “Philosophers’ Rundown on the Coronavirus Crisis” collects succinct responses on 9 pressing questions concerning: the feasibility of social justice, UBI, imagining a just society, economic precarity, education, climate change, internet access, deciding under uncertainty, and what counts as (un)acceptable risk.

Other independent posts addressed a wide range of issues, including:

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Justice Everywhere will return in full swing on 7th September with fresh weekly posts by our cooperative of regular authors. If you have a suggestion for a topic or would like to contribute a guest post on a topical subject in political philosophy (broadly construed), please feel free to get in touch with us at justice.everywhere.blog@gmail.com.

From the Vault: Beyond the Ivory Tower Series

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall some of the most memorable posts from our 2019-2020 season. This post focuses on the successful launch of our Beyond the Ivory Tower interview series.

 

The Beyond the Ivory Tower series seeks to explore the relationship between academic political theory and ‘real politics’, by talking with figures who have – in the course of their careers – managed to bridge that divide. As stated in our introductory post, “their stories are interesting in their own right [but additionally they] help us to understand the position of political theory today, and how other political theorists might achieve wider impact.”

The series is comprised of four interviews so far:

Stay tuned for more interviews in this ongoing series in our 2020/21 season!

***

Justice Everywhere will return in full swing on 7th September with fresh weekly posts by our cooperative of regular authors. If you have a suggestion for a topic or would like to contribute a guest post on a topical subject in political philosophy (broadly construed), please feel free to get in touch with us at justice.everywhere.blog@gmail.com.

The ‘new normal’: a Rawlsian approach

In this guest post, Helen Taylor discusses the advantages of applying a Rawlsian lens to assessing and responding to the impact of COVID-19 on society. 

COVID-19 and inequality

COVID-19 has had a remarkable impact on society, communities, and individuals’ lives. Few elements of everyday life have been unaffected by the pandemic. Two key elements of political theory – freedom and equality – have been a fundamental part of the lockdown experience.

The relationship between equality and the pandemic is complex. Two accounts have emerged. The first is an ‘equalising’ account: the pandemic has created a more even sense of equality in terms of what individuals are able to do. All individuals have experienced restrictions on their movement, who they can see, and what activities they can undertake.

The second is an ‘exacerbating’ account: the pandemic has categorically highlighted and exacerbated the existing inequalities in society. For example, regarding access to food, individuals and families who were reliant on foodbanks or free school meals to meet their basic needs faced substantially more precarity when access to these services was suspended.

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