My research explores the causes and effects of non-electoral political participation in Latin America, with a focus on the strategic incentives of political parties and how they shape participatory institutions. I examine three related issues at the institutional and individual levels: 1) the political conditions that generate gaps between formal adoption and implementation of participatory institutions, 2) why participatory institutions succeed or fail once implemented, and 3) why, how and with what effects individuals across political contexts devote their limited time to non-electoral political participation.
My dissertation project, The Paradox of Participatory Institutions: Explaining the Causes and Effects of Binding Participatory Institutions, tackles the first two of these themes. In an era when declining support for traditional political parties has given rise to antiestablishment populist movements around the world, participatory institutions – formal institutions that give ordinary citizens a direct role in shaping public decision-making – provide an important set of tools for combating deficits in democratic legitimacy. Recognizing this, governments around the world have created a bewildering diversity of participatory institutions. In Latin America alone, over 2400 participatory institutions have been adopted or implemented over the past three decades, with over 200 million participants.
But participatory institutions with the capacity to impact important political outcomes – those featuring a) binding decision-making, and b) regular participation by any interested adults in a given community, which I call binding participatory institutions (BPIs) face a paradox: the conditions required for successful implementation undermine the institutions’ success after implementation. One the one hand, parties generally only invest seriously in BPIs when they can gain an electoral advantage. On the other hand, parties with an incentive to implement BPI also have an incentive to politicize them, and in turn undermine BPIs’ capacity to carry out their most basic function: representing the interests of the communities they serve. Only under certain circumstances, which I discuss below, can this problem be avoided.
My dissertation develops a theory to explain variation in national-scale BPI implementation based on the electoral incentives of political parties, and explores the implications of the theory in six Latin American countries. I argue that BPIs will not be implemented nationally unless they are promoted by a powerful institution, normally a political party – although under certain conditions this role can be played by a state agency. Political parties will only implement BPIs nationally if they think it will help them electorally. This will occur under two conditions: first, the party must be under pressure from below to implement BPIs. Second, the party’s political opponents must be incapable of taking advantage of BPIs for their own political gain, either because they are too weak politically at the municipal level or because BPIs are too closely aligned with the governing party in the minds of the electorate to permit opposition cooptation. Under these conditions, parties will place a higher value on the electoral benefits of BPIs than on their political costs.
In turn, the representativeness of BPIs – a measure of politicization and rates of community participation – is determined by the type of institution that implements them. Governing parties ordinarily have strong incentives to exclude supporters of opposition parties from BPI participation, as they do not want to waste scarce resources wooing unswayable voters. While overall rates of participation can be high – since parties have an incentive to attract as many supporters and potential supporters as possible to BPI spaces – BPIs implemented by these types of political parties often suffer from high rates of politicization. By contrast, when BPIs are implemented by state agencies (as in the case of Peru), there will be less politicization, but the process of development is top-down and generates little buy-in from citizens, leading to low levels of participation.
BPIs will only be implemented nationally and adequately represent the communities they serve when championed by political parties with an incentive to promote cross-partisan participation. These parties, which Martin Shefter calls externally mobilized parties, are young, outsider parties that cannot rely on state resources to secure broad-based political support, and therefore have no choice but to rely primarily on programmatic appeals. When externally mobilized parties implement BPIs, they do so to cultivate a reputation for good governance and democratic deepening. Politicizing BPIs would undermine this reputation, and low rates of participation would minimize BPIs’ electoral value – since few supporters or potential supporters would engage with or have knowledge of benefits derived from BPIs. Consequently, externally mobilized parties (for example, the Brazilian Workers’ Party and the Uruguayan Frente Amplio have a strong incentive both to maximize BPI participation and minimize politicization.
In other work, I explore the third leg of my research agenda, the causes and effects of individual-level engagement in non-electoral political participation. In one paper I reassess the generations-old question of why scholars of advanced industrial democracies have consistently found a positive relationship between socioeconomic status and political participation, while scholars of developing countries have consistently found a negative relationship. I leverage a natural experiment from the Chilean earthquake of 2010 and cross-national survey data to reconcile these seemingly contradictory findings. I show that lack of access to basic services increases an individual’s participatory propensity, and that as the percentage of individuals in a given country lacking access to basic services decreases, so too does the negative relationship between access to basic services and participation. This paper is currently under review at The Latin American Research Review.
Another set of papers is situated at the intersection of non-electoral political participation and left governance in Latin America. In one project (with Hillel Soifer and Matthias vom Hau), I explore how subtle forms of protest among Venezuela’s teacher corps limited the success of Chavista education reforms (published in The Journal of Latin American Studies and a book chapter in a 2018 volume entitled Exploring Populist Nationalism). Another project (with Steven Levitsky, forthcoming in a volume entitled What’s Left? The Promise and Reality of Inclusive Citizenship in Latin America) explores the role of weak states, the global economy and liberal-democratic institutions in explaining why leftist governments made only modest gains in expanding popular participation and other rights during Latin America’s left turn.
In two additional studies I am planning to conduct over the next two years, I draw upon experimental methods to explore the determinants of engagement in participatory institutions and activist organizations. In one, I conduct a survey experiment examining the effects of various aspects of BPI institutional design on rates of participation, and in the other, I conduct a field experiment examining the effects of political education on types and levels of activist engagement.
In sum, my research employs a range of tools to deepen our understanding of when non-electoral political participation matters, and how participatory institutions can improve the quality of democracy. My work seeks to increase the systematic accumulation of knowledge about the causes of divergence between the formal adoption and implementation of institutions in general, as well as the causes and effects of participatory institutions in particular. Finally, my work offers useful real-world insights that can be employed by practitioners of participatory democracy to bring the reality of participatory institutions into closer alignment with their storied potential.